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Beardy Folk Festival 2019

Venue: Hopton Court
Town: Cleobury Mortimer, Shropshire
Date: 21-23/06/19

I was initially attracted to the second Beardy Folk Festival by the line-up, which featured a good range of established performers, rising stars and a few I didn't know. That meant there was going to be plenty of music I knew I'd enjoy along with the chance to discover somebody new. I'm so glad I went along because I found, quite simply, the best small festival I've ever attended. The organisers had worked really hard at getting the simple things right, which meant that the audience could enjoy what they were there for.

When it comes to the simple things then sending out the wristbands, camping permits and basic-but-free programme in advance meant there was no queueing at the gates on arrival and helpful stewards were on hand to point out where available, marked out, pitches were. The beer tent offered pre-paid cards, six drinks for £20, so there was no searching around for change or ending up with pockets full of coins because it's easier to hand over a note.

The location is absolutely beautiful, in rolling Shropshire countryside with sheep dotted around the landscape and Hopton Court itself is a self contained venue popular as a wedding location. Being not far from Kidderminster it's easy to get to by car although public transport may be more problematic. There are buses from Kidderminster and Ludlow that run close to the site but would certainly involve a walk up a country lane at the end. The festival took place in the old walled garden, which is on a slight slope with the main stage at the lower end. This natural tiering has the advantage that there was a good view of the stage from any position and plenty of room for chairs or rugs. The second, more acoustic, stage is at the top of the slope in the beer tent. I did wonder if that would mean a bit of noise during the acts but the audience were there to listen to the music and any slight chatter wasn't disruptive at all. In between the two stages was the food court with a good range on offer; wood-fired pizza, Indian, Mexican, locally sourced burgers and ice cream, coffee and pancakes all with reasonable prices for festival food. The beer tent had a good selection, too, although I found the berry cider was particularly drinkable.

Outside of the garden was the traders area and the village stage, which was used for well attended workshops on anything from beginners melodeon to Morris dancing, and beyond that the campsite. Everything was with a few minutes walk and there were plenty of well maintained toilets, which were cleaned regularly. Unusually there were pay showers but the rates weren't unreasonable or you could choose to slum it; it's only three days after all.

Of course the whole point was the music and that was of an exceptional quality from first act to last. Another feature of this festival is that there's no overlapping of acts, so none of those agonising choices of who to miss. With nine hours of music on the Friday, eleven on the Saturday and ten on Sunday it was enough for even the most hardened festival goer but if it got too much the enchanted woodland, with story telling, made for a restful break.

In terms of music it's very hard to pick the highlights because every performance was worth watching, but several do stay in the mind. One wasn't actually a performance as such. On the Friday Polly Bolton was in Dan Webster's band on the main stage. She then had to do an amazingly quick change and run up the hill to join The Magpies on the acoustic stage. Fortunately for her the first song they played was an instrumental, so she had a chance to get her breathe back. Both sets were wonderful; Dan Webster's upbeat traditional songs and Americana influences sat well with The Magpies' superb musicianship and fine singing of English folk and bluegrass. They, incidentally, have their début album due out in March '20 and it will include "Run River Run" as the first single. That will be worth getting.

It seems so unfair not to mention everybody, but with 37 sets over the weekend that would be impossible to do. The very best of the best included an amazing set from The Firebirds (Daria Kulesh and Marina Osman), whose Russian tunes turned us all into Cossacks and the call for an encore was so insistent it couldn't be ignored. Of the younger acts both Iona Lane and Ben Robertson were warmly received for their excellent songs and skilled playing. Ben, in particular, is a guitarist to watch for in the future. Harri Endersby and Katie Spencer also charmed the crowds with beautiful songs so set in the landscapes they love.

Mark Radcliffe surprised me. I only knew of him as a DJ but in a trio with in a trio with Dave Russell and Chris Lee he showed what an amazing songwriter he is, with real depth to his lyrics. It was Mark, broadcasting from Cambridge Folk Festival one year, that got me back into music so it was a real privilege to talk to him after his set and thank him for that.

I'll also mention Fly Yeti Fly who both opened the main stage on Friday and closed the acoustic stage on Sunday. Again with delightful songs based around their travels and set in a dreamy landscape their début album 'Shine a Light in the Dark' has been getting a lot of play since I bought it.

There were, of course, the more up-tempo bands as well with the Urban Folk Quartet and Holy Moly making sure everyone had a chance to dance. When it comes to the headliners you can't do much better than Three Daft Monkeys, Skerryvore and Merry Hell. I'd seen Skerryvore previously but this time I gave them a proper listen and that's worth doing. Far more than just a big sound and bagpipes the song writing of Alec Dalglish is of the highest standard.

Marry Hell closed the festival in brilliant form. They get better every time I see them and they have this way of bringing an audience along with them in a way very few others can. The interplay between Andrew and Virginia Kettle combined with excellent songs, especially from Bob, is all done in a way that seems to shrink the audience to a family party.

It was, without doubt, a terrific festival and one I will be back at next year. Early earlybird tickets go on sale in July and I suspect they may sell out quickly. The general view was that the audience was twice the size of the first festival, last year, and I suspect it will grow again next year. It certainly deserves to.

None of this happens without the organisers, staff and volunteers who were excellent. There were lots of smiles, lots of chances to chat and plenty of help if it was needed. The sound and lighting, which can make or break an outdoor show, were spot on all weekend come rain or shine, and we had both.

Put this one in your diaries for 2020.

Words and pictures Tony Birch

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