For those of us who shun the internal combustion engine, dancing on the face of mother earth with a lighter step, Shrewsbury folk festival is a gift from Gaia herself. You get off the train, cross the road gently stroll down a riverside path called the 'Pig Trough', and you're there. It's a very easy start to a festival that, as becomes clear in the next three days, goes to great lengths to make the enjoyment of its music, dancing and workshops a very easy thing to do indeed.
The festival takes place on an agricultural show site. The fun happens in the middle, and the camping, not that that isn't fun, takes place around the edge. Finding a pitch involves very little searching, and whatever form of entertainment you prefer, it's never too far away. Additionally, the compactness of the event draws together the often diverse strands of the folk festival world: concerts are performed to the shower queues, and workshops take place in the food area. What are often disparate elements elsewhere are woven into a beautiful pattern of festival togetherness at Shrewsbury.
A good folk festival needs a good parade, and Shrewsbury is more than up to the task. It's a big old town, but there's a big old crowd lining the route: shoppers, builders, grannies, kids: all strain to get a peek through the crowd at the processing dance sides. Shropshire Bedlams take to barking at a slightly disconcerted Jack Russell and Seven Champions go that extra mile by processing into, round and out of a mobile phone shop. Honourable mention must go to the mayor of Shrewsbury who, together with the mayoress, joins in with the morris dancing at the end of the parade, before making the best ever opening speech, which I reproduce in its entirety here, 'You don't want to hear from me, you want to here from the festival, so without further ado, here are the Chiltern Hundreds.' The Chiltern Hundreds dance, and all is right with the world. The man deserves a medal, or a bigger gold chain, or both.
The Shrewsbury day starts early, 8:30 if you're a fan of yoga, and the morning scene is one of animated individuals criss crossing the site with all sorts of musical instrument cases upon their backs, heading to the various workshops on offer. Morris dancers jingle-jangle their way into town and everyone else heads for coffee, crepes, bacon butties and other such tasty treats. As the sun rises higher, the musicians are drawn out, and a stroll around the site takes place to an ever changing soundtrack; here and there a traditional session, a few yards on, a more structured and rehearsed band of musicians, who have perhaps met at the festival and who might just go on to bigger and better things.
For this is not a festival where the events are tucked away. Breakfast, for example, takes place to the tune of the mandolin workshop, which is held in the food tent. The first one, on Friday, makes a far from unpleasant sound. By Monday, it's a top notch backdrop to my delicious espresso and custom crepe.
Shrewsbury pulls off a neat trick is its organisation of workshops. Rather than just being one off sessions, they take place in a progressive series throughout the festival. There are 'show up and play sessions', which allow folks to get to grips with session playing at a more manageable speed. Then there are practice sessions, scheduled, timetabled and programmed, between the workshops. It all adds up to a good deal of progress over the weekend. Many workshops end with a showcase concert on the village stage on the final day, and the results of the participant's efforts speak for themselves.
Dancing follows a similar pattern. There are workshops galore, many ending in similarly successful showcase concerts. The workshop leaders often inform us that 'This is all with only a few hours practice', and if they are telling the truth, it's very impressive. It's one of the greatest aspects of a folk festival that you can arrive on Friday completely clueless and leave on Monday with a whole load of new skills and talents. It's concentrated life-living, and it's well worth the price of a ticket alone.
Shrewsbury contains within it a children's festival with a full programme of events; taking in crafts, circus skills, science, drama, dance and music. There's a children's programme of concerts and the good folks from Refolkus have put together a children's big band, who rehearse throughout the festival, then go down a storm when they perform a concert on Monday. Indeed, this seems to be a festival where the younger performers are given free reign to make their mark. For evidence of this, look no further than the late night singing sessions in the bar. At many festivals these are often dominated by folks of a certain age, and the young are banished to the camp site or elsewhere. Here they are encouraged to join in and the more established singers take great delight in watching them lead proceedings, happy that the future of folk is in good hands.
Many of the workshops at the festival are run by festival artists. Ursula Holden Gill's storytelling workshop is full of good advice and includes within it the folk festival favourite activities of singing and clog dancing. Ursula can't go wrong. Martyn Joseph is well worth a listen. Whether performing or workshopping, he's a man that knows where to look for inspiration and what to do with it when he finds it. The story behind his song Clara is moving enough when he's talking about it. When he plays the song at the end, by way of a conclusion, it's tissue time for most I'm afraid.
And on the subject of tissues, Shrewsbury, this year, features the final gig of the Nic Jones Trio. It's a year since they first performed, and they're calling it a day. Their concerts are always emotional affairs, and there are very few dry eyes at the end.
