Tag Archives: music festival review

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!

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

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

Gisela & Dave the Hat

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

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.

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

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

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…

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Americana Anniversary: Maverick Festival 2017

Maverick Festival, which took place from 30 June until 2 July 2017, at Easton Farm Park in beautiful Suffolk, East Anglia, was celebrating its tenth anniversary this summer and I’ve been lucky to have been to four of those in 2013, 2014, 2015 as well as this latest edition. It’s quite a special little festival and here are my top 10 reasons why I’m always enjoying it so much:

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1. Quality Line-Up: Most people who come to Maverick book their tickets without even knowing who’s on the line-up for that particular year, they just expect quality music, and the festival rarely disappoints. Paul Spencer and his team know the Americana scene well and always book a great variety of reliably excellent acts from the USA, Canada, and even as far afield as Australia as well as the best of what the ever-growing Americana scene in this country has to offer. It was great to see Police Dog Hogan, Case Hardin, Don Gallardo (see pic below), Erin Rae, Dean Owens, Hannah Rose Platt, Hannah Aldridge and Annie Keating again, make sure you give them a listen.

Don Gallardo Maverick 2017.jpg

2. New Discoveries: I love when I turn up at a stage not having heard of a particular musician before and then being blown away by their music and enthusiasm for their craft. This year’s favourite new finds included The Roamin Jasmine (New Orleans), Royal Jelly Jive (San Francisco), The Danberrys (Nashville) and Amy McCarley (Alabama). Two others who I regretted to have missed, but got thumbs up from various other attendees, were Tom Attah (UK) and Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes (Australia). Virtuoso US mandolin player Sierra Hull (see pic below) was also excellent, as were US duo American Young.

Sierra Hull Maverick 2017.JPG

3. Friendly Vibe & Hanging Out With Musicians: While headliners like two-time Grammy winning guitarist Albert Lee (great set with BJ Cole on pedal steel!) and Steve Earle’s son Justin Townes Earle were no doubt a particular attraction to some festival goers, another reason why I love this event is how relaxed and friendly the atmosphere is. It’s one of those festivals where you can just wander between the different stages and food stalls all day, sit under a tree and read a book, share a table with other music lovers or have a chat at the merch area with one of the bands playing. Despite the unrushed pace, it never gets boring because there is great music playing everywhere from late morning until about midnight every night.

Moonshine Sign Maverick 2017.jpg

4. Idyllic Location & Great Site Layout: When I first walked through the gates of Maverick Festival a couple of years ago, I fell immediately in love with the beautiful setting of the event. Unlike other festivals held on a big field with nearly no other natural features, Easton Farm Park boasts some beautiful historic farm buildings, meadows and lots of trees and it all just looks like you’re entering a set for a Western movie – including our equivalent of mustangs, the beautiful and rare Suffolk Punch horses (pictured below). As it’s a rather boutique festival, you can easily pop back to your tent for an extra jumper or during this good weather extra sun cream as the camp ground is only a five-minute walk from the music stages. And as the music finishes quite early (around 11.30pm) there isn’t too much noise late at night (apart from the odd folky session around a fire, which actually makes for a nice lullaby). While there aren’t very many showers (I counted only a handful), there are two buildings with proper toilets and lots of additional portaloos strewn around the site.

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5. Dog-Friendly Event: The one thing I’m often missing at other outdoor festivals is the lovely presence of dogs who are often not allowed on site for all sorts of reasons. Not so at Maverick. Everywhere you go you’ll meet smiling pooches likes this happy pair below, Moss and Sky, and I loved hearing about their (rescue) stories. You can find more pictures on my Cuddle a Dog a Day Instagram account. If you have a friendly dog who doesn’t mind crowds, it’s a great festival to take it to, as a lot of the music can actually be enjoyed from outside most of the venues, so pooches can be in the shade and away from most of the noise, but you can still have a good time. Win, win.

Moss & Sky Maverick 2017.jpg

6. Still Kicking Against All Odds: A fascinating addition to this year’s festival was a short, and retrospectively very funny, documentary entitled ‘The Peasants Are Revolting’ charting the journey from idea to festival and the difficulties faced by festival founder Paul Spencer before being able to run Maverick for the first time in 2008. He initially encountered a lot of resistance from a number of villagers who feared there would be a noisy ‘rave’ (anti banjo protests? goats vs sheep standoff? rowdy cowboy hat throwing competitions?) threatening their otherwise peaceful lives and that their quaint Suffolk village would be overrun by all sorts of undesirable individuals. As you can see from the pictures in this post, there was clearly a lot of cause for concern ;-). Luckily, the festival founders persisted and I am now even more grateful for the festival than before I knew about all these (pretty major) teething problems. The screening was followed by a live Q&A with Paul and Tim Dowling with lots more anecdotes from the beginnings of a festival which is most definitely here to stay!

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7. Learning By Doing: I didn’t get around to any of the workshops this year, but there were a bluegrass as well as a banjo session plus a workshop on cigar box guitars and diddley bow. If you felt inspired enough to stick with your new chosen instrument, there were some music stalls with a choice of instruments to take home, including one with beautifully hand-decorated guitars and the pretty cool looking cigar box guitars (below).

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8. Plentiful Food & Drink: As with many smaller festivals, there aren’t quite as many food choices as at larger events. But I was pleased to see that the veggie options had increased since I last visited and there were also quite a few vegan dishes on offer. I had Thai street food, pizza from a wood-fired oven and a squash and feta cheese pie with mash. There were also plenty of desserts, like waffles and ice cream, and a few stalls serving cappuccinos. Plus Easton Farm Park’s café did a decent if not very exciting veggie breakfast in the mornings. Drinks (variety of beer, local cider) were not cheap, but a few freebie cocktails in cans given out by a new sponsor made up for it.

Thai Food Maverick 2017.jpg

9. Fun For All Ages: As Maverick is such a safe and friendly environment, families will have no problem finding activities to entertain the little ones. I spoke to a few whose kids were already keen to return, which is no wonder given the many cute animals to pet and feed (goats, horses, llamas, pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens) as well as an adventure playground, which even includes a mini-zipline. Nashville-based duo Chasing Summer also added to the kids entertainment by doing a lovely live show and art workshop on a new outdoor stage in the orchard, which was enthusiastically received by the children.

Chasing Summer Maverick 2017.jpg

10. Additional Gigs By Touring Musicians: Yes, post festival blues is a terrible thing and hits me every single time for a day or two after getting back home. Luckily, there is a silver lining as most of the overseas musicians booked for Maverick tend to also be on tour in the UK and other European countries while they are over here. So do look for their tour schedules and additional gigs the week before or after the festival. You might even end up on a train together, like I did with Royal Jelly Jive, who were on the way to their next gig in Belgium. A great way to extend the festival for another few hours.

You might not have heard of Americana as a genre of music before and be reluctant to book a weekend of bands you’ve never heard of. Don’t worry! Give a few of them a listen on Yotube before you visit and enjoy the fact that after attending Maverick you’ll be the one in the know giving your friends, who may well still be stuck in mainstream music land, the best recommendations for ‘the next big act’ like a pro!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2017 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. 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.