Cambridge Folk Festival 2010

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

THURSDAY

The wood pigeons inhabiting the trees in the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall once again sent out their annual alarm calls to neighbouring birds, which roughly translate to ‘why are all these large white marquees here?’  As other assorted wildlife woke to the sound of tent pegs being hammered in, hundreds of people descended upon the sleepy fields of Cherry Hinton park on Thursday morning, a few hours before Ezio welcomed regular visiters and newcomers alike to the 46th consecutive Cambridge Folk Festival.  There are always slight changes in detail each time the gates are flung open, usually at around ten o’clock on the Thursday morning, but never anything major.  The bar in the Guinness tent may run a different way or the now familiar wicker figures may have taken up a new instrument; one year a fiddle, the next year a flute.  This year a couple of banjo playing foxes precided over the influx of festival visitiors on a warm seasonal morning.  After the usual familiarisation of the site, the ritual tagging, the purchase of the all important and crucial festival programme, this year’s cover featuring you the audience sitting before the main stage in what appears to be a beautiful summer’s evening, it was time for some music.  The opening act at this year’s festival was none other than local boys Ezio Lunedei and Booga, who being no strangers to this festival, brought a warm welcome to the crowds who had gathered in front of Stage 2, the largest stage marquee open for business on Thursday night.  With familiar songs such as the one about being drunk on a bicycle and the enduring crowd pleaser “Deeper”, the duo suitable warmed up the audience for the evening to come.  Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends gave Doc Martin a night of peace and quiet down in Cornwall as the ten singers formed an orderly crescent shaped line on Stage 2 in order to bring some traditional sea shanties to a hugely receptive and appreciative gathering.  The fifteen year old combo, made up of former (and current) fishermen, lifeboatmen and coastguards, the five baritones, two top tenors, two second tenors and one bass, delivered their own broad range of songs and shanties before a delighted audience.  From Rock Island, Illinois, Lissie introduced to the healthy Cambridge audience a handful of songs from the singer-songwriter’s current Catching a Tiger album.  With a soulfully engaging voice and a folk pop sensibility, Lissie’s eagerly anticipated performance didn’t disappoint.  Even a heartfelt rendition of Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, which the singer confessed she had only just learnt, went down a treat.  The even more eagerly anticipated performance by Oxford’s Stornoway, in all honesty didn’t capture the atmosphere everyone expected, the young band delivering something of a luke warm plodding sort of set.  The songs were familiar to those who had already added Beachcomber’s Windowsill to their pile of CDs, and the songs were created much the same as on the record, but sometimes you need more from a live performance.  Other acts on Thursday night over in the club tent were Cocos lovers, Adam Brown and Alan MacLeod, Tyde and The Muckle Loons, who demonstrated precisely how to finish off an opening night at a festival.

