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Sun, Strathspeys and Shanties in Shakespeare’s County - Alex Monaghan sampled the delights of Warwick Folk Festival 2016

With headliners this year including Show of Hands, Mike McGoldrick, Le Vent Du Nord and the Marmite sound of the Unthanks, the Warwick Folk Festival is a major event welcoming hundreds of performers and thousands of punters. Based in the grounds of Warwick School, just across the picturesque River Avon from the medieval town centre and one of the most impressive castles in England, the festival has its own fringe events which extend into various halls and hostelries in the town. Everything is within walking distance, and there is a bus which runs from the festival site through the town centre, passing most of the fringe venues. It was all extremely well organised, and when things went wrong - as they are bound to in an event of this size - they were swiftly remedied.

Warwick is mainly an English folk festival, but by no means exclusively so. Scottish and Irish, Welsh and Manx, French and Spanish, Belgian, Brazilian, African and even Australian traditions were all represented. North America too, of course, by both Canadians and their more politically challenged southern neighbours. Apart from two late night sessions, I confined myself to the main site - there was more than enough to see and do there, and the fringe acts mostly had spots on the main stages too. With at least four big stages on site, and numerous other performance spaces, it was impossible to see everything - and there was a lot that I wanted to see, some of it new to me, some of it renewing old acquaintance. So I took a radical decision. I didn't go to any of the headline concerts. Not a single one.

Well, to be honest, most of us know what to expect from McGoldrick and friends, or SoH, or even Quebec's natural successors to La Bottine Souriante. And I'm not a big fan of Marmite. Instead, I wove between the venues, sampling the delights of more intimate concerts and less well known names. There was plenty of song, of course, from the likes of Ian Campbell, Fay Hield, the Cork Singers Club, and local stars such as Georgia Lewis and the multi-talented madness of annA rydeR on accordion and cornet. Singers were everywhere, almost a backdrop to the individual concerts.

Things officially kicked off with a welcome session on Thursday evening, before the festival proper, where about 10 guitars gathered in an off-site bistro. Add a handful of fiddles, a couple of banjos, accordions, clarinet, a double bass and an acceptable level of percussion, and the scene was set for songs and tunes all night. Folk, blues, a bit of jazz, some Irish reels on whistle and banjo, and even a few Morris tunes: no holds barred. Along with some fine American fiddling, I particularly enjoyed the song She Left Me For Jesus. Look it up - it's on YouTube by Hayes Carll.

Friday, and a late breakfast of bread, olives and local smoked cheese from one of the many food stalls on site. Warwick's timetable is quite civilized - 11-5 in general, then a decent interval for sessions and food before the evening events start at 8pm. Most people camp on site, but there's really no need to cook - all sorts of food and a wide range of beverages are available all day. I munched my way through a set by Dragonhead - a Nuneaton English/Cajun duo, not the American Death Metal band - before heading off for a taste of the Ceilidh House. There's a whole parallel strand of dance events at Warwick, displays and ceilidhs, workshops and tasters, with a large following of mainly young people, including several performers from the concert acts. English ceilidh (if there is such a thing) has changed a bit since my youth. Bands like Lasair and Glorystrokes, while they do have some fine melody players, seem to concentrate on the rhythm: several minutes can pass with the dancers happily stepping to drums and bass, or to an assortment of guitars, while the fiddle and accordion look on. It seems to work, though, once the dance gets going. The only problem is when it's time to stop - how do you tell the difference between a rhythm-only band and an extended exuberant drumkit finish?

The Barluath concert was a total contrast, a young Glasgow-based band I'd wanted to see for a while, mainly songs but with great musicians on fiddle, pipes and whistles. Front and centre, with very summery dresses and matching lipsticks, were singer Ainsley Hamill and fiddler Eilidh Firth. The woodwind section of Colin Greeves and Edward Seaman played smallpipes, whistles and highland pipes, with keyboards from Alistair Iain Paterson. I would have liked more instrumental numbers, but Hamill's singing was impressive in English and Gaelic, on classics like the currently trending Bonnie Ship The Diamond and modern songs including Ciaran Algar's bitter hard-hitting Away From The Pits. Barluath put me in mind of the band Tannas from the 90s, well worth hearing.

