Tag Archives: live music

A Honky Tonkin’ Great Time at The Long Road Festival 2018

It’s always exciting to be there for the first ever edition of a new festival and I’m very glad I made it to the inaugural The Long Road Festival (7-9 September 2018) at Stanford Hall, near Rugby. After having been led down the wrong motorway by our Satnav on Friday afternoon and arriving a bit later than anticipated we were joking that the seemingly never-ending road we followed to get to the festival location was surely what it was named after!

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We missed a few of Friday night’s acts, but got there just in time for rocky UK Americana outfit Case Hardin on the Front Porch stage (which looked like a wood cabin including smoke coming out of the chimney!), who I hadn’t seen for way too long. I then headed over to the Interstate stage for London-based country music quartet The Wandering Hearts and finished up inside the Honky Tonk venue for a set by Northerner Twinnie, who I had never heard of before, but who impressed with her voice and positive energy. It had gotten quite cold by then and I decided to call it a night in order to get the best out of the rest of the weekend.

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Saturday started with a real bang as it was time for the Women in Country in the Round slot in the Honky Tonk bar (inside the ‘building’ on the right in the pic below), one of the best festival sessions all weekend. It featured Irish-born but now London-based Megan O’Neill, UK country singer Laura Oakes and Texan country artist and a former ‘The Voice’ winner Danielle Bradbery. Luckily, most of my favourite artists were scheduled inside the cosy Honky Tonk, a brilliantly designed nod to Nashville music city, which just felt like actually being in the States! So while it wasn’t the best of festival weather outside, we had a front row table for a long list of absolutely superb acts, most of whom I’d seen separately on various occasions and are all well worth a listen.

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The Loose Music takeover really made my Saturday with my only complaint being the disappointingly short half hour sets for most artists. We spent most of the afternoon happily cooped up inside the Honky Tonk listening to hours and hours of brilliant live music courtesy of Yola Carter (UK), Caroline Spence (USA), Erin Rae (USA), William The Conquerer (UK), Frontier Ruckus (USA) and Danny and the Champions. I also managed to catch the always amazing Angaleena Presley earlier that day and, to top it all off, listened to a fabulous set by Lee Ann Womack (see pic below), who should have really been one of the headliners, my first time seeing her live.

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Sunday was the only really sunny day and by that time all of us knew the venues inside and out and were just enjoying moving between the different areas. There was again a packed programme from around lunchtime until late. I saw blues duo Andrew Alli & Josh Small (USA), UK Americana artist Danni Nicholls, New Orleans-based Luke Winslow-King (with fab Italian guitarist Roberto Luti) and Ashley Campbell (see pic below), who had some very witty songs and sounded a lot more Americana than I had thought.

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I also caught Dori Freeman (USA), Charlie Worsham (USA), who made some lovely comments on how appreciative UK audiences are, Emily Barker’s more Americana side, some of Elizabeth Cook’s (USA) set, who was very popular with some of my friends and UK country duo The Shires closing the main stage that night. My favourite set all weekend though, has got to be The Lone Bellow (USA) on the Interstate Stage (see pic below) It never ceases to amaze me with how much energy and fun these guys perform and cannot imagine anyone not getting blown away by their beautiful songs and great stage presence.

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Apart from the live music, there was also a film screening, ‘ Born in Bristol’ on the birth of country music, dance classes, stunning vintage cars on display, the family area Possum County with games and music, wild swimming (though with the temperatures we had, I doubt many braved the cold water) and a good selection of food and drink stalls. The veggie and vegan options included burritos (my fav that weekend), pizza, burgers, sweet potato fries and buddha bowls and there were also various breakfast choices and hot drinks until the evening.

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If there was anything the organisers might reconsider for next year it would be the very strict checks at entering the arena. I don’t usually attend festivals where the camping is fenced off and it made it feel a bit impersonal and unnecessary for the kind of crowd this festival attracted. Any kind of food, alcohol and even umbrellas were officially banned, while security searches were minimal. On the plus side, I was delighted to see that dogs, like sweet Roxy below, were allowed (this year only as day visitors, in future, hopefully overnight, just like at e.g. Maverick Festival and Shrewsbury Folk Festival). As far as I’m concerned, four-legged festival attendees always add to a relaxed atmosphere and it was so great to meet so many festival first timers.

