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…
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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?