20 July 2012

24th International North Wales Bluegrass Festival, 5-8 July 2012

A report by the BIB editor, with a selection of photos by Tim Hawkins:

'... I promise, I've never seen another place like this... Conwy, such a pretty place' wrote Christoffer Olsson of Sweden's G2 Bluegrass Band after G2 played in North Wales (you can hear the song in full on their MySpace site). Conwy is as handsome as ever (above, castle and quay from the Conwy river estuary; left, the estuary from the castle), and gets many visitors just on that account; it has also been, for eighteen years, home to the North Wales Bluegrass Festival.

John Les and Gill Williams (aka Highly String) run the NWBF as 'a festival of friends', and it has a large and loyal following. Tim and I arrived on Thursday afternoon, long before formal events began, to find the campsite already pretty full and jamming well under way. It's a great place for meeting or making friends on the UK bluegrass scene, and an excellent showcase for the talent there, with a respectable roster of bands and artists from abroad. This year the headliners were New Section (CZ) - many Irish fans will remember their powerful performances at the Dunmore East Bluegrass Festival.

The NWBF also regularly features outdoor displays by at least two troupes from the sizeable UK Appalachian dance community; above, Raise the Dust on the quayside dance floor, with their own banjo/fiddle player.

Formal concerts are held in the Civic Hall, but the main marquee (above) not only puts on the same bands but stays open longer and becomes - after the bands have left - a rendezvous for jammers.

Above: John Denby (left, in red shirt), from the Irish bluegrass community, jamming in the marquee. John dived headfirst into the big pool of pickers at Conwy, where his talent earned him a special spot on the Sunday afternoon stage (below, with a picking partner from one of the UK bands).

Merchandise booths - an important bonus at the festival - included those of Steve and Joan Noon of the Eagle Music Shop (an invaluable source of instruments, strings, picks, bridges, straps, teaching aids, etc., as anyone who saw them at last year's Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival will know) and James Bowen's Griffin Banjos. Moreover, Jaroslaw Průcha (CZ) had come over with New Section and displayed some of his superb instruments at the Eagle booth. Set-up jobs were being done, and I was lucky to have Dr Průcha (below) give the editorial Mastertone a thorough checkup, including meticulous retuning of the head and a new Průcha bridge. It was sounding gorgeous last night, and I'm hoping it keeps in good humour this weekend at the Ardara festival.

Both the premier English band, the Down County Boys (who also ran an impeccable sound system at the concerts), and their Scots counterparts Longway (who did a riveting 'By the mark') were in cracking form with new members. Special attention, however, should be (and was) given to Kidnap Alice, a younger band of whom a lot will be heard.

Basically, the only downside to the festival was the day of rain on Friday; and the fact that this was the first time it had happened in eighteen years is something of a miracle in North Wales. We owe special thanks for the weekend to the Stena Line whose generosity made our trip possible, and whose quality of service made the journey a real pleasure. Irish bluegrassers have been coming to Conwy for years, and we unreservedly recommend more to do so.



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