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What really made the first The Long Road festival stand out was the excellent line-up from the Country, Americana and Roots music scenes, well done Baylen Leonard and team. Yes, it was a little sad that long-anticipated headliner Carrie Underwood had to pull out at the last minute for health reasons, but the huge range of quality acts, great sound on most stages and the beautifully designed festival venue all made for an outstanding event, which is most definitely here to stay! Better get next year’s tickets as soon as you can.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2018 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

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Genre-Defying Live Music With A Message: Cambridge Folk Festival 2018

Unlike the very rainy 2017 edition, Cambridge Folk Festival, which took place one week later than usual from 2-5 August 2018, managed to avoid any downpours this time around. Instead, it got caught in the continuing heatwave, which made it look like we were in sunny Spain or Portugal rather than South East of England.

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The festival began with a very impressive Thursday night lineup, the lively Whiskey Shivers from Austin opening stage 2 and a fabulous set by Scottish musical collaborators Kris Drever, John McCusker, Roddy Woomble (of Idlewild) and Louis Abbott (of Admiral Fallow) followed by the fantastic all-female Kinnaris Quintet from Glasgow at the Club Tent. So far so excellent!

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When I talk to people who don’t usually listen to folk music, they often don’t realise what a wide variety of genres are represented at folk music events. A great example were Songhoy Blues (see pic above), a rock band from Mali with a seriously danceable groove, and Saturday night headliner, punk poet and feminist icon Patti Smith, who, once on stage, immediately asked for the smoke to be turned off in no uncertain terms. As a nod to the folkie audience, she included ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ by Bob Dylan in her set and seemed impressed with the audience’s singing skills. The inofficial award for the best audience participation this year went to the Pierce Brothers from Australia, however, playing a set on stage 2 on Friday night, when everyone just kept going with one of the choruses after the song had finished and the band picked it up again to huge applause.

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Rhiannon Giddens’ (see pic above) curator role this year (including booking Yola Karter, Amythyst Kiah, Kaia Kater and Peggy Seeger) was noticeable in all the right ways and it was generally great to see that the festival continues to champion female voices, including their commitment to the Keychange equality movement. Artists of all ages were speaking out about equality and about resisting a more and more selfish culture. Sister duo First Aid Kit from Sweden talked about sexual harrassment during their set on Friday saying that “the blame and shame of rape crime should always belong to the perpetrator, not the victim.” The couple of half-drunk men right behind us (who left after some of us reminded them several times that we were interested only in the music rather than their shenanigans) were proof that even at a very friendly festival like CFF, there are always the odd situations when you need to make clear that disrespectful behaviour, like shouting ‘give us a kiss’ at artists on stage or disrespecting women’s personal space in a crowd, is not acceptable.

UK singer songwriter and activist Grace Petrie, who played stage 2 on Friday night (check out her song ‘I Wish The Guardian Believed That I Exist”), Prince Edward Island-based Irish Mythen and the one and only Janis Ian all had various songs highlighting the shortcomings of today’s society and politicians, homophobia and sexism. The most poignant and outspoken of all was most likely one of Janis Ian’s newly written songs entitled ‘She Is, She Is (Resist)’, which went “when they say you don’t have a right to exist, persist, resist, persist and resist, resist resist, resist!”. Hear, hear.

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The protest song is certainly alive and well and folk festivals, such as Cambridge, continue to attract a large cross section of people from many backgrounds, ages and places. This year I spoke to festival goers from all across the UK, Ireland, Iceland, and as far as Mauritius and Australia.

On top of all the first class acts on the main stages, there are also always lots of other activities on from 10 am until late during the festival weekend. You can do yoga, willow or drawing workshops, learn to play a new instrument or listen to talks by festival artists, such as the Women in Music session in the Flower Garden on Saturday or join a songwriting workshop with Eliza Carthy in the Club Tent on Friday morning.

