Not the Sidmouth Festival. Managing expectations? We knew it was going to be different because it was billed as “A Celebration Of…” rather than just being the festival. But even with all the changes it still had a comfortingly familiar feel.
The main musical hub was at the Blackmore Gardens – free, but with ‘voluntary’ donations, demanded by some extremely aggressive stewards. Was there such a problem with just charging an entrance fee? ‘Folk’ has always been a broad church, so how to satisfy everyone within a single programme? Well, the programming was magnificent – an afternoon could include performers as disparate as the Exmouth Shantymen, Ben Paley with songs and fiddle, tunes from locally-based dance band Mrs Midnight, an excellent duo in Paul Downes & Annie Winter, the whole being rounded off by the majestic Narthen. Something for everyone and some new followers for several of these artists, I suspect.
A welcome strand within this was the ‘EFDSS presents’ slots of mainly young and upcoming performers who are well worth keeping an eye on. Particular highlights for me were The Wilderness Yet (Rowan Piggott, Philippe Barnes and Rosie Hodgson) who produced a sparkling set ranging from unaccompanied harmony singing to spirited instrumentals – well worth making an effort to seek out. Another find for me was Polly Paulusma who has been researching the traditional music associated with novelist Angela Carter, something she presents passionately and which is reflected in both her singing and playing. Many performers would baulk at including an unaccompanied ballad on incest and murder within their set, but Polly started off hers with a searing version of Lucy Wan – very impressive (I believe the ballad was the inspiration for Kate Bush’s song, The Kick Inside). I’ll look forward to catching further performances and recordings by her.
Then there were star-studded evening concerts. I don’t know if it was just me, or whether it was just enthusiasm on the part of the artists who had been denied performing opportunities for so long, but many of these main attractions seemed to be trying too hard. There was a lot of ‘performance’ going on to justify their star billing. But there’s no denying they went down well. It was also interesting to see just how many youngsters had climbed trees in the churchyard or got other viewpoints in order to see Seth Lakeman! It was also nice to see profile spots for Jack Rutter, whose singing and playing of traditional material deserve to see him creep higher and higher up the bill.
On the fringes, many of the events which had started organically before being absorbed into the official festival reappeared: ballad singing on the lawn at the Woodland Hotel, singing inside a marquee in the Volunteer garden. The much-welcomed reduction in street traders on the front meant that there was suddenly space for morris displays, singers, buskers and in the absence of dances, impromptu ceilidhs and sessions. People were saying that it was just like the old days. Few people braved sessions in the pubs – the Bedford was sparse, the Radway sparse and distanced, but at the Cricket Club they packed themselves in like sardines with little attempt to distance – unsurprisingly there was a COVID case by the end of the week.
The Ham catering sported most of the usual suspects, as ever a desert for the gluten-intolerant, but with occasional outbreaks of vegan. The stage there was acoustic, although some of the performers could have done with a little volume boost (as well as for balancing). One of my favourites was a last-minute line up of Saul Rose, James Delarre & David Delarre. They don’t usually play as a trio so were feeling their way into shared repertoire. This was like listening-in on a musical conversation between people who were listening to each other and reacting. And with musicians of this calibre the results were scintillating.
Shrewsbury Festival on the other hand appeared to have a different attitude to coping with the pandemic. Attendees were told in advance that they had to have the results of a negative lateral flow test taken immediately before arriving and to have been double vaccinated – very reassuring. However, on arrival it was obvious that nobody was bothering to check this. Stewards at the events rarely checked tickets and everything was very relaxed, although it raised lots of worries when you saw dozens of people ‘moshing’ at the front of stages. The site was rearranged, with the large stages at either end of the showground, successfully avoiding sound spillage between the two – this meant that dance was severely cut back, with dances held on the ‘village stage’ in the craft fair and limited to only a couple of bands. As the audience for most of this was in the open air, it was lucky that the festival was blessed with excellent weather which kept everyone’s spirits high. There were more craft fair stalls than usual which was much appreciated and most of the expected food stalls were in attendance, but the last-minute pull out of the people running the shop meant that their replacements were not best prepared, with a number of items which would normally be considered vital absent for the whole weekend. Sessions were held in sideless marquees, with good distancing and went well. Sessions on the gin bus appeared to have no distancing at all, but seemed to be hugely enjoyed by those taking part, and much appreciated by those watching.
Shrewsbury is known for its eclectic mix of performers from around the world – so what to do when they weren’t available? The answer was to look to home. London-based musicians such as Gambian kora virtuoso Sona Jabarteh with her band, and Senegalese Seckou Keita, the London Taiko Drummers and sitar maestra Sheema Mukherjee all gave wonderful concerts, as did Devon bluegrass stars The Carrivick Sisters. As usual there were some pop bands you’d almost forgotten about – Lindisfarne and the Christians, showing that you shouldn’t have done. Plus quite a raft of home grown, mostly young performers from these isles. Another typically Shrewsbury great mix of music. Things got off to a wobbly start on Friday evening, with Oysterband’s John Jones appearing to struggle with his vocals through a poor, but improving, sound system. Thereafter the sound was pretty much spot on, although for Will Pound’s wonderful A Day Will Come show, those towards the back were totally unable to hear the contributions of the Polish poet. Masses of good things throughout a packed weekend culminated in, for once, a real humdinger of a closing act, with a huge crowd staying to be blown away by Afro-Celt Sound System who were on peak form.
So all-in-all, highly successful, due to planners who really know what they are doing and who know how to put together a really satisfying programme. Two very different means of solving the problem of how to put on a festival in these straightened times, both festivals bursting with ideas and both triumphantly accomplished. Roll on next year!