Tag Archives: music festival

Meet the Festival Makers: DJ Chris Tofu of Grinagog Festival

Grinagog 2017 logoIt’s really heartening to see that no matter how crowded the UK festival market seems, there are always new and exciting events getting started and Grinagog Festival looks like one of the most promising this year. Plus, it’s probably the first proper chance for you to party for a whole weekend without getting muddy in the process. What’s not to love?! I spoke to the festival curator of the inaugural event, DJ Chris Tofu, who has been creating festival experiences all over the country at Glasto, Boomtown, Bestival and many more.

Life is a Festival: The ‘English Riviera’ is traditionally known for its charming seaside towns and Devonshire cream teas. This year, however, Grinagog will bring a whole new cultural venture to Torquay. With your track record of running cultural projects at some of the most well-known UK events, it promises to be a weekend party like no other. Who is it aimed at and what makes Grinagog unique?

Chris: What makes it so unique is Torquay is a perfectly formed festival site with amazing buildings and venues and the beach right there, with hotels costing less than a Halfords tent. The place is like the ultimate festival venue, and I should know because I’ve started loads of festivals. I’m putting everything I possibly can into making an extremely diverse, cultural offering for young people in Torquay. We’re bringing together all the amazing promoters and cultural workers who are in the town and the surrounding area already into one big pot to create a cultural explosion that we hope can really be a place maker for this town.

Life is a Festival: I’m a real fan of festivals taking place in different venues around a city or town as it’s a great way for visitors to get to know a destination and to meet the locals rather than just be in their own bubble during their stay. It will be my first time in Torquay, is there anything off the beaten track I definitely need to see or do?

Chris: Inside the festival we have ska venues in small hotels and these shell sound systems we‘re pushing around with Mixmaster Morris and a medieval monastery full of stuff, but Torquay is rich in trails that lead to lovely places from prehistoric caves to full on massive cliffs etc. The Blue Walnut Café hidden near the festival, is run by a quirky American who used to hang with Miles Davis and has a cinema for 20 people. Ultimately we want this whole festival to be about going and finding quirky culture as you go around. The acts can sell themselves but finding a mad play in a prehistoric cave.

Life is a Festival: You are offering bus shuttles to travel from nearby towns to the festival venues and back, which is a great idea, so people can leave their cars at home. How about the accessibility of the venues, are they wheelchair-friendly?

Chris: Yes, I‘m pretty sure all of the event is wheelchair friendly. [Note: please confirm this with the individual venues before you’re heading to the festival]

Life is a Festival: Having had a look at the diverse programme, I can’t wait to explore the festival! Have you got any personal recommendations or are there any special highlights created just for the event?

Chris: Well, Shaka did one of his first out of London gigs like 45 years ago in Torquay, so I’m looking forward to that. Friday‘s line up is off the scale if you love Bass Funk and BoomTown style music. There is Son Of Dave on Sunday…actually there are vast and always different musical offers. Check out the brass bands!

Sounds exciting! And besides the multi-genre music line-up, there are also all sorts of other fun stuff to try out, including pool parties, roller discos, paddle boarding, spoken word events and short film screenings. A weekend ticket is only £35, so there is really no excuse not to be at the first ever Grinagog Festival from 7-9 April 2017. Line-up preview below, see you there!

Grinagog 2017 lineup

End of Year Soul, Funk & Jazz Party: The Smooth Jazz Festival Augsburg 2016

So, here’s a first: before this winter I’d never been to a festival which stretches across two different years. The long-established Smooth Jazz Festival in the Bavarian tow of Augsburg, Germany, ran from 29 December 2016 until 1 January 2017 and I had discovered it only recently as I was heading back to my hometown for the Christmas holidays. It was also a first as I’d never been to a smooth jazz event before. It turns out, just like in the Americana and folk music scene, which I usually write about, there are excellent performers and dedicated followers in this genre, too, and I met lots of super friendly folks.

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The first gig I attended was held at the impressive Kurhaus Parkheater in the suburb of Göggingen. Originally built in 1886, it almost completely burned down in 1972 and was largely forgotten until it was restored to its former glory and reopened in 1996. Hailing from Fresno, California, and trained at the renowned Berklee College of Music, saxophonist Jeanette Harris treated us to favourites from her two recent albums ‘Chocolate Vibez’ and ‘Summer Rain’, among other compositions. I have to admit that purely instrumental music is normally not so much my thing, but listening to any musician who is a master of their chosen instrument is always a treat and this set as well as the acoustics in the venue were pitch-perfect. I would have loved to stay for the next act, UK smooth jazz veterans Shakatak, which I later heard did a great show, but I was feeling really under the weather with a bad cold and annoyingly had to call it a night at that point. Oh, well.

