Shrewsbury Folk Festival: Special Sunshine Edition

Along with the usual mix of great gigs, sessions, workshops, and sustenance there was a very welcome visitor to this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival: blazing sunshine, pretty much all weekend. While mere trifles like rain and gale force winds would never dampen spirits here, a mini-heatwave was a joyful addition to the 2019 line-up.

As ever, it's impossible to see every tempting concert, but I made a real effort to experience the most diverse range of musicians the festival had to offer.

My Friday night started seemingly low key in the Sabrina marquee with Geoff Lakeman: a bare stage, one man, one concertina but so much drama, passion and beauty. Geoff is the patriach of the Lakeman folk family and is a vrtuouso on the (fiendishly difficult to master) duet concertina. The gig was a masterclass in how to let beautiful music speak for itself, all presented with humour, humility and a quiet skill and passion gained over a lifetime of playing the folk clubs. It was a great start to the festival.

I had time to catch the end of UFQ (Urban Folk Quartet), playing high octane songs and tunes with strong Celtic roots over at the Pengwern, before heading back to Sabrina for the Chris Elliot and Caitlin Jones set. Winners of last year’s festival open mic, they perform music rooted in the traditions of their native Durham, powerfully intricate vocal melodies backed by solid playing from Chris, with Caitlin's haunting whistle and harmonium accompniament.

The Friday night main stage gave us a powerful double bill of passionate,socially aware music spanning the generations: Grace Petrie followed by Oysterband. Grace is a young artist who is already a veteran of the folk scene. Her songs continue folk music’s long tradition of voicing protest and hope. She was followed by Oysterband, consumate professionals who still perform with passsion and integrity, tonight, to a rapt audience.

Irishborn singer-songwriter Áine Tyrrell started things off on Saturday around lunchtime. This was her first gig in Britain, and she showcased her fierce and eclectic songs, many of which draw on a tradition of resistance. Rev Sekou, a veteran of the anti-facsist movement in the US, gave an electric mix of rootsy funk and blues influenced songs, combined with a ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher style stage presence and a message of unity and peace. Steve Knightley played to a packed out Sabrina marquee that was spilling onto the sundrenched grass outside. He performed the usual mix of finely crafted songs and easy repartee that has made him a festival favourite. Edgelarks are another firm festival favourite. With their finely wrought banjo and slide guitar compostions ranging from the footstomping to some gently evocative airs, they didn't disappoint on Saturday.

There is a trust set up in 2017 in the name of Shrewsbury Folk Festival founder Alan Surtees[]; there is also a fundraising gig scheduled for January 2020]to support up-and-coming folk musicians with grants and guidance. One of this year’s recipients is the exceptionally talented Jess Reid. I caught her set on the Launchpad stage and we are definately going to be hearing more from her in the future. She is an astonishing guitar player who plays intricate compositions with grace and precision, an heir to the folk guitar tradition of the likes of Bert Jansch. Her set was a highlight of the weekend for me and she deserves (as all the Launchpad artists do) to be much more widely heard.

Saturday night headliners the Martin Barre Band presented 50 years of the legendary Jethro Tull. A 50 year career is a lot to cram into 105 minutes and they powered through some of the highlights at breakneck speed. Original Tull drummer Clive Bunker was one of two drummers creating a solid rhythmic backbone for the band (which included 82 year old original keyboard player, Dee Palmer). Martin Barre has evidently lost none of his incredible guitar technique over the past 50 years; a great show.

A huge part of what makes this festival so special is the many session musicians who provide a constant musical backdrop. Wherever you are on site, you pick up the strains of a different traditional tune floating through the air every time the breeze changes direction.These musicians are the constantly beating heart of the festival; I spent a lot of Sunday afternoon wandering and sitting by various groups - young and old - who set up wherever there is enough space.

Sunday night’s stand out performance was Yorkshire’s Kate Rusby, one of the stars of the English folk scene and a regular at SFF. Her strong yet delicate vocals always draw a big crowd. Eddi Reader was another outstanding vocalist returning to grace the festival stages; another exceptional gig from this talented and eclectic musician.

The dance tent is always a happy, vibrant venue and the John Spiers Ceilidh band’s set there was simply joyful. There is no other word for music that simultaneously manages to be infectiously danceable and spine-tingling beautiful. The floor was packed throughout their set. They even provided an impromptu rendition of ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’ to accompany the always-wonderful children’s lantern parade as it passed - all mermaids, jellyfish and other sea creatures - to fit this year’s 'under the sea' theme.

Whapweasel also rocked the dance tent, and the dancing continued elsewhere through Monday with the Cajun Country Revival. This band is the ‘Real Thing’, with no-nonsense traditional cajun songs and tunes steeped in the music and culture of Louisiana. Led by Cajun accordian legend Jesse Lege, they play with evident generosity of spirit, integrity and virtuosity. Word must have gotten around after their Saturday night show in the Sabrina Marquee as their Monday afternoon show in Pengwern was packed to the rafters.

I managed to spend some of Monday lunchtime listening to Trio Loubelya, a French band playing a perfectly judged (considering the heat in the dance tent) set. You didn't have to be dancing to be transported by one of their beautifully evocative makurkas.

And so, how do you choose which Monday afternoon headline act to close your festival? I opted for Faustus and wasn't disappointed. Three fine musicians with CVs including Bellowhead and Waterson:Carthy. Songs of protest from the era of the Lancashire cotton famine, shanties and energetic dance tunes all flawlessly delivered in the blistering heat inside the Sabrina Marquee, a fitting end to a blazing weekend.

As I had a last walk around the site with the other sunburnt and very happy punters, and then walked back to town with the sounds of the last songs of the main stages drifting through the air, I reflected on the fact that the Shrewsbury Folk Festival never fails to provide a programme of genuinely diverse, high quality music, and that the friendly, welcoming atmosphere created by musicians, staff and revellers remains constant, whatever the weather.

Tom Cowan, with Laura N.


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.

Read More from Laura Noszlopy