Wednesday, 26 June 2013

From Heavy Metal to Shrewsbury Folk

Alan & Sandra Surtees in the Lion Hotel
It was the Severn Valley Railway that first brought Alan and Sandra Surtees to Bridgnorth and it was Bridgnorth that first housed what now is known as the Shrewsbury Folk Festival.  It opened for the first time in Bridgnorth on the weekend of Princess Diana’s death.  Dancers had to be pulled off the streets, out of respect.  A small gathering of folkies was expected to arrive, but seven hundred happy campers turned up for an event in a school, camping on its playing field.

Right from the start, the Bridgnorth Folk Festival really took off.  By the time that Robert Plant headlined on the fourth year, it had outgrown its site and taken on another school as well.

‘The Robert Plant thing,’ says Alan Surtees, sitting in the lounge of the Lion Hotel, ‘was a big secret. Right until he went on stage, only the smallest handful of people knew he was appearing.’   ‘He was great,’ Sandra recollects. ‘He wore shorts. He had lovely legs.’

There had been no way Alan and Sandra could have let people know that Robert Plant intended to perform. The crowd for their other main attraction, Steel Eye Span, was already big enough.  ‘The Band was billed as the Priory of Bryan,’ Alan said.  ‘Nobody knew who they were.  On they came – and then the penny dropped.’ It was a great moment, Alan and Sandra both agree. Robert Plant - knees and all - for one hundred quid.  What a thing to have pulled off.

Dancers photographed by David Woodfall
Neither Alan nor Sandra are musicians themselves.  But then they don’t need to be - they play a different sort of tune.  Festivals were in their blood long before setting up their own.  ‘Bromyard Festival is where we first met,’ Alan says. ‘I was there because that’s what my friends wanted to do,’ Sandra adds. ‘It was a social thing. But then an Irish band came on, complete with uillean pipes – and   fell in love with the pipes. I was hooked.’

Sandra does the work, Alan says, and he gets the accolades [or was it Sandra who said that?]. Certainly they both agree that Alan’s the one for thinking big - the ideas merchant of the two of them - and Sandra scales them down until they’re do-able, and then makes them work.  In other words, he’s the dreamer, she’s the practical one.

‘There’s never a point,’ she says, ‘where at the end of a festival we sit down and say that was good this year, haven’t we done well?  We always question everything.  What worked, what didn’t, what needs changing, what should we do next?

Kids' Show photographed by Mike Dean
I want to know what’s so special about the festival. I’ve read the glowing reviews for it online and want to know what makes the difference. At Shrewsbury Folk Festival, Alan says, if you dropped your wallet, you’d get it back.  Strangers would talk to each other.  Children could play and learn in safety.  People who saw themselves as ‘different’ could find a place to fit in.

‘Mostly people nowadays are under forty,’ Sandra says.  ‘But the Festival attracts babies to eighty year olds.  We try to cater for everyone.  We have quiet venues, places for dancing, lots of cross-over attractions for non-folkies, aiming to educate them, I guess, into folkiness.  All age ranges, and a wide range of musical tastes are catered for. You'll find world music at our festival as well as folk, and traditional dancing too.’ 

The Main Marquee photographed by Mike Dean
What started out as a seven hundred person event - which seemed enormous at the time - now attracts seven thousand.  What they get, Alan says, is a West End production.  ‘Lighting.  Sound. Latest kit.  We have it all.  Everybody’s needs, musical and otherwise, are catered for.  There’s a food village, camping areas, a craft fair. And the music is really varied.  To attract the bigger audiences we need to cater for all sorts of musical tastes.  And not just with the big names either. People come to the Shrewsbury Folk Festival knowing that they’ll discover new favourite artists every time.’

The Folk Festival has been in Shrewsbury since 2006.  The first year in the Quarry was an interesting experience, but not one to be repeated.  It was great to be in the heart of the town, but the Quarry’s layout and facilities weren’t quite up to the job.  Running the Festival there, with so many people involved, really didn’t work.

Village Stage photographed by Derek Houghton
However, the current location at Shrewsbury’s West Midland Showground is ideal.  It’s a great site, both Alan and Sandra agree - a place where a happy atmosphere can be created. Not that they have much time for picking up the atmosphere themselves.  For the four days of the Festival, Alan and Sandra work flat out.  They don’t even get to see many of the bands they’ve been so excited to book.  Even so, there’s always an emotional edge to the Festival for them.  ‘Seeing a hundred and fifty people of all ages, for example, most of whom were strangers to each other until a couple of days ago, playing  in ‘their band’, which they’ve put together in Tuneworks, is an incredible experience,’ says Alan.  ‘This is really a festival which means something to people.’