Sadly, the cold also made me miss Brian Bromberg, Oli Silk and JJ Sansaverino the following night, but I was all the more excited for the concert at the Dorint Hotel on New Year’s Day. Another first, as I’d never been at a festival on the first day of a new year. The lunchtime concert opened with US jazz, soul and R&B singer Lindsey Webster supported by her husband Keith Slattery on keys and joined by the excellent smooth jazz ‘house band’ with Heiko Braun on drums, Mark Jaimes on guitar and Marius Goldhammer on bass (Lutz Deterra, on keyboard, completed the band for the second part of the afternoon). Lindsey has a lovely, natural way of performing and gave it her all (including her hit single ‘Fool Me Once’ and a beautiful cover of the Prince song ‘Call My Name’), which was greatly appreciated by the festival audience, who loved every minute of it, myself included.

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The final act of the festival, after a short coffee break, was also yet another highlight: saxophonist extraordinaire Elan Trotman, born and raised in sunny Barbados and another Berklee graduate, whose first-rate performance was as infectious as music can possibly get. He took his saxophone off the stage several times during his set and played right in the middle of the assembled audience, which quickly broke the ice. From the Caribbean flavoured ‘Tradewinds’ to a lovely rendition of Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’, it was definitely time for a dance together with a room full of jazz fans who’d already partied their socks off at the New Year’s celebration the night before. I certainly didn’t expect a fully seated daytime festival gig to be this lively and felt really uplifted for the rest of the day!

Apart from the outstanding quality of performers, Smooth Jazz organisers Christian Bößner and Sandra Hoffman also did an excellent job in terms of the organisation and friendliness of the event. I chatted with attendees from as far as Mallorca, the US as well as other German cities most of whom were regulars at the festival. If smooth jazz is your kind of thing or if you’re keen to give it a try, make sure you check out their yearly festival roster, they also run popular smooth jazz festivals in Mallorca (May) and the Algarve (September). I certainly had a great time at the 17th Smooth Jazz Festival.

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In case the above has whetted your appetite and you’re visiting Augsburg with its 2000 years of history for the first time, here are a few travel tips. Don’t miss the Fuggerei (supposedly the oldest social housing estate in the world, but instead of stark architecture, it’s rather quaint), the Goldener Saal in the City Hall, the Perlach tower (which you can climb for panoramic views), the Cathedral, the many fountains and a stroll in the old town. For those with a sweet tooth, Café Dichtl and Café Eber are good bakeries to try, so is Bäckerei Wolf (a few outlets around the city centre). If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’ll be pleased to know that there are many veggie-friendly options around town, including the just opened Mom’s Table on the city’s main thoroughfare Maximilianstraße. Not too far from there is also where the famous Augsburger Puppenkiste puppet theatre and museum (shows used to be on national tv, so it’s known all over the country) has its home. While Augsburg may appear conservative at first glance (and it is in many ways), we also have a very exciting cultural and social project, the Grand Hotel Cosmopolis, where you can stay in unique rooms designed by artists. It’s a friendly, mostly volunteer-run hotel, a gathering place for creatives and a welcoming home for asylum seekers from all over the world.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with concert tickets for the 2016 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 by Christan Nordström (with the exception of the Christkindlesmarkt picture, taken by Life is a Festival).

Life Ain’t No Dress Rehearsal: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2016

It was Stephen Fearing’s song ‘No Dress Rehearsal’ (based on a Mark Twain Quote) which summed up this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival (26-29 August 2016) for me. Living in the moment doesn’t get much better than meeting old and making new friends in a place where the positive energy is palpable and smiling at strangers is actually ‘the done thing’. While many festivals appear to be superficial entertainment for the masses on the outside, SFF is a great example how through common interests people can create something very special, a beautiful village for folk-music lovers which gets built again every August in Shrewsbury, Shropshire.

shrewsbury sunshine

The story already begins when you set up your tent. I’ve only been coming to SFF for the past 5 years (it celebrated its 20th birthday this year, congrats!), but every time I return, within a few minutes of arriving I’m already deep in conversation with another steward (one of the nearly 500 of us) or festival goer about our favourite acts of the previous year and what we’re most looking forward to this time around. There is always someone who lends a helping hand, has a spare tent peg or a hot cup of tea just when you need it.

