Maverick Festival 2018 Preview

Maverick 2018 Logo

The Maverick Festival launch event in London always feels like the start of summer festival season! Every March, the festival organisers present some great live acts, who this time included previous Maverick artists Don Gallardo (see below) and ‘The Living Bluesman’ Tom Attah (see last pic), to press and industry and you get to catch up with what everyone is up to over the summer months. Having said that, it’s hard to imagine summer ever coming back with the weather we have had here in the UK in the past few weeks. But I trust once June and July roll around, we’ll be in the mood for cocktails and ice cream again and some great live Americana from the UK, the USA and further afield.

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This year’s line-up is as tempting as ever. In just one weekend you can listen to lots of quality Americana, folk and country artists you already love and find some new favourites you had maybe never heard of before. I was really happy to hear to that the following singers and bands are all joining the line-up this year: Jonathan Byrd (US), Lachlan Bryan and The Wilds (OZ), who I somehow managed to miss last time, Anna Tivel & Jeffrey Martin (US), Southern Avenue (US), Bonnie Bishop (US) as well as awesome UK live bands like Danny And the Champions of the World, The Mountain Firework Company and The Vagaband.

There will also be a special feature with music from Hawaii, which I’m already super excited about, including the Hawaiian singer and dancer Kehau Kahananui. Other highlights include Nashville cult favorites The Cordovas, native Tennessean pianist and  songwriter Hans Chew and Arkansas-based Dylan Earl.

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The Maverick programmers always manage to book artists that had been on my list for quite a while and find Americana jems that I was glad I discovered at the festival. This year is no exception. I’m already looking forward to getting a chance to listen to The Local Honeys (US), Bonnie Bishop (US), The Most Ugly Child (UK), Imogen Clark (OZ), Arkansas Dave (US), and many more live at the farm this summer.

I’ve been to the festival quite a few times now and it’s been one of the most relaxed and  enjoyable outdoor events on my summer calendar ever since. Read my previous reviews and my top 10 reasons to attend to get an idea what the atmosphere is like. You can buy day tickets or stay for the whole weekend, which I recommend, of course, as it’s just a lovely place to hang out for a weekend.

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If camping is not your thing, you can book a nearby B&B, the closest train station is Woodbridge and Easton Farm Park is not too far from the sea and nestled in beautiful rural Suffolk countryside. On top of all that, it attracts a super friendly crowd, dogs are allowed at the festival site and there is some yummy food and drink on offer (think Suffolk cider and local ales), so you definitely won’t go hungry or thirsty.

Make sure you keep an eye on the Maverick Festival website for the full line-up so far and for any additional acts, which are likely going to be announced in the coming months.

Disclaimer: All photography in this blog post was provided by Sophie Boleyn Photography.

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Sense of Place: Aye Write Festival Glasgow 2018

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When I left Glasgow in January after another excellent Celtic Connections Festival (see previous blog post) I was looking for a reason to return sometime soon. Luckily, Aye Write, which I’d had my eye on for quite a while, was taking place from 15-25 March 2018, so it was the perfect excuse to hop on a train back to Scotland.

I only had a couple of days to get a taste of the festival, but it was well worth it. All events I attended were fantastic with intriguing guests and cheerful, helpful staff and volunteers at every venue. Glasgow is one of the friendliest cities in the UK, so you’ll have a great time no matter whether you’re travelling on your own or with friends. Plus, all the city centre festival venues are walking distance from each other and you can do some sightseeing before or after the events.

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The first session I attended was in the Strathclyde Suite of the Royal Concert Hall. It was a celebration of Orain Ileach: Gaelic Songs of Islay, a brand new collection of songs from the Scottish island. The large room had more of a conference venue feel to it, but as soon as the two choirs, including the Glasgow Islay Gaelic Choir, and various solo singers got up on stage, it was almost like being back at Celtic Connections. Speakers included Ishbel MacTaggart from Islay, Kenneth Thomson, the conductor of Scotland’s oldest Gaelic choir, Ceòlraidh Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu, and Lynn McDonald, the editor of the book. I absolutely loved learning more about how musical traditions are actively being kept alive on the Scottish islands and are actually thriving through community efforts and engaging the younger generations as well.

