Live Reviews

Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2023 : Live Review

For watchers and listeners, steppers and dancers, players and singers, this festival continues to provide a bespoke menu to suit whatever your need. Our man in a sleeping bag was there.

As in, is this a show of concerts, a dance festival or a masterclass for budding performers? Or even a dog show or a beer festival? It’s all of these and more, packing out the Severn showground every August bank holiday weekend, pandemics willing, since 2006, with 9 earlier years further downstream at Bridgenorth before then.


With distinctly dull skies and a forecast to boot, prayers and pleas were always going to be necessary this weekend, not least as the organisers have stuck with the main stage being an outdoor arena, a legacy, in part, of covid, as well as an appreciation of quite how big a draw some of the acts now are.

With musical proceedings not kicking off until early evening on the Friday, many had come down, anyway, the night before, to meet kindred spirits and old friends, likely as not with a singaround of a musical session in the Berwick bar. This camper hadn’t, so it was a bit of a swirl to get the trusty tent erected ahead of Blue Rose Code, once more occupying the early evening opening slot. I think Ross Wilson delights in being the first act on, his enthusiasm and energy no less exhilarating than at Cambridge, effortlessly whipping up the crowd with his exuberant Caledonian soul, his six-piece band firing on even more cylinders than before.

Sticking with Amazing Grace as the opener, this is such a soulful gospel rendition as to expunge any stuffy school assembly version, and the tightness of the band nails it down with an intensity that could convert Old Nick himself. Towards the end of the set saw the first appearance of festival co-patron, Steve Knightley, to vamp up a song he and Wilson had together penned, he then staying on stage for a stunning Blue Rose Code rendition of John Martyn’s I Don’t Want To Know About Evil.

Feeling sorry for whoever had to follow that, my next rendezvous was at the Pengwern stage, the second stage, this time under canvas. Dreamer’s Circus are a Scandi trio, two Danes and a Swede, who offer an instrumental frenzy of fiddles, accordion, guitar, mandola and piano, the trio swapping instruments with abandon. Described to me earlier as being melody led, rather than employing drones and relying on rhythm, that seemed a good description, especially when dual fiddles were applied. I was reminded of Spiro, as the complexities of the individual instruments wafted and wended together. One extraordinary tune, The World Is Waiting, was largely carried by all three whistling in unison over a near military piano accompaniment. Spookily different from much else in their repertoire, it was both haunting and striking.

Ending the evening came Reg Meuross‘s remarkable Stolen From God project, which we covered here, at the time of the recorded release. Now in the decidedly more intimate Sabrina tent, this is his take on the horrors of the slave trade, a song cycle with spoken narration to link the unfolding history and the legacy that still looms large on our nation.

As on the record, abetting Reg’s guitar and voice, we got the concertina and vocals of Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne and, to play the kora parts, Suntou Sissou. The three instruments blend particularly well, the kora to reflect the African origin of the slaves, with the rhythmic pumping of the concertina evoking the sailing ships, with Meuross’s original songs showing off quite how strong a talent he is. A journeyman performer, he really appears to have found his niche with this sort of show, making many new friends here tonight. Steve Knightley, that man again, provided the narration.

A couple of extra Reg pics from Katie Whitehouse ( who was, at the barrier


An opportunity to mooch and explore, the main lesson of the day was quite how many Morris sides there still are in this land, the tradition anything than on its last legs. From Cotswold to Border to North West, Rappers to Clogs, all were represented, more teams than you could shake a stick, bells or a hanky at, each side graced by a glorious cacophony of melodeons and other assorted backing. Caught in the mood, I found myself in the Dance tent for Bagas Fallyon, a Cornish ceilidh band who hold the baton for the west country version of Breton dance culture, each being one of the Celtic nations. Their midday bal had interlinked chains of dancers swaying gracefully in convoluted circles.

Back in the arena, it was up to Katie Spencer to open the day’s music, she taking the moment to entrance the early afternoon audience with her smoky voice and intricate guitar play. Playing mainly her own songs today, it was easy to understand how she bears comparison to, vocally, John Martyn, and to the guitar play of of Michael Chapman. Switching between a beautiful semi-acoustic guitar: a Gibson ES 125, she proudly told us, made in 1952, certainly predating her by a distance, as well as, if by less, most of those present, and a plainer acoustic, her ease with harmonics impressed. She too finished with a John Martyn song, Small Hours, and it wouldn’t be the last of that singer we would get this weekend.

