Cambridge Folk Festival - Cherry Hinton Hall Grounds

Having lived in Cambridge for nearly six years, it seemed a bit of an oddity that I hadn't been to the Folk Festival yet. So this year I thought I'd take advantage of the discounted tickets offered to local residents and pop along to see what all the fuss was about. Not being a huge fan of folk music in general, but having had my interest sparked by the BBC's recent and excellent series on folk, "Folk Britannia", I thought I'd broaden my mind a little.

View of the Main Stage

Friday 28th July
After a long and hot week in work, what better way to unwind on a Friday evening than to pack a satchel full of beer and head off to watch some live in music in the evening sun? Marcia Ball was first up on the Main Stage not long after we arrived and was a perfect accompaniment to a slap up dinner of fish 'n chips washed down with some rather warmish canned lager. Her impressive voice and almost soft-jazz approach seemed to ease the crowd into the weekend proper and suited the evening air.

After some acclimatisation to the site; small and perfectly organised, the beer tent called with its offer of some proper ale. None of this lager in paper cups, we have real ale in pint glasses or official festival tankards for those looking for a truly perfect vessel for their beverage. Hanging around at the back of the Main Stage allowed us to listen to Richard Thompson with his elegant tunes and impressive guitar playing. A solo set that had plenty of variation for a casual observer as myself, and showed plenty of good humour and was obviously a festival favourite.

Enjoying the evening sunset fuelled by the unimaginably good Badger ale, Amadou & Mariam came on to an almost heroes welcome. Not really folk music but certainly classified in the "world music" bracket, their impressive African rhythms was an enjoyable romp of a set. As I walked across the Stage 2, to get to the now rather busy toilet section, I over heard a wonderful blend of traditional folk music and Celtic rhythms purveyed by the amazing Dervish. These guys had the crowd literally jumping with a thumping beat and upbeat melodies and you couldn't help but join in. An amazing blend of influences that I found out has given them quite a cult following.

So, as the music died out across the site, an impromptu get together in one of the camp sites saw a mix of accordion, guitars and hints of mandolin all fuelled by some rather nice wine and strong cider allowed the folk spirit to carry on into the small hours...

John Butler Trio - Main Stage, Sunday afternoon

Saturday 29th July
So, with an enormous red wine hangover I approached Saturday afternoon at the festival with some trepidation and plenty of water. The forecast had been for showers but entering the site with a blanket of blue sky above us, it didn't look possible.

It was Teddy Thompson's responsibility to ease me into the day. Having seen him as a support act about 18 months ago, I wasn't expecting much but he was certainly better this time around. A solo set (echoes of his father the previous night), he's certainly an opinionated singer/songwriter whose upbeat tunes are a lot more interesting than his slower ones but he seems to lack a certain deftness and humour that might lighten him up a bit and give him an extra dimension.

In a bid to get out of the sun for a bit, the Club Tent seemed like a good bet. Here we were welcomed by The Power Broke Trio; an Australian traditional folk band that played well and competently but were a little too smug about it and slightly ruined any enjoyment you might be able to get out of it.

The same could not be said for the next act; Rachel Unthank & The Winterset. The tent was absolutely rammed for this set from these Geordie lasses - two sisters and friends - who went on to play some of the most moving folk music I've ever heard. An amazing blend of traditional folk songs mixed with their own brand of quirky oddball folk. Their voices were sending shivers down the spines of most of the crowd. The cover of Anthony & The Johnsons "I Am A Boy" was particularly impressive and illustrated all that's great and good about contemporary folk music; the ability to still use the traditional music to convey modern issues. There was also plenty of banter between the girls and the crowd, with them threatening to give out kisses at their CD signing session on the Sunday afternoon. That wasn't the only reason I picked up the album later...

