There is nowhere I would rather be the first weekend of August than in Cambridge for the annual folk festival. It is the music lover’s dream: A great line-up with always some surprises and discoveries, easy to get around, very comfortable camping and best of all - people come for the music. They take photos, some dress up, but they do not come for the social media opportunities. They buy CDs, compare notes with others and best of all - they do not talk through the music! Richard Thompson had the biggest crowd of the weekend and when he was on Stage One you could hear a pin drop.
The set up is quite simple, but it works. Many attendees come every year and you simply cannot beat the atmosphere. Some spend the entire day on chairs outside the main stage, listening, watching the screens and having a picnic. I could not imagine doing that, but it leaves more space inside the tent for those who want to be closer and move around.
Festival-goers have really embraced the water bottle concept and the site was litter-free. Not unimportantly Cambridge still has the best draught Guinness of any festival.
I attended two singing workshops - with Karine Polwart and with Nancy Kerr. I regret not seeing any acts in The Den, the young bands’ stage. I was camping near there and any time I passed I heard excellent sounds coming from inside the tent, but you simply cannot fit in everything.
Guest curator Nick Mulvey added really interesting acts to the line-up. I was disappointed that he was not as visible a curator as his predecessors (Jon Boden and Rhiannon Giddens) and that he did not collaborate with his chosen acts - at least not during their main stage slots.
My main complaint last year had been sound overspill, which did not seem to be as much of an issue this year. Better programming or just luck with the acts I chose to see? I do believe that the Unthanks’ unaccompanied performance was quite drowned out by Talisk thumping away on the main stage. Which brings me to the highlights:
Ladies and gentlemen, I have seen the future of trad and its name is Talisk! Mohsen Amini joked (presumably) that they had finally bribed the right people to get to play the late night slot on Saturday and they were absolutely perfect for it. This is headbanging trad on speed! It had all the lights, a moshpit and a crowd completely going wild. Mohsen Amini was like a man possessed, stomping his feet, jumping up on his chair, roaring at us, gesturing that we should clap, all the while continuing to play his concertina. It is as if you are watching footage that has been speeded up, yet it is all happening in front of your eyes and ears. And they create such a big sound between just the three of them (Mohsen on concertina, Hayley Keenan on fiddle and Graeme Armstrong on guitar).
2. RICHARD THOMPSON
Richard played early evening on Sunday, after the Unthanks. It was quite a contrast. The Unthanks played as a 10-piece, so there was a lot of stuff to be removed off the stage. And yet the changeover took only ten minutes because all Richard needs is a guitar. I have seen him with a small band over the years, but I prefer him completely solo. You do not need anything else when you have those songs: ‘Beeswing’, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’, ‘Valerie’, ‘Persuasion’. The guitar playing was out of this world. Richard included a lovely cover of Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’. He was joined by singer Zara Phillips for ‘Wall Of Death’ and the last few songs of the show, which sadly did not include ‘Bright Lights...’.
3. RYAN YOUNG & JENN BUTTERWORTH
Ryan came recommended by friends and I had to forego Ralph McTell to see him, but boy was it worth it. Ryan is a fiddler from Glasgow and his style is quite reminiscent of Martin Hayes, with Jenn Butterworth accompanying him perfectly on guitar. Jenn incidentally has just been nominated for Musician of the Year at the BBC Folk Awards. All their pieces are instrumental and long, gradually upping the speed and intensity. It was a hypnotic experience and the audience were with them all the way.
4. MICHAEL MCGOLDRICK, JOHN MCCUSKER AND JOHN DOYLE
No surprise to see Michael in 4th place as I am a massive fan and I find him at his best when playing with John and John. This set was simple and superb. John Doyle sang a couple of songs. His Dublin accent made me realize how few Irish acts there were on the line-up this year. John McCusker’s witty banter immediately established a report and his beautiful tune ‘Leaving Friday Harbour’ was a standout. And Michael McGoldrick’s flute playing is just heavenly. This was quite an early gig but very well attended, which shows that while the audience appreciate (tolerate?) adventurous programming, the pure trad and folk acts still pull the biggest crowds.