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My favourite events were two workshops on Sunday. The first one was a singing workshop with Nashville-based singer songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, whose set that night on stage 2 was also fabulous. In her morning session (see pic above) she had various people come up to help them make the best of their own voice and it was incredibly fascinating what a difference ten minutes with a skilled teacher and a supportive crowd can make.

The other event was a youth singing workshop with Boston-based Americana group Darlingside, who are known for their incredible harmonies (see pic below). They certainly passed on their love for music to the youngsters attending the afternoon session in The Hub and the band singing ‘White Horses’ accompanied by a choir of young people harmonising on it was the one festival moment this year that’ll stay with me for a long time.

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Last but not least, here are a few personal festival tips: Make sure you don’t miss out on the Den stage with many amazing upcoming acts (it’s also much less crowded than the main stages), the lovely cafe and the flower garden, both in the same area by the duck pond; bring something to sit on, but ideally not a hardbacked chair as they are not allowed inside any venues; your own food and drink is OK to take along, just no glass; don’t forget the Coldham’s Common campsite has an afterhour open mic venue (until after midnight) and a free shuttle bus runs there every few minutes from Cherry Hinton Hall; a lot of the artists sign their CDS (and some do selfies with punters) at the Mojo tent near stage 2; be kind to others, don’t take up any more space than you need in the already crowded outside arena, don’t block any exits and get up from your blanket inside the tents when it gets busy; finally, be spontaneous, play along if someone starts a Mexican wave in the shuttle queue, bring your ukulele and start your own session and don’t just be a spectator – folk music is for participating and the community is only as friendly and welcoming as each one of us!

Americana on the Farm: Maverick Festival 2018

Maverick Festival, which took place for the eleventh time from 6 to 8 July 2018 at Easton Farm Park in Suffolk, not far from London, is one of those rare outdoor events, where you can experience quality live music in a beautiful boutique setting. Beside the usual line-up of excellent Americana artists from the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia, the festival always has a extra few surprises in store and what a gloriously sunny weekend it was!

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After setting up the happy tent in the heat, it was definitely time for an iced coffee and a first hello to all my favourite furry farm creatures, including brand new additions Harry, the Punch horse, and Madge, the 5 day old donkey baby. In addition, there were lots of friendly dogs around again, as the festival allows them on site.

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As more and people started arriving in the course of the afternoon, I headed over to the Peacock stage for sets by Jeffrey Martin and Anna Tivel (see pic below), who have also been touring the UK together. Their music is very well matched, quiet and thoughtful with some memorable melodies, just the way I like it. Anna and Martin were some of the musicians who spent the whole weekend at Maverick, so I got to listen to them quite a bit, which was a real treat, as their songs are all well worth giving more than one listen.

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I then made my way over to the Barn for Jonathan Byrd’s only Maverick set. He is currently touring the UK with fellow ‘Pickup Cowboy’ Johnny Waken, who excelled at guitar solos and added an extra touch of humour to Byrd’s already entertaining songs. Their set also included serious touches though, such as this poignant haiku:

we are in heaven
the sky is an illusion
like any border

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Saturday at Maverick is always a busy day with the open air Southern Sounds Stage in full swing from around 11am until 6pm, including the exotic Hawaiian sounds of Kehau Kehananui with top UK pedal steel player BJ Cole. Apart from The Cordovas from Nashville, whose guitar and harmony-heavy sound I took a while to warm to at first, but whose only Maverick set I enjoyed quite a bit in the end, I spent most of my day switching between the Barn and the much smaller Moonshine stage. I’m always trying to catch as many of the overseas artists as possible, as they generally make less frequent UK appearances. So it was great to see Dylan Earl for the first time, whose online bio states that ‘I’m from where I woke up this morning’ and who, like many of the Maverick artists, plays a type of country music, which keeps things real rather than just providing sing-along fodder for the masses. I also thoroughly enjoyed dancing to the music of one of my favourite UK Americana bands, Brighton-based The Mountain Firework Company.

