Cambridge Folk Festival 2011

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

The one thing we have to be aware of when setting out to write a report on an event the size of the annual Co-operative Cambridge Folk Festival, is that there’s not a cat in Hell’s chance of covering it all, in fact, not even half of it, not even close.  This year the festival added a new fourth stage to the Cherry Hinton site specifically to focus on new and emerging talent.  The aptly named ‘Den’ provided a further thirty-four planned acts to think about, as well as the numerous artists appearing in the open stage slots in the marquee during the course of the weekend.  Relaxing for a moment at the old stump by the Guinness Tent, where a beautiful tree once stood, with a customary pint of the black stuff in one hand and the handsomely designed programme in the other, I soon realised, even at this early stage, that a few considerations had to be… erm, considered and I was reluctantly forced to ‘cherry pick’.  The first couple of cherries to be picked from this year’s crop came in the form of a couple of siblings from Muscle Shoals, Alabama with the family name of Rogers and the stage name of Secret.  Laura and Lydia served an eager audience with something they’ve probably been waiting for since the duo’s breakthrough UK appearance on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny almost eight month ago on New Year’s Eve.  With a set featuring songs by the likes of Skeeter Davis, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, as well as the odd Dire Straits cover, the Secret Sisters gave a memorable performance at the festival with more than just a taste of the music of a different era, together with some of the most delicious harmonies to be heard throughout the weekend.  The main concert stage for the opening night, Stage 2, also saw performances by Dublin’s James Vincent McMorrow and his band, on the eve of their forthcoming headlining US tour, whose set included several songs from McMorrow’s debut album Early in the Morning.  Rounding off the opening night of this year’s festival was none other than Chris Wood, with his usual bunch of thought-provoking songs interspersed with political commentary.  Friday morning stirred to the delights of Brian McNeill’s fiddle workshop in the Club Tent followed by the annual Mojo interview conducted by respected music journalist Colin Irwin, whose guests this year were picked from a line-up of Bellowheaders including Jon Boden, John Spiers, Paul Sartin, Benji Kirkpatrick and Andy Mellon.  Whilst Colin attempted to ask a handful of reasonably sensible questions, the band were in playful mood, which lightened the whole thing up considerably and made it clearly more enjoyable.  Shortly afterwards, it was a hop, skip and a jump over to Stage 2 to find a marquee full of inquisitive guitarists studying at the feet of Newton Faulkner, whose guitar workshop by this time was in full swing. It wasn’t the usual guitar workshop of the John Pearse Hold Down a Chord variety, more an exercise in making the guitar resonate in a whole variety of different ways.  The Main Stage opened for the first time just after noon with a set by Scotland’s Mànran, featuring Battlefield Band’s newest recruit Ewan Henderson on fiddle and pipes and Bodega’s Norrie MacIver providing the songs.  By way of contrast the next band to hit the main stage was the young Louisiana band Feufollet, who brought to Cambridge a taste of their own distinctive blend of Cajun music from their native Lafayette.  The highlight for Friday afternoon was easily Justin Townes Earle, who was predictably good and at the same time predictably strange. Appearing like a young Robert Crumb, complete with bow tie, glasses and Ivy League suit, the songwriter, who is incidentally blessed with the dual responsibility of continuing the Texas songwriting legacy of both his dad Steve Earle and his dad’s best mate Townes Van Zandt, both of whom have made appearances on this very stage over the years, surpassed our expectations tenfold.  There was a moment when Earle expressed concerns that audiences suspected his guitar playing was aided by clever loops or technical gadgetry, which the singer categorically denied, only to go and play something so extraordinarily clever, I began to have my doubts all over again.  Whilst Frank Turner and his band ripped the place apart on the Main Stage, almost apologising for it at the same time, Sean Taylor was gently emoting his way through some of his outstanding repertoire over in The Den.  Housed within an Indian tent, masquerading as a Victorian drawing room, complete with flock wallpaper, grand fireplace, ornate mirror and the usual home comforts, The Den provided a restful sanctuary away from the rest of the hustle-bustle of the festival site.  With songs including “Hold On”, “I Feel Alright” and “Calcutta Grove”, Taylor brought to Cambridge a touch of class to a small but appreciative audience in one of the most chilled out areas of Cherry Hinton.  Likewise, Leddra Chapman performed a handful of dreamy songs from her current album Telling Tales, together with one or two new songs destined for her forthcoming second album.  