Cambridge: Dreaming spires. The Backs. Shoals of students meandering in and out of traffic on rusty bicycles. Punting on the Cam. The city of Cambridge could be considered a cliché.
The Cambridge Folk Festival (CFF) is not. Almost universally accepted as the pre-eminent folk festival in Europe, CFF has done a tremendous amount in recent years to ensure its future, by tweaking structural and performance elements such that an extended stay within its boundaries quickly establishes its claim to cater for both the old and newer set of festival-goers. Part-funded by the City Council and a range of sponsors, a high-days and holiday feel pervades everything it sets out to do, buoyed by the community spirit of its attendees, some of which (see later) come back year after year.
It may just be me, but there is also a distinct whiff of the unusual about the event, hosted once more in the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall. Strange things begin to happen before I even make the Festival. In the car park of my hotel (the tents were sold out), a car identical to mine rolls past while I’m waiting for a taxi and for a brief moment I think it’s being stolen. Same make, model, colour and year; what are the odds? Having assured myself it’s a coincidence, I arrive at Cherry Hinton Hall around midday. It’s a little overcast but warm. Everything, from the manned gates to the tented areas, the various stages and concession stalls feels well established, as if someone has just pressed Ctrl>V and pasted the whole lot into its designated area. The festival occupies its space as if by right, which considering the Hall has been the only venue since its inception in 1965, you could argue it does.
I pick up my various passes for the weekend and get my bearings, grabbing a coffee and making my way to the double portakabin behind a hedge that doubles as the press office and photographer’s bolt-hole. Inside people tap away at laptops, buff camera lenses and scan the performance diary for the day. It dawns on me that a certain affinity with logistics will be required if I am to cover the ground, and artists, that I want to write about for Folk Radio, so before I venture out again I hit project management mode and draw up a schedule for the day. As far as I can make out, I won’t have to make any difficult decisions; all the artists I’m interested in fit neatly into a timing pattern that still allows me to eat and make occasional notes.
The Festival is more than halfway through its Golden anniversary as I walk the grounds to get my bearings. The first edition, in 1965, included an early Saturday afternoon slot for Paul Simon, but was headlined by The Clancy Brothers and featured some well-known family names who are still engaged in the folk world of the twenty-first century; The Watersons and Peggy Seeger among them. The artist budget in ’65 was £1,500, and Ken and Joan Woollard often opened their house to travelling musicians so they had somewhere to stay. If it all smacks of sticky-tape amateurism, you’d probably be right, but the principles upon which the festival was incepted have helped it to maintain its unique standing, and it’s as far removed from amateurism in 2014 as Billy Bragg is from Conservatism.
Martin and Eliza Carthy talking to CFF TV
The festival’s format is little changed. There are four main venues, the Den, the Club Tent, Stages 2 and 1, catering for increasingly larger audiences and better known faces from the world of roots music. In addition, the People’s Frontroom, a small tent full of sofas where pretty much anyone can pick up an instrument and play, is a recent and welcome area close to The Den. Stages 1 and 2 are housed inside what can only be described as enormous cattle sheds. They remind me of the indulgently named arrival and departure buildings at Darwin International, Australia, circa 1991, where you could smell the evidence of recent bovine activity whilst you waited for customs. These sheds, however, smell of ale, mown grass and gently simmering humans. They are clean and devoid of cows, a mercy for us all. There are no seats, so the majority of the crowd stands or lays claim to a spot with picnic blankets and folding chairs. They move around the festival only when nature or the waft of curry, pizza or vegetable burritos calls. Two huge screens either side of the main shed relay crisp pictures of the action on its cavernous stage within.
All the stages are within five minutes’ walk of each other, arranged around a large ‘L’ shaped open space bordered with concessions and the odd bar or two. The program of events extends beyond these centres to include the Folk-Net Café and numerous spaces where workshops on everything from meditation to music and movement classes takes place all festival long. I have scribbled ‘Megson in the Club Tent’ in my notepad as my first full set. In the meantime, I decide to grab lunch and see what’s in the main shed. As a result, my first taste of live music comes courtesy of the Yves Lambert Trio, natives of Quebec who perform a hybrid of bluegrass and Celtic songwriting that generates a ceilidh atmosphere amongst the watchers. I’m immediately struck by how good the sound quality is; all the instruments are evident in the mix and the vocal harmonies are separated. Not bad, considering it’s midday in bright sunshine and not the corner of an Irish bar at midnight. They get a great reception, the main shed largely full already. This is odd, I think; we’ve only just passed the yard-arm and some people are dancing and whirling like dervishes, impervious to those around them. It can’t be the alcohol, right?
Over to Stage 2, a smaller but no less packed affair. Dave Bromberg and Larry Campbell are giving a master-class in old-time finger-picking, the highlights of which are a brilliant take on Browns Ferry Blues and Deep Elem Blues, which Campbell (a dead ringer for Jackson Browne from certain angles) recorded with Levon Helm at the Ryman. Whoops and hollers all round.
In the Club Tent, the Acoustic Routes sessions include a man with a guitar (whose name I never catch – apologies) conducting the crowd in various sing-a-longs where his own words are matched to famous tunes. One, a paean to nights out with the lads that end with a curry is sung to a Paul Simon song. It’s clever and hilarious and gets belly laughs as a reward. As he troops off the tent begins to fill at a rapid rate, soon becoming standing room only. An up and coming darling of British folk is about to take the stage; Stu and Debbie Hanna of Megson.