What can be said about Leveret that hasn’t been said before? Celebrating their 10th birthday as a band, if they are astonishing on record, live that is surpassed, their joy evident as their playing takes their tunes, traditional and their own, to new and unexplored areas. As Andy Cutting stated, “we don’t practice,” so quite how each tune will fan out, and whether it would be his melodeon, Rob Harbron’s concertina or Sam Sweeney’s fiddle that would take the lead is largely down to the moment.

The plan was to play a selection from each of their 5 studio albums, and that they did, taxing as much memory for the names and origins, each piece generally made up of anything up to four sources, as their muscles for the playing of them. That eleven minute monster from Forms, the one ending with with Nelson’s Maggot, was given due warning and gained possibly the biggest cheer of the set. (For the curious, a maggot is an archaic word that means a ‘fanciful idea’, rather than, in this setting, the larval component of a fly. Or, to avoid a fanciful idea of my own, an earworm. Plus, of course, Nelson’s body was pickled in rum for the journey home, so as to specifically avoid any risk of such infestation, that something I had learnt only the day before, from Reg Meuross’s set!)

Midway through the penultimate number the heavens opened, crashing noisily onto the roof of the marquee; thank goodness we weren’t outside. Which was a convenient time for Harbron to sheepishly mention that the closing number was Rain On The Woodpile, relinquishing any causal link between the two events. Undoubtedly a highlight of the weekend, if you haven’t seen this trio in action, remedy that. There is more power and electricity in this acoustic trio than Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Beck, Bogert and Appice combined. (And, shhhh, a whole lot more fun.)

The weather sort of dictated what came next, which meant a tactical decision to stay put for Moya Brennan, aka the voice of Clannad, that band having given their final tour last year. I have to say I wasn’t expecting much; with glory days behind them, and her twin Uncles, along with her, the heart of the band, both deceased, but I found myself pleasantly uplifted by the outcome of the circumstances. Her voice is scarecely different from all those songs of yesteryear, with any slight, and it was very slight, raggedness around the edge imparting an additional endearing charm.

A young looking band joined her, with guitar from her daughter, Aisling, who also helped swell out the female vocals, and son, Paul, on keys, vocals and bodhran. Behind them a backline of fiddle and cajon, from a pair of lads who looked younger still.

Picking songs largely from her solo output, about which I have broad ignorance, it was much as you might expect, with expansive vocals and more harp play than I expected. And she is very good at that! One song did come from the heart of Clannad, as they played In A Lifetime, she jokingly apologising that Bono could not be with us tonight. The sound guys (for once, exemplary otherwise all weekend) were struggling with the widescreen sound required, but audience muscle memory meant that it still packed enough punch for those listening, and it was all the better for having been aired.

With the sun daring to appear, if briefly, only a short traipse back to Sabrina for guess who? Yes, that Knightley fella, fast becoming the Dave Grohl of this festival, for a much anticipated solo set. So much so that the wrong choice of venue became immediately apparent: “Sit down!!” Hey, ho, so I and many others reluctantly did.

With Phil Beer gathering his strength for next year’s final set of live Show of Hands gigs, Knightley showed himself still game for the road, an innate performer. With a mix of trad and his own songs, plus some well-chosen covers, including a Sinatra, he showed just what a consummate performer he is, his voice strong and his mandola and guitar perfect. OK, there just happened to be a few guests on hand, to dip in and out, starting with his daughter, Evie. (It’s been a bit of a summer for showcasing progeny, with the Lakeman/Roberts children brought on at Glastonbury, and Rusby junior at Cambridge!) She looked a little apprehensive, it’s true, but has a strong pure voice and Dad was clearly immensely proud. Matt Clifford was then introduced as having been Knightley’s best man, before playing some keyboard accompaniment. Few will have realised he has been also a regular live addition to the Rolling Stones over very many years, that point only made to me later, by Robbie K. Jones, another guest, the extravagantly bearded cajon man from Track Dogs, the band fast becoming regular companions of Beer and Knightley. (And to whom Knightley apologised, as he introduced and sang a cracking song, based about all the things you can only do in folk songs, otherwise deemed poor practice in any other part of life. I’m sure you can reel off a few yourself, and many were mentioned. “Killing the yanks” was the line in question.)

