Cambridge Folk Festival 2008

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

The self-appointed Cambridge Folk Festival weather forecasting team periodically stick their heads out of the festival meteorological office, namely the media caravan, in order to determine which of the two distinct atmospheric phenomenon would be the most likely to manifest itself today.  Whilst straining their necks to face skywards, they in turn squint as they catch each tiny droplet of rain right between the eyes.  It’s generally a two horse race, sun or rain with equal quantities of both.  The weather spoils nothing at Cambridge really, you get wet and you dry off.  As long as everyone pulls together and affords a little courtesy, by gathering their blankets up close and literally doing away with high backed chairs, there’s really no problem and everyone remains relatively dry and happy.  There were one or two firsts for me at this years’ festival.  Normally I manage to obtain a festival programme within an hour of arriving in Cherry Hinton and with the help of a cold Guinness, I would also have the entire weekend planned out military style before the bar beckoned me along for pint number two.  This year however, I didn’t pick up a programme until day two and didn’t touch a drop of the black stuff until well into the evening after volunteering my services in the restricted areas on Thursday afternoon, helping to decorate the VIP bar with a gallery of large photographs featuring some of the familiar faces of previous festival artists, all beautifully photographed by several of the regular festival photographers.  I was momentarily disorientated.  I usually know my place, which is on the other side of the barrier, where I eventually found myself for much of the next four days.  Curiously, whilst attaching pieces of string to the aforementioned gallery photograph boards, I met with the one artist I was most looking forward to seeing.  The last time I bumped into Devon Sproule was in Manchester I think, when I suggested that she come over to play Cambridge at her earliest convenience, to which she replied “I just need an invite and I’ll be there for sure”.  She finally got the invite then from those who do the proper inviting.


After hobnobbing with the waif-like festival virgin-ian, I popped over to the Radio 2 Stage to give my ears a workout.  A healthy gathering had assembled before the second largest stage on site for a relative newcomer, Frank Turner.  Turner opened the festival with songs from Love, Ire and Song kicking off with “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous” filling the stage and surrounding area with the sound of new and to some, unfamiliar songs.  In recent years Cambridge has played host to the likes of Nizlopi and Turner falls comfortably into this category, if we have to have categories that is.  In stark contrast, the family band Cherryholmes lit up the stage with sequined Nudie suits and cowboy hats, which in all fairness have probably never slapped a horse exactly, but may have been tipped towards many an audience over the past few years in Nashville.  No single musician in this family takes the lead but instead democratically awaits his or her turn to impress the audience with their respective solos.  I have to confess that the banjo has never looked quite so glamorous as when attached to Cia Leigh, who along with siblings Molly Kate, Skip and BJ, together with mum Sandy Lee and Pop Jere, made an impressive debut and have been ceremoniously added to the long list of bluegrass musicians to play at the festival.  The big surprise of the evening was the delightfully potty Tunng whose singer Becky Jacobs comes across as an uncompromising Bjork-like imp.  I would wager that if you were to refer to Becky as an ‘imp’ in a random airport terminal, you would almost certainly be challenged to a pillow fight rather than the celebrated assault of fisticuffs provided time and again by the volatile Reykjavik imp, but I may be wrong.  Combining ‘folky acoustics and busy electronica’ Tunng demonstrated a delightfully quirky sense of musicianship reminiscent of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, whose Cambridge appearance is still fondly remembered by some.  It’s also probably the one and only time in the history of the festival that we have witnessed a duet featuring a clockwork cuckoo.  So that’s why the caged bird sings – he’s at Cambridge!  The much discussed Mercury Prize nominated Laura Marling brought the first night to a close with a short but sweet set.  On stage for barely thirty minutes, Marling squeezed in most of the memorable songs from her debut album Alas I Cannot Swim to an enthusiastic audience eager to let the young singer know they were there in support.  There’s a delicate fragility to this teenage song writer and it has to be said that her songs are both mature and well-crafted for one so young. If great things are about to happen for Laura Marling, and I dare say they are, Cambridge can pride itself on being there to lend a hand, as it has to so many in the past.