Time for a few tunes in one of the food tents, with musicians young and old, some I'd met before, many I hadn't. The material was mainly English, quite technical, with some Welsh and French and Swedish and a bit of Scots or Canadian. Fiddles and melodeons dominated, and two hours passed very pleasantly until it was time to head into town for an Irish session hosted by Coventry Comhaltas who had made the 12 mile trip to Warwick with accordions, fiddles, banjos, drums and bouzoukis. A chap with a guitar sang a few well-known Irish songs, but otherwise it was reels, jigs and hornpipes until past closing time, top quality playing in a packed bar.

The weather was kind, and continued so for the whole weekend, to the point where the first aid team provided barrels of free tap water on site to avoid dehydration in the heat. So widespread was the consumption of water that some of the Saddleworth Morris Men were stone cold sober on Saturday morning, as they battered the boards of a display stage with their iron-shod clogs. There were over 20 dance display teams out and about: Morris, Molly, Rapper and various step-dance styles. After a full English breakfast, I joined a Canadian fiddle workshop led by Shane Cook, champion Ontario fiddler and dancer. He literally rattled through the traditions of different Canadian provinces, skipping over the tiny Prince Edward Island despite the recent book by Ken Perlman on their fiddling culture. We learnt tunes from Ontario and Quebec, and picked up pointers on everything from Métis fiddling to the Cape Breton Scottish style. I would have liked to stay to the end, but time was pressing: I wanted to catch Jamie Smith's Mabon from Wales, Tom McConville and his band from Tyneside, and the Allison Lupton Band from Canada where Shane was strutting his stuff on stage.

One of several pleasant surprises was the young and horribly talented English trio, Granny's Attic. These lads formed a group while still at school, and seven years later they are still together with an extremely polished repertoire and a very engaging stage presence. They belong firmly in the English traditional category, singing ballads and shanties and all those deeply miserable English songs which lend themselves to three-part vocal harmony. Interestingly, they each have a different accent, including one which is very close to the Discworld Shakespeare character, which seemed appropriate. As well as fine voices, Granny's Attic can boast excellent instrumental talents: George Sansome is rock solid on backing guitar and itchy feet, Lewis Wood plays strong English fiddle and writes some great tunes, and Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne has an absolutely magical touch on both a 45-key Jeffries Anglo concertina and a 2-row melodeon. Whilst the origins of this group's name are shrouded in mystery, there is absolutely no truth in the rumour that they're called Granny's Attic because they're full of crap. Quite the contrary: their performance was one of the festival highlights for me, and by a strange coincidence there was a copy of their new recording Off The Land waiting for me when I got home.

Another highlight, albeit a more low-key one, was The Barber Sisters from Derbyshire, twins Lydia and Isobel on fiddles, with versatile sister Ellie swapping between fiddle and viola. All three are currently studying Chemistry but spending most of their free time playing music, mostly as a trio, and they too have a new CD out - Lover's Leap. They play mainly Scottish music, new and traditional, in a style influenced by the many fiddle ensembles coming out of Scotland in recent years. The Barber Sisters learnt classical violin as children, and their interest in Scottish fiddle suddenly blossomed after a Blazin' Fiddles album bought on Skye led them to try a workshop in Sidmouth. The girls have not looked back: they've picked up tips and tunes from the likes of Lauren MacColl and Rua MacMillan, and can hold their own in a Scottish session, but it's the intensity of their shared understanding that really makes their music exceptional. Melody, harmony, rhythm and counterpoint all come from the three fiddles, with such tight interplay that it's hard to separate the parts from the whole. The first time I met them, there was a rantfiddles.com bag prominently displayed on the table, so I asked if they considered themselves a junior version of RANT. It seems I'm not the first person to have that idea, and it's not hard to see the resemblances: dark-haired female fiddlers, sisters too, with a strong Shetland and West Coast flavour to their music. Try to catch them as they tour the festivals and workshops in England and Scotland, or find them on Facebook.

