Every April since 2000, New Roots finalists have gathered in St Albans, since 2003 at the Trestle Arts Base. This year was different: the final was first delayed until November, and then had to be replaced by an online event. There was also a fine 21st anniversary showcase concert on YouTube which can still be viewed on the New Roots YouTube channel, along with this year’s competition performances.
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. Usually they perform a similar amount of live music on the day, but this year we had to use video recordings. 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 still get helpful comments. There would usually be a lively session for all the participants while the judges are out of the room.
This year, there were ten acts in total. There was a jaw-dropping range of music and styles, from the coruscating energy and technical fireworks of Arthur Coates’s Quebecois fiddling, guitar and footwork, to the intimate, hypnotic singing and mouth-music of Oisin Kisdon-Ireland. Lilian Grace brought clearly voiced, emotionally honest unaccompanied English songs, while Elye Cuthbertson and Rowan Collinson offered balanced, delicate and playful arrangements of tunes in the English tradition with melodeon and fiddle. Not all the music was English: both Robbie Sherratt (fiddle, voice) and Fru Rakoczy (voice, concertina, recorder, bagpipes) gave us polskas, Robbie sang with the fiddle, adding imaginative and witty accompaniments; Fru’s glorious voice enhanced a Traveller ballad. The duo, Borders, sang recent songs with much power, driving guitar and marked vocal impact. Callum MacKellar brought unaccompanied songs from the continuing English tradition with serious social purpose, humour and tenderness. Cathy Bennett sang the only song in a different language – Cornish – supported with sparing but effective accompaniment on viola. Sam Baxter was the only performer to join us live as a result of university time constraints, singing unusual versions of traditional songs in a distinctive, arresting voice with well-judged guitar accompaniment.
In the absence of live performances, the judges gave a few suggestions about the quality of the videos, as these are the main way musicians can perform at the moment. Curiously, many of the performers had chosen to record in what appeared to be garages with painted rough walls. Rooms with plain walls or bookshelves were effective. Soft furnishings, particularly beds, are best avoided as they distract the eye and can dampen the sound.
None of this would have been possible without the sound engineering of Tom Evans and John Sandall, both contestants in earlier years. The technical side deserves recognition because it is going to be part of our musical lives for many months ahead and the technology is constantly evolving. Using the audio-conferencing platform, ‘Gather’, the YouTube video performances were set to launch at pre-set times, akin to a professional firework display. This was then streamed to Zoom, for anyone who preferred to listen there rather than watch directly on Gather. Barry Goodman, introducing the YouTube videos one by one, found himself having to watch a countdown (and occasionally guessing timing without one, following a slight technical hitch in the second half) to make sure that he stopped talking at the right point and also didn’t leave any embarrassing silences which would make listeners think their connection had failed. He produced some sustained creative blither on the subject of the availability of baked spuds in the café and the need to stack the chairs carefully at the end. While it must have been a little nerve-wracking for him, it was highly entertaining for the rest of us and it can be noted that he “responded to slight on-the-hoof timing changes graciously”, according to the technical team. While judges collated their notes in a private zoom call, the attendees had a chance to socialise in the virtual space John and Tom had set up. Here they could explore the map together, sit around tables and chat and even play Tetris against each other.
This year’s judges were the musicians Rosie Hood and Alex Cumming (who joined us live from the USA from 5:00 a.m.), Chippenham Folk Festival co-organiser, venue and stage manager and musician Andy Stafford, and Valmai Goodyear of Lewes Saturday Folk Club in Sussex. Barry Goodman, caller, musician and singer, compèred the whole event.
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.
The closing date for entries for New Roots next year is 31 August 2021 and the final will be held in late October or early November – around half term. It is hoped it will be live at the Trestle Arts Base in St. Albans. Check www.stalbansfolkmusic.org.uk/new-roots for updates.