New Roots: a day of delicious surprises from future folk stars

New Roots performers playing in a circle
This year’s New Roots performers playing a session while the judges were out of the room. Photo: Mike Pugsley

“Own the stage,” said Ffion Mair, introducing the judges’ comments. “It’s yours from the moment you walk on until the moment you walk off. Engage the listeners. Talk to them. Don’t hesitate to adjust your tuning on stage if you need to.”

It was a delight to be back at the Trestle Arts Base, St Albans, for the 22nd New Roots competition for young musicians under 25 years old. Because of Covid, the 21st event had to be postponed from 2020 and then moved online to November 2021.

This was another inspiring day full of delicious surprises for listeners, organised as always by the redoubtable Alison Macfarlane. It is a privilege to hear young musicians developing their own musical voices.

Performers from all over the country submit recordings of up to 15 minutes, in all styles of traditional and contemporary folk, roots or world music. There isn’t a winner: the four judges listen carefully to the music sent in, looking for quality of performance and material rather than polished recordings, and invite the best dozen or so to perform at the final concert.

Then the judges retire to prepare comments, encouragement and suggestions to help each one develop their performance. Those who aren’t chosen to perform on the day still get helpful comments.

There’s a lively session for all the participants while the judges are out of the room, and you can bet the judges would love to be playing in it themselves.

‘Those who take part in the concert are guaranteed performance opportunities at a range of festivals and clubs’

Those who take part in the concert are guaranteed performance opportunities at a range of supporting folk music festivals and clubs, giving them a chance to play outside their normal home territories.

This year’s judges were Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, a singer, melodeon and concertina player solo and with the band Granny’s Attic; Ffion, who sings Welsh traditional songs with the Foxglove Trio; Andy Stafford, a Chippenham Festival organiser, venue and stage manager and musician; and me, an organiser of Lewes Saturday Folk Club in Sussex. Barry Goodman, a caller, musician and singer, compered the whole event.

This year there were 10 finalists, including one who would have been with us last year but for illness. As always, the range of material and talent was not only impressive, but also highly enjoyable.

Ruby and Eve began with a beautiful interplay of traditional tunes on two fiddles; the East Corner Trio brought tight, varied and entertaining traditional tunes from home and abroad on melodeon, banjolin, flute and pipes; the family band Third Time Lucky gave us the first songs of the day, with some pleasing vocal harmonies, and tunes on fiddle, cajón, guitar and piano.

Alex Jenkins played delicate Welsh dance music on his harp and sang in both English and Welsh. Callum Granger was the first to offer songs he had written, with guitar, on topics ranging from personal emotions to the suffering of refugees.

Sona were the first to offer mouth music in three-part harmony, then a witty selection of tunes and a ballad of shipwreck from Australia. Jasper Kanachowski played Irish dance music on Anglo concertina and sang with bouzouki.

Piers Gorick played traditional and his own tunes on bouzouki, sang, and was the first to invite the audience to join in a chorus. Katherine Kaims sang traditional songs and a more recent one, playing ukulele with inventive musicality.

Finally, Willow Changelings played folk-rock songs of their own, one of them creatively linking the lore of changelings with child cruelty, and a subtly altered song from the tradition, using guitars, fiddle and electric piano.

The deadline to enter next year’s event is 31 January 2023. See stalbansfolkmusic.org.uk/new-roots.htm or contact Alison Macfarlane (alison.macfarlane@lineone.net or 01727 852111). This article appeared in Folk London 319, June-July 2022