Category Archives: Music Festival Reviews

A Honky Tonkin’ Great Time at The Long Road Festival 2018

It’s always exciting to be there for the first ever edition of a new festival and I’m very glad I made it to the inaugural The Long Road Festival (7-9 September 2018) at Stanford Hall, near Rugby. After having been led down the wrong motorway by our Satnav on Friday afternoon and arriving a bit later than anticipated we were joking that the seemingly never-ending road we followed to get to the festival location was surely what it was named after!

TLR 18 sign.jpg

We missed a few of Friday night’s acts, but got there just in time for rocky UK Americana outfit Case Hardin on the Front Porch stage (which looked like a wood cabin including smoke coming out of the chimney!), who I hadn’t seen for way too long. I then headed over to the Interstate stage for London-based country music quartet The Wandering Hearts and finished up inside the Honky Tonk venue for a set by Northerner Twinnie, who I had never heard of before, but who impressed with her voice and positive energy. It had gotten quite cold by then and I decided to call it a night in order to get the best out of the rest of the weekend.

TLR 18 Front Porch

Saturday started with a real bang as it was time for the Women in Country in the Round slot in the Honky Tonk bar (inside the ‘building’ on the right in the pic below), one of the best festival sessions all weekend. It featured Irish-born but now London-based Megan O’Neill, UK country singer Laura Oakes and Texan country artist and a former ‘The Voice’ winner Danielle Bradbery. Luckily, most of my favourite artists were scheduled inside the cosy Honky Tonk, a brilliantly designed nod to Nashville music city, which just felt like actually being in the States! So while it wasn’t the best of festival weather outside, we had a front row table for a long list of absolutely superb acts, most of whom I’d seen separately on various occasions and are all well worth a listen.

TLR 18 Honky Tonk.jpg

The Loose Music takeover really made my Saturday with my only complaint being the disappointingly short half hour sets for most artists. We spent most of the afternoon happily cooped up inside the Honky Tonk listening to hours and hours of brilliant live music courtesy of Yola Carter (UK), Caroline Spence (USA), Erin Rae (USA), William The Conquerer (UK), Frontier Ruckus (USA) and Danny and the Champions. I also managed to catch the always amazing Angaleena Presley earlier that day and, to top it all off, listened to a fabulous set by Lee Ann Womack (see pic below), who should have really been one of the headliners, my first time seeing her live.

TLR 18 Lee Ann Womack

Sunday was the only really sunny day and by that time all of us knew the venues inside and out and were just enjoying moving between the different areas. There was again a packed programme from around lunchtime until late. I saw blues duo Andrew Alli & Josh Small (USA), UK Americana artist Danni Nicholls, New Orleans-based Luke Winslow-King (with fab Italian guitarist Roberto Luti) and Ashley Campbell (see pic below), who had some very witty songs and sounded a lot more Americana than I had thought.

TLR 18 Ashley Campbell 1

I also caught Dori Freeman (USA), Charlie Worsham (USA), who made some lovely comments on how appreciative UK audiences are, Emily Barker’s more Americana side, some of Elizabeth Cook’s (USA) set, who was very popular with some of my friends and UK country duo The Shires closing the main stage that night. My favourite set all weekend though, has got to be The Lone Bellow (USA) on the Interstate Stage (see pic below) It never ceases to amaze me with how much energy and fun these guys perform and cannot imagine anyone not getting blown away by their beautiful songs and great stage presence.

TLR 18 The Lone Bellow

Apart from the live music, there was also a film screening, ‘ Born in Bristol’ on the birth of country music, dance classes, stunning vintage cars on display, the family area Possum County with games and music, wild swimming (though with the temperatures we had, I doubt many braved the cold water) and a good selection of food and drink stalls. The veggie and vegan options included burritos (my fav that weekend), pizza, burgers, sweet potato fries and buddha bowls and there were also various breakfast choices and hot drinks until the evening.

