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4 Reasons Why Shrewsbury Folk Festival Is Simply Unmissable (incl. 2019 Review)

Even though I only made it to two festivals this summer, I made sure one of them was Shrewsbury Folk Festival. It was my 8th time in a row and it’s always a fantastic weekend of live music, dancing and fun. This time we managed to have another heat wave coincide with the bank holiday weekend, like in 2017, which made for a completely rain-free festival, hurrah.

If you’ve never been to SFF, here are the best reasons to join us next year and the next and the one after that…

Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019 Village Stage with audience in the sunshine.

The quality line-up

Even though there wasn’t enough Americana on the bill this time around for my liking, I’m always amazed at the great variety of brilliant musicians who play the festival. Now being based in Scotland, I was particulary excited to see the fabulous Skerryvore make a return as the Monday headliners (who just about made it from the airport coming from the US leg of a tour) as well as the always excellent Capercaillie. The festival also showcases up and coming local artists on the Launchpad stage, which this year included young guitar talent George Nash.

Mankala band from Bristol performing at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019

While I enjoyed the sets by US artists Amythyst Kiah, Birds of Chicago, Rev. Seckou, Cajun Country Revival and Aine Tyrell from Ireland, I was most impressed with the world music collaborations this year. These included Michael Messer’s Mitra (jazz/blues/classical Indian), AKA Trio (musicians from Brazil, Italy & Senegal) and Mankala (see pic above), all well worth checking out. I also always enjoy Kate Rusby, Oysterband and the While & Matthews duo had several sets, with guest musicians like Belinda O’Hooley, to celebrate their 25th musical anniversary. New to me Jiggy playing traditional music from Ireland with a modern twist were probably my fav new find this year, indeed I was surprised I had never heard of them before.

The additional activities

I always pick up my festival programme (one of the best ones around, really detailed and beautiful with band descriptions and everything you need to know) when I arrive on Thursday and aim to make it to a few other things than ‘just’ listening to music. But every single time I have to admit that there just isn’t enough time to get to everything – which is also a nice problem to have as it means there is so much on, you’ll absolutely never get bored. How could you?

Vegetarian food at one of the many food stalls at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019.

Included in your festival ticket are songwriting workshops, you can learn every instrument you can think of from scratch (incl. bodhran, mountain dulcimer, flute & ukulele), browse the market stalls, join a yoga session or spend a whole day in the dance tent. One of my favourite things this year was the children’s parade with dozens of beautiful animal paper lanterns and proud youngsters showing them off to the sound of the crowd singing ‘Yellow Submarine’ as this year it was a maritime theme – just magical!

I’m proud to say I at least managed to make it to one ceilidh (with John Spiers playing live for us, no less), which was a lot of fun. And ceilidhs are so inclusive, you don’t need to know what you’re doing or bring a dance partner, you can simply join in and that includes wheel chair users and people of all ages (the youngest dancer was probably four years old).

The historic town of Shrewsbury

The town of Shrewsbury is a shortish walk from the festival site, so I often head there along the river to stock up on food supplies, have a coffee and browse the charity shops. You can explore the town’s heritage, join a walking tour or enjoy a river cruise. They also have a number of good outdoor shops, which is handy if you’re camping. You might even bump into some festival musicians, some of whom stay in town if they don’t get put up in homestays nearby. You’ll also run into lots of other festival goers (easily recognisable by their wristbands or festival t-shirts) and everyone usually has a good story about previous years or favourite acts.

Shrewsbury library in Shropshire and statue of Charles Darwin.

The friendly atmosphere

SFF is largely staffed by (hundreds of) volunteers who tend to join the same team every year, so they really know what they’re doing. This makes for a calm, relaxed atmosphere and you’ll hardly notice the festival security team (who are really just there as a back-up). There are plenty of tables and chairs to sit and chat over a coffee, people practise their instruments in the bar, hub or outside their tents and are generally respectful of each other. I have hardly ever come across anyone drunk and/or rowdy, it’s just not that kind of place.

