Sometimes I think the term ‘Folk Festival’ puts some people off but if they look under the skin they might see something very special. A glancing look through this year’s programme of events showed a whole array of arts and crafts workshops, street theatre, ceilidhs and a whole host of entertainment for the kids. Oh, and the music? An eclectic mix including headliners Jake Bugg, Frank Turner and Hayseed Dixie.
Although for the past 50+ years Cambridge has not failed in attracting sell-out crowds in recent years it has made slight changes to its “norm”. Even if some of the purists are not so keen these tweaks seem to be a resounding success.
Having artists like Jake Bugg on the same stage as Sharon Shannon brings a new crowd to the event and seeing the CC Smugglers pack out Stage 2 with young and old alike is testament to the success of these changes and the wide appeal.
Arriving on site mid-afternoon on Thursday and it seemed as busy as ever with most of the camping space full which is probably why people were queueing up outside since the early hours to get their favourite camping pitch.
Greeted by the newly erected ‘Welcome’ arch things are much the same apart from more chill out areas around the club tent and bar areas which are very welcoming. With only a few stages running tonight to ease everyone into the weekend there is more of the street theatre happening, ‘Circo Rum Ba Ba’ grabs my attention as from a 12 ft high buxom woman’s skirt a performance troupe emerges to wow the revellers…
Wandering round the stages I caught a few tracks from Mawkin, who bring a fresh youthful approach to their set which is often likened to Fairport with a mix of folky rock and traditional ballads.
Whilst over in the Club tent with Darren Eedens and Slim Pickens it’s hoedown and bourbon drinking time as bluegrass is the order of the day. So talented is Darren that he even manages to continue playing banjo and singing whilst changing a string on said banjo.
Talisk whom I have seen on numerous occasions have certainly stepped up since winning BBC R2 young artists in 2015. Squeeze box player Mohsen Amini, fiddle Hayley Keenan and guitar Graeme Armstrong keep it traditional but with an urgency and fullness that makes it stand out from the rest, a fine set to finish the night off with.
I walked through the woodland to the Duck Pond and an acoustic session from the talented Wildwood Kin, one of the many Americana bands on the bill this weekend and one I had hoped to catch on the main stages later in the day but due to the multitude of things going one I sadly missed them. One to look out for though.
Amelia Coburn, hailing from Teesside, states, ‘Her music is like rifling through her father’s record collection’, and with a mischievous look on her face she delivered an engrossing and entertaining set.
Amathyst Kiah, stripped of her band today took to the main stage and made it hers. She captivated the audience with a great soulful and bluesy set that included a rousing version of ‘Jolene’.
Classed as southern gothic she had a hint of Joan Armatrading running through her sound which isn’t a bad thing at all. For me, and many, she was one of the highlights of the festival.
A surprising set and great find for me were Wirral-based indie band She Drew The Gun, Louisa Roach’s haunting delivery combined with the spacey guitar and synthy tones certainly made them stand out from the rest, in a very likeable way. A band I would like to hear again.
Stage 1 was kept enthralled with a purist set from a majesty of pure folk, Shirley Collins, who incidentally appeared at the first ever CFF. The Den was bursting with life and in full party mode as ‘Kabantu’ mixed dance, folk reels and African drum beats in an uplifting and energetic set. This shows the great diversity of music that the festival has yet again managed to pull together.
In the middle of their first UK tour for six years the Indigo Girls were always going to get the crowd in, and despite the rain which had sent many cowering for cover.
15 albums in and 30 years since their debut ‘Strange Fire’ Amy and Emily took to the stage and with ease delivered a rousing and moving set, a set that has changed each night of the tour giving them chance for variety and for the audience to hear so many of the classic tracks. Tonight’s set ended with their first hit, ‘Closer To Fine’.
If Friday seemed a bit more laid back then Saturday was high energy. Fantastic Negrito has the energy and stage presence of Prince as he hammered out the blues and also poured out his soul. I’ve not seen a blues performance here like this for many years now but this was something exceptional.
