Blessed with the hottest Bank Holiday weekend for many a year, Shrewsbury Folk Festival was able to lay out its programme to full effect. For those unfamiliar with this event, it makes use of the amenities of the West Midlands Showground and adds three marquees for music (Bellstone, Pengwern and Sabrina) alongside many other spaces for workshops, sessions, morris dance, etc. Its sheer scale makes it possible to address the differing tastes of the music fans in attendance, as we'll see.
Walking onto the festival site on Friday evening, the sounds of Mankala coming from the largest marquee, Bellstone, matched the return of warm weather for the Bank Holiday weekend. With the multinational nature of their line-up, the music drew from different styles including soukous, afrobeat and township jive blending from around the world in what some term fusion music.
Grace Petrie was next up in the Bellstone with what she described as the sometimes angry, sometimes sad music of a protest singer. Despite her worries about whether she was a folkie or not, she turned in a performance that would have made Billy Bragg or Robb Johnson proud. Signs were that she's building quite a following too.
Sneaking out of the Bellstone for some refreshment, Gary Stewart's Graceland were found in the Pengwern with an audience already besotted by their renditions of the highly danceable material from the Paul Simon album of their band name. Life got a little confusing, if equally entertaining, as songs from elsewhere in Simon's career were played later in a set that morphed into more of a Paul Simon tribute show. Not that it seemed to worry the audience.
Having missed a slice of tradition on the Friday, Saturday was kicked off by taking in The Exmouth Shanty Men who opened the day in a packed Sabrina with its sides wide open to the air. With a performance that was built strongly on tradition even down to their seafaring outfits, it brought home the point that there are many musical themes to be found at the festival. If that thought wasn't clear enough, up next came Amythyst Kiah from Tennessee with her blues and roots driven compositions. She often drew from an upcoming 2020 release though the high point for me was the powerful 'Black Myself', a composition that appeared as part her involvement in the Our Native Daughters project earlier in 2019.
Heading back to Bellstone, we found Birds of Chicago turning in a soul stirring, emotive performance with the powerful vocal of Allison Russell matched to the earthiness of JT Nero's singing. The former was also involved in the earlier mentioned Our Native Daughters project and the set included 'Quasheba, Quasheba' from that release along with standout material from their own releases such as 'American Flowers'. At this point, a nod in the direction of their special guest, Steve Dawson, is warranted for his superb guitar work which fleshed out their duo sound.
We aimed to finish Saturday afternoon off in the Sabrina watching Steve Knightley but we arrived from the Bellstone to find the marquee full and overflowing. Reflecting on this over an ice cream, any festival goer will realise that missing out is just the natural consequence of the richness of the line-up across the multiple stages. Or, as they say, "you snooze, you lose".
With Chris While and Julie Matthews celebrating 25 years of musical partnership by taking over the programming of the Pengwern on Sunday, it seemed fitting to check out their first appearance at Shrewsbury in 2019 as members of Daphne's Flight on the Saturday night in the Bellstone. As usual, it was a tour de force of harmonising but a little bit of spice was added with the inclusion of a handful of new songs from an upcoming 2020 record.
Quickly stepping back over to Pengwern, we caught Edgelarks on top form with Phillip Henry tempted by requests for 'Underground Railroad' to show off his harmonica work with its allusion to the train. Otherwise, we were largely treated to the fine material from their latest album, 'Feather', with Henry and his duo partner, Hannah Martin, blending perfectly.
A return to the Bellstone was then on the agenda to catch the Martin Barre Band celebrating 50 years of Jethro Tull. With a line-up including Barre on guitar, Clive Bunker on drums and Dee Palmer on keyboards; these original members were well positioned to present the legacy of this famous band. Using the screens either side of the stage to present historical film of Jethro Tull and other nostalgic footage, the 50 years were chronologically followed selecting suitable songs as they went along. Whilst members of Jethro Tull down the years have included various folkies and there is a considerable amount of acoustic material to be heard, the celebration concentrated on their classic electric guitar riffs. For me, this rock material was fine as it was for others around me who were nodding their heads (if not headbanging) though some audience members looked bemused. Some of the latter departed and sadly missed the acoustic interlude which included 'Wond'ring Aloud' as well as 'Life's A Long Song'. Clearly, this was a set for the fans of this iconic band.
Heading straight to the Pengwern on Sunday, we went to investigate Chris While and Julie Matthews' celebratory choices. Charlie Dore started off proceedings accompanied by long-time friend Julian Littman and Gareth Huw Davies on double bass with her gentle tales of relationships. Arriving next from the Tønder festival in Denmark (in a speeding taxi via the wrong airport) was Blair Dunlop who also served up a set of his own songs with the exception of Springsteen's 'Dancing In The Dark'. Raising a particular smile due to its suggestion that only relationships with people who like Ry Cooder's music can work was 'Sweet On You' in a set that charmed as much as entertained.
