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Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2014 – Live Review

| On 04, Sep 2014

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Friday 22nd – Monday 25th August, Shropshire

Friday

Having dodged the forecast downpours and set up camp it was time to head into the main arena to start the festival weekend with some light music and impulse wanderings. Danny Pedlar and Rosie Butler-Hall were playing on the Village Stage; a small marquee-stage sandwiched between the artisan stalls and Children’s Activity Tent. Some nice arrangements and Rosie’s fiddle playing was great but as a duo a little tentative and perhaps under rehearsed (which may have been down to nerves). Lovely Eric Whitacre –esque arrangement from Danny and with a little more experience they will be closer to the professional sound I imagine they are looking to achieve. Lots of potential there!

Evading the showers seemed like a piece of cake after walking past the Children’s Activity and Panic Circus Tent! Small but lethal circus equipment was being thrown up in the air and rarely landed where anticipated! Lovely to see such a child-friendly festival with numerous activities to keep them occupied including ‘Natural Headdresses’, Lantern Making, Maypole Dancing, and Story Telling.

The Main Stage music all kicked off just after 7pm with John Jones and the Reluctant Ramblers. The tent was packed out with excited looking people ready for the weekend. A tight set and some interesting songs; not surprisingly with a very similar sound to Oyster Band (of which John Jones is the lead singer). I would have liked the vocal harmonies to come out of the mix a little more but I have to say that I got my fill of outstanding vocal harmonies on the way to see The Wilsons on Main Stage Two.

Drifting out of the Sabrina Tent were the most beautiful ethereal voices so as usual my curiosity got the better of me and I had to go and investigate. I had caught Sue Brown and Lorraine Irwing mid-way through their performance and was delighted to be able to hear them. Very knowledgeable singers who managed to offer enough information to give their songs context but not so much that they bored or lost their attentive crowd. Their arrangements, harmonies and compositions were erupting with magic and creativity and I enjoyed hearing their grasp and respect for an old style of singing whilst pushing it through the peep-hole of time and giving their repertoire fresh attire.

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Unfortunately I could not stay to the end of their duo act, as I wanted to catch The Wilsons. I was pleased to see them perform minus Sting and minus Sting’s musical. I won’t say any more on that matter and I will move swiftly on to say WOW, what a performance! They are the kind of vocal ensemble who can make your skin tingle, face break into a grin and increase your heart rate; intonation was spot on, as was their time feel and stage presence. Post-encore I sat tight to wait for a very special man to appear on stage. The tent had filled up considerably towards the end of The Wilsons and now the expectant audience was waiting for one of their favourites; Andy Cutting. Gentle and at ease with the crowd and as always with the perfect succession of tunes the great melodeon player performed with his natural and easy charisma. We love waltzes too Andy, especially when you play them! And funny but valid comment on the subject of playing dance music to a seated audience… all the tents had seating and much of the time I felt the atmosphere would have been even better if there was more standing (and dancing) room as well as the option for people to bring their own seats.

Following Andy’s delightful set even more people filtered in to watch Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston who were very tight, technically impressive and rhythmically assertive. They presented creative arrangements and compositions and I was pleased that they were pushing for a particularly rhythmic-centered sound. Their unique duo of double bass and mandolin below their two very different but complimentary voices worked to create a new dynamic.

I wanted to catch some of Megson so ran over to Main Stage One and I enjoyed the last couple of songs; great crowd pleasers and very popular throughout the weekend.

The highlight of my evening had to be Four Men and a Dog – what a burning band! So tight and such great instrumentalists! The dexterity with which they played every tune was outstanding and their time feel was so perfect I could see people who were otherwise rooted in their chairs with limbs tapping away, obviously eager to get up and dance! As usual with fast-paced Irish music, the bodhrán player and the fiddlers were participating in a battle of tempo at various points but nothing too drastic and the crowd loved them!

Lastly I went to see some of The Dhol Foundation in Main Stage One (and heard some of Cupola’s set in the Sabrina Tent on the way – I had every intention of catching them later on in the weekend as they sounded brilliant!) who were crisp, energetic and a very different sound from other music over the weekend. Well worth going to see if you’re after lively drum music and a colourful, well rehearsed set!

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Saturday

Leaving many people at the campsite I headed into the main arena before the music began to attend an Irish Fiddle Lesson, one of the many mass lessons being conducted over the weekend. It was good ‘craic’ and encouraged all ages and abilities to join in and have a go at not only learning some new tunes but to discover the idiosyncrasies of Irish ornaments (and not the kind that sit on the mantelpiece!). Afterwards I passed by the Village Stage and watched some brilliant Rapper Dancing by Star and Shadow and Black Swan.

Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar were next on Main Stage Two and they probably would have left some of the fiddlers and guitarists in the audience either feeling as though they wanted to go and lock themselves in practice rooms or use their instruments as fire wood. Greg’s voice is incredibly mature as is his subject matter and Ciaran’s fiddle playing is outstanding. At the tender ages of 23 and 18 respectively, they are already working the crowds with their quick wit, extraordinary musicianship, mature sense of rhythm and ability to make their tunes (whether these be originals or arrangements) entirely unique. Watch this space for the next big fiddle and guitar duo! They were so good I had to go and see them for a second time on Sunday!

