Beginning in 1965, once a year Cambridge Folk Festival transforms the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall into something a bit special. Cambridge Folk Festival is more than just the folk music. The festival pride themselves on hosting a diverse range of musicians from across the globe and after being inducted into the world of Cambridge Folk Festival last summer I had an idea of what to expect from the weekend; a whole load of incredible musical talent. And Cambridge delivered.
Friday 2nd August
Disappointingly, due to other commitments, I was unable to get to the festival until Friday evening. As I live in a neighbouring county I made the decision to travel to the site each dayand getting to the main site at Cherry Hinton Hall from the car park at Netherhall School was straight forward and only took around five minutes, with free buses laid on for the festival arriving every 15 minutes.
Once on site I was greeted with the warm conviviality that the festival exudes and as it was late evening the lights that lined the path through the campsite to the main arena added to the welcoming feel. Entering the festival proper I couldn’t help but smile. Music drifted from all quarters as I had a quick jaunt around the site. There was no time for a slow meander just yet, Graham Nash was about to appear on Stage 1!
Graham Nash, of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame, is a little bit of a music legend and I was somewhat in awe as I stood watching him. I kept having to pinch myself to remind me that this was actually happening. I was watching Graham Nash! Graham Nash! And his legendary status was absolutely justified that evening.
He gave a warm and engaging, sometimes hilarious set, full of classics, including “Marrakech Express” and a cover of The Beatles “Day In The Life”, that delighted a packed tent and main arena. When he announced before playing “Winchester Cathedral”, “This song was written when I was on acid” we knew there was going to be a good anecdote attached. We weren’t disappointed. Funny tales and anecdotes made an already jovial set even more so.
I stayed at Stage 1 for the final act of Friday, Calexico and Iron & Wine. Wowsers trousers! There is a high calibre of talent at Cambridge Folk Festival and they were up there with the best of the best. Waves of beautiful melodies and sublime harmonies swelled from the stage and washed over the main arena as they performed a set of stunning songs that soothed the soul. A delicate blend of indie folk and Tex-Mex came together to create something exquisite that I would’ve happily listened to for hours on end.
Saturday 3rd August
When I arrived on Saturday I took the time to have the slow meander I had wanted to have the previous evening. There are the usual clothes stalls and stalls selling jewellery and trinkets, but amongst them is a stall selling CD’s from all of the artists performing that weekend, making it easy to take home new music you have fallen in love with. And another stall selling a whole array of musical instruments. Guitars, ukuleles, banjos, violins, and a load more beautifully crafted instruments are displayed and the temptation to part with one’s money is great.
There are a wide range of food stalls on offer too. But more about that later.
One big plus about Cambridge Folk Festival is the size and the way it’s cleverly laid out so the distance between stages is small but the stages don’t disrupt or interfere with each other. This means that walking around the festival you drift through the large variety of music as you move from the vicinity of one stage to another.
Stage 2 on Saturday offered music of the rock variety in the form of Amy Montgomery. With a huge rock voice Amy took command of the stage with her exuberant presence and personality. Her song “When You’re Dreaming” had her roaring “I’m Alive” into the audience. With a smile writ all over her face her zest for life was infectious as it swept through the tent.
Now, about those food stalls. There’s a good variety of grub on offer to cater for most tastes at the usual festival prices. A decent meal cost no more than you would pay for the equivalent at a local takeaway restaurant. On this occasion I was tempted over to Northfield Farm hot food stall. The steak burger I had was superb.
I also highly recommend the Vegetarian and Vegan stall. The food was top notch, but the coffee was excellent and you got a discount if you used your own reusable flask. Nice! The festival itself has been recognised for their ethical and environmental values and were awarded Outstanding status in the A Greener Festival Award in 2018. Another reason to love Cambridge Folk Festival.
I took the aforementioned steak burger over to sit and eat in the shade of The Club Tent where Feis Rois were playing their blend of trad folk and beautifully sung harmonies. I had a really lovely time people watching and having a sway while eating good food.
Time to take it back up a notch before I got too comfy, so back to Stage 2 I went. Nick Mulvey was this year’s guest curator and one of his band choices were Fofoulah. Traditional Sabar drumming, dub basslines and electronica merge to form this leaping and bouncing afro-dub explosion. Standing and watching was not an option because dancing was mandatory. They certainly got the blood pumping.
After Fofoulah I was straight off to Stage 1 for Gruff Rhys. Opening with “Frontier Man”, his deep, gruff voice and gentle folk/country/rock songs were a salve. Sitting in the main arena while he and his band played was a perfect moment to sit, to listen and just be.
One act I was really looking forward to seeing as I’d heard a lot of good things, was the guest curator himself, Nick Mulvey. Wow. Just wow! This man has talent in spades. Standing on stage, just him and a collection of guitars, a band accompaniment was not needed. His visual lyrics were just gorgeous and his persona on stage was utterly adorable and completely charming.
