Calan win award – but that’s not the real story

Photograph by Richard P Walton

An acclaimed Cwmbran guitarist who was last year told by doctors he would never play again after shattering his arm in a mountain bike accident has just won a coveted live music award.

Indie-folk barnstormers Calan were crowned Best Live Act at the 2023 Welsh Folk Awards on Thursday 20th April, just months after doctors told the band’s guitarist Sam Humphreys that he would most likely never play the instrument again.

Born in Nefyn (on the Llyn Peninsula), but now living in Cwmbran and widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s great virtuoso guitar players, Humphreys smashed his left arm to smithereens in a horrific mountain bike accident last summer.

“I’d have taken a broken leg before a broken arm”, says Sam. “I knew it was bad the moment I crashed, but when doctors confirmed how bad it was – how terminal for my playing it could be – I was devastated. I thought of how much work I had coming up. All those gigs. What was I going to do?”

That was back in June 2022. As the enormity of his predicament sunk in, Sam was determined to prove the doctors wrong. As soon as his plaster cast came off, he scoured YouTube for advice and found a video of intense stretching exercises.  That video, along with hour upon hour of gritted-teeth practice, was the Welsh musician’s saviour. A nurse assigned to his case told him he’d made more progress in six days than most patients made in six weeks.

By the autumn, he was performing again as Calan stormed through their Autumn Thunder UK tour, cementing the reputation that has now led to the band’s Welsh Folk Awards triumph.

“Miracles can happen”, says Calan’s singer (and champion step dancer) Bethan Rhiannon. “And this is the proof.  Every gig now feels miraculous.”

This Best Live Act award is an accolade long in the making. With six albums and hundreds of thousands of miles of relentless gigging, Calan have built a loyal following across Britain, Europe and North America.

That following is about to expand rapidly with a resurgence in Welsh-language arts output. Netflix is currently screening its first Welsh-with-subtitles drama Dal Y Mellt, which literally means ‘Catch The Lightning’ but will have the English title Rough Cut.

“There is a real moment now for Welsh-language storytelling”, says Llinos Griffin-Williams, chief content officer of Welsh-language TV channel S4C. “I don’t think we’ve been loud enough about it until now.”

That’s never been a problem for Calan’s high-octane, multi-instrumental – and, vitally, bilingual – attack. Welsh speakers all, they switch effortlessly between languages.

Besides Sam and Bethan, Calan are Patrick Rimes (fiddle, Welsh bagpipes) and Shelley Musker-Turner (harp). A fifth member, fiddle player Angharad Jenkins is current on maternity leave. They met at a folk music course in Sweden and, since then, their irresistible rise has garnered more and more fans through constant gigging and plaudits from critics and fans alike.

And, through it all, they have remained the renaissance men and women of indie-folk with a bewildering array of extra-curricular skills and successes. Bethan Rhiannon, for example, tried her hand (very successfully) at comedy – she was ‘Folk Hero’ on Romesh Ranganathan’s Ranganation. In one memorable exchange (involving the right way to make a cup of tea and a muffin) Romesh told her: “You’ve been talking for about a minute and you’ve managed to p*** everyone off. So congratulations for that.”

Shelley Musker-Turner has a second career as a hugely-skilled leather worker, running her own horse-armour company. Her CV includes work on films and TV such as Game Of Thrones, Maleficent and Wonder Woman 1984.

Alongside all this, folk’s place in the mainstream is changing; Fisherman’s Friends will play Glastonbury this year. The Unthanks already have. Even Wet Leg had Morris dancers accompany them onstage at this year’s BRIT Awards. And Calan continue to push the boundaries of what a folk band might achieve.

They have written for and performed with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, they performed with Welsh opera god Sir Bryn Terfel in a Christmas Concert for New York’s Metropolitan Opera and soon they will be recording with Sir Bryn for Deutsche Grammophon.

Calan’s manager Huw Williams, of course sees the possibilities. “As always”, he says, “you hope for the right band, in the right place at the right time. And it’s never been more right for Calan.”

Artists’ website:

Calan play Bristol Folk Festival at Trinity on April 30th 2023  TICKETS

‘Jêl Caerdydd’ -live: