Tag Archives: festival review

Sense of Place: Aye Write Festival Glasgow 2018

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

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

Orain Ileach cover pic

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

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

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

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

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

Aye Write Crime Authors 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Way Up! Kendal Mountain Festival 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pick a Strategic Place to Stay

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

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Come Prepared – Apps, Deals & Special Events

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

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Get recommendations From Those in the Know

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

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Awesome Music from All Sorts of Genres

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

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

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Great Quirky Venues from Book Shops to Cinemas

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

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

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

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Hunt for Cool Souvenirs

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

Extra Tips

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

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What is the Festival Like for Solo Travellers?

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

Was it worth it and would I do it again?

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

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

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Caledonia Dreaming: Banbury Folk & Hobby Horse Festival 2017

I had only been to  Banbury Folk Festival (6-8 October 2017) once before, as a volunteer steward a few years ago and had very much enjoyed spending a weekend in this historic Oxfordshire town with its canal boats and lots of friendly pubs with live music. It is a mostly volunteer-run community festival, which cherishes the folk club tradition and is never really that much about well-known artists, but about getting together with a pint around tables and listening – and often singing along – to talented musicians you will most likely not have heard of (yet). As this year was the 18th and last year for festival organisers Mary and Derek Droscher, it was definitely time for another visit and I certainly didn’t regret my decision!

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Last weekend was a great example why I love volunteering at folk festivals and why they are such a nice weekend getaway, particularly as a solo traveller. From the moment you check in for your shifts (usually jobs like taking tickets, doing reception for stewards or artists, helping with the café, setting up venues, cleaning up after gigs, helping with the parade etc.) you’re part of the team and often run into people you met at similar events (like one of my favs, Shrewsbury Folk Festival). It’s always a good idea to be cheerful and helpful, especially as a newcomer. Offering to make cups of tea or carry things from A to B are always appreciated. So is flexibility about shift times. Helping out with stewards’ reception on Friday afternoon was a nice and busy start as a lot of people were arriving around that time. I also met a guy who must have had the best volunteer role I’ve ever seen at any festival: Hobby Horse Liaison. Just brilliant!

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After a quick dinner on the go and dropping in on the main venue, Banbury Town Hall, for the start of the evening concert, I had to make my way over to the Banbury Cross pub where I was doing the door for the club room at the back were a couple of traditional singers were on until late. I’m glad I stayed on for a set by the energetic Granny’s Attic in the front bar of the pub and it made up for missing most of the Irish concert over at the town hall.

As October isn’t the best time to pitch your tent anywhere in England, the festival offers the option of ‘indoor camping’ upstairs in the Methodist Hall, the second largest venue. Sleepovers in a room above a church are a bit like being on a school trip decades after you’ve left that part of your life behind. People just bring their sleeping bags and there are tea making facilities and bathrooms available. Basic, but it makes for a nice atmosphere among your fellow volunteers (just make sure you don’t forget your ear plugs!) and Dave the Hat (see pic below) made sure we were all happy campers.

Gisela & Dave the Hat

After a lazy breakfast in the local Wetherspoons just around the corner, I was ready to explore Banbury’s charity shops for some second-hand book finds and the UK’s oldest working inland waterway boatyard, Tooley’s, which happened to have an open weekend with narrow boat trips and historic engine displays.

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At 11am it was time for the Hobby Horse Procession and some Morris sides to parade through the middle of town. There were so many great handmade costumes, mostly horses, of course, but also a unicorn, sheep, boar and a bear. Luckily the weather played along nicely, too, most of the weekend.

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This year’s headliner was award-winning Scottish songwriter (including an OBE) Dougie MacLean and as the festival organisers anticipated a lot of demand for his two appearances, they had come up with a pre-queueing system for tickets (free for festival pass holders), which required people to line up separately for his afternoon and evening events. I would have quite liked to see some other bands as well, but the timings were so tricky that I ended up doing a shift organising the first queue and doing audience mic for Dougie’s ‘Meet the Artist’ session at the Methodist Hall and then queued again for his evening concert in the Town Hall. It reminded me a bit of volunteering at Toronto Film Festival a few years back, where queueing had such a capital Q that it ended up being quite an entertaining experience.