TequilaSunrise SFF 2016

Having joined the 2012 stewards team quite last minute helping out with the Task Force, I’ve been a part of Artist Reception for the past four years now. It’s a small but busy team checking in musicians, providing assistance and food and drink as well as guarding the artist entrance and car park. One of the main reasons why SFF has such a great reputation is its excellent organisation and the dedication of everyone involved from the festival directors to each individual steward. How lovely to see the same smiling faces every year (pictured below Judy with Gromit & Leona May), it just makes you feel instantly at home.

Judy with Gromit & Leona May

After a busy summer of travelling the Balkans and four other festivals (Beyond The Border, Yoga Connects, Cambridge Folk Festival & Soul Circus), I really wanted to have a stress-free bank holiday weekend and Shrewsbury Folk Festival is always the perfect event for it. There are plenty of food vendors on site and the town centre is only a short scenic stroll away along the River Severn. Being on the site of the West Midlands Showgrounds, it has good toilet facilities and, in the past few years, even started offering ‘shower queue entertainment’ in the form of pop-up sets by up and coming artists in the mornings.

yoga SFF 2016

There is also one yoga session a day (100+ people at every class!) in the dance tent for adults plus two shorter ones for families on three of the festival days and even though they were a tad on the early side (8.30am) I was very glad I went along. The perfect way of waking up your muscles after a night in the tent! I also made it to the beginners’ whistle and flute workshop this year and can now play a pretty decent version of Mary Had a Little Lamb and The Bear Dance, for whatever that’s worth.

Rosanne Cash SFF 2016

And now to the music! It was a great line-up again, as usual, and I particularly enjoyed seeing previous favourites Ten Strings and a Goat Skin, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (plus a great solo set by Stephen Fearing), John Jones and friends including Seth Lakeman, Raghu Dixit (sing along challenge of the weekend!) and Barnstar! again. I was also excited to catch US singer songwriter Richard Shindell, Irish musician Andy Irvine, songwriter and broadcaster Tom Robinson, London-based The Boondock Hippy, fab local band Two Blank Pages, The Kefaya Music Collective and The Urban Folk Quartet for the first time. One of my highlights of this year’s festival was the set by Rosanne Cash and her husband John Leventhal (who happens to be an excellent guitar player). Despite the early morning yoga I managed to make it to the ceilidh on Sunday night with the excellent Blackbeard’s Tea Party creating a wonderfully joyous atmosphere. Loved it!

Dulcimer Workshop SFF 2016

While it’s impossible not to have a good time at SFF, the 2016 edition was definitely one of my favourites so far. Sitting around a table in the onsite Berwick Bar on the Monday night and singing along to folk and rock favourites with everyone else with a friendly dog called Lola on my lap and a pint of Kingstone Press cider in my hand, I couldn’t believe we’d have to wait another year for this magic to happen all over again. But, as Stephen Fearing sings in his song, ‘Time doesn’t know reversal, life is no dress rehearsal’. Especially in a world so full of conflict, it really is time to ‘try and act accordingly’, to enjoy the good times while they last, to be kind to fellow strangers and grateful for those special moments. Shrewsbury Folk Festival definitely does its bit to make the world a better place (as cheesy as this may sound) and I’ve already got the 2017 festival dates firmly marked in my calendar. See you there!

Mind The Roundabouts: Cambridge Folk Festival 2016

While it’s exciting to be at an event for the first time and discovering all its ins and outs, I love returning to a festival and being able to look forward to what I know will be a great music-filled weekend. Cambridge Folk Festival (28-31 July 2016) is one of those examples as it’s always impeccably organised and runs like clockwork, but at the same time has a friendly, laid-back vibe.

