Been a bit thin on the ground with the blog entries of late, but here’s a whopper for you. I was thinking of breaking my Cambridge Folk Festival 2012 review up into more digestible chunks, but it was fairly intense for me, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t be for you too. I think I saw something like 18 full sets over the four days, plus oodles of snippets of music here and there, which is quite a lot to process for a stay-at-home like me.
First up, some general points of order. Disgracefully, I’ve lived in or around Cambridge for over forty years and have never before been to this event. I think this has been down to two factors: first, it’s a Festival, and the thought of being penned in with thousands of beer drinkers and competing sources of loud noise for days on end has never appealed to me, and secondly, it presumably involves Folk, which I’ve always found a bit too…well…authentic for my tastes.
Turns out I’m a blinkered idiot. This event is brilliantly organised, attended in the main by reasonable considerate people and features a bewildering range of musics, the only unifying factor of which seems to be that none of them feature the overdriven feedback that so excites 15 year old boys. You should go. Seriously. It’s ace. If you get crowd-phobic there are loads of nice under-populated woody bits you can hide away in, there are stalls selling bizarre and wonderful instruments you can twang around on, the food is excellent, and if you can get the sun to shine too then you’re completely sorted.
Anyway, obviously with as many acts playing simultaneously as you get here no-one could possibly catch everything, but here’s my personal Top Ten of Folk Festival experiences:
10. After three days of almost ironically glorious sunshine the heavens opened on Sunday afternoon, and not in a small way. Those of us who were canny enough to have looked at the forecast were however snugly tucked away by then in The Den, a tastefully decored marquee situated towards the edge of the site which had been thoughtfully kitted out with rugs for chilled out folk to get generally mellow on. Here we spent the thunderstorm taking in three excellent contrasting acts: young singer-songwriter Lucy Kitt, whose melodic and briskly strummed songs had a definite 70s California feel, experimental trio Three Cane Whale, who delivered a set of intricate and quirky instrumentals with titles like “Sluice” that sounded like they could be soundtracks to surreal Czech animations, and the highly impressive Tom Copson, who really could be headed for the big-time based on his looks, confidence, easy charisma and, oh yeah, abundance of talent. His vocals soar, he can handle himself on a range of instruments, he knows how to vary the approach, and he’s already got a repertoire of instantly appealing songs. And roughly at the time he was singing Rainbow Coming the sun came out.
9. Nanci Griffith wrapped up her set by bringing on The Clap Brothers, two burly bandannaed roadies, to assist with the audience participation element of the all-purpose expression of pissed-off-ness that is Hell, No. These two impassive slabs stood at the front of the stage, arms folded and with eyes hidden behind sunglasses not moving a muscle until that point in the chorus where the audience was required to join in, whereupon they broke formation, faced each other and executed a mighty and unequivocal double clap. Griffith was great value: chatty, crowd-pleasing, with some simple accessible songs and a great stripped-down band. She can sing a bit too.
8. Roy Harper obviously relishes his status as a legendary anti-establishment figure, although he now looks less like a rebel and more like Richard Harris’s Dumbledore. His solo set was defiantly uncommercial and peppered with slightly self-regarding anecdotes about his forward-looking unconventionality, but his voice and guitar playing are still powerful enough to redeem him. And some of his songs are just gorgeous: he played the achingly poignant Another Day and ended with the moving When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease, the song that John Peel used to joke he wanted played at his funeral*.
7. The 18 year old Jake Bugg had various factors working against him during his set at one of the outside tents – he arrived half an hour late, and had to compete with the noise from the main stage and the hideous Sky Arts lounge – but he rose above them magnificently. As soon as he started in on his immediately catchy and dynamic set the crowd was with him. The songs are fast and short and witty and tuneful, and he cranks them out on his acoustic guitar with the minimum of fuss – he reminds me more than anything of Lonnie Donegan, although he doesn’t particularly sound like him. This lad’s gonna be a star.
6. After some exceptionally skilful and persuasive salesmanship I went home on the first night with a rather beautiful banjo (although actually I didn’t take that much persuading. I’ve been pressing my face up against the window of music shops gawping at the things for about two years now). Now I’ve got to work out how to play the blighter.
5. I can’t have seen Billy Bragg live for about 15 years and had kind of forgotten what a great performer he is. His Folk Festival set was in honour of what would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday and was made up of Bragg’s new settings of Guthrie’s unrecorded lyrics, and while the Bard of Barking took the time and trouble to put each song in context it never felt like a sociology lesson and there was plenty of room for some excellent and seemingly spontaneous banter. Bragg is self-deprecatory about his talents (“I’m not a musician, I’m a guitarist. A musician is someone who can play the piano, or the flute. Playing the guitar’s more like a trick, like playing the spoons”) but he sounds like a pretty authentic country-blues man to me, and he can really project vocally. And he gets extra points for refusing to let Sky broadcast his set.
