The recent heat wave coincided perfectly with the seventh Folk Weekend Oxford (19-21 April 2018), which seems to get better every year. It’s one of those festivals where you might not know very many of the bands on the line-up beforehand, but which always delivers in terms of quality, fun and a friendly community feel, something many of the larger festivals simply cannot offer.
Before my first stewarding shift on Friday night I had plenty of time for a pizza in the sunny backyard of The Rusty Bicycle pub and a leisurely stroll around the Cowley Road charity shops. Then I was off to St. Barnabas church in the Jericho neighbourhood, just north of Oxford City Centre. The ceilidhs always draw quite a crowd (up to 200 dancers) as the festival puts on fantastic live bands every year and this time was no exception. I was very impressed with the sound of Banter, one of the most quirky ceilidh bands I’ve come across so far, whose sound goes far beyond English traditional music including jazz, pop and soul influences. Unsurprisingly, they were a huge hit with the dancing crowd. The night also included a performance by local rapper (sword dance) team Mabel Gubbins.
After an incredibly sunny Friday, I woke up to more sunshine and met up for breakfast with a friend for coffee and exceptionally good cake at Barefoot Café on Walton Street before checking out some of the morris spots around town for live dancing with sides from various traditions, including Black Annis Women’s Morris and their adorable canine mascot Hattie (see pic further down). Around lunchtime we headed to one of my favourite Oxford venues, the airy hall of the Quaker Meeting House for a concert of traditional folk music, which included Dan Evans and Rebecca Hallworth (see pic below). Dan is a renowned fingerstyle mountain dulcimer player who also held an interesting workshop on the history and different styles of instruments on Sunday afternoon.
There was just enough time for dropping into Blackwells bookshop’s Norrington room for a set by young contemporary singer-songwriter Martha Bailey (see pic below) and a quick burrito dinner before my shift at the Wesley Memorial Church. The line-up consisted of Oxford vocal duo Hoverhawk, traditional singer Nick Dow and a solo set by one of the festival headliners, Eliza Carthy, who obviously drew the crowds for this event.
On Sunday morning, during breakfast at the Nosebag restaurant, I got talking to another festival goer, who told me their Appalachian dance team, Cornucopia (see pic below), would be performing around lunchtime in the pedestrian area on Cornmarket. Their spot was one of my favourite performances all weekend and got a lot of positive reactions from locals and tourists alike. I then made my way over to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Centre where I caught half of the Topette workshop, a French-Anglo collaboration including Andy Cutting. They played some very beautiful dance tunes and spoke about the joys and challenges of working together across cultures and borders.
As I had not managed to join any workshops yesterday, I decided it was time for some dancing on the festival’s last day. So I took part in the Harlequin Morris Cotswold morris workshop (hankies and bells) for an hour. After we had warmed up for a few minutes we got taught a routine of various steps, jumps and hanky movements accompanied by accordion music. Let’s just say it was an ‘interesting experience’ and is a lot harder than it looks, but I think I’ll stick to Irish set dancing in future. It was great to see, however, that the class attracted people of all ages, including some enthusiastic youngsters, and we did manage to learn a whole routine in the short time we had.
My last event of the festival was a great ‘Meet the Artist’ session with Ross Couper (from Shetland, now based in Glasgow) and Tom Oakes (from Devon, now based in Edinburgh). I had last seen the pair play one of the BBC Seirm recording sessions at Celtic Connections back in January and had been well impressed by their energetic performance and expert use of fiddle (Ross) and guitar (Tom).
Of course, I managed to only catch a fraction of the huge programme for all ages, which was on offer during the weekend. I love supporting smaller festivals and I’m always amazed at how entirely volunteer-run events, such as Folk Weekend Oxford, manage to pull off such a big event so well. It’s usually down to a lot of hard work by a dedicated committee and many volunteers (like Jo, Rosie & Penny in first picture) throughout the year.
I highly recommend visiting the beautiful city of Oxford (picture above is Christ Church) during the festival to see for yourself what a positive impact such a community event can have. You might come back with a new idea what grassroots arts are all about, get a more in-depth understanding of local heritage and culture and have a lot of fun with like-minded people!