Lady Maisery run an open air singing workshop from a picnic table on Saturday morning. It's early, and the weather's crap but a big old crowd turns out and what a fine noise they make. It's a good thing too, because when a power cut happens during their concert on Sunday, the workshop participants add much needed volume to the performance. Song sung, and still no power, Hannah, Hazel and Rowan huddle together and carry on regardless. Everyone is quiet and it has the effect of turning a large festival venue into something more folk-clubby in feel. Even Hannah's clogs and the harp on a stick can be clearly heard and the show goes on. There's a salutatory tale about dating seals, an ode to dating ginger people and a sharp political edge in the form of Palaces of Gold and The Crow on the Cradle. From a 'venue full' audience, they get the biggest ovation of the festival and loud requests for encores from a crowd that won't take no for an answer.
Still with no power, Lady Maisery are followed by The Keelers, who are an act that thrives in a folk club setting. Before long, we've all forgotten there was ever such a thing as electricity. Lucy Ward follows. There's the usual between song gabbling, stories and dating advice, but again, in an atmosphere that is more folk club than festival, what shines through is that beneath the blue hair and the banter is a very fine folk singer who has the chops to succeed in any situation.
Shrewsbury has a good offering of worldly type music running through its line up. The Afro Celt Sound System are a spectacular success in their headlining slot on opening night. It's a concert that was opened by Nidi D'Arac whose musical philosophy is based on the notion that when you are bitten by a tarantula, you have to dance to poison out. I thought that'd just make you die quicker but no. It's percussive 4/4 rock with a southern European twist, delivered with a stomp and swagger that gets the crowd going nicely but has me hankering for some folk music. I head over to the other tent where Lori Watson & Rule of Three are getting them all exited in an entirely different way, with some fine tunes and songs from Scotland.
But, on the theme of festival acts who obtain their inspiration from lands far beyond these shores, Randolph Matthews and Byron Johnston are something of a revelation, and if it wasn't for the pesky power cut, I'd never have discovered them. I head over to main stage 2 after Lucy Ward, hoping to see Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party, only to find out the running order has been flipped and Randolph and Byron are performing in Fay's slot. It's an encompassing experience. Randolph and Byron are sitting down, but with the aid of some dark and dirty Almerian flamenco from Byron and some nifty beatboxing and soulful singing from Randolph, sonic shapes are woven in your head, creating an experience that is very visual and physical in feel. The pictures that they paint with their music remain with me for hours after the gig, keeping the pleasant memories alive. We're I a religious man, I'd be thanking God for that power cut.
Later in the day, there's a buzz going around in the main tent about how good Fay and her boys were, but it's not long before they're back, mob handed, with Bright Phoebus sings Tom Waits.In another instance of festival becoming folk club, the event begins with a 'Twaffle', which turns out to be a raffle conducted via the medium of Twitter. You simply think up a number and a colour and tweet it to Fay and she chooses her favourite colour/number combination for the winner. In true folk club style, it works without a hitch, then the concert begins proper. To be in the Bright Phoebus collective you have to live in Yorkshire and be good at music. It's an empirical fact that everyone in Yorkshire is good at everything, so it's a crowded stage. They offer a well chosen set list of Tom's songs and each is performed by an artist ideally suited to the job. I didn't think that life could get any better than Nancy Kerr singing Whistle down the Wind, until, that is, Roy Bailey sings I don't Wanna Grow Up, and it does.
For fans of Americana, Shrewsbury offers a feast of music from across the pond. For me, it doesn't get any finer than The Be Good Tanyas who play on a sunny Monday afternoon in the main tent. Sweet and hypnotic, listening to the Be Good Tanyas is like lying face up on a surfboard in the sun, dangling your foot in a sweet, swaying sea of sound. Their bass player is so rock n roll that he doesn't show up until the final number, but the girls are rescued by the moustachioed bass guy from barnstorming, bluegrass super group Barnstar!, [come on!] . Barnstar! are all over this festival. They whip up a frenzy of hootin' and hollerin', in accents more southern states than Shropshire, whenever they appear.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, who headline on Saturday, play a set that is full of twists and turns, offering jazz, country, old-timey, bluegrass and instrumental trickery galore. There's some fine flat footing from Rhiannon, bones from the boys and even some Scottish mouth music for those of a celtic bent. Elsewhere, Tim O'Brien does it his way. He's arrived alone and asked the festival to put a band together for him. An artist of diverse influences, playing here with UK based musicians whose backgrounds are in Irish and Scottish music seems to bridge the gap between performed folk music and folk music proper. A performance by Tim and his band seems in some ways to be the musical equivalent of a Hubble Deep Space image, looking into the past. There's a strong feeling of this is how it was in the early days; just folks doing their thing, whatever their instrument or background, and making a fine noise in the process.
As I leave Shrewsbury on Monday, looking far more like a character from a Tom Waits song than when I arrived, but feeling a good deal better about it, I'm left with the impression of a festival that goes to great lengths to take care of its audience. Dogs are allowed on the festival site, decent acts are booked to busk the shower queues, and even the local pubs are well stocked with top acts such as David Gibb and Elly Lucas to entertain the folks who fancy a wander off site. I'll definitely be back, after all, it's only a short walk from the station.
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