Somehow, there are people still around who believe that ‘all folk music sounds the same’ or that it’s solely made by, and for, blokes with beards.

Manchester Folk Festival is just the sort of event that these naysayers need to shake them out of their lazy misapprehensions. The annual ‘urban folk festival’ is based in and around HOME and the Oxford Road corridor. Within just a few hours of its opening night, this bold event had ranged from the hilarious and committed songs of Luke Concannon to the dramatically remodelled traditional Hungarian folk songs of Dalinda. It also veered from India Electric Co.’s blend of traditional instruments and subtle electronic influences to the return of the brilliantly entertaining and much-loved fiddle, melodeon and vocal duo Spiers & Boden after their years in the folk big band Bellowhead.

Spiers & Boden 4 - photo credit Elly LucasEveryone knows just how terrible a time the last couple of years have been for live music. But this festival, and the public-facing aspect of the accompanying English Folk Expo and its ambition to “put English folk, roots and acoustic music on the world stage” for hundreds of delegates from around the world, was a rousing reminder of just how joyful, emotional and meaningful live music can be for sensibly cautious audiences and performers.

Even the most adroitly programmed festival has inevitable clashes, and I was sad to have to miss, for example, the new duo of Hannah James and Toby Kuhn as well as the brilliant folk song collector and passionate conservationist, Sam Lee. But I was excited to witness the impressive latest incarnations of both The Magpies and The Trials Of Cato, with Polly Bolton having moved from the former to the latter. The Gigspanner Big Band (now including not only fiddle player Peter Knight, percussionist Sacha Trochet and guitarist Roger Flack but also both Hannah Martin and Phillip Henry of Edgelarks and the nearly ubiquitous John Spiers) proved utterly thrilling on MFF Lady Nade-Photo by Arthur Walina Saturday afternoon in the main theatre at HOME.

Bristol’s Lady Nade, a formidable force online during lockdown, won hearts and minds in the intimate surroundings of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, so she’ll probably need a bigger venue next time around. Another relative newcomer, albeit rather more in the classic singer-songwriter mould, Ellie Gowers did well not to be intimidated by the cavernous surrounding of The Ritz up the road, which bodes well for her future.

Meanwhile, O’Hooley and Tidow have been around for a while, at least relatively speaking, so it was less surprising that Belinda and Heidi seemed so relaxed in the new glare of their post-Gentleman Jack fame. Not long ago, Manchester Folk Festival’s artistic director David Agnew told me that, for him, the festival represented “strong broad-ranging music that tells social stories that mean something” and it’s hard to imagine a better example of what he’s talking about than these two.

So, here’s to next year’s event. I, for one, can’t wait.

By Kevin Bourke