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However, the female musicians stole the show as is so often the case in this genre. Amelia White, Alabama native Amy McCarley and singer-songwriter Imogen Clark (mostly sharing a stage with fellow Aussies Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes as well as The Weeping Willows) were all excellent. So was Amy Lott from Meridian, Mississippi, who, as we found out during her Sunday set, had to overcome some serious health issues for a long time, but never gave up and is living proof that personal struggle can make for outstanding songwriting. Another one to watch for me was Texas-born Nashville-based Bonnie Bishop (see pic below), who is to make a welcome return to these shores in autumn.

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While the Arkansas Dave set and the Johnny Cash Tribute (with many of the festival artists contributing cover versions) took place on the Peacock stage, I decided to stick with the Barn Stage on Saturday night, where Tennessean-born, New York-baed Hans Chew and his band and female-fronted Southern Avenue (see pic below) from Memphis got the party going around 8pm. The latter’s very danceable set proved that booking a lively blues and soul outfit added just the right amount of variety to the festival.

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One of my favourite UK-based live bands, Danny and the Champions (see pic below), provided a worthy finale after a very busy and sundrenched day of music.

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Sunday is traditionally a shorter day at Maverick and after Saturday’s highlights tends to be a sort of a mellow finish to the festival weekend. This year, however, I was glad to get a second chance to see some of the festival artists who stuck around all weekend, such as Lachland Bryan and the other Aussie musicians he shared the stage with as well as UK roots band Porchlight Smoker.

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The festival weekend also included the Jimmie Rodgers Buskers stage again, which was hosted by James Hodder this year and gave up and coming talent (see pic above) a chance to shine.

With so much great live music going on, I nearly forgot to mention the yummy food on offer all weekend – from espresso to full English breakfast, wood oven pizza (including a vegan option) and my favourite, an amazing plantbased plate (see pic below) from Suffolk-based Juan Pablo Food, we were never short of great festival food and drink.

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All in all, the eleventh edition of Maverick Festival was one of the most enjoyable and relaxing ones I remember. The beautiful Suffolk farm setting, the quality music and the friendly crowd it attracts year after year make for a great recipe for enduring success. While other festivals struggle with constantly trying to upscale, Maverick seems to stay reassuringly small, but only in terms of festival size. In every other aspect it punches well above its weight and is bound to continue for many more years to come.

Meet the Festival Makers: Paula Henderson of WOMAD

WOMAD is one of those success stories most other events can only dream about. It was born in 1982 and has since expanded to about 27 countries with over 250 festivals having been held since then. The original event, now established at Charlton Park, in Wiltshire, is still going strong, too, and its 2018 edition promises to become one of the best ones yet. I interviewed festival booker Paula Henderson in order to find out a bit more about what makes WOMAD tick and you can read all about it right here!

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Life is a Festival: What is your definition of world music (if any) and what are the advantages of showcasing artists who are not all household names?

Paula: The term World Music is outdated, it was something that was created in order to give record shops a reference point to place music in their shops years ago.  One of the aims of WOMAD is to present the best music that you’ve never heard before, festivals are the perfect places to showcase new artists because a festival is a place where we should take risks.

Life is a Festival: Looking back at the first Womad in 1982, the festival has come a long way and the world has arguably become more multicultural since then. In recent years, however, there also seems to be a growing focus on nationalism. Is a concept like Womad, inclusive and outward-looking, still relevant or ist it, in fact, more relevant than ever?

Paula: The importance of WOMAD is greater than ever.  The struggles we now face to try and bring an artist into the UK because our visa system is so challenging is huge.  This year we are also facing the dilemma of artists deciding not to come to the UK because they don’t want to go through the visa process and be turned down even when they have Schengen visa and a European tour in place that would mean staying longer in the UK would be of no benefit whatsoever!  These problems actually highlight how important it is for WOMAD to carry on and highlight the importance of multi-culturalism.

