|Alan & Sandra Surtees in the Lion Hotel|
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|
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|
‘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|
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|
|Alan with festival patron, JohnJones |
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 fanart.tv|
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|
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|
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.’