Live Review | Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge | Review by Allan Wilkinson
Once we arrived at the festival, set up camp, had a few beers, got acquainted with the neighbours, downed a pot noodle or two and had a kip, the heavens decided, quite un-prompted by anyone in the vicinity, to unceremoniously open. I can’t remember rain like it. By early evening on the Thursday we arrived, it was like Woodstock; well okay, a tiny corner of Woodstock, you know, up there in the corner by the hamburger guy who had his stall burned down last night, as Wavy Gravy would put it. We had a good first night after the rain stopped, but the ground was unsuitable for doing anything on, and in particular, sitting on. Okay granted, Woodstock was ‘a sea of mud’ so this by comparison was just a ‘puddle of mud’ but still unfit for human habitation all the same. We went over to the relatively dry club tent and caught the opening act of the festival Emily Maguire. Seasick Steve attracted a bigger crowd than was necessary on the Radio 2 stage, but there again he was exposed on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny last December, never does you any harm that, coupled with the horrible mud in the open fields. I think that did the trick. I don’t think Alabama 3 performed their theme song to The Sopranos, but I may be wrong. There’s a couple of ways you can do festivals, one way is to flitter around the site catching bits of this and that, peering over large bulky shoulders at the back and listening to what comes through the extended surround-sound speakers scattered randomly around the site. The other way is to get hot and sweaty and barge your way down to the front, even if this means trampling over the seated hoards who still insist on the insane idea of taking fold-up chairs into the packed arena, creating senseless obstacles for others and generally making life uncomfortable, except for those in the chairs, whose life is fantastically comfortable thank you very much. The organisers make announcements at the beginning of each set, even threatening to have stewards come down and help them make their minds up to remove their deck chairs, tarpaulins or Persian carpets in order for the rest of us to stand shoulder to shoulder and get a fair chance of looking up Kate Rusby’s nostrils. When I can be bothered with the hassle, I opt for the latter. I had in mind exactly the artists I wanted to see during the weekend and with the possible exception of Joan Baez, whose popularity made it impossible to get anywhere near the front, I managed to get in to see most of them.
The first event I wanted to attend on Friday was the Mojo Interview. This started as a regular feature three years ago with Loudon Wainwright III and I’ve attended each one since, taking in Jimmy Webb and Richard Thompson along the way. Steve Earle was this year’s chosen interviewee and unlike all previous Mojo interviews, he made sure it was just that, an interview, refusing to appear with a guitar or perform any songs at all. It was really a Q&A with some predictable questions from the audience, which gave Steve the ideal opportunity to tell us all what’s currently wrong the world and in particular America and the Bush Administration, and who would expect anything different? The reason Steve appeared like a reincarnation of Allen Ginsberg was apparently due to the fact that he’s currently appearing in an American tv drama called The Wire, where he plays a recovering drug addict called Walon where he ‘pawned my bike, my pickup truck, a national steel guitar, lost a good wife, a bad girlfriend, and the respect of anyone who ever lent me money’ – typecast again eh Steve? As I have pointed out, much of Friday was taken up queueing outside the club tent in order to sign up to play later in the evening and so I only caught the rhythms and beats and vague leakage from the distant sound system of Le Vent Du Nord, Allison Moorer, Sharon Shannon and Oysterband, none of whom appeared on my ‘must see’ list. The only performances I was interested in seeing on Friday was Show of Hands and Steve Earle who were appearing on the main stage later in the evening. Show of Hands are the quintessential English duo whose pedigree is unquestionable. Rising up from the smoking ashes of the Arizona Smoke Revue (hardly a quintessential English name granted), Steve Knightley and Phil Beer have undertaken the role of spokespersons for our generation of English folkies, with a clear determined voice and with hardly an ambiguous message and nowhere better said than in Roots. On Saturday, the two main acts that were floating my boat and flicking my switch were Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, but enough said already, and Martha Tilston and the Woods. I’m a big fan of Martha’s and although I’ve seen her on numerous occasions, either alone or with one or two of her sidekicks, this is the first time I’ve seen her with her full band and never have I seen her quite so animated. She was up for it with the Cambridge audience and she captivated us all with her charm. Performing songs from her latest album Of Milkmaids and Architects, she managed to bring the Radio 2 stage alive with her presence and all eyes were most definitely upon her. Songs like “Artificial” and “Good World” remind us exactly of our own life experiences but unlike Martha, we didn’t think to articulate it first. The highlight song for me was “Corporations” from the free download album Rope Swing, with the euphoric feelgood chorus that had both Martha and the rest of us dancing on the spot.