Bramble the spaniels helps out at artist reception at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019.

Having said that, the festival attracts people of absolutely all ages, from families with toddlers (the youngest I met this year was a 5-week old baby!) to retired folks and everyone in between. Compared to more crowded festivals (e.g. the also excellent Cambridge Folk Festival) there is a lot of space, almost never much mud, even if it rains persistently like in previous years, and hardly any queues (maybe apart from peak lunch & dinner times). Oh and the festival is dog-friendly of course and even the pooches like to join in like beautiful Bramble (see pic above). All of this guarantees a stress-free, super relaxing weekend of music!

George Nash playing the Launchpad stage at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019.

So join us, sign up as a volunteer or grab a festival ticket, bring your guitar and be prepared to talk to strangers. Like a woman I met on the train on the way home to Glasgow remarked: It’s so nice when people still talk to each other. It is, isn’t it? SFF is one of those places where you’ll get a friendly hello back when you smile at a stranger. Wouldn’t it be lovely to take this attitude back home with you, especially in these times when we seem to be sorely in need of a little more kindness?

Banjos vs Bagpipes: Oban Live 2019

I first came across Oban Live (7-8 June 2019) founders Skerryvore at Shrewsbury Folk Festival last summer and as I was moving to Scotland shortly after I was excited to hear that they had their very own festival. The sold out two day event (capacity 5000) has been taking place in the beautiful seaside town of Oban on the West Coast of Scotland since 2016 and has been going from strength to strength ever since.

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(photo courtesy of Oban Live/Stephen Lawson)

On Friday morning I hopped on a very crowded (as way too short) train from Glasgow and arrived three hours later in Oban together with lots of other excited, mostly repeat, festival goers. And yeah, despite having had some terrible weather all week, the open-air festival stayed blissfully rain-free during the whole weekend.

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Oban Live takes place at Mossfield Park Stadium, a short, well-signposted walk from the town centre and unlike most of the other festivals I usually attend there is just one big stage. This meant there is no difficult choices to make or music schedules to plan. We could simply enjoy all the bands without having to worry about missing any of the live acts.

Both days’ line-ups consisted of six bands. First up on day one was young local trad musicians Argyll Ceilidh Trail, followed by JigJam from Ireland and Be Charlotte, an up and coming Dundee-based artist. After sampling the festival food on offer, which included wood-oven pizza, Asian noodles, Mexcian food, fish & chips and a stall with some traditional Scottish dishes, all of which had veggie options, plus a coffee, tea and ice cream stall, it was time for the evening acts starting with popular trad fusion band from the Highlands, Elephant Sessions.

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(photo courtesy of Oban Live/Stephen Lawson)

My favourite set of the night was billed as Celtic Brotherhood, which in fact consisted of festival bands We Banjo 3 from Galway and Skerryvore joined by some additional local pipers for extra oomph. The Friday headliners were Red Hot Chilli Pipers with dancers of Flings & Things, an appearance by Soul Nation choir and of course bagpipes galore.

Day two started out with Edinburgh based rock band DMS followed by Scottish trad virtuosos Talisk and spirited singer songwriter Lucy Spraggan. The Caman Connection, a super group of Scottish musicians with an association with the Scottish sport of Shinty brought together by Gary Innes and included band members of Runrig, Capercaillie and Manran. The rest of the night was another energetic set by Irish ‘Celtgrass’ band We Banjo 3 and a fabulous closing set by Skerryvore, who had everyone up on their feet for the last hour and a half.

Oban Live Talisk Stephen Lawson.jpeg(photo courtesy of Oban Live/Stephen Lawson)

Besides the main event there was also a varied programme of Fringe happenings taking place from Thursday onwards and both the main festival as well as the fringe had informative little print-out programmes with all the info needed. From daytime pub sessions to a craft market and two after parties at the View Oban late into the night, there was something for everyone whether you are a morning lark or a night owl.

