Another weekend, another festival? Nope, this is Shrewsbury and they dare to be different, pushing merrily into new territories. With map, compass and supplies Simon Jones dives in with expectation.
“I think the Morris Dancers are brilliant,” so shrieks my daughter, age 16, given to bouts of over excitement and further exclamation that “all this is vibey!” We’re witnessing a performance by the Shropshire Bedlams, tatter wearing, top hatted, masked and injected with gusto, they celebrate Border Morris with an approach somewhere between a Saturday night out with the lads and an Apache raiding party. In truth their stick based dances are intricate and complex as they hurl themselves around, whirling, twirling shouting at the top of their voices, what they do takes skill, certainty and not a little daring. They make other sides look like a Sunday School picnic, no doubt they turn people’s hair white in an instant yet along with an eclectic roll call of rapper dancers, molly dancers, Cotswold and north west Morris sides they make an incredible window into the world of folk dance. But then Shrewsbury Folk Festival has actively been pushing at the boundaries and borders of ‘folk’ for quite some time.
The Bedlams demonstrate traditional hurl and twirl to Shrewsbury shoppers.
The return of Shrewsbury to operation at full throttle was enough cause for celebration after a decidedly plucky but limited event in 2021, which kept the spirit of the festival alive – even with social distancing. Sensible precautions are still in place but this weekend the pandemic seems a long way off, everyone is simply pleased to be here to celebrate a bill which sweeps from horizon to horizon in every direction. Variety is the spice of life no doubt about that. From Judy Collins( ‘ Amazing Grace’ ‘Send In The Clowns’) to Thea Gilmore via Moonlight Benjamin, about the only tribe not catered for in some degree were thrash metal fans!
” Shrewsbury is our second home,” Skerryvore proclaimed from the stage and they could be right, given their almost perma-presence on the bill in recent years it won’t be long before they apply for planning permission. You can see why, they’re a natural return booking with their bagpipe driven, yet subtle take on Celtic rock, ideal closers for Sunday evening, the crowd was with them from the moment they struck the first note. It didn’t really matter if you swayed, jigged, pogoed or just sang along to their lilting melodies, reels fast enough to knacker a whirling dervish were more than enough to prove the potency of rock music informed by heritage and place. They’ll be back you can bet your mortgage on it. Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage were equally potent but without all the electricity, either side of an an old fashioned mic, they sang intimate, gossamer songs from both sides of the Atlantic, the most effective sourced from their wondrous ‘Ink Of A Rosy Morning’ album. She sings in a clear, high voice which charms as soon as you hear it, Ben Savage’s guitar technique is worth travelling miles to hear, thoughtful and exactly right for each number. He’s one musician who completely understands the material and knows suitable clothing for each composition trad or contemporary. No wonder the pair of them were wreathed in smiles, their set was absorbing.
Sanders & Savage prepare to be absorbing.
Biggest band? In terms of numbers Joe Broughton and his Conservatoire Ensemble, who entertained with an impressive display of mass reeling and rocking. Joe out front, the ever beaming Master of Ceremonies with wit and asides that guarantee a good time whilst his students having learned from their teacher throw everything they’ve got into the music. Another act who had the audience enthralled were Black Umfolosi recently arrived from Zimbabwe with acapella songs and rather groovy moves they painted a picture of life in a far away place where tradition and culture still shape the every day. Vocally they blend together with melody and rhythm fully integrated, hand claps and vocal decoration made you wonder if there really was only five of them up there, it sounded like another five were hidden behind stage! A masterful representation of African roots.
Lauren Housley’s set was melodic rock with an undertow of Americana, her vocal was a cross of Bonnie Raitt and Judie Tzuke and with a decent backing band she easily won over an afternoon crowd waiting for a chance to boogie. She even let all the musicians traipse off and closed out with an acapella ballad. The Haar – named after a cold sea born fog – I’d heard but hadn’t seen live before. They hold much potential with a philosophy that allows flexibility and improvisation to bring fresh life into well known Irish material. In Molly Donnery they have a brilliant vocalist and focus for the band, the trio around her have experience and ability to morph and take the songs down myriad roads. Some arrangements work better than others but this was a solid representation of their intent and new album ‘Where Old Ghosts Meet,’ in which you’re advised to invest.
One of the joys of Shrewsbury is that there is so much going on at any given moment, you stumble over pleasant surprises just when you’re not expecting them. Crossing the merchandising section of the site, a large space, stalls and booths in a chummy rectangle with a small stage in the centre, I was stopped in my tracks by three musicians playing a Celtic, prog, free form, new wave. The music came in long, five minute plus streams with guitar solos which looped and circled over a tight, fast bopping rhythm. The drummer playing so fast and hard he bounced around on his stool and you wondered how he didn’t fall off, the bass player pogoed all over the tiny performance area whilst said guitarist – dressed like he was Jesus – wrung more wonderous cries from his acoustic. This I was informed, on enquiring, was Al O’Kane. Well hello Al, good to meet you. Winner of the festivals Open Mic event in 2019, he’s been busy across Europe of late but his normal habitat is the West Country and judging by what was on offer at Shrewsbury his protest based material holds much promise, a definite thumbs up.
Al O’Kane; mid new wave bopping protest.
Reports drifted by that the established names which are always at the core of this festival, in 2022 represented by patrons Show Of Hands and John Jones – he of Oyster Band, both provided ample reason for their status as ‘must sees’ with performances which shared the limelight alongside other worthies. Notably Show Of Hands who along with Track Dogs raised a right old hooley whilst John’s ever morphing Rising Road project included guests like Benji Kirkpatrick. You can’t get more established than Judy Collins who was … well… Judy Collins, she’s seen the folk process down all its days and mixed with, let’s face it, musicians from a very wide spectrum. More recently recording a very listenable duo album with old flame Stephen Stills. At Shrewsbury the finest thing she did to my way of thinking was a rendering of ‘Chelsea Morning,’ with the trilling piano wrapping round her high vocal line. Equally compelling was piper Carlos Nunez – a sort of Galician Davy Spillane – seemingly with magic in his ability to reduce a well ordered audience to a giant heaving mass with nothing but the intention to dance in their brains and that included his own musicians. It’s a glorious talent, his reels, jigs and airs won over new devotees across the site. There was a severe reduction in the stock of his albums available.
Rosie Hood flew the flag for trad done with a different spin, she rebrands familiar old folk material by giving it a contemporary slant relevant to the 21st century and present struggles. The Roaring Trowmen sang shanties at seemingly every opportunity, whilst the award for most infectious laugh of the weekend must go to The Breath’s Rioghnach Connolly who should have played her flute more but whose voice is the perfect partner for Stuart McCallum’s sensitive yet inspired guitar. ” Man, is that him playing on his own?” enquired one concerned wag nearby, at the swell of sound emitted from the stage… yes it was just him. The Breath were greeted with rapture.
Reflections are all well and good and you can’t help but ponder about such an experience as Shrewsbury, first off the organisers can pat themselves on the back they virtually got everything right, the audience not only enjoyed themselves but were challenged to appreciate and experience a wider vision of what to expect, the atmosphere was jovial, respectful yet loose enough to allow individuality and everywhere you looked there was quality from the catering to the merchandise, to the presentation of the music, you’d be hard pushed not to have a cracking time.
Roll on 2023 says I. Tickets believe go on sale immediately. Go on book today, you know it makes sense.