Apart from Evie, Knightley was also able to call on Miranda Sykes and Chris While, first separately and then together, for some female voices, reminding just how fine singers they each are, something sometimes lost when Sykes is “just” the bass-player. It really was a terrific set, Knightley is truly one of the gents on the circuit, as amenable and friendly off stage as on. And it was really quite moving, as he mused on the surprises that the late Alan Surtees, founder and later co-director of the festival, could throw into the Shrewsbury definition of folk, reminding us of the time the American band Dawes played, to a mutually unexpected rapturous reception, finishing their set with a slow and moody version of the Waterboys’ Whole Of The Moon. Which is what he too then proceeded to do.

Shrewsbury the definition of folk? Well, that envelope was certainly pushed next, with Elles Bailey, back over again in the arena. To an intro of It’s Only Rock and Roll, she and her band strutted on, then playing themselves a slowed down snippet of the same song. And it wasn’t, either. It was also blues, it was soul and a whole touch of everything else. With her band channeling the heart of Muscle Shoals, her songs were a righteous mix of southern soul and the rock of the south shall rise again: Stax meets Capricorn, Aretha, Wilson Pickett and Lynyrd Skynrd, a delicious concoction.

Bailey herself, resplendent in a cropped glittery outfit, sashayed and prowled the stage, singing her smoky heart out, her musicians laying down a tornado of slide guitar and Hammond embellished swamp music. A word must be found for the second vocalist, in a bottle green ballgown, wailing a second banshee to her bandleader, and who turned out to be no less than the Black Country and Western singer/songwriter, Demi Marriner, reviewed here only a week or three back. Class all round, with the band providing also the third John Martyn cover of the festival.

All things have eventually to come to a close, and this busy day could be no exception. Closing the main stage was Oysterband, fronted by the festival’s other co-patron, John Jones. Having missed their set at Wickham last year, I was gagging to see how last year’s Read The Sky was bedding in.

There was also the draw of the return, even if temporary, of Chopper, aka Ray Cooper, their erstwhile bass and cello man, given his replacement, or one of them, cellist Adrian Oxaal, was off playing guitar for his other band, James. His other replacement, Al Scott, was there behind him, though, on bass and mandolin, to allow Chopper his full concentration on the cello, standing up folk-rock cello being virtually of his own invention. This also saw a further new drummer, Sean Randle, the drum seat having had a fair few incumbents over the years. Thankfully, the original hard core of Jones, vocals and melodeon, Alan Prosser, guitars, and Ian Telfer, fiddle and laconic Aberdonian monologues, were there to complete the line-up. Possibly a slightly tweaked selection, to accommodate Chopper, it proved to be a mix of the old, some unexpected and most of the staple favourites, so Native Son, Uncommercial Song, All That Way For This were all there.

The new album was represented by Roll Away and Wonders Are Passing, the former reminding what a great song they have made it. To “close”, they reprised that wonderful old showbiz trick, familiar from earlier days of the band, of each either stopping playing, one by one, or walking off stage, playing ever more quietly, until Ian Telfer was left alone with his fiddle. Then he too turned and left. Rapturous prolonged cheers and back they came, initially to complete the song, and then a rousing encore selection that finished with Granite Years, We Could Leave Right Now and, as ever, the anthemic Put Out The Lights. I have lost sight of the times I felt this band can’t surpass themselves, then finding, all over, a year or so forward, that they have only gone and done it again.


Maybe some down time was needed after that excitement, so it was back to Sabrina, the smallest tent, where I found myself for the Sabbath starter, the Glasgow based Canny Band, yet another band who we have reviewed on the ATB pages.

