Category Archives: Music Festival Reviews

Americana Anniversary: Maverick Festival 2017

Maverick Festival, which took place from 30 June until 2 July 2017, at Easton Farm Park in beautiful Suffolk, East Anglia, was celebrating its tenth anniversary this summer and I’ve been lucky to have been to four of those in 2013, 2014, 2015 as well as this latest edition. It’s quite a special little festival and here are my top 10 reasons why I’m always enjoying it so much:

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1. Quality Line-Up: Most people who come to Maverick book their tickets without even knowing who’s on the line-up for that particular year, they just expect quality music, and the festival rarely disappoints. Paul Spencer and his team know the Americana scene well and always book a great variety of reliably excellent acts from the USA, Canada, and even as far afield as Australia as well as the best of what the ever-growing Americana scene in this country has to offer. It was great to see Police Dog Hogan, Case Hardin, Don Gallardo (see pic below), Erin Rae, Dean Owens, Hannah Rose Platt, Hannah Aldridge and Annie Keating again, make sure you give them a listen.

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2. New Discoveries: I love when I turn up at a stage not having heard of a particular musician before and then being blown away by their music and enthusiasm for their craft. This year’s favourite new finds included The Roamin Jasmine (New Orleans), Royal Jelly Jive (San Francisco), The Danberrys (Nashville) and Amy McCarley (Alabama). Two others who I regretted to have missed, but got thumbs up from various other attendees, were Tom Attah (UK) and Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes (Australia). Virtuoso US mandolin player Sierra Hull (see pic below) was also excellent, as were US duo American Young.

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3. Friendly Vibe & Hanging Out With Musicians: While headliners like two-time Grammy winning guitarist Albert Lee (great set with BJ Cole on pedal steel!) and Steve Earle’s son Justin Townes Earle were no doubt a particular attraction to some festival goers, another reason why I love this event is how relaxed and friendly the atmosphere is. It’s one of those festivals where you can just wander between the different stages and food stalls all day, sit under a tree and read a book, share a table with other music lovers or have a chat at the merch area with one of the bands playing. Despite the unrushed pace, it never gets boring because there is great music playing everywhere from late morning until about midnight every night.

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4. Idyllic Location & Great Site Layout: When I first walked through the gates of Maverick Festival a couple of years ago, I fell immediately in love with the beautiful setting of the event. Unlike other festivals held on a big field with nearly no other natural features, Easton Farm Park boasts some beautiful historic farm buildings, meadows and lots of trees and it all just looks like you’re entering a set for a Western movie – including our equivalent of mustangs, the beautiful and rare Suffolk Punch horses (pictured below). As it’s a rather boutique festival, you can easily pop back to your tent for an extra jumper or during this good weather extra sun cream as the camp ground is only a five-minute walk from the music stages. And as the music finishes quite early (around 11.30pm) there isn’t too much noise late at night (apart from the odd folky session around a fire, which actually makes for a nice lullaby). While there aren’t very many showers (I counted only a handful), there are two buildings with proper toilets and lots of additional portaloos strewn around the site.

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5. Dog-Friendly Event: The one thing I’m often missing at other outdoor festivals is the lovely presence of dogs who are often not allowed on site for all sorts of reasons. Not so at Maverick. Everywhere you go you’ll meet smiling pooches likes this happy pair below, Moss and Sky, and I loved hearing about their (rescue) stories. You can find more pictures on my Cuddle a Dog a Day Instagram account. If you have a friendly dog who doesn’t mind crowds, it’s a great festival to take it to, as a lot of the music can actually be enjoyed from outside most of the venues, so pooches can be in the shade and away from most of the noise, but you can still have a good time. Win, win.

