Having attended several Shrewsbury Folk Festivals over the years (almost every one since 2007 when they relocated north from Bridgnorth and changed names accordingly) there’s something reassuringly familiar every time I pull up at the gates of the West Midlands Showground. I can’t remember a previous occasion where we were blessed with such bright sunshine throughout (in contrast to the first day of 2018’s when we encountered torrential rain and wind which even caused structural damage to one of the tents) No such problems this year...ice cream, sunhats, fans and Factor 50 were much more the order of the day.
There’s always the same friendly welcome from volunteers and the changes to the lay out on the site seemed negligible. There may be a few small adjustments here and there but invariably these are positive in nature. The tents may shift a few metres one way or another but they’re in the same areas of the field so regulars can find everything without using the location maps in the programme. Of course several facilities are housed in fixed buildings so barring demolition there’s not likely to ever be any changes there! The main bar in the Berwick building is still the location for most ‘after midnight’ revelry and song. I’m usually partaking in this myself and if not I find I can sleep through most levels of noise so as in previous years I’m happy to pitch my humble tent in close proximity to Late Night Party Central. Others prefer to set up in quieter areas down by the River Severn, well away from the core festival site.
There’s an area to suit every type of family or group (also a smaller encampment where volunteers can congregate together). Some of these helpers have been coming for years and they have the option of staying a total of five nights (Thursday to Monday inclusive). For ticket-holders access is available from early Friday morning…there’s a full programme in all three main tents, a ‘welcome’ ceilidh in the dance tent from early evening and even a workshop and session or two.
Checking the Friday line-up I couldn’t have been more delighted to see the return of Mankala, Bristol’s multi-cultural pan-African fusion band kicking off the programme on the main stage, the Bellstone Marquee. Their infectious enthusiasm and party spirit had been a breath-of-fresh-air last year and it was good to see them invited back so soon.
As before they found it hard to hide their influences with material from Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ including a sumptuous version of the oft forgotten ‘Under African Skies’. Strangely enough only a couple of hours later I was to hear the same song played again! Next up it was great to finally catch Grace Petrie performing live in her own right. Grace has made big inroads in the last couple of years and won many friends and her energetic set pulled no punches and was enthusiastically received. Finally Oysterband, a festival mainstay over the years due in no small part to John Jones’ role as Festival patron, alongside Steve Knightley (also appearing again as in most if not all previous years). Having seen them before more than once though, I decided to venture over to the second tent for another injection of township jive from South Africa in the form of Gary Stewart’s Graceland. However, unlike Mankala they seemed more of a straight tribute band honouring Paul Simon’s ground-breaking 1986 album. Perhaps Mankala were simply too energetic and potent a force to follow but to my ears Gary Stewart and friends paled by comparison. They’ve clearly worked hard on replicating the material as per the recordings but a vital spark seemed to be missing. Their set ended with several other Paul Simon songs from different eras, all pleasantly executed (though bizarrely the subject of the tribute and writer of the songs wasn’t mentioned even once). Mind you, there was no doubting the audience’s enthusiasm throughout. I decided on an early night though the late-night ceilidh led by Relentless was still in full flow a couple of hundred yards away over in the dance tent.
Saturday began with a stroll around the festival site in t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. I could certainly get used to this weather. Perhaps it was my imagination but there seemed to be many more Motor homes than in previous years with many vehicles grander than I can remember also.
Tents are also ever more elaborate in many cases, putting my bog-standard Halfords special to shame. In the food village most of the regular vendors seemed to be back including the ever popular ‘No Bones Jones’ vegetarian stall. At Shrewsbury there are mini festivals within the overall structure The Pandemonium children’s festival was in full flow by mid-morning and Morris sides gathering in full regalia in preparation for the Dance Festival. Meanwhile over by the shower areas the Youth festival activities aimed at teenagers were also well attended. The Workshop programme is also most evident at this time of the day again mostly co-ordinated by the gang from Tuneworks who arrange instrument tuition and sessions on all four days.
During the course of the weekend I jumped in and out of several classes…Izzy McLachlan, one of the driving forces behind the tuition programme hosted a successful and fascinating workshop focusing on the popular ‘DADGAD’ guitar tuning technique widely used in folk circles. Outside ’The Launchpad’ mini stage for emerging artists had been moved from its location in previous years. A further location rethink might be the best option for 2020 as on a couple of occasions I noticed the volume was such that it was adversely affecting (ie drowning out!) unplugged instrumental tuition in the nearby Berwick ‘Song House’ room.
On the main stages, a spine-tingling set by American duo Birds of Chicago was a major Saturday highlight.
Expanded to a trio on this tour by legendary guitarist Steve Dawson they charismatically punched out a set of songs full of personality and had the whole tent singing along and eating from their hands. Rev Sekou kept the momentum going with a set of raw and electrifying Delta Blues.
Track Dogs, a charismatic and energetic quartet spanning several genres (and with prominent trumpet and cajon-led percussion) were a new name for me. Nevetheless they’ve clearly won many friends along the way. Not least Seth Lakeman and Steve Knightley who unexpectedly jumped up on stage for several crowd pleasing covers including Honky Tonk Women. It’s amazing how quickly word spreads at a festival when something unexpected happens (almost immediately the tent was swelling to near capacity!). Text, Messenger and WhatsApp communication is no doubt the new ‘word of mouth’!