Their energetic mix of piano, button accordion and bodhran soon had the audience agog, as the six hands flew over their various keys, buttons, stick and skin. Sam Mabbett plays accordion very much in the celtic style, concentrating on intricate melody lines over the more rhythmic pumping of many English players. He also looks disarmingly like a well known and unfeasibly popular singer of ginger head and beard, with perhaps the glasses a distinct ploy to avoid the advances of any confused Sheeranophiles. Michael Biggins, from the debatable lands of Northumberland, and the BBC Young Trad musician of the year in 2021 showed how piano has been lost from the heart of the ceilidh, and why it well deserves a place back. No wonder Duncan Chisholm has snapped him up for his touring band in the year he won that coveted award. You might think third player, Callum Convoy, to be the also ran, but you’d be wrong, his playing having you convinced, should you shut your eyes, that he had a whole kit at his command. Heady, wondrous stuff.

Yet more favourites of ATB came next, over at Pengwern, and another stretch of the folk definition, with the wonderful Hanging Stars, cosmic American music of the finest, blending Byrdsy vocal lines with the melodic instrumental thrust of the Grateful Dead, all underpinned by an undercurrent of Burritos, largely through the pedal steel play of Joe Harvey-Whyte, often pushed through an array of psychedelic effects. There were also some of the sexiest guitars on show all weekend, great big shiny ones, with perhaps the pride going to the black Rickenbacker 12 string electric of Patrick Ralla (not shown), who spun some McGuinn gold on that instrument, between channeling Jerry Garcia on his six string.

Singer and front man, Mark Olson, gave his all on the songs, swapping also between guitars, acoustic and electric, with a winning way of strutting his stuff, guitar toted high. With often four part harmonies abutting, Olson and Ralla were joined, vocally, by bassist, Sam Ferman, and drummer, Paulie Cobra. All looked the part and played the part, transporting the Shropshire scenery to the likes of L.A.’s Troubadour. They even brought on California legend, the Brian Jonestown Massacre guitarist Christof Certik, to guest on one song, his beatific grin all you needed to see or know. With a fifth album due next year, I can’t wait; their jangly country sparkle amongst the brighter lights of UK Americana.

Prompted by John Jones last night, around not missing a brief blink and you’ll miss it performance, on the outdoor and mainly Morris and other dance platform, the Purity stage, I then hastened to catch Ray Cooper again, for a solo slot. Since going solo some ten years ago, he has been playing his songs, accompanying himself on cello, guitar, harmonica and piano, with his voice a decisive and demonstrative clarion call, fitting well his songs of protest or of historical narrative. Stretching his allotted 45 minutes into nearer an hour, it was a delightful reprise, well received, from the larger areas elsewhere.

Sadly, unable to tear myself away from Mr Cooper, I missed much of the set by Peter Knight’s Gigspanner. And I don’t mean the trio, I mean the full big band, expanded to six, with John Spiers and the Edgelarks duo of Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin, adding thus melodeon, a second fiddle and dobro the the core of fiddle, guitar and percussion. Add in the fact that all six can sing, and this really is quite a wall of sound, Knight’s fiddle never resorting to expected folkie tropes or cliche, alway throwing something new and unexpcted into the often traditionl melodies. More favourites of ATB, they can be little bit prog, a little bit jazz and little bit ambient, the listener never quite knows how the beginning of one song will later pan out. Previously and personally maybe more an admirer than a lover of the trio, this, a first exposure to the bigger band for me, left me undoubtedly in the latter camp, and to be revisited soon.

It was a slight gap before I next caught up with music, visiting again the marketplace, with a broad range of outlets for all things festival, from ethnic clothing to jewellery, glass design, stone and wood carving and leatherwork. Of course I overspent my budget, even ahead the array of food vendors, as ever demonstrating the world of culinary opportunities. Which leads to a must-mention for Moongazing Hare, who were again running the bars. This operation, run by the same team who man the Fleece Inn, in Bretforton, a Cotswold bastion of fine ales and fine music, should be an example to other festivals and their overpriced £6 plus pints. Moongazing Hare manage to turn a very good trade, with prices between £4 and generally below £5. (Yeah, and that budget broke too….)

