Live Reviews

Manchester Folk Festival – Live Review

Manchester Folk Festival – 19th-21st October 2023


Shifting their base for 2023 from HOME to Band On The Wall and the numerous venues across and around the Northern Quarter, Manchester once again became a hub of activity of all things Folk Music.

Main headliners The Breath (along with an excellent set from the up-and-coming, Jools-approved and endorsed Frankie Archer) put on an ambitious audio-visual spectacular at New Century Hall. In the round with surround sound, guitarist Stuart McCallum and singer/flautist Ríoghnach Connolly create an otherworldly experience that’s far removed from her bright and colourful, soul-drenched Honeyfeet persona that makes an appearance elsewhere in the festival. Highlighting the new album Land Of My Other (“one that nearly killed me,” she confesses) the vast control panel that transforms a simple acoustic guitar comes into its own.

Over in the Stoller Hall, Oysterband prove their reliable worth with a classic set of Folk rockers, Messers Jones, Scott, Prosser and Telfer front the six-piece at the stage lip to remind us of their place in the Folk pantheon. They’re set to tour next year, tickets already on sale, for two-night stands in venues, showing off two separate career-spanning sets.

A set of note too from Blackbeard’s Tea Party; a festival band par excellence who know how to put on a show and treat the Band On The Wall to a dynamic performance on a night when the hub of the festival gets similarly rousing sets from a quality supporting cast. At the other end of the spectrum, over at Halle St Peters, Jon Wilks is conversation with Martin Carthy. It seems churlish to heap praise on a such a humble gentleman who is full of stories and anecdotes in which the packed crowd revels. He gets up and plays too and we’re fortunately in time to catch him impress with High Germany, played to a rapt audience.

Around the NQ though, there’s an embarrassment of riches on which to have a folk feast, darting from Band On The Wall to the Castle Hotel, Matt & Phreds, Soup and Night & Day and then over to Ancoats for the Halles at St Peters and St Michaels. Getting a whiff of as much as we can, there are several highlights that deserve more than the handful of songs we manage to catch.

At 7.30pm on Thursday, Katie Spencer opens the first of several MFF events with a subtle set at Band On The Wall before Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly flies solo with an increasingly confident acoustic based performance. Over at St Michaels, the ebullient pairing of Alice Jones & Bryony Griffith delight with their folk songs and tales of the arduous life of a video promo making musician and provide the perfect vitality that sets us up for Granny’s Attic. We’re familiar with their music having reviewed Wheels Of The World and The Brickfields and solo work of Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne and Lewis Wood but this is our first live encounter. It doesn’t disappoint as we leave after a brief encounter feeling that the world of Folk music is in safe hands for the immediate future.

Slighter older hands are those of Marry Waterson, Lisa Knapp and Nathaniel Mann whose Hack Poets Guild delves deep into folk song and lore and more interestingly, the darker side. Their Black Letter Garland, a rustic work of art from initial hearing, is top of Santa’s list.

Katie O’Malley and The Noble Jacks duo sees a return for Will Page and a sweaty finale to the Night & Day’s festival hosting. Katie might appear a gentle soul with her acoustic guitar but there’s a raw and bluesy passion about her delivery while the Jacks duo imbibe the spirit and vitality of their full band set up with a set that’s barely watered down from the full line up.

One of the festival highlights is the set from Ward Knutur Townes. Lucy Ward has been out of the spotlight for too long and being right months pregnant will see her taking another break. Fortunately, she’s managed to fit in an amazing album (Unanswered – no doubt one of our albums of the year) with her new collaborators. A symptom of their appeal is the extremely packed and extremely humid small room at the Castle Hotel. The bit we manage to catch is enough to confirm our thoughts and how good is it to see Lucy Ward back in front of an audience inhabiting those songs in the way she does.

The electronic loops, flutes and percussion that Eliza Marshall conjures during her support slot for Merry Hell are a fascinating insight into some of her solo dabblings Hopefully more to follow, but for the Wigan troupe, there’s a large turnout for their first appearance at the festival. It goes without saying, they put up a stirring display with a glut of songs of passion and inspiration that makes them an increasingly popular draw. Similarly upbeat are The Leylines who despite presenting their slimmed down version provide the warm up, literally, for Blackbeard’s Tea Party.