FRIDAY

By my reckoning the Mojo interview, held annually in the club tent, reached its seventh consecutive year this morning as Seasick Steve joined a list of previous interviewees including the likes of Loudon Wainwright III, Jimmy Webb, Richard Thompson, Steve Earle, members of The Imagined Village and last year’s memorable gathering of artists involved with Topic Records, each in turn facing a barrage of questions from those eager to discover more about their heroes.  This year Colin Irwin spoke to the enigmatic blues singer about his life and work before a predictably packed house.  Shortly before this, half the membership of The Muckle Loons, suitably recovered from their energetic club tent set of the night before, conducted a fiddle workshop where fiddler players young and old turned out with fiddles in hand and were encouraged to put away their inhibitions for an hour or so and join in.  The hands-on workshops are always the best ones and today’s was no exception.  Scotland’s Breabach drew the crowds into the Stage 1 area for the first time this year, as the largest stage at the festival made itself available for a feast of music that was to follow over the next three days.  The vibrant Celtic sounds washed over the open fields of Cherry Hinton, provided by one of the most innovative bands on the circuit at the moment.  If like me you thought one set of bagpipes was enough, then you would probably have been bemused at two sets being played simultaneously.  Fear not though, it all seemed to make perfect sense in practice even if in theory it didn’t.  Following Breabach, one of the most eagerly anticipated sets of the weekend came courtesy of Fort Worth’s Quebe Sisters Band, featuring the impressive talents of three young fiddle playing siblings, Grace, Sophia and Hulda Quebe.  Again, from a reviewer who had previously thought that one fiddle, two at the most, was enough for any occasion; it was nothing short of delightful to hear these three fiddles playing together.  With tight harmonies and frighteningly skilful playing, the band instantly won the hearts of the Cambridge crowds, which in turn secured full houses everywhere they played subsequently around the festival site.  Bearing in mind the memorable Stage 2 set by Imelda May in 2009, a ripple of anticipation soon spread around the festival site today, everyone presumably wondering how the pairing of these two diverse Irish talents was going to manifest itself.  Would it be Imelda May’s rockabilly band plus the added bonus of having one of the finest box players in the world join their ranks, or vice versa? We discovered it was actually a case of inspired job sharing as Sharon kicked off with a few sets of tunes in her own inimitable fashion, then introducing her very special guest as ‘the most amazing singer I’ve heard in my life and the most gorgeous person’, bringing on the charismatic singer, who went on to dominate the stage dressed in green tartan with trademark quiff, brandishing a tambourine and delivering some fine Irish rockabilly, infusing the stage with oodles of energy.  The ever-smiling and seated figure of Sharon Shannon looked on in awe as the Imelda May did her thing, as only she can.  With a thirty year pedigree of playing Balkan Gypsy tunes, the Serbian trumpet player and band leader Boban Markovic, together with his son Marko, brought a taste of full-on orchestral brass music to Cambridge. The Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra are probably a world away from their British counterparts such as the Grimethorpe Colliery Band as they brought the stage alive with sound and colour, if that’s not blowing their trumpet too much.  Seth Lakeman continues to draw large audiences wherever he plays and Cambridge is no exception.  Attracting an audience that filled the main Stage 1 area to bursting point, the band once again delivered an energetic and thunderous performance featuring some of Seth’s best loved anthems such as “Hearts and Minds” and “The Hurlers”.   So large was the audience that with little surprise Joe Pug was left to sing to a much smaller gathering around at the Stage 2 marquee simultaneously.  The great thing about the Imagined Village is that you can be witness to several gigs at once, whether you want a bit of the great Chris Wood or a bit of Carthy (either Eliza or Martin variety), or whether your tastes are more World Music oriented, there’s a little of the Afro Celts or the Trans Global Underground in the mix, yet all serving a very British purpose.  The collective returned to Cambridge this year Bragg-less but still very much on form with such diverse songs as “Scarborough Fair”, “Byker Hill”, “Cold Haily Rainy Night” and Slade’s “Cum on Feel the Noise”.  Seasick Steve drew probably the largest crowd of the day, despite the heavy rain.  At one point the bluesman invited a female member of his audience up on stage where she was suddenly flanked by two unfeasibly long beards, for all intents and purposes a ZZ Top tribute act, as Steve serenaded her to the easy to please audience’s delight.  At the same time, the Swiss Cajun trio Mama Rosin delivered a particularly fun set on Stage 2, with their very own mix of Cajun and Zydeco with a punk/rock twist.  With Cyril Yeterian’s melodeon and Robin Girod’s guitar, banjo and rub board together with Xavier Bray’s back beat, the energetic young trio narrowed the distance between Lakes Geneva and Ponchartrain for a delighted Cambridge audience.  As night settled on the damp Cherry Hinton fields and rain-soaked campers headed back across town to Coldhams Common via the festival shuttle bus, there was the gloomy prospect that the rain had set in for the duration. With the sounds of The Wonder Stuff and The Unusual Suspects ringing in everyone’s ears though, it really didn’t matter at all.

