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NEW ROOTS - Trestle Arts Base, St. Albans - 7 April 2019

“It’s the best concert of the year,” says Barry Goodman, introducing the New Roots finalists every April at the Trestle Arts Base, St. Albans, and for the 20 years of the competition’s life that has remained true. It’s one of the biggest, too: the music begins with the first act at 11:00 a.m. and finishes at about 3:00 p.m. with an hour for lunch. This year, there were 12 acts in total (two classes: under 18s and 18-24 year-olds).

To take part, young people from all over the country send in up to 15 minutes of recordings in all styles of traditional and contemporary folk, roots or world music. There isn’t a winner; the four judges listen carefully to the music sent in, looking for quality of performance and material rather than polished recordings, and invite the best dozen or so to perform at the final concert. They perform a similar amount of music on the day. Then the judges retire to prepare comments, encouragement and suggestions to help each one develop their performance. Those who aren’t chosen to perform on the day will still get helpful comments.

While the judges are out of the way, the performers take over the stage for an impromptu session of shared tunes and songs. The audience of friends, folk club organisers and families join in with this too, and there’s a heady atmosphere. Throughout the day the young musicians have been listening to one another as well as performing, and they have plenty of opportunity to meet, talk, begin friendships and make new connections. It’s inspiring for everyone who goes along in any capacity, and rewarding for the musicians. The organisers know it must be daunting for the participants, but do their best to put the players at their ease.

The rewards are the opportunities for all finalists to perform at a selection of folk clubs and folk music festivals throughout the country - this year, eight festivals and eleven clubs. These are valuable opportunities for the young musicians to perform to audiences outside their home territory. Any new performer will know just how difficult bookings like this are to come by. New Roots has been a launch pad for many of today’s established performers.

As always, the range and quality of performances this year were breath-taking. We had lively Scottish fiddle music from Arthur Coates, seasoned with Quebecois foot percussion; delicate vocal harmonies from Burdock; Finn Collinson, who gave his recorder the voice and style of traditional whistle player; Iona Lane, who took command of the stage with the high tragedy of a traditional ballad; Madeleine Morris, offering traditional songs and a compelling one of her own which combined social comment and personal passion; Megan Wisdom, enhancing two of her traditional-style songs with a charming harmonium accompaniment; Missing Richard, whose intelligent, subtle accordion danced round the fiddle’s honest simplicity; Heather Ferrier, with technical and musical fireworks on the accordion; Molly Pipe, with a vocal acrobatic display in both humorous and moving songs; Nancy Potts, singing with the fiddle and playing with a solid groove; Rachel and Fiona Todd, combining fiddle and melodeon with gentle sensitivity and grace; and Sarah Stock, delivering a traditional song and one of her own with well-judged and inventive guitar accompaniment.

This year’s judges were the musicians John Dipper and Anna Tabbush, Chippenham Festival organiser, sound engineer and musician Andy Stafford, and Valmai Goodyear of Lewes Saturday Folk Club in Sussex. Barry Goodman MCs the concert and helps the judges marshal their thoughts with his trusty laptop.

New Roots is the creation of Alison Macfarlane, who nurtures it with thorough, good-humoured, patient efficiency and her profound commitment to inspiring and enthusing young performers to carry on the flame of folk music.

Plans are under way for New Roots 2020 and details, including the date of the final, will be announced at www.new-roots.org.uk. The closing date is 31 January 2020.

Valmai Goodyear