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Room For All: A Guide for Shrewsbury Folk Festival Newbies (including festival review 2017)

I first attended Shrewsbury Folk Festival in 2012, signing up as a volunteer very last minute and had a wonderful time, as it is just an incredibly well-run and relaxed event. It not only bursts at the seams with incredible live music and dancing, it also has an ideal location being walking distance from the centre of the historic English town of Shrewsbury, in Shropshire, not far from the Welsh border.

Bellstone Marquee SFF 2017.jpg

The 2017 Festival

For me, this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival (26-28 August 2017) was all about collaborations. Some of the exciting collaborative projects were The Passerine (Folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow with musicians from Egypt, India, Sudan and other countries) as part of the new Room For All Initiative celebrating cultural diversity, all female ‘supergroup’ Coven (Grace Petrie, O’Hooley and Tidow, Lady Maisery) and the closing performance in the newly named Bellstone tent (Marquee 1) ‘Faith, Folk & Anarchy’ with Steve Knightley, Tom Robinson and Martyn Joseph. As festival co-founder Alan Surtees sadly passed away earlier this year, there were lots of emotional tributes to him as well as a CD to support the newly created Alan Surtees Trust. Other local and international artists included Loudon Wainwright, Le Vent du Nord, Skippinish, The Unthanks, Daphne’s Flight, Sarah Jarosz, the Oyster Band, Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble, The East Pointers and Ragged Union. While SFF is very much dedicated to folk music in its many forms, performers from other genres, such as the excellent Stockholm based US blues musician Eric Bibb this year, also always find a musical home here. My favourite new discoveries were The Fitzgeralds from the Ottawa region of Canada, who also offered an excellent step dancing workshop, which was attended by well over a hundred people. There was also a new stage this year, The Launchpad, near the food and bar area, showcasing up and coming musical talent, e.g. the excellent The Trials of Cato (who are based in Wales, but met each other in Lebanon, of all places).

Eric Bibb SFF 2017.jpg

What accommodation options are there?

As a general punter you can arrive to pitch your tent from Friday morning (the music starts in the early evening) and the festival programme usually finishes around early evening on Monday, so most people leave around then or stay until the next morning (the last unofficial gathering in the onsite Berwick bar with lots of craft beer and cider on tap is always a highlight). If you’re in a campervan, you can park it beside your car or a car park across the road, depending on how much space there is when you arrive. I always come by train and the taxi to the site is less than 5 pounds or a 10 minute walk. There are three permanent toilet buildings (the one in the bar has mirrors and plugs for drying your hair) plus some nice toilets with sinks dotted around the site. The free showers are also good (and nice and hot) and there are drinking water taps available, too. Alternatively, Shrewsbury has a number of great hotel and B&B options, just make sure you book fairly early as it is a very popular weekend (with other events like a large steam fair on as well).

Pig Dyke Molly SFF 2017.jpg

What is it like to volunteer at the festival?

I always have a great time volunteering at SFF. You make new and meet up with old friends, are part of a lovely motivated team and help making the festival a success. In exchange for about 15-16 hours of work, you get a festival and camping pass for the weekend and work shifts of 2-4 hours at a time. You can also arrive a day early on Thursday from lunchtime. It is advisable to sign up as early as possible, i.e. email the festival for more details about steward applications. You can then choose one of the teams to work in, but please be aware that you might not always end up on your preferred team (especially if it’s your first time) and that it is not always possible for you to see all the artists you might want to see (but you can always try and request one or two). Some shifts also run fairly late (I had an evening shift until 1am), but this depends on your particular team. You can also volunteer to do setup and takedown, if you have time to arrive early and leave late and thereby be free during most of the festival.

Stone sign SFF 2017.jpg

What kind of food and drink can I expect?

There is an outdoor food area around a large tent with tables and seats right beside the main marquee and it offers all the food you could possibly want (burgers, pizza, Mexican, Indian, Italian, fish & chips, two specifically veggie/vegan stalls, sandwiches, coffee, ice cream and cakes). This is supplemented by two large bars, the Berwick bar in an actual building and the beer tent beside the food area, both with tables and chairs, so you definitely won’t go hungry and thirsty!

What is there to do at the festival apart from the live music concerts?

I tend to focus on the concerts, but I often meet people who spend all weekend in trad sessions or in the dance tent. If you play an instrument, there are many tuneworks sessions, which include fiddle, whistle, guitar, accordion, melodeon, ukulele and even mountain dulcimer. You can bring your own instrument(s) or, for some of the beginners classes, borrow one for the class or the weekend (but please confirm this before you arrive). There is a whole separate Children’s Festival section (0-10 years) with a circus tent, lots of music, craft and acrobatic workshops all weekend and a lovely lantern procession in the dark. Older kids (11-20 years) can join the Refolkus Youth Festival and also improve their samba drumming or singing skills, be part of a dance battle or try some aerial acrobatics.