The event which followed was completely different, but equally intriguing. Sarah Winman, author of Tin Man, who I’d last seen at a reading in Vancouver several yeas ago when she was promoting her bestselling first novel, When God Was A Rabbit, and Gail Honeyman, who lives in Glasgow and whose first novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was an instant success. The two novelists were interviewed by another author, Zoe Venditozzi, and the hour allotted for their conversation just flew by. I was particularly intrigued by Gail mentioning that she wanted her novel to be set in Glasgow as she felt it is an immensely kind city, but often isn’t portrayed that way, which really struck a chord with me as I’ve also come to love Glasgow for that very reason.

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On Tuesday night I headed down to the Glasgow Film Theatre, a beautiful historic cinema in the heart of the city for a talk by Nick Triplow, author of Getting Carter, followed by a screening of the classic 1971 British crime movie. While the film had been a cult classic since the 1970s, the author of the book it was based on (Jack’s Return Home), Ted Lewis, remained an elusive character with a mostly troubled and tragically short life. I was in the minority of people on the night who had not seen the film before and must admit, it will not become one of my all time favourites. I can see its appeal to others, however, and very much enjoyed the interview with Nick Triplow, who had to overcome various obstacles in order to get this fascinating life story researched and published.

My last day at the festival also included lots of crime writing. I was at the Mitchell Library for two sessions, which each featured three crime writers, all new to me, and, as it turned out, all with very different writing styles and subject matters. I’m not a reader of crime novels ( just yet), but have been a big fan of crime drama since someone recommended ‘Shetland’ to me a few years ago, so was looking forward to getting an overview of the latest publications.

Both talks on the night included short readings from all authors, which gave us a real flavour of their style, subject matter and sense of humour. The main thing all of them had in common was how much real life influenced a lot of their writing. Either things that had happened to them personally or to people close to them or issues they deeply cared about. Ex-police woman Clare Mackintosh writes about ordinary people who deal with extraordinary circumstances in their lives, for instance an apparent suicide of both parents of the main character in her latest book Let Me Lie. Former news reporter and political correspondent Sarah Vaughan wrote Anatomy of a Scandal centering around a husband being accused of a terrible crime while serial killers and obsessive personalities are the topics ex-journalist Fiona Cummins successfully focuses on.

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The last session with Claire MacLeary, whose two female detectives ‘of a certain age’ are definitely some of the most quirky characters you will come across in the world of crime fiction, as well as Owen Mullen and academic and former solicitor Angus MacAllister centered around a sense of place and a connection to Glasgow. All three authors are either from the Scottish city or have lived there at some point and wrote books set there and had lots of fascinating anecdotes on their research and writing process for their novels.

During my whole time at the festival I tried to avoid sneaking a look at the pages in the programme with all the many tempting sounding events I was inevitably missing and everyone I met seemed to have a great time at the readings they attended. Apart from the main programme, Aye Write also includes a children’s festival, Wee Write, with lots of exciting events for all ages, as well as a number of complementary sessions, such as creative writing classes. It’s a book festival which reflects the city it takes place in: it’s down to earth and warm-hearted with a great sense of humour!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with review tickets for select events. Opinions expressed are those of the author. Photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival with the exception of the Orain Ileach book cover photo. 

25 Years of Celtic Connections – The Anniversary Festival 2018

This year was the 25th anniversary of Celtic Connections in Glasgow (18 January – 4 February 2018) and the festival has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Year after year it attracts a huge number of visitors not just from Scotland and the UK, but also from other parts of Europe and further afield. As most of the concerts happen in the evenings, lots of visitors use the festival as an excuse to explore other parts of Scotland on day trips, which are easily accessible by train or bus from the city. Celtic Connections also always manages to get a lot of fantastic musicians together on stage for special collaborations, e.g. various tribute nights (Tom Petty, Songs of the Gael, Scotland Sings Canada), usually with an impressive all star line-up.

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This year I’d also decided to make it a proper holiday and stayed eight nights in total. I was a volunteer artist liaison for three concerts on three consecutive days right after I arrived, which kept me busy pretty much 24/7. My first concert was a night of outstanding traditional music with The Fretless (pic below), a Juno award-winning quartet from Canada with support from Scottish musician Ewan Robertson and friends at St. Andrews in the Square church. Glasgow has quite a few churches turned music venues and this one is one of the nicest. The next day I looked after Corb Lund from Canada and Hayes Carll from Texas, both country music artists. They shared the stage for their performance in another beautiful former church, St. Luke’s near the Drygate Brewery, north east of the city centre and it was a great night of Americana intersected with brilliantly funny banter.

