A RIOT of music, dancing and merrymaking, Oxford Folk Weekend is one of the city’s best-loved weekends and regarded as the start of the festival calendar.

This is a year like no other though, as, one-by-one, organisers cancel events as far off as the end of August.

Surely then, the first festival of the season has also had to bite the bullet and postpone for a year? Not a bit of it.

Eager to go ahead, but even more determined to follow the law, observe social distancing and protect the health of performers and the public, the organisers have shifted the event online.

“We are still going ahead – by the magic of technology,” says musician Cat Kelly who organises the multi-venue event.

And it’s not just a couple of pre-recorded shows from people’s kitchens. The festival offers a packed programme of 48 events, with free concerts streamed live from its Facebook page throughout the weekend and ticketed events via the video-conferencing service Zoom.

“Oxford Folk Weekend means a lot to people, particularly to folkies,” Cat says.

“In Oxford it’s usually a warm up event to May Day and for most of the Morris dancers that come, it’s their first dance out of the season. As a festival we’ve become known for really high quality events in amazing and quirky locations and we have a core of dedicated fans who really appreciate what we do.”

“And if there’s a way to still go ahead, then why not? My motto has always been ‘If you can’t find a way, then make a way!’.

“We’re doing this because we can – the technology is there for us to make use of – and because we should.

“The majority of artists that are booked for Folk Weekend are full time musicians, and have been faced with this unprecedented situation where all of their work has been cancelled for the next six months.

“Another side effect of doing the festival this way is that it will be the most accessible festival we have ever held. People who are housebound because of illness or disability will be able to come, as will single parents, and people who find it difficult to cope with crowds and noise.

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“Assuming this works as I think it should, then I’m going to be looking at putting on more events like this over the next few months for the benefit of the artists as well as the audience. And I’m going to keep some elements of this even when we are able to move back out into the ‘real world’ again.”

The event starts tonight with Martin Green from the band Lau, performing a song swap with friends Nathaniel Mann and Kate Young while looking at the links between Morris dance and rave culture.

Tomorrow (Friday) is headlined by festival patron and one-time member of Bellowhead, John Spiers, who will be performing in his garden shed near Abingdon. Paul Sartin (also from Bellowhead) and Blowzabella’s Jo Freya will also be doing sets from their home offices.

On Saturday, Oxford artists Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood play a double-headline slot.

Also playing is Sheffield’s Rosie Hood, and duo Gilmore & Roberts performing from their home (if, says Cat, their baby gets down for a nap in time).

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Sunday features another double headline show from Reg Meuross and Findlay Napier, who will be swapping songs and stories. Hannah James will be performing from isolation in Slovenia, and there’ll be a set of virtuoso banjo by Dan Walsh.

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Free concerts include Jon Fletcher of Oxford band Magpie Lane, duos Hoverhawk and Henderson:Hooper, Susanna Starling, Samantha Twigg Johnson, and Ben Avison.

Saturday night also features an online Kitchen Ceilidh with Towcester band 3sticks.

“This really is for anybody who wants a weekend of top class entertainment brought live to their own home, “ says Cat. And, she insists, the technology allows for more interaction than would otherwise be the case.

“Using Zoom has the added, unexpected bonus of making direct interaction possible between the artist and audience,” she says. “So we have taken the opportunity to make these even more unique by encouraging performers to treat the events as a ‘meet the artist’ opportunity rather than just playing songs at people for an hour. “

Each event will have a Folk Weekend host – ‘a virtual MC’, if you like. Audience members will be able to indicate that they have a question or request, and when the artist is ready to take a question the host will enable the audience member’s microphone so the artist and the rest of the audience can hear them.

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“As far as I know we’re the only people who are running events quite like this ,” says Cat. “It should create a nice, intimate atmosphere, and be a pretty unique experience. We are not recording the events; they are going to be one of a kind ‘you had to be there’ type things.”

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A highlight for many people are the folk pub sessions, at which anyone with an instrument, or voice, can join in. These will also continue, although you’ll need to serve your own beer.

“Sessions, these are also happening in Zoom,” says Cat. “These will be free entry so you just need to download the programme from the festival website and enter the URL into your web browser. The session room will be open throughout the festival so people can drop in whenever they want, and we have a few designated session leaders who will be coming in at particular times.

“The sessions will work like a song share, so people will take it in turns to lead a song or tune, and everyone else will join in at home, with their microphone muted. It’s not possible to play together over an internet connection because of the time lag, but we have run a few experimental sessions and they have been really well-received.”

For the team who built the Folk Weekend from the remnants of the much-missed former Oxford Folk Festival, finding new ways of working are all grist to the mill.

Cat says: “When you’re running events like, this you have to be flexible. This isn’t hugely different to the year that the Randolph Hotel caught fire on the first day of the 2015 festival, except this time we’ve had more notice!

“On that occasion the Old Fire Station suddenly filled with smoke and we weren’t allowed back in – at one stage we didn’t know whether we’d be able to get in all weekend, but by about 8pm on Friday evening we were camped out in the Wesley Memorial Chapel and had worked out a contingency plan to run the festival out of the back of a car parked in the city centre!

“I am never one to say ‘no’ to a new challenge so I’ve actually found the process really exciting, discovering new ways of reaching people and supporting our artists in the process.

“I can’t understand why more events aren’t doing it.”

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Perhaps the answer lies in the level of organisation involved. Cat admits it has been a logistical feat.

“It’s taken quite a lot of effort, not least because this is the first time we’ve done anything like this and we are having to work everything out as we go along,” she admits.

“We had less than a month’s notice to move an entire festival online, and that takes quite a lot of logistical planning.

“The artists have been working really hard in their own homes experimenting with their set up to get the best sound, and we’ve employed a technical manager to do virtual soundchecks

“ During the weekend we’ve got to manage the logistics of making sure everyone has the right ticket link for the concert they want to go to, that they know who to contact if there is a problem, and that someone will be there on the end of the phone for them. We have volunteers ‘stewarding’ each event to keep an eye out for any problems, and have been doing Zoom training with them to make sure they know how to manage the security settings just in case there are any uninvited guests.

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“I don’t doubt that some people will not want to participate online, but plenty of others are embracing the technology and the opportunities it gives us.”

And is anyone else doing it?

“I don’t know of any others who are doing it,” she says.

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“There have been virtual festivals, but the ones I have seen have been new rather than established events moving online – plus they have all worked off pre-recorded video, rather than live events. So yeah, I think we are pretty unique at the moment.

“I am hoping that other festivals will follow suit though, we really need to support our artists during this time and pull together to keep the sector strong.”

She adds: “I am really looking forward to the Kitchen Ceilidh. I think it must be a world first and I can’t wait to see how it pans out.

“I am really looking forward to listening to some amazing female musicians in the line up too. Bryony Griffith is opening the festival on the Friday evening and she is an incredible fiddle player, then obviously there’s Jackie and Megan, local singer Katie Grace Harris who has a fantastic voice, and of course Hannah James, who brought the festival to a standstill last time she performed for us.”

And should we dress up in our festival finery too?

“Absolutely! We are asking for people to send us pictures throughout the weekend and we’ll share them on our social media. We particularly want to see people in Morris kit having a dance at home!”

And Cat laughs: “If you’re attending a Zoom event we do ask that you are at least dressed from the waist upwards... and do be mindful of your camera angle!”

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