Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2015 – Spooky Men, Melodeons and Mud

Laura Noszlopy and Tom Cowin

Photographs by Richard Hammerton

Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2015 was a great fun bank holiday weekend for all the family, and for all flavours of folk.  With its deeply laidback attitude and impeccable manners, this is a rare gathering where babies and toddlers are safe, grandparents can shake it down at the ceilidh, and everyone in between can find something enticing to listen to, watch or get stuck into to wile away the (slightly damp, grey) late August days and nights.  Judging by the elaborately and immaculately arranged campsites, several generations of families attend this festival together. Despite the many barrels of very strong ale available, not to mention this year’s new cocktail and wine bars, there is none of the loutishness or trouble found at many other weekenders. It’s a happy, friendly festival where everyone does proper recycling, the stewards are smiling and helpful, the loos are clean and the showground is seemingly left shipshape once everyone heads home.

Pandemonium and its team of dedicated volunteers ran the kid’s craft tent again this year. Lantern making is something that many regular festival goers really look forward to, with parents and children alike piling in to the marquee to build complicated structures from willow and masking tape, which are later sealed and decorated with tissue paper and glue, and then hung in the gazebo until Sunday night when the lantern procession snakes through the showground. Despite the rain, the lanterns looked great lit from within with LEDs and held up high on beanpoles.  The women of Spirit of Djembe accompanied the procession, bravely drumming under their plastic ponchos.

The Panic circus skills tent was packed with excited children all weekend, balancing on pedalos and unicycles, learning juggling skills and tightrope walking.  The Refokus project for teens offered workshops in diverse music and dance styles and they showcased their efforts on the final day with a group performance. Townsfolk without festival tickets were also treated to some hijinks with the annual Morris display and procession, which started in Shrewsbury town centre and sauntered back to the showground.

Musically, 2015 was another year of revisiting past successes and striking out in new directions. The line-up saw old favourites back for the umpteenth time, rubbing shoulders with some of the freshest faces on the folk scene. Steve Knightley kicked off the proceedings on the new, larger capacity Main Stage 1, setting the standard for a great evening’s entertainment with Kate Rusby’s poised and beautifully balanced performance and Dawes’ own brand of American roots.  Main Stage 2 saw an innovative, theatrical set from Jig Doll, Hannah James’ Arts Council funded exploration of voice, accordion and clog dancing traditions, in a show that moved seamlessly from atmospheric to exuberant.

Nancy Kerr is well known and respected voice on the English folk scene, her closing set on Main Stage 2 on Friday was a great showcase for her new self-penned material, which subtly breathes new life and poeticism into the English folksong tradition.

What was particularly apparent this year was the number of hugely talented youngsters who are embracing traditional music and easily holding their own alongside more grizzled old timers. The Teacups performed a wonderfully enthusiastic song set that showed a real sensitivity and understanding of their material; they were very well received in the Sabrina Marquee on Friday night.

Saturday kicked off acapella style on both Main Stage 2 and the Sabrina Marquee, with festival favourites The Wilsons and sea shanty specialists The Roaring Trowmen. The Trowmen’s set was a masterclass in four-part shanty singing, interspersed with properly funny jokes.

Also on Main Stage 2, Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese singer and kora player Seckou Keita played beautifully together in an exceptional collaboration steeped in their respective bardic traditions.

Evening in the Sabrina Marquee saw a peace concert given by the Peace Through Folk Choir, featuring The Laners, Janet Russell, The Birdscarers and Pete Hopkins, among others. The concert was moving, thought provoking and uplifting in equal measure. It was good to see this low key, acoustic set so well attended: proof, as was mentioned on stage, that you don’t need drum sets and electric guitars to fill a space.

Saturday night across the site was a journey across the many and varied musics that fly the folk flag. The eclectic adventurous music of Lucy Ward, the camp fun and skilful musicianship of the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, and acoustic-based rock of Oysterband in the big tent. The ukulele renditions of “Happy” and “Smells like Teen Spirit” were not short of brilliant and the orchestra received a standing ovation. The dance tent hosted some real treats this year, not least the wild energy of Blowzabella, enjoyed by an ample bunch of happy, fired-up dancers, including an entire Morris side dressed up as characters from Harry Potter …  Over on Main Stage 2 the joyful sound of Sharon Shannon was one of the highlights of the night.

The folk festival offers a great range of workshops and classes for more or less accomplished musicians and dancers. Sunday, and even confirmed non-singers found their way into a shanty workshop run by The Laners; you could almost taste the salt air in the Berwick Pavilion Bar. This session was a revelation and one of the high points of the festival. I would urge any future visitors, even if they feel very uncertain of their musical abilities, to take advantage of some of the wealth of knowledge and experience on offer. Later in the day, those lucky enough to squeeze into the beautifully constructed Roundhouse yurt for the singing workshop run by The Spooky Men’s Chorale were singing a Georgian table song within an hour and half. It was a wonderful thing to be a part of.

Another young traditional band, Granny’s Attic, impressed in the Sabrina Marquee. Seemingly still in their teens, they are certainly one to watch out for.  Interestingly, it seems like many of the younger musicians are carrying the torch for a return to the traditional roots of folk. Local sing-songwriter Beth Prior also merits a mention here as she entertained the crowds around the main tent and food field with her excellent acoustic sets and jams.

The Spooky Men’s Chorale were obviously going to be a high point of the weekend for many people and the main marquee was packed for their virtuoso display of harmonising and high octane entertainment. This Australian group are incomparable; they’re hosting a Spooky festival next weekend in Worcestershire: The evening ended with a set by the legendary Richard Thompson. Despite some issues with sound quality in Main Stage 1, his talent and effortless connection with the audience shone through.

Monday, and another of the younger crop of bands started proceedings on Main Stage 1. Welsh band Calan offered fine musicianship and a father and daughter clog dance face-off.  False Lights followed them with an intriguing sound suggestive of an updated version of the British psych-folk of the 1960s and 70s. A walk across the fields to Sabrina was a trip back five centuries with Piva. They call what they do “the roots of roots music”: dance music of the fifteenth century, performed on period instruments. Their set had a wonderful earthy atmosphere, transporting us from a muddy 21st century Shropshire field to an Elizabethan court. The music finished on a high point with a blinding set from Québécois folk band La Bottine Souriante. 

This year’s festival proved that folk music is in fine shape in 2015. While the range of transatlantic sounds of previous years was missed, there was a diverse line up of high quality acts and the typically friendly, inclusive atmosphere. The future of Shrewsbury’s folk festival seems secure. If you don’t manage to snap up a ticket for SFF2016 (they sell out, so be quick next summer), you can catch highlights online via the festival’s live stream.

Pete White Pete White

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