As it turned out, it was well worth making it to both events though. I had never seen Dougie live before, but once he started singing, I realised I knew most of the songs from the cover versions of Irish sisters Mary and Frances Black, who I saw live many times when I was living in Ireland in the past. The ‘Meet the Artist’ session was a great format, an hour of audience questions interspersed with songs, just him and his guitar and that lovely, subtle voice. It was easy to see why he has so many fans around the world. His songwriting is a winning combination of memorable, often fairly melancholy melodies and thoughtful lyrics, which seem to resonate with many people.

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After a well-deserved coffee break, I joined a few others for the next queue at the Town Hall, which was a little chaotic and actually quite fun as we met lots of other festivalgoers. After all the wait, we scored first row seats – success. While we were passing the time chatting with other folkies, Pat Smith and Ned Clamp, who had run a beginners’ ‘spoons’ workshop earlier that day, began handing out pairs of spoons, which was followed by instructions on how to behave during our ‘performance’. Yep, we had just been volunteered to join the ‘Spoons Orchestra’ and were basically warming up the audience for the other (real) acts to come. Defo time for a drink or two!

After appearances by Granny’s Attic as well as local band Scarecrow, the wait was eventually over and Dougie performed his main set, which included harmonica playing AND didgeridoo. But seriously, who could be envious of the talent of such a humorous and soft-spoken man? I was just grateful he not only sang some songs from his latest album ‘New Tomorrow’ (the title track being a very moving one for his grandsons), but also a lot of my favourites including ‘Broken Wings’, ‘Talking to My Father’, ‘Caledonia’ (probably for the 3578th time in his life…) and the best encore ever, ‘This Love Will Carry Me’. Sigh. Singing along en masse to beautiful folk songs just makes you feel all warm and fuzzy (me anyway) no matter whether the majority of the audience hit the right notes or not. This concert certainly did! The very low-key ‘after show party’ (as it would be called in London) was held at the Cricket Club where we did more singing along to mostly shanties and traditional folk songs and got to chat with Dougie over a pint about his musical adventures around the world before getting herded onto the shuttle bus for a transfer back to our church home for the weekend.

Sunday was basically a recovery day following two fairly late nights. In the morning, what felt more like the middle of the night to me, I caught a lift with the festival shuttle back to the Cricket Club for a ‘singing breakfast’. It wasn’t the greatest start to the day if you were vegetarian like myself, but the atmosphere totally made up for it. Seasoned and entertaining performers Pete, John and Andy of Alhambra led the singalong and then we went around the various tables with people contributing songs or tributes to Mary and Derek, who had some great stories from 18 years of making Banbury Folk Festival history. Back in town, I caught one more singer-songwriter, Irishwoman Paula Ryan, at the Banbury Cross Pub before my last shift of the weekend back at the Town Hall.

Banbury Paula Ryan

This was supposed to be a ticket checking shift, but as they were short of a hobby horse handler (lol), I got volunteered for the second time this weekend for something I had no qualifications for. It reminded me of dressing up for carnival as a child back home and my horse with no name was actually a beautiful specimen handmade from papermache. So I trotted into the town hall following a cow, with a furry brown bear hot on my heels. Can you think of a more hilarious way to spend a Sunday afternoon?

After all this excitement, it was time for Keith Donnelly’s and Anna Ryder’s (she also has a pretty cool website about moths!) humorous set and Anthony John Clarke closed the festival including a tribute to Vin Garbutt, who sadly passed away in the summer. Mary and Derek deserve to be very proud of their achievement in the past (nearly) two decades, what a lovely festival with so many friendly people.

Hobby Horse Farewell

Like every last festival day, the post festival blues hit me soon after leaving Banbury, but the good news is: the folk festival will most likely continue in the future and I found out that Dougie and his wife Jenny (who looks after all his merch at gigs and is a very talented artist in her own right) have been running their very own festival called Perthshire Amber each November (taking a break this year). So it took a weekend in the wilds of Oxfordshire to serve as an unexpected reminder that I need to spend more time in Scotland. I’ll hopefully also make it to a few of the island festivals in 2018, watch this space…

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4 Days, 40000 Music Fans, 70+ Venues: Hamburg’s Reeperbahn Festival 2017

If there is such a thing as the perfect time to visit Hamburg (also see my Solo Travel Guide to Hamburg), I probably hit the jackpot with getting to go during Reeperbahn Festival time. What an amazing weekend! I arrived on Wednesday afternoon and, after dropping off my stuff at the hotel, headed straight over to the Festival Village at Heiligengeistfeld (U3 stop St. Pauli) to pick up my press pass. Ready to go for a weekend of live music, culture and fun!