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Most people don’t realise when they are attending shows as an audience member just how much work goes into putting on live music events. From pre-planning it months in advance, sorting out accommodation, transport and food to dealing with tech issues, merch logistics and all sorts of other bigger and smaller last-minute requests, like unexpected schedule changes (e.g. additional performances at the festival club on the night of the concert), lots of things can happen, which might require a change of plan.

The artists themselves might have just flown in from another continent, jet lagged and maybe missing parts of their equipment, having to do interviews with various radio stations and journalists on the go. So we’re always trying to give them the best experience and make things as easy for them as possible. If all goes smoothly, the artists will step on stage with a smile on their face, a perfectly tuned instrument in their hands and everyone will have an enjoyable night. And as a volunteer, you breathe a big fat sigh of relief that all your efforts and those of the festival staff have been worthwile!

My third concert as an artist liaison was Cara Dillon with support by The Fretless, in the New Auditorium right in the Royal Concert Hall. I had only seen Cara at Cambridge Folk Festival once before and it was fantastic to experience her beautiful, moving songs in a hall with great acoustics for a change. Her excellent band on the night included Sam Lakeman, John Smith and, for a few songs, The Fretless as well.

The RCH is a huge multi-space venue in the centre of Glasgow with a large, confusing web of hallways and backstage areas connecting the different performance spaces behind the scenes. From preparing dressing rooms, sorting out riders (carrying food, drink and ice buckets around), liaising between bands who are sharing a stage, organising access keycards, sharpies and blue tack to getting set lists printed, there is always a long list of to do items to tackle on the day of a gig. But it’s also really fun to work together on something exciting and then sitting back and seeing it unfold in front of you once all the work is done. Plus you get to hear the sound checks and get a much more in-depth experience of an event.

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On my days off I finally made it to the medieval Glasgow Cathedral from 1136, which is a beautiful space, and to the multi-faith Victorian Necropolis on the hill beside it. The winter light was amazing that day and once you climb to the top, it has some fantastic views across the city. So does The Lighthouse museum and art centre near the Central Station, take the lift to the 6th floor viewing platform and enjoy (see first pic in the post). I also took lots and lots of pictures of Glasgow’s many stunning murals, my favourite being the Modern Day St. Mungo by Smug (see pic above) on High Street, but they are all over town and there is a proper Mural Trail to follow, if you fancy it.

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Another day I visited the small, but very informative Glasgow Police Museum staffed by friendly retired police officers. Glasgow had the first police force in Britain and as it’s a small two-room museum, you can easily add it to your schedule and learn some interesting facts about the city and its inhabitants past and present plus see a well-curated collection of uniforms through the ages and from quite a number of other countries, too.

I also attended more concerts. Dougie MacLean  (pic below) had a headline show (with support by Yvonne Lyon) in the Main auditorium of the Royal Concert Hall and I had made sure I had a first row seat for it. On Sunday night, I returned to St. Lukes to see The Barr Brothers from Montreal. They’ve had quite a few changes in their band line-up since I’ve last seen them and I’d also not heard their new songs live. But the beautiful church venue was the perfect backdrop and I especially enjoyed hearing favourites like Half Crazy and How The Heroine Dies. Andrew remarked how much they appreciated the quiet, respectful atmosphere, it was just a lovely night.

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Hazy Recollections at the O2 ABC is an afternoon show curated by Findlay Napier and there are always some interesting artists to discover, this time including James Edwyn & The Borrowed Band from Glasgow. Having been to it three years in a row now in this venue, I still enjoy finding new artists, I just really think it deserves to be moved to a more atmospheric place, such as one of the church venues, rather than a nightclub during daytime.

I also had a lot of fun at the BBC Alba ‘SEIRM’ recordings I attended and managed to make it to all three this year. What’s so nice about it is that the Hillhead Bookclub in Glasgow’s West End is such a cosy venue and once you have a table you can enjoy the show without having to worry about people chatting in the background as it’s being recorded for TV and everyone has to be quiet (!) during the performances – perfect!

