Category Archives: Music Festival Reviews

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!

Oxford Canal fwo2017

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.

Opening Ceremony fwo2017

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.

Melrose Quartet fwo2017

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.

songwriting workshop fwo2017

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.

stewards fwo2017

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.

barras-glasgow-2017

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.

mary-cc-ccf-1

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.

baked-eggs-singl-end-glasgow-2017

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.

smooth-jazz-1

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!

Mind The Roundabouts: Cambridge Folk Festival 2016

While it’s exciting to be at an event for the first time and discovering all its ins and outs, I love returning to a festival and being able to look forward to what I know will be a great music-filled weekend. Cambridge Folk Festival (28-31 July 2016) is one of those examples as it’s always impeccably organised and runs like clockwork, but at the same time has a friendly, laid-back vibe.

This year’s festival started for me in a very relaxed fashion as I had plenty of time on Thursday to set up the happy tent at Coldham’s Common, head into town to get supplies and then make my way over to Cherry Hinton Hall where the festival began as usual with Stage 2 and the Club Tent plus The Den swinging into action around 6pm. I decided to start with Imar, a fab inventive Glasgow-based five piece trad band with Scottish, Irish and Manx roots. After a veggie burrito dinner I headed over to The Den, a smaller stage with a cosy living-room feel which always hosts a number of exciting not so well-known bands. The first set I caught was by Bristol-based Heg & the Wolf Chorus, who call their mesmerising musical storytelling “theatrical folk music”. This was followed by the very energetic brother duo Echo Town, made up of Richard and Robert Harrison whose rhythm-based live show included didgeridoo, djembe, a drum set and guitar. It only took a few songs for the audience to realise this was the perfect opportunity to get up from the cosy rugs spread around the tent and start dancing their socks off, which we did!

Cambridge Folk Festival 2016

After a quiet night at the campground, which again had everything one could possibly wish for, including good showers, a live music tent (more about this later) and food and drink until the early hours, I caught the official shuttle back to the festival site in the morning. I grabbed a coffee and some breakfast and started with a very relaxed songwriting workshop by Chris Wood. Then I headed over to the duck pond for a peaceful yoga and meditation session led by Teresa. A great start to the first festival day.

Although Friday had pretty mixed weather overall this didn’t dampen the spirits of the festival goers in the slightest given the enticing line-up across the three stages. This year featured a lot of excellent Irish artists, the first of which for me was Lisa O’Neill, who I’d seen in Dublin before and is one of those songwriters whose talent most definitely belies their age. The rest of the day was spent sampling the various musical offerings and finding new favourites including Americana duo The Mike + Ruthy Band, who are hailing from Upstate New York and even have their own festival, The Hoot. In the evening it was time for a set by Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall on Stage 1 and I stayed on for Gogol Bordello, whose Gypsy punk sounds were a nice contrast to the more traditional acts who were on during most of the day.

Leyla McCalla

On Saturday I started the day again with some excellent coffee and another songwriting workshop, this time by English folk revival superstar Eliza Carthy, who was just as entertaining, funny and thoughtful in a smaller setting as she was on stage with her 12-piece Wayward Band. The next highlight of the day lasted for nearly three hours as the Festival Session on Stage 2 hosted by Brian O’Neill was like a high-profile open mic with top musicians and newcomers (Le Vent du Nord, Världens Bänd, Sam Kelly, Jack Cookson, Kadia) passing the musical baton every few minutes, just fabulous! One of Saturday’s standout sets was by Leyla McCalla (formerly cellist with The Carolina Chocolate Drops) and band. Her repertoire and arrangements influenced by Cajun, Haitian and Creole music were simply beautiful. Another excellent Americana band, the Massachusetts-based all male quartet Darlingside, became one of the festival favourites over the weekend, having been given a Stage 1 slot at the last minute to replace Charles Bradley, who had sadly been taken ill. After a jam-packed day I was very excited to see Christy Moore on Stage 1. I hadn’t seen the iconic Irish singer, now in his early seventies, live since the 1990s and was pleasantly surprised that his classic songs sounded just as fresh and relevant as they had two decades ago. Ably supported by another excellent Irish musician, Declan Sinnott, as well as Seamie O’Dowd and Jimmy Higgins, it was probably my favourite set of the festival weekend. As much as I love folk music from all over the world, there is something about Irish music and voices that touch my heart in a way nothing else can.

Mary Chapin Carpenter 1

The last festival day always approaches way too fast and again I decided to take it easy and go for quality over quantity. Powerful all female five-piece Della Mae from Nashville were a must on my list and I hope they’ll bring their infectious brand of Americana back to the UK very soon. In the evening I greatly enjoyed Mary Chapin Carpenter’s set on Stage 1. It didn’t beat the singalong experience we had with Joan Baez last year, but having never seen her live before, I really enjoyed both her classic songs as well as her newer material and the stage banter in between. I then headed over to The Flower Garden to a fascinating workshop by US folk musicians Anna & Elizabeth who showcased their handmade “crankies”, miraculous scrolls either painted or sewn with fabric to illustrate the story of a sung ballad, a fascinating tradition which the duo have successfully dragged into the modern day and age. I, for one, have been inspired to give crankie-making a go myself over the winter months. Take a look at The Crankie Factory to learn more about them.