What Is the Festival Like?

The great thing about Reeperbahn Festival (20-23 September 2017), which is in its 12th year this year, is that it takes place in many of the city’s best venues, bars, theatres and clubs of all sizes, most of which can be reached on foot and a few by a short ride on the U3 underground. And hurrah, a public transport pass is included in your festival pass. Besides all the indoor clubs, there are also two large outdoor spaces with smaller stages. One is the Festival Village at Heiligengeistfeld (where you pick up your festival pass), which has access for passholders only and Spielbudenplatz with lots of food trucks, which is freely accessible even for non-passholders (apart from some areas). In addition, Reeperbahn Festival has been hosting a two-day music industry conference since 2009 as well as the NEXT conference for digital creatives and also includes a lot of art projects and a very cool gig poster fair, Flatstock 64, at Spielbudenplatz.

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It’s all a bit overwhelming – I hear you!

That’s exactly what I thought when I first arrived, especially as I didn’t know a lot of the bands. Luckily, the printed programme (you could pick a free daily one up in all the venues) had an indication what kind of genres the bands were (indie, pop, rock, folk, singer-songwriter, electronic, hip hop, soul, jazz, classical etc.) and I highly recommend downloading the festival App as it worked like a charm. It also updated you on entrance stops for particularly busy shows and any changes or cancellations, so I used it every single day. Another strategy is to focus on particular countries. The first evening I decided to head to a showcase by Project ATX6 from Austin (live music capital of the world!), Texas, and it didn’t disappoint. All six acts, incl. Little Marzarn and Mobley, were unique and excellent. It took place in a cool venue called Molotow, which had four stages (3 indoors, 1 in the courtyard) and is just off the main Reeperbahn.

What Kind of Music Can I Expect?

The festival is a multi-genre event with an eclectic line-up of both headliners and up and coming bands from all around the world. This year’s star-studded list included Portugal. The Man, Liam Gallagher and Beth Ditto (whose show was my favourite of the whole weekend, so much positive energy), but also bands like London-based 47Soul, Omar Suleyman from Syria, Amadou & Mariam from Mali and Sólstafir from Iceland. I also attended the Anchor Award 2017 for new music, which was won by UK singer-songwriter Jade Bird. This year’s festival partner country was Canada and I would have loved to see more of the bands lined up for this, but due to lack of time I only managed to catch one of my favourite Canadian musicians, Sarah McDougall, who is always amazing live. Keychange was created by the festival to highlight the fact that women are still underrepresented both on and behind the stage in today’s music industry was another interesting project. Last but not least, the amazing Elbphilarmonie concert hall (U3 stop Baumwall), which only opened in January 2017 and was lovingly nicknamed ‘Elphi’ by the locals, was definitely one of the highlights at this year’s festival. I got to do a tour with a guide during the day, but don’t worry, you can visit for free, sign up online (small fee but guaranteed entry) for a slot or just turn up and ask for a visitor’s pass, which allows you access to some of the building, the cafes and restaurant plus the viewing platforms overlooking the harbour. I also went to a midnight gig on the last day of the festival, the main hall with its 360 degree stage and many balconies is really super impressive!

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Is the Festival just for Hipsters in their Twenties?

Nope, most definitely not. I met people of all ages, locals, Germans from other parts of the country and lots of international folks, too. That’s what’s so nice about RBF, you get to mingle with music fans, journalists, bloggers, music industry insiders and people of all ages, from excited teenagers to retired architects. There is a fun and friendly vibe everywhere and it’s super easy to get talking about the best shows while you’re queueing for a gig or hanging out in the open air area in between concerts.

What other events should I catch in between the gigs?

Did you know that the Beatles started their career in Hamburg, spending about two years in the German port city, honing their skills in the local clubs and pubs before making it big internationally? Hamburg musician Stefanie Hempel does very insightful and entertaining Beatles Tours, which start on Beatles Square right on the Reeperbahn. I was also lucky to go on a tour of Hamburg’s best recordshops with DJ Sebastian Reier, including Hanseplatte, Zardoz Records (who also have lots of second hand books), Smallville Records, Groove City and a visit to the nightclub Übel und Gefährlich on the fourth floor of a former WWII bunker (the rooftop view is fantastic including the St. Pauli football stadium).  You can also do a musical harbour boat cruise with Frau Hedis Tanzkaffee, which runs year round and takes you around the harbour of Hamburg for two hours with an onboard bar and varying musical entertainment or DJing.