There are usually around four or five artists on between 6pm and 11pm and every single one this year was pretty amazing. They included US mandolinist and bluegrass singer Sierra Hull, I’m With Her (Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins & Aoife O’Donovan), with wonderful harmonies on the first night and Lau (just as a trio, see pic below) on the second night. The third night was probably my favourite with Irish singer Declan O’Rourke & band, Scottish-English musicians Ross Couper & Tom Oakes, Senegalese-Lithuanian duo Solo & Indre (such a beautiful sound) as well as The Secret Sisters from Alabama. All three sessions will be on BBC Alba sometime this spring.

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On top of all this, I did extremely well this year catching four nights of the festival club at the Arts School. It’s a great way to wind down or (get dancing) with a pint after one of the official gigs and the line-up generally consists of a selection of that night’s festival artists, which was great as there is so much on every night, it gives you a chance to see artists you missed, such as the excellent Nashville-based Molly Tuttle & band.

Of course, the deepest winter is not the greatest time to visit Glasgow in terms of weather, but that is also your best excuse to while away many hours in great company listening to the crème de la crème of folk, Americana and other genres in some stunning venues. So put January 2019 in your calendar now for the 26th edition of Celtic Connections and you’ll practically be guaranteed the perfect antidote to post-Christmas blues!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with review tickets for some events. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Discover Glasgow During Celtic Connections Festival

I first visited Glasgow in 2016 as I had heard so many good things about Celtic Connections, a huge nearly three-week long midwinter multi-genre music festival, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Despite the admittedly terrible January weather, I fell in love with both the city and its people (their slogan ‘People Make Glasgow’ couldn’t be any more accurate) and have been excited about returning there ever since. This year it runs from 18 January until 4 February 2018.

Here is a wee guide for those of you who haven’t been to Glasgow or the festival before in order for you get the best out of this fabulous event and discover one of my favourite cities in the UK.logo 25th anniversary.jpgWhy visit during Celtic Connections?

Having travelled to festivals on various continents before, one thing a lot of cities have in common is that during festival time they are at their absolute best. There is usually a lively, buzzing atmosphere, lots of side events (sometimes even free of charge) and while heading out to see your favourite artists, you also get a great overview of all the best venues in the place you’re visiting. Don’t forget to get talking to other visitors and local festival goers and exchange recommendations, it’s a friendly city with many helpful locals.

What kind of music can I expect?

Celtic Connections is a fairly eclectic festival and has always been open to showcasing not just Folk and Americana (including some very big names on the scene as well as the most talented newcomers from the British Isles and overseas), but also world music, some jazz and quite a few indie bands. The 2018 artists include Frank Turner, Cara Dillon (pic below), The Lone BellowDougie Maclean, Oumou Sangare and some very exciting special collaborations, for instance a tribute concert to Tom Petty. You can take your pick from major historic and modern venues, such as the Royal Concert Hall, the Old Fruitmarket (see last picture) or the O2 ABC or attend a concert at a medium-sized or smaller venue, such as Oran Mor in the West End, the Tron Theatre, St. Andrews or Saint Luke’s a bit further east or The Glad Cafe on the Southside. They each have a unique atmosphere and some are seated, standing or both.

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Where should I stay and for how long?

I stayed in different places every year so far, hotels as well as B&Bs, and there are many budget-friendly options. The West End is a lovely area for eating out or staying in, just west of the city centre, but most gigs are taking place in more central venues. You can easily discover the best of Glasgow in a long weekend, but if you can manage to add a day or two, it will be even more relaxing and you can spend your days sightseeing, taking walks around different neighbourhoods, exploring the many excellent museums or whiling away a few hours in a cosy café (see the bottom of the post for foodie tips) until it’s time for the evening concerts.

Are there any additional events apart from the main concerts?

There are a number of lively evening ceilidhs and some family-friendly daytime ones, too. Plus, the very popular festival club nights at the Art School (right in city centre near the CCA) will again be taking place Thursdays through Sundays from 10.30pm til late and the secret line up of festival artists is always worth checking out. If you prefer a seated venue for your after-hour celebrations with old and new festival pals, then the late night sessions at the Drygate Brewery (east of the city centre near Glasgow Cathedral, from 11pm on the same nights) are ideal for you. You can also try your hand at playing music yourself at the many workshops for kids and adults throughout the festival.

