My second year attending the wonder that is the Cambridge Folk Festival, and whereas last year was about acclimatisation and making sure I didn’t miss the acts I’d noted in advance this time I went for a looser, more scattergun approach – wandering in and out of things and trying not to buckle to the pressure to be in the crowd for the big names if there happened to be something that sounded more interesting going on elsewhere. As before, I’m astonished at the quality of this event on more or less every level, from the artists on the bill to the catering and clear-up arrangements to the intoxicatingly tempting stalls selling musical instruments to the uniformly polite and considerate attendees. If you’re remotely interested in unpretentious and vital music where the spectacle’s all in the playing rather than the trappings it’s really worth considering getting a ticket even if you’re not sure about folk as a genre.
So here are some impressions of the acts I saw, with photographic evidence provided by the excellent Soo Martin (apart from the two blurry ones, which are courtesy of my rubbish camera phone). I’m very aware I inevitably missed a whole bunch of good stuff, but you can’t be in five places at once, even at a festival this geographically compact. This is going to ramble on a bit, so you might want to get yourself a cup of tea (herbal, naturally) at this point.
Opening slot at the Club Tent goes to The Brass Funkeys, a local ensemble who specialise in pumping out lively versions of pop standards rearranged for trombone, trumpet, sax and especially pleasingly, sousaphone. They get everyone bopping with their takes on Seven Nation Army, One Step Beyond and Sweet Dreams and there’s almost tangible disappointment in the crowd when they have to wrap it up after only forty minutes. Next year they deserve to be headlining somewhere.
Husband and wife duo Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, formerly of seasoned folk outfit Equation, have recently re-emerged after a period of maternity and paternity leave with a strong new album Hidden People, from which much of their set here is drawn. It’s respectful, traditional sounding stuff that showcases Roberts’ powerful voice (particularly on the sinister ballad Huldra, sung with no accompaniment) and the duo’s talent for narrative songwriting.
Willy Mason is a world-weary bluesman’s name if I’ve ever heard one, and despite still only being in his twenties the man in question sure lives up to it. His voice is soulful and lived-in, his delivery is laconic and his songs are pleasingly full of tough lessons, though the compositions display an originality and invention slightly at odds with his sleepy-eyed stage persona. He’s best when playing solo, or with just one of his cohorts playing a saw behind him – when the full band come on he tends to get a bit drowned out, particularly by the keyboard which has surely been given far too much prominence in the mix.
Meanwhile, my Club Tent correspondent reports that Welsh quintet Rusty Shackle are a right laugh, and big fans of lampshades too.
Upcoming star Lucy Rose seems slightly bemused to be playing at a folk festival, and understandably so as her music has almost nothing of the traditional about it. It’s pretty impressive nonetheless, and the audience love it despite an absence to my ears of easy crowd-pleasing devices like hooks and obvious choruses: it’s a blend of dance beats, complex riffs that never quite settle into grooves and Rose’s delicate vocals and guitar playing.
I only caught the end of Ellie Rusbridge‘s set at the intimate Den but wished I’d seen more – charming and baroque fiddle-adorned chamber-pop, slightly in the manner of Regina Spektor. A lovely way to come down after a loud evening in a packed marquee.
Well, that was unexpected, who knew cotton field hollering was alive and well in Colchester? That far flung town’s Dead Rat Orchestra alternate sultry dirges performed on violin and harmonium with O Brother Where Art Thou style spirituals and it’s a heady mix. At one point the three committedly bearded men place a log in the middle of tent and go at it with hatchets, the blows forming a percussive backdrop for one heartfelt acapella lament. Were Health & Safety consulted about this?
Larkin Poe are as bright and radio friendly as the writers who make up their name are doomy and depressing. Rebecca and Megan are two-thirds of former folk act The Lovell Sisters, and it’s presumably elder sister Jessica who was the major roots music fan as the new group trade in commercial hooky pop that seems tailor made for accompanying videos featuring fast cars and deserts. They’re pretty talented, mind: good tunes and good voices, and the appearance of a mandolin and a dobro gives a clue to where they came from musically.
My pick of the festival, and one I really didn’t see coming, is journeyman songwriter and guitarist Darrell Scott. I’d never even heard of him before the Friday, but his fifty minute solo set on Stage 2 left me gasping. This man is the full package. He’s got brilliant, evocative, carefully structured and disciplined songs, sung in a rich, warm and unfussy style, and as a player he’s impossibly talented, with his fingers dextrously picking out complex patterns in places where the compositions need variety and drama, or strumming cleanly and unshowily where the words and vocal melodies need to ring out. His subject matter tends to be drawn from his impoverished upbringing in Tennessee and he throws in some background about this and his close relationship with his musician father between numbers. Go see him if he ever happens to be playing on the same landmass as you.
