Some belated thoughts on Shrewsbury Folk Festival: Ollabelle, Chris Wood, Mark Erelli
One of the things that distinguishes Shrewsbury from its fellow English folk festivals (apart from the excellent site, organisation etc) is the consistently high quality American/Canadian acts they get in. In previous years we’ve been treated to The Wailin’ Jennys, Crooked Still, Richard Shindell and others, and the quality was maintained this time.
Ollabelle were a revelation; I wandered into the back of their gig and discovered a group doing one of the best impressions of what The Band might sound like if they’d appeared last week; hardly surprising when you learn that Amy Helm (their regular singer, absent from Shrewsbury whilst giving birth) is Levon’s daughter, but impressive and highly enjoyable all the same. They took turns to sing lead vocals, each band member in turn proving that they could take the spotlight (even a singing drummer, so the comparison stands up!) and some impressive instrumental versatility as well. That much honest, straight-up groove couldn’t be carried off by a British act, it seems.
But the most striking thing about my festival experience was the realisation that folk music’s tradition of political song is alive and well, and not only that but producing songs that are listenable into the bargain. Sure, it’s easy enough to write a rant (and there were a few of these on show over the weekend), but to write something about the state of the world that is at once an accurate and penetrating statement and an elegant piece of music, that’s something rarer.
That Chris Wood writes political songs is no revelation, but his forthcoming album Handmade Life contains a couple of classics in the making. His existing material seems to have taken on near-mythical properties recently; when he says he’ll play one that we know, there are shouts from the front row for particular songs, rock-star-like levels of adulation. His sets were peppered with new songs though, Shrewsbury playing the role of proving ground.
The song that stood out amongst these was his take on the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. Like many of Wood’s best originals, a passing glance at the first verse might lead one to think it a traditional song; the protagonist steps out to greet the day much as young men have in songs for generations. Indeed, as a device for reminding us just how normal the man in question was, it’s genius. His life gets progressively less normal from that point on, leading us to the moment when we realise he’s “Just a Brazilian electrician / Christ only knows why he came here.”
Another highlight, one I can’t describe in anywhere near as much detail from one performance, described hearing Merlin engines and watching the Spitfires over Kent, and the abuse of the image of the ultimate anti-fascist weapon by the BNP on their European election campaign material. Potent stuff, and yet another song that makes me think that Wood’s England is one I would be proud to live in.
Coming back to the American imports, the other song that stuck in my memory was Mark Erelli’s “Volunteers”. It hit me from across a crowded marquee, a song of the Iraq war brimming with authenticity and everyman weariness. It’s no easier to sing about IEDs, Abu Ghraib and Baghdad palaces than it is to string together Brazilian electricians and hollow-point ammunition into something elegant, but Erelli carries it off as well as Wood.
His album Delivered is packed full of such songs, including the gem-of-a-pop-song “Baltimore”, a variation on the classic ‘driving all night to see my girl’ song with lines so chock-full of delicious observed geographical detail that I found myself reading about particular suspension bridges on Wikipedia, and enjoying it.
Shrewsbury Folk Festival stands out because it reaches beyond its roots and brings songwriting talent from far and wide. Long may it continue.