On arrival at this, my tenth Shrewsbury Folk Festival everything immediately felt reassuringly familiar. The customary friendly welcome from smiling stewards on arrival sets the tone for the weekend. There's never any hint of suspicion, no need for a full body or vehicle search or exhaustive checks on anyone's tickets or press credentials. They're a trusting bunch on the folk scene. Everyone is simply guided over to the relevant check-in point and within moments you're wrist-banded and on your way. I alongside many regulars steered a familiar course to my tried and trusted parking and camping location (at this festival they're conveniently one and the same) My preferred patch is conveniently situated near the Berwick Bar where the musical and social interaction inevitably continues well beyond the midnight hour. I rationalise there's ess distance to crawl back to bed and fortunately I'm blessed with the ability to sleep through pretty much anything….just as well as the hardiest participants often don't stop singing till dawn!
I wouldn't want to give the impression that there are never any changes at the festival though. This year heralded the arrival of a tented cocktail bar no less! The 'Gin Palace' menu boasted a choice of twenty different gins and for the first time in my festival going experience there was clear evidence of sliced cucumber present in non food items! Some changes in the main bar also with the popular arrival of several leather sofas and an upright piano in the session corner. The festival had also creatively 'dressed' this mini music-making area for the first time so it resembled a welcoming grotto more than the corner of a beer tent.
On the Friday evening everyone is usually still settling in, thumbing the programme for their 'must see' acts while newcomers wander the site getting their bearings and checking distances between the four main performance and dance tents. My usual plan (such as it is these days) is basically to have a bare bones fixed schedule and to otherwise proceed spontaneously where the wind carries me! You sometimes miss an act or event you'd love to have seen but you may just as easily stumble across an unknown delight.
Daoiri Farrell from Ireland was a must-see though, one of the freshest performers to have emerged in recent years. I had previously enjoyed him twice solo. This time he had a trio onboard and the effect was equally enjoyable. His effervescent personality and virtuoso bouzouki skills effortlessly won over a packed tent, many observers clearly seeing him for the first time. Hotfooting it over to the second tent (size wise...the quality is always consistent!) I was delighted to catch the tail end of the solitary festival set from all female bluegrass quintet Midnight Skyracer. Some artists play two or more sets during the festival so you can bide your time and seize a later opportunity. This year The Fitzgeralds, an energetic quartet from the Canadian Maritimes seemed to be everywhere, jumping onstage with others seemingly at the drop of a hat, interspersed with scheduled step dance workshops and concerts. Their energy and endurance was both inspiring and exhausting!
Steve Harley was the major headline artist on Friday. Never having been his biggest fan even during Cockney Rebel's 70's glory days I arrived with a mixture of curiosity and slight foreboding. His ego is clearly still intact but by the end, backed by a sprightly band he'd won the day and had everyone singing the chorus on the timeless 'Come up and see me'...this even made me smile. It's important Shrewsbury book and offer wildcards to heritage pop artists such as Harley. They won't find platforms at many folk and roots festivals but this in itself is a strength that again sets Shrewsbury apart from the rest.
The weather had taken a turn for the worse with rain and winds picking up and extra layers required overnight...nothing to deter your average, intrepid folkie though and the lusty singing in the bar predictably carried on into the early hours.
For early risers there's a yoga session in the dance tent and this year the opportunity to experience an hour of guided meditation and mindfulness before the various tuition workshops begin. My chosen method of clearing the cobwebs after a night 'on the ale' however involved a generous bacon buttie and double espresso from the mobile van conveniently located only yards from my tent. This year there seemed more great coffee options than previously which like the aforementioned 'Gin Palace' must be a sign of the times. I noted with interest that all these independent vendors seemed to be operating from endearingly quirky or vintage vehicles.
Saturday lunchtime brought another tough choice. Two of last year's personal highlights had been the Appalachian dulcimer workshop and Welsh Tune 'taster' tutorial and this year they coincided. On a personal note I'm delighted to see more Welsh musical input in recent years. Not so much because it's the 'land of my fathers' but more because the wealth of traditional tunes are often been overshadowed by those of our Scottish and Irish Celtic brethren. Plus of course it's entirely appropriate bearing in mind the festival's geographical proximity to the Welsh border! Monday's subsequent Welsh main bar session led by Charlotte Goodwin was encouragingly populated and will hopefully now become an annual fixture as part of the 'Tuneworks' programme.
One of the Festival's unsung strengths is the Tuneworks online educational resource which every year seems to have a greater presence on the workshop and session schedule. A large number of attendees at Shrewsbury focus primarily on participating in music making and learning new instruments and techniques. Enjoying great acts may be just the icing on the cake for some. I wouldn't even mind betting there are some at the festival who never once venture into the performance tents all weekend.