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What kind of ticket options do I have?

Celtic Connections does not offer festival passes, so you do need to book each gig individually through their official website or hope for last minute tickets at the door (would not recommend this unless you’re fairly flexible). If you’re planning on attending quite a few concerts, you can join the Celtic Rover Scheme (currently from £20), which gives you a 15% discount per concert.

Apart from all the above, there are also stalls to buy instruments inside the RCH and lots of other festival happenings around the city during the duration of the event, all detailed online and in the free programmes available in all the venues. So don’t miss out and join me and over 100,000 friendly other punters at some of the 300 events across 26 stages for Celtic Connections 2018!

For Glasgow sightseeing and foodie tips see my previous festival reviews for Celtic Connections 2016 and Celtic Connections 2017. I will be live tweeting and instagramming during some of the festival, so keep an eye on @lifeisafestival (Twitter) and @lifeisafestivalblog (Instagram) for updates, pictures and videos. Glasgow’s official tourism website is at peoplemakeglasgow.com.

Disclaimer: All pictures in this post were provided by Celtic Connections (Old Fruitmarket picture credit: Louis DeCarlo). Opinions expressed are those of the author. 

Getting into the Festive Spirit with the Hyper Japan Winter Festival 2017

I attended Hyper Japan for the first time in July this year (review here) and loved everything about it, so I was keen to see what the Christmas edition would have in store. The Japan-themed event was again taking place at Tobacco Dock in London (24-26 November 2017) and was brimming with craft stalls, a Japanese food court, and lots of traditional Japanese products, such as handmade pottery, colourful chopsticks, speciality tea, sweets and clothes, including lots of cosplay outfits.

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Japan is a fascinating place to visit and after two visits I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to see. It was great that there were a lot of lesser known travel destinations represented at Hyper Japan and I enjoyed learning about them from their enthusiastic local representatives. The guys in the picture below, for instance, are from Susaki City on Shikoku Island and had mini versions of their mascot ‘Kochi’ with them plus the human-sized version appeared on the Hyper Live stage.

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Probably my favourite part of the winter edition of the festival was a fantastic Illuminight exhibition, a display of traditional and modern illuminated objects, which ranged from a room filled with giant paper fish (made by local residents and first displayed at the Yanai Goldfish Lantern Festival in Yanai in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Honshu Island) to tiny, fragile ‘akari’ (light) pieces made from real autumn leaves. It was just beautiful!

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I also loved the ‘geta’ (sandals) and other intricate ornaments made from glass.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be a Japanese event without lots of pastel-coloured ‘kawai’ (cute) items and it was great to see that even the staff working at the event – like these two Japan fans from Tofu Cute – were having a lot of fun.

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The food court was back, too, and fans of Japanese food were again spoilt for choice with numerous both savoury and sweet options available, from steaming bowls of ramen to ‘Takoyaki’ (ball-shaped snacks filled e.g. with squid) and even mulled sake as a winter warmer. There was also a chance to sample some sake concoctions created by professional mixologists as part of the Sake Cocktail Awards.

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Those who had a bit of time on their hands and who felt like creating some original Christmas presents for their loved ones, were able to join various paper craft and felting workshops with expert teachers. But don’t be fooled, it is a lot harder than it looks and takes a lot of patience and precision. The results look impressive though, like the framed artworks in this picture.

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When I visited on Friday, the opening day, the Hyper Live stage again hosted a variety of Japanese acts, from the very modern, Dream Stage Idol Competition Runner Up Aimi Ikenaga (if you’ve never heard of ‘Idols’ before, BBC Storyville recently did an interesting documentary called ‘Tokyo Girls’ on it), to the more traditional, but with a modern twist, e.g. a live performance by calligraphy artist Taro Fukushika.

If you missed Hyper Japan this time around, don’t worry, it will be back from 13-15 July 2018 and visits to the Japan Centre and various London-based Japanese restaurants and pop-ups should tide you over until then.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press pass for Hyper Japan. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

This Way Up! Kendal Mountain Festival 2017

As far as I’m concerned, the best excuse to visit any place for the first time is attending a great festival. So I hopped on the train to Kendal – the gateway to the Lake District – for a weekend of mountain films and culture, readings by nature writers and a visit to the famous Lakes, of course.