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Life is a Festival: With artists from 104 countries performing this year, it must be tricky to pick personal favourites, but which artists or collaborations are you most proud of to have secured for the 2018 event or which do you consider especially unique and not to be missed?

Paula: Too many to name, but especially proud that Colectivo Danza Region are coming as this has been planned for 3 years.

Life is a Festival: WOMAD has successfully travelled from the UK to other parts of the world. Do you work with local organisers and in what way has the expansion of the festival influenced Womad UK since then?

Paula: We work with local organisers in each WOMAD Festival location around the world to establish events that are true to WOMAD’s ethos and atmosphere. These events have influenced WOMAD UK’s festival in a positive and exciting way – enabling collaborations across the continents.

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Life is a Festival: I love the idea of Taste the World and workshops on e.g. dance and music being led by festival artists and always find that festivals are great at blurring boundaries between artists and audiences due to their informal set-up. Is it a challenge to plan a more interactive programme or an opportunity?

Paula: Not challenging, we ask and if it works with their schedule they are usually happy to participate!

Life is a Festival: How were you personally inspired as a youngster and is this something you enjoy passing on through your work with the festival?

Paula: Music was all I was ever interested in, I was taught to read music at the same time as I was taught to read and played music on an amateur level… it was a natural progression that when you know you aren’t good enough to be on the stage, do the next best thing and try and discover people who are!

Life is a Festival: What advice would you give to someone attending Womad for the first time?

Paula: Every WOMAD first timer should make sure they download our free festival app and get a programme on site. This means you won’t miss a thing – you’ll be armed with lots of info about each of the artists, and everything happening at the festival!

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If you haven’t got your tickets for WOMAD yet, there is still a chance to make the best of this sunny summer and fit in a festival weekend in late July. Tickets can be purchased online and you have various choices from one day to four days. Glamping options are also available and there is a fab sounding spa area for which you can get an extra pass and get pampered all weekend long. With another excellent and diverse line-up, WOMAD 2018 will be a music party like no other!

Disclaimer: All photography used in this blog post was provided by WOMAD festival including photos by Clara Salina and Suzie Blake.

25 Years of Celtic Connections – The Anniversary Festival 2018

This year was the 25th anniversary of Celtic Connections in Glasgow (18 January – 4 February 2018) and the festival has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Year after year it attracts a huge number of visitors not just from Scotland and the UK, but also from other parts of Europe and further afield. As most of the concerts happen in the evenings, lots of visitors use the festival as an excuse to explore other parts of Scotland on day trips, which are easily accessible by train or bus from the city. Celtic Connections also always manages to get a lot of fantastic musicians together on stage for special collaborations, e.g. various tribute nights (Tom Petty, Songs of the Gael, Scotland Sings Canada), usually with an impressive all star line-up.

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This year I’d also decided to make it a proper holiday and stayed eight nights in total. I was a volunteer artist liaison for three concerts on three consecutive days right after I arrived, which kept me busy pretty much 24/7. My first concert was a night of outstanding traditional music with The Fretless (pic below), a Juno award-winning quartet from Canada with support from Scottish musician Ewan Robertson and friends at St. Andrews in the Square church. Glasgow has quite a few churches turned music venues and this one is one of the nicest. The next day I looked after Corb Lund from Canada and Hayes Carll from Texas, both country music artists. They shared the stage for their performance in another beautiful former church, St. Luke’s near the Drygate Brewery, north east of the city centre and it was a great night of Americana intersected with brilliantly funny banter.

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Most people don’t realise when they are attending shows as an audience member just how much work goes into putting on live music events. From pre-planning it months in advance, sorting out accommodation, transport and food to dealing with tech issues, merch logistics and all sorts of other bigger and smaller last-minute requests, like unexpected schedule changes (e.g. additional performances at the festival club on the night of the concert), lots of things can happen, which might require a change of plan.

The artists themselves might have just flown in from another continent, jet lagged and maybe missing parts of their equipment, having to do interviews with various radio stations and journalists on the go. So we’re always trying to give them the best experience and make things as easy for them as possible. If all goes smoothly, the artists will step on stage with a smile on their face, a perfectly tuned instrument in their hands and everyone will have an enjoyable night. And as a volunteer, you breathe a big fat sigh of relief that all your efforts and those of the festival staff have been worthwile!

