Cambridge Folk Festival
27-30 July 2017
The 53rd Cambridge Folk Festival once more threw together the great and the good of folk music and beyond. From the appearance of the legends to the tried and trusted, to the bands who pushed the boundaries and those who demonstrated the sort of otherworldly talent that shows that Cambridge has the raw materials to be going strong for years to come.
The hordes found themselves descending on a Cherry Hinton site slightly reorganised to provide what seemed like more spacious accommodation for milling about; scenes not quite reminiscent of Download or Glasto, but showers and some persistent and occasionally heavy rain turned the site into something more like a UK festival scene. Wellies and a little bit of slippery mud was hardly an inconvenience to English Summer festival goers. Even the waterproofed fans who remained steadfast under their brollies and rain resistant coverings outside the main tents proved that some things stoically remain the same. Listening to The Archers over the PA on a Sunday morning is quintessentially Cambridge/English and even the sun and the (hopefully waterproof) factor 30 could be broken out.
Amongst several tweaks and twists, 2017 also saw a major change with Jon Boden as the Festival’s first guest curator. His was a pretty safe selection of half a dozen acts ranging from Folk Award winners The Furrow Collective and the hilarious whilst musically telepathic duo of Belshazzar’s Feast to his old sparring partner Chris T-T. Talk of their early days busking together before they went their very separate ways saw Chris showing off an alternative side to his usual biting and outspoken observations with his set of A.A.Milne poems set to music. Perhaps the most successful selection coming in the form of Kate Young’s inventive Kate In The Kettle trio that swept convention aside and threw in a challenging curveball or two.
The Boden omnipresence saw him invariably joining in with, as well as introducing his selections, turning up for late night campfire and campsite sets and he may even have been the ‘not so surprising’ special guest on Stage 2 in addition to fronting his own band. Talking of which, finding himself timetabled against another of his curator’s choices Lau, who played out their experimental folk rooted explorations on Stage 2, a certain weight of expectancy lay on Boden’s revamped Remnant Kings, expanded with extra strings and brass plus Sam Sweeney taking up the drum stool.
While his curate selection may have played it safe, he showed a bold sense of adventure in a set that showcased his as yet unreleased ‘Afterglow’ album that picks up on the popular semi-dystopian theme. Bold it may have been, yet a move that may have challenged those expecting something more akin to the musical bravado of his recent past, little of which emerged bar the odd occasion Boden switched to fiddle, sparking the music to life. Paced to allow the opportunity to be recalled for an encore, the ‘new’ Remnant Kings debut may have stuttered rather than sparkled.
Folk royalty for 2018 came in the form of a return to the where she appeared at the very first Cambridge Folk Festival for Shirley Collins. Her well documented, some ay say triumphant return with her ‘Lodestar’ album has launced her back into the folk spotlight. Her fascinating story was explored in the MOJO interview by Colin Irwin; a slightly reluctant legend she may be but wasn’t averse to a little “he’s said some nasty things about me” tit for tat dig at fellow folk legend Ewan MacColl. Her Friday night appearance on Stage 1 coincided with the sort of downpour that combined with a less than engaging set to see a constant stream of fans making their way for something more warming. It was left to a welcome appearance of a morris dancer to inject some energy and a case of good intentions yet misplaced timing. In contrast fellow icon Loudon Wainwright provided a much more engaging turn and a thoroughly enjoyable set alongside banjo maestro Chaim Tannenbaum and with the forty year celebrations around Oysterband, showed that life in the older dogs is far from extinct as well as the ‘modern day Fairport’ label that’s become attached to slightly younger upstarts Mawkin who had the honour of opening both Stages 2 and 1 with their ‘Blind Fiddler’ featured sets.
