They came, they sang, they conquered.
A starry line-up of the world’s best folk, roots and acoustic musicians flew into Shrewsbury for the town’s annual knees-up.
And as the sun set late last night on a gaily coloured County Showground, visitors agreed that this year’s event had been the best yet.
Not that the event had reached its peak. Festival-goers were today enjoying a bustling programme, with Jim Moray kicking off the main-stage sets before music from Moulettes, The Full English and Bellowhead. Smaller stages were welcoming Blackbeard’s Tea Party, Sunjay Brayne, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Jim Moray’s Folk Slam, Refolkus Showcase, Carole Palmer & Maria Barham, Steve Turner and The Young’uns. There was also plenty of dance from Polkaworks.
But memories of a dizzyingly high quality event were fresh in the mind as fans looked back to three action-packed days of folk.
Shrewsbury Folk Festival is one of the most popular in the country. It can’t quite compete with Britain’s best, Cambridge, which attracts such big hitters as Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor, Rosanne Cash and Newton Faulkner. But it’s not far behind and seems to be gaining each year.
It’s the thinking folkie’s favourite. Each year, organisers come up with a new concept to make sure they are connecting with fans and adding to the rich heritage of the folk scene.
In 2009, they created the Darwin Song Project, which helped to celebrate the 200th birthday of Shrewsbury’s most famous scientist in song.
Two years later, it teamed up with the English Folk Dance and Song Society to organise the Cecil Sharp Project, which shone a spotlight on the founding father of the English Folk Revival, Cecil Sharp.
Since 2007, it has worked with local schools to establish musical links with kids from around the county, helping 422 people in the process.
And this year, the big new idea was Peace, in recognition of the 100th year since the outbreak of World War I.
Folk has traditionally been one of the most heavily politicised musical genres of all. Such artists as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were inextricably linked with the social mores of their days.
They were story tellers, who brought to light the injustices and hot political issues of their time. And that tradition continues, with many at Shrewsbury singing stories of the oppressed, or, like Karine Polwart, making a political point through their music.
This year’s artists were not merely concerned with the political, however. Many songs reflected on the personal too. Deftly and with stirring sensitivity, artists reflected on love and loss, happiness and the human condition.
The festival opened in redoubtable style with an opening set from John Jones and the Reluctant Ramblers. The charismatic Jones is best known as being the lead singer of the award-winning Oysterband. He made his way to Shrewsbury in unique fashion – by walking from his home near the south Shropshire border.
He said: “I’m a passionate walker and as I live on the Welsh border, I thought I’d walk here.
“The scenery is stunning.
“I went from Presteigne, through south Shropshire and over the hills. I had my first night at the Three Tuns, at Bishop’s Castle, then went up onto the Stiperstones and followed that towards Pontesbury.
“Walking to the festival is a great way to travel. When you get here, you have a marvellous sense of peace and tranquillity.
“It gives me an inner peace and inner calm and that makes the shows much better.”
Jones was followed by fiery London-based six-piece, Molotov Cocktail, who were fronted by the flamboyant, fire-cracking singer-actress-fashionista Natalia Tena. Her sultry vocals were perfectly suited to a selection of harmonious folk-pop reels.
Festival favourites Megson are no strangers to Shrewsbury, having played in the town on numerous occasions. Husband-and-wife Stu and Debbie Hanna offering heavenly harmonies and deft musicianship – before sticking around the for weekend to enjoy the other acts.
And then it was time for The Dhol Foundation, the bhangra-tastic dhol drum players led by the energetic Johnny Kalsi. They offered high octane entertainment, thrilling fans with energetic beats and bringing the curtain down on a dazzling opening night.
The festival’s three other stages also saw plenty of opening night action on Friday, with highlights including a soulful set from the outstanding melodeon player Andy Cutting. It said much for the confidence of the event’s programmers that they choose to feature the instrumentalist in his own right – and fans were glad they did.
Saturday’s main stage players maintained the stellar standard.
James Riley became a cult favourite last year, when he stepped off the stage after a power failure and played an unplugged set right in the middle of the audience. There were no technical breakdowns for him to contend with this year and he charmed the audience with a proficient set of bluesy acoustica. Riley blended bluegrass and soul with his personal songs and showed the audience why his star is very much in the ascendency.
Cara Luft, in contrast, is firmly established and featured songs from her third solo album, Darlingford, as well as tunes from her earlier releases. The uniquely-optimistic singer/songwriter played sets on both the main and second stages, delighting fans with her witty and engaging repertoire. The highlight was a song called Charged, which was written after a friend had accidently left his cannabis stash in her car. The unwitting singer drove across the Canadian-USA border, only to be rumbled by border police. Fans sang along to the ‘It’s not mine’ chorous, appreciating both Luft’s musicianship and her sense of humour.
