Of all the folk festivals held up and down the country – there’s more than forty of them every year – the magnificent and world renowned Cambridge Folk Festival, now in its 51st year, firmly remains the leader of the pack.
It’s easy to work out why … think of everything that you’d always wanted from a folk festival and it’s there. Held close to the city centre, in the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall, with a capacity of a mere 10,000 it never really gets to be over crowded; with great facilities for camping, easy parking for your car or bike, clean toilets and showers, good and moderately priced food outlets, an efficient and smooth organisation, friendly and helpful stewards, all manner of workshops, activities and fun things to do for young and old alike and, most importantly of all, the feeling of ‘love’ everywhere! It should be good after a half century of practice and once again it didn’t fail to impress.
The music was pretty good to, with the big hitters – Joan Baez, Joan Armatrading, Wilko Johnson, Passenger – and the lesser well known, but just as impressive in their own way, in attendance. But you won’t have needed to be a folk aficionado to have found something you liked as this festival is pretty well known to stretch the so called folk genre to the outer limits of the imagination. Once again this year, a large serving of extra-curricular musical goodness was on offer, whether coming from the Main Stage – The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, for example, providing their quirky reinterpretation of just about every musical genre known to the civilised world – or from visiting Stage 2 or the Club Tent which hosted a great range of artists (more of that later), or even chilling in The Den for a while, where you’ll have found the raw talent of many stars in the making.
Starting with raw talent, Fabian Holland couldn’t fail to impress, his simply stunning guitar playing as accompaniment to his high calibre and accomplished vocal style and interesting, mostly historical based stories in lyrics, makes him a potential tour de force of the folk scene and we look forward to his blossoming in the fullness of time.
Another notable talent, and there were so many worthy of mention, was Jaron Freeman Fox, the young Canadian nomad from remote parts; he utilises his five string violin in a unique way, almost as a surrealistic art form blending musical (sometimes not) expressions of mystical string and bow interpretation of life forces and events way beyond our simple minds.
We also particularly liked Dan Walsh with his folksy bluesy numbers and brilliant command of a claw hammer banjo; he’s surely a talent to look out for. Check him out.
Fridays main stage hosted the two men from Glasgow whom, as we all know, would gladly walk 5000 miles and 5000 more to perform; there repertoire of familiar past hits and songs taken from their most recent album was loved by all. As was Wilko Johnson’s exciting performance, indeed his appearance at the festival, since his miraculous recovery from terminal cancer was so wonderful. Frank Turner provided a workmanlike performance, perhaps not as Olympian as it may have been, and next time it may be worth him thinking about slightly reworking his non-accompanied solo rendition of Barbara Allan.
Sunny Saturday saw Gretchen Peters giving a strong performance with steel string country numbers and great harmonising, piano infilling and foot tapping in abundance, a great entertainer and thoroughly enjoyed by the crowd.
The Australian roots and jam band, The John Butler Trio gave an outstanding performance, and, of course, included their acclaimed ‘Ocean’, which brought about a standing ovation – and rightly so.
The very popular Skatalites had everyone bopping around with their unique style of Jamaican reggae. These guys have been on the music scene for fifty years and have been the backing band for many major artists including Bob Marley – one wondered whether they had brought their own fans along!!
The voice of Rhiannon Giddens, this time returning to the festival as a soloist, was a wonderful surprise, with an unexpected range and power and clarity. Interpreting in her own style, songs made famous by Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline or Odetta, and accompanied by her own accomplished fiddle and banjo playing, together with a five-piece backing band. Coming from the Carolinas, she’s imbibed a Gaelic influence from the Scottish folk community there, and used this to treat us to some Scots mouth music.
The Unthanks, sisters Rachel and Becky from Northumbria were a ‘yes please’ for us. Haunting and creative arrangements in a traditional folk style, stunning harmonisation, and accompanied by a great backing band, captivates your mind and take you to dreamy places you would never have imagined. All rounded off with a dessert of clog dancing.
Another wonderful sunny Sunday kicked off with De Temps Antan (‘of olden times’). This Quebecois trio were fresh, exciting and effervesced with energy, injecting the Sunday morning listeners with a shot of musical caffeine (required) – excellent!
Then it all changed when the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain turned up. A touch of incongruous light relief from this suited and booted very popular group of accomplished musicians whose singing, playing and glib humour caused mayhem! It really is amazing what you can do with eight ukuleles!
Danu hit the audience by storm and whisked us into a full blown Sunday afternoon Ceilidh – nobody that expected, or resisted! Their spectacular musicianship had us all whooping for more – this was Irish folk at its very best. Wow!
Last year’s Radio 2 Folk Singer Of The Year, the Derbyshire singer songwriter Bella Hardy proved once again what a versatile and impressive performer she most certainly is. Accompanied by an intriguing mix of her own fiddle, banjo, brass and percussion, Bella treated the audience to many of her most loved songs and reworked traditional folk, including ‘Jolly Good Luck to the Girl that Loves a Soldier’, on which the heartbreak of the German nurses and Verdun widows fits perfectly with the tales of failed personal romance Hardy describes elsewhere.
Joan Armatrading, who has opted to ‘go solo’ on her last (?) World Tour, was one of the big names and such a pro in every sense. With her unmistakeable voice, and just two guitars and a piano at hand, she held the audience in love and affection throughout her entire performance. ‘We love you Joan’ was the chant of the evening.
Passenger (Michael David Rosenberg) as usual, took the audience in the palm of his hand, engaging and toying with them, making them laugh, while treating them to his amazing array of ballads, combined with a funny and gentle display of his well-known angry traits.
And finally what can be written about the Queen of Folk – Joan Baez – that hasn’t already? This occasion was her fifth appearance at the festival of visits spanning a period of thirty three years. The purity and simple beauty of her voice and almost virtuoso twelve string acoustic guitar performance, enthralled and captivated the entire audience. Holding and engaging the audience, is her great talent, ensuring all joined in to the chorus of some of her own and other well-known songs of old. Including ‘Freight Train’, ‘Imagine’ and ‘House of The Rising Sun’ was a great way of getting the audience to do her singing for her. Shakespeare must surely have been thinking of Joan Baez when he wrote ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale’…..
So, altogether another great Cambridge Folk Festival with its now almost to be expected broad range of musical inclusions. Go next year, take your guitar, banjo, violin, accordion, ukulele … anything!