The term ‘Workshop’ is probably incorrect for the morning Club Tent sessions these days at Cambridge.  As budding fiddle and mandolin players arrived for Tim O’Brien’s workshop with instruments under their arms, they were probably slightly dismayed to find them still securely tucked away in their cases ninety minutes later.  It must be said that Tim’s workshop served more as a Q&A on technique, than an actual hands on workshop.  No matter though, Tim O’Brien’s experience as a fiddler and mandolin player provided the audience with more than an insight into what goes into the craft of musicianship and I’m pretty certain those instruments were out shortly afterwards, banging out variants on the theme of Sandy River Belle.  Shortly after Tim O’Brien’s fiddle and mandolin workshop, the fifth consecutive Mojo Interview took place, which is becoming as much of an institution as The Archers omnibus radio broadcast on Sunday mornings.  This year it was fortunate that we had four chatterboxes in the form of Simon Emmerson, Martin Carthy, Chris Wood and Billy Bragg of The Imagined Village, as the new Mojo interviewer seemed a little monosyllabic, but there again, could he get a word in?  Previous interviewees include Loudon Wainwright III, Jimmy Webb, Richard Thompson and Steve Earle and The Imagined Village was an equally good choice this year.  The subject matter of Englishness had the potential to fuel a ticking bomb of a discussion with so many Celts knocking about, but in the hands of these four passionate Englishmen, things remained relatively composed and those who attended came away with a clearer understanding of what The Imagined Village might be about.  Whilst one Carthy reminisced about old head teachers, Ravi Shankar and the English way, daughter Eliza was preparing for her afternoon appearance on the Main Stage.  Bearing in mind that her family elders, The Watersons, appeared at the very first Cambridge Folk Festival way back in the Sixties, it’s fitting that a new generation of the Carthy dynasty made a debut on these hallowed stages.  The latest addition to the Waterson Carthy clan was very clearly on show on Friday, albeit tucked away in mum’s tummy, whilst she strutted across the stage, once again making that entire space her very own, performing much of her new self-penned album Dreams of Breathing Underwater.  Five years ago The Waifs were the undisputed festival sweethearts as they stormed through three sets at the 2003 festival and clearly out-sold all other artists in the concessions tent.  Their long-awaited and much anticipated return this year proved to be just as exciting as they played the Main Stage for their one and only appearance on Friday evening.  Revisiting “Fisherman’s Daughter” and “Lighthouse” as well as promoting the current SunDirtWater album, The Waifs once again became one of the highlights of the festival.  The collaborative efforts of Jim Causley and four piece Essex band Mawkin drew a large crowd in the sweaty Club Tent by mid evening, where the audience was politely asked to stand to allow more people in, in order to get a glimpse of this extraordinary collective.  I had a few concerns about guitarist David Delarre’s stress level as the gremlins attacked his guitar pick-ups and I almost suggested he join me outside to hug a tree.  Seriously though, when you only have a short amount of time to do your bit, especially in a showcase slot, the gremlins are the last thing you want.


Walking through the festival arena during the morning, after a hearty breakfast at the nearby Unicorn pub, there’s a sense of peace and tranquillity as the days’ first pints of Guinness are poured for those who mean to live the festival to the full.  The sweet chorus of unison singing filtered across the field as Karine Polwart gathered those capable of singing in the club tent for her workshop.  I chickened out of joining that one as I know Karine is very much into exercising the body properly prior to a good sing, and I have a definite aversion to exercise at that time in the morning.  I took my out of condition body down to the safety barrier in front of the main stage and joined a handful of other people determined to have a good vantage point for some of the most exciting artists appearing at the festival this year.  The Orkney based eight-piece collective The Chair got proceedings off to a good start with some rip roaring fiddle tunes before Chris Wood treated us all to a master class of song writing.  Introducing his first song as ‘some church bells music’, which contrasted starkly with the stomping energetic first set of the day, “A Cornish Young Man” encompassed everything that I find good and honest about folk song.  I’m not sure whether the official festival programme had quite nailed it with Wood’s comparison to ‘Richard Thompson at his best’.  I’d go as far as to say we could possibly be dealing with the new Ray Davies here.  Songs such as “Albion” and “Hard” have a fresh perspective on English song writing that seems to strike the same quintessential English chords only previously managed by The Kinks front man.  Karine Polwart joined Chris for a couple of songs towards the end of his set; Sydney Carter’s “John Ball” and Wood’s own ‘atheist’s spiritual’ the gorgeous “Come Down Jehovah”.  