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6. Still Kicking Against All Odds: A fascinating addition to this year’s festival was a short, and retrospectively very funny, documentary entitled ‘The Peasants Are Revolting’ charting the journey from idea to festival and the difficulties faced by festival founder Paul Spencer before being able to run Maverick for the first time in 2008. He initially encountered a lot of resistance from a number of villagers who feared there would be a noisy ‘rave’ (anti banjo protests? goats vs sheep standoff? rowdy cowboy hat throwing competitions?) threatening their otherwise peaceful lives and that their quaint Suffolk village would be overrun by all sorts of undesirable individuals. As you can see from the pictures in this post, there was clearly a lot of cause for concern ;-). Luckily, the festival founders persisted and I am now even more grateful for the festival than before I knew about all these (pretty major) teething problems. The screening was followed by a live Q&A with Paul and Tim Dowling with lots more anecdotes from the beginnings of a festival which is most definitely here to stay!

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7. Learning By Doing: I didn’t get around to any of the workshops this year, but there were a bluegrass as well as a banjo session plus a workshop on cigar box guitars and diddley bow. If you felt inspired enough to stick with your new chosen instrument, there were some music stalls with a choice of instruments to take home, including one with beautifully hand-decorated guitars and the pretty cool looking cigar box guitars (below).

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8. Plentiful Food & Drink: As with many smaller festivals, there aren’t quite as many food choices as at larger events. But I was pleased to see that the veggie options had increased since I last visited and there were also quite a few vegan dishes on offer. I had Thai street food, pizza from a wood-fired oven and a squash and feta cheese pie with mash. There were also plenty of desserts, like waffles and ice cream, and a few stalls serving cappuccinos. Plus Easton Farm Park’s café did a decent if not very exciting veggie breakfast in the mornings. Drinks (variety of beer, local cider) were not cheap, but a few freebie cocktails in cans given out by a new sponsor made up for it.

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9. Fun For All Ages: As Maverick is such a safe and friendly environment, families will have no problem finding activities to entertain the little ones. I spoke to a few whose kids were already keen to return, which is no wonder given the many cute animals to pet and feed (goats, horses, llamas, pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens) as well as an adventure playground, which even includes a mini-zipline. Nashville-based duo Chasing Summer also added to the kids entertainment by doing a lovely live show and art workshop on a new outdoor stage in the orchard, which was enthusiastically received by the children.

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10. Additional Gigs By Touring Musicians: Yes, post festival blues is a terrible thing and hits me every single time for a day or two after getting back home. Luckily, there is a silver lining as most of the overseas musicians booked for Maverick tend to also be on tour in the UK and other European countries while they are over here. So do look for their tour schedules and additional gigs the week before or after the festival. You might even end up on a train together, like I did with Royal Jelly Jive, who were on the way to their next gig in Belgium. A great way to extend the festival for another few hours.

You might not have heard of Americana as a genre of music before and be reluctant to book a weekend of bands you’ve never heard of. Don’t worry! Give a few of them a listen on Yotube before you visit and enjoy the fact that after attending Maverick you’ll be the one in the know giving your friends, who may well still be stuck in mainstream music land, the best recommendations for ‘the next big act’ like a pro!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2017 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

River Party, Unplugged: Unamplifire Festival 2017

Imagine a garden party with friends right by the Thames, sipping wine, looking out over the river, a fire going in one corner, fresh food being cooked in another and the sound of beautiful music drifting through the air. Yes, this place exists (even if only for a day) and The Nest Collective somehow made it happen on a day without any rain. Hallelujah!

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I was volunteering with Unamplifire Festival on 27 May and the first part of the adventure was finding the venue in Deptford, which was hidden away a few minutes off the high street, on the banks of the river. Master Shipwright’s Palace (built by master shipwright Joseph Allin in 1708) is a private residence and when I made my way around the building to meet Kelly, the volunteer coordinator, I found myself enviously gazing at the current residents sunbathing in the gorgeous garden dotted with apple trees. What a place to live! We spent the next couple of hours setting up the food stall, the bar and long tables decorated with hurricane lamps and rustic table runners made from burlap and somehow managed to get everything ready before the first musicians were due to be on stage. Phew!

