So I cast my mind back to 1994 and the very first Cambridge Folk Festival that I attended and remember the feeling of walking on-site and just thinking this is going to be very special, that was the 30th and the first one after the passing of festival founder and musical director Ken Woollard.
Here we are now at the 50th and as I wandered on to the site thinking how it must have changed I was met by that same feeling of walking into a special event that I had all those years ago and surprised at how little had changed.
The festival site is fixed in size by the boundaries of Cherry Hinton Hall and its surrounding park and the setup just gives that comfy feel where the camping is among the trees and park areas with the stages all in the centre meaning you’re never far away from the entertainment.
In fact since I was last here some 7 years ago more stages have popped up or evolved, The Den, The Hub, The Flower Garden and The Duck Pond!
Now all have a selection of bands/entertainment and workshops through the weekend for adults and kids young and old to enjoy and widen their minds. Indeed the whole nature of the Cherry Hinton site is entertainment as impromptu sessions spark up around the tents and just about anywhere someone can sit and play.
The campers at the other campsite at Coldhams Common are not left out entertainment wise as again there are numerous workshops where you can learn not only music or dance but also arts and crafts.
The festival has been sold out for a while now and with a daily capacity of around 10,000 it can get quite crammed in the 3 main stages but they all have runout areas and in fact Stage1 plays to most of the park.
Stage 2 is slightly smaller for the more intimate events but still hosts some of the main acts from the weekend. The Club tent however is where personally I feel the heart of the festival lies as over the weekend the lineup is run by various folk clubs from around the area and also it runs sign up sessions where anyone can sign up for a 15 minute session. It’s great to spend a few hours in there and just experience whoever is playing.
Thursday, used to be a nice easy build up with only a few small sessions going on but tonight we have a full itinerary of music split between Stage 2, The Club Tent and The Den and the amount of people here is way more than I remember for the Thursday night sessions in the past.
So Stage 2 kicks off with Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin who broke loose from The Roots Union back in 2010 to hone their own music style and direction and while I only caught a few songs of their set I can see why they have a great following.
Phillip’s harmonica work is outstanding as he beat boxes on it through ‘Train’ before continuing on with his trusty slide of which he is also a mean player.
Hannah not only has a wonderful English folk voice but is also an amazing fiddle and banjo player and tracks like Silbury Hill from their album Mynd show off this brilliantly. With a really modern charismatic sound to their music I can see their CDs selling out over the weekend.
Following this was the interesting collaboration of Harp and Kora from Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita who have been playing some stunning shows since the release of their album Clychau Dibon back in 2013.
Listening to their set as they pass rhythms between Harp and Kora almost as if they were talking to each other and certainly watching them you can see the eye contact and movement which made for a great performance.
Pokey LaFarge gives stage 2 a dose of American Roots and good old swing, touring on the back of his self titled album he draws influences from swing/jazz and Louisiana blues and puts his own edge and flair on them.
Stage 2 headliner Newton Faulkner last appeared here in 2011 and wowed a capacity crowd so it’s no surprise that the marquee and the surrounding area is crammed waiting for him to come on this year.
With his distinctive ginger dreads he delivers a set pulling in songs from all his albums and a few covers; a brilliant set and a huge fave with the crowd.
The Club tent held a full audience for the evening with great sets from psychedelic folkers Naomi Randall & Tom Gaskell, London Irish traditionalists CrossHarbour and Hat Fitz and Cara.
However the need for a photopit in the tent was evident when the final band, Skinny Lister hit the stage as their shows have a reputation for being lively. They are listed as a 6 piece British folk band but don’t expect to see a nice quiet bunch of musicians sitting round playing intricate rhythms.
What you get is a highly charged and energetic set that doesn’t so much make you want to tap your foot but rather jump up and pogo and in fact at one point double bass player Michael Camino was seen crowd surfing whilst still keeping a steady rhythm up on his bass.
When I spoke to him after and said “its the first time I’ve witnessed that” he said that “he was unsure that the oldies would be able to hold him up but they did him proud”. What a set and what a way to close the Club tent.
Friday meant all the stages were in action and like all multi stage festivals it has its benefits and issues. More stages means more bands and more choice but also more overlaps so you have to either miss some bands or just catch snippets of each, neither is ideal.
Megson (aka Stu & Debbie Hanna) opened up the music on stage 2 today with a Kids show and indeed I did hear in one of the songs distinct animal impersonations but don’t let this sway your decision on seeing this duo who have been nominated for the past 3 years as BBC2 Best Folk Duo.
A light-hearted set of music which kept the kids and adults alike entertained until it was time for the disorganized chaos of The Old Swan Band and the kids Ceilidh – if you thought an adults Ceilidh was disorganized the kids’ version is 10 times worse but at the same time immense fun.
