This was my fourth year in a row attending the Hebden Bridge Folk Roots Festival. It’s a run that started when me and my girlfriend came to the town for a walk and ended up in The Fox and Goose watching a mix of musicians jamming in the back room. We came back the following year. And, since then, we have moved to the town from Manchester and plan to make the festival a key part of our calendar every year. There’s something about the event that is so typically ‘Hebden Bridge’ – the sense of community and acceptance, the willingness to cooperate and create. It is almost always a joy to behold.
But there were a few things that felt a bit different this year. Usually, at festival time, you only have to walk through the town and it will be clear that something exciting and unusual is happening. Everyone is taking part. If you go and sit in almost any of the pubs or cafes for a pint or a sandwich, you’ll get to witness a free (and usually brilliant) performance. Last year my two favourite gigs of the weekend were Logan and Manley in Mooch Café and Magdalen in a bottle shop/bar called Drink.
That element of the festival felt curiously absent at times this year. Many of the venues that were heaving last year felt strangely silent and the majority of the musical performances we managed to see were in the more traditional pubs, the church, and the Trades Club.
The one really strong performance we saw in a pub was on Friday evening in The Albert as Ellie Telford took the stage to play a very brief set. Her country tones combined with a tremendous energy to show why the festival benefits from these unexpected moments of magic, those seconds or minutes over a pint when a musician you’ve never heard of takes everyone by surprise. Ellie is only 17 but has the talent to go far.
The other thing that felt different this year was the fact that, on Saturday night in Hope Baptist Chapel, there was an act which felt a few steps above anything we’ve witnessed at the festival before. Contemporary folk legend Kathryn Williams shared the stage with Michele Stodart of The Magic Numbers. They spent the first half of the show taking turns to perform alone and it was a set so full of brilliance that I don’t know where to begin. As I am already a big fan of Kathryn, my highlights were probably ‘Beating Heart’ and a new song called ‘Prospero.’ The latter was something she had written for a friend’s memorial and was performing live for the first time. It was a very moving moment which felt like a privilege to witness. But as much as Kathryn might have stood out to me because I knew the songs and was familiar with her work, Stodart was equally accomplished throughout. The absolute standout moment was when they came together to end the first half with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on the Wire.’
Following the interval they returned to play a few songs they have written together and plan to release as an album at some point in the future. ‘Thought I Was The Only Girl for You’ was probably the most exciting song from this set, but it was their chemistry together that really made this section stand out above everything we’ve seen in four years of attending the festival. To see two such experienced artists get such joy just from being on stage together was a rare pleasure that will be difficult to repeat.
We saw a couple of other artists in the chapel that day who deserve a mention, too. If you want to spend an hour laughing, pretending to be a monkey, and generally enjoying being an idiot, you could do worse than attending a Keith Donnelly show. Set opener ‘Everybody Wants to be a Bear’ will live long in the memory. But the real star of Saturday day time was Henry Parker; with an incredible guitar tone, impressive finger picking, and a stunning voice, Henry was the kind of live act that makes the hairs on your arms stand on edge. Keep an eye out for his name.
We also spent some of Saturday afternoon in The Trades Club for the Americana element of the festival. While this is the end of the folk spectrum that I find less to my tastes, it was impossible not to enjoy the energetic, fun, and raucous performance of the David Broad Trio. With ridiculous skills on the double bass and harmonica their set of covers from the likes of Sam Cooke will go down as the most entertaining of the weekend.
Sunday, for us at least, was a quieter day. We were in and out of The Town Hall, The Trades Club, and The Old Gate and enjoyed performances from Birds and Beasts and Martyn Roper. But, without a shadow of a doubt, Sunday’s standout was the afternoon set from No Borders in The Town Hall. A group of musicians who met in a community centre in Halifax which supports asylum seekers in the area, they treated us to a mix of Western and Eastern songs in various languages and from various eras. It was a beautiful 45 minutes that summed up everything that is good about this annual event. Their story was as fascinating as their music.
So while things did feel a bit different this year, that was neither completely a good or bad thing. I missed the feeling of dipping in and out of the bars and cafes and catching many musicians who caught me off guard, but the level of artistry that we did witness was stronger than it’s ever been. The Hebden Bridge Folk Roots Festival is an amazing event that brings musicians from across the world together in celebration. We’ll be back next year (and the year after that, too.)
Words by Fran Slater.