Billy Bragg was up next, to ply the Bragg bragadocio, and that he did very well. No longer quite the young turk, he nonetheless started as he began his career, alone with an electric guitar, turned up to 11 and thrashed for its life Appreciating where he was, he opened with Leon Rosselson’s The World Turned Upside Down, as apt and applicable to today as when written, and a song he has covered many a time. A couple more songs followed in this fashion, still keeping, largely, his own lyrical barbs dry, ahead of his backing musicians joining the stage, first adding pedal steel and then keyboards, as Bragg switched to acoustic. Warranting a mention, long time associate CJ Hillman, on said steel, as well as mandolin and guitar, adds lush textures to Bragg’s still somewhat (deliberately) abrasive tones, giving a lighter contrast, strangely helping to draw out the lyrics.

The delight of Bragg is always as much around what he has to say between the songs as during, I confessing curiosity around how he was going to align some recent twitter notoriety with his song, Sexuality. Competently and ferociously was the answer, as he potently explained how his views on trans rights had been somewhat misunderstood, and that, rather than suggesting it was fine for the penises of identifying females to be aired in female locker rooms, more he was making the point that it was a lesser evil than the threat of the violent toxic masculinity to said individuals in the male equivalent. And I sort of got it, as did the crowd, still warming to the singer, after/despite any good natured jibes around morris dancing and age equating to irrelevance in the modern world of opinion.

Anyway, Sexuality duly played, that “difficult” section around finding common ground was swapped for one around finding the right pronoun. On a roll he then launched into his emotive song of love and support, I Will Be Your Shield, before closing with the double whammy of Power In The Union, no show complete without it, and Great Leap Forward. A good few years since I last saw him live, he remains an endearing and important presence, a conscience for where others are flagging.

My planned finale had been for Jiggy, the Irish group who offer, if you will, a sort of Indo-Celt soundsystem, mixing irish and indian influences. On record this can be powerfu, and I gather they were a huge hit on their last appearance here, some years ago. My individual view was of some slight disappointment, although I suspect my opinion was largely unshared by the cheering throng filling the outside arena, in spite of the sun, what there was of it, and the temperature having somewhat dipped. Undoubtedly accomplished, in perhaps the same way as Afro-Celt Soundsystem have, the style has become the substance, with the spectacle more important than the content.

So, amidst the terrific musicianship, with special mention to their uillean piper, there was a lot, too much, of whipping up the audience and a lot of dancing. The by now near ubiquitous Johnny Kalsi, having played a DJ set earlier over the weekend, was called in to give a reprise of his part in the Afro-Celts, and a pair of Irish dancers then cam on to strut their own stuff, each to a hypnotic hurley of beats and trad combined. Call me grumpy, most around me loved it, but I went off in sight of music more to my backbone, to Elephant Sessions, over at the Pengwern. Having seen them last month at Cambridge, I thought I should avoid the duplication, but I discovered the faultline in that argument, more or less the moment I arrived. This time, without the charismatic extra guitarist, it was just the core quartet, possibly even the tighter for all that. Just the couple of concluding tunes, but enough to send me to my bag with a bound.

I had already realised I couldn’t make the Monday, having to get away promptly that morning, thus missing the various delights of Knight and Spiers, Eddi Reader and, particularly, Joachim Cooder, whom I had hoped might play earlier in the weekend. I gather the Red Hot Chilli Pipers also played. But you can’t see everything; I had also missed Talisk, on Saturday, who clashed with Oysterband, and Breabach, on Friday, clashing with Reg Meuross. As two acts I would normally choose, again I justified that by having caught each relatively recently. Those disappointments aside, this year’s Shrewsbury continues to show quite why it is rated so highly, by both audiences and the performers represented. Well done to all.

A near final act was to hunt down the patrons, feeling they each deserved the merit of the brand new At The Barrier lapel badge, a sign of our approval, and I am glad to say each accepted with aplomb, even if Steve Knightley had chosen the colour of his shirt unwisely beforehand, thus failing to show the true glory of this award!

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1 reply »

  1. This is a really good summary of what I think is the most fun you can have on August Bank Holiday. My highlights definitely included Billy Bragg and Reg Meuross, but I also have to say that Good Habits and Simeon Hammond Dallas were also stand out. Can I also add a shout out to the Village Stage where I have some of my favourite memories.

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