Tag Archives: folk

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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Ceilidhs, Fiddles & Fun For All Ages: Folk Weekend Oxford 2015

One of my favourite locations for festivals is right in the heart of a city. Folk Weekend Oxford, which took place from 17-19 April 2015, did not only successfully tick this particular box. It also managed to put on a veritable smorgasbord of folky entertainment for all ages for a whole weekend again. And all this was achieved by more volunteer hours Cat and her hard-working team probably care to remember – well done! Having joined as a weekend steward once more this year, it was again a great experience – and the weather played along nicely too for a change.

Splat the Rat

Even though I had decided I would take more of a chilled approach this time and not squeeze too many sets in too many of the fabulous venues in over the three days, Friday night started out with a pretty busy event. I helped running the ceilidh in the beautiful St. Barnabas church in Jericho, one of my favourite areas in Oxford (including the Illyria pottery shop with resident kitty Lucie Maud). Alas, just around the time we were supposed to have our stewards briefing on Friday afternoon, there was a fire at the iconic Randolph Hotel in the city centre. It not only kept the fire brigade busy for most of the evening, but also meant the first main concert at the (a little ominously named) Old Fire Station sadly had to be cancelled. Our dance event, which was sold out last year too, went ahead though and attracted nearly 200 enthusiastic ceilidh dancers of all ages. We had a wonderful evening with lots of laughs and many of the first-timers excitedly asking when the next dance night was going to be on (as it happened, on the following night).

Oxford Canal

After a hearty breakfast at our B&B I headed back into town along the canal and its parade of lovely narrow boats, caught a short set but great set by Splat the Rat in the OFS gallery space and spent the rest of the morning leisurely browsing the many charity shops and bookshops before having a latte at one of my favourite cafes in town, Zappis Bike Cafe. I returned just in time for Welsh-born but now Oxford-based folk singer Tom Blackburn followed by The August List, a surprising and refreshing Americana addition to the largely trad folk line-up.

The August List

Oh and how could I forget the many Morris sides about town? With their colourful costumes and bells tinkling wherever they went, they added a bit of living folk tradition to the village fete on Gloucester Green and in the centre of Oxford and definitely got many a tourist’s camera clicking.

Morris dancers

I spent the evening at the cosy Wesley Memorial Church listening to the beautiful harmonies of local female duo Wednesdays Wolves, who were already a welcome addition to the festival last year. They were followed by Ninebarrow and Lady Maisery. Although I had intended to „stay awake“ for the always entertaining Hut People (think percussion extravaganza extraordinaire) who were on at the OFS just before 11pm, I ended up calling it a night around 10pm.

Wednesdays Wolves

On Sunday the weather wasn’t quite as sunny any more, which was just as well as I spent the afternoon in the best venue a music-loving literature-crazy festival goer could ask for: a bookshop! Blackwells impressive three-storey literary maze on Broad Street to be precise. It was the first time it was used as a festival venue and all afternoon visitors were pouring into the Norrington Room where, from 11am-4pm, FWO musicians took up residence. First up were Henry Webster and Dave Malkin (two of the folk trio Tandem) followed by trad trio Moore Moss Rutter. Young folk singer Penny Kempson was up next as well as quirky and humorous trio Susanna Starling & Friends.

Kelly Oliver

Up-and-coming folk singer Kelly Oliver also made an appearance, so did Ben Moss & Laurel Swift, whose performance included some solo clog dancing by Laurel on an old table top spontaneously provided by Blackwells staff. Yes, I did miss some of the bigger names, but knowing the UK folk circuit, I am bound to catch them live again one of these days. As far as I’m concerned, I had the most fabulous folk weekend again!

Ben Mross & Laurel Swift

If you need additional reasons for visiting Oxford, have a look at this archived post with tips for live music, charity shops, museums and visiting the “Headington Shark”. And in order to find out how the festival came into being and what makes it tick, check out my interview with Folk Weekend Oxford director Cat Kelly.

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.

Planet Folk: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2013

Another year, another excellent Shrewsbury Folk Festival (23-26 August), which is fast becoming a permanent fixture in my festival year. The volunteer stewards were allowed to set up camp a day early on Thursday afternoon and after I had found a good spot for my happy tent, we went exploring the centre of Shrewsbury. We happened to run into a group of local ‘rappers’, who far from being hip hop musicians, are a type of morris band who dance with rapper swords, flexible steel swords with a handle at each end. It turned out that The Loggerheads pub was the place to be for a live session on a Thursday night, the perfect start to our Shrewsbury weekend.

session at SFF 13On Friday morning I had my volunteer welcome meeting at the artist reception tent, where I was stationed this year. It was a small, friendly team and our shifts were split between guarding the artist gate and checking in artists, making coffee as well as entertaining the children of musicians. The first night of music was already a highlight. First up on the main stage were Nidi d’Arac, a fast-paced Italian band, who play Southern Italian tarantella music with a modern twist, followed by Steve Knightley, longstanding festival patron, who had everyone singing along of course.

