August Bank Holiday weekend, where to head to? The beach? The hills? A city break? Not on your life. Those in the know head to Shropshire for the ever changing but constantly attractive Shrewsbury Folk Festival. Despatches from the front line, Simon Jones.
Variety is the spice of life so they say. “Well, that was different wasn’t it?” Maddy Prior says with a broad smile. Not long off stage she’s quite happy to contemplate the set by The Forgotten Lands her latest venture which celebrates the border area between England and Scotland. With support from Steeleye’s Andrew Sinclair on sonorous, brittle electric guitar, occasional Spanner Ruth Elder on fiddle, returning vocalist Rose Kemp (her daughter) the songs presented paint pictures from lots of angles – historical, social, even metrological. With such a wide sweep there are selections from the tradition, naturally, one stand out ‘Lock the Door Lariston,’ from the pen of Rose ‘Reclaimed’ and from her own back catalogue.
Something I’ve been hoping she’d do for a while is to look again at her two post Steeleye, Chrysalis albums, ‘Woman In The Wings’ and ‘Changing Winds,’ in particular. Here Maddy began the process with the gorgeous, moody wintriness of ‘Long Shadows’ and jaunty ‘Acapella Stella.’ Focussed on four part harmonies, it’s still early days Forgotten Lands is destined to be an ongoing venture, the concept held together well and whilst it may morph over time here was much promise and potential.
Debuting a young band including her two children, family is still at the heart of Moya Brennan’s set. Shorn of Clannad she warmed up gradually, reaching full stretch when the music was in synchronicity with her Donegal roots. That harp is agile as ever and her vocals, distinct, characterful and windswept. ‘Once In a Lifetime’ got an unplugged airing, “ I was joined on this originally by a young lad from Dublin,” she related, ( Bono.) The old Clannad tune set ‘Eleanor Plunkett/Fairly Shot Of Her’ retained its elegant, dancing sheen. A folk rock take of ‘Two Sisters’ an absolute delight had the audience on their feet, echoing the chorus, yelling appreciation.
Youngsters The Hanging Stars recalled The Byrds at their peak of ‘Eight Miles High.’ “Cosmic American Music now,” predicted the stage host. “Like Big Star,” said the programme. Well… not quite, but theirs was a set of paisley folk rock played with a cheery aplomb, washes of careful steel guitar and lashings of psyche guitar solos. They even named checked Maddy and delivered a jingle jangle version of ‘The Golden Vanity.’ Your correspondent made a note to investigate further.
Elles Bailey twirled on stage in sparkly boots and a cowboy hat, she kept on telling us how chuffed she was to be playing a Saturday night set at Shrewsbury. By God she went for broke too. Ballads, blues, good old rock’n’roll and even a creditable stab at John Martyn’s ‘Over The Hill.’ “You know John Martyn?” she questioned, “Well you should!” Right on Elles. Her band were tight and funky, wrap around keyboards with a big cheesy sound, hard as nails rhythm section and a guitar player who was so sharp he could cut granite with his lead lines. As for Elles she was the Ring Mistress, vocals afire with passion, strutting her stuff and top stuff it was.
Mind you Capercaillie put plenty of swing and not a little funk into their Highland folk’n’roll which reminded me just how influential they have been in their four-decade career. Karen Matheson’s voice is still untouched by the passing of time and it drifted splendidly over Manus Lunny’s choppy bouzouki, Charlie McKerron’s fiddle lines and pipes/whistle of new recruit Fraser Fifield. Donald Shaw’s still one of the niftiest accordion players you’ll ever see and as leader he was clearly the core of proceedings. When they all jammed on a set of mouth music with 80mph reels it was a pure pleasure. This was a clear stamp of their integrity and intention.
Oysterband – bless them – are old hands at Shrewsbury headlining and here were reunited with Ray Cooper on cello. It was like he’d never been away, all that about fitting like a glove, there it was as the Oysters cantered with ease through their greatest and most popular material. John Jones centre stage and loving every minute, Alan Prosser’s thoughtful guitar work both electric and acoustic lent a fragile edge by Ian Telfer’s fiddle strings. The songs they presented have all become classics of rocking Anglo roots but I hold particular affection for ‘Put Out The Lights’ a hymn to a world that changes but not always for the better. Oyster music is square jawed, takes things head on and calls out the wrongs, always hopeful for better. English rock’n’roll… the later years.
It’d been quite some time since I’d seen a Billy Bragg concert – Manchester in the late 80s as I recall – in the meanwhile he’s become a media regular, Question Time, Radio 4, articles in the press. Yet it hasn’t phased him one iota, he’s still the Champion of the common man, railing against contemporary injustices, with fiery determination. In an hour or so of ringing guitar chords and righteous lyric he delivered a half rap, half sung melodic motherlode of protest. ‘Sexuality,’ ‘Levi Stubbs Tears,’ and a pulse racing ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards,’ “sadly still relevant brothers and sisters,” adds Bill. Despite the greying hair and glasses The Bard Of Essex retains his vitriol and love of activism “you can be active whilst the activists are sleeping,” he sings. True. We need Billy Bragg now as much as we ever did… probably more.
Peter Knight was here, there and everywhere, with The Gigspanner Big Band and compatriot John Spiers, who, equally busy, took to the stage with fellow Bellowhead Jon Boden. “Fiddle and box a go go,” a grinning punter commented from his chair during Knight and Spiers chummy duo set which was more like a game of Follow My Leader given their ability to extemporise and feed off each other’s innate variation. Such delightfully cavalier behaviour was on display during Gigspanner’s show, forcing a melange of traddery along roads barely travelled. Everything locks together in a free, elastic structure they all understand. So when Peter goes off on a flight of jazzish fancy as on ‘ Courting Is A Pleasure,’ the others are canny enough to follow him but never overtake. Tinges of Americana come through Phillip Henry’s sliding, chiming dobro and Hannah Martin’s keen vocals – right off a Blue Ridge mountain top – put the icing on ‘Awake Awake.’ All told they break their moorings in spectacular fashion producing music of dazzling originality.