Festival Beach SFF 2017.jpg

How accessible is the festival?

SFF does its best to be inclusive to everyone. The location has paths leading to all the main venues, which are suitable for wheelchair use and mobility scooters and wheelchairs can be rented for the weekend. Accessible toilets and showers are also available beside the Berwick bar and there is a special disabled camping area beside between the Sabrina marquee and the bar. Most of the venues have an easily accessible wheelchair area (usually in the front) and the volunteer stewards can point you to it in each venue.

Bella and Ruby SFF 2017.jpg

Can I bring my dog?

Yes, you can, if it’s friendly and you look after it well. Which means you pick up after it and don’t leave it in your car for hours on end. Dogs are not allowed inside the main music venues, but there is usually space on the grass at the back or side of the tents where dog owners can spread out a blanket and enjoy the show with their four-legged buddies. I petted so many nice dogs (you can see a selection on my Instagram account Cuddle a Dog a Day), including a number of adorable puppies, this year and it’s nice to find out their stories and a great way of getting to know people, which is super easy at SFF anyway as most people are very friendly. There are also many dog owners in Shrewsbury itself and there is a great app/website called Doggie Pubs to find out about dog-friendly places to eat and drink around the UK.

Tuba music SFF 2017.jpg

Will I enjoy myself even if I’m not a big fan of folk music?

This depends a bit about how open you are to trying out new things. The good thing about folk music is that it covers many different styles and SFF only book top class musicians, so if you’re willing to be open-minded, you will definitely have a great time. Plus, you can learn a new instrument from scratch over the weekend, improve your dancing skills, do some yoga, browse the many clothes and pressie stalls or simply chill in the sun (which we’ve had buckets full of this year, not a drop of rain!). Don’t worry about visiting by yourself, it’s practically impossible not to get chatting to some friendly folkies at SFF and lots of people return year after year. You can always opt for a day ticket to start with and I’m sure it’ll be a weekend pass next time around ;-).

Shuttle Bus SFF 2017.jpg

Is it worth checking out the town of Shrewsbury while I’m here?

Absolutely. The birth place of Charles Darwin has a number of museums and historic sights and is just a lovely, lively town to explore any time of the year. During SFF there are lots of morris displays (my fav this year was Pig Dyke Molly from East Anglia) and a parade around town on Saturday and Sunday. The city’s many cosy pubs, cafes and restaurants serve excellent food, including quite a few veggie and vegan options and I often head into town for breakfast to start my festival day. I also always do a charity shop crawl as there are a good dozen or so dotted around the city centre. A few of them also have stalls at the festival itself. In addition, Shrewsbury hosts lots of other interesting events year round, including the Shrewsbury Literature Festival in November. Free festival shuttles take you in and out of town on Saturday and Sunday, but the ten-minute walk along the river is a great way to stretch your legs, especially if the weather is as nice as this year.

Sunset flags SFF 2017.jpg

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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!

Music Makes The World Go Round: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2015

I love discovering new festivals, the excitement of finding music I’ve never heard before and trying out things I would have otherwise never given a go. But as much as I enjoy variety, I also crave known comforts. Shrewsbury Folk Festival takes place on the August bank holiday weekend every year and for me usually marks the end of a long and fun festival summer. It‘s a time to wind down after a busy couple of months and SFF is the perfect event for it.

It was my fourth time in Shrewsbury this year and the festival never disappoints. Personally, I would have liked to see a few more Americana acts, but hey, it‘s a folk festival after all and one of the best ones around. So all those who are into traditional folk music were spoilt for choice with reliable festival favourites Nancy Kerr, Kate Rusby, The Oyster Band, Steve Knightley and Sharon Shannon as well as many younger but equally popular bands, such as Threepenny Bit, the Young’uns and Lucy Ward.

SFF sunset

There was also a well-received five-hour long peace concert, the annual parade in Shrewsbury town centre with many colourful morris sides entertaining the public, Pandemonium with a huge choice of events for the little ones, and tuneworks music workshops for everyone all weekend long.

The absence of many of the usual „band clash issues“ left me free to really relax into the festival happenings and also led me to some music and experiences I would have probably otherwise missed.

One of my favourite sessions was for instance the songwriting workshop with UK singer/songwriter Jack Harris in the cosy extension of the Berwick Pavillion, which took place once a day from Saturday until Monday. Calling it a songslam was slightly misleading as there was nothing competitive about it at all. Festival attendees took turns presenting their own songs, each followed by the group discussing songwriting techniques and themes (experience of war and family history were popular). It was lovely having the space and time to listen to a lone voice with a guitar in a very supportive environment. No meditation session could have had a more positive and calming effect on us.