TLR 18 Rhinestone Stage

If there was anything the organisers might reconsider for next year it would be the very strict checks at entering the arena. I don’t usually attend festivals where the camping is fenced off and it made it feel a bit impersonal and unnecessary for the kind of crowd this festival attracted. Any kind of food, alcohol and even umbrellas were officially banned, while security searches were minimal. On the plus side, I was delighted to see that dogs, like sweet Roxy below, were allowed (this year only as day visitors, in future, hopefully overnight, just like at e.g. Maverick Festival and Shrewsbury Folk Festival). As far as I’m concerned, four-legged festival attendees always add to a relaxed atmosphere and it was so great to meet so many festival first timers.

TLR 18 Rox dog

What really made the first The Long Road festival stand out was the excellent line-up from the Country, Americana and Roots music scenes, well done Baylen Leonard and team. Yes, it was a little sad that long-anticipated headliner Carrie Underwood had to pull out at the last minute for health reasons, but the huge range of quality acts, great sound on most stages and the beautifully designed festival venue all made for an outstanding event, which is most definitely here to stay! Better get next year’s tickets as soon as you can.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2018 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event. 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.

Advertisements

Sing, Dance, Drink, Repeat: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2018

I’m always reluctant to return to the ‘real world’ after another four days packed with amazing live music and lots of happy people at Shrewsbury Folk Festival (24-27 August 2018). I made my way to Shropshire on the train on Thursday as usual, set up the happy tent (stewards get an extra night on site) and then headed into town for a charity shop crawl, a nice pub dinner and a pre-festival live session in the Woodman pub. It’s the simple things in life that count!

SFF18 Happy TentFriday is always the first official festival day and the excellent Irish Daoiri Farrell Trio opened the Bellstone Marquee (biggest stage), followed by the fiddle playing step dancing Fitzgeralds from Ottawa Valley in Canaday, a welcome return after their fab debut last year. I then headed over to the Pengwern Marquee (second biggest stage) for Rusty Shackle, a Roots and Americana outfit from Bristol, who really got the crowd going, and somehow day one was already over much quicker than I thought.

SFF18 Morris.jpg

On Saturday I spent most of the morning in town catching some of the morris displays from festival sides (pictured above is Shrewsbury Morris) and was back at the festival site (a short walk or shuttle bus ride) just in time for one of the world music collaborations, Chinese flute player Guo Yue and Joji Hirota with the London Japanese Taiko Drummers. What a fascinating set alternating between powerful drumming sounds and graceful Chinese flute melodies. Shooglenifty and Dhun Dhora, singing in Gaelic and Marwari respectively, were another successful example of a meeting of two very different cultures with rich musical traditions.

SFF18 Ukulele.jpg

It’s easy to see why Americana singer-songwriter Yola Carter from Bristol is a star in the making. Her set in the Pengwern Marquee was mesmerizing and fair play for doing a song acapella after the microphone failed, which was one of the very special festival moments this year. I left Richard Thompson in the Bellstone Marquee to his stalwart fans and instead headed over to the Sabrina Marquee for one of my two favourite dance sessions this year, the fabulous Mankala with band members from no less than seven countries. Their high energy and completely addictive mostly African fusion sound had even the most reserved audience members at least clapping by the end and most of the rest of us on our feet from start to finish. So much fun and a great example that folk music encompasses a huge range of traditions from all around the world.

SFF18 Stalls.jpg

Sunday was another bumper day with a great mix of sounds. The wonderful Passerine project, initiated by and including English folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow was back for a second year, this time with ‘Women in Transit’ and again some incredibly moving stories. Apart from the three main stages, there is also the club as in dance tent, which I managed to finally visit after all the live music had finished. Oh well, one ceilidh dance is better than none.

