Friday 30 July
Despite many years of residence in Cambridge, it was as a Folk Festival Virgin that I approached this year’s event, which was taking place in the picturesque grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall over an extended weekend at the end of July. Although its line-up had always boasted a couple of “ooh, that’s interesting” names in the past it was somehow never quite enough to outweigh, in my stereotype-laden mind, the thought of All. Those. Fiddles. And banjos.
The prospect this year of a) a press pass to cover the event for this esteemed website and b) a headline set on Sunday night from my childhood hero Kriss Kristofferson, though, were enough, when combined, to encourage the popping of my Folkie Cherry, so it was off to the Hall I headed.
Arriving on Friday, weaving my way past the juggling workshops, the main beer tent with it’s “play me” piano, the Tree Of Lost Things and more beard-wearing scrumpy drinkers than you could shake a fiddle-stick at, the first act on Stage 1 (the larger of the event’s two main stages) was Breabach. One of a large Scottish contingent at the festival this year (courtesy of co-sponsorship from the Scottish Arts Council), this was fairly traditional celtic folk, complete with two bagpipes, judiciously deployed for maximum effect. The most impressive moment of the set came when fiddle player Patsy Reid lay down her instrument and delivered an intense, pure and beautiful song; the simple accompaniment all that was needed to showcase her jewel of a voice.
The Quebe Sisters Band, next, were a frankly odd mix of Texan State Champion-level fiddle playing and perky Andrews Sisters style 1940s harmonized vocals. Their set suffered from a lack of variety, although their one minor key, downbeat song stood out. Sharon Shannon and Imelda May, too, were something of an unlikely combination, the former an Irish star of traditional accordion and fiddle, the latter a rockabilly vamp. Rather than meld their sounds or styles, the set seemed to divide sharply in style depending on whether May was singing (with her torch singer, showbizzy vocal) or not.
The first day’s highlight came with the Serbian 13-piece Boban and Marco Markovic Orchestra. Their Balkan Gypsy music was an upbeat, brassy delight from start to finish, managing to conjure images of Greece, Russia, Mexico and even at times the Arabic world, in the twists and turns of melody and interplay of all those trumpets, tubas, trombones, horns etc. Add to this a pair of effervescent front men, one of whom bore a striking resemblance to Diego Maradonna, and you have a winning festival formula.
It seemed appropriate to end my inaugural folk festival day with a sample of Seth Lakeman‘s set. The current poster boy and one of the most recognisable names of English folk, it proved nevertheless to be a disappointingly bland, mainstream kind of an experience. Just folk-tinged enough to meet the genre’s criteria (but only just), this is music of a gentle, AOR ballad-y nature, that would be more at home on the less-challenging end of the Radio 2 playlist (the station being co-sponsors of this Festival) as in more purist folk music circles.
Saturday 31 July
Reaching the main stage on Saturday just in time to catch the last song of Joe Pug‘s set made me regret not hauling my lazy ass out of bed earlier. The one-man-one-guitar troubadour schtick is a common one, but judging by my all too brief sampling, Pug has the requisite earnestness and heartfelt vocal to pull it off admirably. File under: “try and catch again some time”.
A high point of the entire festival, next, came in the form of The Burns Unit. This Scottish/Canadian 7-piece collaboration includes names that TLOBF-ers will already know, like The Delgados‘ Emma Pollock, Kenny Anderson, better known as Fence Collective mainstay King Creosote, and Future Pilot A.K.A., as well as less familiar names (to this writer, at any rate) like Glaswegian rapper/toaster/poet MC Soom, Canadian pianistMichael Johnson and award-winning folk singer Karine Polwart. Melding together beautifully, and all bringing their own talents and styles, yet sounding very much like a proper cohesive ‘band’, this impressive performance had everything from the melodramatic opener which brought the Campbell/Lanegan duets to mind to some perky ska-reggae to a beautifully-delivered ballad where the vocals of Anderson and the two female singers harmonised simply, yet near-perfectly.
These are obviously a group of artists that have successfully gelled, not just musically but personally, as was evident from the onstage banter and genuine affection with which they appeared to regard each other. With a debut album – Side Show – coming soon, this lovely alliance is to be recommended, both live and on record.
Carolina Chocolate Drops are a banjo-heavy jug band from (as the name would suggest) North Carolina, who aim to “revisit and reclaim the black string band music of the 20s and 30s”. Featuring scat singing, banjo picking, kazoos, fiddles and even a cover of Blu Cantrell‘s R&B standard ‘Hit ‘Em Up Style’, the effect was nevertheless somehow less diverse and exciting than that description makes it sound.