SATURDAY

If anything is going to wake you up on a Saturday morning after either a late or heavy night, especially one that ended with such rainfall, then Rachel Unthank’s singing workshop was more than likely going to do the trick.  Standing alone on the club tent stage armed only with her ukulele and the good looks she was born with, Rachel soon had the early risers singing along in harmony or boom-chicka-rocka-chicka-rocka-chicka-boom-ing in delicious Geordie accents before you could say something like ‘why-aye-marra’.  Rachel’s long association with the children of this festival preceeds her main stage success with both The Winterset and The Unthanks by a long margin.  Adapting some of those singing skills she previously used on kids to warm up the adults, Rachel managed get everyone singing along at the top of their voices.  Joe Pug’s second appearance at the festival got off to a good start on the main stage, attracting more of an audience this time.  Despite looking a little bit lost on such a big stage, Joe made up for it with a handful of powerful songs such as “Bury Me Far From My Uniform” and “Unsophistocated Heart”, utilising an almost unapologetic Dylan style, complete with harmonica rack, guitar and sneering vocal.  The combined forces of Delgados founder Emma Pollock, Future Pilot AKA, MC Soom T, Kim Edgar, Scots singer-songwriter Kenny Anderson otherwise known as King Kreosote and a couple of equally well known Canadian artists Mattie Foulds and Michael Johnston, not to mention the multi-BBC Folk Awards winner Karine Polwart banging a few drums, the Scots-Canadian equivalent of The Imagined Village made their Cambridge debut on the main stage this afternoon.  The unfortunately named Burns Unit combine many influences to create their unique sound, which was one of the unexpected surprises of the festival.  Simply stealing the show at this years festival though was the unlikely trio of Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, otherwise known as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who brought a flavour of the old String and Jug band era of American folk music.  Not only utterly gifted in their dextrous playing of cheap instruments and everyday household items such as the one pound plastic kazoo and the jug respectively, the trio also entertained in a sadly forgotten or little used style.  Little wonder that their current album Genuine Negro Jig became the best selling cd of the festival this year.  The club tent provides a platform for festival visitors to showcase their own particular talents by simply queueing up and waiting their turn.  Over the years, some of the best and brightest of new artists we have subsequently come to know and love have become known to us through this platform.  Niamh Boadle is one of the rising talents of traditional music today, recently winning the BPAS Young Acoustic Roots Award in May.  Her delicate guitar style and beautiful voice became known to a new batch of listeners this afternoon in the club tent as guests of the Acoustic Routes club.  During the same session, Sam Carter, recipient of this year’s coverted Horizon Award at the annual BBC Folk Awards, chose a few songs from his stunning debut Keepsakes in one of the club tent’s showcase sessions.  Joined by double bassist John Thorne and introduced by the familiar voice of BBC Cambridge’s Sue Marchant, Sam played a fine assured set encouraging the audience to stand in order to get more people in.  Rachel and Becky Unthank are no strangers to Cambridge and their story is anything but an overnight success.  First appearing on the bill as a duo in 2004, Rachel and Becky have gone on to be part of the celebrated Winterset, appearing in a club tent showcase a couple of years later and then finally winning the hearts and minds of many with the launch of their celebrated album The Bairns in 2007, with three outstanding sets on each of the stages at that year’s festival.  Now, with a change of line up and a third album Here’s the Tender Coming, the expanded Unthanks woo’d another large audience today as they opened up the evenings concert with the timeless “Felton Lonnin”.  In all fairness, by the very fact that The Unthanks have a very unique sound it is by their uniqueness that they have a Marmite-like reputation.  Love them or hate them, it’s reassuring to know that most of the Cambridge audience are very much on their side, as is this reviewer.  By contrast Kathy Mattea returned to the festival after twelve years since her last appearance.  Once again joined by her regular guitar player, Bill Cooley, Kathy selected a bunch of songs from her fine repertoire, confirming her reputation as a purveyor of intellegently written songs whether they come from the tradition, other writers or her own pen.  Fay Hield drew a good crowd for her showcase performance in the club tent this evening.  Accompanied by Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron on fiddle and melodeon respectively, Fay gave us a taster of what’s to come on her long awaited solo album Looking Glass, pre-release copies of which were available at the festival.  As a fine interpreter of traditional song, reminiscent of a young June Tabor, the former Elswick witch looks set for a promising solo career.  The last time the unmistakable voice of Natalie Merchant was heard coming from a Cambridge Festival stage was in 1988 when the singer fronted 10,000 Manics.  Her ‘sensuous voice’ has changed little in the ensuing years and it was with sheer delight we heard that voice once again, coinciding with the release of her remarkable new record Leave Your Sleep.  After such a hot day, in stark contrast to Friday, the crowds were ready to party and the two closing acts would soon have everyone on their feet.  The Holmes Brothers (Sherman and Wendell) brought the main stage area alive with their blend of R&B, soul and blues with a touch of gospel, whilst Latin American and Scots traditional were being fused for a fiesta of fun courtesy of Salsa Celtica on Stage 2, bringing the penultimate day of the festival to a close.

