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|
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|
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.
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|
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.