Last weekend we made what is now becoming an annual pilgrimage to the fine, fine, formerly Welsh town of Shrewsbury which now sits a few miles into England where it bookends the West Midlands and waits for weather to blow in from the mountains. We were there for Shrewsbury Folk Festival an annual gathering of the folkie tribes from across the UK and beyond. The West Midlands Showground is turned into a folk utopia of great music, happy people, beer, morris dancers, tents and food.
In that it’s probably like countless festivals up and down the country but Shrewsbury is the one where we find our happy like no other. The weather this year was changeable. Rain crept in from the hills over the border. You can see clouds begin to form and brood off into the distance and on Friday the Western horizon turned ominous before blowing up a brief hoolie as we hid beneath the food tent eating our fish and chips. As the canvas billowed and people checked gazebos were safely tethered the musicians jamming nearby launched into a few suitably weather based standards ; Raindrops keep falling on my head, Why does it always rain on me, and a triumphant folk version of It’s Raining Men. The temperature dropped and people pulled their beer jackets on a little tighter.
Luckily the storm blew itself out pretty quickly and the first night got going. One of the great pleasures of festivals is being introduced to artists who you weren’t previously aware of and our Friday night began with the superb Daori Farrell, a traditional singer from Dublin who switched from life as an electrician to being a musician after being inspired by Christy Moore on Irish TV. One of the standout moments was his sublime version of the tale of a travelling man Pat Rainey;
Things warmed up as Saturday came around and the festival really got into its groove. The day begins with traditional dance sides invading the town. If you didn’t know where the constant sound of bells was coming from you might begin to suspect you had tinnitus. Shrewsbury itself is a medieval county town with lots of centuries old streets still intact (perhaps even more so than here in York). It’s built on a hill which adds something and groups of be-ribboned and be-belled dancers emerging from an alley kind of fit aesthetically.
It’s a really lovely town to explore and I always wish we had more time to do so. It’s the go to town for a wide area including much of mid-Wales and as a novice Welsh learner it was lovely to hear the language being spoken on the streets.
On Saturday night I achieved a lifelong ambition of seeing Richard Thompson play live. I’d felt like a 6 year old on Christmas Eve for most of the day and I’m pleased to say he really lived up to expectations. Despite nudging 70 he looks lean and well and his new songs are as vital as ever. He’s probably a great advert for teetotalism. His Beeswing encore reduced the whole tent to complete silence as my heart did a little gallop and my stomach began to flutter.
Prior to RT we’d been blown away by the winning combination of Scottish acid-crofters Shooglenifty and traditional Rajasthani musicians Dhun Dhora. The two traditions melded beautifully all tied together with the Shoogles ear for a groove. Show Of Hands did that brilliant thing that they always do. Including a very moving version of traditional English folk song The Keeper interspersed with one of their own songs about a gamekeeper from Devon during World War I
Sunday began wet and promised a washout but the rain eventually stopped and the sun broke through. Brooks Williams and O’Hooley & Tidow caught our attention and the evening was rounded off by the consumate showman Jon Boden and his Remnant Kings with songs that tipped into the epic.
By Monday we’d firmly moved into a new, better and entirely coherent folk reality where troublesome presidents, shouty politics and angry people no longer exist. Instead people live harmoniously and sing sea shanties together as we did to the alway uplifting Fishermen’s Friends. It was left to Gallician piper Budino to round off proceedings before we headed blinking back into the supposedly real world. My only regret is that I didn’t take my ukulele. Maybe next year.
After such a lovely weekend it took some readjusting but at least it’s now less than a year until Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019.