Equally mesmerising was a mainstage 2 set by Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita on Monday afternoon. Their way of fusing harp and kora sounds was simply beautiful, two cultures talking to each other through the shared language of music.

Catrin Seckou SFF

I also really enjoyed the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Having first seen them at Cambridge Folk Festival this July, I made a note to catch them again and they didn’t disappoint. While the Australian Spooky Men’s Chorale’s humour left me mainly yawning, the subtler sounds and jokes by this fabulous ukes ensemble fitted perfectly into my meditative theme at this year’s festival.

North Carolina based singer/songwriter Jonathan Byrd and the Sentimentals saved the weekend in terms of Americana sounds for me (here is a taste: You Can’t Outrun The Radio) and I heard some rumours there might be more of an Americana focus again next year, fingers crossed.

My favourite festival discovery this year was quite a traditional band though, the young Canadian trio Ten Strings and a Goat Skin from Prince Edward Island who play Acadian, Irish and French tunes as well as their own compositions. Having very much enjoyed their intimate show at Green Note the Monday before, I ended up seeing all three of their Shrewsbury sets. There are many traditional bands around who play fast-paced and fabulous music. What distinguishes the best from the rest, however, is their ability to really connect with an audience. Brothers Rowen on fiddle and Caleb on percussion (incl. bodhran) as well as Jesse on guitar were the surprise hit of this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival and by their third set on Sunday night we were all dancing in front of the stage. What fun!

There are many good reasons why Shrewsbury Folk Festival is such a much-loved event. Mine are mostly that the volunteer crew is dedicated and cheerful (so great to see everyone again this year!), the quality of the performers is always reliably high, food and drink choices are varied and plentiful, Shrewsbury town centre with many lovely cafes and (charity) shops is just a stone’s throw away and, best of all, everyone is just getting on with it and having a brilliant time! To put it in a nutshell, the ideal folkie short break, which leaves you invigorated and ready for more of the same the next year and the one after that and so on.

P.S. Nearly forgot #folkiedog! What a pleasure to meet so many folkie dogs again this year, I even recognised a folkie dog family from the equally dog-friendly Maverick festival in Suffolk (note to self: must start #Americanadog next summer…). Here is a little video featuring some of the SFF folkie dogs.

Rimpee folkiedog SFF

Away with the (Folk) Faeries: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2014

Shrewsbury Folk Festival is one of my favourite festivals on the UK folk circuit as it is consistently excellent. It is one of the most well-organised events I have came across in the past couple of years and this does not only apply to the music and sound quality, but also to how it is run. The volunteer stewards take pride in doing a great job and tend to return year after year. The festival veterans pass on their knowledge to new volunteers who are welcomed and seamlessly integrated. The minute I walked through the gates on Thursday afternoon I saw a few friendly faces who I had also seen the year before and the year before that. Another bonus is its location walking distance to the town of Shrewsbury, which is well worth exploring and has plenty of history, architecture, charity shops and pubs to keep you busy for an afternoon or two.

Festival Faeries
Music-wise there was a Canadian theme to the overseas acts this year, which was more than fine by me. I managed to catch Cara Luft and JD Edwards, JP Hoe, Madison Violet, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings and Matt Gordon & Lenny Podolak, who were all brilliant and are well worth checking out when they are touring over here. Apart from the usual stellar British Isles folk line-up, some acts I particularly enjoyed this year were Philip Henry and Hannah Martin, Sunjay Brayne and Bella Hardy. I was stewarding with the artist reception team again and, like last year, had a really good time. After sometimes long hours of travel, the artists could relax and chill in our cosy catering tent before or after their sets and we made sure they had everything they needed. After a long day of stewarding, hanging out with old and new friends and listening to fabulous live music it was off to the on-site bar every night, the main hub for music workshops during the day and lively singalong sessions into the early hours.
Village Stage 2
If you are planning on attending Shrewsbury Folk Festival next year, make sure you get your hands on tickets quite soon as it sold out pretty early this year. Arriving by public transport is not a problem as the festival site is only a 10-15 minute walk or a short taxi ride from the train station. If you have caught the folk fest bug and fancy volunteering, sign up as early as possible (beginning of each year) as there is usually – and understandably – quite a waiting list. Oh and if there is just one song you might want to learn the lyrics of for next year, make it Cousin Jack, which never fails to be performed by Steve Knightley, this year with a surprise appearance by Show of Hands colleague Phil Beer and other special guests, epic set!
You can watch some videos of this year’s festival on the lifeisafestival youtube channel, enjoy 🙂
Steve Knightley Wake the Union

Planet Folk: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alien family SFF 13

Folk Forever: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2012

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