Shrewsbury Folk Festival opens with an entertaining evening of folk's big names: Nancy Kerr and the Sweet Visitor Band headline main stage 2and in the big tent we have Steve Knightley who is supported by Kate Rusby. People seem to enjoy it but, with all of these modern instruments and self-penned songs, I'm left with a yearning for something a bit more traditional, so tomorrow, I decide, I'll head down to Shrewsbury town to see what I might find there.
When Saturday comes, I wonder how many others are of a like mind, as people seem to be leaving the festival in droves. The walk into Shrewsbury is a short and very folky one. There's a river with quacking ducks, and once you get into town, you find that even the architecture befits the occasion: black and white, wattle and daub, the ideal back drop for a fine folky morning. There's even a street called 'Grope Lane'. My expectations of Shrewsbury, the town where they discovered the theory of evolution and invented border morris, are entirely fulfilled, for there's nothing quite so heartwarming as a town that embraces its folk festival.
There's a right old hoedown with Cornucopia Clog Dancers at the market hall.Then, if you go up the road, round a bend and through an alley, you'll find Ironmen and Severn Gilders in fine form, and sounding a bit dixieland when I catch them. Come to mention it, there's a lot off brass about this morning, literally and metaphorically. They are accompanied by the highly entertaining Ouse Washes Molly Dancers. Saving the best 'till last, local legends Shropshire Bedlams and Martha Rhoden's Tuppeny Dish are at the church. This is their 40th year. Who knows where that time went. Cropredy, probably.
I like to relax after an energetic morning watching Morris Dancing so I head back to the festival site for some concerts. The main venue is truly vast, so there are no queues, and if you are near the back, there are big screens so that you can see what is going on. The concerts are being beamed to the world via a satellite too, and folkies from far and wide get in touch via twitter. They all seem to be enjoying it.
Of course the flip side of having such a huge venue at a folk festival is that there will be a lot of empty seats during the day. Many festival goers will be in town dancing and many others will still be on the campsite, finding their luxury winnebagos, which seem to be on the increase at this sort of event, far to comfy to leave.
This is a shame. For on the main stage, award winning Jack Harris, proves a real draw, the audience swelling significantly during his concert. He's followed by Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker who seem to be going from strength to strength. Not wishing to be outdone by Jack, they recently won the folk award for best duo. In the tradition of folk award winners for best duo, there are four of them on stage: Show of Hands never stood a chance. In addition, they are currently appearing in a play at the National Theatre, called 'Our Country's Good'. It is set in the 18th Century and has a lot of sad bits in it. For some reason, Ben and Josienne's music was thought to fit the bill, being, as Josienne describes it, 'The best melancholy you can find.'As the music drifts out into the late summer air, more people drift in. There must be something in this misery that people like. Ben's fingers look particularly nimble on the giant screen, a real treat for the guitarists present.
The Young'Uns are up next, and are in no mind to lighten the melancholy mood, with songs about honour killings and the soldiers of world war one. It's all pretty hard rending stuff, and doesn't it get the crowd going: they get a storming response. I remember my feelings of the previous evening. It doesn't get any folkier than this.
Most folkies like to join in and it's nice to see in the programme that there are over a hundred workshops available at this festival: if you see an instrument in a concert and fancy it, the chances are you can learn it here. A word of caution though; you do have to prepare in advance. A tune book is provided, which you need download, print and to bring with you to the festival. The site does, conveniently, have wifi, but I still think you'd struggle to do that from your tent. The workshops are structured progressively according to ability. They start at a very basic level and become more demanding as the days pass. On the final day there is 'Tuneworks: Full Speed', a session in which all the workshoppers entertain us. It certainly proves that the formula works.
The end of the afternoon concerts coincides with the return, with a mass jangling of bells, of the dancers from the town. The sun is low in the sky, the cider is warming the cockles and Eddie's curry goat is doing its thing. Looking around the site, I notice that there is music going in in all corners.
Folks sit in groups and play and sing, and elsewhere, there are acts entertaining people around the site, who seem to have been booked for the purpose. Whether you are queuing for a venue, for food or even for a shower, you'll be entertained, and everyone seems to be enjoying it.
There's plenty to do for the dancers too, both with ceilidhs and workshops. I head over to the Blowzabella workshop in the dance tent. I do this partly because I'm intrigued by its billing in the programme. Its purpose it says, is 'to help people get the best from a Blowzabella gig', and I do wonder about the merits of an act that needs to run workshops, teaching people how to enjoy its performances. Turns out that the focus is on learning the particular steps for each type of dance tune that they play. It's a crowded floor so plenty are up for this, but they seem to be assuming a fair amount of previous knowledge and I'm not sure how a folk newcomer would fair. In the end though, you could just get up and dance, no one is going to stop you.
Ten Strings and a Goatskin offer tight, driving folk music from Canada: all feisty fiddling and foot percussion. It's their first time over here but they've already made a load of friends. People are dancing in the aisles from the word go and the crowd is on its feet at the end.
It's turning into a bit of a world music afternoon as Amadou Diagne brings the sound of Senegal to Shewsbury. Over on the village stage, there's Spirit of Djembe, but its the main stage that I find myself enticed back into, by another worldly, ethereal sound which, on arriving, turns out to be a banjo. The banjo belongs in The Patsy Reid Band. They are playing a song called Half Acre when I arrive, and it's the kind of music where the best thing to do is sit down, close your eyes and let the sounds paint pictures in your mind's eye. It's a scene of waves crashing, leaves rustling and quite probably a long drive to the nearest supermarket.
Sunday is memorable for, among other things, a bit of a shanty off between two heavyweights of the genre, in one tent The Roaring Trowmen, in the other, The Young'Uns. I'm still hearing visually after Patsy Reid and there's something of the Bristol based Roaring Trowmen's sound that transports you off to the coast of Nantucket, straining your sight to see the blowing of the white whale against the whitecaps. The Young 'Uns though, clearly know a few songs. It's an entirely different set to yesterday's and they seem to be doing requests for anyone in the audience who sounds a bit scary. It's a masterclass in audience rousing of Bellowhead-esque proportions and everyone is on their feet for them at the end.
Elsewhere, Jonathan Byrd is well worth a listen over at the main stage: easy-going country with a a laid back Danish spin. Over in the other tent, Ross Ainslie & Jarlath Henderson make a fine noise with two sets of bagpipes that you don't blow into. Featuring, among other things, AC/DC's Thunderstruck, it's a thrilling set.
On leaving Ross and Ainslie, I notice another mass migration. With pleasant memories of Saturday, I follow it and my instincts are vindicated when I come across The Demon Barbers XL in the dance tent. It's a jam packed venue, but there's plenty of room to get up and dance. There have been times at this festival where I've found some of the acts a bit too, I don't know, Radio Two friendly, but the Demon Barbers are a million miles away from this. It's a thrilling fusion of old and new and the crowd are infected with the excitement on stage. Everyone in the room is on their feet at the end, even those in the seated section. The Demon Barbers, to my mind, are the on-fire act of the scene at the moment and, in Disco at the Tavern, they have an album which effectively channels their energy for takeaway listening.
If the festival ended there, I'd have been happy, but Monday offers the chance to see many of your favourite Shrewsbury acts again, before ending in one final flurry of excitement with Qubecois legends, La Bottine Souriante. They do not disappoint and neither has Shrewsbury.
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