Usher’s Island wasn’t a band name I was familiar with before the festival, but it turned out it was an Irish traditional super group made up of Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny, John Doyle, Paddy Glackin and Mike McGoldrick. What a privilege to get to hear these legends of Irish music play a set together, sublime. This was followed by one of the best Americana singer-songwriters around, Nashville-based Gretchen Peters who treated us to some of her classic songs as well as new ones from her current album ‘Dancing With The Beast’. I was glad I headed over to the Pengwern Marquee right afterwards for a bunch of much more lively musicians as I managed to catch the end of Scottish band Skerryvore’s first ever set at the festival.

SFF18 Skerryvore.jpg

As I’ll soon be living in Scotland I decided I should probably make friends with the sound of bagpipes (still quite a while to go, mind) and really enjoyed their full set on the main stage on Monday afternoon. I spent the rest of the festival in the Pengwern Marquee listening to The Mighty Doonans from Newcastle and the by now traditional festival finale, the folk slam with Jim Moray. This year’s featured artists included Rosie Hood, members of Rafiki Jazz, Jack Rutter, Elly Lucas, Sam Carter and some fabulous step dancing by members of The Mighty Doonans as well as The Fitzgeralds.

SFF18 Amber&Archie.jpg

I personally always focus on listening to as much live music as possible, but SFF offers so much more, you can learn to play an instrument (see pic of beginners ukulele jam further up), your children can pick up som circus skills, you can learn traditional dances from around the world, do yoga, eat your way through the many yummy food offerings and visit the lively and very friendly town of Shrewsbury (lots of charity shops, cafes and history to explore). Every year (7th in a row this time!) I greatly enjoy meeting the usual combination of repeat festival goers and fellow stewards who I’ve known for a while and always enjoy catching up with plus the festival newcomers, and the many lovely pooches (pictured above are adorable duo Amber and Archie) as well-behaved dogs are allowed at the festival, just not inside the venues.

So if you are still thinking Shrewsbury might be a little far for you to come ‘just’ for a festival, think again as it really is one of the best places for music lovers to spend an enjoyable weekend among like-minded people. Plus with ca. 5000 seats in three huge indoor venues, you never need to worry about the weather or not getting to see your favourite artist. Oh and one last thing: don’t be fooled by the ‘folk music’ label, it is a very broad and inclusive church and if you’re open-minded, you’ll definitely have a fantastic time. Try it out for a day next year or, even better, go straight for the ‘full monty’, it’s simply unmissable!

Genre-Defying Live Music With A Message: Cambridge Folk Festival 2018

Unlike the very rainy 2017 edition, Cambridge Folk Festival, which took place one week later than usual from 2-5 August 2018, managed to avoid any downpours this time around. Instead, it got caught in the continuing heatwave, which made it look like we were in sunny Spain or Portugal rather than South East of England.

CFF 18 Fox.jpg

The festival began with a very impressive Thursday night lineup, the lively Whiskey Shivers from Austin opening stage 2 and a fabulous set by Scottish musical collaborators Kris Drever, John McCusker, Roddy Woomble (of Idlewild) and Louis Abbott (of Admiral Fallow) followed by the fantastic all-female Kinnaris Quintet from Glasgow at the Club Tent. So far so excellent!

CFF 18 Songhoy Blues 1.jpg

When I talk to people who don’t usually listen to folk music, they often don’t realise what a wide variety of genres are represented at folk music events. A great example were Songhoy Blues (see pic above), a rock band from Mali with a seriously danceable groove, and Saturday night headliner, punk poet and feminist icon Patti Smith, who, once on stage, immediately asked for the smoke to be turned off in no uncertain terms. As a nod to the folkie audience, she included ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ by Bob Dylan in her set and seemed impressed with the audience’s singing skills. The inofficial award for the best audience participation this year went to the Pierce Brothers from Australia, however, playing a set on stage 2 on Friday night, when everyone just kept going with one of the choruses after the song had finished and the band picked it up again to huge applause.