Quite a contrast to this in the Sabrina Tent, Fran McGillivray and Mike Burke were playing to a rather small audience. Much more chilled out, the partner-duo played what they do best and although not pushing any boundaries their blues, folk and roots music was very enjoyable to listen to and their positive energy on stage was beautiful to watch.

Cara Luft, who was on Main Stage Two gave a great performance and managed to call a little impromptu percussion in the form of torrential rain to her instrumentation! Thankfully, being under cover, all I had to worry about was the state my tent would be in after Steve Knightley’s Wake The Union later that night but Cara’s intense, outstanding performance soon had me forget about that! I loved her own compositions and arrangements of traditional songs; a great guitarist and a powerful voice!

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I managed to screech into MS2 to hear Matt Gordon and Lenny Podolak’s encore which was fantastic! Great on-stage atmosphere and high-energy performance. Shame they clashed with Cara but Shrewsbury Folk Festival organisers made a huge effort to bill the same people more than once so there was, generally speaking, an opportunity to see a group again if you missed them the first time.

A very quick but delicious vegetarian lasagna later and I was back in MS2 to get a good seat for Karine Polwart. A truly inspirational musician – piercing to the heart, body and soul. Her beautiful voice, deep subject matter and sublime arrangements made for a spectacular performance. A silent, spellbound crowd sat tight throughout her set and she charmed the audience with her personable tales and down-to-earth attitude. Laughing a temporary memory lapse away and asking the audience for the first line of one of her songs just made for an even more intimate atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed ‘Annie’s Box’ which is about Darwin’s loss when his daughter died and ‘King of the Birds’ whose message was that power can be found in the smallest places, people and animals.

Later on that evening I went back to MS2 again to see BBC Folk Awards best duo of 2014 winners, Philip Henry and Hannah Martin. Very well rehearsed and an interesting sound. Philip’s slide guitar and harmonica playing was brilliant and Hannah’s deep voice must have penetrated and warmed the hearts of everyone listening. Her lyrical melodies and pensive tales were well crafted and complimented Philip’s improvisations which were heavily influenced by Indian classical music and gave a sense of timelessness; earthly and thought provoking.

At this point I headed to the beer tent, not to sample all the ales in barrels, being rapidly drained by men and women holding up their tankards, but to sit in on the Irish Session being led by Patrick Gray who was also conducting the fiddle lessons. It was a lovely atmosphere; to be seated amongst old and young, experienced and beginners and to see it take off like a god old pub session. Lots of people gathered round to listen as little girls tried out some new and somewhat innovative céilidh moves in the middle!

Headlining on Saturday night was Steve Knightley’s Wake the Union; a big all stars performance involving Andy Cutting, Philip Henry and Hannah Martin, Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston, Matt Gordon and Lenny Podolak. An extremely popular event, MS1 was bursting at the seams and this wasn’t just down to the bitterly cold night covering the festival site with an icy blanket! A little too contrived for my liking but it meant I got another dose of Philip Henry’s beautiful improvisations!

Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2014 (5)

Sunday

Sunday began with a hot sun beating down on the campsite, drawing folks out of their sleeping bags and unfortunately in turn pushing them all towards the already lengthy shower queues. Most people had reached their limits of uncleanliness by this point so after going through the festival rigmarole and feeling suitably spruced up I wandered into MS1 to watch Steve Tilston’s set and stood up at the front with the small crowd which had decided to stand.

The majority of people were seated but being up at the front was entirely different – a very intimate and special atmosphere. Tilston has a pure, powerful voice and he’s certainly a good songwriter; no wonder he won BBC2 Folk Award Best Original Song of 2012!

Martin Simpson was up next; perhaps a little too similar to be billed in succession to Tiston? In spite of this, Simpson drew a large crowd including lots of dedicated fans and mainly an older audience. As always, his guitar playing was brilliant and his voice exuded years of experience but I have to admit I found the subject matter rather introspective.

A performance I was very excited about in MS2 was about to start so I followed the crowd of clinking tankards attached to people’s waistbands through the array of screaming children, wafts of delicious food smells and Morris dancers to get a seat for Bella Hardy. As always she sang beautifully and I enjoyed her theme of songs in which women prevailed over ‘false men’. Unfortunately I didn’t think her band setup worked particularly well (the choice of instruments didn’t offer enough colour). They are all brilliant musicians in their own right but the sound was rather un-interesting and there wasn’t that buzz or connection which comes from a group playing together, rehearsing and performing intensively. It felt like more of an easy listening / jazz-singer pub gig than an honest, artistic endeavor with direction. Having said all this I really enjoyed her duo with Cara Luft and hearing their co-written song performed together; that had spark!

Finally at 4pm I got my first real buzz of the day watching The Chair, stomp music from Orkney, in MS1. What an atmosphere! A packed tent and with people pushing to get into the standing area to jump around to the highly energetic music. Eight brilliant musicians and extremely well rehearsed, displaying individual skill but as a band they played exceptionally well. They anticipated the vibe at Shrewsbury having played at the festival before and showed a real talent for handling the mixed crowd.