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I was stationed at the entrance giving out wristbands to ticket holders for a couple of hours before I spent the rest of the evening moving between the four venues to enjoy the amazing acoustic music on offer. Hidden away on the first floor of the historic house is the piano room where I took a seat on the floor for the first set of the night by international music collective Kefaya (pic below), who I had already seen and very much liked at Shrewsbury Folk Festival a few years ago. There is such a vibrant, positive energy about the three guys on guitar, bodhran and piano and all of us huddled together on the floor of the sparsely decorated space listened in awe. The band also had a guest singer from Afghanistan, who treated us to a couple of haunting songs from her homeland. Later on, Dizraeli took to the same stage with his fascinating slam poetry and thoughtful songs perfect for such an event.

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As the sun went down over the river I switched between the other room upstairs, the aptly named River Room with a view of the Thames and the large garden, with sets by Nadine Khouri, Nina Harries, Marry Waterson and David A. Jaycock and the outdoor Campfire stage where James Riley, Owl Parliament and Gamelan Lila Cita (pic below) played in the open air. I also had a peek through the large window on the side of the tiny cranehouse, the most exclusive of the four spaces barely holding a handful of people, with lots more revellers gathered just outside, drinks in hand, straining to listen to the unplugged guitar sounds of Piers Faccini and others.

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The Nest Collective ‘warns’ you online that “this is not a wild party, it is a festival of listening and music appreciation. There are no PAs, it is all unplugged, no sound checks, no line checks, just wall to wall music”. And this is exactly what makes this sort of event so special and so precious. It was delightful to see that there is a market for unhurried, pared-down, beautifully simple (in the best sense of the word), real music and it was a pleasure listening to it in the company of others who absolutely ‘get it’. People were free to move between spaces anytime they liked and some had quite young children with them. Nevertheless, it went without saying that everyone quietly found a spot to sit or stand, not disturbing anyone else and fully appreciating the intelligent, creative performances in front of them. I was very impressed.

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If you’re anything like the friendly security guard I had a chat with during my volunteer shift, who admitted he doesn’t really like folk music, maybe it’s time to not judge music and musicians so much by their cover or label. Take some time to give a few not so well-known artists a listen and you might just find the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard.

Music is for Everyone: Folk Weekend Oxford 2017

Folk Weekend Oxford (21-23 April 2017) is in its 6th year this year and although it is largely volunteer-run, it punches way above its weight with a packed three-day programme for all ages. I’ve been back stewarding this year and it was great seeing some familiar faces and meeting lots of other folk music enthusiasts of all ages. The festival, whose patrons are Jackie Oates and Bellowhead’s John Spiers, has a truly inclusive ethos, believes that the arts are for everyone and most of the venues are fully accessible. At the stewards briefing we also learned some basic Makaton signs to use, my favourite being the one for cake. Ready for a weekend of music and fun!

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After leaving my bags with my Airbnb hosts on Friday afternoon and a delicious wood-fired pizza at The Rusty Bicycle off Cowley Road, I did a tour of Oxford’s charity shops and then headed to Wesley Memorial Church for my first stewarding shift at the opening concert of the festival with melodeon player and singer Ollie King, acoustic folk band with a Russian twist, KARA, and Jim Moray, who reminded me again why folk music is so relevant in today’s complex world by helping us to reflect on and make sense of what’s happening around us.

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Saturday was a packed day which started with a performance by the festival choir (picture above) led by director Cat Kelly (read an interview with her here) on the Ashmolean Museum forecourt. All day there were morris performances in the town squares and lots of opportunities to join in, be it in the many ceilidhs (you never need to bring a partner and can learn all dances on the spot) or Scandinavian ‘bals’ or by learning a new skill, like playing the spoons, or making folk-related crafts.

I was glad that I had opted for another concert on Saturday afternoon as I caught Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood (their new EP ‘Wings’ is beautiful) who performed a stunning set of songs and harmonised perfectly, accompanied by guitar (Megan) and fiddle (Jackie). Their performance was followed by well-known Sheffield-based Melrose Quartet (picture below) showcasing their latest album ‘Dominion’. I spent the evening at St Barnabas Church in the Jericho area of Oxford stewarding at a ceilidh with musical accompaniment ably provided by The Discussion Topic (including a full drumset!). It was a lovely, energetic crowd of all ages and we got to join in a bit as well in our breaks.

