Tag Archives: folk music

Building Bridges (Not Walls): Celtic Connections 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Music Makes The World Go Round: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2015

I love discovering new festivals, the excitement of finding music I’ve never heard before and trying out things I would have otherwise never given a go. But as much as I enjoy variety, I also crave known comforts. Shrewsbury Folk Festival takes place on the August bank holiday weekend every year and for me usually marks the end of a long and fun festival summer. It‘s a time to wind down after a busy couple of months and SFF is the perfect event for it.

It was my fourth time in Shrewsbury this year and the festival never disappoints. Personally, I would have liked to see a few more Americana acts, but hey, it‘s a folk festival after all and one of the best ones around. So all those who are into traditional folk music were spoilt for choice with reliable festival favourites Nancy Kerr, Kate Rusby, The Oyster Band, Steve Knightley and Sharon Shannon as well as many younger but equally popular bands, such as Threepenny Bit, the Young’uns and Lucy Ward.

SFF sunset

There was also a well-received five-hour long peace concert, the annual parade in Shrewsbury town centre with many colourful morris sides entertaining the public, Pandemonium with a huge choice of events for the little ones, and tuneworks music workshops for everyone all weekend long.

The absence of many of the usual „band clash issues“ left me free to really relax into the festival happenings and also led me to some music and experiences I would have probably otherwise missed.

One of my favourite sessions was for instance the songwriting workshop with UK singer/songwriter Jack Harris in the cosy extension of the Berwick Pavillion, which took place once a day from Saturday until Monday. Calling it a songslam was slightly misleading as there was nothing competitive about it at all. Festival attendees took turns presenting their own songs, each followed by the group discussing songwriting techniques and themes (experience of war and family history were popular). It was lovely having the space and time to listen to a lone voice with a guitar in a very supportive environment. No meditation session could have had a more positive and calming effect on us.

Equally mesmerising was a mainstage 2 set by Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita on Monday afternoon. Their way of fusing harp and kora sounds was simply beautiful, two cultures talking to each other through the shared language of music.

Catrin Seckou SFF

I also really enjoyed the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Having first seen them at Cambridge Folk Festival this July, I made a note to catch them again and they didn’t disappoint. While the Australian Spooky Men’s Chorale’s humour left me mainly yawning, the subtler sounds and jokes by this fabulous ukes ensemble fitted perfectly into my meditative theme at this year’s festival.

North Carolina based singer/songwriter Jonathan Byrd and the Sentimentals saved the weekend in terms of Americana sounds for me (here is a taste: You Can’t Outrun The Radio) and I heard some rumours there might be more of an Americana focus again next year, fingers crossed.

My favourite festival discovery this year was quite a traditional band though, the young Canadian trio Ten Strings and a Goat Skin from Prince Edward Island who play Acadian, Irish and French tunes as well as their own compositions. Having very much enjoyed their intimate show at Green Note the Monday before, I ended up seeing all three of their Shrewsbury sets. There are many traditional bands around who play fast-paced and fabulous music. What distinguishes the best from the rest, however, is their ability to really connect with an audience. Brothers Rowen on fiddle and Caleb on percussion (incl. bodhran) as well as Jesse on guitar were the surprise hit of this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival and by their third set on Sunday night we were all dancing in front of the stage. What fun!

There are many good reasons why Shrewsbury Folk Festival is such a much-loved event. Mine are mostly that the volunteer crew is dedicated and cheerful (so great to see everyone again this year!), the quality of the performers is always reliably high, food and drink choices are varied and plentiful, Shrewsbury town centre with many lovely cafes and (charity) shops is just a stone’s throw away and, best of all, everyone is just getting on with it and having a brilliant time! To put it in a nutshell, the ideal folkie short break, which leaves you invigorated and ready for more of the same the next year and the one after that and so on.

P.S. Nearly forgot #folkiedog! What a pleasure to meet so many folkie dogs again this year, I even recognised a folkie dog family from the equally dog-friendly Maverick festival in Suffolk (note to self: must start #Americanadog next summer…). Here is a little video featuring some of the SFF folkie dogs.

Rimpee folkiedog SFF

The Best Medicine: Cambridge Folk Festival 2015

Festivals have always been a time for celebration and enjoyment, but to some of us, they are also a great source of inspiration. I, for one, am forever on the look-out for songwriters and songs that really move me and it always puts a smile on my face when I come across something special, like at the recent Cambridge Folk Festival (30 July – 2 August 2015) – 51 years and still going strong.