CFF 18 Rhiannon Giddens.jpg

Rhiannon Giddens’ (see pic above) curator role this year (including booking Yola Karter, Amythyst Kiah, Kaia Kater and Peggy Seeger) was noticeable in all the right ways and it was generally great to see that the festival continues to champion female voices, including their commitment to the Keychange equality movement. Artists of all ages were speaking out about equality and about resisting a more and more selfish culture. Sister duo First Aid Kit from Sweden talked about sexual harrassment during their set on Friday saying that “the blame and shame of rape crime should always belong to the perpetrator, not the victim.” The couple of half-drunk men right behind us (who left after some of us reminded them several times that we were interested only in the music rather than their shenanigans) were proof that even at a very friendly festival like CFF, there are always the odd situations when you need to make clear that disrespectful behaviour, like shouting ‘give us a kiss’ at artists on stage or disrespecting women’s personal space in a crowd, is not acceptable.

UK singer songwriter and activist Grace Petrie, who played stage 2 on Friday night (check out her song ‘I Wish The Guardian Believed That I Exist”), Prince Edward Island-based Irish Mythen and the one and only Janis Ian all had various songs highlighting the shortcomings of today’s society and politicians, homophobia and sexism. The most poignant and outspoken of all was most likely one of Janis Ian’s newly written songs entitled ‘She Is, She Is (Resist)’, which went “when they say you don’t have a right to exist, persist, resist, persist and resist, resist resist, resist!”. Hear, hear.

CFF 18 Janis Ian 1.jpg

The protest song is certainly alive and well and folk festivals, such as Cambridge, continue to attract a large cross section of people from many backgrounds, ages and places. This year I spoke to festival goers from all across the UK, Ireland, Iceland, and as far as Mauritius and Australia.

On top of all the first class acts on the main stages, there are also always lots of other activities on from 10 am until late during the festival weekend. You can do yoga, willow or drawing workshops, learn to play a new instrument or listen to talks by festival artists, such as the Women in Music session in the Flower Garden on Saturday or join a songwriting workshop with Eliza Carthy in the Club Tent on Friday morning.

CFF 18 BNC workshop.jpg

My favourite events were two workshops on Sunday. The first one was a singing workshop with Nashville-based singer songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, whose set that night on stage 2 was also fabulous. In her morning session (see pic above) she had various people come up to help them make the best of their own voice and it was incredibly fascinating what a difference ten minutes with a skilled teacher and a supportive crowd can make.

The other event was a youth singing workshop with Boston-based Americana group Darlingside, who are known for their incredible harmonies (see pic below). They certainly passed on their love for music to the youngsters attending the afternoon session in The Hub and the band singing ‘White Horses’ accompanied by a choir of young people harmonising on it was the one festival moment this year that’ll stay with me for a long time.

CFF 18 Darlingside.jpg

Last but not least, here are a few personal festival tips: Make sure you don’t miss out on the Den stage with many amazing upcoming acts (it’s also much less crowded than the main stages), the lovely cafe and the flower garden, both in the same area by the duck pond; bring something to sit on, but ideally not a hardbacked chair as they are not allowed inside any venues; your own food and drink is OK to take along, just no glass; don’t forget the Coldham’s Common campsite has an afterhour open mic venue (until after midnight) and a free shuttle bus runs there every few minutes from Cherry Hinton Hall; a lot of the artists sign their CDS (and some do selfies with punters) at the Mojo tent near stage 2; be kind to others, don’t take up any more space than you need in the already crowded outside arena, don’t block any exits and get up from your blanket inside the tents when it gets busy; finally, be spontaneous, play along if someone starts a Mexican wave in the shuttle queue, bring your ukulele and start your own session and don’t just be a spectator – folk music is for participating and the community is only as friendly and welcoming as each one of us!

Americana on the Farm: Maverick Festival 2018

Maverick Festival, which took place for the eleventh time from 6 to 8 July 2018 at Easton Farm Park in Suffolk, not far from London, is one of those rare outdoor events, where you can experience quality live music in a beautiful boutique setting. Beside the usual line-up of excellent Americana artists from the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia, the festival always has a extra few surprises in store and what a gloriously sunny weekend it was!

