Since getting into making music myself, the summer festival season has become more important to me. And I’m not talking about Glastonbury-style festivals, no thank you. I’m interested in those smaller scale gatherings where the fun is as much in the sessions as in the official concerts. And while some of the smaller folk festivals have a very healthy “fringe” element, I haven’t seen anything quite like the bluegrass festivals for across-the-board participation. I remember how astonished I was when I went to my first UK bluegrass festival a few years ago and realised just how many of the attendees were playing instruments themselves, at every opportunity!
For those who don’t know, you might be surprised to learn that we have an extensive bluegrass festival scene right here in the UK – even if many of the festivals could be described as small but perfectly formed. Right up my street, in fact. No massive crowds in front of the main stage, no acres of mud by the showers. That being said, the biggest of the bluegrass festivals, among them Didmarton and the Cornish Bluegrass Festival, probably attract a thousand or more visitors apiece and lay on an extensive programme of bands (some from the USA or continental Europe). The smallest events might see a hundred or so pickers in attendance, and then there’s every kind of variation in between. Pretty much every weekend of the summer, from May to September, will see one of these events taking place somewhere in our green and pleasant land. Even the smallest festivals seem to have several bands playing, free workshops on banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin, Appalachian dancers showing off their moves and of course many opportunities for informal picking with friends old and new – my favourite part!
So far this year I’ve only managed to attend the Wharf Bluegrass event, where we had blazing hot (if breezy) weather on the last weekend in May. Taking place in a flat grassy field next to the Worcester & Birmingham canal on the grounds of the Stoke Prior social club near Bromsgrove, it was a really enjoyable weekend. Despite this being one of the smallest festivals on the calendar, the Wharf organisers still laid on an extensive programme of bands in the clubhouse on Friday and Saturday evenings – mostly drawn from the pickers present and including The Hog Ranch from Bristol and the near-legendary collective that is Roots and Galoots! There was a visiting band from Northern Ireland too, the very impressive Down and Out Bluegrass Band.
On Saturday morning I attended the banjo workshop, which was a nice refresher for me as I’ve been neglecting the banjo recently in favour of playing fiddle and singing. On Sunday morning, I was asked to repeat the Sacred Harp singing workshop I’d done at Sore Fingers, and we had a big group of about 40 singers helping us to sing loud in four-part harmony. More about Sacred Harp (shape note) singing in a future blog post.
So I’m looking forward to my next camping and picking foray, having opted out of last weekend’s Coastline festival in North Wales due to forecasts of heavy rain and high winds (ah, the British summer). I’m hoping to get to a few more festivals this season, finishing up with the Cornish Bluegrass event down near Newquay in mid-September. This one even offers mobile homes for hire – how civilised! I get my festival information from the lovely people over at UK Bluegrass. Check out their calendar and maybe I’ll see you somewhere down the road.