Steamchicken is a band I'd seen before, and danced to, at Cambridge and elsewhere. But time doesn't stand still, even for English folk music, and I discovered that this Barelyworks-style dance band had reinvented itself as a blues and gospel group with a four-piece horn section. Every number was a song, and not one of them was a folk song. I see their website now describes them as a jazz roots band, which explains songs like Boom Boom and Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho. I was expecting Mabon to be the more contemporary act, but actually they had more of a folk repertoire - admittedly from Latvia and other exotic places, as well as Wales - with simply dazzling accordion and fiddle from Jamie Smith and Oliver Wilson-Dickson. Tom McConville was even more traditional, but lively and innovative too: a medley of Northumbrian songs and tunes on fiddle and accordion again, young Shona Kipling doing a great job on piano box.

A late lunch of a juicy Philly steak baguette allowed me to watch a display of Appalachian step-dancing by Soft Option, a colourful troupe of ladies all the way from Worcestershire - saucy stuff. Next, the Allison Lupton Band was performing in the cricket pavilion, a cozy space with sofas and seating right up to the band, so this was more of a chat than a concert. In between Allison's moving songs and Shane's virtuoso fiddling, both accompanied by Ian Bell and Denis Rondeau on guitar and bass, we learnt about the band's penchant for Scotch malt whisky, Allison's fondness for fried breakfasts, and Ian's attachment to a Leicestershire sheep which meant that they had no room in their luggage to take home any unsold CDs. The good folk of Warwick duly helped out.

After a refreshing swim in the Warwick School pool - indoor and heated, free to festival-goers all Saturday afternoon - it was time for the evening concerts. I wanted to catch the display by Persephone Women's Clog Morris from West Yorkshire - a lady I met at the pool had promised it would be something special - but first there was a performance by Basque visitors Korrontzi. Featuring diatonic button box - the iconic Basque Trikitixa - and traditional dancers, this was the most dramatic and impressive show of the weekend for me. Blistering speed from musicians and dancers alternated with slow graceful pieces, filled out by virtuoso performances on guitar, mandolin and percussion. The Basque tradition is flamboyant and rhythmic, with similarities to Spanish music of course, but with its own melodies and dances. I've rarely heard a button accordion played better, every note spot on, while the dancers whirled and spun with complex footwork and balletic agility. I was more than happy to pay for two Korrontzi albums after the gig, especially as both included DVDs of the spectacular dancing.

Sunday meant an early start to pack up the tent and move the car, as I had to get away after lunch. The festival continued until Monday morning, and I regret missing the Sunday evening acts including Will Pound and Rusty Shackle, but it was not to be this year. I did manage to catch one of the lectures on West Midlands traditions, part of the educational strand which ran for most of the weekend, and I had two other goals before I left. First, the madcap humour of the Great Bonzo & Doris, a sort of genteel version of the Old Rope String Band, surreal but respectable, with more than a nod to that great practical joker, Cecil Sharp. Second, the entirely new ideas of Hannah James and her Jigdoll show, combining song, dance, music and movement with theatrical costume and special effects. If you haven't seen this one woman show, I won't spoil it: I will say only that it is breathtaking.

Fabulous music, first class venues, comfortable camping facilities and countless extras: Warwick Folk Festival is a great example of its type. 2016 was blessed with good weather, which certainly makes a difference, but there was a friendly atmosphere which I'm sure would have endured through wind and rain. Because of the size of this festival, collective experiences and the mingling of artists and audience was limited, but there were plenty of opportunities to chat to the performers and to start informal sessions large or small. Warwick was a memorable weekend for me, and I'm sure for most attendees, many of whom attend this festival year after year.