This year’s festival started for me in a very relaxed fashion as I had plenty of time on Thursday to set up the happy tent at Coldham’s Common, head into town to get supplies and then make my way over to Cherry Hinton Hall where the festival began as usual with Stage 2 and the Club Tent plus The Den swinging into action around 6pm. I decided to start with Imar, a fab inventive Glasgow-based five piece trad band with Scottish, Irish and Manx roots. After a veggie burrito dinner I headed over to The Den, a smaller stage with a cosy living-room feel which always hosts a number of exciting not so well-known bands. The first set I caught was by Bristol-based Heg & the Wolf Chorus, who call their mesmerising musical storytelling “theatrical folk music”. This was followed by the very energetic brother duo Echo Town, made up of Richard and Robert Harrison whose rhythm-based live show included didgeridoo, djembe, a drum set and guitar. It only took a few songs for the audience to realise this was the perfect opportunity to get up from the cosy rugs spread around the tent and start dancing their socks off, which we did!

Cambridge Folk Festival 2016

After a quiet night at the campground, which again had everything one could possibly wish for, including good showers, a live music tent (more about this later) and food and drink until the early hours, I caught the official shuttle back to the festival site in the morning. I grabbed a coffee and some breakfast and started with a very relaxed songwriting workshop by Chris Wood. Then I headed over to the duck pond for a peaceful yoga and meditation session led by Teresa. A great start to the first festival day.

Although Friday had pretty mixed weather overall this didn’t dampen the spirits of the festival goers in the slightest given the enticing line-up across the three stages. This year featured a lot of excellent Irish artists, the first of which for me was Lisa O’Neill, who I’d seen in Dublin before and is one of those songwriters whose talent most definitely belies their age. The rest of the day was spent sampling the various musical offerings and finding new favourites including Americana duo The Mike + Ruthy Band, who are hailing from Upstate New York and even have their own festival, The Hoot. In the evening it was time for a set by Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall on Stage 1 and I stayed on for Gogol Bordello, whose Gypsy punk sounds were a nice contrast to the more traditional acts who were on during most of the day.

Leyla McCalla

On Saturday I started the day again with some excellent coffee and another songwriting workshop, this time by English folk revival superstar Eliza Carthy, who was just as entertaining, funny and thoughtful in a smaller setting as she was on stage with her 12-piece Wayward Band. The next highlight of the day lasted for nearly three hours as the Festival Session on Stage 2 hosted by Brian O’Neill was like a high-profile open mic with top musicians and newcomers (Le Vent du Nord, Världens Bänd, Sam Kelly, Jack Cookson, Kadia) passing the musical baton every few minutes, just fabulous! One of Saturday’s standout sets was by Leyla McCalla (formerly cellist with The Carolina Chocolate Drops) and band. Her repertoire and arrangements influenced by Cajun, Haitian and Creole music were simply beautiful. Another excellent Americana band, the Massachusetts-based all male quartet Darlingside, became one of the festival favourites over the weekend, having been given a Stage 1 slot at the last minute to replace Charles Bradley, who had sadly been taken ill. After a jam-packed day I was very excited to see Christy Moore on Stage 1. I hadn’t seen the iconic Irish singer, now in his early seventies, live since the 1990s and was pleasantly surprised that his classic songs sounded just as fresh and relevant as they had two decades ago. Ably supported by another excellent Irish musician, Declan Sinnott, as well as Seamie O’Dowd and Jimmy Higgins, it was probably my favourite set of the festival weekend. As much as I love folk music from all over the world, there is something about Irish music and voices that touch my heart in a way nothing else can.

Mary Chapin Carpenter 1

The last festival day always approaches way too fast and again I decided to take it easy and go for quality over quantity. Powerful all female five-piece Della Mae from Nashville were a must on my list and I hope they’ll bring their infectious brand of Americana back to the UK very soon. In the evening I greatly enjoyed Mary Chapin Carpenter’s set on Stage 1. It didn’t beat the singalong experience we had with Joan Baez last year, but having never seen her live before, I really enjoyed both her classic songs as well as her newer material and the stage banter in between. I then headed over to The Flower Garden to a fascinating workshop by US folk musicians Anna & Elizabeth who showcased their handmade “crankies”, miraculous scrolls either painted or sewn with fabric to illustrate the story of a sung ballad, a fascinating tradition which the duo have successfully dragged into the modern day and age. I, for one, have been inspired to give crankie-making a go myself over the winter months. Take a look at The Crankie Factory to learn more about them.