Saturday ended for me with a couple of late-night pints and a well-attended and delightfully convivial sharing of songs in the quiet room adjoining the main bar. This is where a different flavour of festival magic can often spontaneously form. Usually prepared songs remain unsung as one singer reacts to something someone else has just sung. On this occasion several strangers sang a succession of songs written by John Prine. Some lyrics may have been swiftly researched and re-uploaded to memory on phones but everyone was understandably forgiving. A lovely and relaxing way to conclude a busy day of musical festivity!
Sunday’s concert programme was dominated by a succession of sets on the medium sized Pengwern Tent curated by Chris While and Julie Matthews as a way of acknowledging and celebrating 25 years of working together. All present were friends of theirs and people they have worked with down the years. This was where Sunday’s magic took place for me, on what felt like the hottest day of the four. Charlie Dore started proceedings with a mesmerising hour of moving self-penned material. For those in attendance who only remember a minor chart hit dating back forty years she was clearly quite a revelation.
Emerged as a witty songwriter of profound lyrical and musical sophistication…several songs were moving enough to make a grown man cry (though he may have pretended to those around him it was sweat dripping from his brow!). The heat was a major issue in the tents today though naturally this was entirely beyond the control of the organisers. Side flaps were removed which helped reduce temperatures a little but comfort levels were being sorely tested. After an entertaining set by Blair Dunlop I moved outside to enjoy Eddi Reader in the comfort of some shade. Backed by a stellar band Eddi in her customary eccentric manner led us through a succession of songs from her lengthy career. A sumptuous rendition of ‘Moon River’ was a particular highlight. The evening concert began with two new bands but packed with familiar faces. IOTA comprise Sally Barker, Marion Fleetwood and Anna Ryder, all great musicians, singers and entertainers. If they continue as a trio I suspect they’ll do very well.
As will Burden of Paradise led by Helen Watson (who also performed with While & Matthews in Daphne’s Flight at the festival). The finale was The While and Matthews Big Band, initially to showcase material from the duo’s latest album but later a gathering of all the musicians who had played on the stage before them….and several more from the festival bill. An undoubted highlight was a spirited rendition of ‘Pride’ by Daphne’s Flight with rainbow flags liberally waved throughout the tent: a spirit-lifting and beautiful moment to close a memorable day on the Pengwern Stage.
The late-night session in the ‘Songhouse’ tonight swiftly moved from songs to tunes and was dominated by an intimidatingly talented group of young musicians who met and flourished on the session scene in the Brighton area. My mandolin was unable to keep up…and I resolved to take it along to a workshop the next morning for rehabilitation!
On the Monday the ‘Tuneworks’ workshops all go up a significant notch and are no longer beginner or intermediate level. Diana Buckle’s mandolin ‘masterclass’ was indeed a revelation and lived up to the billing as she led us through an obscure Old Time tune.
The ‘full speed’ Tuneworks session then gathered in their massed ranks in the beer tent…always a highlight! This year there was even a rousing rendition of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ (the EU anthem)
I was then lured into the largest (Bellstone) tent by the soothing sounds of the AKA Trio, another new name to me. Thinking to myself that this didn’t half sound like Seckou Keita playing the African kora harp…I swiftly realised it was none other than the man himself (I really should study the programme more carefully….lesson duly learned!). Joining him were two other virtuoso players Italian Antonio Forcione and Adriano Adewale from Brazil: a beautiful convergence of exotic musical flavours from three continents. Another festival highlight and an act I’ll definitely seek out again.
I was also unable to resist the lure of brushing up a few Welsh tunes at an afternoon session led by Charlotte Goodwin and friends. I’d attended her Welsh workshop the previous day and so had a few new ones in my armoury. However, in the heat of the day in-tent temperatures had once again risen to the point where there was little option to remove the canvas sides from the main stages. This inevitably resulted in increased volume levels affecting other areas on the festival site where acoustic events are taking place. I know the exceptional conditions this year would have left the organisers with little alternative for the audience’s general comfort…next year the weather may be completely different of course and the volume stays mostly inside the tents. The Welsh tune session in the tented bar on the final day was affected during Andy Fairweather-Low’s full band set and a volunteer was dispatched to find a quieter space. Fortunately a room was available indoors at The Hub and everyone swiftly relocated. All’s well that ends well (bonus…there was even air-conditioning!)
For several years at Shrewsbury the final event has been Jim Moray’s ‘Folk Slam’, a gathering of many of the remaining booked musicians present on the festival site The beauty of it is that it’s mostly ad hoc…and rehearsal of arrangements will inevitably have been minimal. It was great to see Jackie Oates and John Spiers emerge together (and buoyed by their reception I understand they’re planning to tour as an occasional duo next year). We also saw a debut from Steve Knightley’s teenage daughter, Evie accompanied by her dad. The whole set was joyfully chaotic as offstage musicians suddenly realise they can add something to a particular song and dash on to pick up an instrument. This happened notably during an ambitious take on Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Everywhere’ led by Moray with Blair Dunlop.
All in all a fabulous way to end a sweltering weekend at Shrewsbury Folk Festival. It would be churlish to reflect the weather was if anything a tad too much on the ‘uncomfortably hot’ side. Especially in a summer where some festivals have had to cancel at short notice due to adverse wind and rain. We mustn’t complain. Shrewsbury provided a memorable weekend as always….let the sunshine in!
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