Cambridge Folk fest: a delight

Cambridge Folk fest: a delight

53rd Cambridge Folk Festival as fresh as ever

Delightful contemporary lineup of amazing acts

The Cambridge Folk Festival fired up this weekend, celebrating its 53rd birthday but with such a contemporary lineup, it might have been thought up yesterday.

The event has always had international reach combined with a quirky loyal and local following. One long-time folk fan (who lives nearby the festival site) remembers sitting in his garden listening to Don McLean singing American Pie at top volume. 'It lasted about half an hour, but then I suppose you can’t blame him for making the most of it; it was his only really big hit.' Other great folk singers, even Joan Baez, have performed here. Would this year be up to the starry levels of the past?

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There were some amazing troupers on stage this weekend. And better still, a gathering of the most talented folk Irish fiddlers, penny whistlers and squeezebox aficionados in the country. There was even a girl group of Northumbrian pipers and a ensemble of children musicians – a glimpse of what the next generation holds.

On the opening night there was a collection of folk cognoscenti old and young, mingling together in excited anticipation of the rich menu of sound on offer. The blend of ages is striking. Where else would thousands of mixed generations crowd together for the self same and only purpose  -- enjoying traditional music? 

The beer tent was heaving -- Guiness was going great guns but you can bring your own booze to the festival, a trusting privilege avoided in many venues. In fact, because there are so many people, the majority of course, camping, it would be hard to restrict consumption but the cheerful way festival goers combine a drink in the colourful bars (with small groups of music makers in every corner, of course) with their own picnicking arrangements, is a picture of civilized co-existence. Festival goers are scrupulously careful of one another’s space. 'Thank god, the sight line to the acts is not crowded by glistening smartphones,' said one 30-year old attendee, Caitlin Grove. 'It’s so different from other festivals. People really care. They have a keen eye on what could spoil their neighbour’s jig.' 

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There was a feel of excited anticipation on the opening night. Festival goers who had been there dozens of times as well as first footers, all mingled with an eye on the acts they’d come to see. 

In the big tent, Stornoway’s Scots band Talisk played an intensely talented set. Musicians who truly know their craft and art blended into a  multi-layered sound, dominated of course by frenetic fiddles with a somehow eery impact. They were hugely popular and the crowd, loaded to the doors, cheered them to the rafters of the tent.

Star of the evening for my money was Daoiri Farrell, (pronounced Derry) a singer who knocks Ed Sheeran into a cocked hat and surely is hot on the famous redhead’s heels for powerful soulful voice and longing expressive vocals. True Born Irishman is the album out now and he surely embodies that spirit of lyrical folk that crosses over happily into mainstream. His ‘Creggan White Hare’ was the finale of a great set – John McCormick reincarnated -- this fella is destined to go further than the bounds of folk, but his material is just as captivating, contemporary and traditional mixed wonderfully together. I snatched a few words with him at the end of his set. 'The Cambridge, I grew up hearing about it - it’s a legend even in Dublin where folk music is so prized,' he said whilst winding up his leads. 'It’s wonderful to be here.'

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It was indeed. This is a musical jamboree of a deeply convivial ilk. Walking around the grassy slopes of the Cherry Hinton Hall, it was clear that an annual visit was a family affair as familiar faces, alongside their parents, hoved up to say hello. That is the most striking feature of the event. Unlike the mono-generational festivals elsewhere – Latitude; affluent late thirties and early forties, Womad; well-travelled (and well-heeled) Trustafarians, Glastonbury; Millennials and mixed-gen of teen-spirited revelers -- the Cambridge shindig is truly age-integrated, super-friendly all-comers-welcome mélange of music lovers united by a fascination for folk. And in the last decade folk music has left its niche haven and spread throughout the wider world. This weekend that success was celebrated in grand style. This was a gathering for folk loyalists who loved it all along. 

The atmosphere was festive. 'We have come from Pontefract just to hear our favourite singer of them all, Frank Turner,' a delighted looking Ian told me in his strong Yorkshire voice. 'And actually to hear one song, ‘Mittens.’'

Frank Turner, an old Etonian and son of an investment banker from Bahrain, sounded like an unlikely hero for a down-to–earth working lad like Ian, but that seems to be the wonder of folk. When I eventually heard the singer, a man with no fewer than six solo albums under his belt, I understood what a magnetically talented performer he was. I spotted Ian in the crowd.

