Manchester is set to become the centre of the international folk world at the end of October.

Back in full swing after last year’s enforced hiatus, the 2021 Manchester Folk Festival, which runs from October 21 to 23 across five venues in central Manchester, will showcase home-grown folk and acoustic music where it belongs, in front of a safe, live audience.

An exciting line-up of some of the best performers in the UK features a wide range of music from the traditional to the contemporary. These can be experienced not only in the festival’s regular venues, such as HOME, Gorilla and the 02 Ritz, but also at the Royal Northern College of Music and the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, which are all within easy strolling distance of each other. For the first time, there will also be a late night club at HOME, which is open to everyone. Previously, this was only available to delegates.  

“We’re all still a bit rusty when it comes to putting on live events,” director David Agnew cheerfully admits, “and, obviously, something on this scale, across five venues, has been challenging, but generally speaking, we’re in a happy place.

Spiers & Boden 4 - photo credit Elly Lucas“A lot of the acts for this year, we already had in place and ready to announce for what would have been last year’s festival and, although a few of them can’t do this year’s event for various reasons, we’re happy that many of those great acts will still be performing. Of course, we also had to make sure that all the venues were available and that they were able to adhere to COVID-19 safety procedures and rules.”

He continues: “We know, too, that some of the audience may be a little bit out of the habit of buying tickets in advance for indoor concerts. We’ve got some catching up to do, sure, but we’ve only been selling tickets for three or weeks and they are now starting to sell at a phenomenal rate.”

A few highlights of the feverish three days include the hotly anticipated comeback tour from Spiers & Boden (HOME, Thursday) and Peter Knight’s Gigspanner Big Band with the original trio joined by Sacha Trocher, Roger Flack, Edgelarks, and the seemingly indefatigable John Spiers (HOME, Saturday). There’s also one of the first chances anywhere to hear the new four-piece supergroup The English Fiddle Ensemble (HOME, Saturday) as well as the powerful, explorative sounds of Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening, the renowned Northumbrian piper’s new ensemble, invoking the powerful, shamanic sounds of ancient Northumbria (HOME, Friday).

“That show will convert the unconverted and thrill the traditionalists among the audience alike,” says Agnew. 

The Breath - York_TillyerThe festival also boasts some of the best singer-songwriters the UK currently has to offer. Luke Concannon, credited with being one of Ed Sheeran’s main inspirations, headlines at HOME with his first show for three years (HOME, Thursday), while California-born, and now Manchester-based, singer-songwriter and musicians’ musician Jesca Hoop appears at the RNCM supported by rising stars The Magpies (RNCM, Friday).

Bristol-born blues, soul and folk-influenced Lady Nade performs songs from her 2021 album release Willing (Anthony Burgess Foundation, Thursday), while BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winner Sam Carter introduces music from his latest album Home Waters, recorded in a converted church in rural Northumberland (Anthony Burgess Foundation, Friday), and Yorkshire’s own O’Hooley & Tidow, whose Gentleman Jack was the theme tune for Sally Wainwright’s hugely popular drama, headline at HOME (Saturday).

MFF Lady Nade-Photo by Arthur WalinAdding a contemporary dimension is former I Am Kloot man John Bramwell & The Full Harmonic Convergence (O2 Ritz, Thursday) and award-winning Manchester-based The Breath with the Armagh-born singer/flautist Ríoghnach Connolly (HOME, Friday). A special acoustic/a cappella show from post-punk Sunderland quartet The Futureheads (RNCM, Saturday) might raise some eyebrows, but Agnew argues that “if you look in detail at what they’ve done in the past, they have a very rich influence from particularly the North East folk tradition. It wouldn’t be Manchester Folk Festival if I don’t have that ‘what were you thinking of?’ conversation at some time in the festival.”

Further expanding horizons is culture-bridging collective Kabantu (HOME, Thursday) and quintet Sheelanagig (HOME, Friday), performing a selection of traditional and original European folk music dating from medieval times to the present day.

Each year features an international partner and this year it’s Hungary, with appearances from Muzsikás, Pengetős Trió, Ötödik Évszak and Dalinda.

Agnew says: “It’s really exciting to have them bringing a bit of diversity and different tradition into the programme and also helps to further distinguish what that English folk tradition looks like.”

Kathryn Tickell & The DarkeningAs in previous years, back to when the event (then dubbed Homegrown) was still based at The Met in Bury, the festival will also be part of, but separate from, English Folk Expo’s 2021 Showcase, welcoming music industry representatives from the UK and across the world to Manchester.

“Manchester Folk Festival hosts English Folk Expo,” Agnew explains. “We put on a range of public-facing concerts, gigs, sessions and workshops across lots of venues and English Folk Expo invites programmers and delegates from around the world who programme folk into their own venues to come and look over the shoulders of Greater Manchester audiences in the great venues that we have in Manchester with the hope then that those programmers book those England-based artists.

“We encourage a professional environment whereby English folk and acoustic artists can sustain a professional career by touring internationally as well as playing in the UK.”

Luke ConcannonHe adds: “To show off the full breadth of home-grown talent and the growth in the number of delegates, the festival needed a range of venues, from intimate 50 capacity spaces up to 1,500 capacity for The Ritz, so we had to make that move from Bury, where it was a fledgling event. Even though there’s a huge amount of folk talent around Greater Manchester, there wasn’t a Manchester Folk Festival at the time, and venues had been talking about that lack. So, Manchester Folk Festival was created to grow and develop the audience for this strong, broad-ranging music that tells social stories that mean something.

“It’s quite a task to pull it all together, and especially this year, but our spirit of ‘it’s on until it’s off’ has helped us get through a time of uncertainty.”

By Kevin Bourke

Main image: Luke Concannon


Manchester Folk Festival and English Folk Expo run from October 21-24, 2021. For more information, or to book tickets, visit the website.