Actively asking for and receiving gleeful audience participation, his set was a tremendous amount of fun. Sitting just outside the main tent, I was floating on a cloud of acoustic beauty on a sunny summers evening. A beautiful man singing beautifully crafted songs, he and his music were a pleasure to behold. Yes. I am now completely smitten.
Appearing on stage after the incredibly awesome Nick Mulvey was the country legend that is Grammy award winner, Lucinda Williams. For me, this was another pinch myself moment. Cambridge Folk Festival really do manage to pull some big names from the worlds of folk and country music and Lucinda Williams lived up to her reputation as a country/blues/Americana star. I was entranced by her outstanding performance and pure country voice. Absolutely captivating.
Sunday 4th August
Sunday began with excellent coffee and another wander. This time I didn’t get far because Roo Panes was sharing his enchanting folk songs with the good people at Stage 1. My meander was slowed and came to a full stop when I was within proper listening distance. But I had to rouse myself from the spell I had been cast under because Dylan Menzies was about to take to Stage 2 and he was an artist who had piqued my interest in the programme.
Canadian musician, Dylan Menzies, was very likeable, engaging with the audience and explaining stories behind some of his songs which were delivered with every last scrap of his soul. Filling the stage, the tent and beyond with his voice and his music he gave an utterly enthralling performance.
Described in the programme as “Traditional music” and “A singer-songwriter whose material has drawn comparisons with Radiohead, Fleet Foxes and My Morning Jacket”, Dylan Menzies proved he’s so much more than that. He is a talented musician in his own right and these comparisons don’t come close to giving him the credit he deserves.
Jack Broadbent was another artist who blew my mind with his talent. In a review I’d read while researching prior to the festival, Jack Broadbent was described as, “The king of the slide guitar”, and holy moly were they right! Using a hip flask as his slide, playing undiluted blues music sung with a rasping blues voice, this man proved himself worthy of this mantle.
He is the epitome of blues cool. With his Dad and fellow musician, Micky Broadbent, accompanying him on bass guitar and looking on with pride at his boy, you could see why his dad was so proud of his son. Be it a god given talent or an incredibly honed craft, Jack Broadbent was king of stage 2 that afternoon.
As I had a small amount of time before the next act on my list, The Unthanks, I went to have some food and recharge in the main arena where Imarhan, another of Nick Mulvey’s choices, were playing. Dub heavy basslines and singing rock guitars drifted across the arena making me want to have a dance, but as I was eating, only a sit down bob along was possible. Food always tastes better eaten in a field with live music.
Having performed a stripped back set in The Club Tent on Saturday evening, The Unthanks followed this up with a full ten-piece band performance on Stage 1 on Sunday afternoon. The Unthanks were appreciated by many for their incredibly polished and superbly delivered performance of traditional folk music. You could tell these lovely people had dedicated a good chunk of their lives to their craft.
By now it was Sunday evening and the festival would be over far too soon. I needed cheering up and Cambridge Folk Festival did just that by presenting another folk legend, Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention fame. Yet another pinch myself moment.
Richard Thompson’s guitar playing is so refined he makes what he does seem effortless. Watching his great talent on guitar was a real privilege and such a treat. He delivered his rousing set with a wicked sense of humour and the audience joined in with fervour. There was an awful lot of love for Richard Thompson in that tent.
The Blind Boys of Alabama and Amadou & Mariam were another act who caught my eye in the programme. The combination of gospel and blues from The Blind Boys of Alabama and Malian music from Amadou and Mariam intrigued me. The set consisted of songs from the individual bands and collaborations between the two. It was a great choice made by the organisers.
And here we were, Sunday night. The weekend was almost done. Daori Farrell’s All Star Celtic Session and Sarah Darling were rounding off the festival on Stages 1 and 2 and I wanted to see both. So I compromised and saw half and half. A final jig and reel with Daori Farrell’s All Star Celtic Session and then swap for the second half of Sarah Darling’s soul soothing country music.
Daori Farrell’s All Star Celtic Session was the perfect way to round off Stage 1. The very definition of folk music closing what is arguably the finest folk festival there is. Dancing and smiling were in abundance for those of us who had hung around til the bitter end.
But I’m glad I’d opted for the best of both worlds and left the shindig at Stage 1 when I did because Sarah Darling was an utter delight. An incredibly talented and amiable young woman, you can’t help but be endeared to her new, modern country sound. The next generation keeping the true country spirit alive with songs about love, heartbreak, friendship and loss. Songs that speak to the heart.
And with the beautiful songs of Sarah darling still ringing in my ears I made my way, reluctantly, to the bus back to the carpark. Cambridge Folk Festival, you marvellous wonders, thanks to you I have a stack of new CD’s and a new playlist of musical fabulousness. I can’t wait to see what you have in store next year!
Review and photos by Hollie Latham
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 23 August 2020.
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