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Somehow the time always goes by way too fast on festival weekends and I decided to do my best to slow it down by attending a song writing workshop with Somerset singer-songwriter Ange Hardy (picture below) on Sunday morning. We tried our hands at different ways of approaching song writing, first using nursery rhymes as a structural starting point, then letting ourselves be guided by the memories evoked by scent and finally working with a drawing or picture. The next talk by Mike Heaney was entitled ‘The Complete and Utter History of Morris (in 60 minutes)’ and it was fascinating to learn a bit more about its origins and different morris dancing traditions from around the country.

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In the afternoon I headed back to Jericho for another ceilidh and dropped into The Quaker Meeting House on the way back into town, which was also one of the festival venues and has a fabulous flower garden – a nice spot for a break in the sun. Just like at Grinagog two weeks ago, we were lucky with the weather all weekend and I do hope this trend continues in the next few months.

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If you live in Oxford or are planning a visit, make sure you check out and support Folk Arts Oxford, the non-profit behind the festival, as they put on community events all year round. I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival!

 

Sea, Sun & Fun: Grinagog Festival 2017

Officially billed as a ‘weekend of mudless mischief by the sea’, the brand new Grinagog Festival, which took place from 7-9 April 2017 in Torquay, Devon, had a pretty enviable start. Most summer festivals in the UK would have been thrilled with three days in a row of sunshine and temperatures of around 20 degrees, never mind a location right by the sea – and it was only the beginning of April. I travelled down to Torquay on the train (3 hr journey for less than £40 return and a direct connection from London) and combined my festival experience with exploring the nearby attractions.

Torre Abbey Grinagog

Most of the festival venues were located in and around historic Torre Abbey (originally founded as a monastery in 1196) and the Riviera Centre right next to it. With a family day taking place on Saturday (graffiti workshops, crazy golf, family rave, storytelling, the lot) and most headliners (Akala, Rat Boy, Congo Natty) having been scheduled for way after midnight for the younger party crowd, the event catered for distinct groups of festival goers while also allowing everyone to get a taster of music they might not have heard of, but might well enjoy. I also managed to catch the world premiere of a documentary on the rise and fall of ‘The Lost Vagueness’, a quirky part of Glastonbury for many years. On Saturday afternoon, everyone gathered on the lawn beside the RICC and followed the giant Grinagog paper mache puppet (lovingly made by Egg Shed Arts) and the Grinagog Carnival & Samba Band down to the sea.

Saturday was also my favourite day music-wise as the London-based The Nest Collective put on a great selection of well-known and up-and-coming folky acts in the chapel, the ballroom and the undercroft downstairs. These included Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston (who apparently won’t be together as a duo for that much longer, what a pity), The Carrivick Sisters (who play about five different instruments each), Cynefin (singing in Welsh), folk duo Phil & Hannah and The Ceilidh Liberation Front, who put on a great ceilidh in the Spanish Barn. There were also lots of opportunities for local music acts to show off their skills on the Soundlaunch Buskers Stage outside Torre Abbey and some of the other tents.

Grinagog Puppet

Fair play to the organisers (including DJ Chris Tofu of Contintental Drifts) for putting on such a huge variety of live music plus talks, films and lots of side activities, such as a roller disco, paddle boarding, trapeze workshops, swimming pool parties etc. Personally, I found the huge line-up a little overwhelming and due to the great weather a lot of the acts scheduled in the many indoor venues earlier in the day were playing mostly to only a handful of people. I trust, however, that once the festival has established itself on the event calendar, many of those details (maybe a few additional food vendors including more veggie options, more site art/themed decorations, less noise interruption by drop-in visitors at quieter gigs) will be ironed out eventually. The main question a new festival like Grinagog needs to ask itself is what kind of event it wants to be and what it wants to achieve. I’m a big fan of specialised festivals (one genre of music, documentaries etc.) as the attendees tend to just have more in common and it’s often still possible to make them accessible to a wider audience by offering a taster day/sessions. Having said that, more general, but uniquely branded festivals, such as End of the Road or Larmer Tree, which appeal to families as well as other groups of festival goers and attract repeat customers by offering an escape from everyday life with well-known music acts as well as quality arts and culture programming, can also be hugely popular. While the possibilities are endless, the financial aspects of running a festival successfully, especially in today’s economic climate and such a crowded market, cannot be overestimated, and are a big factor for survival.