Over on stage 1 we were under way with Calan a 5 piece Welsh folk band, from a country normally known for its male choirs, but here’s a vibrant mix of traditional folk played by 5 extremely talented young musicians. The set goes round the tempos from lovely swimming melodies to something to get you tapping away to.
From deepest Wales we head over the water to NYC and the curiously named Hazmat Modine who, led by charismatic Wade Schuman on vocals and harmonica, give us a great show of blues/jazz/calypso which gives the dancers in the crowd something to get going to and also prises some of the newspaper readers to take note of the music.
With Zappa-esque overtones on some of the tracks it again adds another dimension to the varied styles around the festival.
A wander around and we have My Darling Clementine (aka Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish) who bring back the country duet style to Stage 2, a superb set from these two lending the musical talent of Michael and the band with the sublime vocals from Lou into a great set which take you back the the western music halls.
Over on stage 1 Cara Dillon is joined onstage by her husband Sam Lakeman who amongst others play a number of songs off here latest alum A Thousand Hearts which sees her returning to her more traditional style of writing, a well received set by a most appreciative crowd.
Also on stage 1 Richard Thompson is a man whose musical career has taken him through many bands but most of the tracks here tonight are from his various solo albums. He has a delectable guitar style which is based around a lot of finger picking, emulated by many including one of the other artists this weekend Adrian Nation.
Having just released his latest album Acoustic Classics he takes the opportunity to play a number of tracks off it including crowd fave 1952 Black Vincent Lightning. A great set to sit and listen to and just watch his guitar work.
Sinead O’Connor, has over the years wowed audiences and at the same time being booed offstage usually as a backlash to her comments or actions as she has never been backward about coming forward and standing up for her beliefs.
But through all this she has shown great strength and direction and – undoubtedly with some emotional scars – has come through it and is now performing at what some feel is her best.
Stage 1 was rammed full as was the outlying areas for what was undoubtedly the set of the evening and possibly the weekend. Kicking off with ‘Queen of Denmark’ and ’4th and Vine’, instantly you can tell that Sinead is back at her best, the passion and feeling is flowing out and keeps the crowd mesmerized with an exquisite performance pouring passion and emotion into every word.
None of the political ramblings of the past, just pure music including a number of tracks from her new album, I’m Not Bossy I’m The Boss.
After such a stunning set from Sinead a lot of the crowd departs but those who are left need to have their dancing shoes on as final band of the night Afro Celt Sound System take to the stage. A great way to end the night and leave everyone on a high.
Saturday comes around and would you believe it we are scheduled to have rain and after such a lovely hot summer, oh well we live in England so we should be used to it by now.
I spend a few hours walking round the site seeing what is going on, as ever there is the music stall from Hobgoblin Music which will sell you wonderful instruments so you can emulate your favourite artists that you have seen on stage, all you need then is a huge bag of talent and inspiration and about 20 years of practice and you may come close.
Wandering through the campsite I come across another new stage called The Peoples Front Room where a marquee is set up quite literally as an old fashioned front room and where various acoustic music sessions are taking place.
Outside of this are various knitters putting the final touches to a commemorative knitted patchwork quilt specially for the 50th Festival, the panels have been made by festival goers in the various knitting workshops over the weekend.
Over near the duck pond we find The Den stage and also The Hub stage, both of which are new to me, the Hub mainly deals with kids’ entertainment and there was a kids clog dancing session taking place as I wandered past.
Musically today is one of the busiest days and the first band I catch today are David Bromberg & Larry Campbell, two guys who have played or worked with just about everyone. From Dylan to Willie Nelson, they play a mean set of American folk with a touch of bluegrass thrown in for good measure. A true tour de force of American folk music.
Meanwhile on stage 2 Sarah Jarosz and her band perform a great set that included a number of songs from her latest album Build Me Up From Bones and a mix of classic American folk and bluegrass which sees Sarah swapping between banjo and mandolin with ease. In fact she is regarded as one of the most promising young talents. A great show and an artist to look out for.
The Moulettes, six of them crammed on stage and a range of instruments to rival any music store, they take us through their musical experience of alt folk. Their set certainly does bounce around with a great mix of classic folk vocals, orchestral music tones and some almost prog overtones making a very interesting set to listen to and includes a number of tracks from their new album Constellations. While not redefining folk music it does give a great modern edge and twist to the norm.
North Mississippi Allstars are led by vocalist Luther Dickinson who was all over the stage and playing guitar, singing and banging his marching drum all at the same time.
From Hernando Mississippi they play southern blues/rock with all the balls and energy you would expect, a highly charged set that really got the crowd up and going. At one point they were seen running off stage and through the crowd into the park and then returning whilst still playing. Such excitement at a folk festival? Never!
The term supergroup is lavished around the music scene all the time but rarely in relation to folk bands but this next lot must approach that moniker; Aly Bain, Phil Cunningham, Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker and John Doyle all great musicians in their own rights come together today for what almost seems like a masterclass in folk music and a central role in the Scotland at Cambridge theme. Although not all from Scotland they each take turns playing the lead as they take us through an amazing set and one of the highlights of the festival.