The festival always seem to have several cross-cultural collaborations and one of the evening's highlights was the unlikely combination of Celtic band Shooglenifty's trippy dance rhythms blended with a collective of Rajasthani traditional musicians, Dhun Dhora. An unlikely meeting of minds but an irresistible tour de force in the live setting of the darkened main tent.
Festival regulars Show of Hands never disappoint no matter how many times you see them. They always seem to have every detail of their set carefully planned together with impeccably synchronized sound and lighting. Switching and tuning instruments is seamlessly professional with not a second wasted (other bands take note!). Tonight they featured some lesser known songs from their vast repertoire, the highlight being their closing song 'The Train' boosted by a surprise guest reappearance from Dhun Dhoura's remarkable principal vocalist Dayam Khan. A truly hair-raising and emotional experience for everyone present.
This was always going to be a hard act to follow even for a legend of the calibre of Richard Thompson. Flanked by his electric trio the early part of his set focused on unfamiliar material from his upcoming CD. I've seen 'RT' many a time over the decades in many musical settings dating back to the formative years with ex-wife Linda. Confronted with the full force of the ultra tight 'power' trio I found a part of me yearning for the more subtle tones of the melodeon or fiddle that complemented his songs so well in the 70s and 80s. Even a rearrangement of his best known song 'Meet on the Ledge' failed to win me over so I ventured out to see what was on offer at the other tents. While on the way over to check out Peter Knight's Gigspanner I passed what sounded like a lively set taking place within the confines of the third (Sabrina) tent. There had already been something of a festival buzz about Mankala, a little known six piece pan-African fusion band. During the afternoon I'd bumped into several people who had seen them earlier in the day and urged me to catch their late set if possible. Curious to see what the fuss was about I was immediately taken aback by the unfamiliar sight of a tent full of smiling people on their feet, clapping and bopping away to the irresistible and infectious 'township' rhythms. Drawing much inspiration from Paul Simon's Graceland project this was an instant party situation and needless to say I didn't make it over to see Peter Knight. This Bristol-based band, each boasting a different nationality were for me the discovery of the festival and I was clearly not alone. To a man everybody who experienced one or both of their sets was singing their praises. I couldn't help thinking perhaps they belonged over on the main stage. Maybe they'll be back next year!
On Sunday morning around dawn the heavens opened like never before in my Festival experienceNo need whatsoever to queue for the showers today...all you needed to do was stand outside the tent and you'd be drenched. By late morning things were brightening up though and I had the chance to explore the children's festival area and the multitude of craft stalls in the village area. The main focus on the expanded outdoor Village Stage this year seemed to be Morris Dance. I was intrigued to see one local side wearing black veils (the sort worn by bee-keepers) and wondered if this was a response to the recent debate over the traditional but controversial practice of 'blacking up'.
At noon on each of the three days the mass Tuneworks gathering takes place in the main bar and it's a perennial sight to behold. Dozens of players of instruments of all shapes and sizes who in most cases have never met all convene to rattle through the tunes everyone's been practicing either at home or in their local pub sessions. Each session is graded to allow for all levels of competence (Beginners, Improvers, Dance-speed) and it's a highly agreeable way to spend an hour or two (along with a pint or two)
I was delighted to then catch the last half of a lovely early-afternoon set by State of the Union (an occasional transatlantic duo collaboration between the talented and affable Brooks Williams and Boo Hewerdine). Their rendition of a "standard", 'Unforgettable' was exactly that but others self-written tunes were just as classy, notably 'Don't blame me', a song that would have been perfect for the likes of the Everly or Louvin brothers in their heydays.
I decided to stay in my seat for The Passerine, the culmination of a two-year collaborative project involving people from many different backgrounds and ethnicities, the common thread being their refugee or migrant backgrounds. This had been the last major Arts Council-sponsored project that festival director Alan Surtees had turned his attention to and supported before his untimely passing in June 2017. The project had its premiere at last year's festival and this was the second and final part. Led by the renowned O'Hooley and Tidow but featuring singers and musicians from (or who's families originated in) a whole range of different backgrounds (Pakistani, Israeli, Iranian, Sudanese, Egyptian, Indian). It was a highly emotional performance with many harrowing and shocking true stories from their own personal experiences. It seemed genuinely cathartic for the performers and humbling for those of us lucky enough to share their journeys in song.