Maverick 18 Gate.jpg

After setting up the happy tent in the heat, it was definitely time for an iced coffee and a first hello to all my favourite furry farm creatures, including brand new additions Harry, the Punch horse, and Madge, the 5 day old donkey baby. In addition, there were lots of friendly dogs around again, as the festival allows them on site.

Maverick 18 Madge the Donkey.jpg

As more and people started arriving in the course of the afternoon, I headed over to the Peacock stage for sets by Jeffrey Martin and Anna Tivel (see pic below), who have also been touring the UK together. Their music is very well matched, quiet and thoughtful with some memorable melodies, just the way I like it. Anna and Martin were some of the musicians who spent the whole weekend at Maverick, so I got to listen to them quite a bit, which was a real treat, as their songs are all well worth giving more than one listen.

Mavfest 18 Anna Tivel 1.JPG

I then made my way over to the Barn for Jonathan Byrd’s only Maverick set. He is currently touring the UK with fellow ‘Pickup Cowboy’ Johnny Waken, who excelled at guitar solos and added an extra touch of humour to Byrd’s already entertaining songs. Their set also included serious touches though, such as this poignant haiku:

we are in heaven
the sky is an illusion
like any border

Maverick 18 bar.jpg

Saturday at Maverick is always a busy day with the open air Southern Sounds Stage in full swing from around 11am until 6pm, including the exotic Hawaiian sounds of Kehau Kehananui with top UK pedal steel player BJ Cole. Apart from The Cordovas from Nashville, whose guitar and harmony-heavy sound I took a while to warm to at first, but whose only Maverick set I enjoyed quite a bit in the end, I spent most of my day switching between the Barn and the much smaller Moonshine stage. I’m always trying to catch as many of the overseas artists as possible, as they generally make less frequent UK appearances. So it was great to see Dylan Earl for the first time, whose online bio states that ‘I’m from where I woke up this morning’ and who, like many of the Maverick artists, plays a type of country music, which keeps things real rather than just providing sing-along fodder for the masses. I also thoroughly enjoyed dancing to the music of one of my favourite UK Americana bands, Brighton-based The Mountain Firework Company.

Mavfest 18 Dylan Earl 1.jpg

However, the female musicians stole the show as is so often the case in this genre. Amelia White, Alabama native Amy McCarley and singer-songwriter Imogen Clark (mostly sharing a stage with fellow Aussies Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes as well as The Weeping Willows) were all excellent. So was Amy Lott from Meridian, Mississippi, who, as we found out during her Sunday set, had to overcome some serious health issues for a long time, but never gave up and is living proof that personal struggle can make for outstanding songwriting. Another one to watch for me was Texas-born Nashville-based Bonnie Bishop (see pic below), who is to make a welcome return to these shores in autumn.

Mavfest 18 Bonnie Bishop 1.JPG

While the Arkansas Dave set and the Johnny Cash Tribute (with many of the festival artists contributing cover versions) took place on the Peacock stage, I decided to stick with the Barn Stage on Saturday night, where Tennessean-born, New York-baed Hans Chew and his band and female-fronted Southern Avenue (see pic below) from Memphis got the party going around 8pm. The latter’s very danceable set proved that booking a lively blues and soul outfit added just the right amount of variety to the festival.

Maverick 18 Southern Avenue.jpg

One of my favourite UK-based live bands, Danny and the Champions (see pic below), provided a worthy finale after a very busy and sundrenched day of music.

Maverick 18 Danny Champs.jpg

Sunday is traditionally a shorter day at Maverick and after Saturday’s highlights tends to be a sort of a mellow finish to the festival weekend. This year, however, I was glad to get a second chance to see some of the festival artists who stuck around all weekend, such as Lachland Bryan and the other Aussie musicians he shared the stage with as well as UK roots band Porchlight Smoker.

