Review Date: August 24 – 27, 2012
Review By: Jeremy Searle
Shrewsbury Folk Festival goes from strength to strength, selling out earlier each year; something that’s as much about the non-musical side as it is about the bill. A big site where you can park next to your tent, superb food, excellent beer and plenty of toilets make it a very pleasant experience indeed, with nothing to get stressed about. All three tents are predominately seated, which is not entirely to this reviewer’s taste as a seated crowd doesn’t really get as involved or generate as much energy as a standing one does, but it’s clearly ideal for an awful lot of people. On the musical side it’s not just a folk festival, nor is it just UK acts, with Americans in particular very well represented. Diana Jones’ songs and delivery have that naked, raw emotion that hits right in the gut whilst in sharp contrast, Old Man Luedecke’s endearing manner and wryly thoughtful songs engage the head and bring a smile to the face.
On a more upbeat note, The Sweetback Sisters’ honky-tonk meets the Carter Family sound is one of the hits of the weekend and Baskery (Swedish but with their hearts firmly in Kentucky) deliver a manic and hugely entertaining bluegrass-based 100mph set. Elsewhere there’s Caroline Herring’s thoughtful and poignant contemporary folk; a mid-west singer-songwriter set from Jonathan Byrd-who also writes an excellent Facebook blog about his experiences at the festival-plus, superb acoustic guitar work from Brooks Williams, now domiciled in the UK and one half of State of the Union with Boo Hewerdine. Slightly more leftfield, but one of the standout performers, is Abigail Washburn. She lived in China for several years and can not only speak the language but also sing in it as well and her claw-hammer banjo playing reflects both the instrument’s origins and those experiences, making for a fascinating, engaging and often thought-proving set. Elsewhere a veritable A-Z of the folk world A-list-Vin Garbutt, Jim Moray, Jackie Oates, Show of Hands, to name but four-all have the crowds cheering and singing along. Set of the weekend though goes to the legendary Richard Thompson: fire, passion and hard as it is to imagine, even more astonishing guitar work than usual.
There’s only one strike against Shrewsbury and an important one at that. For the second year running there were regular and significant issues with both sound and sound engineers-things failing, artists not setting-up properly, levels wrong for the audience, making it either too loud or inaudible-and for a festival that bills itself as: “one of the finest in England,” it’s simply not good enough. Sort that out and it’ll be pretty much perfect, rather than just merely great, as it is now.