Cambridge Folk Festival
Cherry Hinton Hall
Saturday 1st August – Sunday 2nd August
Following his coverage of the first couple of days from Cambridge Folk Festival Mike Ainscoe returns with the his report of the second two days.
“Do you really need that chair?” Where else but Cambridge Folk Festival would you find such a comment in the souvenir programme? If it were a sketch from Blackadder II where Squadron Commander the Lord Flashheart was looking for a patch of grass to wipe the bosch off the sole of his boot, he’d find it a struggle.
With the weather gods smiling down at an English festival, space was at a premium and the garden chair count on the lawn was almost as high as the wasp count at the bakery stall where the cinnamon and almond twists were proving exceedingly appealing to the wasp population of Cambridge. In the grand tradition of filling all the available space not a blade or two was to be had on the premium lawned space, where you were never more than twenty yards from a member of the Rivington Morris, outside the main stage as the sun beat down and the whiff of fish and chips, oriental whole food and Caribbean jerk was complemented and occasionally overpowered by that of the factor 30.
Anyone waking at the Coldhams Common campsite (try saying that after a Friday night on the Hobgoblin) might have been greeted with “you’re all sitting in your tents reading The Guardian; there’s entertainment here and it’s free!” For anyone else there was the attraction of a mind boggling array of artists available on the main site.
There may not have been many about as they would have headed to the main site for an 10am start with an ‘illustrated talk’ from Peggy Seeger. Accompanied by Colin Irwin she gave great copy with virtually every phrase containing a gem and a collection of soundbites which could well have been quotes of the weekend. From rabble rousing words in favour of the female role in a male dominated society to car seats that jiggle your balls, she was priceless. Add that to a couple of songs and signing off with the old “the world is divided into people who are right…” quote, it was a cameo which was amusing, inspiring and uplifting.
Similarly sublime was the Stage Two set from Olivia Chaney following the lengthy Brian McNeill session including Folk Award nominee Ange Hardy amidst members of The Willows, Rura, Mawkin and The Stray Birds to name but a few. Walking in as she opened with a heart wrenching harmonium backed version of the traditional ‘Barbara Allen’ into which she poured every ounce of emotion and anguish, you got the feeling that this was going to be something to savour; a feeling that wasn’t far from the truth. Versatility on the guitar, a choice selection of songs plus the fact that she’s stunningly gorgeous as well and a marker set as one of the highlights of the festival.
And from the sublime to the totally outrageous as Skinny Lister became the next band to be branded with the ‘infectious ‘ iron. Having made their Cambridge debut in 2014, they were back on a bigger stage but still full of the exuberant brand of outrageous folk. When people talk of a perfect festival band, this is it. It might even be becoming a bit old hat when Michael Camino, the double bass player crowd surfs, erm…with his instrument, so form something a bit different, Lorna Thomas joined him too. It even had Jim Moray and Phil Beer wandering across to the side to take a look. Whether or not Show Of Hands, incidentally possibly the best coiffured band of the festival, were inspired to do the same later on in the evening (“no problem” said Steve Knightley), somehow one can’t imagine the more refined Miranda Sykes doing quite the same with her instrument.
Earlier in the day, they’d played over on the main stage alongside the plethora of big names, an impressive opening pair of songs having Steve proclaiming “we’ve peaked too early” – never a truer word spoken in jest as he then spilt a glass of water on himself and dropped his guitar. Their larger than life crowd pleasing presence sitting nicely alongside the eleven string Aussie guitar wizard John Butler, whose high energy trio was up there matching Friday’s set from Wilko’s crew. It also contrasted well with the brilliant three musicians-round-one-microphone-bluegrass-how-it-should-be-done of The Stray Birds and the stately presence of both The Unthanks and the rather special appearance of Joan Baez (see photo, right). On what may well be her final round of performances, she strode onstage with an air of grace and distinction and gave what was almost a history lesson of contemporary music – oh, and a Dylan song.
There was nothing quite so graceful about The Treacherous Orchestra’s (see photo, right) closing set though. Allowing the Baez fans to take leave and reminisce away from the crowds, their appearance, like a set of Scots brigands subtly opening in shadow and silhouette until all eleven (or were there twelve interchanging members as only folk bands can do) players were in place before unleashing the full force of pipe fuelled vitality and verve. There are those who may wonder if they are a bit of a one trick pony; discovering a formula which works and riding the wave, yet for the last band of a Saturday night with a few drinks keeping off the evening chill and radical to the point of jumping offstage and onto the barriers at the end of the set, they can’t be faulted.
Amidst those who are less concerned with paying homage to the legends of folk music and snub their noses a little to anything beyond the main stages, the Club Tent continued to be well worth its growing reputation as a place to be. It too being the place where the Quebecois traditional trio, De Temps Antan, made possibly the best of their four festival appearances in its tighter confines as they rode roughshod over The Unthanks more delicate clog dancing with their trio of stomp boards on which they set up a pulsating and, dare it be said, infectious rhythms. Possibly…possibly, the find of the festival – certainly the find of the festival for those who enjoy folk music which makes them want to jump about.