Anna & Elizabeth Crankie Workshop

After a break for wood-fired pizza another Irish favourite of mine, Imelda May, took to Stage 1. While the Cambridge audience seemed to take a little while to warm to her very danceable rock’n’roll sound, her version of U2’s “All I Want Is You” with everyone joining in was the most beautiful moment of the set. I ended the night with Hot 8 Brass Band and the musicians from New Orleans seriously blew the proverbial roof off Stage 2. Their set concluded with a parade right through the audience over to the Mojo tent with everyone whooping and clapping along, what a festival finish!

But wait, the real highlight was still to come: the bus trip over to Coldham’s Common, which traditionally leaves the drivers free to go around the three roundabouts on the way as often as they want with happy passengers cheering along like excited school kids. Ah, the simple pleasures of life! I’d also like to give an extra special shout-out to the amazing late night bar tent at the campsite. The best afterparty at the festival, which even attracted some of the official CFF bands, such as Flats & Sharps for a late night set, just added that special extra to an already successful and well-organised event. Well done everyone!

Midwinter Music Madness: Celtic Connections Glasgow 2016

January isn’t usually a popular festival month in most European countries, but luckily the guys at Celtic Connections filled this festival-free zone with one of the most amazing music events I’ve ever attended. From 14 – 31 January 2016 Glasgow was yet again the backdrop for 18 midwinter days of excellent folk music, Americana, world music with a Celtic twist, educational programmes, Showcase Scotland and, of course, the ever popular festival club.

I managed to make it to Scotland for a couple of those days, trying to ignore the many tempting concerts which I was sadly missing on each end (Patty Griffin, The Moving Hearts, Jason Isbell, The Lone Bellow, Seckou Keita & Gwyneth Glyn to name just a few). It was my first time in Glasgow and as I stepped off the train at Central Station, I already knew I would like the place. I’m a big fan of discovering a new city through a festival and was positively surprised about the many amazing cultural venues and museums the city has to offer.

Being based at the festival HQ, I spent a couple of hours every day getting artist packs ready, sorting out transport, meal vouchers and anything else the bands needed together with a fun volunteer team of all ages who were all seriously passionate about folk and Americana.

Martha & Lucy CC 16

On Monday night I managed to catch the Wainwright Sisters, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche (with support by Ethan Johns) at the City Halls who performed songs from their latest shared album ‘Songs in the Dark’ as well as some of their own material. It was just the two singers with their guitars, jokes, stories and two perfectly matching voices. Superb.

The night after I had tickets for a Seirm recording session for BBC Alba at the Hillhead Bookclub, a wonderful venue (which used to be a pre-First World War cinema, the Hillhead Electric Theatre) in the West End. We were treated to a night of Scottish Gaelic, folk, and Americana music including South Uist singer (and Outlander star) Gillbride MacMillan, New Hampshire based singer-songwriter (and also Gaelic speaker) Kyle Carey as well as French chansons courtesy of Anne Carrere of Piaf! The Show plus another set by the Wainwright Sisters, this time so intimate, it felt like a living room concert.

On Wednesday night it was time for Rhiannon Giddens and band on the Old Fruitmarket stage (yet another beautiful historic venue!). Being one of the founding members of the equally amazing Carolina Chocolate Drops, she never fails to impress. Her exquisite voice, clever choice of material (mostly taken from her latest solo album ‘Tomorrow is my Turn’) and incredible stage presence were a winner with the sold out house. On Thursday night Mairi Campbell’s intriguing solo show Pulse at the Tron Theatre was followed by my only chance to enjoy the festival club at the Art School (incl. the Poozies, Nuala Kennedy and Daoiri Farrell & the Four Winds) until the early hours, which was a great finale for my first Celtic Connections visit to Glasgow.

Rhiannon Giddens CC 16

In between all the musical happenings I also managed to explore quite a bit of what the city has to offer in terms of culture, cafes and veggie food. As far as I’m concerned Glasgow is seriously underrated as a weekend trip destination! Here are just a few examples why:

Museums: I loved the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (great collection and stunning building), the Burrell Collection in Pollok Park complete with Highland cows grazing outside, the Mitchell Library (the largest public reference library in Europe and also host to the lovely Aye Write and Wee Write festivals) and the Lighthouse design museum (great view of the city centre from the top). All of them are free entry (donations welcome).

Cafes, food and neighbourhoods: I ventured both to the West End (great coffee, veggie soup and homemade bread at Kember & Jones) on the third-oldest subway system in the world as well as the South Side (finally managed to visit the Glad Café, fab live music venue plus the most scrumptious veggie haggis burger and sweet potato fries) by bus plus discovered tons of great charity shops. Other places I ate at where Stereo (just like at Mono, fab veggie and vegan food in another cool music and arts venue) as well as Café Source (in the basement of the St Andrews church/venue), The Steamie (see pic below) and the Saramago Café at the CCA. Somehow the best cultural spots also seemed to have the best coffee, veggie and vegan food, way to go!

The very best part of my visit were the Glaswegians though. ‘People Make Glasgow’ might be a marketing slogan, but I really felt immediately at home in this beautiful Scottish city with its humorous locals and lively cultural and festival scene. Can’t wait to be back sometime very soon!

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