A brief downpour on Thursday afternoon may have hinted at things to come, but by the time Mawkin launched into their boisterous opening performance at the legendary Cambridge Folk Festival, the sun was shining, and the stage was set for a remarkable few days of live music. With four stages running in parallel, not to mention workshops, activities and street theatre happening around the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall, it was simply impossible for any one person to take in everything Cambridge had on offer.
The news going into the festival was of Jon Boden’s curatorship, the first time anyone had been appointed to the role. Picking six acts to perform at the festival, as well as performing on stage alongside them, was part of Jon’s brief;
“My basic criteria was choosing people I’d quite like to be in a band with in a different life” Jon explained when asked how he’d approached the selection task, “so now I get to go up stage and pretend I’m in a band with them which is quite nice! It was also about getting a range of stuff. On the one hand there were people like Martin Simpson and Lau who are already favourites at the festival and people who I admire tremendously. On the other end of the scale, I looked for people like Chris T-T who’s never played at Cambridge before.”
I also asked Jon about his own memories and connections with the festival:
“Well, originally I wasn’t a folkie; I became a folkie after I became a folk performer, so I didn’t really know much about the festival when I started playing with John (Spiers). I remember him calling me and saying ‘Jon, Jon, we’ve got Cambridge!’ and I was like ‘Ok….is that good?’ Then I read up on it and realised it was quite a big deal! I remember arriving in John’s Fiesta with instruments sticking out of the window. It was an exciting time when we were just starting out and coming to Cambridge was an important moment in that process.”
The first of Jon’s curated choices was The Furrow Collective, a group who’s 2016 album ‘Wild Hog’ had in Jon’s own words ‘reminded him why he loved folk music. They brought their own unique Murder Ballad performance style to the Cambridge proceedings.
“Festivals are always livelier, ” the Collective remarked later on that evening, “so we had Alex Neilson (Alex Rex, Trembling Bells) on drums with us to make a bigger noise. It became apparent that when there’s just four of us we indulge and play quite slow, so Alex is great to play with. We love Cambridge, we’ve been here a few times in different guise, and it’s nice to come back to a festival that you know. It’s very civilised and gentle!”
The band are planning to start work on a new album in January with a planned release in Autumn of next year; “We always end up with too many songs” they explained, “when we get together it’s so natural and easy, so we’re hoping that’s going to be the same with the next record.”
Meanwhile, the club tent was drawing its own fair share of the Thursday evening crowd. Midnight Skyracer drew a big audience as did the incredibly popular Daoirí Farrell. For Midnight Skyracer, this was only their sixth gig since forming earlier this year. “There weren’t many all-female Bluegrass bands here in England” they explained, “so this was something different for us to do.”
The band are starting recording next month, and there’s a tour in the works for October, but for now, they were over the moon with their Cambridge performance. “Cambridge is great, ” they said, “people are so happ, and they’ve come to enjoy the music, which makes for a great gig. Plus it’s only Thursday, so they’re still fresh!”
Daoirí Farrell, still on a high from winning his R2 Folk award earlier this year and just back from a tour in Canada, was also happy with how his Cambridge appearance had gone. “It was amazing” he smiled, “the audience was so lovely and responsive…and they were actually all really good singers, which can’t be said for every festival! No offence to anywhere else, but I’ve always wanted to play at Cambridge, ever since I started my music career. It’s such an honour to be here. Next year I’d definitely buy tickets to come back, even if I wasn’t playing here. I’ll bring me van and cooker over, and I’ll cook a fry for everybody in the audience!”
Back at Stage 2, the haunting vocals of Benjamin Francis Leftwich would have been a tough act to follow for many, but when Scottish trio Talisk confidently sat down to round off Thursday evening, it was only a matter of minutes before their frenetic energy had blown the roof off, leaving the whole tent dancing along with most of the crowd that had gathered outside.