Steeleye Span were the final act on Sunday afternoon, a band I'd missed in the 70's. Maddy Prior is the only original member these days and still centre-stage. I'd half thought we may get a guest appearance from former original band member Peter Knight but it wasn't to be this time. Flanked by an experienced band of stalwart musicians including Julian Littman in the role of Tim Hart, Maddy generously handed vocal duties over to the others on several songs.The classic album 'Parcel of Rogues' has long been a favourite so it was a particular thrill to hear a great rendition of a cautionary tale concerning the witch 'Alison Gross' all these years later. Naturally Maddy wouldn't have been able to leave without leading a mass singalong on their biggest hit, 'All around my Hat'. A lovely culmination to an enthralling afternoon.
The Saturday evening highlights were sets by two contrasting songwriters. First, Gretchen Peters, based in Nashville but as far from the conservative 'Music City' mainstream as it's possible to get. She emerged with a three piece band led by husband and musical director Barry Walsh. Her chosen material (mostly from her recent release 'Dancing with the Beast') seemed unfamiliar to the bulk of the audience but as always at Shrewsbury everyone listens attentively. Much of the lyrical content depicts stories of struggling, oppressed or victimised women trying to function and thrive in a postmodern dystopia. It's no coincidence the album in its entirety was written in the months following and largely in response to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Her songs may not always be immediate, but despite the dark lyrical content behind the songs the end result is inexplicably uplifting. Her catchphrase has become 'Sad songs make me happy' and there's little doubt she won many new friends and admirers on this night.
After a complex and swift stage turnaround Jon Boden emerged with a plethora of musicians in tow. This was a revamped, expanded and very different version of his 'other' band from recent years, The Remnant Kings. I didn't count numbers but it was possibly even a larger aggregation than his previous band, Bellowhead. If there was any doubt who was in musical charge previously there seems little now. Sam Sweeney and Paul Sartin are still with him mostly on drums and oboe respectively. Later on John Spiers even rushed on stage fresh from premiering his new ceilidh band over on the Dance stage. Elsewhere Boden had guitar, keyboards, double bass and a full string section, plus two horns (euphonium and flugelhorn). It was difficult to keep up with various instrument changes though. At times there were four fiddles, at others several concertinas (on a gently paced cover of Kate Bush's 'Hounds of Love'). There were several 'wow' moments throughout and we were left in no doubt that Boden's talents are multi-faceted and often bewildering. There doesn't seem to be an instrument he can't play to a high level, he writes and arranges cryptic and thought provoking songs, many in a traditional style, and to top it all he's an accomplished showman and bandleader. Vocally he still recalls the late great Peter Bellamy but in other areas he's fast emerging as a modern day Richard Thompson or John Tams. Last year he held us enthralled playing solo but with this big band he has reached another level. He may even have emerged as the premier UK folk artist of his generation.
Every year by the Monday morning you get the distinct impression that everyone is flagging somewhat and the pace drops a little. There's no early morning yoga on the Bank Holiday but the weather is fine and I had my first real opportunity to check out the local talent on the Launchpad Stage behind my tent over a revitalising cappuccino and bacon sandwich. The stage is larger than before and the location more favourable in attracting a crowd. The standard is excellent and hopefully there's scope for the best youngsters to get a platform on the nearby Sabrina Stage in succeeding years.
At lunchtime Edwina Hayes' performance on the Main stage had everyone clutching their sides while rolling in the aisles. If she wasn't such an accomplished singer a career in stand-up surely awaits! For many people the highlight of the last afternoon has become the now-annual 'Folk Slam'. Hosted and swiftly assembled each year by Jim Moray it's a delightfully unpredictable 75 minutes (for artist and audience alike). A largely spontaneous combination of festival artists who may or may not be formally acquainted, put together at short notice and with minimum rehearsal. The atmosphere is always fun filled and tributes are always paid to recently departed musical heroes. This year we had loving nods to both Tom Petty (Free Falling') and Aretha Franklin (Natural Woman) plus many other delights.
Many people head for the exits when the music finishes around 6pm but this year I had decided to stay one more night for a few more songs and several more beers. As the tents were being packed away it was striking how little rubbish was being left behind. Recycling is taken very seriously at the festival and this year souvenir reusable water bottles were being sold to combat excessive plastic waste.
In the morning as I wandered the site for one last time I noticed the central 'Hub' building (a brick built permanent structure hosting many of the festival workshops) has recently been graced with a plaque marking the contribution and the enduring legacy of the festival's founder Alan Surtees.
The trust established in his name last year as a platform to boost up and coming young musicians is still active and a second CD compilation 'Resound 2018' was on sale in the merchandise tent. This year's festival was the first one arranged in his absence but the highest compliment you can pay his widow Sandra Surtees and her team is that it ran as efficiently and smoothly as in previous years. Well done one and all...and see you next year!
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Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2018 Review