Live review: Cambridge Folk Festival (30 Jul – 2 Aug ’15)

Joan Armatrading, Cambridge Folk Festival
The Den, Cambridge Folk Festival

The Den, a statement wallpapered tent with a smattering of rugs for those with weary bones

Songwriting saunters along to Cherry Hinton Hall for one of the friendliest festivals, featuring a wide array of folk talent

ne of the most memorable images from Cambridge Folk Festival was the blanket of camping chairs cluttering the lawns of Cherry Hinton Hall. Some were empty, skeletal place markers that refused to leave a prime spot but most were inhabited by those who had hunkered down for the duration. We soon learned that outside was for sitting and inside for standing, woe betide anyone who dared challenge this accepted custom. It’s a strangely inaccurate impression of one of the friendliest festivals in the calendar. Aside from this deckchair decree, the atmosphere is as relaxed and good-natured as you could wish for. But it’s the music that we’re here to talk about so let’s get cracking….

Friday morning seemed like a good time to check out The Den, a statement wallpapered tent with a smattering of rugs for those with weary bones. One of the smaller stages, it was the ideal showcase the lesser known and up-and-coming acts. We settled down to hear Amy Goddard’s delicately enchanting tunes. The pulsating and worldly rhythms of Òkina then took over, with a bass guitar getting passed between members before Crewdson & Cevanne introduce us to instruments like The Sonic Bonnet and Concertronica – which they use to capture soundscapes on songs like the slightly menacing Butter Hill. Within three acts it was clear just how broad a genre folk can be, even the quacking ducks in the pond outside seemed to approve.

Wilko Johnson

Wilko Johnson (left) and his rhythm section of Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe

Having satisfied our curiosity we ventured to Stage One where Angaleena Presley (formerly of country band Pistol Annies) was charming the growing crowd. A self-proclaimed redneck, wearing red boots, she plays songs about the struggles of everyday people. Her performance featured solo material such as the sardonic If You Bless My Heart I’ll Slap Your Face, her old band’s The Hunter’s Wife and a cover of Loretta Lynne’s First City. One man who doesn’t need to win over the people is Wilko Johnson. Met with a hero’s welcome, the affection carried on throughout. Wilko and his rhythm section of Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe tore their way through a high energy set of spiky guitar led songs such as the Dr. Feelgood classic Back In The Night. Extended jams demonstrated their dynamic musicianship before Bye, Bye, Johnny brought things to a storming end and gave everyone a blast of pub rock to fuel them for the weekend.

Frank Turner

Popular troubadour Frank Turner

There was just enough time to return to The Den to see young hopefuls Seafret and Ward Thomas before returning to Stage One for Frank Turner. Seafret oozed confidence and Jack Sedman is a frontman with a voice as mighty as his hair, masterfully illustrated on the swelling Atlantis. Ward Thomas may not yet have the same emotional resonance in their music but played a show heavy with well- crafted UK country pop songs off debut From Where We Stand.

Ahead of the release of new album Positive Songs For Negative People, Frank Turner could have been forgiven for playing mainly new material, but instead the popular troubadour delivered a boisterous and impassioned collection of songs which mined his solo career to date. A packed Stage One enthusiastically greeted old numbers like If I Ever Stray and Reasons Not To Be An Idiot. Toasting the audience and changing the words to Wessex Boy in order to mention a couple of local landmarks Turner walked the line between crowd-pleasing and trying too hard but his devoted following lapped up his every word.

Charlie and Craig Reid are still riding the wave of popularity which now greets The Proclaimers wherever they go. Their back catalogue is more popular than ever and they were happy to delve into it during their headline slot. Dropping Letter From America early on, other highlights included Over And Done With, Let’s Get Married and Misty Blue. Even the band themselves got carried away and Life With You came with added windmill guitars. By the time I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) closed the set the audience’s jubilation (and mass singing) had reached a euphotic summit.

The Proclaimers

Charlie and Craig Reid: still riding the wave of popularity which greets The Proclaimers

The Stray Birds

The Stray Birds: authentic sounding blend of country and bluegrass

Saturday started with a pair of trios on Stage One. First up were The Stray Birds from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Playing an authentic sounding blend of country and bluegrass they were one of the highlights of the weekend. Equally adept at twostep shuffles like New Shoes and heartfelt ballads such as Best Medicine, their charismatic presence was the perfect tonic early in the day. Show Of Hands may have been around a lot longer but they celebrate traditional English/Irish music with similar devotion. Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes are clearly comfortable onstage together and not even a dropped guitar and spilt glass of water could spoil the mood. In this setting, songs like Longdog, The Keeper and Roots sounded wholly at home and the anti-banking song AIG proved there is still plenty of anger left in the folk scene.