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Where Can I Grab Some Food and Drink?

This will be your smallest problem during the festival as there are lots of street food vendors plus the regular Reeperbahn chips, pizza and falafel places (and some proper restaurants) to choose from. Some of the street food was excellent, I tried for instance a yummy vegan hot dog with caramelised onions and goats cheese in a speciality bread roll. The Festival Village, too, had some interesting options like fries with peanut sauce or handmade sandwiches from Handbrotzeit. The Arcotel Onyx near the St. Pauli stop is the official festival hotel where you can take a breather in between gigs or meet music industry folks for a chat over a coffee.

How to Get into Popular Venues & Avoid Long Queues

You’ll be pleased to hear that the bouncers at the festival venues don’t prioritise anyone, everyone needs to queue. There is a special queue for delegates (meaning conference delegates, press and staff), but it doesn’t guarantee you entry. I even had to act as an interpreter for a band from the US who had been told to come to their venue to pick up their passes, but then were sent away by security staff as they had no badge to prove their status. I managed to get them in anyway after explaining their situation in German. Phew. So basically just turn up early if you’d like to see a particular band. For Liam Gallagher’s special appearance at Docks on Saturday night, I arrived two hours earlier and it was no problem. The other alternative is to be really patient and very friendly to the bouncers, as often people leave after each band and they play it by ear how many are still allowed in. It was defo worth it for Beth Ditto at Große Freiheit 36 (see pic below).

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Make a Game Plan – or Just go with the Flow

I’m a bit of a festival nerd, so I love festival schedules! I really enjoy working out how to see my favourite bands and events, but I also often change my mind after getting recommendations from other festival goers, promoters and band managers. What lots of people love about Reeperbahn Festival is that it’s a club festival and you don’t have to book individual concerts. You can simply walk into any of the participating venues with your wristband and sample exciting bands from all over the world. As I didn’t know a lot of the bands, my strategy was basically seeing as many different venues as possible, especially the smaller ones and to catch bands from places or countries I like, e.g. a Swedish showcase at Headcrash including Smith & Thell from Stockholm as well as Maybe Canada (a solo project by Magnus Hansson from Gothenburg). I also enjoyed being in the audience of a live radio show for NDR Blue at Alte Liebe, which included some shorter sets by three musicians as well as live band interviews. If you have a fairly broad musical taste, this is the perfect festival for you, but even for those of you, like me, who are into more acoustic music, there were plenty of gigs to choose from.

Other Tips Before You Go

There is a bag size restriction for all venues, which is roughly A4 size and yes, they will turn you away if your backpack looks a little bigger than this, so either leave larger bags in your hotel or at the nearby (6 stops) main train station (Hauptbahnhof) where you can rent a small locker for only €4 euros for 24 hours. The underground runs all night at the weekend (from Thursday onwards), so you can rest assured you’re going to get home without any problems. Also, talking of personal safety, please be aware that most of the concerts take place right in the actual red light district, but while it certainly is very crowded there in the evenings, I walked around late at night without any problems just like the thousands of other festival goers. I highly recommend booking accommodation along the U3 route (I stayed at Superbude St. Georg, a short walk from Berliner Tor), in fact I used this line for most of my sightseeing, too, it’s just perfect to get to most of the venues and also the hip Schanzenviertel for a brunch or a stroll through the many great shops. Finally, Hamburg’s airport is within the AB zone, which means you only pay about 3 euros for a single ticket and it only takes 25 minutes on the S1 to get to the Hauptbahnhof. Perfect!

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A Taste of the Reeperbahn Festival and Hamburg in London – Hamburg on Tour 20-21 October 2017

I know, unfortunately it’s another 12 months until the next Reeperbahn Festival, but don’t despair, Hamburg on Tour is coming to London in October and best of all: it’s free! Yep, free music with bands from Hamburg’s most awesome festivals, such as RBF, MS Dockville, Elbjazz, Hurricane, Hanse Song and Wacken, free films courtesy of Internationales Kurzfilmfestival, a free Beatles ‘tour’ with Hamburg musician Stefanie Hempel, free coffee workshops with Speicherstadt Kaffee and a free 360 degree experience of the brand new Elbphilarmonie concert hall. Plus you get to taste some German beer and find out all about Germany’s second largest city. See you there!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival visited Hamburg, the Reeperbahn Festival and stayed at Superbude St. Georg as a guest of the nice folks at Hamburg Marketing. Prices are as of September 2017, please confirm them online before you go. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival with the exception of the last photo, courtesy of Hamburg on Tour.