The best part of the weekend, as always, were the passionate people making it happen and the friendly punters. I met a couple with a toddler who’d just returned to Devon after living in Japan, two visiting yoga teachers, a local financial advisor and part-time musician and lots of other locals, many of them with adorable dogs of all shapes and sizes. Especially the younger ones were thrilled to have this new kind of event in a traditional English seaside town where chippies, souvenir shops and bars putting on cover bands tend to dominate the main street. There is definitely a great potential for more collaborations with local businesses to further bridge the divide between traditional and new and creative in future. It will be exciting to see what a big smiling beast of a festival Grinagog develops into in the coming years. I, for one, was chuffed to have been invited to its first birthday bash and hope it will be with us for many more years to come!

Torquay harbour sunset

P.S. If you’re visiting Torquay or one of the nearby towns I can recommend a walk to Cockington Village with its thatched cottages, less than half an hour on foot from Torquay train station and a stop at The Blue Walnut Café along the way (it even boasts a tiny cinema). From Cockington take the path down to the sea, it’s idyllic. I also really enjoyed a return ferry trip (30 mins each way, £3 return) to Brixham, strolling along the fishing harbour and watching kids catching crabs as well as walks to Baddacombe beach and Anstey Cove, which has a basic but friendly café right by the sea, well worth the 15-minute detour on foot.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press pass for the 2017 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Building Bridges (Not Walls): Celtic Connections 2017

The beginning of a new year is usually a hopeful time for me. However, given the state the world is currently in, the start of 2017 has sure felt a little bumpy for many of us. Luckily, Celtic Connections in Glasgow (19 January – 5 February 2017) has a track record of uniting cultures rather than dividing them and this is where I was headed for the second time, I really couldn’t wait! After having helped out behind the scenes at last year’s festival, I decided to just be a punter this year to give myself more time to explore Glasgow in between gigs. Nearby Edinburgh might have a greater visitor appeal as a well-known festival city, but Glasgow’s music, cafe and culture scene is not far behind at all. I was also luckier with the weather this time around and had found a lovely Airbnb near the Mitchell Library, i.e. walking distance to most of the festival hot spots.

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Two day-time sessions I had booked, which took place upstairs at the Royal Concert Hall, were both billed as author talks, yet the second one featured a short set by world class musicians, a nice surprise. The event was with well-known Scottish author James Kelman, who was talking about his latest novel ‘Dirt Road’ and we learned that a film for cinema based on the book is in production right now. To our delight, we got to hear some of the music from the film played live by a group of musicians including prolific multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell (last saw him on stage with Joan Baez at Cambridge Folk Festival 2015) with his daughter Amelia, Lousiana accordion wizzard Preston Frank and his daughter Jennifer as well as the young Scottish accordion player Neil Sutcliffe, who plays the main character, Murdo, from Kelman’s book. What a brilliant event, just way too short, of course.

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Given the current political climate, I was also glad to have made it to a packed ‘Take Back Our World’ event organised by Global Justice Now at Glasgow University for the first couple of sessions on Saturday morning. The speakers included Bernie Sanders’ brother Larry Sanders as well as activists from around the UK and abroad and it was heartening to see so many grassroots organisations working together at this important point in time. In the afternoon, I headed back to the RCH to listen to renowned Scottish actor David Hayman, talk about the children’s humanitarian organisation Spirit Aid, which he is head of operations of. During his talk the audience learned that unlike many larger charities, this ‘guerilla’ organisation uses 100% of donations to fund projects as far away as Afghanistan and Palestine, but is also helping people closer to home in local Scottish communities. It was inspiring to see what a small, determined group of people (like famous Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said) can get done with (comparably) small amounts of money. Definitely something to find out more about.