Alan with festival patron, JohnJones
of Oysterband
The Festival is manned by four hundred stewards.  Sandra describes them as a happy gang.  They respect  their stewards, she says.  In the week leading up to the Festival they all work hard together, and there is always an opportunity for stewards to make comments and say what they think.  ‘We listen to our stewards,’ she says.  Their take on things counts.

So where did the love of music begin?  For Sandra it was those uillean pipes, for Alan it was as early as childhood, his sister a piano teacher [not the best way to learn yourself], his parents listening to classical music and jazz.  He always loved music, he says. By the age of sixteen he was into modern jazz and going off to gigs.

‘For a man who loves music, I’m now living the dream,’ he says.  ‘Every year we have a good laugh, we have a good cry and we get to pick the acts we like. The thing about us is that we’re not scared of trying something new.  We like experimenting.  We’re not risk averse.’

This year not being risk averse includes booking the comedy duo Doyle & Debbie, whom Alan and Sandra first heard in Nashville, making fun of the country music scene in the heart of the country music scene – and the country music aficionados were lapping it up.  ‘Not one for the kiddies, though,’ Sandra says.  ‘Adult humour most definitely.’

Be Good Tanyas, courtesy
They’ve also booked big name bands, the Afro Celt Sound System, and Capercaillie with its thrilling Gaelic vocalist, Karen Matheson.  They’re delighted, too, to have secured a rare performance from Canada’s Be Good Tanyas [for them alone, I reckon it’s worth going to the Festival]. Then there are the Oysterband, Eddi Reader, Heidi Talbot, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, providing that it's not only whizzened old white men from the Blue Ridge Mountains who can play real country, but blacks can play it as well as some whites play the blues.

Who are the bands that people might not know about, I ask, who should be listened out for?  Alan names Nidi d’Arac from southern Italy, with their blend of traditional Italian folk music and electronica, the Blue Rose Code and the Tom Wait Tribute, fronted by Jon Boden, lead singer of Bellowhead.  What he’s looking forward to most, however - if he gets the time to see it - is Tim O Brien playing with John McCusker – a combination that’s never been heard in public before for the simple reason that they’ve never played together before.

‘Artists get plenty of feedback from us when they perform at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, ‘ Alan says.  ‘In some festivals they get changed in the loos, go on stage, play, come off again and go home.   Here we talk to them.  We treat them well.  We have a lovely reception area for them.  We make them comfortable.’

Lantern Workshop photographed by Danny Beath
Making people comfortable is a key to what makes the Festival work. Talking about it to people who attend the Festival every year, the comfort factor comes up again and again.  Children being safe. Facilities being good.  These things matter, and they’re all there.  A whole separate children’s festival goes on at the same time as the main festival, with a huge marquee for children,  providing workshops where they’ll make things like lanterns which they’ll parade with at night.  

What is the worst thing that has ever gone wrong, I want to know.  Sandra remembers one headline band that dropped out at only a day’s notice, for unforeseen and perfectly legitimate reasons.  Mercifully, she says, by pooling resources and manning phones, they managed to find a replacement just in time.  The worse example of this, however, was when K.T. Tunstall’s father died and she had to drop out on the day.  No alternative headliners could be found, so they put together a super group and had a folk slam instead. 

Artists who’d never played together before piled onto the stage – and brought down the house.  Somebody had seen Maddy Prior about the festival dressed in a yellow jacket with black polkadot spots - and the hunt was on to find that the woman in yellow and black.  Fortunately they found her, and she fronted the band.  Before the concert began, the excitement outside Marquee 2 was palpable.  When the doors opened, people literally ran in.  In thirty seconds the whole marquee was filled.

Circus Skills Tent photographed by Mike Dean
How do you top that?  Alan doesn’t know about topping it, but he says they’ll be doing folk slams again.  You try something once and it’s a huge success, so of course you do it again. The musical director for this year’s Folk Slam will be Jim Moray.  It will happen on the last day, Monday, in the afternoon.

Do Alan and Sandra have breaks between festivals, I wonder.  They’re already working on next year, they say.  Seamlessly they move from one festival to the next.

It’s obvious that Sandra and Alan live, breath and sleep the Shrewsbury Folk Festival. It’s become their life.  Sandra’s been working on it full time now ever since 1999.  Alan retired from business three years ago, and is now full time too. What sort of business, I want to know.  ‘I had a steel fabrication company,’  he says.  ‘From heavy metal to Shrewsbury Folk,’ I think.  ‘Not a bad move.’

Panorama photographed by Clive Padden

Alan and Sandra Surtees


  1. Most interesting. I never knew Shrewsbury had a Folk Festival!

  2. It does indeed. And even though it's out on the Showground, there are overspill events and happy festival goers all over town. August Bank Holiday weekend. Can't remember if I said that. It's a great time to be here.