Having kicked off the afternoon with two fine songwriters, Eddi Reader stepped up to the plate with her interpretation of the material of others. That's not to denigrate her performance as her voice is as good as her choice of songs. Backed by her tried and trusted band, she was on fine form swinging between amusing banter with the audience and songs filled with emotion. It was a typically moving set that brought a tear or two to the eye whether in laughter at her quips or from the pure joy of the music.
Returning to the Bellstone for the evening's performances, Martyn Joseph was energetically presenting material from his latest album, 'Here Come The Young'. These new songs lending themselves well to his passionate performance and enthusiasm for improving social justice. That's not to say that the set was dominated by songs of a political bent as evidenced by the delightful 'Driving Her Back To London' which charts his father and daughter relationship. The swapping of different musical favourites in the song striking a chord with myself as it's something I do with the daughter who was sat next to me for this enjoyable set.
Up next was Kate Rusby who pursued a similar path with selections from her recent record. Backed by her regular band including husband, Damien O'Kane, her set lived up to expectations, Though, as a headline act, it was a little surprising to find her not closing the evening's entertainment in the Bellstone, this lent itself to our movement between stages. To close our night, we chose to head over to the Pengwern where the While and Matthews Big Band were finishing of their celebrations. Along with some old pals on guitar, bass and drums; the duo was bolstered by Belinda O'Hooley of O'Hooley & Tidow as well as Kellie While, daughter of Chris While. The set not only acted as a launch for their new record, 'Revolution Calls', but as an opportunity to deliver some blasts from the past in the form of selections from their back catalogue. Guests were popping up left, right and centre to accompany them in the form of Charlie Dore, Christine Collister, Marion Fleetwood and Snake Davis. The most rousing moments being when the rest of Daphne's Flight arrived for 'Pride' and, then, the finale with 'Blind Faith' closing the set and an encore of 'My Salty Dog and Me' when many of the evening's guests plus Heidi Tidow and Blair Dunlop joined in the party. We can safely say they celebrated in style.
Returning on Monday to a more subdued Pengwern, Reg Meuross was delivering a set of songs which drew from his personal observations of life and a penchant for historical characters such as William Morris or heroes such as Tony Benn. Over in the Bellstone, AKA Trio were also providing a gentle start to the day fusing the sounds of guitar (Antonio Forcione from Italy), kora (Seckou Keita from Senegal) and percussion (Adriano Adewale from Brazil). The music wafted across you in a way like the cooling breeze coming through the open marquee flaps. Quite beautiful.
It was a perfect way to relax you ready for the party mode of Andy Fairweather Low and The Low Riders (featuring The Hi Riders Soul Revue). Low has always stood at the intersection of blues, soul and pop and this was an outfit built to deliver with a hot rhythm section and punchy brass to embellish his guitarwork. The audience revelled in the music whether it was the man in front of me mouthing the lyrics of 'Bend Me, Shape Me' to his daughter or the person some rows further in front who couldn't resist waving their crutches around in pure joy.
It was tricky for the gentler While, Mathews and While to follow such a rocking atmosphere. Yet, the approach of Chris, Julie and Kellie in mainly choosing to harmonise their country favourites was a winner with their excellent selections from the likes of Gillian Welch, George Jones and Kim Richey. Add to this their natural charm and that was the audience won over.
Mondays at weekend festivals can often feel like a deflation as the audience gears up for heading home. Not at Shrewsbury. Having earlier been put in party mode in the Bellstone, that got further supercharged by the performance of Skerryvore. If that didn't float your boat, Jim Moray's Kingstone Press Folk Slam over in the Pengwern was providing the now traditional lively end to music in that marquee.
As intimated earlier, there were some misses in the music programme on my part (such as Oysterband, Merry Hell, Capercaillie and Track Dogs with the surprise guest appearances of Steve Knightley and Seth Lakeman) which were unavoidable if I was to capture the breadth of music. However, the astute reader of this review will recognise that the programming in 2019 neatly blended traditional folk, singer songwriters, Americana, world music fusion and artists celebrating musical icons from the past. You could have stuck with any of these themes or, like me, skipped across them all. Of course, there was also the wide range of workshops to chose from for both young and old, the Dance Tent with such as Whapweasal and John Spiers to inspire those with feet made for dancing, space for morris dance and stalls galore.
Indeed, Shrewsbury Folk Festival is a perfect example of the changing folk festival scene in the UK. No longer is the typical programme the realm solely of traditional folk and the singer songwriter. There is a wide selection of live music and other activities to pick up on. Laid out like a smorgasbord of musical choices to weave around, the 2019 festival at Shrewsbury proved to be sunshine all the way for its audience.
Words Steve Henderson Photocredit Mike Dean(1&3) Kirstie Edwards (2)
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