The gig I had been looking forward to most was a sold-out shared bill at Oran Mor in the Westend on Saturday night with Adam Holmes and the Embers as well as US four-piece Darlingside (see above). Adam’s band has long been one of my fav Scottish acts and even though they often play quite large festivals are still very underrated. So, if you haven’t heard of them yet, but enjoy intelligent songwriting with beautiful, gospel-like melodies, you won’t be disappointed. The main act on the night was Boston-based Darlingside, who had been a big surprise hit at Cambridge Folk Festival last summer and whose first visit to Scotland it was. The best shows are always the ones when you see the musicians having as much fun playing as the audience has listening to them and these four just combine a huge amount of positive energy and creativity, never mind being able to play viola, violin, banjo, mandolin and guitar to layer their meticulously crafted songs. It was a delight for the ears of any Americana and folk music enthusiast and their 90-minute set went by way too fast.

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After browsing through antiques, books and other second-hand finds at the Barras market in Glasgow’s East End on Sunday morning, I was headed to the O2 ABC on Sauchiehall Street in the afternoon which had a bit of an empty nightclub during daytime vibe and thus didn’t seem ideal at first. However, the Hazy Recollections session with an eclectic line-up including its curator Findlay Napier as well as Ben Seal and Urban Farm Hand and Mhairi Orr soon made up for it. It was also great to meet some more festival goers, many of which came from other parts of Scotland, or further afield.

I was glad that, like last year, I had bagged a free ticket to the first of three BBC Alba Seirm (‘seirm’ meaning tune or melody) recordings for my last night at Celtic Connections. It was again held at the lovely Hillhead Bookclub (alas, not a book in sight) in the Westend and this time around I knew the drill. Everything took quite long because of the filming, but who was going to complain when there were so many excellent musicians on the bill: Mary Chapin Carpenter (see above) Darlingside again (yeah!), Welsh singer-songwriter Gareth Bonello and two Scots Gaelic singers Eilidh Cormack (from Skye) as well as Joy Dunlop. I shared a table with a couple of Gaelic speakers from some of the Hebridean islands and had an altogether fantastic evening.

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In between the gigs I managed to try some more veggie and vegan places, of which there are plenty in the city, including The 78 Bar in Finnieston on Thursday night (great vegan haggis burger). A lot of these cafes are also dog-friendly, which is a nice touch, unless you’re allergic, of course. The Hug & Pint on Great Western Road had a good lunch deal for their Asian-inspired vegan food, but it might be better to head there at night, as my daytime visit was decidedly lacklustre. A return visit to Café Saramago (in the CCA on Sauchiehall Street) positively surprised me with excellent soya latte and a simple but very delicious sweet potato chilli (so good, especially in this chilly weather). Alas, I never got to try Tantrum Doughnuts (I’m coming for you on my next visit!), but enjoyed being back at Kember and Jones on Byres Road. My fav new discovery by far, however, was The Singl-end Café. It’s unsurprising there is never an empty seat in the house as the food looks and tastes absolutely fantastic. They offer plenty of veggie and vegan options (including vegan and gluten free breads and pastries plus three different types of non-dairy milk) and the baked eggs (or Shakshuka, see above) were out of this world. A stone’s throw from the bustle of Sauchiehall Street, this place should be your first port of call for a satisfying breakfast, lunch or dinner out. Celtic Connections sure is a great way to spend a couple of days relaxing at first-class concerts as well as enjoying all the amenities a city like Glasgow has to offer and I’ll most definitely be back again soonish!

 

End of Year Soul, Funk & Jazz Party: The Smooth Jazz Festival Augsburg 2016

So, here’s a first: before this winter I’d never been to a festival which stretches across two different years. The long-established Smooth Jazz Festival in the Bavarian tow of Augsburg, Germany, ran from 29 December 2016 until 1 January 2017 and I had discovered it only recently as I was heading back to my hometown for the Christmas holidays. It was also a first as I’d never been to a smooth jazz event before. It turns out, just like in the Americana and folk music scene, which I usually write about, there are excellent performers and dedicated followers in this genre, too, and I met lots of super friendly folks.