I was very impressed with the organisation of the festival on the whole. The security checks at the entrance were thorough but not over the top (it is OK to bring in food, just no liquids) and there were clearly layed out areas for putting up your own camping chairs with a great view of the stage, while most people opted for dancing right in front. There was also a VIP ticket option with a separately cordoned off area, their own bar and perks like food vouchers and priority entry into the after party each night. The entire festival was very relaxed and had a mixed age audience from families with children to groups of local teenagers and lots of Skerryvore fans of all ages from around Scotland and beyond.

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As there is quite a demand for local accommodation during the festival weekend, I would highly recommend booking your hotel or B&B as early as possible. Having initially thought I would be camping (around £30 including a shuttle to and from the festival), I opted for a hostel in town instead, Oban Backpackers, which was walking distance, comfy, very clean and, of course, full of other Oban Live folks, so a very pleasant base for the weekend.

In terms of eating out, Oban has plenty of options for everyone: fresh seafood from a stall by the harbour, trying local delicacies at the Food From Argyll café in the ferry terminal or starting the day off with a sweet breakfast at the airy Chocolate Café with a waffle & ice cream special (see pic below). There are also a Tesco, Lidl & Aldi on the way to the festival for supplies and some cheap camping chairs (Tesco), which came in handy as my friend had hurt her foot just a few days earlier.

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During the day you can explore the town itself and for instance enjoy the fantastic view over the bay from McCaig’s Tower, hike or cycle to one of the nearby beaches (can recommend Ganavan (see pic below), about 2 kilometres along the seafront with a food stall and public toilets) or take a 1-2 hour wildlife spotting boat trip from the harbour.

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Oban really is a beautiful corner of Scotland and Oban Live a festival which is big enough to have an excellent time listening to top Scottish and international musicians while being small and friendly enough to have a relaxed holiday weekend. Best of both worlds!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2019 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 apart from those labelled courtesy of Oban Live/Stephen Lawson.

 

Transcending Traditions: Celtic Connections 2019

I’ve been coming to Glasgow for Celtic Connections every January since 2016 and ever since first arriving in the city I felt it might be a good place for me to live. So last autumn I finally made the move from London and it was fantastic to be in town for the whole 18 days of the festival (17 Jan – 3 Feb 2019) for the first time!

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Being the largest winter music festival in Europe, the event has been a success story for many years now. It not only attracts a huge number of locals who enjoy outstanding music from different parts of the world, it has also become a magnet for visitors from other countries who brave the winter weather in order to experience the unique atmosphere of Glasgow city.

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This year was no different and the festival boasted a bumper programme of acts from the worlds of folk, Americana, classical, Indie, roc & blues, spoken word and many exciting cross-over collaborations.

Week 1

The festival started for me with a celebration of Tiree music festival (see pic above) at the Old Fruitmarket including Trail West and Skerryvore. On Saturday I was looking after two very different bands as a volunteer artist rep, May Erlewine, melodic Americana from Michigan, and the Como Mamas, three fabulous gospel singers from Mississippi, at Mackintosh Church (one of my new favourite buildings in the city, well worth a visit). On Sunday I was at King Tuts for the first time for an afternoon session of up an coming artists part of Hazy Recollections. Later that night I popped into a couple of gigs that were happening around the corner from each other: Irish trad musician Daoiri Farrell and friends playing ‘The Dublin Session’, Charles Esten of the Nashville series fame, sold out, but alas not my kind of thing and a bit of The Roaming Roots Revue at the Royal Concert Hall including the always excellent KT Tunstall. After taking a much needed break for two nights I was back on Wednesday with a session of lovely Welsh music including songwriter Gwyneth Glyn in the Strathclyde Suite of the RCH. On Thursday I very much enjoyed seeing Americana artist Caroline Spence again who supported US musician Steve Forbert at St. Andrews.