This far into their rabble-rousing career alt-folkies The Levellers could probably raise the roof at a festival in their sleep. Thankfully, they’re very definitely awake for this one and do exactly what the occasion demands by cranking out one singalong anthem after another, with a minimum of time wasted on showboating and coasting on their undoubted versatility. Hell, I don’t even know most of these songs and even I was singing along. One high point is when an impish white-faced character unexpectedly comes on wielding a didgeridoo, which he then seems to play continuously for about ten minutes, all the way through the next couple of numbers. Another is when the band insouciantly play their best known song One Way only halfway through the set, and another is when they bring on headliners Bellowhead to help them with the encore The Recruiting Sergeant. A brilliantly energetic set with no lulls…and towards the end it suddenly occurred to me how much my beloved Decemberists take after them, though I’m sure it can’t be deliberate…
To round evening two off another sortie to the Den where Danish trio Boho Dancer‘s pared down, but somehow still otherworldly sound fits in perfectly with the alternative boutique vibe of this small and cosy stage. Their songs aren’t exactly catchy, but they hang in the air nicely and the audience seems to appreciate having something non-bombastic to fill their ears with.
Stage 1 is a big old marquee but folk legend Martin Simpson fills it effortlessly with just an acoustic guitar, some deft and soulful playing and a bunch of stories, some spoken and some set to music. He announces the news of the death of J.J.Cale and dedicates the opening In The Pines to him, and then uses a reminisce of teenage parties as a launchpad for a take on Leonard Cohen’s The Stranger Song that’s considerably more filled out musically than the original. His own songs are just as memorable, particularly the story of a heroic but officially unrecognised World War One soldier and his donkey. Another set that seems much too short.
Did I just say folk legend? What does that make Steeleye Span, one of the key acts in bringing folk in from the margins at the end of the sixties and playing here for the first time in nearly twenty years? Rumour has it that this line-up doesn’t have much in common with the 1969 version other than singer Maddy Prior, but let’s not be purist about it – they sound in rude health, with a beefed-up electric sound that verges on the proggier end of heavy metal at times. Most of the set is taken from their current album, based on a Terry Pratchett novel, so we get lyrically dark takes of supernatural beings and shady morris dancing practices set to complex, but generally tight and disciplined arrangements. Actually, most of the time it sounds pretty great, and plenty varied in terms of dynamics and the range of instruments both ancient and modern pressed into service. At the end they give in and let the audience sing along to All Around My Hat, which after last year’s experience of hearing the Brighouse and Rastrick Band play The Floral Dance, puts me one further down the road of collecting Radio 2 classics from my youth.
The Heritage Blues Orchestra sounds like something dreamed up by a government focus group but they’re actually a bona fide group of highly talented blues and jazz practitioners from New Orleans. At the base of their sound is an authentically swampy blues pulse, carried mainly by guitarists Junior Mack and Bill Sims Jr – this is augmented by the highly impressive vocals of Chaney Sims and urgent harmonica of Vincent Bucher, with a four piece brass section providing added punch and occasionally keening held notes a bit reminiscent of Miles Davis. However they put it together it boogies like a madman and the audience end up with sore hands from all the involuntary clapping along they find themselves doing.
…meanwhile over in the Club Tent celebrated local songwriter Boo Hewerdine and American slide guitarist Brooks Williams are covering Alt-J and cracking jokes under the name State Of The Union.
If in terms of pure attack most folk guitarists are a gently wagging finger then the cheery Australian Tommy Emmanuel is an inter-continental ballistic missile. This guy’s surely a freak of nature: he hits his amped-up acoustic harder and faster than anyone I’ve ever seen, yet at the same time the delicacy and accuracy of the wildly complicated picking he’s doing is utterly faultless. He seems to be able to not only play rhythm and lead lines simultaneously but also function as his own drummer – he often lets his left hand sound the notes and chords on its own while his right hand beats out syncopated rhythms on the body of his instrument. In terms of the sheer number of notes he manages to play over the course of his hour long set he must be the world record holder by a considerable margin. It’s truly awesome, so much so that you can forgive him his reliance on standards and hoary old blues progressions as the starting points of his extended workouts and the overly sentimental nature of some of his original songs. If you’re going to look him up on youtube try to find his version of Over The Rainbow, in which he somehow conjures up what sounds like a harp, or his song Mombasa which climaxes with him successfully emulating a full African drum troupe.
My spies tell me that CC Smugglers nearly caused a riot over in the Den. Standing room only, apparently…look out for them on a main stage next year.
