Thursday, 30 August 2012

Shrewsbury Folk Festival : An Americana Perspective Friday 24 August to Monday 27 August

There is a natural synergy between folk music emanating from the British Isles and that from the North American continent, with the organisers of the annual Shrewsbury Folk Festival increasingly recognising this in the scheduling of their prestigious event over the August bank holiday weekend. So in 2012 alongside such genre heavyweights as Richard Thompson, Kate Rusby and Show of Hands, a liberal sprinkling of artists appeared whose natural habitat leans more towards the complex term of Americana and its wide range of definitions.
Jonathan Byrd   photo not taken at gig
After several attempts, the organisers were delighted to secure the services of North Carolina troubadour Jonathan Byrd who fully embraced this rare opportunity to showcase his talents overseas and saw his stock rise considerably over the weekend. He took full advantage of being allocated two slots in the well attended Marquee 2 to take the audience on a spellbinding journey around his homeland, supplementing his impressive finger picking guitar skills with fascinating tales and personal recollections. There was no repetition in the song selection for the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon sets which was of little surprise as Byrd has a quality back catalogue that has yet to have much exposure in the UK. Those seeking refuge from the torrential Friday evening rain were treated to a trio of songs from his most recent album CACKALACK in ‘Chicken Wire’, ‘Wild Ponies’ and ‘I Was an Oak Tree’. The 2008 album LAW AND LONESOME was also heavily represented with the title track, ‘Prairie Girl’ and ‘May the River Run Dry’ all featuring. The set the following afternoon was also well attended with similar captivating stories supporting a new batch of songs highlighted by the touching ‘Father’s Day’, the amusing ‘Jesus was a Bootlegger’ and the personal finale ‘You Can’t Outrun the Radio’. The perseverance in bringing Byrd to the UK certainly paid off with the gracious reception he received and his commitment to the festival saw a flat- picking guitar workshop alongside a prominent role in the impromptu hastily assembled Monday afternoon Folk Slam.

One disappointment from the festival was the unfortunate withdrawal of highly acclaimed Canadian roots band Madison Violet due to family matters. The organisers had to work quickly to secure replacements for their Friday and Saturday sets and eventually settled for two similar acts that are stalwarts of the UK Americana scene. The power of instant social media communication saw Australian artist Emily Barker quickly divert her Red Clay Halo band from their UK summer tour to play the main Marquee on Friday evening. The highlights from the brief glimpse of her set were a performance of her latest single ‘Fields of June’ recorded in collaboration with Frank Turner, ‘Calendar’ from her most recent album ALMANAC and Neil Young’s ‘Look Out For My Love’. British based American guitarist Brooks Williams was Madison Violet’s Saturday replacement but due to a schedule clash his set wasn’t witnessed.
Hat Fitz and Cara   Photo not taken at gig
The eclectic duo of Aussie bluesman Hat Fitz and Irish folk artist Cara Robinson played an eagerly awaited couple of sets on Saturday, opening the main Marquee at lunch time and closing the Sabrina Marquee twelve hours later. Their sound is impossible to categorise except the fusion of so many styles works and sits firmly in that wide ranging genre known as good music. The two sets were virtually identical in song selection so we had the pleasure of enjoying Cara’s flute, whistle, percussion and washboard skills twice as well as her soft Ulster brogue accompanying songs such as ‘Rusty River’ and ‘Eliza Blue’ from their current album WILEY WAYS. Hat Fitz’s blues drenched guitar sound, dry humour and gruff vocals complemented perfectly the attributes of his wife to entertain an appreciative audience. Personal highlights were the stunning ‘Power’ and Cara’s fantastic vocal skills accompanying the Blind Willie Johnson number ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’. Having reviewed their WILEY WAYS album earlier in the summer, the live rendition lived up to all expectations.

Abigail Washburn
Abigail Washburn was enthusiastically introduced to British audiences by Bob Harris a couple of years ago and the banjo playing American vocalist wooed the open minded Shrewsbury festival goers with  a couple of captivating sets with her musical partner, Kai Welch on Saturday and Sunday. She used her first appearance at this rapidly growing festival to virtually preview her entire new album CITY OF REFUGE opening with the haunting title track and closing with the crowd pleasing gospel sing along ‘Devine Bell’ and a beautiful arrangement of the traditional ‘Bright Morning Stars’. However it was introducing the audience to her Mandarin speaking talents and her delivery of ‘Tai Yang Chulai’ in that language that left a lasting impression. The theme continued the following day when the second set featured another recount of her Chinese adventures and this time an audience participated song in her adopted second language. She did repeat a couple of songs from CITY OF REFUGE but  also introduced the crowd to the song writing talents of Kai with a version of his ‘Sentimental Queens’ and a couple more crowd pleasing gospel numbers, ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ from her SPARROW QUARTET EP and Washington Phillips’s ‘What Are They Doing In Heaven Today’. Abigail was very much the talk of the festival and gained a whole host of new fans over the weekend.
Caroline Herring
Caroline Herring is one American Folk singer who has gravitated towards the British scene with a sound very much in line with the home grown talent and an introduction to UK audiences via participation in the Cecil Sharp Project alongside some of the genre’s established artists. Caroline, a proud resident of Mississippi USA, has all the toolkit of a classic folk artist with an immense passion for home issues such as civil rights, the lives of everyday women and painting elaborate pictures of her homeland. Although we are left in no doubt of her Deep South roots in her accent, her vocal sound is far removed from the earthy rootsy feel you would expect from the delta, more in line with the classical north east US folk scene and perhaps those on this side of the Atlantic. The set Caroline delivered on Sunday afternoon was accompanied by Patsy Reid on fiddle and partially by Jim Moray on additional guitar with the focus very much on her upcoming new album CAMILLA. The best songs performed were the impressive vocal dominated ‘Travelling Shoes’, ‘Black Mountain Lullaby’ and the concluding number ‘Joy Never Ends’, with its sampling of ‘Auld Lang Sine’. While not quite being what you would expect from her part of the world, she left an impression of wanting to explore her further. Caroline performed a second set with Kathryn Roberts on Monday afternoon which due to schedule clashes wasn’t seen but we had one final pleasure of her presence during the Folk Slam finale.