Ranagri’s flute and harp infused set – who wasn’t conjuring up visions of the airier moments of sublime Jethro Tull – was pitifully short, yet gave enough of a flavour to mark them on the list for the next possible wallet lightning raid on the CD stall. Next to them, two more of the outfits selected as showcases got the chance to, showcase their art; the harsh and grim reality and Morrissey-like cheerless demeanour conveyed by London’s Stick In The Wheel in their sparse arrangements from their upcoming debut album contrasted sharply with Kim Churchill’s easy Aussie personality and high energy, treated guitar and percussion one man band of folky blues. Some might have grumbled, like the local baker in his early busking days, that he was too loud, but demonstrated just what a difficult task it would be for whoever had to select one of the five showcasers for a main stage slot in 2016.
Sunday morning dawned, as it should, with The Archers coming loud and clear through the PA system. Who would have thought that it should have almost caused a riot amongst the early morning Sunday paper reading chair beasts when the feed temporarily went down. Crisis averted what did the final day have to offer? For anyone flagging by now, an early morning pick me up from the G&T stall would have done although there you could have had awake up call from another adrenaline pumping set from De Temps Antan; their Sunday set seeing them elevated to the main stage although lacking the atmosphere of the more intimate spaces as could also be said for The Lone Bellow and their wonderful harmonies against a Southern rooted guitar sound.
Out on the edges, Coco & The Butterfields were engaging with a colourful set and children’s show before getting all adult with a late night close in the Club Tent which also saw two more showcase acts again impressing the judges. The Manuella Schutte fronted Mishaped Pearls providing the big band and soaring vocals contrast to Ange Hardy’s more traditional solo folk yet technologically charged slot and both worthy of the acclaim which sees them in such company.
Elsewhere, some lucky punters may have been privy to a special unannounced appearance in the Guinness tent mid afternoon by Sunday headliner Passenger. Chancing upon someone playing impromptu sets around the site is always a bonus of folk festivals – not that you wouldn’t see, say Kiss, doing an acoustic slot on the VIP campsite at Download… Paying his dues to the fact that he did very much the same a few years back before internet stardom elevated him to superstar status, Passenger’s return to his roots was a nice touch for those who were handy enough to witness the occasion. The not so veiled notice pinned up on the photo display questioning whether he’d be back, hint hint, might have been a bit of a clue. Some might have wondered if he’d needed a soundcheck a few years ago, particularly when he had to stop during his first song when it didn’t sound too good but it was a well meant gesture and a chance for some lucky fans to literally get up close and personal and capture that smart phone souvenir. It was also interesting to see him barefoot and how his toes wiggled as he played and sung – just one of those things that you notice and maybe a new concept in the making if it’s not already been done; barefoot rock stars and how their toes move when they play.
Passenger, or Mike to his friends, went onto play what he called “one of the best gigs of my life” even managing to resort to using “that was flipping amazing!” as an alternative to the ‘f’ word on occasion and despite a pair of jeans which were by his own admittance, painfully tight. He was just one of the lower key acts on the Sunday main stage bill which had peaked energy wise before noon with De Temp Antan before Shooglenifty closed the evening with a suitably festival ending bang. While the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain may not have set the festival alight from opening their set with the ‘Ting Tong Song’, fair play to them as the uke is much harder to play than it looks and with Joan Armatrading’s headset mic allowing her the freedom to roam the stage yet remaining pretty stationary for her solo set, it seemed like a Sunday lull had set in. It might seem strange to say that the afternoon was lifted by Bella Hardy putting her heart and soul into what are some openly personal and at times melancholy songs from her ‘Before The Dawn’ set and by what many people viewed as a set of outstanding bluegrass tunes from the five piece Punch Brothers.
There were some outstanding party pieces out in The Den from banjo star Dan Walsh and more laid back elegance form Fabian Holland and, making up a trio of impressive Aussies, Stu Larsen, but Stage Two might have held all the aces on the final day.
The menu included young pretenders in local band The Willows and the brass infused and instrument swappers who are the Keston Cobblers Club alongside the American pairing of The Stray Birds performing a second and more intimate set and the home made and thrift store and DIY instruments favoured by the electrifying and slightly scary looking but lovely guys in the Ben Miller Band. The latter delivered a thrilling cocktail of what can only be described as delta blues infused rawk and stomp – perhaps the last band, thankfully, to be tagged infectious but proving that less and simple is more. It was all topped off with the sheer quality and class English folk legends who are Andy Cutting, Martin Simpson (see photo, right) and Nancy Kerr, spotted earlier in the day having a no airs and graces little session (musical) around a yellow wheelie bin. And that was all before The Demon Barbers signed the festival off with a stage shaking folk infused rave.
So how will Cambridge 2015 be remembered in years to come? Maybe in a nutshell as a vintage festival full of vintage performers and their young pretenders. Although the focus is clearly the music, as the ad men would be saying “there’s so much more to Cambridge Folk Festival than this” – the range of arts and crafts and skills all reinforcing and expanding the folk tradition. It may be the domain of the traditional, but it’s an event where folk music and all its branches are celebrated, not just with appreciative listening and gentle applause but also with wild abandon and raucous cheering greeting the vibrant young performers in whose hands the future seems well placed. A festival where there’s something for those who like their music with some drive and passion and those who prefer it subtle and refined. A festival where for every Joan Baez and Peggy Seeger there’s a Keston Cobblers Club and a Sam Kelly trio all ready to pick up the baton and continue to forge ahead and carry the traditional into the twenty first century.
Full photo gallery © Mike Ainscoe…
The official website: https://www.cambridgelivetrust.co.uk/folk-festival/