Over on Stage 2 was one of the highlights for many, the Brian McNeill festival session which included appearances from many of the day’s artists. Brian himself is as close to a folk legend as they come: he not only founded the Battlefield Band but has also pushed and nurtured so many up and coming musicians whilst also keeping at the cutting edge of his musicianship. A pleasure to sit and listen to him and the session in general.
Speaking to CC Smugglers vocalist Rich’s Dad earlier in the day he mentioned that when they bought him to the festival years ago Rich said ‘I will play up there one day’ and today was his day.
Americana, jazz, swing all rolled into one and delivered with passion. As ever they played ‘Grumpy’ in the set, a song written about Rich’s Dad. Bands like these are the future to the long-term survival of folk festivals.
I have been looking to catch Saturday’s headliner for a while now and when he was announced as replacement for Olivia Newton John I was rather pleased: Frank Turner earned his stripes in hardcore punk band Million Dead and for the past years has played solo and lately with his band ‘The Sleeping Souls’.
Bringing the energy from his hardcore days and the passion for his new songs it’s a wild set and I’m sure he forgot where he was as he jumped skyward during ‘The Road’. And, giving a nod to Olivia Newton John, he played a great version of ‘You’re The One That I Want’. My set of the weekend by far.
Niteworks were definitely the curveball band of the night, with a style that instantly made me think back to the Martyn Bennett sets I had witnessed at the festival in previous years.
To many this is a fusion too far but to those more receptive it is the ultimate fusion of pure Celtic passion and electronic house music. Allan MacDonald moves seamlessly from keys to bag-pipes as they kept the tempo and energy high for tonight’s finale.
Sunday morning and the sun is shining and to quote a line from Sandy Denny, ‘Who knows where the time goes’, as the past few days have flown by.
I headed on over to Stage 2 to see Chris TT who in one of his last gigs sings the tunes of AA Milne. He did say he would have to tone his banter down a bit due to the children being present, ironic as AA Milne wrote poetry for children and most known for Winnie the Pooh. Chris’s punky delivery and simple guitar tone worked really well and ‘Waiting At The Window’ has never sounded so good.
The Eskies from Dublin now on Stage 1 peddled their wares in gypsy folk style. Bursting with energy and cheeky Irish banter they provided the lift that the crowd needs on a lazy, hazy Sunday morning.
BBC 2 Young Folk award winners Josie Duncan & Pablo Lafuente, were characterised by crisp clear vocals and delicate but intricate guitars and wowed the expectant crowd and they didn’t disappoint.
Loudon Wainwright III, mega recording star, saviour of Americana folk music, comedian and book writer; I’m sure he would like all those adjectives to be true and most are! A set not to be missed if only for the witty banter. He quipped about recent back surgery but this doesn’t hold him back and he played a set that included a lot of newer tracks rather that the greatest hits that most people wanted. Nevertheless, a well-received set and great audience participation especially on ‘I’d Rather Be Lonely’.
Jake Bugg made a welcome return to the festival and Stage 1 is packed to the brim as are the perimeters. Some of the younger fans on the barrier can’t contain themselves as he takes to the stage, stripped right back to just Jake on guitar and a piano accompaniment. Whilst he has a very forlorn delivery, his distinctive tone and songs make him a standout success and he fits in with all music festivals, the jangly ‘Lightning Bolt’ crosses so many genres.
On my final visit to the Den for the weekend Twelfth Day – Catriona Price and Esther Swift – combine fiddle and harp as well as both their vocals in a very exciting celtic folk avant-garde ensemble.
Music like this is a pure joy to listen to and you lose yourself in the moment, ‘Cracks’ showed this off superbly as it bends your perceptions of what you think you should be hearing.
Back to Stage 1 and what a way to end the festival. Hayseed Dixie offer no frills, no pomp and ceremony, just brilliant musicianship playing familiar tunes in a less conventional style. AC/DC and Motorhead on fiddle and mandolin? It works, as can be seen by the electric reaction from the crowd.
Perhaps the final line of Frank Turner’s ‘Photosynthesi’s describes perfectly the people that go to music festivals: ‘and most of all I will not grow up’. We all have that itch to scratch and this is our way of doing it.
Cambridge Folk Festival 2017, yet again a ‘folking good time’.
Review and photos by Simon Dunkerley
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