While the withdrawal of Madison Violet was the biggest disappointment, the curtailment of the Baskery set in Marquee 2 on Sunday evening was not far behind. Apparently, the Swedish trio had produced a barnstorming set of alt country, cow punk, folk blues (and any other style you can think of) on the afternoon and their evening set was eagerly awaited. However there was a frustrating and unexplained 25 minute wait outside the Marquee after their 7.00 pm start time and when it finally got underway, they were only granted around 20 minutes to get the programme back on track. One of the festival’s few black marks. We still managed to be treated to the manic ‘One Horse Down’ from the FALL AMONG THIEVES album, ‘Tendencies’ from their recent NEW FRIENDS release and a rousing Swedish A Capella drinking song to close the girls’ short set. A little frustrating but hopefully they will re-visit our shores sometime in the future.

The Sweetback Sisters
Brooklyn based country honky tonk band, The Sweetback Sisters, were so impressive on their Shrewsbury debut last year that the organisers instantly booked them to return and once again the enthusiastic crowd had the delight of two high energy sets on Sunday evening and Monday afternoon. The six piece band led by the non-sisterly vocal duo of Zara Bode and Emily Miller and influential fiddle player Jesse Milnes, play a mix of self penned and carefully covered straight up country songs.  Their most recent full length release LOOKING FOR A FIGHT provided a wealth of material for both sets including ‘Texas Bluebonnets’, ‘It Won’t Hurt When I Fall From A Bar Stool’ and the Patsy Cline number ‘Love Me Honey Do’. The first set saw the band pay tribute to the recently deceased Kitty Wells with a version of her ‘You’re Not Easy To Forgot’, while the rock n’ roll inspired Travelling Willbury’s song ‘Rattled’, also from LOOKING FOR A FIGHT, featured in both sets. The sparkling personality of Emily really shone through and she introduced the crowd to a series of songs from their hot off the press EP titled BULLDOG with the a capella delivered ‘Booze Fighters’, lively ‘Walking in My Sleep’ and rousing title track ‘I’ve Got A Bulldog’ all standing out. It wouldn’t be a surprise for these festival favourites to return for a third year especially as they were the central feature of the hastily arranged Folk Slam.

Diana Jones
One downside to festivals is the inevitable clashes and on the final afternoon of the Shrewsbury Folk Festival the sets of Diana Jones and Old Man Luedecke overlapped by half an hour. A decision was made to catch the Diana Jones show in its entirety but it was with great reluctance to leave the Old Man Luedecke performance just as it was starting to gather momentum. The native of Nova Scotia impressed greatly with his one man and a banjo show along with a multitude of fine songs and engaging tales. One number that particularly stood out was ‘I Quit My Job’ – food for thought for many with the end of summer fast approaching. Anyway a CD was purchased with a commitment to catch one of his shows on a future UK visit. Diana Jones’s awareness in the UK has grown consistently over the last few years and the days of playing in front of a handful of punters in a small venue seem behind her. Her hour-long afternoon set in Marquee 2 consisted of material drawn roughly even from her three previous albums – all acclaimed recordings. The popular choices were mainly from 2009’s BETTER TIMES WILL COME with the cynical killing song ‘If I Had a Gun’ and the tear jerking ‘Henry Russell’s Last Words’ getting the best reception. ‘Poverty’ was probably the stand out selection from the current album, HIGH ATMOSPHERE, while the sizeable crowd were treated to a new song ‘Happiness’ as her encore number. During a festival packed with audience participation artists, the set from Diana did come over as slightly subdued and it has to be admitted that she probably thrives more in intimate settings rather than a cavernous marquee but this is not to detract her from being a very accomplished Nashville singer-songwriter.
The conclusion to the festival was thrown into confusion with the late withdrawal of Monday headline act KT Tunstall due to a family bereavement but to the organisers’ credit they performed a master stroke by re-shuffling the finishing order and filling the void with an impromptu Folk Slam that thrilled a capacity Marquee 2. Jim Moray was the architect of the review-like show that saw a continual stream of collaborations from The Sweetback Sisters, Jonathan Byrd, Rua McMillan Trio, Caroline Herring and a special guest performance from Maddy Prior, who couldn’t resist an eleventh hour call to turn her festival visit from a passive to an active one. A personal highlight from this finale was The Sweetback Sisters leading a packed stage in a rendition of the Hank Williams classic ‘Jambalaya’. A fitting end to the Americana content of this primarily very English festival.

So apologies for not mentioning the no doubt excellent performances by Lau, Show of Hands, Jim Moray, Kate Rusby and numerous other fine artists, who will get their column inches elsewhere. Although you could not but help to marvel at the fantastic guitar playing and aura oozing from the legendary Richard Thompson during his Saturday night headline slot. Yet the willingness of the organisers to embrace the Americana input was the real personal draw for this festival and if they continue to showcase such quality and quantity it can become a permanent fixture as a truly eclectic gathering of the cream of roots artists.

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