5. LUCINDA WILLIAMS
Lucinda played a wonderful set as the Saturday night headliner. Many remembered her previous concert at Cambridge (2009), when she had been decidedly grumpy. She appeared a changed woman, chatting to the audience, saying how much she enjoyed being there. She said she had looked into the history of the festival and who had played over the years. She also mentioned that she and her band would soon go back to the U.S. and that she was sad to leave. And speaking of the band - what a band! They are Buick 6, who are a band in their own right: Guitar, bass and drums. Nothing flashy, but so good. Lucinda is very much a woman’s woman and that was obvious when I looked around me (and saw amongst others singer Emily Barker standing beside me). Highlights for me were ‘Blessed’, ‘Drunken Angel’, ‘Steal Your Love’ and ‘Get Right With God’ - all classics from this unconventional superstar.
6. LISA O’NEILL
I have been following Lisa since first seeing her in a support slot at Whelans in Dublin, and from her debut album onwards. Cambridge audiences possibly first encountered Lisa when she played the festival in 2016 and was very well received. She is now signed to the River Lea label in the UK and on album number four, ‘Heard A Long Gone Song’. Lisa played to a packed Stage Two tent. I made a front-row-effort for this show. Lisa’s voice and her songs are totally unique. She was accompanied by a fiddler and a keyboard player, but played some songs solo as well. The set included older favourites ‘No Train To Cavan’ and ‘Pothole In The Sky’, as well as songs from that last, now BBC Folk Awards-nominated album. I love her version of the Pogues’ ‘Lullaby Of London’, as it reminds me of the fact that hearing John Peel play the Pogues was what first got me interested in Irish music. Another triumphant performance from Lisa.
7. KATHRYN TICKELL
I had never seen Kathryn Tickell play live before and was keen to rectify this. I am aware of her status as the musician who brought the Northumbrian pipes to a wider audience. With her current show she has “gone Bellowhead”, and this is no bad thing. There were traditional instrumental tunes, but also more pop-orientated material. Kathryn does not shy away from singing, but she left the main vocal parts to fiddle player Kate Young. The band also included the excellent percussionist Cormac Byrne. The faster tunes really got the crowd going and Kathryn told a very amusing story regarding the meaning of her song ‘O U T Spells Out’. Very much a modern take on folk music and headline material in my view.
8. KARINE POLWART
Karine’s career has been on the crest of a wave for a couple of albums now. She was launching her ‘Scottish Song Book’ at the festival. This is a covers album, but not with modern pop songs rather than predictable evergreens. From it, Karine sang John Martyn’s ‘Don’t Want To Know’, which could have been written about the world today. Karine incorporated a mini version of her workshop into the performance, teaching the entire audience harmony vocals. She also played Frightened Rabbit’s ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’, a personal favourite of mine. She talked about Scott Hutchison and the mental health charity Tiny Changes. It was a varied set with material from throughout Karine’s career, including her song about Trump, ‘I Burn But I Am Not Consumed’.
9. DAOIRÍ FARRELL’S ALL STAR CELTIC SESSION
Daoirí Farrell was playing Cambridge for the third year straight, this time in the graveyard slot on Sunday. For this occasion Daoirí had assembled a stellar group of trad musicians. I had read about this, but when I came back from the bar and saw the band setting up on stage, I was all the same delighted to see Dónal Lunny, as I had momentarily forgotten that he was going to be there. Daoirí started the show on his own, singing the wonderful ‘Creggan White Hare’. To me this is the prime example of what singing should be like. When reviewers use words like ‘measured’ or ‘subtle’ in relation to someone’s singing I am immediately put off. Singing should be loud, convincing and joyful. Daoirí must have sung this song a thousand times and yet you can see he still loves it. The ensuing gig consisted of songs from Daoirí’s albums, as well as a song sung by Beoga’s Niamh Dunne, and instrumental sets. It had the looseness of a session but with musicians so accomplished that it all remained tight. They finished up with ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ and as I was walking back to my tent I heard many people humming that song.