Julie Fowlis brought more traditional celtic folk to proceedings next – hauntingly and often beautifully – then Dervish provided popular Irish music with a side order of charm and wit (and pretty tunes, and energy: the musicians clearly in their element) before our Saturday was rounded off by nu-folk’s young pin up boy Johnny Flynn, and his Sussex Wit backing band, playing to a packed out Stage 2. Fresh-faced, charming, and with as much of a pop as a folk sensibility, this was accomplished and engaging stuff. Flynn’s deeper-than-expected voice adds some edge and grit that would otherwise be lacking from his music, and endows the songs with emotion and maturity that belie his youthful appearance. The set went down a storm – deservedly so – and was a nice high on which to leave Cherry Hinton Hall for another day.
Sunday 1 August
In all honesty most of Sunday was, for me, an exercise in making the day go by until it was time for Kris Kristofferson‘s set. The Jolly Boys brought an impressively dark, deep voiced interpretation to a string of unexpected covers like ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Hangin’ On The Telephone’, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and even ‘Rehab’, the slightly sinister slant to their octogenarian mento (the precursor to Jamaica’s later ska and reggae) preventing the act tipping over into “novelty”.
Show of Hands are clearly favourites with festival regulars, their emotive tales of love and nostalgia in the West Country stirringly delivered, and with most of the crowd singing along. With enjoyable between-song banter and the obligatory extended fiddle ‘hoedown’ towards the set’s end, this was an act that seemed perfectly matched to both its surroundings and its audience.
The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain‘s knowing, comedic “takes” on everything from The Who‘s ‘Pinball Wizard’ to The Sex Pistol‘s ‘Anarchy in the UK’, meanwhile, was too clever-clever and ultimately pleased-with-itself for me, their ukulele/choral interpretations offering little beyond the surface shock of recognition, and the set quickly palling.
After this the sombre, and moving sincerity of The Unthanks was a very very welcome contrast. This is folk music without ornamentation, stark and genuine, full of breathy beauty and authenticity. Rachel and Becky are front women, vocalists and occasional clog-dancers of huge charm and charisma, their talents very much taking centre stage but beautifully supported by the cast of backing musicians. I would strongly recommend their live show to anyone, even those of you not usually keen on “folk music”. Revelatory and wonderful.
Harper Simon seemed to be attempting to channel Dylan more than his father (Paul), but his nasal, slightly charmless vocal wasn’t supported by songs of sufficiently strong calibre. Touring his first album and clearly nervous, there was unfortunately not enough variety in the set to maintain interest in the rather sparse crowd.
Then, it was time for Kris Kristofferson. Arriving on stage without fanfare, almost before you noticed he was there, he proceeded to play a 70 minute set unadorned – simply him, a guitar, and a harmonica. Warm, engaging and refreshingly un-starry for one who in his time has mingled with both Hollywood and Country Music Royalty, his voice ageing as one would expect but fantastically, heart-rendingly sincere, the entire set served as a reminder, if one was needed, of the wonderful poetry of his songs. Serving up ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ early in the show, the much loved and warmly cherished words and tunes just kept coming and coming: ‘Darby’s Castle’, ‘Best of All Possible Worlds’ ‘For The Good Times’, and ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’: probably his most masterful take on outsider alienation, and nostalgia for the simpler more wholesome life.
Occasional false-starts and one case of forgetting the lyrics were acknowledged with a grin, a joke and a laugh, and if anything simply added to the performance’s charm. Despite the packed tent and huge crowd, this also felt like a fantastically intimate performance, as if Kristofferson was delivering those familiar well-loved songs directly and personally to you. Judging by the amount of teary-eyed singing along that was going on (and not just from me and my Dad), this was a very very special gig for very many people there present, and one that will certainly linger in my mind for a long long time. Despite the rapturous (and merited) standing ovation, there was unfortunately no time for an encore – one of the pleasing aspects of this uber-organised festival being the strict adherence to stage times – so that signaled the end of the Folk Festival for me.
Family-friendly, well organised, clean, safe and skillfully curated to balance the demands of the purist folk fans with the more generalist visitors, this is a little gem of a festival. If you attend with an open mind, and aren’t too fiddle-phobic then it is likely that you, like me, will come away with new bands and acts to investigate further, and some heartwarming memories of very special moments under that vast Stage 1 canvas…
All photos by Nigel Cook