Loudon Wainwright III jovially showed us his Cardinal’s 50 baseball jacket to match the 50th for CFF. His mix of serious and tongue in cheek American folk songs always go down well and this set includes classics as ‘Dead Skunk’!
During one of his songs he had a heckler who seemed to really get to Loudon and he abandoned his song which made the crowd jeer at the heckler but LW3 was ready with a classic come back “now now people, remember we’re at a folk festival so lets all sing Kumbaya and then kick the crap out of him” which got a huge cheer.
I remember way back in 1994 whilst at Glastonbury I had the pleasure and privilege of watching Johnny Cash woo a massive crowd so now to be finally watching his daughter Rosanne Cash was amazing.
Joined onstage by her band which included her husband John Leventhal the sell-out crowd was treated to the finest of American country/folk music around, surprisingly only pulling one song from Johnny’s back catalogue ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box’.
Slipping in a number of tracks from her new album The River And The Thread and keeping some back for a well deserved encore, this was the real deal and real class.
How can you top Rosanne Cash, well the Peatbog Faeries were going to give it a damm good shot. They are known for their mix of folk with dance rhythms and are just as happy at a rave as at a folk festival.
Sunday comes around too quickly and today folk clubs take over with a full list of music including the sign up sessions and also a few special guests. So kicking off in the club tent are Teyr, three guys who I had a chat to on the way over from the car park and show that its not just rock and roll that’s hard work. These guys are doing two festivals at once and are driving between Cambridge and Standon Calling for a couple of gigs at each event.
This North London trio blends the sounds of Ireland/Wales and Cornwall into lively and foot tapping jigs and reels and the use of Uilleann pipes makes the sound vibrant and exciting to listen to. Certainly glad I caught their set.
Next up was Simon Aldridge, some great solo acoustic blues from him which kicked off with a Bonnie Raiit cover followed by a couple of his owned tracks, nice easy blues for the morning.
One of the tent fillers for today was a young singer/songwriter called Luke Jackson who was nominated for best emerging artist 2013 and judging by today’s performance and crowd reactions its easy to see why, a great powerful voice mixed with intricate guitar work and well composed and written songs from his albums.
Adrian Nation whom I have seen on many occasions now is one of those performers that you stumble across playing a gig on one the small stages at festivals and wonder why you hadn’t heard of him. He is certainly one of the finest folk guitarists I have seen for a long while and to sit and listen to his songs just makes the festival.
Adrian certainly does justice to Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning a song we had heard the other night by Richard on the main stage. Adrian has a dream to play at the Royal Albert Hall and is after people to put their name down for places so if you want to make his dream come true go over to his website and send him a mail.
We see a wonderful set from BBC2 young folk award winners The Mischa McPherson Trio who had a rather good fill in for Conal McDonagh in the from of Peter Morrison from Peatbog Faeries.
No wonder he was pushing them the previous evening while they were on stage. Mischa has what can only be described as beautiful pure voice and at the same time is a mean harp player I can definitely see why they won the award.
Stage 2 special guest Kate Rusby, the Barnsley Nightingale, who was announced as the special guest on Twitter that morning gave an exquisite set in her own distinctive northern style to a delighted audience.
Due to concentrating on the Club Tent today I only managed a few band on stage 1 but what a selection I got to see. Starting off with the Oysterband who I have seen on many occasions over the years, their folk/punk roots whilst still evident in their music seemed to be a bit smoothed over for the more folky audiences nowadays. However with some manic fiddling by Ian Telfer and great vocals and melodeon work from John Jones they still have enough of an edge to keep them on the punky edge of the scene.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo filled the main stage with the sounds of the townships of South Africa and went down extremely well. Formed way back in the 60s and unknown to most until Paul Simon used them on one of his albums their music tells of the hardships and struggle of living under apartheid for decades and then the joyful release of the late great Nelson Mandela and the growth of the country from that point on.
Now I took a controversial choice and instead of watching headliner Van Morrison, who by all accounts played an absolutely storming set, I went over to the Den to watch some exciting and fresh music being performed by Brother And Bones. A band that I have seen a few times and are set to make it big. Their infectious style of folk rock is very percussive and during a full electric set they ooze energy.
If I was pushed to pick my best set of the festival then it would definitely have to be Sinead O’Connor but there were many other exceptional sets; Molotov Jukebox, Peatbog Faeries, Luke Jackson, Adrian Nation, Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin and Brother & Bones to name a few.
Cambridge Folk Festival has certainly had a great 50th birthday and given everyone a great time, but to call it just a Folk Festival is really an injustice as it brings together music from a wide range of genres whilst still keeping to its roots and giving new performers the chance to play. I would definitely recommend it to others but book early to ensure your camping is on the Cherry Hinton site.
Review and photos by Simon Dunkerley
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