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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!

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