A look ahead to the Wirral Folk Festival

Eddie Reader, photographed by Genevieve Stevenson

Eddie Reader, photographed by Genevieve Stevenson - Credit: Archant

Far from being a dusty cultural relic, folk music is going strong and Wirral has its very own festival. Words by Howard Bradbury

Ralph McTell will be performing on Friday June 3rd

Ralph McTell will be performing on Friday June 3rd - Credit: not Archant

The Wirral Folk Festival is, says its co-director John Owen, a ‘boutique’ event.

‘It’s not small and it’s not big,’ explains John. Much in common with the more famous Cambridge Folk Festival later in the summer, Wirral’s event - from Thursday June 2 to Sunday June 5 - takes place over four days, allows diehard folkies to camp out for the duration and has a setting, the Whitby Club in Ellesmere Port, which is surprisingly picturesque.

‘The facilities are superb,’ says John from Greasby. ‘It used to be the Shell social club and it’s in a very large acreage of land with sports pitches. It’s just beautiful. It’s got a 550-seater concert hall, a 150-seater function suite, a 220-seater members’ lounge, and we also put a couple of small marquees quite close to the building for sessions and chances to meet the artists.’

Over the long weekend, anything from 1,000 to 2,000 are expected to attend the festival. As well as headline artists - such as Ralph McTell, Eddi Reader and Oysterband - there will be a host of other performers passing across the main stage, and a festival fringe featuring a craft fair, many mini-concerts, workshops in songwriting, guitar, ukulele, bodhran and whistle playing, open mic sessions, morris dance displays and even an ‘F’ Factor (that’s F for folk) talent showcase. Many events on the fringe are free.

Oysterband will be performing at the Wirral Folk Festival. Photo by Ben Malone

Oysterband will be performing at the Wirral Folk Festival. Photo by Ben Malone - Credit: not Archant

These should be happy times for folk music. A whole slew of 21st century pop troubadours, from Ed Sheeran to Jake Bugg, Damien Rice to Mumford and Sons, have a healthy dose of folk in their musical DNA. The acoustic guitar - go-to tool of the folk musician - has rarely been so popular.

And yet John confesses that a certain misconception about the folk scene lingers.

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‘A lot of people have the impression that folk people are a bit odd,’ he says. That notion - of Arran sweater-clad beardie weirdies - is very wrong. Though John admits that the demographic of the folk festival-goer does leans towards the more mature.

‘We’re always looking for the younger element to come through, and there are plenty of young performers; look at the likes of Seth Lakeman...he’s never off the television.’

A ukulele orchestra takes shape at Wirral Folk festival.

A ukulele orchestra takes shape at Wirral Folk festival. - Credit: not Archant

Of the festival fare, he says: ‘It’s a good mix of traditional and contemporary. If you had to pin it down, we’re a little bit more contemporary than traditional. We do like many of the brilliant contemporary folk artists.’

Wirral Folk Festival began 12 years ago as a series of free events organised by John, secretary of the North West Federation of Folk Clubs, using urban redevelopment funds earmarked to help promote tourism. It outgrew its first home The OC Club at Bromborough, and moved to the Whitby Club, which is also the home to the Hungry Horse Folk Club every Thursday night.

Past festivals have included Barbara Dickson, Cara Dillon, Fairport Convention and Seth Lakeman. The 2016 line-up has its own stellar names. ‘Anybody who’s been on the scene for 50 years, like Ralph McTell, and can write songs of the quality of Streets of London, you know he’ll get a good audience, ‘ says John. ‘Everybody knows Eddi Reader for Perfect, but she can do Robert Burns songs like no-one else.

‘Oysterband have a very big following. They’ll get the venue rocking. People will be up and having a good old jig.’