Happy Campers Despite The Rain: Cambridge Folk Festival 2017

Of the three years I’ve been to Cambridge Folk Festival, the 52nd edition, from 27-31 July 2017, was the least euphoric for me (for lack of coming up with a better adjective for it). The weather was not great on most days and really sucked on Saturday night plus there wasn’t really any act that I was dying to see live this time. On top of that, on the last festival night, I managed to pick a bus to the campsite with a driver how wasn’t in the mood to do the roundabout thing, which I’d been looking forward to practically for a year. Having said all that, I still had a great time because of the fantastic new music I discovered, the always friendly vibe, the yummy food and last but most definitely not least the fun team I worked with (third year in a row).

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Of the acts I did catch I was most impressed by a few of the bands I had not seen before like the excellent She Drew the Gun from Liverpool, Amythyst Kiah from Tennessee, the Indigo Girls with guest band member Lucy Wainwright, Juanita Stein, Worry DollsMoxie and Daoirí Farrell (both from Ireland), 2017 Grammy winner Fantastic Negrito (see second pic below), The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, Blue Rose Code and Scottish band Admiral Fallow (see pic below), the last set of the festival for me and the perfect end to this year’s event.

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Acts I didn’t care much for were Jake Bugg (really doesn’t compare at all to, say, the Passenger performance in 2015, but still attracted lots of screaming selfie-taking teenagers) and, a bit unexpectedly, Shirley Collins, whose main stage performance was rather uninspiring and who seemed to favour sticking with just music from the past and dissing musicians creating new ‘folk’ music. Surely traditional music was also new at some point and it’s exciting to witness the emergence of new folk songs, the best of which are bound to be classics one day while keeping the best of traditional folk music alive as well.

We also got some fantastic surprise sets at the Clapham’s Common After Hours Stage (my favourite way to relax after a long festival day) with appearences by Jon Boden (yes, really!) and lots of other great performers until about 1.30am most nights. The campsite was still fairly quiet overall and I had a few good nights’ sleep.

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Instead of doing a run-down of my festival weekend I thought this time around I’ll answer a few questions people tend to ask me about going to festivals. Here we go…

What is it like working at a festival?

I do a mix of attending festivals with a press pass, volunteering and, like at Cambridge, working as part of the festival team. Each of them have their advantages and disadvantages. With a press pass you tend to have easier access and can see any acts you want, but it can also be a bit boring as it takes more effort to interact with people if you’re there by yourself. As a volunteer you have a ready-made group of pals you work and hang out with, which is great fun and a lot more sociable and you still get to see a lot of acts as you generally get given a festival pass. I try and volunteer only at festivals that ask for no more than 4 hours per day, as I think any longer shifts are basically work and should be paid accordingly. At Cambridge we do about 6-8 hours of paid work a day and as you’re staff it comes with a bit more responsibility than simply being a volunteer. But it’s so great to work with other people who are motivated and to make sure, together as a team, the audience is having a fun and is having a safe festival experience. As we are usually the first to notice if anything doesn’t go according to plan (accidents, logistical issues, lost children, the lot), we really get to see how much work and coordination it takes to make such a large event happen and how good teamwork positively contributes to it.

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Isn’t camping sort of roughing it and not very enjoyable?

I first started festival camping in 2012 when I made the crucial mistake of buying a super light tent with only one skin. It makes me cringe thinking back to that summer when my little tent got flooded by rain and after a wet and uncomfortable night I headed into the nearest town desperate to buy a sturdier model. Since then I’ve had the best of times with my ‘happy tent’ (see pic below), a 3-man dome tent, which is just perfect for one person actually. It fits my self-inflatable sleeping mat and sleeping bag on one side and my handluggage-sized trolley and other bits and pieces on the other side. I only go to festivals with reasonable shower and toilet facilities, so do read the FAQs of the festival(s) you’re planning to go to. I also always travel by public transport, so it’s essential to keep everything to a minimum while still bringing enough change of clothes, wellies etc. to keep you comfy no matter what the weather gods throw at you. Although there tend to be very few thefts and festival security patrolling the camp sites at most festivals I’ve been to, it’s also wise to not leave any valuables in the tent if you can avoid it. Some festivals offer lockers or you might be able to ask a neighbour in a Campervan to keep things for you if needed. Campers tend to be friendly, helpful folks, so don’t be shy to ask for help and offer it yourself if you see anyone struggling with putting up their tent (we’ve all been there).