Anna & Elizabeth Crankie Workshop

After a break for wood-fired pizza another Irish favourite of mine, Imelda May, took to Stage 1. While the Cambridge audience seemed to take a little while to warm to her very danceable rock’n’roll sound, her version of U2’s “All I Want Is You” with everyone joining in was the most beautiful moment of the set. I ended the night with Hot 8 Brass Band and the musicians from New Orleans seriously blew the proverbial roof off Stage 2. Their set concluded with a parade right through the audience over to the Mojo tent with everyone whooping and clapping along, what a festival finish!

But wait, the real highlight was still to come: the bus trip over to Coldham’s Common, which traditionally leaves the drivers free to go around the three roundabouts on the way as often as they want with happy passengers cheering along like excited school kids. Ah, the simple pleasures of life! I’d also like to give an extra special shout-out to the amazing late night bar tent at the campsite. The best afterparty at the festival, which even attracted some of the official CFF bands, such as Flats & Sharps for a late night set, just added that special extra to an already successful and well-organised event. Well done everyone!

Midwinter Music Madness: Celtic Connections Glasgow 2016

January isn’t usually a popular festival month in most European countries, but luckily the guys at Celtic Connections filled this festival-free zone with one of the most amazing music events I’ve ever attended. From 14 – 31 January 2016 Glasgow was yet again the backdrop for 18 midwinter days of excellent folk music, Americana, world music with a Celtic twist, educational programmes, Showcase Scotland and, of course, the ever popular festival club.

I managed to make it to Scotland for a couple of those days, trying to ignore the many tempting concerts which I was sadly missing on each end (Patty Griffin, The Moving Hearts, Jason Isbell, The Lone Bellow, Seckou Keita & Gwyneth Glyn to name just a few). It was my first time in Glasgow and as I stepped off the train at Central Station, I already knew I would like the place. I’m a big fan of discovering a new city through a festival and was positively surprised about the many amazing cultural venues and museums the city has to offer.

Being based at the festival HQ, I spent a couple of hours every day getting artist packs ready, sorting out transport, meal vouchers and anything else the bands needed together with a fun volunteer team of all ages who were all seriously passionate about folk and Americana.

Martha & Lucy CC 16

On Monday night I managed to catch the Wainwright Sisters, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche (with support by Ethan Johns) at the City Halls who performed songs from their latest shared album ‘Songs in the Dark’ as well as some of their own material. It was just the two singers with their guitars, jokes, stories and two perfectly matching voices. Superb.

The night after I had tickets for a Seirm recording session for BBC Alba at the Hillhead Bookclub, a wonderful venue (which used to be a pre-First World War cinema, the Hillhead Electric Theatre) in the West End. We were treated to a night of Scottish Gaelic, folk, and Americana music including South Uist singer (and Outlander star) Gillbride MacMillan, New Hampshire based singer-songwriter (and also Gaelic speaker) Kyle Carey as well as French chansons courtesy of Anne Carrere of Piaf! The Show plus another set by the Wainwright Sisters, this time so intimate, it felt like a living room concert.

On Wednesday night it was time for Rhiannon Giddens and band on the Old Fruitmarket stage (yet another beautiful historic venue!). Being one of the founding members of the equally amazing Carolina Chocolate Drops, she never fails to impress. Her exquisite voice, clever choice of material (mostly taken from her latest solo album ‘Tomorrow is my Turn’) and incredible stage presence were a winner with the sold out house. On Thursday night Mairi Campbell’s intriguing solo show Pulse at the Tron Theatre was followed by my only chance to enjoy the festival club at the Art School (incl. the Poozies, Nuala Kennedy and Daoiri Farrell & the Four Winds) until the early hours, which was a great finale for my first Celtic Connections visit to Glasgow.

Rhiannon Giddens CC 16

In between all the musical happenings I also managed to explore quite a bit of what the city has to offer in terms of culture, cafes and veggie food. As far as I’m concerned Glasgow is seriously underrated as a weekend trip destination! Here are just a few examples why:

Museums: I loved the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (great collection and stunning building), the Burrell Collection in Pollok Park complete with Highland cows grazing outside, the Mitchell Library (the largest public reference library in Europe and also host to the lovely Aye Write and Wee Write festivals) and the Lighthouse design museum (great view of the city centre from the top). All of them are free entry (donations welcome).

