Having mourned the absence of authorization last year due to Covid-19, the organisers of the Shrewsbury Folk Festival have been working tirelessly to revise its format for 2021.
Set on the outskirts of medieval Shrewsbury at the West Mid Showground, the SFF has branded its 2021 comeback “a celebration of British based folk” hosting the appearance of The Lost Words: Spell Songs with Karine Polwart and others. Headline acts that include The Oysterband, Kate Rusby and The Afro Celt Sound System will see a welcome return and we are so excited to hear of two prominent Griots within world music: Sona Jobarteh and Seckou Keita Quartet, playing for us this year.
We will expect more of the same diversity of performance as previous years and the reputable, free flowing session spirit which the festival delivers so well. Three open air stages will accommodate music lovers in a safe and spacious environment with the exception of an even squeakier cleaning agenda throughout its domain.
We reached Sandra Surtees – Festival and Artistic Director, to learn more about the festival and what to expect this year.
What is your involvement with the Shrewsbury Folk Festival?
I co-founded the festival with my late husband Alan in 1997. I had always been involved in booking artists, as well as 1001 other things, but I officially took over the role of Artistic Director following his death in 2017.
Can you give us a brief history of how the Shrewsbury Folk Festival came about?
Alan and I met at a folk festival and after we got married, we moved to Bridgnorth, a smaller market town in Shropshire. It really felt like the area was missing an event like a folk festival, so we decided to start one! 700 people turned up at the first one and it just continued to grow. By 2006, we had outgrown our site and moved to Shrewsbury so we could expand, and then in 2007 found our current base, the West Mid Showground. It’s a big greenfield site next to the river but within walking distance of the town.
How has the pandemic affected preparations for this year’s festival? And what changes could the new restrictions bring to the festival this year, if any?
The pandemic has of course had a wide-reaching effect and it’s been a long winter watching and waiting to see how it was going to pan out. The success of the vaccination programme has been very positive and it’s good to see that the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown is going as predicted. We have an alternative festival plan in place that we’ll be able to implement elements of if we need to. As a late summer festival, we’re lucky in that we have time to see how it goes over the next few months before we have to make any final decisions.
We have seen in previous years the amazing Oysterband and Skerryvore among the popular headlining acts who have entertained audiences at SFF many times before. Which other acts have you been eager to book in the past and would like to see turn up in the future?
There’s always a very long wish list – it stretches to pages and pages! One of Alan’s particular favourites was the American band Dawes which we did manage to book in 2015. There have been many, many artists that we’ve booked and not been sure how they’d be received but our audience is incredibly trusting – as well as coming to see their favourites or big names like Richard Thompson they are very open to discovering new music and many say that’s why they love the festival so much. One band we’d love to get over here is Tedeschi Trucks – maybe one day.
Can you describe the process of curating artists – what works for the festival and what doesn’t?
The festival always has a pretty eclectic line up including traditional folk, contemporary folk, Americana, roots and world music. We have a number of stages and smaller venues so it’s all about getting the balance right and presenting a variety of music so that people can have a lot of choice. You need to ensure you have the headliners that will draw people in but also that there’s plenty to entertain them if they’re visiting one of the smaller stages.
We’re keen to strike a good gender balance too and that can be a challenge sometimes.
What sets the festival apart from other UK music festivals?
I think it’s the all-round nature of the festival and the fact that we’re renowned for being a welcoming bunch! We pride ourselves on combining high production values with a real grassroots feel – one of the biggest compliments we get is how helpful our team is and the amazing vibe on site. Often as festivals grow they can lose that friendly family feel and we work really hard to keep that going. Our site is tucked away down a lane on the outskirts of the town center, and it really is like entering a different world for the weekend – you can just pitch up for four days, forget about the rest of the world, and enjoy good music and much more in a relaxed environment with everything you need in easy reach.
What part of the festival’s plans have you been most eager to get to grips with?
Having run the festival for nearly 24 years it has been a pretty well-oiled machine up until last year when the coronavirus pandemic hit! We hosted a virtual festival, which was a great success, but we’re all champing at the bit to get back to reality this year and getting our heads around what we need to adapt to create a safe environment for everyone involved.
Shrewsbury Folk Festival seems to involve the local community very well. In what way does the festival interact with Shrewsbury town?
The town’s always buzzing over August Bank Holiday weekend and we organise a parade through the streets, dance displays in town and pub sessions so people can get a taste of what the festival has to offer and then they’ll hopefully come along the next year. It’s likely those plans will change this year due to coronavirus, but we’re committed to being part of Shrewsbury life and bringing the festival to the town centre when it’s safe to do so.
Brexit is influencing so many industries across the board that it’s hard not to discuss it in relation to the music sector. How might it impact your festival in the next few years?
It’s hard to say at the moment, particularly as there hasn’t been much movement between countries since January 1 because of coronavirus. It’s worrying that musicians may find it harder to travel, particularly as we often feature European bands.
Although festivals each try to carve out their own niche, there are also overlapping themes, genres, and artists. How competitive are festivals over the same resources, and is collaboration encouraged to ensure a more level playing field?
We work hard to get exclusivity with artists when we want to but equally it’s a sensible move to work with other festivals to make it worth an artist’s while to come over from America, for example. We have had a great relationship with Tonder Festival in Denmark over the years, which is held on the same weekend as us, and we’ll often work together if we want the same headliner.
Outside of or including the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, what has been the best performance you have ever witnessed as a festival goer?
There have been so many it’s really difficult to pick one. But if I really had to I’d choose Jiggy who appeared at the 2019 festival. They were simply amazing and the Irish dance was fantastic. You can watch it here
Finally, in a few words, how would you introduce Shrewsbury Folk Festival to a potential newcomer?
Just the best place to spend August Bank Holiday weekend – a smaller version of Glastonbury but without the crowds and the mud!
More information on Line-up and ticket sales at: https://shrewsburyfolkfestival.co.uk/