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Kendal Mountain Festival (16-19 November 2017) is the largest festival of its kind in the world and brings together enthusiasts from various mountain sports, such as climbing, trail running, caving, snow sports and other outdoor pursuits. This year, they also had a literature festival, which was a welcome addition.

I arrived on Thursday afternoon in time for the opening ceremony, a procession in the dark from a little park outside a pub in Kendal to the Brewery Arts Centre led by a local traditional band. Once we got there, there was an introduction by the festival organisers and we got to see a few of the shorter festival entries and the pretty awesome festival trailer ‘A Spark in the Dark’ with a poem written by festival artistic director Claire Carter.

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The next day I explored the festival and the town properly. With Kendal being not such a big place, it was easy to walk between various festival venues, a church, the Town Hall, a film truck (very warm and cosy), community centres and a number of screens right at the Brewery. There were also sessions for local schools, ‘secret sessions’ (which were alas sold out by the time I figured out they existed) as well as baby and dementia friendly shows. Most films were packaged up into two-hour long sessions, so you picked a collection of films (called ‘Strive’, ‘Reach’, ‘Seek’ etc.) and each of them had a variety of shorter and longer material. I liked pretty much everything I saw.

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There was also a basecamp in the courtyard of the Brewery Arts Centre, where all the sponsors, such as Columbia and Mammut, as well as some outdoor charities, had stalls to explore. Inside the tent, which was decorated with colourful prayer flags, were also two bars, and the Marmot Café with lots of seats for people to hang out, have their lunch and listen to inspiring speakers, such as Chris Bonnington, Gemmita Samarra, Dan Milner and Steve McClure. The tiny Shackleton Tent, i.e. yurt, just outside offered free films and talks all day. Four-legged festival goers were not allowed inside the tents, but there were lots of dog-friendly cafes and pubs around town and in many other places in the Lake District.

In addition, there was a half-day film summit in the Town Hall for industry professionals with inspiring presentations by filmmakers and producers and a 10K trail run for those actually wanting to go out there and get some exercise done.

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While outdoor sports tend to be dominated by men, as most other types of sport, too, it was the female adventurers that I enjoyed listening to most. My favourite event all weekend was probably the Findra Women in Adventure session on Saturday morning. Four exceptional young women, Jenny Tough (e.g. ran solo across Kyrgyzstan and the Atlas Mountains), Emily Chapell (e.g. cycled alone through Iceland in winter), Megan Hine (TV scout for adventure shows and leads private expeditions) and Rickie Cott (who with Lee Craigie cycled from Canada to Mexico by bike). Each of them had amazing stories to tell of how they overcame obstacles, including people doubting their abilities, and how they pulled through by believing in themselves and becoming more and more resilient with every trip. Way to go!

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I also made it to a couple of author events. One was with Karen Lloyd talking about her book ‘The Blackbird Diaries’ charting encounters with birds and wildlife over a calendar year. The other was with Scottish nature writer Jim Crumley on his latest book ‘The Nature of Winter’. Both told of unforgettable wildlife experiences and discussed the future of national parks, the reintroduction of predatory species to UK forests, the impact of climate change, among some of them.

There were so many great films last weekend, here are a few I especially enjoyed:

My Irnik (family life in the Canadian Arctic), Weightless (fab humorous short paragliding film, won best adventure sport film), The Last Honey Hunter (following Nepali honey harvesters on their dangerous job, won best visual), My Big White Thighs and Me (moving film about womanhood and braving the elements), Skye’s the Limit (a woman circumnagivates the Isle of Skye on a paddle board), Stumped (brilliantly funny climbing film, won best climbing film), Ditch the Van (musician ditches the tour bus and bikes from gig to gig) and Becoming Who I Was (simply stunningly filmed and very moving story of a Tibetan boy searching for his destiny, won best culture).

These are the official winners of altogether 12 categories at this year’s festival.