The Friday line-up was chock-full of quality. London duo Worry Dolls lit up the main stage with their harmony driven indie-pop in their most prestigious performance to date. They were still buzzing about it later that afternoon;
“This was one of the best moments for us so far in our career. We’ve been really excited to play Cambridge, we’ve always wanted to play here, so to be able to come here for the first time and play on the main stage is just surreal. And to have everyone sing-along to our songs, it’s like a childhood dream. It’s one of the best folk festivals in the country; they always get the best in folk music here. It’s for real music lovers as well; people listen so intently. We’re going to be on a natural high for a couple of days after this!”.
The duo are off to Belgium for their next show, followed by a tour of Ireland and then a headline tour in November.
Amelia Coburn delighted the stage 2 audience with her quirky performance, explaining her act as “I basically play my dad’s record collection on my ukulele!”, while in the late afternoon Lisa Hannigan brought class to proceedings with her incredible voice. By the time UK country starlets Ward Thomas kicked off their set the heavy rain had started. That drove everyone forward into the main tent which only served to raise the audience energy even higher.
Shirley Collins’ performance, fifty-two years on from her appearance at the first ever Cambridge Folk Festival, was a special moment and warmly welcomed by the crowd. The stage was then set for Indigo Girls, who were simply fantastic. With sixteen studio albums, a huge catalogue and thirty years of touring experience to draw on, the Cambridge audience were treated to a thoroughly professional show from a class act.
“It was 2008 when we were last in the UK” Indigo Girls explained earlier that evening, “We wanted to come back, it’s awesome. The crowds have been incredible in the UK.”
The festival’s energy levels were definitely raised a notch further on Saturday. Moxie, hailing from Ireland’s West coast and one of my personal highlights of the festival, got the crowd up and moving with their infectious mix of Gaelic energy and grooves.
However, even Moxie couldn’t have prepared the Cambridge audience for Fantastic Negrito. Strutting onto the main stage and completely owning it, the Grammy winning Blues-Rock showman proceeded to throw every ‘guitar god’ move in the book along with quite a few that probably aren’t in the book. He played the audience for the entirety of his set, and they loved him for it. The buzz was still in the air long after Fantastic Negrito had left the Cambridge stage with the audience wanting more.
A big cheer went up for The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, reunited last year after many had to flee their country due to the conflict. Beoga got the Stage 1 audience dancing again whilst festival favourite Sharon Shannon and her band impressed with a fantastic display of musicianship that left everyone dancing and cheering in spite of the rain that had returned.
Jon Boden returned to the stage with his ten-piece band The Remnant Kings to debut music from his new album ‘Afterglow’. “It’s a follow-up to my second solo album which was called ‘Songs From The Floodplain’” he explained, “which was a post-apocalyptic concept album, loosely speaking. It’s like that album set the scene and this now follows on within that context. It’s the story of one night in a street carnival in an abandoned city.”
“I was originally thinking that I shouldn’t do too much of the new stuff,” Jon said regarding the decision to play the new album material at the festival, “but then thought no, I’ll do it all! We’ll see what people think, I hope people like it.”
Frank Turner stepped into the Saturday evening headline slot in place of Olivia Newton John who had to withdraw for health reasons. Earlier in the afternoon, Frank chatted about whether he’d be adapting his normal show in any way to suit the Cambridge audience;
“There’s part of me that that thinks you should tweak the set, you should play to your audience” he explained. “There’s another part of me that thinks ‘fuck ’em! Just be who you’re gonna be!’ The thing is within my catalogue there are things that range from the punky end to the folky end…today we’re leaning more towards the folkier end, which is fun for me because there’s a lot of stuff we haven’t played for a while because we’ve been playing a more punk set on tour with Blink-182. There’s a bit more mandolin today than there usually is!”
“This is my fourth time at Cambridge Folk Festival” Frank continued, “and still to this day I feel very privileged to be welcomed here because I’m very aware that whilst folk is an influence on what I do, I’m not a traditional folk singer and never have been…and probably never will be. I’ve sung a couple of trad songs in my time and some of my earlier records have a bit more traditional influence, but punk rock is definitely the foundation of what I do, so to be welcomed here is a great thing.”
