Tag Archives: world music

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?

River Party, Unplugged: Unamplifire Festival 2017

Imagine a garden party with friends right by the Thames, sipping wine, looking out over the river, a fire going in one corner, fresh food being cooked in another and the sound of beautiful music drifting through the air. Yes, this place exists (even if only for a day) and The Nest Collective somehow made it happen on a day without any rain. Hallelujah!

Master Shipwrights Palace.jpg

I was volunteering with Unamplifire Festival on 27 May and the first part of the adventure was finding the venue in Deptford, which was hidden away a few minutes off the high street, on the banks of the river. Master Shipwright’s Palace (built by master shipwright Joseph Allin in 1708) is a private residence and when I made my way around the building to meet Kelly, the volunteer coordinator, I found myself enviously gazing at the current residents sunbathing in the gorgeous garden dotted with apple trees. What a place to live! We spent the next couple of hours setting up the food stall, the bar and long tables decorated with hurricane lamps and rustic table runners made from burlap and somehow managed to get everything ready before the first musicians were due to be on stage. Phew!

veggie food.jpg

I was stationed at the entrance giving out wristbands to ticket holders for a couple of hours before I spent the rest of the evening moving between the four venues to enjoy the amazing acoustic music on offer. Hidden away on the first floor of the historic house is the piano room where I took a seat on the floor for the first set of the night by international music collective Kefaya (pic below), who I had already seen and very much liked at Shrewsbury Folk Festival a few years ago. There is such a vibrant, positive energy about the three guys on guitar, bodhran and piano and all of us huddled together on the floor of the sparsely decorated space listened in awe. The band also had a guest singer from Afghanistan, who treated us to a couple of haunting songs from her homeland. Later on, Dizraeli took to the same stage with his fascinating slam poetry and thoughtful songs perfect for such an event.

Kefaya band.jpg

As the sun went down over the river I switched between the other room upstairs, the aptly named River Room with a view of the Thames and the large garden, with sets by Nadine Khouri, Nina Harries, Marry Waterson and David A. Jaycock and the outdoor Campfire stage where James Riley, Owl Parliament and Gamelan Lila Cita (pic below) played in the open air. I also had a peek through the large window on the side of the tiny cranehouse, the most exclusive of the four spaces barely holding a handful of people, with lots more revellers gathered just outside, drinks in hand, straining to listen to the unplugged guitar sounds of Piers Faccini and others.

Gamelan Lila Cita.jpg

The Nest Collective ‘warns’ you online that “this is not a wild party, it is a festival of listening and music appreciation. There are no PAs, it is all unplugged, no sound checks, no line checks, just wall to wall music”. And this is exactly what makes this sort of event so special and so precious. It was delightful to see that there is a market for unhurried, pared-down, beautifully simple (in the best sense of the word), real music and it was a pleasure listening to it in the company of others who absolutely ‘get it’. People were free to move between spaces anytime they liked and some had quite young children with them. Nevertheless, it went without saying that everyone quietly found a spot to sit or stand, not disturbing anyone else and fully appreciating the intelligent, creative performances in front of them. I was very impressed.

sunset cranehouse.jpg

If you’re anything like the friendly security guard I had a chat with during my volunteer shift, who admitted he doesn’t really like folk music, maybe it’s time to not judge music and musicians so much by their cover or label. Take some time to give a few not so well-known artists a listen and you might just find the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard.