Cambridge Folk Festival 2006

Live Review | Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge | Review by Allan Wilkinson

The opening act at this year’s festival was a band called Mauvais Sort, which is French for Bad Spell, a dance band from Quebec who set the mood for the entire festival.  It was good to see dancing so early in the weekend.  Chumbawamba acoustic and Nizlopi also played during the opening night, the song about a “JCB” continuing to irritate ear-worm fashion.  Richard Thompson was the biggie for Friday, both on stage and during his on stage interview.  The Mojo interview, hosted by the magazine’s Phil Sutcliffe, was the third one so far, the previous two being with Loudon Wainwright in 2004 and Jimmy Webb last year.  Each year I make an effort to attend and this year was no exception.  The aspect of these interviews I enjoy the most isn’t necessarily the informative and often candid conversation but the impromptu acoustic performances from the artists themselves.  The first act of the Friday evening was the alleged godfather of what we now know as Americana, Tom Russell, whose set had all the traits of a much purer American music witnessed previously in such greats as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, both of whom I have previously seen at this festival.  With amazingly obscure programming that is sometimes the case at Cambridge, Tom’s set was sandwiched between two ceilidh performances by Whapweasel.  On the main stage was Marcia Ball, a Louisiana-based blues singer who could rock the house like no other.  I couldn’t get my head around how such a sound could come from such a slender little woman.  It was almost like the archetypal frumpy librarian singing Dr John, an exciting set, which left you wondering who could possibly follow it. 

I’ve seen Richard Thompson a number of times now, once with Linda, a few times solo, a couple of times with Fairport Convention, but it’s when he’s on his own on stage that I appreciate him most.  He holds the audience spellbound throughout and I’ve never seen a bad performance yet.  He opened with “When the Spell is Broken” and sang one or two gems during his set “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and “Beeswing” as well as the odd stinker “Valerie”.  The final two acts I managed to catch tonight were Uiscedwr and Waking the Witch, both of whom I’ve seen before in Doncaster.  A good end to a good day.  Having missed several crucial acts on Saturday due to me nipping across country to attend the Nick Drake Gathering in Tanworth-in-Arden, I was keen on catching up and made sure I caught the second sets of Nickel Creek, Teddy Thompson, John Butler and Salsa Celtica on Sunday. 

The first performers on the main stage after the traditional Archers’ omnibus broadcast was the amazing Rodrigo Y Gabriela, two mind blowing Mexican guitarists now resident in Dublin.  Having heard a couple of their extraordinary albums I was quite familiar with the tunes they played, but actually seeing what they do to their guitars in terms of percussive effects on stage, was quite staggering.  I caught much of the John Tams, Capercaillie and John Butler Trio sets, whilst basking in the blistering hot sun in front of the main stage.  I guess this was my most relaxed period of the entire festival.  Over in the club tent, Rosie Doonan and Ben Murray performed their showcase set and hopefully collecting a few new fans in the process.  I never tire of hearing these two musicians and they played a near perfect set this afternoon to a packed house.  The evening promised to be filled with excitement with an Emmylou Harris finale.  On the Radio 2 Stage, Nickel Creek were playing a storming set.  These young musicians make up one hell of a bluegrass band; I like to think in terms of Alison Krauss with attitude.  The mandolin player Chris Thile is one of the most gifted mandolin players I’ve ever witnessed.  I feared Richard Thompson would bother us with his rendition of Britney Spears’ “Oops”, which we all got away with in the end, but it was down to Nickel Creek to give us Miss S’s “Toxic”, which was actually wonderfully comical. 

Teddy Thompson appears to be doing exactly the same as Rufus Wainwright, Eliza Carthy, Martha Wainwright; he’s making a brilliant reputation for himself in his own right despite having such notable parentage.  Ploughing through most of the songs on his second album Separate Ways, Teddy brought to Cambridge some of the youthfulness previously provided by the likes of Kate Rusby, Cara Dillon and Thea Gilmore.  His star seems to be rising at a progressive rate at the moment and would hope to see him in the mainstream before too long; a chip off the old block.  I reluctantly missed the next act, which was the final set by Rodrigo Y Gabriela, in order to get over to the main stage for the headliner of the festival, Emmylou Harris.  It still amazes me that Emmylou has never played this festival over the last 42 years and should easily be thought of as the most eligible performer out there.  On Sunday night Emmylou joined the likes of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and countless other country giants and played the main stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival.  Playing with a small band, Emmylou satisfied the audience with a choice of material that spanned her long career.  It was a fitting end to this year’s festival.