Mavfest 18 Busking Stage.JPG

The festival weekend also included the Jimmie Rodgers Buskers stage again, which was hosted by James Hodder this year and gave up and coming talent (see pic above) a chance to shine.

With so much great live music going on, I nearly forgot to mention the yummy food on offer all weekend – from espresso to full English breakfast, wood oven pizza (including a vegan option) and my favourite, an amazing plantbased plate (see pic below) from Suffolk-based Juan Pablo Food, we were never short of great festival food and drink.

Maverick 18 Vegan Food.jpg

All in all, the eleventh edition of Maverick Festival was one of the most enjoyable and relaxing ones I remember. The beautiful Suffolk farm setting, the quality music and the friendly crowd it attracts year after year make for a great recipe for enduring success. While other festivals struggle with constantly trying to upscale, Maverick seems to stay reassuringly small, but only in terms of festival size. In every other aspect it punches well above its weight and is bound to continue for many more years to come.

A Music Weekend in the Midlands: Gate to Southwell Festival 2018

The Gate to Southwell Festival (7-10 June 2018) was a last minute addition to my summer festival calendar this year and a really pleasant surprise! Having arrived from London via Nottingham by train it was a mere five-minute walk from Rolleston station to the festival site. Intriguingly, our designated stewards camping was located on the grounds of the Rolleston racecourse, so I set up my tent next to the parade ring and the women’s toilets had a ‘lady jockeys’ sign on it and saddle holders installed on the walls.

GTSW welcome sign.jpg

As I got to Southwell (pronounced as it looks by most locals and ‘Suthel’ seemingly by anyone else) a day early I hitchhiked into town to get supplies and had a look around the Minster, whose two impressive towers also feature on the festival logo. I also came across a few of the especially decorated gates, a lovely idea to link the festival with the town through the ‘decorate your gate’ competition (see this year’s winners, sisters Sophie & Caitlin, below).

GTSW Gate Competition Winners.jpg

After a relaxing morning, I was based at the box office on Thursday afternoon until the night of Blues started at the Big Top. The standout artist of the night was Li’l Jimmy Reed, a 77 year-old living breathing blues machine, who came down from the stage a few times during his set to play amongst the audience (apart from the Frontier Stage with just a few benches strewn about, all festival venues are seated). There were also some more live acts on at the same time in the Barleycorn Stage adjacent to the main festival bar and I headed over there at around 10pm for a set by Banter, a quirky ceilidh band like no other witha self-proclaimed ‘disregard for musical boundaries.’

GTSW Frontier Stage.jpg

The main festival takes place from Friday until Sunday night, so it makes sense to stay until Monday morning, which unfortunately wasn’t possible for me this time around. Despite the festival site not being huge, the four main stages are arranged in a way that there is almost no noise interference from the other tents, which is fantastic. I was back at the box office on Friday afternoon and by the time I was finished with my shift, a lot more festival goers had started to arrive. I had really been looking forward to seeing both Blue Rose Code and Don Mescall, but both sadly had had to cancel at the last minute. Instead I gave Mongoose, a young, all female band from Ireland a try as well as East Anglian folk and Americana band The Shackleton Trio. The Friday headliner was Lindisfarne, a Newcastle folk rock band hugely popular in the 1970s, and I finished off my night with a spot of ceilidh dancing with Banter at Hoofers, an indoor venue at the race course, just a hop skip and jump away from my tent.

GTSW Southwell Minster.jpg

After a fairly quiet first two days, Saturday was packed with a busy programme in town and at the festival site. The sun was shining and when I got into Southwell on the festival shuttle bus (ca. 3km, Friday until Sunday, £2 return) the town seemed transformed. There was a bustling market in a central square and at 11am the Morris parade started winding its way along King Street with lots of lively music and colourful costumes, including Harlequin Morris (see pic below).