The whimsical pottiness of Devon Sproule made a welcome change to the usual main stage reserve, with some light relief and unique song writing.  With a band that includes veteran pedal steel maestro BJ Cole, Devon Sproule delivered snippets of her catalogue so far including “Plea For a Good Night’s Rest” from her Upstate Songs album as well as a couple from her last offering Keep Your Silver Shined.  Tipping her multi-coloured psychedelic flower hat to fellow countrymen Neil Young and Joni Mitchell respectively with “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” and “Blonde in the Bleachers”, the Canadian by birth won over most of the audience, and left those who didn’t quite get it, scratching their heads.  Completing the Main Stage afternoon session was Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba whose masterful command over the ancient Ngoni, a sort of cricket bat shaped forerunner to the banjo, was mesmerizing.  The sound of Mali in the middle of such an English city as Cambridge seemed perfectly logical for some reason.  Featuring the wonderful Amy Sacko, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba held the audience transfixed throughout their set and proved once again that World Music has a very special place at the Cambridge Folk Festival.  Eric Bibb seems to belong to Cambridge Folk Festival; after all he has played here three times previously, bringing his own particular brand of blues and spirituals to a steadily growing fan base.  “Still Livin’ on” from his last album Diamond Days resonated around the main stage and out into the open fields of Cherry Hinton as we all reminisced about the lovely Mississippi John Hurt, with his felt hat on of course. Joining Eric Bibb was supremo bassist Danny Thompson and regular drummer Larry Crockett.  The decision to wheel the BBC cameras in at this point of the proceedings was predictable. Popularity over credibility is always a driving force in TV land’s festival demographic.  

Radioland’s Mark Radcliffe did a grand job in his dual role as MC and BBC camera warm up guy, despite the playful audience’s initial attempt to cock up the grand TV coverage introduction by booing in unison when specifically requested to cheer.  You could see it coming.  That introduction was for Martha Wainwright, whose over-the-top performance mirrored her brother’s cabaret shenanigans rather than reflecting the brilliantly underplayed maturity of her celebrated mother and aunt’s heyday.    I must confess my anticipation of k.d. lang’s set was lukewarm five minutes before her appearance on the Main Stage, and I already had visions of using upper and lower case in my inevitable review out of sheer mischief.  An hour later my jaw was still on the floor as I considered what exactly I had just witnessed and as a result I demonstrated respect and stuck to lower case after all.  The quality of k.d. lang’s voice is utterly compelling and beautiful and her professionalism and command over an enthralled audience is something to be applauded.  After camping at the front of the main stage for twelve hours solid, an unprecedented feat, the climax of what turned out to be a rich and varied programme was worth the wait.  The seventeen-piece conceptual collective known as The Imagined Village took to the stage with mixed media yet united response.  Bringing together a diverse gathering of musicians, Afro Celts’ Simon Emmerson describes the project as ‘the final frontier of world music – Englishness’.  With contributions from the likes of Billy Bragg, Martin and Eliza Carthy, Chris Wood, Sjeila Chandra, Johnny Kalsi and Benjamin Zephaniah, who incidentally made a special appearance in order to pick up a Talkawhile award on stage for best track “Tam Lin” where the Rastafarian writer and dub poet outed himself as the ‘natty dreadlocks rasta folkie’.


