Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2018: Music blows the rainclouds away

 

This year's Shrewsbury Folk Festival opened in stormy style, with high winds and torrential rain. But a bit of weather doesn’t put off diehard folk fans. We all donned capes and cagoules and followed the music.

 

As ever, we didn’t manage to see all the acts we hoped to see; there is always a range of fabulous music happening across the three main stages and scattered across the various smaller venues on the West Midlands Showground. We’ll run through some of the acts that really caught our attention and hope to catch up with the ones we missed another time. As one repeat festival-goer, Anita from Yorkshire, told me, “They get the balance right, and I just love the fact that there’s so much variety.” It’s just a shame we can’t be in more than one place at a time – apologies to any bands that don’t get a mention here. You can read more details about the entire line-up, as well as info on buying tickets and such for next year's festival, at https://shrewsburyfolkfestival.co.uk.

 

The Rogue Shanty Buoys lashed themselves to the mast (almost) and drew a huge audience, cowering and singing along in the open village stage. They sang a fantastic set of traditional sea shanties with the wind and rain adding an extra dimension of authenticity to the proceedings.

 

Midnight Skyracer kicked off the festival programme in the Pergwern marquee. These five young women are all remarkably skilled musicians and have just recently, in the last year started playing as a band. They played a lively bluegrass-tinged set with fine harmony singing and solid string and rhythm work to an appreciative audience.

 

Emma Morton and the Graces performed an impressive and eclectic set of original songs, sung in a unique, soulful style and infused with jazz and blues instrumentals. This was a really welcome addition to this year’s line-up.

 

On the Bellstone main stage, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel finished the first night with a consummate set of old favourites that still sound as fresh and vital as they did when they were first released.

 

Meanwhile, Blowzabella were brewing up their own storm in the ever-popular dance tent. Festival-goers danced away the night.

 

Blowzabella regrouped in the Pengwern marquee on Saturday afternoon with a set comprised of traditional English songs, tunes from across Europe and self-penned material. Now in their fortieth year, they offered, as always,  a tight, powerful and unforgettable performance.

 

Flautist Guo Yue and Master drummer Joji Hirota were joined by members of the London Taiko Drummers on the Bellstone stage Saturday afternoon. This was a magical performance, beautifully delivered with humour and virtuoso musicianship. The group produced an extraordinary sound together, and the white jade flute was especially spellbinding.

 

Saturday night in the Pengwern opened with Canadian family act, The Fitzgeralds, whose silky harmony singing and traditional Canadian step-dancing were hugely popular with the crowd. Their set was a perfect balance of song, instrumental music, storytelling and dance.

 

Yola Carter is not a typical folk festival act. This Bristol based singer-songwriter is making a name for herself as a strong, soulful performer of roots-based original work, backed up by a talented and very tight band – a super new addition to the festival line-up.

 

The Richard Thompson Electric Trio performed with the dazzling virtuosity that everyone has come to expect of him. They headlined a packed Bellstone Marquee on Saturday night with a moving set of new and old pieces.

 

In addition to the big names and the established artists, the festival’s Launchpad stage offers a genuine launchpad to emerging artists breaking into the scene. We didn’t manage to get to all the sets, but one young woman made a big impression on us this year. Ellie Gowers’ exquisite voice and unique vocal style was absolutely mesmerising. She’s one to watch.

 

Sunday afternoon opened with Peter Knight and John Spiers, playing fiddle and melodeon respectively. They are both master musicians and they played an excellent set of traditional and self-penned dance tunes and others based on folk song melodies. They are truly exceptional musicians and they received a long standing ovation.

 

Meanwhile, on the main stage, Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow curated a wonderful collaborative project drawing on musical traditions from around the world. Working together for their second year, The Passerine (meaning ‘Songbird’) is a collective of refugee and migrant musicians, each offering a unique sound to the whole and singing stories of flight and home. In particular, Michele Stodart (previously the bassist for the Magic Numbers) played a haunting original composition about her migration journey; Avital Raz sang of the continual violence in Middle East; Sarah Yaseen, a Sufi songwriter and dancer from Manchester sang a heart-breaking song about forced marriage; she concluded the show with an astonishing whirling dance. It was an inspiring and emotional afternoon.

 

Snaarmaarwaar were our favourite surprise of this year’s festival. A string trio of guitar, mandolin and mandola, hailing from Belgium, they played a mesmeric, high energy set of Flemish folk tunes and songs to a delighted audience. They played with passion and integrity and returned to play another skilful and energetic set in the dance tent through Monday afternoon.

 

According to the queues for the Pengwern (Sunday night) and the Bellstone (Monday afternoon) and afterwards at the CD tent, Skerryvore were a huge hit with festival-goers. Their full band and virtuoso pipers played a high octane fusion of Scottish roots music with a contemporary flavour to an excited and enthusiastic audience.

 

Na Leanai hail from Ireland and are the children of the famous Co. Down Sands Family band. This quartet played songs and tunes from their musical heritage, with beautifully sweet close harmony singing. They were followed by Edgelarks, a duo made up of Hannah Martin and Phillip Henry. Hannah’s beautiful and strong vocals provided a perfect match for Phillip’s highly skilled and varied guitar playing (on one song playing an Indian slide guitar). They played strong set ranging from the haunting traditional folksongs to impassioned protest songs to a packed and enthralled Sabrina marquee.

 

Edwina Hayes, performing solo, held the attention of the whole Bellstone marquee for her ballad-focused set. According to Nanci Griffiths, Edwina has the ‘sweetest voice in England’ and we really can’t disagree.

 

Budiño closed the festival in storming style with an electric display of Galician music centred on the pipes of Xose Manuel Budiño. It is always wonderful to be introduced to musical traditions from around the world. This set skilfully blended traditional northern Spanish tunes with contemporary rhythms and instrumental combinations. By the end of the show, the entire audience of were on their feet and the band were clearly enjoying the energy too.

 

As always, Shrewsbury Folk Festival offers a family-friendly venue, filled with great music, plenty to learn and play, fabulous company and dancing in a safe, welcoming environment. There’s always a wide range of good food, as well as ales, ciders and a gin palace, and a craft field where you can buy anything from hand-dyed yarn to silver jewellery to glitter tattoos.

 

This a very well managed festival with a superbly dedicated and competent team of volunteer stewards and helpers. It is also notable that the volunteer litter pickers have little work to do because festival-goers are so considerate about tidying up after themselves. At a time when photographs of post-festival detritus and discarded tents regularly go viral on social media, the SFF site is left beautifully unsullied when the long weekend’s merriment has ended.

 

So, all in all, it was another great year for the Shrewsbury Folk Festival despite the initial squalls. SFF is a festival that feels warm and happy even when the summer weather doesn’t play fair.

 

By Tom C. and Laura N.

 

 

 

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Laura Noszlopy Laura Noszlopy

Laura is a writer, editor and anthropologist, as well as a keen gardener and cook. Besides blogging for Love Shrewsbury she runs an editorial and communications consultancy.

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Shrewsbury Folk Festival