Sometimes it is the circumstances of how a band came to be in the first place, which are rather extraordinary, such as with The Lone Bellow from Brooklyn, who really blew me away with their positive energy and thoughtful lyrics, for instance “Green eyes and a heart of gold, All our money’s gone and the house is cold, And it’s alright, it’s alright.” It is often life-changing events that make us take stock of what, deep down, is important to us. The song is also a great reminder that money cannot buy health nor happiness and that every day is a gift (which may be an overused phrase, but I really believe it is).

Peggy Seeger performed at the very first Cambridge Folk Festival and returned after 50 years sharing her wisdom gained during a lifetime filled with music. I was lucky to be at both her set on stage 2 as well as her talk on the Club stage. The interview-style event was a rare opportunity to learn about a past I had only read about in books before. And yet, it was a small remark she made early on during her talk, which struck a real chord with me: “Every child is a singer until someone stops them.” This is so very true about music as well as many of the other (hidden) talents all of us have. I used to love drawing until I came across a very critical art teacher (failed artist?) in my early teens. Recovering these early passions can be a life-long but rather enjoyable process as it is never too late to be creative. Peggy said that, despite health setbacks, she still practises playing about 2 hours each day and her 80th birthday wish was to go on tour with her two sons, which she did. How inspiring is that?

Peggy & Joan

Having never seen Joan Baez live before, I had really been looking forward to her performance at CFF. It was a wonderful experience to be at the very front near the stage with thousands of other folkies singing along behind us to all the folk classics. I surprised myself with remembering pretty much all the lyrics of “House of the Rising Sun”, having sung it many times in Catholic (!) school as a young girl. Of course, none of us had any idea at the time, what the song was really all about. It seemed like Joan and many of the other performers were quite impressed with how passionate the audience was about music and singing; a memorable hour for all of us spent in the very best company.

This was also the case for the Passenger set. Mike Rosenberg, aka Passenger, had started out “busking” at the CFF Guinness tent in 2011 and was back this year, this time as one of the headliners on the main stage (plus a “secret gig” at the Guinness tent for old times’ sake). I enjoyed his humorous on-stage banter and how genuinely appreciative he was about playing such a prestigious event. One line that stayed with me afterwards was “You see, all I need’s a whisper in a world that only shouts” (from “Whispers”). And he couldn’t have put this any better, of course: “I hate ignorant folks, who pay money to see gigs, And talk through every f****** song” (from “I Hate”). To prove this point – or rather the opposite – he sang “The Sound of Silence” and thanked the audience for being so attentive; you could have heard a pin drop even though there were thousands of us gathered there while everyone happily joined in on his hit song “Let Her Go”. Paying attention to details and sharing silence(s) can be a beautiful thing indeed.

CFF 1

Sadly, there is not enough space to list all the songwriting gems I came across throughout the weekend. But let me share one last one, which the title of this blog post is based on and which has been the tune I was still humming on my way back from CFF. The Stray Birds from Pennsylvania are one of those bands who seamlessly manage to merge folk tradition with modern sensibilities. Their song “Best Medicine” (inspired by this awesome US record shop) sums up how I feel about music in general: “If the body is a temple, the soul is a bell and that’s why music is the best medicine I sell.” Just repeat this line aloud a few times and you will see why it is so powerful.

I am forever grateful for the never-ending stream of excellent music coming my way day in and day out. If you dig a little deeper and get below the commercial fare blaring from loudspeakers up and down the country, it will open up a whole new world of music to discover. And once you have tumbled down the rabbit hole of my favourite genre, “good music”, there really is no need to go back.

If there was any common thread with all the artists at Cambridge Folk Festival 2015, it was the passion with which they performed their songs and practised their craft. One highlight after another on three main stages (including the above mentioned as well as John Butler Trio, Rhiannon Giddens, Nick Mulvey, Gretchen Peters, The Willows, and new discoveries Fara, Rura and Lynched) plus a fabulous “fringe” programme at the Den (e.g. The Boundless Brothers, Callaghan & Ciaran Lavery) and even a stage on the campsite (!) made it come pretty close to the dream line-up any of us could have wished for if money and conflicting touring schedules were no object.