Fusion specialists The Elephant Sessions churn together high octane Caledonian jigs with samples, breaks and chunky grooves and they happily turn the Pengwern stage into an oversized mosh pit. Centred as they are on a mandolin/fiddle axis, they’ve a decade of development behind them which was obvious in the effortless way they’ve introduced folk roots to dance floor vibes. As they fire off another turbo charged reel I’m left contemplating – not for the first time – how those north of the border are streets ahead at progressing traditions in meaningful, contemporary forms whilst others play catch up. This was a powerful display. Being so engrossed with the Elephants meant that I had to miss tempting Irish cross cultural collective Jiggy who shared their spirited instrumentals according to enthusiastic, next day reports with The Dhol Foundation in an epic, near fifteen-minute finale. Now that’s pushing the envelope and the clock!
Moya Brennon reels but gently. (Photo Helen Jones.)
Dance is intrinsic to Shrewsbury, it runs in the festival’s bloodstream. This year there’s even a goth/metal inspired Morris side – Beltane Border– who pitch up in black boots, long, dark, tattered, regalia, dreadlocks and devilish face paint. As they dance they hiss and roar at you whilst bashing sticks over their heads, all in step to a deep pagan beat. They may scare, babies, grannies and dogs but it sure as hell is more diverting than wearing white and waving hankies. Be wary then but thoroughly entertained!
Meanwhile in the Dance Tent…. Look beyond those stumbling with two left feet – like me – listen instead to the bands. Long running aggregation Peeping Tom, showed that they’d got both the swing and chops, driving the beat their rhythm section were rock solid and the lead guitarist fired off dance melodies like he was Mick Green of The Pirates or maybe Johnny Fean of Horslips. Haven’t heard an album in ages from them but this version would be worth getting into the studio pronto. Seek them out, even if you don’t dance.
Likewise Whapweasel who’ve some heavy duty names in their history, Rick Kemp, Simon Care and Saul Rose who still plays box as part of a gleeful bunch, who once decorated the pages of fRoots, their solution to shifting bodies onto the dance floor comes mixing rock’n’brass. It works impressively. Name to watch…Lasair whispers and rumours abound with enticing phrases mentioning folk dance, pounding rhythms and heavy rock in the same breath. Perhaps dance is where much needed innovation really lies. Maddy on the border. (Photo Helen Jones.)
Leveret followed one another along a set of intersecting paths as the trio’s instrumentals wandered wild and free to the appreciation of a packed marquee, Andy Cutting and friends seemed thankful if a little puzzled by their reception, but shouldn’t be surprised as their cavalier and idiosyncratic tunes have added much colour to the folk scene in the ten years they’ve been together.
Katie Spencer was equally delightful with a quiet, creative set of songs which represented her own back yard, Hull to you and me. She’s a great way with words and drifting melodies which first came to this writer’s attention when she redressed a few of John Martyn’s creations for a super EP. Here in a concert that won her new friends and supporters she proved the old adage that sometimes less is more. J
ust as enticing Ruth Angell has done something similar for the Derbyshire Dales with ‘Hlywing’ songs bouyed on classical influence as well as folk. She goes beyond the normal singer songwriter definition in that she arranges as well as composes and in the structure of her work you can see the difference. She’s assured and performs with finesse. Shrewsbury was rightly impressed.
Joachim Cooder marched straight off stage, looked in to the camera and told us he couldn’t wait to come back. His presence at Shrewsbury showed the organisers had pulled off a real coup and they deserve credit. His booking proved the intention to present quality and pioneering no matter where it might be found – in this case west coast America. More than that, Joachim is turning out to be a chip right off the family block, for those not in the know he’s Ry’s lad and Cooder senior regularly redefines the boundaries of what we may think of as roots music. Joachim’s done some recent boundary pushing himself, having been introduced to a mirimba by Ali Farka Toure, naturally he began to experiment creating an electric version and chose to adapt the music of old timey artist Uncle Dave Macon not only for the instrument but for the modern day. The culmination of his labours the magnificent album ‘Over The Road I’m Bound’ ; the music is spell binding and shiversome. At Shrewsbury as part of a swift European jaunt his set proved attractive and potent. His desire for a return was mutal. As swiftly as it can be arranged please.
The Red Hot Chilli Pipers saw proceedings out with a blast of rocking bagpipes and ceilidh hooley lending a suitably tartan tinge to the curtain call of Shrewsbury 2023. So called ‘Bagrock,’ takes what you already know from the mainstream of rock and pop but gives it bagpipes to propel it elsewhere. Perfect for a party. And Shrewsbury was undoubtedly that as well as being so, so much more beside. There truly was something for everyone. Inclusive is a word that springs readily to mind. Most bases were covered. Unless of course you’re into Czech doom metal grindcore and maybe that’ll be on the bill next year. 7,000 plus souls mingled happily and sociably and the weather was kind, the odd shower hardly denting the collective spirit and ethusiasm. ” Well that was different wasn’t it?” says Maddy Prior. Yes Maddy it was. But then that’s Shrewsbury and that’s why we love it.
- Tickets are now on sale for 2024. Full details at shrewsburyfolkfestival.co.uk The festival is also on Facebook and Twitter.