Photographs and Review by John Bentley

Summer is upon us and music festivals abound. These days there’s no shortage of such events to choose from and Shrewsbury Folk Festival is an excellent way to spend the Bank Holiday weekend.

1. Afro Celt Sound System

Festivals now cater for all styles and tastes in music and you don’t even have to travel far to find one. Personally I’m not a great festival goer, as I’m not keen on large crowds, communal loos and gigs by daylight –it seems to me that live music tends to be best served-up in a darkened environment with artificial lights.

However, Shrewsbury Folk Festival is a really friendly and laid-back affair, with something for everybody. It’s well organised, while not over-commercialised and controlled like some big festivals we won’t mention. I don’t want my water bottle confiscated by security men at the gates, thank you, and this certainly doesn’t happen at Shrewsbury. There’s a wide range of acts and plenty to do in between, including for kids. Oh, and the loos are great and there is a splendid range of beers on sale too!

2. Not Completely Blonde / musicians

Day 1 starts a bit grey and ends with a torrential downpour, but fortunately it doesn’t create a Glastonbury-style mudbath. A distinctive feature of the festival is the workshops for musicians and you find musos, young and old, playing along together around the site. Imagine a marquee full of folks jamming together in a relatively tuneful way on all manner of instruments from guitars to fiddles, assisted by occasional sips at pints of good ale, and that’s what you see. Outside the Main Stage three young women calling themselves Not Completely Blonde (one of them isn’t) are busking with great confidence and vocal prowess as the punters file in.

3. Nidi d'Arac

Early on the main stage tonight are Nidi D’Arac, a folk-rock band from southern Italy. They perform a really storming fiddle-driven set, a sort of Italian version of Levellers, but, as they sing in Italian, I’ve no idea what they were singing about. There’s some great playing from the band, including virtuoso bashing, by lead singer Alessandro Coppola, of a large tambourine instrument emanating from the Mediterranean area and known as a tamburello basco.

4. Nidi d'Arac

Steve Knightley, of folk band Show of Hands, performs a well-received solo set, finishing with his song ‘Country Life’, a pungent jibe at, among others, the agri-farming barons and complacent rich folk in the countryside. Then, to end the evening, we get a real adrenalin rush performance from Afro Celt Sound System. This band are true originals, successfully fusing a range of music, including Celtic folk, African rhythms, electro-dance, dub-reggae and all sorts. Not many bands feature instruments as diverse as Irish pipes, African Kora amd Indian Dhol drums. This is truly spectacular and well worth waiting for. A problem with festivals can be competing acts appearing on different stages at the same time. So unfortunately I don’t get to see The Nic Jones Trio. Jones was a rising star until he had a serious car crash returning from a gig. However, now he’s successfully back on the road, after a long break, with a band that includes his son on guitar.

5. Afro Celt Sound System

It’s Day 2 and the weather brightens up. On the outdoor Village Stage a range of ‘fringe’ acts perform in the sunshine. James Riley and his band do an arresting stripped-down version of traditional song ’Matty Groves’, known to most people in form of the classic rockier version by Fairport Convention. His audience has considerably grown the second time I see him performing on the stage. The intriguingly named Sambassadors of Groove are another outfit to hit this stage and their hypnotic percussive rhythms have the crowd dancing. There are plenty of opportunities at the festival for newcomers to gain an audience.

6. James Riley

There’s lots going on in the Dance Tent over the four days. However, it’s a bit a walk over there and I only manage to catch the very entertaining Buffalo Gals Stampede, from the USA. They perform old time American country music with fiddle and banjo, while two couples, dressed as if from the 1930s dustbowl, do Appalachian step dancing.

7. Buffalo Gals Stampede

I catch Nancy Kerr and James Fagen perform a well crafted duo set and, even better, later in the festival they team up with Richard and Jess Arrowsmith as Melrose Quartet. If you like classic traditional English folk music in the vein of The Watersons, as I do, the Quartet deliver a brilliant set, superbly performed, with wonderful harmony singing, as on ‘The Wanton Wife of Castlegate’. As they perform I am intrigued by two guys at the back of the marquee immersed in a game of cards while listening, and even instinctively clapping in the right places.

8. The Melrose Quartet

There are a lot of other great traditional acts to see, including Lori Watson and the Rule of Three, playing border music and offering to provide a translation to those not understanding the Scottish accent. Jez Lowe and Jinski provide good sets, with a regional focus on the North East.

9. Lori Watson & the Rule of Three

There are many talented young performers to be seen, including Luke Jackson, who sounds a little like Tim / Jeff Buckley, with a rich and sustained voice. We’re told he got on the bill as he sent Steve Knightley an impressive demo. Madeleine Vaughn, also very youthful, starts with an impressive acapella version of the lovely Irish folksong ‘She Moved Through The Fair’, and on other songs is supported by her dad on guitar.

10. Performers

As darkness draws in on Day 2, it’s a great time for the kids, as they parade with the illuminated lanterns they’ve made. There’s a theme of aliens landing, with a weird Jules Verne-ish illuminated space craft leading the parade. Meanwhile a balloon with a strange light-pod suspended is lit up in the night sky.

