Last year, when David Agnew opted to move the English Folk Expo and its public-facing concerts to central Manchester after several years based around Bury Met, there was a certain amount of discreet breath-holding as to whether its delicate balance of intimacy with a worldwide mission to spotlight English music and artists could work as well in this new context, right in the vibrant heart of the city and spread around several venues.

It not only survived but, as some would have it, thrived as ‘an urban festival’. This year again, some of the biggest names in English folk, roots and acoustic music were cannily juxtaposed with new voices and new projects.

So, as well as looking for a new England and singing along with many hundreds of others to Billy Bragg in the rockist surroundings of The Ritz or humming to still-going-strong folk-rock pioneers Lindisfarne, you might equally well have found yourself quietly entranced by the intimate, country-tinged duets of Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage or by the intricate and ethereal collaboration between Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita in theatre one at this year’s festival hub, HOME.

The powerful voices of The Wilson Family, which have rung out for many decades in folk clubs and festivals, filled that same venue on Saturday afternoon while, just yards away in theatre two, Sam Lee, who is dedicated to collecting, restoring and sharing ancient music from Britain and Ireland, in particular from the Romany Gypsy and Irish traveller communities, but who is also young and hip enough to collect those songs on his iPhone and laptop, debuted the songs from a forthcoming album that he and his band have been working on for more than a year. On first hearing, this collection sounded really special, something that is likely to match, or even surpass, the impact of his Mercury Prize-nominated debut Ground Of Its Own.

Preceding Sam on stage had been the multi-instrumentalists and singers of Lady Maisery, with Hazel Askew, Hannah James and Rowan Rheingans returning later to reunite with the other half of fearless ‘feminist folk collective’ Coven, the duo O’Hooley & Tidow and irrepressible protest singer Grace Petrie, for a unique reunion outside of their regular International Women’s Day celebrations. For me, their fiery and committed yet humorous set vied for best of the fest (if this were any sort of a competition, of course) with the ever-brilliant Melrose Quartet the night before. Comprising leading English musicians Nancy Kerr, James Fagan, Jess Arrowsmith and Richard Arrowsmith, these four Sheffield-based veterans of the folk scene demonstrated once again the sort of dazzling musicianship, impeccable vocals and astute song choices that have made them so popular.

Is The Kit have also become a major attraction over the last year or so and drew a capacity crowd to the main stage of HOME on Thursday’s opening night. There was plenty of love for them, and Kate Stables is a winning performer with a thoroughly unique voice. But early technical problems somewhat threw them off balance, unfortunately. No such mishaps, despite a stage positively littered with instruments, marred an earlier set from Alice Jones, a singer, multi-instrumentalist and dancer from West Yorkshire, whose unexpected penchant for body percussion explained her unlikely cat-suit attire. Elsewhere, the Folk Expo’s focus on Wales meant there were well-received contributions from Welsh-language band 9Bach, from the intriguing Gwyneth Glyn and the infectious Alaw.

If there’s anyone still out there who mistakenly believes that ‘all folk music sounds the same’ or that it’s made by and for blokes with beards, then Manchester Folk Festival is the sort of joyous and intelligent event to shake them out of that lazy misapprehension. If you missed it this time around, it’ll be back 17 to 20 October, 2019. In the meantime, if you want to get some idea of the quality and variety of roots music that’s out there to be savoured, maybe even danced to, you could do worse than visiting some of the upcoming attractions at Bury Met. 

By Kevin Bourke

To read Northern Soul’s interview with Billy Bragg, click here.

Main image by Chris Payne