We then headed over to main stage two for the long-awaited Nic Jones set. He had only started singing in front of audiences again last year, accompanied by his son Joseph on guitar and Belinda O’Hooley on piano. Even though it was early days at Shrewsbury 2013, I already knew this was going to be one of my favourites and the most emotional and inspiring set of all. We even had a few words with Nic and his son in the bar afterwards.

Lady Maisery workshop SFF 13On Saturday the festival was in full swing. After a fantastic harmony singing session with Lady Maisery (see above), followed by an impromptu flashmob mini peformance near the main stage, I had a busy afternoon switching between various tents to catch Martyn Joseph , Nancy Kerr & James Fagan, Tim O’Brien and Luke Jackson. Then I was off to another volunteer shift, which was eventful and fun. I spent the first part of the evening at Eddi Reader‘s set on the main stage followed by the OysterbandMark Erelli in the Sabrina Marquee was our next stop and I finished off the evening in the dance tent with the hilarious spoof country duo The Doyle & Debbie Show.

I had a slow start on Sunday morning. There was another harmony singing session, this time with The Melrose Quartet, and then we had a great laugh with Keith Donnelly‘s comedy/music act on the main stage. After another volunteer shift at artist reception, there was another great evening of music ahead of us. This included Barnstar (the Mark Erelli’s band plus Jake and Taylor Armerding), the Bright Phoebus Collective (with Jon Boden) singing Tom Waits, including a guest appearance by Eddi Reader, and the fabulous Carolina Chocolate Drops from North Carolina.

ducks in a row SFF 13On Monday we pretty much stayed in the main tent where we caught Canadian all-female band The Be Good Tanyas, whose base player, having missed a flight, just about made it on stage for the last song and encore. Luckily, Zack Hickman (bassist with Mark Erelli, Barnstar, Josh Ritter) came to the rescue. Lively Scottish folk stalwarts Capercaillie were on just before the Patron’s Set, this year a duo with Steve Knightley and the Oysterband’s John Jones, plus various guest performers.

While the quality of the music was again superb, the friendly punters (and the many equally friendly dogs) are always the best reason to return to Shrewsbury. As with many great festivals I love, it’s like you’re transported to a different planet for the weekend. One I would be very happy to become a permanent resident of.

Alien family SFF 13

Folktastic: Warwick Folk Festival 2013

Morris Dancers Warwick
Another weekend, another festival. This time I headed to Warwick boasting an impressive medieval castle and, at the end of July, the Warwick Folk Festival (25 – 28 July 2013), which has been around for over three decades. It is one of the most trad-oriented festivals I’ve volunteered at so far and offers a diverse programme of concerts, ceilidhs, workshops of all kinds as well as children’s entertainment. While a large number of the events took place on the festival grounds beside the river Avon, there were also plenty of ‘fringe’ events happening in Warwick town centre. A handy shuttle bus ferried festival goers between the two locations. 
Jim Moray & band WarwickThe three evening concerts on the main stage included Jim Moray, O’Hooley & Tidow, Dervish, The Young’uns and an energetic performance by Le Vent du Nord, hailing from Quebec, on Sunday night. However, my favourite venue of the whole festival was the Co-op acoustic stage. Despite the noise of the espresso machine on the far side of the tent, it was the most atmospheric venue to me.
Nurse Roberts & Medicine Man WarwickFavourites were Sarah Horn & James Cudworth (also playing with Aelfen), Nurse Roberts & the Medicine Man and Brent Mason, a Canadian singer-songwriter, who we had a nice chat with on the train back to London.  O'Hooley & Tidow Warwick I also loved the sound of Salvation Jane, an Australian vocalist ensemble with beautiful harmonies, Niall Teague & the Fast Company, a dynamic Irish band, and folk septet The Old Dance SchoolThe Old Dance School Warwick Volunteering was fun. I had a couple of shifts at the main stage, one very uneventful afternoon one, while Saturday evening was as busy as it gets. There was a bit of a downpour for a few hours and everyone crowded into the huge and relatively dry and warm space. Was also happy with the spot we found for camping. Proper showers and toilets nearby and a bit hidden away from the main area, guaranteeing a few good nights of sleep (additionally improved by hot water supply for my hot water bottle from the first aid volunteers, thanks guys). All in all a very enjoyable musical weekend.
Tent view Warwick