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As it looked like it was going to be a beautiful, if crisp, day on Sunday, I decided to escape for a day trip around the Lake District. I went on a mini bus tour with Mountain Goat, which was absolutely brilliant. In around 7 hours we got taken to 10 lakes in the area, a slate mine, a viewing point high above one of the lakes, the Castleriggs stone circle, a waterfall (reminded me so much of my recent Iceland trip), stopped in the lively town of Keswick (which has an intriguing pencil museum, as it is the place where pencils were first invented, apparently) and also in Grasmere (where the grave of William Wordsworth can be visited for those with a literary interest and the special Grasmere gingerbread, only made in this village, can be purchased for those with a sweet tooth). Along the way we saw lots and lots of Herdwick sheep, a beautiful local breed, and passed through many lovely villages. While we did run into a bit of traffic towards the end of our tour, the quieter winter months are a great time to explore this beautiful part of the UK, the landscapes were impressive and we had them almost to ourselves.

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Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with tickets to select festival events by Kendal Mountain Festival. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Essential Tips For Making the Best of the Iceland Airwaves Off-Venue Gigs

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the past two decades, you’ve probably heard or read some rave reviews about Reykjavik’s Iceland Airwaves Festival, which took place from 1-5 November 2017. It’s a music lover’s indoor festival dream come true plus it takes place in one of Europe’s tourism hotspots (literally, given all the geothermal activity there!), so it’s the perfect combo for travellers with a love for live music. What you might not have heard of is that the festival has a large number of fringe events, half hour sessions taking place in venues around town, which don’t require a festival pass and are completely free. Amazing, right? In order to make the best of them though, you need to come prepared. I’ve done all the legwork for you this year and compiled this list of tips for getting the best out of the Airwaves off-venue gigs. Here we go:

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Pick a Strategic Place to Stay

As most of the off-venues are right in Reykjavik city centre, it makes a lot of sense for your temporary digs to be as central as possible, so you can get everywhere on foot, especially if the weather is terrible (I had four rainy days out of six with one proper storm). There are no options like Uber and taxis are dear, unless you can share with friends. After speaking to a couple of long-time festival goers, I opted for KEX Hostel, which is also one of the off-venues (see pic below, Högni) and has a self-catering kitchen. I had been a bit worried it would be more of a party hostel, but a lot of other folks where there for the festival, too, so everyone was friendly and laid-back plus the dorms had good heating and comfy beds. Loft Hostel (even more central) and Oddsson Hostel are other good alternatives and also off-venues. There are also plenty of airbnbs, hotels and apartments you can rent, but they get booked up really fast during this time and most of them are not exactly very budget-friendly.

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Come Prepared – Apps, Deals & Special Events

Download the excellent festival app, which lets you sort the schedule by all events or off-venues only, has maps and notifications for special deals and venue changes. The second app you need is Appy Hour, alerting you about the cheapest drink (and some food) deals around town as a pint is normally around 7-9 pounds and simple meals start at around 15 pounds. The Reykjavik Grapevine (English-speaking news about the city) also publish a great festival special, a free magazine, which you can pick up at venues around town with schedules and additional offers. This is also how I found out about a special venue on Laugavegur street run by Reykjavik Grapevine (keep an eye on the #GrapeWaves hashtag), which was like a pop-up art gallery, where they displayed festival magazine covers and organised special performances by cool musicians like Soley (pic below) plus a fridge with free beer (while stocks lasted) and goodie bag giveaways. Again, make sure you get there before it opens, which on the day I went was 5pm.

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Get recommendations From Those in the Know

As I knew zero of the off-venue bands, my strategy was to discover as many different venues as I could fit in and hopefully find some great bands along the way. I started (very conveniently!) by walking down the stairs to the KEX hostel bar where the fab Seattle radio station KEXP was live streaming gigs every day. All their sessions were excellent and I was glad I’d made the place my base. In between the half-hour shows, it was easy to get talking to music fans from around the world and asking them to help you figure out which bands to see next. So much fun!

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Awesome Music from All Sorts of Genres

In no particular order, these are some of the bands I discovered at Airwaves and really enjoyed listening to this year. Quite a few of the bands sang (at least some songs) in Icelandic, which sounded beautiful and I was also pleased to see that there were lots of great up-and-coming female musicians in the off-venue line-up.