After a pint and a plate of the excellent vegetarian chilli, supplied by the wondrous Blue Moon van, we braved the crowds and pushed down into the Main Stage for Cerys Matthews. Looking visibly nervous as she came on to the stage, she started tentitively, looking like she was playing within herself. As she started "Good In Goodbye" with the wrong chord and in the wrong key, she admitted she was intimidated by the "proper folk musicians who can play". However, with this admission off her shoulders she finally seemed to relax and the set lifted off. Some of the new songs tended to be a little Radio 2 friendly in places, but it was thoroughly enjoyable and Cerys' voice should be held as a national treasure (look out for a review of the new Cerys Matthews album soon on CD Times).

Regrouping towards the back of the Main Stage for some fresh air and the continuing joys of Badger ale, I was impressed with The Chieftains set. Their upbeat numbers had the entire field dancing around; kids, OAP's and everything in between moving to their Celtic beats. Having been sceptical before witnessing their live show, these golden oldies could certainly teach the younger bands a lesson or two on how to enjoy themselves and how to control an audience.

Moving over to Stage 2 for the Saturday evening finale by Capercallie was a perfect way to end the day. Traditional folk music augmented with huge amounts of energy and the occasional bonus of angelic vocals, whipping the crowd up into a frenzy. Everyone seemed to be fuelled by the mix of their music and the ever flowing ale, making the entire tent move with electricity and it was an eventful conclusion to the day.

And then, when it was all finished and we were returning home, the rain came...

Emmylou Harris - Main Stage, Sunday evening

Sunday 30th July
As if by magic, Sunday morning broke to more clear blue skies with enough sun to warm the ground and burn off the rain that had fallen during the night. Nothing was going to spoil the day.

Maybe fuelled by this apparent goodness from above, The John Butler Trio played one of the most blistering and sublime sets of live music I've ever seen, let alone that weekend. Blending all kinds of influences from rock, folk and disco(!) to hip hop and world music into a heady and captivating mix, it was a fantastic sound. Imagine if the Red Hot Chili Peppers had listened to more folk than funk. Butler himself could create some wondrous sounds from his 12-string guitar, the crowd completely mesmerised by his playing and the energetic rhythm section. What a way to start the afternoon.

Eddie Reader was watched from a distance over another plate of the great veggie chilli and although I didn't recognise any of her songs, they seemed to go down well. Her voice sounding clear even across the field and was a nice companion to an early dinner.

More cross site action as we moved across to Stage 2 to catch the set by Cara Dillion. Her voice was beautiful and her songs more political than I'd given her credit for. The more gentle numbers could be a little too similar, but once backed by a full band there was an added dimension, especially the particularly moving song written about her father who had died last year. An unimagined highlight of the afternoon.

For something a little different the Main Stage provided Bettye Lavette with her old school take on soul and R'n'B. As she belted out the tunes with her impressive voice, set itself lacked a little something for me; a spark or a little twist, and in the end she came across as nothing more than a Tina Turner impersonator but without the energy.

We were then treated to one of the reasons why I was here this weekend; Emmylou Harris. The Folk Festival organisers had been trying to get her to come along for numerous years and had finally managed it. Her set was a great way to end the weekend. The first thing that hits you is her voice; a crystal clear instrument of pure joy. Not knowing a great deal of her impressive back catalogue, I was still mesmerised and her a cappella variations with her backing singers were particularly wonderful. The only downside for me was that the quiet numbers didn't work as well in such a large setting; the delicate arrangements couldn’t quite fill the arena. As the band kicked in the atmosphere seemed to be augmented and she was the only artist I saw over the weekend who was allowed an encore... Only one song though! She is truly something special and an opportunity to see someone of this caliber sing in such a setting is not one to be overlooked.

Returning home with her voice still ringing between my ears I reflected on the festival as a whole. I've not been to one as relaxed and as well organised as this. It's also especially well catered for kids and young adults; there's plenty to do alongside the main music stages for those with short attention spans! I couldn't think of a better way to spend a hot and sunny weekend than to listen to music played with such skill, feeling and poise and I think I'll be queuing for another morning next year just to ensure I get tickets again. Highly recommended.

Pictures courtesy of Andrew Dowdall

Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:48:53

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