I was at Cambridge Folk Festival last weekend. Glastonbury may have the spectacular location and world famous party vibes, but if I could only come to one festival, Cambridge is the one I would choose. It is musically right up my street and everything is just so pleasant, friendly and comfortable.
When you camp at Cherry Hinton you are so close to the stages that you can get to your tent and back in between sets. The weather was fairly good, even though at Cambridge that does not really matter as the stages are in tents. This was my 11th time at the festival and as many people come every year there are familiar faces everywhere.
Apart from gigs I attended some of the special events. Singer/songwriter Chris Wood did a talk on songwriting, which was fascinating. Audience members would ask about particular songs and Chris would talk about the song, explain technical stuff that I never would have thought about and he played some songs as well.
Eliza Carthy did a similar thing about singing. She rarely plays solo these days, so it was a treat to hear her do quite a few songs completely solo. The Mojo interview was with Kate Rusby this year, who can talk the hind legs off a donkey. Damien O'Kane was with her and accompanied her on the guitar for a few songs. Kate explained that she cannot play guitar anymore due to arthritis in her neck.
1. Gogol Bordello
This will go down as one of the most fun gigs I was ever at. They were exactly at the right place at the right time, as the last act on stage one on Friday night. We had barely recovered from Glen Hansard when the stage was invaded by these 'Ukrainian gypsy punks' from New York. Eugene Hütz is a great frontman, kind of a deranged pirate with wine bottle constantly in hand. There was so much to see and hear and everything played on proper instruments. Not a computer or a gadget in sight. I like that Eugene sings in his original accent. At the end of the show the two dancers threw their big drums into the audience and Eugene and one of the dancers then climbed onto these drums that were being held up by the crowd. It was thrilling stuff and it made for a great change from all the flutes and fiddles.
2. Christy Moore
I had seen Christy a few weeks ago in Killarney, but Cambridge was the better gig. He was accompanied by Declan Sinnott, Seamie O'Dowd and Jimmy Higgins, and I realized that I had missed Declan's contributions in Killarney. Christy paid compliments to the great listening audience. I was a bit unlucky in that a very drunken Paddy who evidently had Christy's greatest hits (we were okay on the newer material...) was near me and roaring loudly along to the songs (he knew them word for word, I have to give him that). He was that drunk that his own friends did not dare to try and silence him. But at least he was not talking and I was more or less able to zone him out. The tent was absolutely rammed. One of the highlights was what Christy described as "something local" - 'Shine on you crazy diamond'.
Cambridge does not publish the performance schedule in advance, so it was only when I got there and saw the program that I learned that Kíla would be the closing act on the Sunday night. Couldn't wish for a more perfect end to the festival. I am a huge fan and therefore biased, but they got a great reception and CDs were selling briskly afterwards. Of all the festivals I go to Cambridge has by far the best stocked CD stall.
4. Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary was on stage directly after Eliza Carthy and her 12-man/woman circus-like Wayward Band and it was the perfect antidote. Accompanied by a guitarist and a keyboard player, Mary's songs are so strong they do not need any embellishment. Her chat in between the songs was very nice too. Another one in the long list of grand country dames I have seen at Cambridge (Emmylou, Lucinda, Rosanne, Nanci Griffith, Kathy Mattea).
5. Glen Hansard
Glen had a huge band with him and played a blinder. His enthusiasm is so infectious. It is like he is still a busker at heart. There is a real carpe diem vibe about his performance. I particularly loved his cover of 'Astral weeks', with just Glen on guitar and his bassist playing. Eugene Hütz said later, in his inimitable Ukrainian accent, that it was “a real honour to play with Glen – respectus maximus”. Glen brought Lisa O'Neill on to sing 'The Galway shawl', as he said he was sorry to have missed her set earlier in the day.
As with Kíla, I am a fan of Solas, rarely miss a gig and I have everything they ever released. This was a top notch trad gig; a great mix of songs and instrumentals. It was my first time seeing them with new singer Moira Smiley. She is good, but then so were all her predecessors.