Between Mountains (young female Icelandic duo, beautiful harmonies), Groa (three female Icelandic musicians rocking out),  Emiliana Torrini & The Colorist Orchestra (probably my fav performance all week, beautiful sound), HAM (if you’re a metal fan, one of the singers moonlights as Iceland’s health minister), Bangoura Band (world music, the first gig I caught, groovy and fun), Fox Train Safari (Icelandic Soul Music, so great), Hatari (crazy show, worth it just for that), I Am Soyuz (Swedish singer-songwriter), JFDR (experimental Icelandic pop), Myrra Ros (Icelandic singer-songwriter), Kiasmos (Icelandic electronic group), Mammut (great live show), Snorri Helgason (very humorous songwriter and storyteller), Soley (beautiful Icelandic alt-pop), Graveyard Club (American melodic synth-pop band), Högni (Icelandic singer-songwriter, also in electronic group GusGus).

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Great Quirky Venues from Book Shops to Cinemas

These are some of my favourite off-venues around Reykjavik:

KEX Hostel – beautiful bar setting and great sound
12 Tonar – tiny but great record shop (see pic above)
Boat Andrea – on an actual whalewatching boat in the harbour, seating and good sound, one of my fave venues, see pic below, stunning, right?
Solon Bar – stylish bar on first floor (restaurant downstairs)
Kaffibarinn – quite small bar, so arrive early
IDA Zimsen Bookshop Café – cosy bookshop café with seating
Aurora Reykjavik – by the harbour, gigs in room with Northern Lights video on giant screen behind musicians, quite magical, quieter music
Bruggjan Brugghus  – this place is quite big (by the harbour) and it was packed when I got there for a pretty popular band, a good place to have food while seeing a gig if you can grab a table early in the day
Loft Hostel – take the lift to the 4th floor and enjoy music and a nice Swiss mokka in one of the cosiest places in town (spent half a day there when the storm was raging outside)
Kaffi Vinyl – great vegan food, records and nice seating, arrive early
Bio Paradis – the lobby of a local cinema, always space to join for a gig a bit later, some seating, coffee/bar
Dillon – great attic space in a whiskey bar
Reykjavik City Library – I love libraries, so I made an effort to make it to this one, music on downstairs, some seating

The off-venue gigs usually ran from around lunchtime each day until about 8pm and most of the spaces had free wifi, hurrah. There are lots of additional venues I didn’t have time for, which even included kindergartens, fashion stores, gyms, barber shops, museums, churches, hotels etc., so it’s great fun to do a venue crawl!

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Hunt for Cool Souvenirs

In most countries, you can pick up a handful of small souvenirs for family and friends pretty cheaply. Not so in Iceland. While on Reykjavik’s high street Laugavegur every second shop seems to be selling overpriced puffin stuffed toys, magnets and Icelandic scarves, you’re much better off bringing home CDs or vinyl by a brilliant Icelandic band you just discovered, a 12 Tonar tote bag or some official Airwaves merch. That way you’re supporting independent musicians and help keeping the lively Icelandic music scene alive, which in turn helps them putting on great events like the one you’re attending. Win, win!

Extra Tips

If you want to see some of the official bands playing at an off-venue, get there super early! Seriously, most of the off-venues are tiny bars or cafes and they fill up extremely quickly. You don’t actually have to consume any drinks or food in the venues, but of course it makes sense to buy something here and there to support them. This year the festival also included two days in Aykureri, which is a nice excuse to explore the North of Iceland, too (about an hour’s flight away).

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What is the Festival Like for Solo Travellers?

My Airwaves visit was one of the easiest trips for getting to know other travellers. Everyone is a music lover and it’s like the United Nations, I met lots of people from the UK, the US and Canada (some very cheap stopover flights from there) but also festival goers from as far as Jordan, Ukraine and Israel. All the people I met were happy to share festival tips and pass on music recommendations and I kept messaging with people I’d met at shows or at the hostel about what bands to catch next.

Was it worth it and would I do it again?

Absolutely! Apart from finding lots of awesome new music, it was also a revelation for me to get exposed to live bands from genres I normally never listen to. It did feel a bit strange being at a festival and not actually attending any official gigs. Having said that, buying a full festival pass would have not been worth it this time around as I did sightseeing tours (Golden Circle, South Coast, Northern Lights) on all the good weather days. So you can have a great time at the official festival, just the off-venues or both. I’m definitely considering getting a full pass next time around, as they also had a conference with films, discussions on the Icelandic music industry and networking events.

Don’t forget to check out my other Iceland post for additional tips on outdoor activities, cold weather clothing, walking tours, eating out and how to save money during your first trip to Iceland.

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