GTSW Harlequin Morris

There were also a number of free events for locals to get a taste of the festival artists and I’m so glad I caught one at the Final Whistle pub, a beautiful disused train station, where Americana artists Vivian Leva from Virginia and Riley Calcagno from Seattle (see pic below) played a short but wonderful set in the courtyard. They were my favourite festival find and I’m sure they’ll be back in the UK many more times.

GTSW The Final Whistle Pub

After getting back to the festival site, Saturday continued with a varied programme on the four stages, which included Canadian fiddling and step dancing sensation The Fitzgeralds, celtic-inspired contemporary folk band Ranagri (Fort of the Hare), whose danceable repertoire included a ‘Brexit Charleston’, and quirky US duo Truckstop Honeymoon, who I hadn’t seen live for a couple of years and had almost forgotten how great and funny their songs were. Another Americana highlight was the evening’s headliner Gretchen Peters with some fabulous new songs and an impressive back catalogue as well.

GTSW Gretchen Peters.jpg

On Sunday morning I made one last trip into town for a latte at The Old Theatre Deli, very friendly café with delicious food right in the centre of town before enjoying the final day of the festival. There were so many acts on at roughly the same time who I had not seen before that I decided to switch between the stages, which was unproblematic as there were always some spare seats in each venue. Despite missing the Sunday headliner Cara Dillon, as I was already on my train back to London by the time she was on, I caught lots of other good acts, such as Scotsman Kris Drever, blues and roots guitarist and singer Martin Harley, Lincolnshire duo The Rye Sisters as well as Canadian songwriter James Keelaghan with Hugh McMillan.

GTSW volunteers.jpg

My favourite event of the day, if not the weekend, was the Tune & Verse & Ditty Challenge, a sort of a celebrity musical pub quiz led by Keith Donnelly on the Frontier Stage. It included questions from the world of folk and roots music and beyond and the two competing teams consisted of some of the Young ‘Uns, Rod Clements of Lindisfarne and various other musicians playing the festival this weekend. I hope it’ll continue to be part of the festival programme in future years, do not miss as it was brilliantly entertaining.

GTSW Parade Sign.jpg

If you like your festivals small and relaxing where you never really need to worry about getting a good seat while still seeing to top class acts from the world of folk, roots and Americana music, Gate to Southwell is a great choice. There was also plenty of food to choose from (Thai, pasta, fish & chips, wood oven pizza, Leon’s vegetarian, bubble waffles, ice cream and an espresso stall) and two bars with seating. Families with children were also well catered for with lots of entertainment, such as the hilarious Dan the Hat with his juggling and comedy acts as well as stalls with toys and a kids area with a story tent, games, a van to decorate with paint and even a petting zoo. The animals included goats, giant rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and tortoises and were well looked after. The festival offers a range of ticket options including ‘taster tickets’, which allow you to enjoy the festival during the day with family and friends, but exclude the main evening concerts. But would want to miss those impressive evening lineups?

GTSW Happy Tent.jpg

Sunshine & Good Times: Folk Weekend Oxford 2018

The recent heat wave coincided perfectly with the seventh Folk Weekend Oxford (19-21 April 2018), which seems to get better every year. It’s one of those festivals where you might not know very many of the bands on the line-up beforehand, but which always delivers in terms of quality, fun and a friendly community feel, something many of the larger festivals simply cannot offer.

Jo Rosie Penny FWO Volunteers.jpg

Before my first stewarding shift on Friday night I had plenty of time for a pizza in the sunny backyard of The Rusty Bicycle pub and a leisurely stroll around the Cowley Road charity shops. Then I was off to St. Barnabas church in the Jericho neighbourhood, just north of Oxford City Centre. The ceilidhs always draw quite a crowd (up to 200 dancers) as the festival puts on fantastic live bands every year and this time was no exception. I was very impressed with the sound of Banter, one of the most quirky ceilidh bands I’ve come across so far, whose sound goes far beyond English traditional music including jazz, pop and soul influences. Unsurprisingly, they were a huge hit with the dancing crowd. The night also included a performance by local rapper (sword dance) team Mabel Gubbins.