My third concert as an artist liaison was Cara Dillon with support by The Fretless, in the New Auditorium right in the Royal Concert Hall. I had only seen Cara at Cambridge Folk Festival once before and it was fantastic to experience her beautiful, moving songs in a hall with great acoustics for a change. Her excellent band on the night included Sam Lakeman, John Smith and, for a few songs, The Fretless as well.

The RCH is a huge multi-space venue in the centre of Glasgow with a large, confusing web of hallways and backstage areas connecting the different performance spaces behind the scenes. From preparing dressing rooms, sorting out riders (carrying food, drink and ice buckets around), liaising between bands who are sharing a stage, organising access keycards, sharpies and blue tack to getting set lists printed, there is always a long list of to do items to tackle on the day of a gig. But it’s also really fun to work together on something exciting and then sitting back and seeing it unfold in front of you once all the work is done. Plus you get to hear the sound checks and get a much more in-depth experience of an event.

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On my days off I finally made it to the medieval Glasgow Cathedral from 1136, which is a beautiful space, and to the multi-faith Victorian Necropolis on the hill beside it. The winter light was amazing that day and once you climb to the top, it has some fantastic views across the city. So does The Lighthouse museum and art centre near the Central Station, take the lift to the 6th floor viewing platform and enjoy (see first pic in the post). I also took lots and lots of pictures of Glasgow’s many stunning murals, my favourite being the Modern Day St. Mungo by Smug (see pic above) on High Street, but they are all over town and there is a proper Mural Trail to follow, if you fancy it.

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Another day I visited the small, but very informative Glasgow Police Museum staffed by friendly retired police officers. Glasgow had the first police force in Britain and as it’s a small two-room museum, you can easily add it to your schedule and learn some interesting facts about the city and its inhabitants past and present plus see a well-curated collection of uniforms through the ages and from quite a number of other countries, too.

I also attended more concerts. Dougie MacLean  (pic below) had a headline show (with support by Yvonne Lyon) in the Main auditorium of the Royal Concert Hall and I had made sure I had a first row seat for it. On Sunday night, I returned to St. Lukes to see The Barr Brothers from Montreal. They’ve had quite a few changes in their band line-up since I’ve last seen them and I’d also not heard their new songs live. But the beautiful church venue was the perfect backdrop and I especially enjoyed hearing favourites like Half Crazy and How The Heroine Dies. Andrew remarked how much they appreciated the quiet, respectful atmosphere, it was just a lovely night.

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Hazy Recollections at the O2 ABC is an afternoon show curated by Findlay Napier and there are always some interesting artists to discover, this time including James Edwyn & The Borrowed Band from Glasgow. Having been to it three years in a row now in this venue, I still enjoy finding new artists, I just really think it deserves to be moved to a more atmospheric place, such as one of the church venues, rather than a nightclub during daytime.

I also had a lot of fun at the BBC Alba ‘SEIRM’ recordings I attended and managed to make it to all three this year. What’s so nice about it is that the Hillhead Bookclub in Glasgow’s West End is such a cosy venue and once you have a table you can enjoy the show without having to worry about people chatting in the background as it’s being recorded for TV and everyone has to be quiet (!) during the performances – perfect!

There are usually around four or five artists on between 6pm and 11pm and every single one this year was pretty amazing. They included US mandolinist and bluegrass singer Sierra Hull, I’m With Her (Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins & Aoife O’Donovan), with wonderful harmonies on the first night and Lau (just as a trio, see pic below) on the second night. The third night was probably my favourite with Irish singer Declan O’Rourke & band, Scottish-English musicians Ross Couper & Tom Oakes, Senegalese-Lithuanian duo Solo & Indre (such a beautiful sound) as well as The Secret Sisters from Alabama. All three sessions will be on BBC Alba sometime this spring.

