Sea shanties, circus skills and so much more at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2016

This is the fourth time I’ve whiled away the August Bank Holiday Weekend at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival. Every year SFF offers something different yet it always retains a reassuring atmosphere of familiarity.

One topic of conversation that crops up regularly among festival-goers is what counts as ‘folk music’ and what doesn’t so much. And the perspectives vary wildly as the folk scene is a broad church. With headliners as diverse as Roseanne Cash, Show of Hands and the Levellers, SFF does well to cater across the board each year. Nobody can please all the people all the time, but the SFF team make a big effort. The festival programme offers a wide choice of acts between three large tents and a wealth of smaller gigs, instrumental workshops and tune-teaching from Tuneworks, dancing and non-musical activities across the showground. And all around the site, musicians can join sessions, both formal and very informal, playing a range of traditional styles. The food field also has something for everyone (the Thai, Caribbean and vegetarian options are especially good) and the bars offer an exemplary range of ales and ciders, many of them made locally. 2016 also showcased the full gamut of festival weather – from blazing sunshine to monsoon and back again.

One of the nicest aspects of SFF is its family-friendly atmosphere. It has plenty of kids’ activities for small ones – the ‘Wee Folkies’. The Panic Circus area is open all day for play, shows and guided circus skills sessions, and the Pandemonium tent offers several arts and crafts workshops, a chance to make willow and paper lanterns for the annual lantern parade on the Sunday night, as well as workshops for storytelling, Indian dance and drumming, singing and more. This year had a bee theme and a team of sequined buzzy bees entertained everyone in the children’s field over the long weekend.

Young people between 11 and 20 are also welcomed with a fantastic programme called Refolkus. The Reef tent provided a base to join the Super-Choir, the All-Star Big Band, to learn Japanese Taiko drumming or traditional Rapper dancing, to get a henna tattoo or learn some high-flying trapeze skills with the Sky Circus put on by Organised Kaos Youth Circus. Everyone did really well and their training culminated in concerts on the festival stages.

Family-friendly doesn’t just mean kid-friendly; it means that SFF has something to please people of all ages. Festival-goers represent every generation – from white-bearded seniors to babes in arms - and it’s obvious that many of the younger members of current dance teams or bands have been coming to the festival since they were little.

Anyway, I won’t try to cover everything nor even offer a thorough survey. You can find details of the full line-up at the festival website: I’ll focus instead on the gigs and performances that stood out for me.

Boston-based bluegrass string and harmony group, Barnstar!, have a loyal and voracious SFF following. They raised the roof of the big tent three years ago and did it again in 2016. With their tender harmonies and wild strings, played cleverly into a single mic, the crowd was massively appreciative of both their gigs.

Brilliantly gnarly Blackie and the Rodeo Kings roused their audiences during two great sets. Hailing from Ontario, Canada, this high-energy folk-rock-alternative-country band eludes easy definition. The energy between the band’s members is contagious and the crowds love them all. Stephen Fearing also treated us to a more mellow, ballad-focused solo gig later in the weekend.

Amadou and Modou returned to SFF with their uplifting set of Senegalese and other West African sounds. Both outstanding instrumentalists and singers, this duo is worth seeing if you get the chance.

Edward II also have a unique sound, blending English roots tunes with Caribbean reggae rhythms, and jazz, and soul, and… people got up to dance.

Upcoming contemporary folk outfit, Effra, played some mesmeric sets and another gig at the Bird in Hand pub, the festival’s off-site venue.

Local group Midswégan gave a lovely impromptu concert on the village stage.

And acoustic heroes Nick Lowe, Paul Carrack and Andy Fairweather Low came together to play a superb gig in the big tent on Saturday night.

Kefaya’s sound draws its inspiration from the band’s travels through the musical traditions of Palestine, Spain, India, Italy and the UK. A unique fusion of styles beautifully combined.

The Roaring Trowmen came from Bristol to share their wild and poignant a cappella sea shanties, and a singing workshop for aspiring seamen and women.

The nautical theme continued courtesy of Mark Radcliffe’s Galleon Blast, a band of wretched sea dogs hailing from Knutsford. Their nautical credentials may be fishy but their raucous blend of sailor’s songs and shanties certainly passed muster.

The sublime harmonies of Lady Maisery (Hannah James, Hazel Askew and Rowan Rheingans) were heard in performance and during a spine-tingling open-air singing workshop in the food field. You can catch them again on 29 October as part of the Uptown Folk season at The Hive on Belmont.

The 11-strong Treacherous Orchestra came down from Scotland to play a blinding late night gig, winding up Sunday night in the big tent. Everyone was up and dancing.

The Scottish piping continued with Skippinish, a surprise addition to the programme. Their inventive brand of Highland West Coast music was a major talking point of the weekend.

Phenomenal Indian singer-songwriter-producer, Raghu Dixit, was widely considered one of the highlights of the festival. He and his multilingual band of musicians filled out the big tent and got people out of their seats and dancing on the last day. The young guitar player was especially brilliant.

The dance tent, as ever, felt like the heart of the festival. With a long list of fantastic dance bands and callers each night the pace never slackened throughout the weekend. It’s great to see all the dance teams perform or let off steam in the evenings, but even people who have never danced before are welcomed to join the ceilidhs, waltzes and set dances.

Saturday afternoon saw a spectacularly energetic performance by Polish group Zywiec, whose youngest members are in single digits. Saturday’s European theme continued with Euro Dance night, with the brilliant MoltenAmba playing and Jo Freya calling the moves for unusual Breton and French sets. The many and various Morris sides danced as ever through Shrewsbury town centre and massed again on the showground, several border groups proudly donning their traditional disguise, despite recent controversy. The townsfolk gave them a very warm welcome, braving the summer downpour. The outstanding dances for me were the blade-swinging Sheffield Steel Rapper dancers and the fantastic Ironmen and Severn Gilders, but they’re all wonderful.

As I said, there’s so much going on at SFF that I’d never manage to get to every gig but these were the standout artists for me. I’m very much hoping that many are invited back; it’s especially grand to witness the loving reception that artists receive when they return to SFF. Thanks for another great festival, Shrewsbury.


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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