aka Ten nights in Sidmouth and Five nights in Shrewsbury.
Well, this is all a bit late, but the end of the festival season brings other priorities, like ensuring the gazebo is bone dry before winter storage, and scrubbing from windbreaks the red mud of Devon, Shropshire and Herefordshire.
The first return to festivalling came with Ely Folk Festival in mid July. Cannily, the organisers had planned for the eventuality of lockdown not easing quite at the pace hoped, so when it came to pass that full easing was delayed, while others fell by the wayside, Ely was able to go ahead with remaining restrictions. All stages were open air. There were yellow rectangles suitably spaced, in which bubbles could sit; a bird’s eye view must have looked rather like a Zoom conference with everyone talking at the same time. No question, for most, this was their first live music in 16 months and that was joyous, though more so was just meeting people, unplanned, unexpectedly, spontaneously. But dancing was still off the menu, and despite best efforts, little transpired of informal singing sessions.
Sidmouth did not pitch itself as the actual festival, instead dubbing a collection of events as A Celebration of the Sidmouth Folk Festival, with festival tickets rolled forward for yet another year. By day, there were low key, free gigs with encouraged voluntary contributions. The paying events were a week of evening gigs, captained by safe hands and crowd pleasers. Doubtless, this was the right approach for bringing money into the festival and ensuring its survival to the full fat version in 2022. I was selective, picking Eliza Carthy, Jackie Oates & John Spiers and Banter. Lovely and engaging as they all were, this wasn’t why I will always make my stately Landrover Defender progress from North West to South West each year. The town just couldn’t buzz with anticipation and festivity, the way it usually does. Also, for me, there just wasn’t the breadth of offering – the individual album launches, the quirkier acts; in particular, safe programming left out the English instrumental raptures in which I will happily wallow.
That said, I reckon I could be happy camping in this gorgeous corner of countryside / seaside for ten days, regardless of what played out. Every year, I look forward to unpressured time sitting under my gazebo, looking at those rolling hills, while I learn songs. I fall for this every year; it never happens; it didn’t happen this year. Belief in this was my fallback, that it would be a week and a half well spent. But the greater hope, the faith that I kept, was that, at the last minute, the spirit of the festival would out, and all would be worthwhile. It may be hard for me to convey the trepidation of turning up at the regular pub on the first day, wondering whether there would be critical mass for the best singing in the land. It seems we had all kept that same faith, some travelling from Scotland. This was going to happen. Joy! Just having that lunchtime session for the week was enough. But unsurprisingly, the informality of the singing and music sessions were the things best able to flourish outside the formal structure of the festival, so there was more. And we sang; we chorused; we belly laughed; we harmonised; we remembered those we had lost; and we kept singing.