The Unthanks

The Unthanks


There is something truly magical about the Cambridge Folk Festival. It’s not conjured up by the folkies dressed as benign wizards, flowery mad hatters or inked enchanters (my favourite was a young woman sporting a tattoo of Edgar Allen Poe!). It is all due to the good folk from Cambridge City Council who manage this enormous transformation from lovely local park to mega music city; a very civilised Glastonbury (thankfully without the mud this year).

I have to confess that I am more fogey than folkie but whatever your musical taste you can’t help but be drawn into the merry carnival atmosphere that transmutes Cherry Hinton Hall into a melodious pleasure garden. I was only able to attend on the last day (Sunday) but what a 12 –hour experience it was. A musical pick and mix that ranged from high-powered gospel, world-class soul, legendary blues, fan-adored folk rock, rollicking sea shanties and a sing-a-long rendition of ‘My old man said follow the van’. I wouldn’t have been surprised to have stumbled across a bunch of musicians playing Webern string quartets (I didn’t). Forget ‘folk’ this is an amazingly eclectic music fest.

Entering past the didgeridoo stall, the homeopath treatment tent and the burger stall with its lardy legend ‘the diet starts tomorrow’, the first thing that hits you is the smiling army of tee-shirted volunteers so happy to be there and swaying to the beat from the band in nearby Stage 2.

The main open space (somehow looking vastly bigger than when it’s a humble local rec) was packed with folk sitting on folding chairs, picnicking on the grass or returning from the legion of food and drink stalls. The first music I heard was singer Roo Panes who apart from having a softly melancholy voice happens to be the ‘face of Burberry’ and described as ‘Britpop’s pin-up’. The certainly handsome chap sang his own songs which seemed a little over chilled for a warm lunchtime slot.

As Pane’s sad ballads ended it was a short walk from Stage 1 to Stage 2 to hear the young Canadian minstrel Dylan Menzie. The boyish balladeer was accompanied by a female violinist (whom he described as ‘the love of my life’) and they played very pretty music together. Menzie writes his own songs including ‘Have Faith’ which was not about religion but astrology (there were probably many devotees in the large audience). He has a satisfying tenor voice and rendered a really lovely version of ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ accompanying himself on the keyboard. I’m not sure if this was a good idea though - that seminal song of the sixties does rather place many a new tune into a shade-of-pale palette.

After Menzie it was back to Stage 1 (about five minutes away via the coffee and cake kiosk) to catch the Algerian band ‘Imarhan’. The five guys (three guitars, drum kit and traditional African percussion), two in desert headgear, brought the irresistible beat of the Sahara to Cherry Hinton in a lively and foot-tapping set of songs sung in Tamashek, a disappearing language. Powerful rhythms and exciting guitar riffs got the audience on its feet dancing and having a ball.

Next on stage was the Unthanks – sisters Rachel and Becky – supported by a small orchestra of outstanding musicians. I somehow have let this wonderful pair of singers pass me by – but no more, they are already on my Spotify playlist. In the musical realm of Steeleye Span with the close sororal harmonies of the McGarrigles, they bring their own unshowy style adding in a charming bit of Northumbrian jig into the bargain. Employing their large musical forces, each song seemed so different from the last. There was a powerful setting of an Emily Bronte poem and an incredibly moving rendition of ‘Testament’ – a song drawn from the real testimony of a poor 19th century Halifax lass reporting on the horrendous (and for her shaming) conditions of working as a human donkey in the tunnels of Yorkshire coal mines. With its insistent Eleanor Rigby string accompaniment, the song brought many a tear my old eyes. By contrast their next song ‘Not So Lonely’ had a Steve Reich minimalist beat which the sisters concluded with a jolly jig. To the Cambridge Folk Festival I can only say ‘thanks’ for the Unthanks.

As the sun began to set on the crowded arenas, the mood of the folksters was raised even higher by the Grammy-winning ‘The Blind Boys from Alabama’. With their sincere and supercharged gospel including such familiar clap-inducing numbers as ‘Spirit in the Sky’ and their passionate performance (and by the way many of the ensemble are actually sightless) it was hard to imagine a more joyous atmosphere. That was until the arrival of their guests, Amadou & Miriam, described in the programme as one of Africa’s ‘best-loved duos’. The loud cheers and whoops suggested that the electrified audience knew all about their reputation and certainly their incredible fusion of Mali music with rock and gospel made this folk ignoramus reach for his music streaming account. Another new fan.

As if by contrast, my next journey down the rabbit hole of this musical wonderland was to enjoy those sons of Port Isaac, ‘Fisherman’s Friends’. Where have I been all these years? I thought sea shanties went out with ‘The Spinners’ (younger readers look them up). Not a bit of it: Stage 2 was packed like Cornish sardines, people of all ages (including very tiny tots) spilled out on to the grassy lawns and all, old and young alike were mesmerised. These chaps used to sing for fun every week on Platt harbour until a record label spotted them; fame and fan-base followed. It’s not hard to see why they are so popular – great harmonies, essential squeezebox backing and genuinely funny (slightly rude in an end-of-pier way) banter between tunes, bring alive old favourites such as ‘Can’t you dance the polka’ and even ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’. Adoring fans knew all the words and even some of the silly moves and roared with laughter at the naughty asides. Old sea-dog shanties are alive and well including a whaling song which they told us got them banned from Glastonbury.

Their loss our gain though I doubt any of the crowd were in favour of sending out our ‘Bonnie ship the Diamond’ back to harpoon the great sea mammals.

My Sunday ended in the dark with the plaintiff voice of country star Sarah Darling floating over the treetops of my local park. As I left one of the stewards asked me ‘surely you can’t have had too much fun – go back!’ I was tempted but no, the magic had worked its spell. I will go back – next year.