The Cambridge Folk Festival Wicker Man

Now when you saw this posted on TLOBF, I’m sure you raised your eyebrows. “A folk festival?”, I hear you cry! Why yes! Having made my home in Cambridge many years ago, it’s become something of a pilgrimage. Once a year I descend, with some friends, to Cherry Hinton Hall Grounds to experience some Folk Action.

I’ll not pretend to be an expert on Folk music. My interest was sparked only a few years ago by the BBC Four documentary called Folk Britannia. It recounted the history of Folk music in Britain and I was intrigued by some of the artists, mainly the “alt-folk” crowd like James Yorkston etc. So, what better way to widen my music knowledge than to take advantage of the Cambridge resident rates for a full weekend, and listen to some acts.

My preparations weren’t entirely smooth. I had applied for a press / photo pass for the weekend to bring you, dear reader, some interviews and pictures to go with this review. However it was deemed, after initially offering me said pass, to withdraw it as some of the national newspapers “might” attend. So, I apologise if the pictures aren’t up to our usual standard (though they’re still pretty good!).

Friday 27th July

On to the festival then. Unfortunately, time constraints meant I couldn’t make the Thursday evening. Which was a shame as it included impressive acoustic sets by Alabama 3 and legendary Blues man, Seasick Steve. Friday night though was a different kettle of fish. Having skipped off work early, I made my way straight to the beer tent to get my Badger ale and then set about finding somebody to listen to.

The first act I encountered was Show of Hands. A superb, all acoustic duo who have recently been named the “Greatest Ever Devonians”, ahead of such illustrious names as Agatha Christie, Peter Cook and Sir Francis Drake. Masters of their instruments, they crafted a wondrous blend of upbeat and slow folk music that captivated the audience and introduced people to the festival as a whole.

As I wandered around, the very compact, site, sipping my ale, I was preparing myself for Steve Earle. Playing an all acoustic set, I was curious as to what kind of show he’d put on. Having never seen the great man, I was a little worried that he might not live up to expectations. That was never the case though. Earle played an hour, all acoustic, set that sounded like a greatest hit package. The crowd were in awe as soon as he finished the first song. Joined by his wife, Allison Moorer, for a rendition of his heartbreaking “I Remember You” the songs were steeped in his haunting growl of a voice. He’d been particularly quiet until he entered the final trio of songs. His Bush-bashing and political fury could no longer be kept inside. The lyrics of “Copperhead Road” and “Rich Man’s War” gaining an extra poignancy as the song was laid bare by it’s acoustic surroundings. Amazing stuff.

After that The Waterboys, who were headlining Stage 1 that night, had something to live up to. They only slightly disappoint. Unsurprisingly, they played a set focusing on their more whimsical and folk-tinged songs rather than their rock based output. But hearing the epic “Fisherman’s Blues” live is still a high point of the weekend. Mike Scott may be a bit too spiritual for everyones tastes, but when they rattle through “The Whole of The Moon” even the doubters were singing along.
Ruthie Foster, Sunday, Stage 2

Saturday 28th July

As I drew the curtains to a bright Saturday morning, we knew the weather was going to be on our side. If only for a couple of hours.

Wooing the afternoon crowd was Canadian Bruce Cockburn as we arrived at Stage 1. A singer/songwriter I’d not encountered before, but his spirited take on political folk was absorbing and engaging. His guitar playing was also impressive and brought to mind John Martyn’s more laid back efforts. Another solo set, but one where, you’d imagine, the addition of a band would distract from his lyrical prowess.

As his set drew to a close, we made our way down to the front, under the recommendation of a friend, for an apparent highlight of the weekend; Bellowhead. Not having heard these guys before, I was in for a bit of a shock. Definitely folk, but weirdly perverted by both West End musicals, jazz and rock ’n roll theatrics, they were an absolute revelation. Mixing fiddles, percussion, guitars, accordion and a brass section, there was only enough room for them on the main stage. Reminding me of a more quintessentially British Decemberists, but without the lyrical prowess, they brought the crowd to life. The entire marquee was moving to their wild tales of prostitutes, sloe gin and outlandish Knights of yore.

Whilst having a sit down after that, we were treated to Fiddler’s Bid, a straightforward fiddle trio from Shetland. They played mainly traditional songs which, I’m afraid, are a little lost on me, but there was an energy to their playing that managed to whip the crowd into a frenzy. Without straying too much from the norm, they still managed to captivate and enthral the festival.

Settling down into the afternoon, and a few more glasses of ale, saw Kate Rusby join us and perform on Stage 1. Now, I’ve heard of her. A truly stunning voice and an infectious laugh and personality onstage, it was unfortunately let down by the rather drab accompaniment. It was a bit too traditional, there was nothing new to gain from listening to her, other than admiring her perfect voice. A bit of a disappointment it must be said.

This was followed by the Romanian gypsies Fanfare Ciocarlia who only kept my attention for a short while as I moved onto Stage 2. However, in that short time, their stirring rendition of the James Bond theme was enough to put a smile on my face and a spring in my step.