'He did Mittens!' he cried delightedly, 'But now I just have to go off and buy my own guitar here at the festival, I can’t wait to play until I get home.' (Yes, you can buy a host of instruments on site.)

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There was plenty of scope for complete unknowns to try out their talents in the ‘all comers’ session on Sunday. Patrick, a doctor on a weekend break from the James Paget Hospital in Gorleston had rehearsed his own offering in his beautiful tenor voice, but found he was too late to perform. 'I didn’t realize you had to go on a list,' he said, 'I should have just started singing. Next year I am definitely coming to have another go. I am new to this performance side of it, but it is great to be here and somehow participating.'

Sunday is a suitably mellow day at the festival. After the Saturday rain, people lolled in canvas arm chairs doing Sudoko puzzles in the sun and reading the papers (the Observer mostly.)

The main act of the day was Loudon Wainwright III born in 1943. A veteran of Jools Holland shows and probably thousands of concerts he had the most potent stage charisma with the audience in the palm of his hand. His old numbers went down a storm but his later reflections on life  (check out his  entertaining take on divorce and fatherhood ‘I knew your mother’ on UTube) and death – are fascinating. He seems very taken with his own father and their complex relationship prompting one wag to ask: 'That was Loudon Wainwright the Second I suppose but I wonder what happened to the Ist, King Loudon?'

A very satisfying and genial show done at the difficult hour of 5.20, when people were packing up, he managed to make magic from material that many of us knew of old and mix it with his intriguing thoughts on modern life. Superb. 

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A star for decades kept his lustre, Loudon gave a brilliant performance in not the easiest of slots.

The Cambridge Folk Festival deserves its legendary status: it nurtures a musical alchemy. This year, the official acts performed were varied and well paced and the entire scene pullulated with small splinter bands of fascinating talent. It was a musical delight but also a meeting of minds: a weekend-long riff on the rich, ambient, life-loving glory of folk.  

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A SPECIAL ADDITIONAL REPORT ON SATURDAY'S ACTION (By Mike Levy)

As the rain started in earnest on Saturday afternoon, everyone tried to pack into the Stage 2 tent. They were lucky indeed to catch the foot-tapping Celtic rhythms of Fara, four talented young musicians from Orkney. Their three fiddles and a piano combined with strong mellifluous voices added a dose of power and some dry wit to a rather wet afternoon. There was a rousing reel on the evils of whisky (not to be taken too seriously) and an affecting schooldays memory of going out the local dance and making a ‘cheeky Vimto’ – a shot of spirits topped up with a generous helping of cheap port. We were told that it tastes exactly like the more innocent blackcurrant pop. 

Hardy Festival goers are not put off by a drop (well let’s say a downpour) of rain and there was the usual mass crowd of umbrellas pointing in the direction of Stage 1. Beoga (Irish for ‘lively’) lived up to their name with a rousing set of Celtic folk rock. The band, which has recently collaborated with Ed Sheeran, is a very fine collective of first-rate musicians. Their set ended with a thrilling display on the bodhrán by Eamon Murray which even had the most rain-soaked listener getting up out of their folding chairs and dancing on the mud-squished ground. 


Another great place for keeping dry was the Club Tent where an astonishing array of talent was on offer. A duo called Meantime offered some lovely covers and a strikingly original song or two and later something of Cambridge Folk Festival legend – Brian McNeill. This founding member of the Battlefield Band has had the most consecutive appearances at the Cambridge Fest and it’s not hard to see why. His musicianship is exemplary and he seems equally at home on the violin, guitar, mandolin, concertina and more. His charismatic avuncular style went down well with the large audience as did his verbal forays into Scottish politics and history.


Meanwhile back on Stage 1, John Boden and the Remnant Kings were providing their big band sound numbers that had the whole tent rockin’. A touch later as the night crept in and the rain turned up the volume, Bedford-based CC Smugglers provided a mighty uplift of dampened spirits with their cheeky showband routines. Their lead singer got the crowd going and the whole set had a kind of Jules Holland joyousness.

Cambridge too at Peak tourism

Cambridge too at Peak tourism

Present Laughter:  Noel Coward's masterpiece lead by brilliant Samuel West

Present Laughter: Noel Coward's masterpiece lead by brilliant Samuel West