10. THE TWEED PROJECT
This is an English/Scottish collaboration. The line up includes two duos who are successful in their own right, Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar and Josie Duncan & Pablo Lafuente. The gig had a mix of songs and instrumentals. ‘Seven Hills’, sung by Greg, is a beautiful song. Josie sang some Scottish mouth music. They have an engaging spokesperson in fiddle player Ciaran. Supergroups are not always a good idea, but this one works really well. An album is on the way.
11. THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA AND AMADOU & MARIAM
I had doubts when I saw this combination on paper but it was good. On stage were three of the Blind Boys, Amadou & Mariam and a few musicians from either band, but the stage was by no means crowded. It came across as a well thought out and rehearsed collaboration. Amadou & Mariam looked dazzling in red outfits; ironic that the best-looking couple of all cannot see themselves... I didn’t know much about the Blind Boys but thoroughly enjoyed their show, particularly the ‘If I Had A Hammer’ singalong. They have recorded a song together with a timely message, ‘Two Cultures, One Beat’.
12. AMY MONTGOMERY
Amy Montgomery is from Northern Ireland. To call this folk is stretching the definition, but she was a rousing success, so who cares.. Her CD had sold out by the time I made it to the CD stall. Visually Amy would not be out of place in a 70s funk outfit; with her voice she could be in a metal band. Her energy and positivity reminded me of that other up and coming Irish singer, Susan O’Neill. Her set included a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Trampled Under Foot’.
I love desert blues and was pleased to see Imarhan from Southern Algeria on the line-up, thanks to curator Nick Mulvey. Their sound is punchier than Tinariwen’s. I just thought it a pity that they made no effort to connect directly with the audience. There may be a language barrier, but that has never stopped Amadou & Mariam. Either the guys are shy or they do not feel it necessary to talk. But full marks for the gig, which got everybody dancing.
14. THE UNTHANKS
What I admire most about the Unthanks is that they bring something different each time you see them: the ‘Diversions’ projects, different line-ups. At Cambridge they did their unaccompanied trio show in the Club Tent, but I caught their ten piece extravaganza on the main stage. They brought a grand piano, a string section and a trumpet player. Rachel and Becky clog-danced. The sound was perfect and this set comprised of songs from many of their albums, bar their earliest work, which might have brought some lightheartedness amidst the long orchestral pieces.
15. LUCY WARD
Lucy Ward played solo in the Club Tent. I have some of her albums but had not seen her live before. Lucy turned out to be fun and outspoken, mixing her own songs with traditional material and a great David Bowie cover (‘Drive In Saturday’).
16. CHARTWELL DUTIRO
Beautiful mellow sounds from this Zimbabwean mbira master, who effortlessly connected with the early morning hungover crowd and got everybody quietly singing and moving along.
17. OLD MAN LÜDECKE
Eccentric singer and banjo player from Nova Scotia. Another not-like-anyone-else songwriter and a very entertaining gig.
18. THE SISTERS OF ELVA HILLl
Lucy Ward (see 15) wrote the music and was the main singer of this Stage One premiere of ‘The Sisters Of Elva Hill’, a folk ballet no less. The ballet was gracious and intriguing and did not at all seem out of place at a folk festival.
Rip-roaring bagpipe-led trad from Scotland. Fail-safe.
20. BYRONY GRIFFITH
A very folky start to the festival with this Thursday Club Tent performance from a seasoned pro.
21. CALEXICO AND IRON & WINE
I did not think this would be my cup of tea but went because these are highly regarded. This is the kind of singing that I personally do not enjoy - mumbled and quiet. It typifies Cambridge though that even this performance had its moments. It all sounded fantastically crisp and clear, and I enjoyed the trumpet and the accordion. They drew a large and attentive crowd. And they did lift my spirits when they played an Echo & the Bunnymen cover (‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’).