Driving through Shrewsbury, you are acutely aware of the medieval heritage that surrounds and seduces you, with the ghosts of England’s past seeming like the perfect hosts for a celebration of our folk music traditions. Arriving at the festival site, you are immediately enveloped by a relaxed festival atmosphere, with the Showground taking on the feel of a rural village.
Whilst the festival itself spans four days in total, my visit would be confined to just two afternoons this year, though one shouldn’t underestimate just how much entertainment and inspiration was packed in to this relatively short space of time, particularly when that time was filled with such an inspired selection of music.
Breabach were to provide the first music of my Sunday afternoon, with a spirited set of tunes and songs. The combined highland pipes of Calum MacCrimmon and Donal Brown were utterly electrifying, and Donal’s step-dancing brought a very visible energy to the band’s stage presence. Poor Patsy Reid was unable to lend her vocals to this afternoon’s set due to being struck down with the flu, though she still put in a fine, fluid performance on fiddle.
It is testament to the festival committee’s temerity, that they have given such prominence to the American singer-songwriter, Krista Detor, both at this year’s festival, and as part of the associated Darwin Song Project. Those of us who have already fallen under Krista’s enchanting spell are well aware of her eloquent writing talent, and her handsomely expressive vocals, and for those at Shrewsbury who were unfamiliar with Krista’s work, her performances this weekend must have made for a most alluring discovery. Krista made the marquee take on the feel of the most luxurious of concert venues, wrapping her sultry vocals around the most sumptuous ballads you might ever witness. For around an hour, the audience feasted on an emotional upheaval of humour, hope, and heartbreak.
Chris Wood is undoubtedly a national treasure, and to witness this one man playing on the main stage, armed with just his songs and guitar, made for a potent experience. Wood manages to write songs that connect with the national conscience, in a way that maintains a manifest degree of intimacy. His songs bear melodies and structures that owe much to the traditional styles of the British Isles, yet his lyrics speak a language that is very much relevant. His songs of family life chimed a particular resonance and warmed him to an attentive audience, but it was Wood’s intense song chronicling the last days of Jean Charles de Menezes that laid bare the nation’s shame and despair, to a mixture of discomfort and relief from the audience; discomfort from the acceptance that such a thing could happen in our own country, and relief that Wood was giving a frank and honest voice to what many of us have felt.
Returning to the festival on Monday afternoon, I took some time to just mill around the Village Stage and catch a glimpse of the variety of traditional dancing that was being performed, ranging from sensible and ladylike, to somewhat lewd and bawdy, but always performed in the best of spirits. The effort that these dance troupes put in to making their colourful costumes is nothing compared to the energy they expend during their wholehearted performances, and love ’em or loathe ’em they certainly accentuate the festival atmosphere, and do much to discourage any reservedness that you may feel!
Karine Polwart kicked off the afternoon’s music on the main stage, where she was warmly welcomed by a rapturous, near-capacity crowd; accompanied by the solid guitar and vocals of her brother, Stephen Polwart, and the versatile Inge Thomson, who displayed her typically intuitive accompaniment and sang like an absolute angel. You could really appreciate the wide appeal of Karine’s songs when you saw the reaction of the large festival audience, many of whom were applauding the opening chords to the songs they recognised. There were audience members of all ages enthusiastically singing along, heightening the sense that Karine really is one of the seminal songwriters of our time, with a body of songs that is cherished by an increasing number of admirers. A healthy dose of modesty meant that Karine faced the crowd with just a little bemusement, and looked genuinely surprised whenever her songs raised a cheer.
Megson proved to a laid-back audience why they are widely regarded as one of the folk scene’s rising stars with their exquisitely crafted, catchy folk-pop. They brought a finely tuned illumination to some old folk ballads, but it was their own songs that really roused the audience with winsome harmonies and bewitching choruses. In particular “Fell To The Breeze” hinted at their potential for wider appeal beyond the folk genre with a summery radiance that you couldn’t fail to be captivated by! Megson also provide a welcome change by singing proudly in their gorgeous Teeside accents, rather than opting for the usual mid-Atlantic drawl to which many singers seem to descend these days.
My visit to Shrewsbury was rounded off by Irish stalwarts Patrick Street, a group whose members possess renowned individual talent, that is surpassed only by their combined efforts. It was magical to witness these legends of traditional music whipping up a storm on the main stage, playing with an enviable zest and spirit. Patrick Street demonstrated an impressive intricacy thanks to the mesmerising string work of Andy Irvine and Arty McGlynn. Kevin Burke put in an effortless performance on fiddle, whilst John Carty’s combination of versatility and virtuosity ensured that no style or pace was beyond their reach. Patrick Street are a group who remind you that, most of all, traditional music really can be unbelievably great fun!
The fact that this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival was sold out well before the weekend itself speaks volumes, and demonstrates why this offers a genuinely unmissable event on the folk festival calendar.
All involved in staging this event should be heartily congratulated!