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On top of all this, I did extremely well this year catching four nights of the festival club at the Arts School. It’s a great way to wind down or (get dancing) with a pint after one of the official gigs and the line-up generally consists of a selection of that night’s festival artists, which was great as there is so much on every night, it gives you a chance to see artists you missed, such as the excellent Nashville-based Molly Tuttle & band.

Of course, the deepest winter is not the greatest time to visit Glasgow in terms of weather, but that is also your best excuse to while away many hours in great company listening to the crème de la crème of folk, Americana and other genres in some stunning venues. So put January 2019 in your calendar now for the 26th edition of Celtic Connections and you’ll practically be guaranteed the perfect antidote to post-Christmas blues!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with review tickets for some events. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Maritime Vibes at Hamburg on Tour Festival 2017 in London

The first thing that greeted me when I arrived for Hamburg on Tour in London last weekend were a couple of smiling, oversized sailor statues outside the Boiler House venue in Shoreditch. Hard to miss! As was this free festival put on by the marketing team of the German port city of Hamburg for the first time in the UK.

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I had been invited to Hamburg in September for a visit during Reeperbahn Festival and thoroughly enjoyed my time exploring the creative, down to earth Northern German city. The London event aimed to present the best of the city’s festivals, sport, film, street art and beer and coffee culture on 20 and 21 October 2017 and by Saturday night, I felt like I was back in Hamburg for the weekend, what a great party!

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But let’s start at the beginning, which, for me, was a speciality coffee cupping session with Speicherstadt Kaffeerösterei in the workshop corner of the Boiler House venue. At that time, there weren’t all that many visitors yet and it felt a bit like your usual travel trade show, with stalls to browse and tourist brochures to pick up.

As soon as the first band, the Nathan Ott jazz trio, got on stage, however, things started picking up and more and people came through the doors to celebrate Hamburg and its many cultural offerings. I had invited a number of friends (from the UK, Germany, USA) along and we had a great time tasting some German craft beer (them) and making my own lemonade from fresh limes (me) at a charity stall.

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One of the highlights of the weekend was Stefanie Hempel’s Beatles Tour, the London version (pic above). Her longer, actual tour takes you through the streets of Hamburg’s red light and music club district where the Beatles had their first break as a band and spent two years in their late teens in the early sixties. Stefanie soon had our group singing along to ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and other Beatles hits, accompanied by herself on ukulele and we got talking to lots of other Hamburg fans from around the world afterwards.

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Hamburg and its surrounding area are also a great hub for festivals of all kinds: music, film, arts, literature. The London event included sample sets by bands such as Hundreds (see pic above), Odeville and UK-based To Kill a King. In addition, you could watch short films about Hamburg and get up-close to the brand new Elbphilarmonie concert hall by putting on virtual reality glasses for a 360 degree tour, which impressed my friends, who hadn’t been there before. Definitely worth a visit on your next trip to Hamburg!

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Another fun session which was offered at Hamburg on Tour was a street art workshop with award-winning artist and illustrator Macha (pic above), who taught participants to create their own graffiti stencil designs, which were then transferred to a wall near the festival venue to add to a larger work created especially for the event.

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For those not so much into art and culture, football was another topic for the weekend. Hamburg on Tour had invited Ewald Lienen, FC St. Pauli’s technical director, as well as Nick Davidson, who has recently published the first English-speaking book on the famous and quirky Hamburg football club. There is even an FC St. Pauli fan club in London, so you can watch the games with other fans in a local pub.

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All in all a fantastic event, which goes to show that this creative approach to marketing a city to visitors in such a refreshingly different way is definitely a great idea. Don’t forget to check out my Reeperbahn Festival 2017 review and my Solo Travel Guide to Hamburg for more travel and festival tips. I’m already thinking about another visit for some more festival fun.

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!

Banbury Narrowboats.jpg

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!

Banbury Hobby Horse Liaison.jpg

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.

Banbury Tooley's Boatyard.jpg

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.

Banbury Hobby Horse.jpg

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.

Banbury Dougie MacLean.jpg

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…

Banbury Town Parade.jpg