Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2010

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Shrewsbury 'Who would have thought such beauty lay at the end of the M54?' said Billy Bragg, tongue firmly embedded in cheek, to roars of appreciation from the 'Shrews' as he had just christened the packed-out crowd in the main tent on Sunday night.

And indeed there was plenty of beauty to appreciate at Shrewsbury Folk Festival, from the old Commie himself to bright young up-and-coming folk stars of the future. There was the raw beauty of Fay Hield’s Maddy Prior-esque voice, the artistic beauty of Jamie Roberts’ dextrous lap-style guitar playing, and the comedic beauty of John Otway’s completely bizarre on-stage antics. Then there was the liquid beauty of the on-site bars with a greater range of real ales than you’d find at many a beer festival; the nostalgic beauty of watching whole families – dogs and all – enjoying a blessedly sunny Bank Holiday weekend and not just watching some great musicians, but taking part and possibly even sowing the seeds of future generations of great folk musicians.

Shrewsbury (SFF as it’s known to its friends) is a pretty traditional festival – there’s not much in the way of what we nowadays like to pigeon-hole as ‘world music’, whatever the hell that actually means, as you’d find somewhere like the Cambridge Folk Festival, and not much in the way of big, international names either, but that’s not what it’s about. Instead there’s lots of home-grown talent (admittedly some more talented than others, but that’s the way with festivals isn’t it?), a smattering of slightly more obscure international artists, and a whole heap of weird and wonderful Morris dance troupes, circus activities, events and workshops.

Whatever part of the site you’re in, there’s always something going on, whether it’s an impromptu jam from a newly formed band who’ve just met that weekend, a youngster demonstrating his new-found diablo skills, or a couple of black-faced Morris dancers beating the hell out of each other with gnarly sticks and claiming that they’re just practising their routine.

There’s plenty of new, exciting talent to discover too - one of the best things about any festival is coming across a new-to-you performer (and of course rushing off to the record tent to buy every CD they’ve ever made), and at Shrewsbury for us it was New Yorker, Richard Shindell. Richard is a talented singer-songwriter, wielding a Michael Stipe-like voice backed by his own Steve Earle-like lyrics. He took the crowds off on various flights of fancy, with totally bonkers lyrics set amidst haunting melodies and dramatic tunes. Check out ‘There goes Mavis’, a lyrically superb offering in which sand is piled up to form ramparts against the encroaching sea. The sea wins of course, and the child scoops up another spade-full to protect her creation. Just as you think the drama can’t possibly continue to carry the plot of the song on at this furious pace, an orange bullet flies onto the scene, quickly followed by a girl and a mum grasping a cage. The whole sand-castle-building family lose interest in their recent occupation as Mavis (yes, Mavis), the orange canary flies over the beach, chased by girl and mum, then vanishes towards the curved, blue horizon as the sea engulfs the castle.  We sat there, 300 people or so in the cold darkness of the Boxfresh Marquee and nearly wept as the sad but unlikely episode unfolded.

Unlikely, yes, but I guess we shouldn’t have been that surprised at the lovely, moving way in which Richard had woven Mavis the orange canary into an otherwise dull seaside scene, as he’d already entertained us with his tales of a lowing cow stuck in the mud, and of the beauty and cleverness of Clara the mule. And we all lapped it up.
Other particularly noteworthy acts were duo Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, whose song writing and multi-instrumental skills should mean we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in the future; BBC Radio 2’s Folk Singer of the year, Jon Boden – though he wasn’t exactly on form for his solo set, he seemed to have recovered his verve and vigour by the time folk super-group Bellowhead brought the festival to a close on Monday afternoon; newcomer Lucy Ward from Derby, fun and feisty with a superb voice that needs no accompaniment; American Chuck Brodsky – another one with a good line in quirky lyrics, and a voice to match; and lively Welsh band Calan, who had just hoped over the border to say ‘Bore da’.

Billy Bragg himself looked likely to take our own personal award for Set of the Festival – that was until John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett took over the main stage on Monday afternoon. Those in the audience too young to remember their 1977 hit ‘Really Free’ were totally bemused by the fuss, but none the less lapped up the comedy and talent on offer. So, Tim Judson, you can play a saxophone and a guitar at the same time? Well Wild Willy can play a guitar and a wheelie bin together, or even a guitar and pipes, more or less in tune, so there! It was indeed a tough act for Bellowhead to follow...

SFF is a particularly warm and friendly family festival. All the on-site activities happen very much in the middle, there’s no separate ‘kids area’ and this inclusivity works both ways, meaning childless adults can enjoy the family entertainment on offer without feeling self-conscious – after all, it would have been a shame to miss Pete White’s hilarious Suitcase Circus. Certainly, volunteer Barnaby, who got kitted out in all the 'aviator safety' get up (including giant underpants) and then 'flew without losing contact with the ground' had an experience he probably won’t forget in a hurry.

The festival has the best bars of any I’ve been to, with a huge range of real ales, plus seating inside where more impromptu performances and sessions went on. This is one of the many advantages of the site (the agricultural showground), which has a number of permanent buildings, including well-maintained toilets - such a contrast to the portaloos that blight so many other festivals.

The marquees are pretty much all-seated and are enclosed, which has advantages and disadvantages. It’s great when things are a bit quiet and you fancy a sit down, but not so good when the marquee is crammed, and they’ve put up a ‘Venue Full’ sign. Why not open the sides, so the crowds outside can see? After all, everybody’s paid for their tickets - they should all be able to at least have a chance at seeing the acts. Also, there were two big screens inside the main marquee – why not have them outside too?

These issues are likely to become more pronounced as SFF grows, which on the strength of this year’s line-up and atmosphere is bound to happen. Let’s just hope it doesn’t lose the things that make it special: a proper down-to-earth, festival for the folk.

Graham Uney.

Published on 05 September 2010 by GrahamUney

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