Fellow Canadian JP Hoe offered a different pace with music that made the hairs stand on the back of the neck. He displayed consummate artistry with fluid melodies, spine-tingling tunes and delicious acoustic soul and Americana. Canada has produced a glut of folk musicians, all wishing to follow in the footsteps of such trailblazing legends as Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. Few can reach that benchmark, but JP Hoe’s Saturday set came closer than most.
Shrewsbury Folk Festival is at its best when it mixes genres, providing festival-goers with eclectic and stimulating running orders. And Saturday’s session did just that, following the trans-Atlantic skills of Luft and Hoe with the from-our-doorstep trad folk rock of the Duncan Macfarlane Band. When Macfarlane took the stage, the security guards at the front realised there was no danger of any crowd surfing – though his infectious lively fiddle-and-guitar reels were responsible for an outbreak of enthusiastic jigging.
Karine Polwart produced one of the highlights of the weekend with a stirring set. The proud Scot is an exquisite craftswoman whose unsentimental songs deal in our shared humanity. She was in sparkling form, engaging with the audience throughout and teaming up with her guitarist brother, Stephen, and multi-instrumentalist Inge Thomson in a delightful set.
The energetic Canadian duo Matt Gordon and Lenny Podolak got the party started. Podolak is no stranger to Shrewsbury, having bought his Grammy Award winning Duhks ot the event and been a part of the Cecil Sharp Project. This time he was accompanied by the fiddle-playing, clog-dancing, harmonica player Matt Gordon, who seemed to have more energy than Duracell’s Energiser Bunny. Their set of old-time traditional fiddle and banjo music whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
The highlight of the 2014 festival followed, as Steve Knightley’s Wake The Union took to the stage. Knightley was unexpectedly joined by his Show of hands partner-in-crime Phil Beer. The duo are widely acknowledged as the finest acoustic roots pairing in England and they dazzled fans. The tempo was considerably slower and more mellow than the Gordon-Podolak warm-up, but it was none the worse for that.
Knightley had corralled some of the finest players in Britain for Wake The Nation, including Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting, Lenny Podolak, Rex Preston & Miranda Sykes, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin. Their music was sublime; folky with a hint of blues and just a soupcon of country.
A jaunty start to Sunday came from the Steve Tilston trio, which crossed the great divide between trad folk and blues. Darting fiddle lines and haunting harmonica gave Tilston and his collaborators a classy feel.
The supremely talented and sublimely gifted Martin Simon was the next on stage. Simpson has achieved that rarest of feats; he’s continued to improve throughout a remarkable 35-year career. Intense songs, spellbinding musicianship and eclectic songs made for a virtuoso display. Simpson spent 15 years living in the USA, immersing himself in Delta Blues, and those years were well spent. Yesterday, he provided one of the most memorable interludes of the weekend, offering deeply affecting music of the highest quality.
Madison Violet, in contrast, rocked. The Nova Soctian duo – Brenley MacEachern and Lisa Macisaac – brought glitz, glamour and more than their fair share of leather to the stage as they played a scintillating set of Americana. The sultry vocals of MacEachern were perfectly allied to the softer, sweeter tones of Macisaac and their powerful, rock’n’roll attitude injected a dose of rambunctious energy to proceedings.
The Chair maintained the high energy level, though playing music of a completely different style. Rock, salsa, funk, jazz and zydeco were all present in the eight-piece’s set, with the band keeping its pedal to the metal throughout.
The brilliant, free-thinking Lau provided a refined start to last night’s sets, with Aidan O’Rourke, Martin Green and the immensely talented Kris Drever offering a dynamite set. Rootsy north American Blackie and the Rodeo Kings followed, bringing a groove-laden set to the stage. The Canadian three-piece were the last band from North America to take to the stage – and maintained the standard that had been set by those who had gone before. Their set was a rhythmic tour de force: distinctive and evocative.
Last night’s headliner Seth Lakeman is no stranger to Shrewsbury and the town’s adopted son was in mesmerising form on his return. The Mercury Prize-nominated artist has blazed a trail by unearthing the hidden histories of everyday folk and setting their stories to music.
His excellent band provided ballast to his fiery fiddle playing as he bought the curtain down on a mesmerising weekend.
The organisers of Shrewsbury Folk Festival deserve a pat on the back for bringing together such an eclectic and diverse line-up. They have remained at the cutting edge and evolved their programming as music has changed.
Trad folk is no longer as prominent as it once was; the class of 2014 featured plenty of Americana and a little rock'n'roll in addition to the mellow acoustica that fans so love.
Work has already begun on next year's event and organisers will spend the next six-weeks wading through feedback forms, listening to the constructive criticisms and comments from fans.
Shrewsbury Folk Festival has established itself among the top half dozen in the UK and continues to improve with each passing year. Ever-improving line-ups, brilliant fringe activities and great on-site infrastructure make Shrewsbury one of the most popular and most family-friendly events in the UK.
And as the wearing fans made their way back to their tents following three scintillating nights of music they had one thought in mind – they get to do it all again on today’s last day.