Megson’s 8-song set includes all the aspects of modern folk music we’ve come to expect whilst retaining the bedrock of the genre; solid, heartfelt storytelling, often with the funny bone fully engaged. When I get the chance to interview them a little later, they are keen to emphasise the need to ensure both humour and pathos are apparent in equal measure, ‘We try to work ideas into new shapes. We write together and don’t always agree, but the tension is a good marker for quality control’. The River Never Dies from latest album In A Box – ‘We recorded it at home whilst our 3-year old was asleep’ – kicks proceedings off with its blatant dig at the ‘Iron Queen of ‘85’ (who could they be talking about?). In A Box and Dirty Clothes are sage and witty reminders that when folk is delivered to the highest quality, the songs drag the smallest details about the human condition into the light and make them the stuff that matters.
There are two set highlights (it’s all good though!); The Longshot is a beautiful song about taking your chances, built on a football analogy and an extended chorus you have to sing for the rest of the day. Stu confirms that despite being from Teesside, they remain football fans, mentioning Royston FC and being barracked by the odd Mackem or two. It’s requested by the crowd and duly delivered. The second is The Grinder, a final song sing-a-long. Debbie & Stu don’t stop smiling all the way through, which is hardly surprising as the Club Tent loves them. As they tell me afterwards, ‘That reception was great, we were really chuffed. There were some familiar faces in the crowd too, which was nice.’
It appears Megson’s move south – ‘I went to music college in London’ says Debbie – their relentless touring schedule and their wish to retain the regional aspect of their music is paying off. Perhaps Debbie won’t need to record her vocals in the evenings for the next album; they may well be looking to bigger and brighter things.
An Impromptu performance for CFF TV
- The River Never Dies
- The Old Folks Tea
- In A Box
- Dirty Clothes
- Still I Love Him
- Bet Beesley And Her Wooden Man
- The Longshot
- The Grinder
Time for another wander. The site has a relaxed, laid-back groove. It’s convivial, no doubt assisted by the sunshine and well organised. Food and drink prices are reasonable. Most importantly, regardless of age, everyone I walk past is engaged in some aspect of the proceedings – there appears to be a genuine love of the music. CFF attendees bring guitars, mandolins, banjos & ukes; impromptu sessions spark at the duck pond or outside the Club Tent. The de-rigeur clothing item is the T-Shirt, which crosses all social boundaries and on the rare occasion, tasteful ones too. I see lots of festival Ts obviously, but also ‘Cool as Folk’, ‘NHS not Trident’ and ‘The only problem is, there is no problem’, handy soundbites captured so a spirit of rebellion can continue to simmer amid the £5 burgers, poetry and politics turned into convenient slogans for those determined to maintain Cambridge’s reputation as a socially aware gathering.
Tribes of Levi-clad Neil Young and tie-dye-dress adorned Joni’s stand shoulder to shoulder with families chasing after 2 year olds as they make their get-away towards a stage or a burger van or the duck pond – I see one whipper-snapper expertly lose the nappy and streak through the audience during the North Mississippi Allstars. The middle-class set in matching tailored shorts unfold opera glasses and wonder where to unload the M&S lunch and pitcher of Pimms. Excited teens move like packs through the crowd, mobile phones aloft in the hope of a strong signal, squealing like One Direction fans when they recognise their current heroes walking past. Old-timers with Cropredy Ts that would stand of their own accord slam battered tankards onto one of the many bars and nod for the taps like they’ve just sat in the snug of their local inn, winding up for another round of ‘I remember when Richard Thompson only knew three chords’.
CFF is a temporary glitch in the space-time continuum, a mixture of normal and not so normal. Maybe there’s a force-field at the gate – having walked through it, all inhibitions drop away. It’s okay to whirl like a dervish, link arms with a stranger and do-si-do, sing out of key like no-one’s listening and gush unintelligibly to the stranger next to you about the artist they too are watching (okay, that was me).Retaining inhibitions, or indeed any of the repressed English social mores, appears irrelevant in the onslaught of open-hearted displays of passion and delight. Cheers, roars and applause ripple over the site from all corners and the buzz of conversation, the strum of chords and the rhythm of bongos create a messy sound foundation on which the afternoon events are carried. From 8 to 80 (and quite a few younger and older than that), attendees indulge in a musical diet as varied as their ethnic and cultural make-up and with one thing in common. They’re all together, single of purpose; a musical congregation looking for the next bright chord, the next fiddle riff and opportunity to dance, a favourite couplet; an experience they can take home.
The Den is the smallest main venue, a lovely red tent open on one side to allow passers-by to sit on the grass and watch performances. The stage is decorated with pictures hung in frames and a mock fireplace. When I arrive in advance of my next artist, the UK country duo The Shires, an appreciative audience is watching The Dovedale Trio and then Moor Ross Rutter, a superb fiddle, guitar & accordion trio who work them into a polite lather and receive a huge cheer for their efforts. As they sing their last two numbers, dark clouds roll over and rain starts to fall. The tent fills to bursting and those of us caught on the perimeter are gifted a shower courtesy of the run-off from the tent ceiling. This makes note taking quite difficult, so I lean into the tent to write, causing several people nearby to titter with amusement. Then the heavens open and Moore Ross Rutter up the ante to be able to compete with the weather. It makes their joyful din all the more exciting, as we all make like sardines on the 6:30 to Liverpool Street. It’s just about done when the compere introduces The Shires.
What will Cambridge make of modern Country? Find out in part 2 soon.