Ruth Lyon (back at the BOTW later in the year with Holy Moly & The Crackers) is in her solo guise accompanied by HM&TC drummer Tommy Arch on guitar. The Crackers are set to take a break after their next touring run as several of them have solo ventures on the go. Ruth’s has already delivered the cool vibes of the Direct Debit To Vogue EP which is showcased with her on piano accompaniment.

An unusual venue to present a folk package, Soup finds itself hosting Katey Brooks and Lady Nade. Along with Angeline Morrison, Nade has earlier been speaking eloquently about the difficulties faced by musicians of colour and the obstacles encountered by agents and those who curate festival bills. Musically, her indie-folk Americana shows another branch and degree of diversity which sits under the Folk umbrella,

Walking in on John Smith, some might be forgiven for thinking they’d stumbled into a set from the late John MartynBoth he and Lizzy Hardinghma (accompanied in the back room of The Castle by Joce Reyome) have featured favourably on our pages. More bite sized chunks as we watch, grab a photo and head elsewhere and the surface has only been scratched. Manchester Music City r and the Manchester Folk Festival really is an embarrassment of riches.

The late night Festival Club runs at the Band On The Wall for anyone with enough energy left to see out the night and this year provides the sort of showcase sets that inevitably leave one wanting more. It must feel like Live Aid but with more than the 15 minutes to do your work and is a test of the musician’s ability to make an impact in a bite-sized chunk. Simeon Dallas Hammond has tales of Robert Plant in her Americana-styled songs while by contrast, Mikey Kenney fiddles away with a series of Irish tunes that almost define Folk music. Ranagri and The Often Herd both have links across the folk web yet take their music off in different directions, Ranagri’s The Wife Of Usher’s Well being a daring reworking of the traditional with their unique recipe of harp and Eliza Marshall’s flutes.

The Bonfire Radicals (check out their The Space Between album) are all glitter and joie de vivre as whistles, clarinets, recorders, fiddles and other exotic paraphernalia that reverberate in a splash of colour. Anyone who might think Folk music is sombre, stiff-lipped and straight-faced would have had their minds altered (in a good way) by the Festival Club offerings. Jack Rutter meanwhile has hotfooted from Halifax for his solo set, yet it’s far from a relaxing folky/singer songwriter croon through a few tracks from his upcoming new album (review incoming). Armed with just an acoustic guitar and bouzouki, he fair explodes with passion and balls through a set that’s enthusiastically received and demands attention.

And there’s more – the European Folk Network, Un-Convention Artist Development Conference and English Folk Expo all ran during the weekend. In particular we were able to appreciate the Folk Expo with their International partners with delegates doing the unenviable but enjoyable job of trying to cram in as much as possible in so little time. Boss Morris from Stroud, featuring a couple of well known but heavily disguised Folk stars (Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron) delighted the public in Cutting Room Square while on a more serious note, the Black Lives In Music panel raised several pertinent issues, offering food for thought

From The Whitehouse showcased a roster with a heavy emphasis on improvisation from the Ciderhouse Rebellion duo and the fascinating guitar/hammered dulcimer/found sounds of Max ZT and Dan Whitehouse (whose Ten Steps we admired recently). The Haar from Ireland saw a return to the city of Cormac Byrne and traditional Irish singer Molly Dunnery in an exciting combination of spontaneity, tradition and experimentation.

International partners from Prince Edward Island, Sweden, Flanders and Seoul added their talents to excite and enthuse the Expo delegates as Manchester’s reputation goes from strength to strength in the music world. Its reputation as a thriving hub of exciting opportunities and talent has seen Manchester awarded the honour of hosting the worldwide music expo – WOMEX – in 2024. It’s already been made public, yet the Manchester Music City announcement featuring several influential figures including English Folk Expo’s own Tom Besford was a key part of the weekend’s events.

Manchester Folk Festival:  Official Website

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