Sunday morning arrived with the now familiar mixture of sun and showers as I made my way around to the Club Tent.  There was a noticeable absence of the traditional mountain of plastic beakers due to Cambridge’s endeavours to reduce their carbon footprint.  Festival punters now have to pay a £2 deposit for each glass which can either be returned for refunding or taken home as a festival souvenir.  Eric Bibb’s blues guitar workshop in the Club Tent once again saw many an unopened guitar case as musicians filtered in to collect handy tips on anything from blues scales, tunings, string gauges, picks and pickups to the best Australian Akubra hats and nail manicure parlours.  The sound of the rain belting down on the Club Tent roof only added to the bluesy atmosphere created by a master of modern blues.  Securing herself a main stage spot after winning over the festival in the Club Tent last year, Lisa Knapp’s reputation as a leading interpreter of traditional song has grown from strength to strength.  Her ethereal presence and instantly recognisable voice was very much suited to this, the opening Sunday afternoon Main Stage spot.  Accompanying herself on either fiddle or autoharp and surrounding herself with four fine musicians sensitive to her unique sound, Lisa played songs from her startling debut album Wild and Undaunted whilst being quite literally undaunted by her surroundings.  First time at the festival for County Antrim based quintet Beoga, which is incidentally the Irish word for ‘lively’.  True to their name, the band won the hearts of the Main Stage audience with a feast of Irish jigs, reels and jokes.  Their enthusiasm was infectious and their playing was tight.  All Ireland bodhran champion Eamon Murray’s solo towards the end of the set probably justified why he has been champion no less than four times already.   Tim O’Brien was certainly one of the busiest musicians at this year’s festival popping up all over the place, either on his own or in collaboration with other musicians.  No stranger to Cambridge, the West Virginian multi-instrumentalist opened his set with “Where’s Love Come From” which appears on his latest album Chameleon, an album he refers to as a ‘song writer’s album’.  Joined by John McCusker on fiddle and Altan’s Dermot Byrne on accordion, Tim O’Brien brought a taste of pure Americana to Cambridge once again.  Tim O’Brien hot-footed it over to the Club Tent to appear with Heidi Talbot in her much anticipated showcase set, which also featured guest appearances by John McCusker and Boo Hewerdine, all involved in the production of Heidi’s superb In Love and Light album.  All eight songs that made up the set were from that album including Tim’s “Music Tree”, Tom Waits’ brilliant “Time” and “The Blackest Crow” with Tim O’Brien replacing Kris Drever who appeared on the recorded version.  The Cherish the Ladies singer told her audience that this was in fact her very first time at the festival to which I leaned over to the little chap next to me and whispered into his ear “Well I don’t reckon it’ll be her last”.  I didn’t get a reply, but I’m sure the familiar bespectacled little chap will be gushing about the performance on his folk show on Wednesday night – and rightly so.  Also showcasing her considerable talents in the Club Tent as the dusk fell upon Cambridge for another day and another year, Ruth Notman’s infectious personality and unique voice filled the room.  Judy Collins was on the Main Stage reminding us of the voice that introduced a great many people to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny before they had a chance to do so themselves, and the delightfully quirky Devon Sproule was strutting her stuff on the Radio 2 Stage, bewildering and delighting her audience in equal measure, but I was content to be in a much smaller and more intimate space, where a young Nottinghamshire lass was busy proving to a large gathering (by Club Tent standards), that she too has a bright future.  Her version of “Limbo” resonates around my head still, even after a few days of festival recuperation.  My most surreal moment of the entire festival was when I inadvertently found myself in the company of fRoots editor Ian Anderson and writer and author Colin Irwin in the wings as Seth Lakeman sang his little heart out on the Main Stage.  It was almost like hiding your cheap Martin copy whilst in the company of Martin Simpson, as I quickly concealed my scrappy notebook within the safety of my bag and returned my pen to the top pocket of my shirt.  A relative novice by comparison it has to be said.