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Week 2

My second festival Friday was a night of old-time and more modern Appalachian tunes and songs with Canadian trio The Lonesome Ace Stringband. On Saturday I was looking after two more bands for the day: Andrew Combs & Charlie Whitten from Nashville and Amy Helm from New York. They played Oran Mor and both were excellent, Andrew & Charlie complemented each other perfectly while Amy and band played an energetic set for an enthusiastic audience. The day after I went to see Madison Violet form Canada at the Fruitmarket and then headed over to St. Luke’s for Tennessean Ashley Monroe. On Monday I was at the Rhiannon Giddens show at the RCH (with surprise support by Kaia Kater). With such an outstanding voice she can really sing anything well, but although the orchestra arrangement was fascinating, it didn’t touch me as much as her other work usually does. Midweek I caught Canadian Leeroy Stagger at King’s Theatre (a new venue for both the festival and me) and then headed over to the Mitchell Theatre for Emily Smith and her husband Jamie McClennan, who I hadn’t seen for years and who was as good as I had remembered, a more Americana sound this time around. I only caught one of the BBC Seirm recordings at Hillhead Bookclub this year, but it was again a wonderful line-up including Tim O’Brien and Blue Rose Code, one of my Scottish favourites of recent years.

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Week 3

The third Friday of the festival I was so tired after a long week at work and constant concert going that I just wanted to get some sleep, but a friend abroad messaged me to say check out the line-up at St. Luke’s tonight. So I reluctantly ventured out into the cold and was pleasantly surprised the venue was seated for the night, hurrah. The first band up, Pretty Archie from Cape Breton pretty much woke me up within five seconds and I also really enjoyed Chance McCoy’s first solo set at the festival. Nashville-based headliner Nicki Bluhm and her band were excellent, but I was too sleepy by then to really appreciate it. Saturday was my last time looking after festival bands this year and I was at the Old Fruitmarket (see pic above) again for a very exciting collaboration by Karine Polwart and a selection of other musicians (Shetlander Inge Thomson, Graeme Smilie, Louis Abbott of Admiral Fallow etc.). Her ‘Scottish Songbook’ consisted of a diverse selection of popular songs by Scottish bands of the past and present from Annie Lennox to Frightened Rabbit with a lot of humorous banter thrown in. My final gig of the festival was at the O2 Academy across the river, another great listed building and impressive former cinema. The show started with Canadians Pretty Archie (see pic below), followed by the very rocky Hooten Hallers from Missouri (both bands’ first visit to Scotland) and the popular The Dead South, Canadian bluegrass with an edge.

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You might be reading this and wonder if you have been to a completely different festival. Around a dozen different musical offerings on many nights make it a tough choice for festival goers. This year I often simply went by what hadn’t been sold out yet or was easy to get to if the weather was particularly adverse (it was in fact, fairly OK for this time of the year, phew). I also tried to make it to a few venues I had never been to in the years before.

You don’t need to move here like I did to enjoy what Glasgow has to offer, but this exciting Scottish city is definitely worth a visit, especially during Celtic Connections. Read more about previous editions of the festival (2016, 2017, 2018) and a guide to Glasgow during Celtic Connections. Hope you’ll join us next year!

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.

Sing, Dance, Drink, Repeat: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2018

I’m always reluctant to return to the ‘real world’ after another four days packed with amazing live music and lots of happy people at Shrewsbury Folk Festival (24-27 August 2018). I made my way to Shropshire on the train on Thursday as usual, set up the happy tent (stewards get an extra night on site) and then headed into town for a charity shop crawl, a nice pub dinner and a pre-festival live session in the Woodman pub. It’s the simple things in life that count!

SFF18 Happy TentFriday is always the first official festival day and the excellent Irish Daoiri Farrell Trio opened the Bellstone Marquee (biggest stage), followed by the fiddle playing step dancing Fitzgeralds from Ottawa Valley in Canaday, a welcome return after their fab debut last year. I then headed over to the Pengwern Marquee (second biggest stage) for Rusty Shackle, a Roots and Americana outfit from Bristol, who really got the crowd going, and somehow day one was already over much quicker than I thought.