Which was good really as the start of Martin Simpson’s excellent set consisted of songs about death, loss and rejection. Nice. And it was sunny at the time. Anyway, his guitar playing is nearing legendary status and, after seeing him with my own eyes, I can see why. It was truly captivating. His hands glide and contort around the guitar, picking sounds and rhythms that I’d not heard before. And that’s before you’ve heard the actual songs. It feels as though he writes straight from the heart, his own songs always seem to be a battle of minds, people and prejudices. When he covers traditional songs his playing just broadens their horizon, adding an extra dimension to them.

That could not be said for Joan Baez however. I’ve never been more disappointed with a “big name” than I was tonight. Yes, she’s a legendary protest singer, but Dylan had the right idea; get away from it and do something else. She seemed to be of the opinion that the songs should just be delivered because they were “legendary”. Now, yes, there’s a case for that but there’s also a case for changing it and actually performing on stage. Also, with such a back catalogue, it seemed odd that she’d finish her set with a cover of Lennon’s “Imagine”. You’re just admitting defeat with that.

Concluding the night though was a legendary artist with very different ideas. Toots & The Maytals were anything but disappointing. The man who coined the term “reggae” transformed the main stage into a pit of music, light and energy. Bounding around the stage whilst well into his 60’s, he could teach Baez a thing or to. Now, I’m not a huge fan of reggae, but the sheer effort and energy put into the show was enough to win over anyone. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many 50+’s dancing like they were at a wedding. It wasn’t even dulled by the, now pouring, rain that was coming down outside. Tomorrow could be interesting… We’ll just have to wait and see.

Martin Simpson & Kate Rusby, Sunday, Stage 1

Sunday 29th July

Well, with the rain having limited itself to the night and the sun already shining, it was time to brave the festival site. There was mud. Oh yes. But nothing that a good pair of boots would worry about. If anything, the general air and atmosphere was one of “who cares?”. This was aided by the arrival of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain who were the personification of fun from start to finish. Stirring and imaginative renditions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Anarchy In The UK” and “Fly Me To The Moon”, to name a few, were done with such fun, frolics and aplomb, that the whole site seemed to be bouncing to their twisted take on the entire history of music.

A quick stroll to Stage 2, everyone seemingly with a smile on their face, we encountered the mesmerising Ruthie Foster. There was a reverential awe around the tent as her amazing mix of Blues, Gospel and Folk filled the space and caressed our ears. Her rich and emotive vocals both powerful and haunting whilst her performance was filled with energy and enthusiasm. There was an electric link between her and the audience, her face lit up with smiles as she bathed in our worship of her. Not to be outdone, her guitarist was also able to pull some moves, contorting his face and massive frame into twisted solos on his acoustic guitar.

After that, the bland, neat and nice Newton Faulkner was always going to disappoint. An odd act to see at this event, especially after recently completing a tour with Paulo Nutini. The last place you’d expect to see him would be a Folk festival. And yet his approach will bridge this gap and see him appeal to fans from the middle of the road and those Folk fans of Sunday afternoon.

To shake us from our mid-afternoon slumber, Lau brought the tent back from the brink. A trio of exceedingly talented individuals does not always make a great band, but here those worries were dispelled. One of the revelations of the weekend, their mix of guitar, accordion and fiddle goes beyond the norm. It becomes an exciting blend of influences, obviously steeped in folk tradition, but lifted out of and beyond it. Mixed with their dry humour it just went to make an absorbing set. Absorbing enough to make me go and buy their album in fact.

For the come down, James Hunter provided the perfect soundtrack. Enjoying a drink in the sun, Hunter’s smooth blend of jazz and soul may not have had the crowd exactly jumping, but pleasantly surprised. Live his songs sound much more alive and are allowed to breath. On record, I’ve found it a bit too smooth for my tastes, but his band are obviously exceedingly talented and he leads them well.
Bellowhead, Sunday, Stage 2

Following that was the sublime Toumani Diabate & Symmetric Orchestra. The Malian musician who is a legend in his own country won over the early evening crowd. His batch of World Music mixed with obvious Western influences takes the music beyond the usual Womad style and captivates. I was entranced by their playing, all the members of the “Orchestra” were masters of the instruments, cutting obscure rhythms with foot-tapping beats whilst delivered with a reverence for the crowd they were playing to. The music involved the crowd, everyone swaying and absorbed in what was going on in front of them. Another purchase from the conveniently located, on site record shop…

Nanci Griffith mirrored Joan Baez as the evenings “big name”. And boy, did she not disappoint. Sure, her brand of Country music that was once deemed to save the ailing scene has now fallen into the same groove, but her voice is so perfect that you stop everything and listen. Yes, she did “From a Distance” for a crowd pleasing sing-a-long, but forgetting that and just watching her and the band perform the music was enough to win me over.

And then it was the end. Choosing Bellowhead again on the second stage to close the festival was a perfect decision. Playing a more upbeat selection of songs the tent seemed to be physically moving as they thrashed their way through their songs. Singing, dancing and general mischief were to be had at all and everyones expense. And it hadn’t rained.

As my jaded and Badger worn frame made it’s steady way home I reflected on yet another great year. Sure, it can be a bit beardy and nerdy at times, but there’s still so much music out there to experience that it actually makes it worth attending every year. As per every festival though, avoiding the big names and taking a chance on smaller and unknown acts will always reap greater dividends.

Pictures courtesy of Finn Holding & Rich Hughes