From the moment Frank launched himself onto the main stage with ‘The Next Storm’ he had Cambridge singing along triumphantly in a show that was loud, energetic and frankly glorious.
Saturday night wasn’t all about the main stage however. Over on Stage 2 the band that have ‘busked themselves into the big time’, CC Smugglers, were dishing out their own brand of fantastic entertainment. There was clearly a whole section of CC Smuggler fans in the audience; by the end of the set it was clear that the rest of the crowd were signed up too.
The buzz around the festival on Sunday morning was all about Niteworks, the late-night Saturday act who’d wowed the Cambridge crowd with their incredible blend of Gaelic melodies and instrumentation set over a fierce electronica backdrop. It was fantastic watching a young band taking traditional music and doing some fresh with it. That trend was continued Sunday morning by Hò-rò, who’s lively and punchy set of traditionally inspired tunes was just what the audience needed to wake them up for the festival’s final day.
Dublin gypsy tunesmiths The Eskies provided a popular and wonderfully raucous performance, which was followed by an altogether more refined and impressive set from Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party featuring some of folk’s finest supporting Fay’s distinctive and expressive vocals.
“Cambridge is a really unique festival” Fay reflected earlier that day, “particularly in terms of the media stuff that’s going on. The artists get really excited about it and put different shows together. It’s a great festival for booking people who are launching new stuff. It’s brilliant, although the artists all then get a bit terrified! But that’s the point of live music; just going to see a band play music exactly as it is on the CD and it’s the same gig at every festival, can get a bit stale and boring. So here, and Shrewsbury is another great example, by commissioning new stuff and just giving artists license to try something new is brilliant. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but I think it’s quite exciting.”
Speaking of trying something new, Fay has just received funding for a research project looking at fairy tales and myths. She’ll be working with a medieval folklore specialist and other musicians to identify legends and myths that haven’t yet been translated into music with a view to turning them into experimental songs that will then be staged at Bristol Old Vic.
The biggest cheer of the festival was reserved for Loudon Wainwright III, who took the stage to perform hilarious songs about getting old. “It’s a folk-festival” he exclaimed to the audience, “so we’re going to have a sing-along. If you don’t sing along, we’re doing Kumbaya. So, your fate is in your own hands!”
Over on stage 2 Blue Rose Code was creating his own magic. Supported by his amazing band and the legendary Danny Thompson on double-bass, Ross Wilson drew the Cambridge audience in close with a stunning set featuring songs from his new album; a fusion of folk, jazz and poetic lyricism.
Speaking before the performance, Ross reflected on the difference between performing at festivals compared to his own shows;
“There’s a massive difference. Festivals are a lot harder work. When you play your own shows people have paid money to come and see you. Although Cambridge isn’t so much like this, often at festivals the music is incidental to the experience; people come to eat and drink and if they happen to see a band then great. However, the amount of times we’ve played festivals and then eight, nine, ten months later someone will come up to me after a gig and say we saw you at this or that festival. Festival gigs are nowhere near as intimate or captivating but I think when you can capture an audience, capture new fans and really engage them, it can be really special.”
Ross went on to reflect on the year so far; “It’s funny, I was going to take this year off. I’d moved back to Scotland to get a life to write about and I was working in a rehab. But the more I said no to gigs, the better the offers became. All of a sudden I’d gone from planning to do nothing with music this year, to writing and recording a new record, meeting a partner and now we’re expecting a baby. So it’s gone from being a really low-key year to being the most important year of my life.”
It was left to one man and his guitar to bring Sunday evening, along with the festival, to its conclusion. Jake Bugg was returning to headline at the festival where he once appeared on the fringes at as a teenager.
Watching the multi-generational audience as they stood transfixed by the 23-year-old’s hypnotic drawl and finger-picking served as a reminder that as much as this festival is about amazing musicians, it’s also about the people; the people who sang, danced, drank, laid in the sun, hid under rain-soaked umbrellas and generally spent these few magical days breathing in the sights and sounds of a wonderfully organised event.
Daoirí Farrell image by Mike Ainscoe. All other images by Rob Bridge.