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The first gig I attended was held at the impressive Kurhaus Parkheater in the suburb of Göggingen. Originally built in 1886, it almost completely burned down in 1972 and was largely forgotten until it was restored to its former glory and reopened in 1996. Hailing from Fresno, California, and trained at the renowned Berklee College of Music, saxophonist Jeanette Harris treated us to favourites from her two recent albums ‘Chocolate Vibez’ and ‘Summer Rain’, among other compositions. I have to admit that purely instrumental music is normally not so much my thing, but listening to any musician who is a master of their chosen instrument is always a treat and this set as well as the acoustics in the venue were pitch-perfect. I would have loved to stay for the next act, UK smooth jazz veterans Shakatak, which I later heard did a great show, but I was feeling really under the weather with a bad cold and annoyingly had to call it a night at that point. Oh, well.

Sadly, the cold also made me miss Brian Bromberg, Oli Silk and JJ Sansaverino the following night, but I was all the more excited for the concert at the Dorint Hotel on New Year’s Day. Another first, as I’d never been at a festival on the first day of a new year. The lunchtime concert opened with US jazz, soul and R&B singer Lindsey Webster supported by her husband Keith Slattery on keys and joined by the excellent smooth jazz ‘house band’ with Heiko Braun on drums, Mark Jaimes on guitar and Marius Goldhammer on bass (Lutz Deterra, on keyboard, completed the band for the second part of the afternoon). Lindsey has a lovely, natural way of performing and gave it her all (including her hit single ‘Fool Me Once’ and a beautiful cover of the Prince song ‘Call My Name’), which was greatly appreciated by the festival audience, who loved every minute of it, myself included.

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The final act of the festival, after a short coffee break, was also yet another highlight: saxophonist extraordinaire Elan Trotman, born and raised in sunny Barbados and another Berklee graduate, whose first-rate performance was as infectious as music can possibly get. He took his saxophone off the stage several times during his set and played right in the middle of the assembled audience, which quickly broke the ice. From the Caribbean flavoured ‘Tradewinds’ to a lovely rendition of Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’, it was definitely time for a dance together with a room full of jazz fans who’d already partied their socks off at the New Year’s celebration the night before. I certainly didn’t expect a fully seated daytime festival gig to be this lively and felt really uplifted for the rest of the day!

Apart from the outstanding quality of performers, Smooth Jazz organisers Christian Bößner and Sandra Hoffman also did an excellent job in terms of the organisation and friendliness of the event. I chatted with attendees from as far as Mallorca, the US as well as other German cities most of whom were regulars at the festival. If smooth jazz is your kind of thing or if you’re keen to give it a try, make sure you check out their yearly festival roster, they also run popular smooth jazz festivals in Mallorca (May) and the Algarve (September). I certainly had a great time at the 17th Smooth Jazz Festival.

augsburg-christkindlesmarkt-2016

In case the above has whetted your appetite and you’re visiting Augsburg with its 2000 years of history for the first time, here are a few travel tips. Don’t miss the Fuggerei (supposedly the oldest social housing estate in the world, but instead of stark architecture, it’s rather quaint), the Goldener Saal in the City Hall, the Perlach tower (which you can climb for panoramic views), the Cathedral, the many fountains and a stroll in the old town. For those with a sweet tooth, Café Dichtl and Café Eber are good bakeries to try, so is Bäckerei Wolf (a few outlets around the city centre). If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’ll be pleased to know that there are many veggie-friendly options around town, including the just opened Mom’s Table on the city’s main thoroughfare Maximilianstraße. Not too far from there is also where the famous Augsburger Puppenkiste puppet theatre and museum (shows used to be on national tv, so it’s known all over the country) has its home. While Augsburg may appear conservative at first glance (and it is in many ways), we also have a very exciting cultural and social project, the Grand Hotel Cosmopolis, where you can stay in unique rooms designed by artists. It’s a friendly, mostly volunteer-run hotel, a gathering place for creatives and a welcoming home for asylum seekers from all over the world.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with concert tickets for the 2016 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All Photography used in this blog post by Christan Nordström (with the exception of the Christkindlesmarkt picture, taken by Life is a Festival).