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On Saturday I spent most of the morning in town catching some of the morris displays from festival sides (pictured above is Shrewsbury Morris) and was back at the festival site (a short walk or shuttle bus ride) just in time for one of the world music collaborations, Chinese flute player Guo Yue and Joji Hirota with the London Japanese Taiko Drummers. What a fascinating set alternating between powerful drumming sounds and graceful Chinese flute melodies. Shooglenifty and Dhun Dhora, singing in Gaelic and Marwari respectively, were another successful example of a meeting of two very different cultures with rich musical traditions.

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It’s easy to see why Americana singer-songwriter Yola Carter from Bristol is a star in the making. Her set in the Pengwern Marquee was mesmerizing and fair play for doing a song acapella after the microphone failed, which was one of the very special festival moments this year. I left Richard Thompson in the Bellstone Marquee to his stalwart fans and instead headed over to the Sabrina Marquee for one of my two favourite dance sessions this year, the fabulous Mankala with band members from no less than seven countries. Their high energy and completely addictive mostly African fusion sound had even the most reserved audience members at least clapping by the end and most of the rest of us on our feet from start to finish. So much fun and a great example that folk music encompasses a huge range of traditions from all around the world.

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Sunday was another bumper day with a great mix of sounds. The wonderful Passerine project, initiated by and including English folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow was back for a second year, this time with ‘Women in Transit’ and again some incredibly moving stories. Apart from the three main stages, there is also the club as in dance tent, which I managed to finally visit after all the live music had finished. Oh well, one ceilidh dance is better than none.

Usher’s Island wasn’t a band name I was familiar with before the festival, but it turned out it was an Irish traditional super group made up of Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny, John Doyle, Paddy Glackin and Mike McGoldrick. What a privilege to get to hear these legends of Irish music play a set together, sublime. This was followed by one of the best Americana singer-songwriters around, Nashville-based Gretchen Peters who treated us to some of her classic songs as well as new ones from her current album ‘Dancing With The Beast’. I was glad I headed over to the Pengwern Marquee right afterwards for a bunch of much more lively musicians as I managed to catch the end of Scottish band Skerryvore’s first ever set at the festival.

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As I’ll soon be living in Scotland I decided I should probably make friends with the sound of bagpipes (still quite a while to go, mind) and really enjoyed their full set on the main stage on Monday afternoon. I spent the rest of the festival in the Pengwern Marquee listening to The Mighty Doonans from Newcastle and the by now traditional festival finale, the folk slam with Jim Moray. This year’s featured artists included Rosie Hood, members of Rafiki Jazz, Jack Rutter, Elly Lucas, Sam Carter and some fabulous step dancing by members of The Mighty Doonans as well as The Fitzgeralds.

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I personally always focus on listening to as much live music as possible, but SFF offers so much more, you can learn to play an instrument (see pic of beginners ukulele jam further up), your children can pick up som circus skills, you can learn traditional dances from around the world, do yoga, eat your way through the many yummy food offerings and visit the lively and very friendly town of Shrewsbury (lots of charity shops, cafes and history to explore). Every year (7th in a row this time!) I greatly enjoy meeting the usual combination of repeat festival goers and fellow stewards who I’ve known for a while and always enjoy catching up with plus the festival newcomers, and the many lovely pooches (pictured above are adorable duo Amber and Archie) as well-behaved dogs are allowed at the festival, just not inside the venues.

So if you are still thinking Shrewsbury might be a little far for you to come ‘just’ for a festival, think again as it really is one of the best places for music lovers to spend an enjoyable weekend among like-minded people. Plus with ca. 5000 seats in three huge indoor venues, you never need to worry about the weather or not getting to see your favourite artist. Oh and one last thing: don’t be fooled by the ‘folk music’ label, it is a very broad and inclusive church and if you’re open-minded, you’ll definitely have a fantastic time. Try it out for a day next year or, even better, go straight for the ‘full monty’, it’s simply unmissable!

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.