4. The most extraordinary achievement I witnessed on a technical level was the pristine sound that the crew managed for The Unthanks with The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band. It’s basically the equivalent of a full orchestra, set up and soundchecked within half an hour. The Unthanks specialise in heartbreaking, but never depressing, tales of Northern woe (pit disasters, drunkenness and wife beating, and so on) and the mournful backing their songs get here is the perfect fit, particularly when the arrangements are this skilfully worked out and played. It’s not all dismality though – there’s a Las Vegas arrangement of the traditional folk tune Queen Of Hearts thrown in, and towards the end the singers leave the stage and let the band run through the immortal Floral Dance. All that’s missing is Terry Wogan.
3. John Prine is a country-rock singer-songwriter who’s been releasing albums since the early 70s and is highly rated by many people who ought to know, including Bob Dylan. I’d never knowingly heard or sought out anything by him before Friday night, possibly because his album covers are so horrible (mullets, droopy taches, singlets, cars). More fool me – he comes on stage on his own, armed only with a couple of beat-up acoustic guitars, and reels off around a dozen utterly brilliant compositions, delivered in a beautifully seasoned, gravel-lined croon. His subject matter tends to be the trials, travails and lovelife complications of the ordinary working man, which is hardly original, but he has such a good ear for the telling detail and the killer rhyme that you believe every word. On the evidence of this set he’s as great as Johnny Cash or Tom Waits, and considerably more nuanced than Springsteen. Gonna go and get all those albums ASAP, and display those sleeves with pride.
2. June Tabor is folk royalty, and The Oysterband are pretty damn respected too so I thought it would only be polite to make an effort to see them, even if I did fear that we’d get one or two between-song lectures about how history is mis-reported by the victors and how the Romany people are still unfairly oppressed. Turns out we did get said lectures, but my God did the formidable Ms Tabor earn the right – she’s fiercely intelligent and articulate, besides being possibly the greatest singer I’ve ever witnessed live. Don’t know what it is, but when she sings something you believe every word. Her band for the night are pretty damn versatile too, capable of laying down supple and powerful grooves that are the equal of any stadium headliner you could mention. Most impressive of all is their willingness to take on material outside of the traditional folk canon: three songs in they completely nail The Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties with a version that while lacking the monolithic weirdness of the original still maintains its ominous thrum. They captured my heart with that, then broke it into little pieces a little later by rendering Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart as a funereal harmony-laden ballad, before throwing in a cheeky take on Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit as a sweetener. Absolutely awesome, man, and my highpoint of the festival, with the possible exception of…
1. As previously reported, the great folk guitarist and singer Nic Jones has been absent from the live circuit for thirty years, due to life-threatening injuries suffered in a car accident in 1982. In recent years he’s been writing and singing again, but his live appearances have been limited to the odd guest spot here and there, so his 45 minute set here is nothing short of historic. These days Jones doesn’t play the guitar live but this isn’t the drawback it might appear as his son Joseph is on hand, and miraculously he seems to have inherited his father’s hitherto-unique skill with the instrument, making it function as percussive as much as harmonic backing. There’s also a keyboard player, Belinda O’Hooley, to complete the small but perfectly formed combo. I must admit to a certain amount of foreboding about this performance, as I was worried that Jones might not yet be up to the task of presenting his act to a live audience, but as soon as you catch sight of him enthusiastically bobbing around the wings you somehow know that everything’s going to be all right. More than all right, in fact – this is a brilliant, moving, intimate, funny set, delivered with warmth and much inter-band banter. Jones may be reading his lyrics from a lectern these days, but he still sings like an angel, with an edge of vulnerability that tears at the heart. The material is a nice mix of new and old and traditional and surprising – the songs from the classic Penguin Eggs probably go down best with the crowd, but he finds space for a couple of quite beautiful recent compositions, and a stellar cover of Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees. Everyone in the tent seems to be on a high by the end, including Jones, who seems like he would be happy to go on all night. A very special set.
Honourable mentions to Benjamin Francis Leftwich, James Vincent McMorrow, Eska and Lau. Biggest, and in fact only, disappointment: Joan Armatrading, who seems to have betrayed her considerable powers as a songwriter and singer by persisting with a horrible stadium band who litter her songs with turd-like guitar solos and nasty synthetic keyboard sounds. I know the Folk Festival’s supposed to be a bit retro, but I was expecting 1588, not 1988.
* They didn’t play it in the end. I know, I was there. Though they did play Teenage Kicks and Grinderswitch’s Pickin’ The Blues (the old Peel show theme tune).