Venue Sign FWO.jpg

After an incredibly sunny Friday, I woke up to more sunshine and met up for breakfast with a friend for coffee and exceptionally good cake at Barefoot Café on Walton Street before checking out some of the morris spots around town for live dancing with sides from various traditions, including Black Annis Women’s Morris and their adorable canine mascot Hattie (see pic further down). Around lunchtime we headed to one of my favourite Oxford venues, the airy hall of the Quaker Meeting House for a concert of traditional folk music, which included Dan Evans and Rebecca Hallworth (see pic below). Dan is a renowned fingerstyle mountain dulcimer player who also held an interesting workshop on the history and different styles of instruments on Sunday afternoon.

Dan Evans Rebecca Hallworth FWO.jpg

There was just enough time for dropping into Blackwells bookshop’s Norrington room for a set by young contemporary singer-songwriter Martha Bailey (see pic below) and a quick burrito dinner before my shift at the Wesley Memorial Church. The line-up consisted of Oxford vocal duo Hoverhawk, traditional singer Nick Dow and a solo set by one of the festival headliners, Eliza Carthy, who obviously drew the crowds for this event.

Martha Bailey FWO.jpg

On Sunday morning, during breakfast at the Nosebag restaurant, I got talking to another festival goer, who told me their Appalachian dance team, Cornucopia (see pic below), would be performing around lunchtime in the pedestrian area on Cornmarket. Their spot was one of my favourite performances all weekend and got a lot of positive reactions from locals and tourists alike. I then made my way over to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Centre where I caught half of the Topette workshop, a French-Anglo collaboration including Andy Cutting. They played some very beautiful dance tunes and spoke about the joys and challenges of working together across cultures and borders.

Cornucopia Appalachian Dance FWO.jpg

As I had not managed to join any workshops yesterday, I decided it was time for some dancing on the festival’s last day. So I took part in the Harlequin Morris Cotswold morris workshop (hankies and bells) for an hour. After we had warmed up for a few minutes we got taught a routine of various steps, jumps and hanky movements accompanied by accordion music. Let’s just say it was an ‘interesting experience’ and is a lot harder than it looks, but I think I’ll stick to Irish set dancing in future. It was great to see, however, that the class attracted people of all ages, including some enthusiastic youngsters, and we did manage to learn a whole routine in the short time we had.

Hattie FWO.jpg

My last event of the festival was a great ‘Meet the Artist’ session with Ross Couper (from Shetland, now based in Glasgow) and Tom Oakes (from Devon, now based in Edinburgh). I had last seen the pair play one of the BBC Seirm recording sessions at Celtic Connections back in January and had been well impressed by their energetic performance and expert use of fiddle (Ross) and guitar (Tom).

Christ Church Oxford.jpg

Of course, I managed to only catch a fraction of the huge programme for all ages, which was on offer during the weekend. I love supporting smaller festivals and I’m always amazed at how entirely volunteer-run events, such as Folk Weekend Oxford, manage to pull off such a big event so well. It’s usually down to a lot of hard work by a dedicated committee and many volunteers (like Jo, Rosie & Penny in first picture) throughout the year.

I highly recommend visiting the beautiful city of Oxford (picture above is Christ Church) during the festival to see for yourself what a positive impact such a community event can have. You might come back with a new idea what grassroots arts are all about, get a more in-depth understanding of local heritage and culture and have a lot of fun with like-minded people!

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.

Lighthouse View CCFest 2018.jpg

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.

The Fretless CCFest 2018.jpg

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.

St Mungo by Smug CCFest 2018.jpg

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.

Glasgow Police Museum CCFest 2018.jpg

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.

Dougie MacLean CCFest 2018.jpg

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.

Lau at Seirm CCFest 2018.jpg

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.