SUNDAY

It’s something of a tradition to sit in front of the main stage to hear the omnibus edition of The Archers, whist reading the Sunday papers.  The weather looked promising once again and now that the two large screens on the outside of the main stage make it less essential to fight for a place right at the front, the focus is on choosing a prime place in front of the screens.  Before midday, a nice gathering of seats and blankets made up an orderly, if somewhat chaotic looking sea of bodies.  Gretchen Peters opened up proceedings earlier in the club tent with her songwriting workshop, enlightening those eager to learn something of the finer aspects of the art of songwriting.  One of the recent aesthetical improvements to the Cherry Hinton grounds during the festival weekend is the gallery of amusing artworks by graphic artist David Owen scattered around the site.  Whether it be Morecambe and Wise in Morris kit or a HSO warning that we should definitely not meet on the ledge, Owen’s pop art has become a familiar attraction to the site and long may it continue.  The young Jackie Oates is featured in one of Owen’s posters, coincidentally and justifiably merged with another famous first lady.  I can’t think of any other adjective than ‘delightful’ to describe anything and everything Jackie Oates does.  There’s an inherent professionalism in everything she turns her hands to, whether it’s a collaboration with other musicians, a fiddle workshop where she shares her knowledge of tunes from her own neck of the woods, or whether fronting her own fine band.  Accompanied by the diverse talents of Mike Cosgrove, Tristan Tsume and James Budden, Jackie held her audience spellbound at this main stage appearance and at other appearances over the weekend, all featuring amongst other things, songs from her current album Hyperboreans.  Wearing a peculiar hat isn’t unusual at the Cambridge Folk Festival, so today’s campaign for wearing even more adventurous forms of head gear, endorsed by festival manager Eddie Barcan, brought a smile to most.  There was indeed the young lady with a 45rpm vinyl record worn as a sort of fascinator, or the bloke with a wicker basket on his head, not to mention the kettle hat.  It’s all part of the Cambridge experience.  I spent some of the afternoon talking to festival regulars, whilst Salsa Celtica endeavoured to get everyone on their feet dancing as a grey cloud hovered threatening to break the spell of fantastic sunshine since Saturday noon.  Writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton was happy to reminisce about his thirty-odd year association with Cambridge from a single happy go lucky music loving Northerner of the Seventies to his more recent family oriented visits.  For Gretchen Peters’ second appearance of the day, the singer-songwriter was joined by her partner Barry Walsh to perform a selection of favourites from her repertoire.  Introduced as a brilliant songwriter, Gretchen’s warmth as a performer was tangible as she performed songs such as “Independence Day”, “Germantown” and the stunning Tom Russell song “Guadalupe” with Barry’s sensitive piano and accordion accompaniment.  The unexpected surprise of the festival came with Jamaica’s sixty-year-old trio The Jolly Boys, masters in the art of Mento, which is neither a martial art nor a lozenge to make your breath sweeter, but the indigenous music of Jamaica and predecessor to both Ska and Reggae.  Starting with a couple of authentic Mento folk songs, no one could have foreseen how the set would have developed.  Cambridge has witnessed a full orchestra of ukulele’s playing the “Theme From Shaft” and David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”; Cambridge has also bore witness to a former Comic Strip actor attempting to be serious whilst playing “London Calling” and “Up the Junction” on a mandolin; but who could’ve imagined a Cambridge set list containing classics by the likes of Lou Reed, The Stranglers, The Doors, Blondie and Steely Dan, albeit in Mento style?  Forty-six years ago almost to the day, the young Paul Simon appeared at the very first Cambridge Folk Festival, banging out a thirty-minute set of Sixties Soho scene songs at the beginning of the Saturday evening concert.  Almost five decades later, the young offspring of said folk superstar almost died on stage it has to be said with a mediocre performance, and believe me this is kind.  Harper Simon’s debut album warrants a place on the bill of any festival but something went horribly wrong tonight.  Opening with The Buzzcocks “Ever Fallen in Love”, already covered more successfully in stripped down form by Thea Gilmore, was thoroughly bewildering.  Losing his thread midway through the first chorus caused the loss of focus from which he couldn’t recover sadly. From class geek to class act though, as Mali’s Rokia Traore delivered a beautiful set on the main stage.  With four outstanding albums to select songs from, Rokia delighted the audience and saved the evening’s concert from its dodgy start.  Over on Stage 2 the enigmatic CW Stoneking brought a taste of his own unique take on the blues, drawing from the Mississippi and Piedmont blues traditions, with the help of the Primitive Horn Orchestra.  With a memorable performance on the BBC4 Folk America: Hollerers, Stompers and Old Time Ramblers, the Australian blues singer brought to Cambridge some of that evocative spirit of a bygone age of jazz.  Established festival enthusiasts will recall Kris Kristofferson’s memorable performance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, when at one point the singer/actor leaned over towards band mate Norman Blake and quipped “I think they’re gonna kill us”, responding to the unrest in the crowd.  No such reception tonight as the country giant growled familiar song after song such as the timeless “Me and Bobbie McGee”, including a nod to former girlfriend Janis Joplin and the delicious “Help Me Make It Through the Night”, which couldn’t help remind us all of his unforgettably intimate Whistle Test performance with Rita Coolidge in the Seventies.  I wasn’t sure how this performance was going to work, but fortunately it went well.  In view of the fact that he is one of our great songwriters, the least it did was tick a box.  A choice of finishing act this year with either Lunasa on Stage 1 or Show of Hands on Stage 2, whilst Jackie Oates finished off the featured artists in the club tent including performances throughout the day from the likes of Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, Megson, Sean Taylor and the Hub band.  I must mention in closing though that had the group of revellers, who had gathered in front of the closed Guinness tent to hear some late night drunken rebel singing, moved slightly to the right towards the campsite entrance, they would have witnessed some of the most delicious bluegrass music, courtesy of the young Devon siblings Carrivick Sisters, together with an extraordinary young mandolin player called Joe Tozer.  The main stage for you one day me lad.