Folk Forever: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2012

I’m writing this with the re-runs of the festival favourites streaming in the background and a box of tissues beside me on the desk. There are a couple of ingredients that make a great festival for me: excellent and diverse entertainment, friendly volunteer and staff teams and good organisation, including facilities and food. Shrewsbury Folk Festival scores top marks for all three!
After spending four amazing days volunteering at Shrewsbury (24-27 August 2012) I’m not surprised it sells out months in advance every year. It had the perfect combination of top class musicians and lots of opportunities for festival goers to get involved themselves, from musical workshops and ceilidh dancing (including the folk equivalent of a silent disco) to creative craft workshops, which were not just popular with the little ones.
From the moment I got off the train and met a fellow volunteer who showed me the way to the festival grounds, things just went really smoothly all weekend. I was on the task force team, which was something like a rapid response group and great fun. We did any last minute tasks required like shovelling bark to cover muddy tent areas and patrolling the site to see if our help was needed somewhere.
I pitched my tent in the quiet area near the river, and especially after I got my ‘happy tent’ on Saturday really enjoyed our nomadic folkie village. It was lovely to fall asleep every night with the faint notes of the last gig still audible in the background and being offered a nice cup of tea by my neighbours when I woke up.
The music was brilliant all weekend, so it was really difficult to choose which set to pick at any particular time, given that there were three main tents plus the village stage, dance tent and bars. As I have a real weakness for Americana, sad songs and female voices, I immensely enjoyed seeing Diana Jones again and Caroline Herring for the first time, both of whom have a number of incredible story songs, which I absolutely adored. Jonathan Byrd was also fabulous. I even attended his guitar workshop without actually bringing a guitar. Mind you, I did start playing the Ukulele that weekend together with about 100 others and we had such a blast (see final live performance here).
It has been a long time since I’ve seen so many (about 6.000!) happy people in one place. It’s always hard to predict what a festival is going to be like before seeing it for yourself. Just like Vancouver Folk Fest, which I discovered last year, Shrewsbury is going to echo in my heart for quite some time though, most likely until the next edition in 2013, which I’m already looking forward to. Wearing my festival t-shirt and listening to the stack of CDs from this summer will have to get me through somehow.
Here is a festival photo gallery by fellow festival fan Steven Beasley (thanks for letting me use the above pix of Diana, Caroline and Jim and the closing performance), a video of the wonderful parade of lanterns that were made during the festival weekend and some more videos of individual performances. In fact, you can’t go wrong checking out any of the musicians on this year’s list, they are all fabulous.

Rain-Defying Folk(s): The Vancouver Folk Music Festival 2011

It was my first year at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, which was held from 15 until 17 July 2011, so I don’t know whether it had rained this much at previous events. I just kept stoically repeating my volunteer raffle seller’s credo ‘smile and the rain will go away’ and hoped for the best. And, despite the rain, the best it was in terms of the fun I had and the amazing music I got to experience over a long weekend in (believe it or not) July.

From Gillian Welch to Rosanne Cash, Mary Gauthier and Cris Williamson it was the female performers that most rocked the festival for me. Every time I wandered from stage to stage on the beautiful festival grounds at Jericho Beach I kept stopping in awe of an intriguing singing voice that caught my ear and had me pinned to the ground until that particular person put down their guitar. This is also how I came across my festival favorite, Diana Jones. Her haunting rendition of ‘Pony’ was still going around in my head by the time I left the festival grounds late on Sunday night and inspired me greatly to put pen to paper again more often.

Of course there were also Josh Ritter (now a novelist too!), who woke up rain-weary festival goers with his energetic performance, and Emmanuel Jal, whose serious message was perfectly packaged into danceable tunes, which resonated particularly well with the younger crowd. I was also pleasantly surprised at how many of the performers have active twitter accounts and some seem to even use them on the go. Here are a few if you happen to be a twitter junkie, like moi: @rosannecash @dianajonesmusic @gillianwelch @joshritter @emmanueljal @solasmusic @joykillssorrow @the_jayhawks @pokeylafarge @dannymichel @jplaskett @elliotbrood @buck65 @fugitivesmusic @imaginarycities @davidwaxmuseum

My volunteer experience was also totally ace! For putting in 12 hours of work (hard earned particularly on the rainy Saturday, mind you) the 1600 (!) volunteers got free festival passes, enjoyed some incredibly yummy lunches and dinners (incl. salmon, strawberries and icecream) as well as had two festival parties, one of which was attended by a few of the performers and had a handy shuttle service to the location. Yes, it was a very wet weekend indeed, but the stellar lineup at Jericho Beach has also more than whetted my appetite for exploring more folk music in the future.