CFF 2

The one thing I was most impressed by, however, was the folk fest audience. Every day I would have conversations with fellow music lovers of all ages – the littlest festival attendee I met being only a mere month old – over a meal or a pint. Everyone seemed to have a constant smile plastered across their face, and rightly so. Who needs drugs when you can enjoy such amazing music for four days in a row? One particular festival moment, which is permanently etched in my memory, are the short but hilarious bus trips from the festival site to the campground every evening. The nightly singalong on the upper deck of the bus and the local bus drivers becoming folkie accomplices as we went around a single roundabout again and again and again, was the icing on the cake of an already superlative event. Well done, Cambridge Folk Fest, I hope this (for all the right reasons) successful festival will continue for many, many years to come!

Meet the Festival Makers: Cat Kelly of Folk Weekend Oxford

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Oxford is one of my favourite cities in the UK (see my blog post with tips for live music, charity shops, museums, cafes and more) and every April it hosts a lovely, volunteer-run music festival called Oxford Folk Weekend. Its director, Cat Kelly, agreed to speak to us about her experience running a vibrant community festival.

Life is a Festival: Tell me a little bit about the relatively recent yet rather successful history of Oxford Folk Weekend. Has it always been run by a volunteer committee and what was your reason for starting it?

Cat: Yes FW has always been run by volunteers. It started back in 2011 when the Oxford Folk Festival cancelled suddenly, but it was quite an informal (and impromtu!) event, and our first ‘proper’ festival was in 2012. I’d had a phone call from the director of Oxford Folk Festival confirming that they weren’t going to run another event, and asking me whether I’d like to take over. I’ve been performing at festivals since my early 20s, as well as having been involved in Oxford Folk Festival for a few years, so I like to think I’ve got a fair idea of what’s needed to organise a festival from both sides of it!

Life is a Festival: People often ask me why I am so passionate about festivals and what makes them different from simply attending once-off events or concerts. In your opinion, what makes FWO unique in terms of programming and atmosphere and what role does the city of Oxford play as its very attractive “backdrop”? I personally always really enjoy the variety of ages and backgrounds, local and visiting musicians, non-musicians, morris dancers etc.

Cat: I think the difference about a festival is the atmosphere of the whole community coming together for the weekend – a festival is a big and diverse thing, so everyone can be doing their own thing, and finding the bits they they like, whilst still all feeling like you’re there together for one purpose. When we started FW we wanted to make a festival which really reflected and celebrated the place where it was held, and the city of Oxford is a big part of that. We involve the local community in a variety of different ways (e.g. crafts people, school children, volunteers, charities & good causes at the village fete, local artists, local community music groups etc) and we use interesting and different venues within Oxford. Over the years we have staged gigs in the punishment cells of Oxford Castle (and on top of the Mound!), in the central library, in the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums, and this year we are putting on a series of concerts in Blackwells Bookshop.

Life is a Festival: Which brings us to the volunteers, including the organising committee, of course. I believe a festival is only ever as good as its volunteer crew and staff and (besides the line-up) it is often their friendliness and professional attitude which makes or breaks a festival. Do you agree?

Cat: Yes I do. The whole ethos of FW is welcoming and inclusive, and we really rely on our volunteers to be living that on the front line – they are often the first experience that someone has of the festival, and it’s a big responsibility to make sure that their first impression is a good one.

Life is a Festival: What were your favourite festivals moments (just pick a few!) in past years and what are you particularly looking forward to in 2015?

Cat: The gig on top of the Castle Mound in 2013 is one that has stuck in my mind – not least because I was taking 5 minutes out from being festival director and was sat with my daughter (who was 5 at the time) listening to the music in the sunshine. In fact, her involvement in the festival over the years has been one of my absolute favourite things about it – although it takes me away from her a lot of the time (particularly at this time of year!), she loves the festival and has usually planned out what she will be doing right throughout the weekend! This year she’s wanted to get involved in more of the organising, and spent Easter Saturday helping me to laminate backstage passes! What I’m really looking forward to about 2015 is once the festival has got going and all the organisational side of things is ticking along, I get to wander round town soaking up the atmosphere, meeting people who have come to the festival, and seeing what a great time everyone is having. I love it!

Thanks a mil to Cat Kelly for the interview and don’t miss Oxford Folk Weekend which is taking place from 17-19 April 2015.