11. Shrewsbury Folk Festival & Alien Spacecraft

On the main stage early in the day is the respected American musician Tim O’Brien, providing a mesmerising musical blend of Irish, Scottish and American folk music.

12. Tim O'Brien

Martyn Joseph is very strong solo performer, who has played the festival before and, as expected, he delivers an emotional and crowd raising performance. Eddi Reader has enjoyed a long career, and was once a member of the very successful Fairground Attraction, which she refers to tonight as ‘Fatal Attraction’. On stage she comes over as a very strong woman and a bit of a character, proud of her deep Scottish roots. She can spin a yarn or two and she informs us that she has both a husband and an ex-husband in band, which must be interesting. On the musical side she has an amazing voice and a grasp of a wide range of styles.

13. Eddi Reader

The final highlight on the main stage tonight is The Oysterband, a rousing tradition folk-rocking outfit, who started off as a ceilidh band. So they know how to get the audience moving and are a good choice to end the evening. Lead singer John Jones is not a spring chicken, and he doesn’t attempt stage-diving, but nevertheless he climbs over the barrier and takes his microphone into the audience. The Oysterband have done Shrewsbury festival before and deliver a powerful set of songs that are not only good to dance to, but in many cases offer powerful social comments.

14. The Oysterband
15. Danny & Rosey, open-mike winners

Day 3, Sunday, is the sunniest (and probably busiest) day yet. I catch a celebratory performance by youthful open-mike winners Danny and Rosey. They are obviously pretty chuffed to win. You can see they have talent, with great harmonies and considerable instrumental prowess. The two friends who they beat for the title (“sorry” they say) join them at end, for an acapella.rendition of the song ‘Only Remembered’ from the film ‘War Horse’.

16. Bright Phoebus sings Tom Waits

On the Main Stage in the evening ‘Bright Phoebus Sings Tom Waits’ is an interesting, enjoyable and varied romp through the great man’s catalogue by a collection of festival artists. It demonstrates the quality of Waits’ songs.

17. Carolina Chocolate Drops

Day 3 Main Stage headliners are Carolina Chocolate Drops, making their only UK appearance this year – a coup for the festival. They play old time American fiddle and banjo music, dipping into the African-American musical heritage. The music is thoroughly researched and played with real passion. The scholarship is demonstrated when Rhiannon Giddens produces a nineteenth century fretless banjo for a song and it’s interesting to see how the modern instrument has developed from that. It literally is an all singing, all dancing show, with superb musicianship combined with showmanship, that has to be seen to be believed. Scholarly it may be, but it’s pretty dynamic stuff. Rhiannon does some impressive dancing to the banjo, while Dom Flemons swings the guitar around à la Pete Townsend, throws it in the air, catches it and doesn’t miss a note. Given their music’s black American roots, there’s a bit of weird humour when they refer to having seen bits of the 1960s non-PC ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’. They then go on to discuss, with some mirth, the cultural shock of seeing UK morris dancers with blacked-up faces. It appears the tradition probably came from the morrismen wanting to preserve their anonymity.

18. Mark Erelli and band (Zak on bass)

The final day is Bank Holiday Monday and by now, the sun is really shining, the heat is rising and the marquee flaps are open to let some air in. On the main stage Mark Erelli performs his set of contemporary American folk music. Helping out on bass he has Zak Hickman from UK bluegrass band Barnstar (who I unfortunately missed). Zak has a flamboyant moustache and bass-playing style and he turns up quite a bit in the festival, including in the following set…..

19. The Be Good Tanyas

Perhaps the act I most wanted to see at the festival was Canadian band The Be Good Tanyas, who play their own unique take on soft, laid-back alt-country. They seem a little nervous at first, but after a few songs, lead singer Frazey Ford suddenly realises they are going down a treat, smiles and opens up a dialogue with the audience. A measure of a good band is how well they can make cover songs ‘their own’. The BGTs score well here in my book as we get some excellent covers, including an exquisitely soft version of Neil Young’s ‘Birds’. There’s some lovely gentle guitar and banjo playing from Trish Klein, which has a real 1970s vibe. They come back for an encore and an audience member pleads “please play ‘Rain and Snow’”. Frazey says they can’t really remember how it goes, but they play it anyway, and it sounds pretty good. For the gig they feature none other than our roaming celebrity bass player Zak, as their own bassman has apparently missed the flight to the UK. However, to some amusement, their own bass player arrives just in time for the encore, and Zak hands over the instrument with a grin. Divine stuff!

20. The Be Good Tanyas

Capercaillie provide a stomping penultimate set of Celtic folk-rock, in a similar vein to The Oysterband on Day 1. Eddi Reader makes a guest appearance with them for a duet on Robert Burns’ ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, a song reprised from Eddi’s own set.

21. Capercaillie

This year the four-day event ends in a novel way with an appearance by The Patrons of the festival, Steve Knightley and John Jones (of The Oysterband), along with guest musicians. They play an emotional set, with a mixture of songs, including their own compositions, traditional material and even a Bruce Springsteen number (‘My Hometown’, I think).

22. John Jones & Steve Knightley - The Patrons

And then it’s all over for another year. Another successful festival, attracting around 7,000 people. The festival has certainly grown in status and size over the years and goes from strength to strength. Finally, my apologies to those acts I haven’t mentioned, but you can’t see everything at a festival.

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