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Live Reviews

SHREWSBURY FOLK FESTIVAL - 25-26 August 2017

Sidmouth Festival had sent me regular news beforehand and when I arrived gave me tickets, an information pack highlighting events of interest, a programme and a mobile phone number to call if I needed anything or wanted interviews with artists arranged. A bit of a contrast to my arrival at Shrewsbury, where I was given a ticket (which told me sternly that I was not allowed backstage – so no talking to the artists then), no information or programme but a strict encomium that I was to return the ticket if I set foot off the site as they were “running short” - so no reviewing events in the town either! Luckily there was so much going on that it was easy enough to get immersed. The site is spacious, with plenty of camping room which really makes a difference to the enjoyment of the weekend. Dogs are allowed on site – a big deal for some people, but one that didn't seem to be causing any problems.

SIDMOUTH FOLK WEEK - 4-11 August 2017

One of the advantages of a week-long festival is that, with a bit of planning, a structured series of workshops is possible. Workshops used to be seen as filler – where a star performer would spend 40 minutes teaching a tune to a group of acolytes who would have forgotten it a couple of hours later. Nowadays Sidmouth's workshops are almost a festival in itself. On offer are no less than 17 types of dancing (does “hamboning” also count?), band, instrumental, storytelling, singing – it's almost a complete summer school. These days too, the artists put as much thought into their teaching as into their performances and provide tuition at every level, from learning to play in a band to violin masterclasses (with luminaries such as Sam Sweeney and Emma Reid). I went to some of John Dipper's fiddle workshops (intermediate level) and students were given a raft of techniques to help bring a tune to life, making them think about their presentation and performance. By the end, the group standard had noticeably increased and they will have gone home with a tangible means to continue improving their playing.

FESTIVAL AT THE EDGE - Whitchurch, Shropshire - 28-30 July

Volume 2 - FatE Accompli!

I want to tell you a story of a summer weekend, of men and women, of animals and deities, of musicians and dancers and heroes and folk. Once upon a time? Not quite, but I’ll explain.

35th ORKNEY FOLK FESTIVAL - 25-28 May 2017

This year's Orcadian musical extravaganza followed the same successful pattern of previous years, with almost every venue selling out before the start of the festival, and the sun coming out on the first day and remaining as bright as the music for most of the weekend. The major concerts were held in Stromness, with one concert in Kirkwall, the other major centre on the Mainland island of the Orkney Isles, and ceilidh evenings involving a mix of visiting artistes and local musicians at various outlying areas of Mainland and the southern islands connected by causeways in Burray and South Ronaldsay. There were also overnight visits to the Southern end of Hoy and the far-out island of Sanday, as well as special afternoon concerts in Kirkwall Cathedral, Birsay, Skaill House and St. Ninan's Kirk.

TRADFEST Edinburgh - 26 April - 7 May 2017

The fifth annual celebration of Scotland's traditional arts known as Tradfest Dùn Èideann recently confirmed its standing in Edinburgh’s annual calendar of cultural festivities. Taking place over the Beltane and May Day period, it occurred at a time between Edinburgh’s International Harp and Film Festivals in April and June respectively and this year there were links to both these other festivals, notably in the Folk Film Gathering which is now a thriving part of Tradfest.

FAIRPORT CONVENTION - Union Chapel, Islington - 27 May 2017

It’s 50 years to the day since Fairport Convention played their first gig. Clearly, The Cropredy Convention will be the occasion to celebrate that half century, but how to mark the anniversary itself?

BBC RADIO 2 FOLK AWARDS - Royal Albert Hall, London - 5 April 2017

There is, I suspect, some debate on the need for and value of folk awards, but nevertheless they are now a regular part of the scene. There is likely more debate on what sort of music constitutes folk. The Radio 2 Awards take a broad approach to this as was evinced by opening act, the Afro Celt Sound System, who muddied things further with the neither Afro nor Celtic Dohl drum of Johnny Kalsi prominent on stage.

THE 23RD ANNUAL FEILE CHOIS CUAIN (THE LOUISBURGH FESTIVAL) - 28 April - 1 May 2017

Situated in Co Mayo, Louisburgh lies on the Western seaboard of Ireland in an area with a rich history in the traditional arts, and has enjoyed both a cultural and economic boost since the inception of the Feile Chois Cuain. The “Celtic Tiger” may have been subdued by the financial crash of a decade ago, but there are definite signs of a re-emergence of its former vigour. In the hamlet of Louisburgh the evidence is all around - from the extensive menus in smart cafés and restaurants, the modern independent bookshop which serves as a site for book launches and literary talks, and from the vibrancy of the music curriculum, exhibited by the school pupils who are part of a host of home grown performers. It’s like a microcosm of the land of plenty - a prosperous, exciting wee place to be.

PACKIE MANUS BYRNE CENTENARY WEEKEND - Ardara, Co Donegal - 17-19 February 2017

There were many journeys in evidence over what was a very special weekend organised to mark what would have been Packie Byrne’s 100th birthday. Like so many young men from Ireland, Packie made the journey over to England for work on a regular basis. Carrying his music and traditions with him, he eventually found himself a new community of friends and a special place in the folk revival in England. He appeared at The National Folk Festival at Keele alongside Felix Doran, Jeannie Robertson, Fred Jordan, Alex Stewart and Jimmy MacBeath. Despite several periods of poor health (he suffered from TB which left him with only one lung) he outlived them all, reaching the grand old age of 98. In some respects, his passing in 2015 marked the end of an era, but if we needed reminding, his centenary weekend ably demonstrated that the tradition continues in younger hands. In the various sessions, there were musicians spanning at least three generations.

THE TRANSPORTS - The Met, Bury - 28 January 2017

The stage is sparsely dressed: instruments stacked upstage left (guitars, fiddles, melodeons, cello, oboe); five upstage banners inscribed with fragmentary quotes from Peter Bellamy’s libretto (“fiel of Engl”); a few boxes; a length of rope; a couple of stools. In the course of the next couple of hours, these raw materials will create the haunting music of one of the Folk Revival’s finest works as well as generating settings from Norfolk to New South Wales. The boxes become, among other things, a prison bench, docks (in both senses of the word), gibbets, a mail coach and primitive buildings in a new land, while the rope will represent HMS Friendship, bondage and the shore of Old Blighty. Enhanced by the understated atmospherics of Emma Thompson’s inventive lighting design, this kinetically responsive set is emblematic of the wider message of the night’s show – the story of how rejects and refugees, human flotsam, can become the very foundation of societal advancement.