7. Duncan Chisholm
Due to an unfortunate clash I only saw half of Duncan's show. I had planned to leave halfway through Mary Chapin Carpenter to go to stage two, but Mary was so good that I stayed. The 25 minutes I caught of Duncan's gig were still absolutely beautiful. There are many good fiddlers out there, but it is the fact that Duncan writes all these amazing tunes himself that makes him stand out. I bumped into several of my friends at the CD stall immediately afterwards, so I wasn't the only one who thought this was extraordinary.
8. Le Vent Du Nord
I love the Québécois music. So much so that I actually went there a few years ago. I had a lovely time but was disappointed not to find any of this music. “Ah yes, we believe zis is very popular in Europe”, people would say.... Oh well, their loss. Le Vent Du Nord never disappoint. Despite the early hour (they were on at 11:30 a.m.) it was full in the tent for their gig.
9. Chris Wood
One of these artists that never seem to come to Ireland, so I have to catch him when I can at a festival. Chris is a great songwriter, storyteller and performer. During his songwriting talk he had said that he never really took to playing with a band and quite frankly he does not need one. His was one of a few gigs at stage two that suffered badly from sound overspill coming from stage one, which was most unfortunate.
10. Imelda May
I was in doubt whether to go and see Imelda, because I had seen her before and when you have seen her once you have kind of seen her. I knew that she recently went through a divorce and I wondered if it would be different as a result. It certainly was. She looked fantastic for a start, kind of Shirley Manson meets Chrissie Hynde. Not only was it 'a bit different' – it seems that the split fired up her creativity and the new songs were great. Nice talk in between the songs as well, about how lucky we all were to be standing in a tent listening to music. True of course. She finished with a cover of U2's 'All I want is you', during which she got half of the audience to sing 'Walk on the wild side' and the other half 'You can't always get what you want'. It worked wonderfully well.
11. Lisa O'Neill
This was my first time seeing Lisa with a band. I first saw her in Whelans quite a few years ago when she supported Joe Pug and she has gone from strength to strength. Another great stage personality with very dry humour. She finished with a cover of Jefferson Airplane's 'White rabbit', which really suited her voice.
12. John McCusker Band
One of trad's greatest. I had seen him play many times with others, but this was my first time seeing John McCusker front his own band. Heidi Talbot sang a few songs, as did Kris Drever. I love Heidi's voice, have never quite taken to Kris. Graham Coxon also came on as a guest. Top gig from start to finish.
13. Kate Rusby
Last time Kate played I left halfway through as I wanted to see something else, so this time I was keen to catch her entire set. She has the most beautiful voice and her own unique way of making you feel like you are sitting in her living room listening. She did some old songs I knew ('I courted a sailor', 'Awkward Annie') and a number of new ones, one of which ('Big brave Bill') I have not been able to get out of my head since (“The hero who drinks Yorkshire tea all the time.....”).
A vocal harmony quartet from Boston. They found themselves suddenly in a prime time slot on stage one as Charles Bradley had called in sick. Every year there is one act who takes Cambridge by storm, is on everyone's lips and sells out all of their CDs and this year Darlingside was that act. The boys looked charmingly chuffed with the overwhelming reception they got. Their singing was very beautiful indeed (CSN-style) and very humorous in-between-song-chat as well.
15. Jon Boden
From the 11-piece beast that was Bellowhead to performing completely solo, Jon Boden headlined the Thursday night. It was good, but maybe I had expected more, because I liked Bellowhead so much and indeed Spiers & Boden as well. This is a new venture for Jon. It took me a while to warm to Bellowhead, so no doubt this will get better as the tour progresses.Cambridge being Cambridge, what lurks outside the top 15 is still top quality stuff: Michael McGoldrick, the Afro Celt Sound System, Leyla McCalla, Megson and O'Hooley & Tidow.
One thing I will be mentioning to the organisers about was the new lighting on the Cherry Hinton campsite. These lights make it seem as bright as day in the middle of the night. Who wants that? My tent was under some trees so it was not too bad, but there is no need for lights that you can read by when you actually want to sleep.....
Finally a big thank you to my friends. It was great watching bands together and talking music with you. Hope to see everyone again next year.