Shrewsbury Folk Festival, UK. 25 – 28 August 2017
This year’s festival started and finished with a tribute to Alan Surtees, founder and co-director, who sadly passed away a few months ago, having succumbed to cancer. Festival patrons John Jones (Oysterband) and Steve Knightley (Show of Hands) spoke warmly of an inspiring man whose love of music shone so brightly. Surtess’ delight when acts that he’d booked for the festival received such positive reviews from attendees, was evident to all those who knew him and fittingly, the first standing ovation was a minute’s applause for Surtees. What a wonderful way to start off four days celebrating all things ‘folk’ and beyond.
Programming at Shrewsbury includes traditional folk acts but stretches the definition to include acoustic blues, bluegrass, pop and roots (amongst others) so it has a broad appeal. That appeal means that there is something for everyone; it is this blending of the traditional with a much broader musical church that makes Shrewsbury one of the best-loved festivals in the calendar.
Traditional folk acts included The Unthanks – Tyneside sisters Rachel and Becky – whose take on folk music pays homage to oral storytelling traditions, yet brings the genre right up to date. A 10-piece orchestra allowing their songs to be complemented by elaborate arrangements accompanied the Unthanks and was a triumph. Instrumental pieces including some trumpet solos and clog dancing (yes! clog dancing) thrilled the audience. Examples of traditional yet modern were reflected in the song ‘Magpie’ that draws on the rhyme ‘One for Sorrow’ and in the poetry of Molly Drake set to music – ‘What Can A Song Do To You?’
Eric Bibb who closed out the Saturday night finely represented acoustic blues. Bibb’s career spans five decades and he is the epitome of ‘cool’. His energy, his charisma and sheer love of performance made for one of the most enjoyable sets of the festival. Supported by a three-piece backing band he acknowledged his influences by singing Lead Belly’s ‘Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie’; ‘Stewball’, recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary; Woody Guthrie’s ‘Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad’ as well as drawing upon material from his own catalogue. His latest album Migration Blues is a plea for us all to keep our hearts and minds open to the plight of ‘refugees’ and although he spoke eloquently about the hardships faced by many people having to leave the country of their birth, his songs also did his talking for him, notably ‘With A Dolla’ In My Pocket’. He effortlessly combines blues, gospel, folk and sung one of my favourite covers, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘Needed Time’. It has become a festival fan favourite and is just gorgeously warm and resonant. Bibb’s finger picking guitar style compliments his rich vocals making him a master of giving soulful blues a contemporary feel. Bravo!
Bluegrass – what a delight it was for Shrewsbury to secure a festival performance by one of the genre’s leading young talents – Sarah Jarosz. Although only in her twenties, Jarosz is already a two-time GRAMMY award winner. A multi-instrumentalist, with pin sharp vocals she is also an incisive songwriter. Tonight, Jeff Picker accompanied her on bass, Anthony DaCosta on guitar and together they mixed her own material – ‘Build Me Up From Bones’, ‘Song Up In Her Head’, with a few well-chosen cover songs Patty Griffin’s ‘Long Ride Home’, a medley of Tim O’Brien’s fiddle tunes and Bob Dylan’s ‘Ring Them Bells’. She delivered a sublime performance during which she acknowledged the crowd’s request for ‘more banjo’ and finished her set with Paul Simon’s ‘Kathy’s Song’. The haunting interpretation was just spine tingling.
The quintessentially English purveyor of pop, Chris Difford (Squeeze) was joined by the soulful folk harmony group, Arcelia for his early afternoon set. Difford’s writing has given us some of the most recognisable and enduringly popular songs – ‘Take Me I’m Yours’, ‘Up The Junction’, ‘Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)’. Punctuating the songs with stories of family holidays in Ireland, appearances on Top of the Pops and a very funny explanation of originally writing ‘Cowboys Are My Weakness’ for k.d. lang he kept the audience laughing throughout his set. He has a very sardonic sense of humour and must be well on his way to achieving national treasure status!
Andy Fairweather-Low and the Low Riders featuring the Hi Riders (brass section) took us all back to the 1960’s performing a collection of songs that were key to Fairweather-Low’s own musical education. He included a medley of Otis Redding songs recalling the first concert he ever attended, he gave us the first guitar solo he learnt to play – ‘Route ’66’, and added in a selection of instrumentals he grew up listening to – ‘Tequila’, ‘Peter Gunn’ and ‘Apache’. Who says nostalgia isn’t fun? The musical dexterity on show was truly, second to none – what a extraordinary talented band! Of course Fairweather-Low’s original claim to fame was as the lead singer in Amen Corner who had a slew of hits in the late ‘60’s including ‘Bend Me Shape Me’, ‘High In The Sky’ and ‘If Paradise Is (Half As Nice)’ all of which saw many fans move to just in front of the stage and dance the afternoon away! The reception received must surely see the band given a main stage slot next time! I heard one woman of a certain age say ‘He took me back to being fourteen again’ and I know exactly what she meant!
One of the aspects many of us look forward to at festivals is seeing and hearing collaborations that we might not otherwise experience. Daphne’s Flight (Chris While, Christine Collister, Julie Matthews, Melanie Harold and Helen Watson) is a case in point. These five friends found themselves at Cambridge Folk Festival in 1995 and decided to sing some songs together and how they flew! Two decades later the quintet appeared at Shrewsbury to showcase songs from their new album Knows Time, Knows Change and play some more familiar songs. Five voices, individually and collectively garnered a standing ovation.
Another collaboration, reformed for Shrewsbury at the personal request of the late Alan Surtees, was Faith, Folk and Anarchy. That is ‘acoustic power’ trio Martyn Joseph, Steve Knightley and Tom Robinson. It’s been fifteen years since they last played in this format (apart from a recent warm up gig in Exeter) and boy do they pack some power! Rather than just singing their own songs, in the round, they sing each other’s and it was heart-warming to hear how and why a particular song had been chosen. Knightley spoke about listening to Joseph’s Cardiff Bay for years on a mix tape as he travelled to shows, without knowing who had written it. Knightley’s interpretation of Robinson’s ‘You Tattooed Me’ was so visceral and visual – a mini movie in itself. Robinson’s cover of Joseph’s ‘Please Sir’ evoked memories of their first meeting in 1992 when the both guested on a Belfast TV show. I am hoping that these three craftsmen perform together again – festival curators across the country, get on the ‘phone to them for 2018!
So much to see, so much to hear, so much to enjoy. Four days in the glorious sunshine, young and old, talented and artistic, honest and outspoken, friendly and fabulous. RIP Alan Surtees, your legacy in in good hands.