With slightly underwhelming sets from the Indigo Girls and a polished yet cool appearance from Ward Thomas that put the x factor into country pop, Shirley been in a better slot may have been in a better slot swapping with the immaculate Cara Dillon, flying the flag for the ladies, for once not in her usual flowing dresses and shawls but more relaxed in jeans but nonetheless delivering the usual classy set flanked by musical mastermind Sam Lakeman and a crack band including Toby Shaer, Niall Murphy and Ed Boyd. Relaxed enough too not to be put out, more amused, by the fact that band member Luke Daniels (after showing off his polyphon technology in the flower garden) had brought a child’s instrument – right case, wrong contents…
It sounds like a strong female presence and indeed Friday’s timetable en seemed to have been structured specifically to feature female fronted or strongly featured female acts. Some misguided souls even dared to suggest it was ‘Ladies Day’ and a few misplaced comments were seized upon and sparked off some debate in the social media. However it was missold, no doubt that the female presence emerged forcefully through the likes of the subtlety of Roxanne de Bastion and the sublime Lisa Hannigan whilst Amelia Coburn played her dad’s record collection on the ukulele and undersold herself with her personality that personifies the ‘mad as a box of frogs’ tag. Rachel Newton too took a break from her Furrow Collective friends to front her own band in some a mesmerising, hypnotic and occasionally sleazy set.
So who were Louder’s festival highlights? In a word, Coven, where the sum of the parts of O’Hooley & Tidow, Lady Maisery and Grace Petire make for a potent antidote to the polished and anodyne pop folk fayre that professes to class as crossover. A sextet that take their turns in the limelight then deliver the coup de grace with the exquisite ‘Quitting Time’ where the vocal blend melts the soul.
Talking of which, quote of the weekend aside from Grace Petrie’s “socialist, feminist, lesbian, left wing protest singer” line must have been “Right now I’m like a melted chocolate bar!” at the end of a pulsating set from fellow festival stealer Fantastic Negrito, one selected as ‘one to watch’ by Cambridge Folk Fest Operations Director, Neil Jones. A set that had delivered form the start with a seedy blues and soul tinged journey that had him channelling a blue trousered, brown shoed Prince-like force, possibly enough to make innocent folk ladies sweat and swoon. If anyone fainted in shock, no-one would have noticed, their eyes glued to a riveting mid afternoon bit of decadence.
The Orchestra Of Syrian Musicians provided evidence of the broad range of the Cambridge spectrum, decked out in evening wear and adding an element of WTF to the odd daring clap along moment. The sort of WTF that Frank Turner, late sub for ONJ, deals with as a matter of course. His mission to “get the party started,” a party that had been in swing since Talisk stole a march on the two previous days, yet managed to get the throng to forget the rain, get bouncing and join the festivities. Indeed it was Talisk heading up the cast list of bright young things that included Ho-Ro, CC Smugglers, and Beoga whose smiles lit up Stage 1 almost as much as Sharron Shannon’s. Finger picking bluegrass and country rock diced with vibrant Scots and Irish traditions and the more exuberant and impossible to categorise but wholesomely vibrant CC Smugglers and once seen never forgotten festival closers Hayseed Dixie.
Of course, there’s always more to miss than to see but the benefits of tearing yourself away from the main stages and touring the site to find the Club tent turned into a bigger than average folk club, curated by the various folk clubs where you’d find Midnight Skyracer, folk award winner Daoiri Farrell (more concerned with singing his sings and getting his name spelt correctly than talkers at the bar) and the sublime intimate calling card of Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage. The Den hosted a surfeit of talent as usual hopeful of paving the way for an appearance on Stage 1 in years to come (ask Jake Bugg once you’d would your way past security of a rock star tour bus) plus around the grounds you might find talks and workshops or run across an intriguing street theatre peep show or possibly run into Martin Simpson, accompanied by John Smith and a subdued by his standards, Mark Radcliffe, filming a session for Sky Arts.
With the news that Cambridge’s 2018 guest curator is to be 2016 Folk Singer of the Year, Rhiannon Giddens, with the potential of more edgy/less predictable content, 2017 signed off. A typical festival mixed bag of faithfully reliables, disappointments and discoveries but never a festival that you’d want to miss.
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All words and live photography by Mike Ainscoe. You can find more of Mike’s writing on Louder Than War at his author’s archive. He can be found on Facebook and his website is www.michaelainscoephotography.co.uk