Live Review | Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge | Review by Allan Wilkinson
I caught the last half of The Bills’ opening set on Stage 2, whilst settling in for what promised to be another great Cambridge festival weekend. This Canadian five-piece band pleased the music hungry crowd with their own special blend of Latin rhythms, Romany melodies and North American folk tunes, with one or two jazz standards thrown in for good measure. Particularly impressive was their tight vocal arrangements, a good start I thought. The only set I was really interested in seeing on Thursday night was Martha Wainwright’s, which was to be her only appearance over the weekend. Martha’s performance was just as good as I had expected it to be, a run through of just about every song from her debut album and each performed impeccably well. There was a bunch of kids tightly holding onto the safety barrier in front of the stage, each joining in on the chorus of “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” each one of them familiar with the lyrics. I shouldn’t really have been so surprised. Hayseed Dixie were on next, much to the amusement of everyone. On Friday, I sat in an almost deserted club tent waiting for the Mojo interview with Jimmy Webb to begin. If I was certain to be at one single event at this year’s festival, it was this one, not because of this man’s undisputed reputation as a great songwriter, the fact that he wrote such classics as “Wichita Lineman” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” putting those particular towns on the map for one young Brit kid in the Sixties, nor for the fact that he wrote the unfathomable “MacArthur Park”, which today I have difficulty desyphering, but because I just had to be in the same room as the man who wrote “Up Up and Away”! It’s always pleasant when you discover that the ‘person’ is just as impressive as the ‘artist’ and this was definitely one of those revelations, Jimmy coming over as a very pleasant human being. The hour-long Mojo interview was entertaining, revealing and peppered with songs from his impressive back catalogue. His anecdotal delivery during Q&A was almost spellbinding. Although his replies were often concise and unburdened by the usual 1960s loss of memory “if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there” nonsense, he still couldn’t adequately explain what the hell “MacArthur Park” was about, so we we’re all left pretty much in the dark. There seemed to be more festival side shows than usual this year, lots of women on stilts and Sir Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing roped together, complete with snow covered skin suits and beards, whilst attempting to scale the north face of one of the festival’s green plastic trash bins in the main arena.
KT Tunstall headlined Friday night on the main stage, playing for just under an hour with her band and delighting some of the younger members of the audience with a set packed with songs from her debut album Eye To The Telescope. This wasn’t Kate’s festival debut, having guested with the Klezmer hip hop band Oi Va Voi back in 2003, but this was definitely the set that she’ll be remembered for. There’s not much that can be said about Mavis Staples, other than it was thrilling to be in her presence, despite the fact that at times her voice was a little too strained. Perhaps the first lady of Gospel should have joined Karine Polwart on Saturday morning, who conducted a singing workshop in the club tent. I went along to see if I could pick up any tips but soon tired of the energetic warm up exercises, which comprised of much torso twisting, strenuous swimming strokes and breath-taking breathing exercises. She lost me before she started really, but I’m sure if I’d stuck around it would’ve been good for my voice and I would have been slightly fitter. Martha Tilston was joined by a small band of musicians, her set made up of songs from her Bimbling CD, as well as a couple of crowd pleasers, including the the haunting “Willy O’Winsbury”. Martha accidentally gave herself a fat lip by knocking her guitar against her mouth at the beginning of her set. Some of her songs on first hearing come over as slightly whimsical, but that’s the beauty of her song writing and performance. Martha is a throwback from the late Sixties, not unlike Melanie. To close proceedings for Saturday, there was an energetic performance by the Australian based Cat Empire, a funky Latino rhythm ensemble, whose charismatic leader Felix Riebl, a cross between Jay Kay and Jeff Buckley, soon had everyone in the audience swooning at his feet. A perfect dance band to finish a great Saturday at the festival. There’s nothing quite like Sunday morning at Cambridge Folk Festival, I’m always struck by the peace that seems to surround it. They still relay The Archers radio soap over the sound system and middle aged couples sit in their deck chairs reading the Sunday Telegraph and the Observer colour supplement. It’s all very English, very Home Counties. Fat and flushed beer bellies inhabit the Guinness tent at ten in the morning drinking copious quantities of the black stuff before midday. There’s a much younger audience emerging at the festival these days, although you tend not to see any of them until after lunch as they sleep off a good Saturday night party. Johnny Dickinson is an incredibly talented slide guitar player who just happens to be blessed with a remarkably confident Paul Rogers-esque bluesy voice. The fact that he hails from Northumberland and not the Mississippi Delta makes absolutely no difference when you hear how good he is. He played a few songs from his new album English Summer as well as one or two from his fine debut Castles and Old Kings.
Canadian five-piece fusion band The Duhks – pronounced The Ducks – were next band to take to the main stage. I felt I ought to hang around at the front of the stage between Johnny Dickinson and the next act Mary Gauthier. The blend of styles were in fact not easy to categorise and they did have their own ‘sound’, a little bit of French Canadian with a sprinkle of Scottish and Appalachian old timey thrown in. They were young, energetic and I guess they brought some of their unique charisma to the festival. Bob Harris introduced Mary Gauthier to the stage, a singer who he has championed on his radio show for months now. Mary is a New Orleans country blues singer, much in the same vein as Townes Van Zandt, songs of hard living and hard drinking. She was apparently in prison by her eighteenth birthday and has had her fair share of trouble. She tells it how it is. Someone asked her if it is difficult writing those songs – “Nope, it’s living it that’s hard, the writing it down is the easy part”. There was something authentic about Mary Gauthier though and the set was well received by the Cambridge regulars. She was joined by a Nashville guitar player, whose name I didn’t catch, for her set. Cambridge isn’t known for its contribution to what has come to be known as World Music though it does endeavour to put on relevant acts every now and again. I was particularly looking forward to the Tinariwen set on Sunday night. The seven-piece band made up from nomadic Touaregs from the Southern Sahara Desert, came on in full traditional costume and struggled with the local English, speaking and singing in their complex Tamashek language throughout. The only English the leader and spokesman for the band could muster was “welcome to the desert”, which he said after every song. It all added to their incredibly intriguing mystique. The other notable thing about Sunday at Cambridge is that you are aware from the start that the festival is on the home straight, the last evening is often fraught with disappointment, mainly due to the urgency to shut up shop. The bars often close earlier and there’s always a much more visible police presence at the exits. I concede this might be in the interest of public safety, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the overall atmosphere changes during the course of the evening. Rodney Crowell provided one of the finest sets I’ve ever seen at the festival, his high energy set reminding me of a sort of country Bruce Springsteen, a Texan Elvis. He rocked out by performing songs from his prolific back catalogue as well as a couple from his latest offering The Outsider, whilst getting the entire audience behind him for outstanding take on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”. The final band I caught at this year’s festival was the same band who delighted the audience last year when they unexpectedly were asked to stand in for a last minute cancellation. The Old Crow Medicine Show played a lively bluegrass/old timey set, in a ‘packed to the rafters’ – if tents had rafters – club tent. With the festival approaching the end, all that was left to do was to finish the evening off with a communal pint of Guinness in the Guinness tent. I think I saw everything I expected to see, and did all the things I wanted to do, although there’s always something that you miss. All in all a fair festival, certainly not the best by any stretch of the imagination, but good nevertheless. Highlights for me were both Marthas (Wainwright and Tilston), Rodney Crowell, Johnny Dickinson, Tinariwen, Mary Gauthier and the interview with Jimmy Webb, yet not so much his actual set.