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Don’t you get lonely attending a festival by yourself?

I love solo travel and that also applies to festivals. Most of my friends are not quite as excited about festivals as I am and I’m not quite as excited about drinking, smoking and just hanging out when there are the most amazing bands on the line-up. So I just tend to have more fun on my own. Yes, the first night when you don’t know anyone yet, can be a bit lonely, but it’s a great opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and talk to new people or learn to sit with that feeling of loneliness, which is also a good experience from time to time. I always bring books to read and a journal to write in and there is so much on all the time that I hardly ever have any spare time anyway. Like already mentioned above, volunteering or working at a festival is a great way of meeting new and most of all trustworthy people, who can keep you a seat or look after your bag while you’re off to the loo, all of which is a bit more difficult when you’re on your own.

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What do you recommend bringing to a festival?

I hate being cold even more than being too warm. So I always pack a blanket, a hot water bottle (onsite ambulance stations or coffee vans sometimes let you fill those if you ask nicely or you can bring a travel kettle if there are plugs around the site), a water bottle as festivals always have taps for drinking water (saves the environment and quite a bit of cash, which you could spend on artist merch instead), band aids, dry shampoo, plastic bags (you can never have enough of those, especially when the weather is bad) and for those weekends when it gets really sunny don’t forget your sun protection and a hat.

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How do I get to be in the front row for a particular set?

Every festival is different, but at Cambridge you basically have the largest stage (stage 1), the slightly smaller stage 2 and the Club Tent (talks/Q&As, folk clubs and more traditional music during the day, fairly up-tempo acts at night) plus The Den (up and coming acts, just outside the main festival area). For both stages 1 and 2 I recommend getting to the front at the end of the set just before the one you want to see. If you get there only by the start time of your preferred artist, that is usually too late, so you do need to plan ahead. Having said that, Cambridge is always fairly relaxed and you won’t have to worry much about it being too crowded and claustrophobic. The tents are open on two sides (stage 1) or three sides (stage 2) and this might be an English thing, but there are often gaps in the middle as most people tend to stand around the edges, so if you say ‘excuse me’ a lot in a friendly way while threading your way through the crowd, you might get further to the front even if it looks busy from outside the tent. People are also generally willing to let children stand in the front. During the Indigo Girls set on Friday night, there was a girl even sleeping in between other people’s legs right behind the front row, so it’s definitely no problem with little ones.

My partner doesn’t care much for music, what else is there to do?

Cambridge has lots of alternative activities on all day and most of them take place by the Duck Pond, a bit outside the main arena. The Hub offers workshops for children and young people (craft, dance, music), the Flower Garden does too (talks, storytelling, music workshops) and there is a healing area as well with Tai Chi, yoga (sadly missed both sessions this time), positive thinking, drawing and willow art. There is also a café there where you can refuel in between workshops. Plus you have a lot of fun stalls to explore in the main arena offering jewellery (like this very well designed one below), fancy dress, instruments, CDs and more.

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What do you eat at festivals as a vegetarian or vegan?

It is actually at festivals where quite a few pop-up stalls with inventive veggie and vegan food started out and there is no problem whatsoever at most UK festivals to eat meat-free all weekend (but do confirm this on the website of the festival you are planning on attending). At Cambridge I had a choice of curries, salads, smoothies, Indian street food, burritos, cakes, wood oven pizza and more and a veggie version of the ‘full English’ is pretty standard, too, nowadays. As a staff member, I was lucky to also get to eat at Red Radish backstage once a day, who had the yummiest veggie and vegan dishes every day, such as delicious curry with melons and vegan Bolognese pasta.

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While my first ever Cambridge Folk Festival in 2015 was still the best one so far for me, 2017 was definitely very enjoyable again. And the fact that Rhiannon Giddens (video snippet of her 2015 set) will be taking over from Jon Boden next year as a guest festival curator (besides Bev Burton who took over the main festival programmer job from Eddie Barcan this year) is already a great reason to attend next year, too!

Stage 1 Friday CFF 2017

P.S. This year there was an all-female line-up for stage 1, which should be a great example for other festivals to up their female musicians percentage. I personally think it would work even better if it wasn’t all condensed into one day and just spread throughout the weekend, but what’s important is that Bev and the team have obviously given it a thought and are helping to make positive change happen. Excellent!