Kate Rusby had her audience swooning at her feet once again. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Kate in various incarnations over the years but believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve made a conscious effort to get up close to see her entire set at Cambridge and it was delightful to hear songs from her new as yet unreleased album Awkward Annie. She was joined onstage by her regular band with the nice additional accompaniment of strings and brass. Interesting how the strings were provided by delicate little things with good table manners and correctly poised seating positions learned from the best etiquette manuals, whilst the brass section were fresh from the rugby scrum. Oh you have to love good old brass bands. On Sunday, after a full English at The Unicorn, we decided to do all our toiletries early and hydrate ourselves enough to see out a full six hour stint in front of main stage one to see five consecutive performances, three of which were at the top of our ‘must see’ list, one that was on our ‘might see if we have time’ list and one which was on our ‘avoid at all costs’ list, which was short, sweet and full of fiddles. ‘Im sorry, but even though I’m a folkie through and through, bands like Solas bore me to tears. I just cannot tell one fiddle tune from another unless that fiddle is in the hands of Dave Swarbrick who manages to make it do something different. Before our appointment with the main stage, we went to see Martin Simpson’s guitar workshop in the club tent. This was basically ninety minutes of handy tips, which ranged from: how to tune a guitar in weird and wonderful open tunings, to: how to look after your fingers and sit up straight. Budding guitarists ranging from all age groups were all ears as Martin answered questions on best ways to hold down a chord (for the novices) to just exactly how wide in centimetres is the width of your strap Martin? (for out and out anoraks). You always come away with some useful tips though, but having listened to some of Martin’s examples, you really only come away with the absolute tunnel-visioned notion of burning your guitar on a Cambridge pyre and taking up the mouth organ. Getting to the main stage for the first act of the day is relatively easy. On Saturday, we were first there at 11am for Rachel Unthank, in fact we could’ve arrived 45 minutes later and still been touching the front barrier. So on Sunday, we had a leisurely stroll down to the front just before the first performance commenced. The Danish duo Haugaard & Hoirup were first up and were probably the nicest couple of lads at the festival. Very charming and pleasant but again, it’s fiddle tunes innit?
Martin Simpson’s main festival appearance was next up and he thrilled us all by inviting the legendary bassist Danny Thompson up on stage for the entire set. Andy Cutting from Kate Rusby’s band made up the trio, who together performed a few songs from Martin’s new album Prodigal Son. A couple of guest singers were invited onstage during the performance too, both gifted singers and both incredibly attractive to look at and I care not a jot how sexist that may sound, I speak it how it is. Kate Rusby and Kellie While sang back up on the respective songs they contributed towards on the album. I was so happy that Martin performed Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”, it’s been literally years since I’ve heard him sing that song and it took me right back to the Rockingham Arms days, green snotocaster guitar and all. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was the unexpected surprise of the entire festival. I suspect that the crowd who gathered, no doubt in anticipation of Solas who were next up, were slightly puzzled when the orchestra came on stage. Dressed in black tie, the generally middle-aged ukulele weilding band struck up with a couple of entertaining ditties that set off a few murmers circulating the arena, but no great response yet. It was only when they performed David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”, with it’s tongue in cheek ‘every song ever written can be sung to this tune’ theme, that the audience were hooked. I’d previously seen this performance on YouTube so I knew what was coming, but the astonished reaction of some in the audience was a joy to witness. They went from strength to strength with their very special versions of “Theme from Shaft”, “Anarchy in the UK” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, all on six ukes and a bass! I don’t have much to say about Solas apart from the guy next to me was convinced they are the best band in the world. I considered taking his address and sending him some cds via recorded delivery as a matter of great urgency out of pity, but deciided against it. I think he’s a lost cause. So, straight onto Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. I converted to Ricky Skaggs years ago even though I’ve always been fully aware of his schizophrenic straddling of great music and CMT type country. His bluegrass work with Tony Rice is probably as good as it gets, and now that he has returned to his bluegrass roots, he has come up with a band that deliver the goods. The band played a storming set to conclude the Sunday afternoon main stage slot, performing much of what is now considered the benchmark of bluegrass music including Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” amongst so many others.
So, inevitably we return to the Winterset. The final performance for me at this years’ Cambridge Folk Festival was Rachel and Co’s Radio 2 Stage performance on Sunday night. Once again, like some sychophantic dork, I wended my way to the front, camera in hand, ears at the ready, eyes a goggled and heart a beating. I was first in line to buy their second album as soon as their Producer arrived with the goods on Thursday afternoon. I had the thing played on my car stereo before close of play Thursday and could now witness their rendering of it live once again. The band’s third and final appearance at the festival was much more relaxed than their debut on the main stage on Saturday. They didn’t have the string quartet and the bass player to worry about I suppose and could just get into their regular set. Antony and the Johnson’s “For Today I am a Boy” is always a hit with the crowd and Belinda’s humour was, as expected, on top form. With a bit of high heeled dancing and a set that any performer, no matter who it is, would be proud of, the music festival came to an end (for me) on “Fareweel Regality” and my thirst for Guinness evaporated under the tree next to the Guinness Tent and my senses became unashamedly wobbly. Whatever the reason I got into this music in the first place, it’s the feeling that this evokes that keeps me here. Roll on next year.