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I went for something quite different after exhausting all my stomping skills and decided to investigate the Peace Tent properly and take a little break from the music. The Peace Tent, which was new this year and set up to mark the centenary of WW1, the artistic focus being peace, was a lovely addition to the festival and was full up when I went to see the play My Dearest Girls – Helen’s Story based on wartime letters of Shropshire women. A captivating performance given by Francesca Millican-Slater, full of detail and nuance which held the audience’s attention and curiosity throughout. It was a well-crafted insight into the lives of some everyday folk.

After a lengthy and difficult decision, I chose Mexican Nachos for dinner (without extra jalapenos!) and tried some of the Twisted Spire ale before making my way over the increasingly muddy site to MS1 for an invigorating performance by Lau. There were queues of people snaking in and out of stalls waiting patiently to dive in and get a good seat for the exceptional three-piece progressive folk group. Fiddler, Aidan O’Rourke, winner of this year’s BBC2 Folk Award for Musician of the Year left me speechless – not only can he play fast (and I mean really fast!) but he also plays beautiful melodies with so much thought and feeling. Lau are groundbreaking, and with cutlery being pushed through a drum skin and being used for innovative new sounds, to say Martin Green, accordion player, is experimental would be an understatement. The trio has the same exciting approach as some musicians on the free improvisation scene whilst cherishing their roots in folk music. Their new-folk sound, which builds up to distorted, heady climaxes and drops to solitary fiddle tunes made for an electric performance.

Canada’s Madison Violet who played on MS2 gave an enjoyable and relaxed assortment of songs with beautiful vocal harmonies, nice arrangements and displayed great songwriting skills.

Headlining on Sunday was the one of the main figures who brought folk into the realm of popular music, Seth Lakeman! Again, playing to a packed MS1 with people crammed into the standing section, he gave a slick performance which meant, as always, it didn’t feel as intimate as something a little rougher around the edges but an extremely impressive set nonetheless and well thought out in terms of running order and transitions. Lisbee Stainton, a special guest in his band and backing vocalist, harmonium and banjo player was faultless in her musicianship and he was supported by a collection of brilliant musicians. I thought Seth’s effort to follow the theme of the Peace Tent and include songs about war was a nice touch. He was brought back on stage by standing ovation and even after he had played his encore he was met with more ‘Seth Seth Seth’ chanting!

Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2014 (7)

Monday

Despite the diabolical weather and miserable sky, the people at Shrewsbury Folk Festival persevered and didn’t let the rain dampen their spirits. Jim Moray was the first musician to perform in MS1 and he played a lovely tranquil set to a very full tent. He is a great songwriter and demonstrates a real talent for picking up on obscure historical instances and making them into songs; a creative, contemplative musician who gave a sound, and honest performance.

I must confess that I stayed in MS1 for most of Monday – Moulettes were a brilliant band and really livened up the crowd, taking them on imaginative adventures through the world of quantum physics and dark, dank caves (the latter of which was not too far removed from the damp, cold atmosphere of MS1). The female-fronted six-piece band was rather alternative with cello, bassoon and interesting vocal lines, erratic grooves and fantastical subject matter; a very enjoyable set and great to see the folk boundaries being pushed into a very different, creative realm.

Everything was running late in MS1 due to a late start but the turn around was pretty speedy so well done stage team for being so efficient! Swiftly following Moulettes was The Full English, BBC2 Folk Awards Best Album and Best Band of 2014 winners, a collection of independent folk artists who came together to participate in the English Folk Dance and Song Society project to highlight and digitally archive early 20th century folk collections and initiate the most complete searchable database of British folk songs, tunes, dances and customs in the world. The performance was fascinating, with short video clips of Cecil Sharp attempting to Morris Dance (who was considerably worse than Percy Grainger and the sisters Dolly and Shirley Collins), a wax cylinder recording of a song collected by Percy Grainger and a very honest, no-frills presentation both of some of Britain’s favourite, and some of her lesser well known folk tunes. These were all performed and arranged by a set of brilliant musicians: Seth Lakeman, Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron and Ben Nicholls and lead by Fay Hield.

The Headliners for Saturday and the band to round off a brilliant weekend were Bellowhead, a huge name on the folk scene and a rather more extravagant / rock star approach to the music than other groups that played at the festival. In my opinion it wasn’t the most gratifying aspect of the festival, despite enjoying the band’s earlier days, as I felt for the great collection of instruments (oboe, fiddles, sax, trumpet, melodeon, rhythm section to list just a few) on stage, there wasn’t anything particularly interesting or insightful taking place. The arrangements, although different because of the instrumentation, were not groundbreaking or remarkable. The asset that Bellowhead seem to have latched onto is the hype and wow factor. Just my opinion though and plenty of people were showing huge enthusiasm for the band.

Overall Shrewsbury Folk Festival was a great festival with lots going on and so much first class music! Very well-organised, generally speaking the sound was good, as were the facilities and the stewards were very friendly and professional. The festival atmosphere was down to earth, and definitely a gathering of ordinary folk listening to music, which directly relates to the masses.

Reviews + Photos: Heather Ryall