Last day, and I get on site in time to catch most of John Hegley‘s delightful lunchtime children’s concert (apologies for the above indistinct picture of a far-off stage, but I didn’t feel like elbowing the kids out of the way to get a closer shot). Hegley works his way through the alphabet, throwing in daft definitions, songs and a marquee-load of the brilliant comic poems he’s loved for. I haven’t seen him for years so it’s reassuring he’s still standing up for spectacle wearers everywhere and drawing our attention to dogs whenever he can.
Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick (acoustic guitar and fiddle, respectively) came to prominence in the sixties via their tireless efforts to bring traditional British folk music to a wider audience, and they’re reunited on the main stage on Sunday afternoon to play some venerable ballads and jigs. It feels like an odd platform for this (they’d surely be more at home in the back room of a coaching inn next to a log fire) but they don’t seem to mind and their chatty and convivial stage manner is a nice contrast to the knotty and often esoterically accented material they’re presenting (Carthy must be well practised at funny time signatures by now, but he makes it clear he doesn’t find them particularly intuitive to play in). Ancient yarns and not quite so ancient anecdotes abound.
Back in the Den Liz Lawrence supplies tunes much more recent and much more easily digestible. She accompanies herself on crisply strummed acoustic guitar and sings her clear and catchy songs in an attractive soul-y drawl that has something of the Winehouse about it. She’s also the winner of my just dreamt up “best original lyric of the festival” competition with the unassailably ambivalent “I’m stuck between Rock and Roll and Health and Safety”.
We Banjo 3 are initially a bit confusing, given that there are actually four of them and only two of them play the banjo, but that’s about the only false note in their high-energy crowd-pleasing set. These Irish lads put on a right proper hoedown that has the audience toe-tapping from the start and screaming for more by the end and somehow seems miles fresher and nimbler than your average wedding ceilidh. Irresistibly infectious.
Mud Morganfield bears a startling physical resemblance to his father Muddy Waters and it turns out that the similarities between them don’t stop there but extend absolutely to the music. Morganfield’s set is straight down the line classic Chicago blues, played by a backing band of slicked back, sharp suited, weathered faced men who’ve come straight from central casting. The man himself has got the impossibly deep and rumbly vocals off pat and booms his way through a bunch of well-worn standards with aplomb. Close your eyes and it could be Muddy himself. Open them again and it still could.
The Staves have been gradually moving up through the various size stages at the festival over the last few years and now find themselves with an evening slot on Stage 1 itself. It doesn’t seem to phase them. These sisters from Watford specialise in gorgeous three part harmonies which they apply to their own generally mellow, but with a hint of bittersweet, compositions to arresting effect. They’ve got a couple of lads in tow to handle the bass and drums when things need to rock out but the high points of their performance are inevitably when they use just a single guitar as backing and let their voices do their stuff. All three Staves are comfortable covering short breaks for retuning and swapping instruments by exchanging down-to-earth banter with the crowd – it’s like they come here every night to do this. When they eventually hit on the right, commercially irresistible tune they’ll be bestriding the world.
And so, the finale (for me, anyway. There are more acts available for a while for those lucky enough not to turn into organically grown pumpkins at ten o’clock every evening). Way, way back in the day I used to get quite snooty about The Waterboys and Mike Scott’s cod-mystical leanings, but after witnessing this blistering set I’m right there at the Humility Foods concession with my order for extra-large pie. The band play with the kind of urgent rock’n’roll scrappiness that I suddenly realise I’ve been desperate for over the long weekend, reeling off half a dozen unexpectedly familiar (and, yes, actually really great) selections from their back catalogue in short order before repeating The Levellers’ gesture of throwing down their big hit (in this case The Whole Of The Moon) only midway through their slot. And then…they abruptly raise the stakes by indulging in some theatricals involving two members of the band stalking each other in Venetian masks that has the effect of reminding me of how sinister I always find old footage of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, before Scott leads the group through a positively incendiary version of Don’t Bang The Drum, with lurid green lighting heightening the atmosphere. Suddenly, we’re not at a nice polite folk festival anymore, but in some Satanic alternative reality. They close out with This Is The Sea to wild applause and whooping before coming back to seal the deal with the garage-punky Be Me Enemy. The place explodes with adulation and I spot the perfect point to sign off on the festival. I should do this every Sunday evening to set me up for the week.
Anyway if you’re still here thanks for reading. This really is a spectacularly good event, and it may well be worth booking early for next year’s if you’re thinking about going: it’s the 50th anniversary year, and surely there’ll be someone appropriately monumental on the bill. Baez? Seeger? Thompson? Surely not Dylan?