Life Ain’t No Dress Rehearsal: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2016

It was Stephen Fearing’s song ‘No Dress Rehearsal’ (based on a Mark Twain Quote) which summed up this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival (26-29 August 2016) for me. Living in the moment doesn’t get much better than meeting old and making new friends in a place where the positive energy is palpable and smiling at strangers is actually ‘the done thing’. While many festivals appear to be superficial entertainment for the masses on the outside, SFF is a great example how through common interests people can create something very special, a beautiful village for folk-music lovers which gets built again every August in Shrewsbury, Shropshire.

shrewsbury sunshine

The story already begins when you set up your tent. I’ve only been coming to SFF for the past 5 years (it celebrated its 20th birthday this year, congrats!), but every time I return, within a few minutes of arriving I’m already deep in conversation with another steward (one of the nearly 500 of us) or festival goer about our favourite acts of the previous year and what we’re most looking forward to this time around. There is always someone who lends a helping hand, has a spare tent peg or a hot cup of tea just when you need it.

TequilaSunrise SFF 2016

Having joined the 2012 stewards team quite last minute helping out with the Task Force, I’ve been a part of Artist Reception for the past four years now. It’s a small but busy team checking in musicians, providing assistance and food and drink as well as guarding the artist entrance and car park. One of the main reasons why SFF has such a great reputation is its excellent organisation and the dedication of everyone involved from the festival directors to each individual steward. How lovely to see the same smiling faces every year (pictured below Judy with Gromit & Leona May), it just makes you feel instantly at home.

Judy with Gromit & Leona May

After a busy summer of travelling the Balkans and four other festivals (Beyond The Border, Yoga Connects, Cambridge Folk Festival & Soul Circus), I really wanted to have a stress-free bank holiday weekend and Shrewsbury Folk Festival is always the perfect event for it. There are plenty of food vendors on site and the town centre is only a short scenic stroll away along the River Severn. Being on the site of the West Midlands Showgrounds, it has good toilet facilities and, in the past few years, even started offering ‘shower queue entertainment’ in the form of pop-up sets by up and coming artists in the mornings.

yoga SFF 2016

There is also one yoga session a day (100+ people at every class!) in the dance tent for adults plus two shorter ones for families on three of the festival days and even though they were a tad on the early side (8.30am) I was very glad I went along. The perfect way of waking up your muscles after a night in the tent! I also made it to the beginners’ whistle and flute workshop this year and can now play a pretty decent version of Mary Had a Little Lamb and The Bear Dance, for whatever that’s worth.

Rosanne Cash SFF 2016

And now to the music! It was a great line-up again, as usual, and I particularly enjoyed seeing previous favourites Ten Strings and a Goat Skin, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (plus a great solo set by Stephen Fearing), John Jones and friends including Seth Lakeman, Raghu Dixit (sing along challenge of the weekend!) and Barnstar! again. I was also excited to catch US singer songwriter Richard Shindell, Irish musician Andy Irvine, songwriter and broadcaster Tom Robinson, London-based The Boondock Hippy, fab local band Two Blank Pages, The Kefaya Music Collective and The Urban Folk Quartet for the first time. One of my highlights of this year’s festival was the set by Rosanne Cash and her husband John Leventhal (who happens to be an excellent guitar player). Despite the early morning yoga I managed to make it to the ceilidh on Sunday night with the excellent Blackbeard’s Tea Party creating a wonderfully joyous atmosphere. Loved it!

Dulcimer Workshop SFF 2016

While it’s impossible not to have a good time at SFF, the 2016 edition was definitely one of my favourites so far. Sitting around a table in the onsite Berwick Bar on the Monday night and singing along to folk and rock favourites with everyone else with a friendly dog called Lola on my lap and a pint of Kingstone Press cider in my hand, I couldn’t believe we’d have to wait another year for this magic to happen all over again. But, as Stephen Fearing sings in his song, ‘Time doesn’t know reversal, life is no dress rehearsal’. Especially in a world so full of conflict, it really is time to ‘try and act accordingly’, to enjoy the good times while they last, to be kind to fellow strangers and grateful for those special moments. Shrewsbury Folk Festival definitely does its bit to make the world a better place (as cheesy as this may sound) and I’ve already got the 2017 festival dates firmly marked in my calendar. See you there!