38th Warwick Folk Festival
This year's line-up included award-winning Irish trad group Goitse, Oysterband & Scotland's best-selling female album artist Barbara Dickson, plus newcomers Elephant Sessions and Granny's Attic.
Little sister of Cambridge Folk Festival and Fairport’s Cropedy Convention, Warwick is one of the UK’s best town folk festivals with a varied line-up of top well-established acts, talented emerging artists – and a free Fringe Festival.
What’s lovely is that it really brings the town together over the weekend – the festival atmosphere spilled out onto the historic streets of Warwick which were heaving on Saturday afternoon with live music stage in Smith Street and Market Place, outside cafes and stalls. Traditional Irish sessions, folk bands and a jazz tour took place in restaurants, pubs and bars, including Bar Catalan, Dough and Brew, The Old Four Penny Shop and The Globe.
The festival has a wonderful site – Warwick School – just a 10 minutes’ walk from the town’s centre with ample space for festival camping, a free shuttle bus and swimming pool. At the Arena Stage where 15 or so Morris groups take it in turns to perform throughout the festival. There are a few folk festival quirks I’m new to…I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many different variations of Morris dancers – some with painted faces, some with tassels (the fashion accessory of the season, no less), flowers and bells – or quite so many festival-goers walking around with their own pewter tankards (his n’ hers).
One of the things I really liked about the festival was that most of the artists didn’t just playing once but two or 3 times over the weekend – so if a couple of gigs you wanted to see clashed there was a good chance you could catch the other one again, even headline act Goitse played twice.
I saw them on Sunday afternoon on the Main Stage. They played a blistering set filled with super-fast jigs, a beautiful Gaelic song about a dead bird and an alcoholic performed by “voice of an angel” Áine McGeeney, who also plays fiddle and whistle, original tunes and an impressive Bodhran solo before catching their Ryan Air flight back to Ireland later that day.
Bodhran player Colm Phelan revealed that they were touring Austria just before Christmas when they discovered Áine had won 2016 Best Female Vocalist in Irish American News ‘Best of the Year Awards’. Colm also answered the question on everyone’s mind. He said: ‘I know what you’re all wondering – how old is baby-faced banjo player, James? No, he’s not 15 – he’s 26.” He’s also one of Ireland’s champion banjo players – winning gold medals at four All-Ireland Fleadh competitions in a row.
Warwick is only their third ever English festival, after Cambridge Folk Festival and Glastonbury in 2016. Colm said: “It’s been a really special experience – such a lovely atmosphere! We’ve just been sitting around and chilling listening to things. We’d like to thank Dick Dixon (Festival Director) for bringing us over.”
Oysterband, Andy Kershaw, Spooky Men’s Chorale, traditional Irish band Goitse with award-winning vocalist Aine McGeeney, and Scotland’s best-selling female album artist Barbara Dickson topped the bill.
Who better than to find out about the up-and-coming artists to look out for in the modern folk scene than Wexford-born Festival Director Dick Dixon. I caught up with him at the Wine Bar having a beer in true folk tradition after catching accomplished multi-instrumentalist & singer Georgia Lewis & Friends on the Plaza Stage. She performed songs from her debut album, The Bird who Sings Freedom, along with award-winning fiddle player and festival solo act Rowan Piggot.
Dick said: “I also run Bromyard Folk Festival and Georgia was our 2015 Future of Young Folk award-winner. Rachel Croft, a former busker from York went down a storm on Friday, as did Warwickshire acoustic guitarist Jack Blackman at The New Pavilion.” Jack is currently studying at Leeds College of Music and working on his 3rd album.
His other top picks include Stylusboy, The Folly Brothers, award-winning Scottish neo-trad band Elephant Sessions and Helena. But there’s one band who he has helped to nurture since their earliest days who’ve grown into a prodigious young talent – Worcester trio Granny’s Attic, BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award nominees 2014. “They’re great! I’ve seen them perform since they were 14-years-old and now they’re sky high. I told them to go and watch The Young Uns, who are not only great musicians but great entertainers too – and now Granny’s Attic are not only great musicians but great entertainers too!”
I can definitely vouch for that! Energetic Granny’s Attic have some cracking dance tunes including Lacy House, a great rapport with the audience, lovely dry humour and they’re veggie too – always a good sign!
It was good to see some local talent including Coventry’s Stylusboy playing twice at the festival – at Bar Catalan as part of the Fringe and on the New Pavilion Stage – Leamington bluegrass trio The Folly Brothers who will also be playing Art in the Park next Sat, Aug 5 in Jephson Gardens, Leamington Spa, Warwick singer-songwriter AnnA RydeR, Dr Bennett, Alkevan and Alcester musician Jack Blackman (mentioned above).
WORLD & EUROPEAN ACTS
As well as Australian headliners, Spooky Men’s Chorale, artists who travelled from afar to play at the festival included Belgium’s brilliant banjo-playing Louvat Brothers – Steve and Jefferson Louvat joined by guitarist Michel Vrydag. Jefferson made me laugh with the anecdote of his first ever “Marmite moment” at his hotel. Thinking it was chocolate spread he spread it thickly over his toast and took a bite. “I thought it was engine oil! Why put it next to the Nutella and marmalade?”
The Festival’s also twinned with Cork Folk Festival, so you have performers coming over including the Cork Singers Club.
THINGS FOR KIDS TO DO
Children could practise their circus skills in a Big Top and be entertained by Panic Circus, watch children’s entertainer Dan the Hat, off-the-wall entertainer/singer Keith Donnelly, and Hand to Mouth puppet theatre. There’s also a Kids HQ for a variety of events including Baby Bops and Toddle Bops, Wyld Thyngz Forest School and Morris Dancing for kids, plus children’s crafts in the next Gazebo. For 12-17-year-olds there’s Shooting Roots – folk arts workshops including a DIY Ceilidh Project and drop-in crafts.
In between gigs you could always go for a sail down the River Avon in one of Warwick Boat’s dragons or a pink flamingo with great views over to Warwick Castle or go for a swim in the school’s Indoor Pool.
Warwick Folk Festival has been based at Warwick School for 36 years, and gigs are played in various school venues, Bridge House Theatre and the main field. Dick said as soon as they leave the builders are to start work on a new girls’ school – “In 3 or 4 years we’ll have even more new venues,” he added, “This school has been great.”
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Fervent folk fans, Morris Dancing and well-supported Festival Fringe. A relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere on a great site close to Warwick town centre – with musicians playing fiddles and guitars in the bars and cafes, plus excellent facilities, street food and craft stalls.
Not for: If you’re looking for a big urban festival this isn’t it; it’s a smaller, friendly and intimate affair with ceilidhs and lots of folk.
££: Adult weekend tickets (Fri-Sun): £107; a family weekend ticket: £268, adult day ticket: £46, Junior £23 and under 10’s free. Early Bird tickets for 2018 will be available here.