For several years, the Homegrown festival at Bury Met, with its associated Folk Expo industry event, has been one of the most significant dates on the international folk and roots music calendar.
English folk music is now an international industry, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that in these unsettling times, the music, with its passion, politics and songs of struggle and love, is seeing a renaissance and receiving more mainstream recognition.
So, David Agnew, director of So It Is, who programmes Homegrown, and is also artistic director for The Met and festivals including Ramsbottom’s Head For The Hills, thinks the time is right to build on that success by spotlighting folk music on a bigger scale with this month’s Manchester Folk Festival, based around a hub at HOME.
Set to become a major new annual festival, Manchester Folk Festival celebrates the best of English folk and acoustic roots music with a packed programme of concerts, film and theatrical experiences, artists in conversation, craft workshops and a proper pub singaround at venues including not only HOME, but also Gorilla, The Ritz, The International Anthony Burgess Foundation and one of Manchester’s oldest pubs, The Briton’s Protection.
“A big part of what we’re trying to do is to find new public audiences for this music and to grow those, along with an awareness in this country and around the world of the potential for this music,” Agnew points out. “Putting English folk music into a venue like The Ritz or Gorilla doesn’t instantly generate new audiences for the work, of course, and there are new audiences that we’re trying to find.
“I know HOME are genuinely excited that this will be the first full-on music-based event that they’ve had,” says Agenew. “And we’ve had a really good reaction from the likes of Manchester City Council and Marketing Manchester, as well as other venues and promoters who already work in Manchester about Manchester Folk Festival becoming a long-term event for Manchester, developing new audiences for the work they’re already doing.
“This is a legacy of Homegrown and even when we first started Homegrown at Bury as a partnership with the English Folk Expo five years ago, we had mused what might happen if it outgrew Bury,” Agnew acknowledges. “The reality is that the number of delegates was growing and we were running out of venues. English Folk Expo were looking to move based on the availability of hotel and restaurant accommodation and had gone out to expressions of interest from different places across the country. But I thought ‘well, I haven’t finished with showcasing English folk music yet in Greater Manchester’.
“So, we looked at the potential of fine venues like HOME, The Ritz and Gorilla that nobody had ever really used all together, so that we could still have a relationship with the audiences we’d built up in Bury while remaining an asset to Greater Manchester by bringing international delegates from all over the world into the Northwest of England to showcase English music.
“From the point of view of the international delegates, what’s especially interesting and exciting, is that they’ll be seeing some of this music that they’re familiar with in front of more contemporary, urban audiences, perhaps sparking ideas of different ways to programme and present this vibrant music.”
So, this new urban music festival will be one that offers a different perspective on the incredible range of contemporary English folk and acoustic music, and will celebrate how contemporary folk straddles genres, embraces cultures and absorbs new influences, not least by featuring out of the ordinary combinations of artists over 16 concerts – including over 30 artists – in a mix of intimate and large-scale gigs. It’s an eclectic and exciting programme that spans everything from experimental and indie folk to traditional music.
Jon Boden (ex-Bellowhead) brings his new 10-piece group Remnant Kings to the stage while Afro Celt Sound System’s exhilarating show will surely make the sprung dance-floor of The Ritz bounce. False Lights’ explosion of Sixties-inspired electric folk-rock will raise the roof at HOME, whilst Gorilla hosts the joyous folk-pop five-piece Keston Cobblers’ Club.
Gravel-voiced guitarist John Smith and darkly brilliant indie-folk duo Josienne Clarke And Ben Walker will more than likely be a tad quieter whilst those scamps The Young ‘Uns bring wicked wit and pitch-perfect three-part harmonies to the party. They are also in conversation with the redoubtable journalist Colin Irwin over the weekend.
A strong strand of protest singers includes political and LGBT activist Grace Petrie, while People’s History Museum’s Songwriter in Residence Quiet Loner (Matt Hill) presents a show in songs and images of the reformers, revolutionaries, chartists and suffragettes who fought for our right to vote. BBC radio presenter and activist Tom Robinson will perform the entire Power in The Darkness album to mark the 40th anniversary of 2-4-6-8 Motorway. Separately, Robinson is also in conversation with John Robb.
Whether it’s folk-punk double bass player Nina Harries, shanty-singer and squeezebox player Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, singer-songwriter and visual artist Jinnwoo, acoustic folk-pop duo Sound of the Sirens, or the three international representatives of the rich French, Celtic and native Mi’kmaq folk heritage of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, The East Pointers, Vishten and Irish Mythen, Manchester Folk Festival aims to introduce audiences to new sounds alongside established favourites.
They are also staging some fascinating “experiences” alongside the music. Award-winning musician Kathryn Tickell joins with author David Almond (Skellig) and clog dancer Amy Thatcher in an event combining the song, stories and music of the North, while Horse + Bamboo’s The Theatre Ballads features folk musicians, puppetry and projection. Hannah James is performing her new show JigDoll, combining percussive dance, music and song, and there’s also a special film screening and post show Q&A of The Ballad of Shirley Collins in advance of a general release this autumn. The documentary explores the story behind one of modern folk music’s most important singers, who lost her voice only to triumphantly re-emerge at the age of 80.
“I am thrilled to bring this exciting new festival to Manchester,” says Agnew. “We have fantastic venues and to add a city based music festival to the global folk industry is really exciting. This festival is all about profiling and celebrating the range of great music described as folk or acoustic, offering audiences new artists and supporting emerging artists who deserve to be on the world stage.”