Show Of Hands

Show Of Hands: Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes

The Skatalites

The Skatalites: the party started in earnest when they took to the stage

It was from the traditionalists to the legends as Gretchen Peters and The Skatalites brought some musical royalty to town. Peters is an inductee in the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame who has penned songs for country legends like George Strait. Here she mainly played tracks from this year’s Blackbirds album and delivered them with passion and an exquisite voice. The party started in earnest when The Skatalites took to the stage, many of the faces may be new but the quality remains as high as ever. The eternal Doreen Shaffer led the way on Sugar Sugar, Nice Time and Adorable You before leaving the stage in time for the supersonic space reggae of Guns Of Navarrone to bring the house down. Not wanting the fun to stop there we rushed over to Stage Two to catch Skinny Lister in full throttle, a chaotic and uproarious folk-punk six-piece whose appearance ends with a crowd surfing double bass.

Skinny Lister

Skinny Lister: a chaotic and uproarious folk-punk six-piece whose appearance ends with a crowd surfing double bass

The Unthanks

The Unthanks: Sisters Becky and Rachel put on a bewitching show

Of all the acts on the bill it was The Unthanks that we were most keen to see and they did not disappoint. Sisters Becky and Rachel put on a bewitching show, accompanied onstage by a string quartet and full backing band. Magpie and Madam from the recent Mount The Air went down just as well as more familiar songs like King Of Rome and Lucky Gilchrist. The arrangements were sweeping and the harmonies dazzling, throw in some clog-dancing and a cover of King Crimson’s Starless and you’ve got a festival stealing spectacle. So much so that Joan Baez’s headline slot feels almost anticlimactic and overly packed with singalong covers like It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, The House Of The Rising Sun and Imagine. Of course there were highlights like Silver Dagger and Joe Hill and perhaps it’s churlish to expect more from a 74-year old living legend who can recall being their when Dylan went electric.

Bella Hardy

Contemporary folk singer Bella Hardy

The Lone Bellow got things going on Sunday by blasting the roof off of Stage One. This Brooklyn trio all have great stage presence, with Kanene Pipkin stalking her bandmates as if possessed by her mandolin, and their explosive country rock blew away a few cobwebs. Teach Me To Know ended the set and cemented the feeling that another great new discovery had been made. Next up was the contemporary folk singer Bella Hardy whose blend of traditional country and FX was one of the most modern sounding on the bill. Her beguiling vocals soothed those who were unsure of the programmed loops, and tracks like The Only Thing To Do quickly confirmed her as a unique talent on the Cambridge bill.

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Then came a one-off festival moment which everyone will claim to have witnessed in years to come. Michael Rosenberg aka Passenger, played a busking slot in the festival’s beer tent back in 2011 and decided to pay homage to that moment by repeating the trick. There were gasps of excitement as he appeared in front of an intimate audience of lucky drinkers, and über fans in on the secret. Doffing a hat to his past by playing the buskers favourite Girl From The North Country he then treated the small gathering to favourites like Scare Away The Dark and the new track The Long Road. His singing voice might not be to everyone’s taste but this was a genuine feel good moment.

We felt like we should try and see a local band next and so watched The Willows playing on Stage Two and by mixing old traditional songs, storytelling and original compositions theirs was a performance which could sum up the festival as a whole. They had the fans jigging along with their upbeat folk, especially during the hoedown section of John Harvey with heavily pregnant singer Jade Rhiannon still joining in the fun despite her sizeable bump.

Cambridge Folk Festival

Morris dancing: another of English folk music’s traditions being honoured at the Cambridge Folk Festival

Joan Armatrading

The mighty Joan Armatrading closed the festival

It was left to the mighty Joan Armatrading to close our festival – having already seen Passenger we had a good excuse to knock off a little early. Her guitar playing is still as blistering as her wit is sarcastic and she blazed through her back catalogue, reminding everyone just how iconic it is. Despite teasing the crowd that tonight was going to be the night that she didn’t play Love And Affectation she casually dropped it mid show, to the delight of her many fans, along with the anthemic Drop The Pilot and the heart-breaking The Weakness In Me brought a tear to the eye of those around us. Having alluded to the farcical nature of encores Armatrading doesn’t leave the stage so doesn’t need to return for the final song, Willow. The day has been won.

So what were our lasting memories of Cambridge Folk Festival? Family-friendly, welcoming and inclusive (once you’ve worked out the thorny issue of the camping chairs). Folk may be too limited a term for the music performed here, but there was a noticeable thread running through the weekend. All the acts seemed honoured to be playing and wanted to pay homage to the scene’s songwriting roots and traditions. It created a unique feeling of looking back while still moving forward and gives this weekend the edge over all its rivals in the cluttered festival calendar. We’ll be seeing you next year.

Words & pics: Duncan Haskell

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