Cafes, food and neighbourhoods: I ventured both to the West End (great coffee, veggie soup and homemade bread at Kember & Jones) on the third-oldest subway system in the world as well as the South Side (finally managed to visit the Glad Café, fab live music venue plus the most scrumptious veggie haggis burger and sweet potato fries) by bus plus discovered tons of great charity shops. Other places I ate at where Stereo (just like at Mono, fab veggie and vegan food in another cool music and arts venue) as well as Café Source (in the basement of the St Andrews church/venue), The Steamie (see pic below) and the Saramago Café at the CCA. Somehow the best cultural spots also seemed to have the best coffee, veggie and vegan food, way to go!

The very best part of my visit were the Glaswegians though. ‘People Make Glasgow’ might be a marketing slogan, but I really felt immediately at home in this beautiful Scottish city with its humorous locals and lively cultural and festival scene. Can’t wait to be back sometime very soon!

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World Wide Wales: Brecon Jazz Festival 2015

When I attend folk and Americana music festivals I usually have a good idea which artists I want to see. With jazz festivals it is a completely different story for me. This was only my third time volunteering with a jazz festival, ever. The first time was the excellent Nelson Jazz Festival in 2007 (before this blog was born) during a trip to New Zealand and then the Vancouver Jazz Festival in 2011. Having not been to Wales for way too long, I decided it was time to give my third jazz festival a try and Brecon Jazz (7-9 August 2015) had a diverse line-up as well as a beautiful location to boot.

I arrived at Brecon from Hay on Wye where I had spent a blissful three days camping in an apple orchard with a flock of beautiful chickens plus Guinness the dog for company. While there, I attended two excellent music sessions, one the weekly open mic at the Globe and the other an acoustic session at the Baskerville Court Hotel, where the atmosphere was so friendly that I spontaneously wrote and read a poem on the night with a fellow traveller (scary but fun). With its many bookshops and cafes, friendly locals and numerous dogs of all shapes and sizes, Hay was difficult to say goodbye to, but Brecon Jazz Festival was promising a weekend filled with even more live music.

BFF15 1

I was lucky again with the campsite I had picked for Brecon, an idyllic riverside location and more chickens, who came around in the mornings to inspect their breakfast options. It was interesting that the friendly Brecon Jazz volunteer crew was made up of quite a few people who, like me, were based in other places, mostly in Wales. As venue stewards we mainly helped out running the indoor concerts throughout the weekend. This way I ended up experiencing a number of different jazz styles, such as:

World Wide Wales: Wales Meets Brazil – a vibrant collaboration between Welsh artist in residence Huw Warren, bassist Dudley Phillips and Brazilian-born London-based Adriano Adewale on percussion (including a breathtaking tambourine solo).

GoGo Penguin – This was the concert I probably enjoyed most as this Manchester three-piece really had a very addictive distinctive sound fusing traditional jazz with classical music and electronica.

Adriano Adewale: Catapluf’s Musical Journey – A show primarily aimed at children, but what a great excuse for all the adults in the audience to have a bit of fun with sound too.

Jazz Service at Brecon Cathedral – What a beautiful historic building to spend the morning listening to various jazz fest and other local artists perform specially selected pieces and singing along to jazz hymns such as „When the Saints Go Marching in“.

Deirdre Cartwright Band & Friends – This fascinating tribute to American Jazz guitar greats Emily Remler and Wes Montgomery was part of the Jazz Guitar Day at the Guildhall and also featured guest guitarists Will Barnes and Tom Ollendorf.

Julia Biel – The Sunday night concert by innovative London-based jazz vocalist Julia Biel at Brecon Cathedral was the perfect way to wind down and get together with the other stewards after a music and fun filled weekend.

BFF15 2

Apart from the events in the main jazz festival programme I also caught quite a few smaller Brecon Fringe Festival sessions, including a bluegrass band and an Americana singer songwriter, which was a nice change and a great way of discovering some local musicians plus some lovely smaller venues, such as the cosy The Hours Cafe and Bookshop, the Castle Hotel terrace with mountain views, the quirky The Muse arts venue as well as Ardent Gallery.

All in all, I had a wonderfully relaxing time both in Hay and in Brecon, two perfect destinations for a few days, especially if you are a book or music lover or both.

BFF15 3

The Best Medicine: Cambridge Folk Festival 2015

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

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

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

Peggy & Joan

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

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

CFF 1

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

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

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

CFF 2

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