With a set that included “A Little Easier”, “Tongue-Tied, Broken”, “Fall From Grace”, “Still I Rise” (a new song), Jamie T’s “Sheila” and the lovely “Summer Song”, this time without the obligatory toy piano, Leddra Chapman charmed a Den packed to bursting point with music lovers in various states of repose.  Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts provided the first of the five showcase performances to be seen in the Club Tent over the weekend.  Recently seen by thousands of Fairport Convention fans during the band’s most recent tour, the Barnsley duo were made as welcome to Cambridge as the spicy food, the Guinness and the sunshine, which at this point was but a day away.  Katriona’s informed fiddle and mandolin playing, together with Jamie’s distinctive guitar playing once again hushed the audience to an appreciative silence.  Over on the main stage, Newton Faulkner’s similar guitar technique was put to good use on a handful of self-penned songs from each of the singer/guitarist’s two acclaimed albums as well as a couple of covers thrown in, the predictable “Teardrop” by Massive Attack and the totally unexpected “Bohemian Rhapsody”.  Who would’ve guessed?  The cherry picking continued throughout the weekend with a performance by Robert Cray who brought something special for the blues fans in particular but also for anyone with the remotest interest in American roots music, with a set of soulful blues numbers.  Hard to believe this musician is now in his late 50s; I would have put him down for not a single day over 40. Towards the end of Friday night there was a curious clash in the programme as the Main Stage welcomed the celebrated award winning live band Bellowhead, known for its bold as brass arrangements, whilst over on Stage 2, Edinburgh’s Orkestra del Sol provided some of the best brass sounds around, albeit in an entirely different style, taking in ska, klezmer, calypso and Balkan rhythms along the way.  It couldn’t go unnoticed then that for those who love brass there was the dilemma of which band to go and see, whilst for those who happen to have a chronic aversion to the old labrosones, there was nowhere to hide!  Both bands it has to be said, worked their socks off to provide some great entertainment to finish off the night.  The mornings are relatively quiet around the Cherry Hinton site, with the odd line check taking place, or the sound of an acoustic guitar or squeeze box hovering over the thick humid air.  On Saturday morning the sweet sound of Brian Finnegan’s flute and whistle workshop began mid-morning, whilst the first band on the Main Stage at around lunchtime was The Anxo Lorenzo Band, the King of Galician Pipes apparently, complete with a set of pure white pipes.  Stage 2 meanwhile was given over to the regular annual session, as the Paul McKenna Band joined Brian McNeill along with other appearances by the likes of Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, Megan Henwood, members of Mànran, Abigail Washburn and her musical partner Kai Welch, Damien O’Kane and a whole bunch of others.  During Saturday afternoon there was a bee-line to follow in order to catch Devon’s very own Carrivick Sisters as they performed songs from their brand new album From the Fields.  Alternating between guitar and mandolin, fiddle and dobro, Charlotte and Laura brought a taste of their own particular brand of bluegrass to a packed Club Tent audience as part of the Acoustic Routes open mic session.  The Carrivick Sisters seem just as happy to play late night impromptu sessions at various locations around the festival site as they are taking to the main stages.  This is testament to their commitment to their music, which on this new album has been overseen by producer Joe Rusby, who was also at the festival.  Joe’s big sister Kate once again drew the crowds to the Main Stage for the umpteenth time, in order to hear some of the songs from her current record Make the Light.  Joined by an excellent cast of musicians including Damien O’Kane and Julian Sutton, Kate once again made Cambridge her second home with another fine and memorable set.  The other highlights of the day came in the form of performances by the newly re-formed Penguin Cafe, with founder member, the late Simon Jeffres son Arthur at the helm, continuing his father’s work with a brand new line up of the orchestra and Ireland’s Frankie Gavin and De Dannan; two examples of how differently a set of instrumental tunes can be presented.  Richard Thompson returned to Cambridge for a solo set, featuring songs new and old such as “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” for instance, or “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and the utterly gorgeous “Persuasion”.  During his outstanding set I was pondering upon all the many people in the world that I could imagine duetting with him.  His son Teddy perhaps? that would be cool, especially on a song like Persuasion.  Chris While maybe? especially if it were to be a Sandy Denny song, although a bit obvious I suppose.  Then how about Kate Rusby? she was still in the house I guess; there again, so too was Richard’s namesake Danny Thompson, who would make an appearance with his old band Pentangle later the same evening.  Well, I could have sat there daydreaming about this until the end of time, carefully thumbing through a virtual who’s who of all the people remotely connected with music.  As Richard and his special guest stepped up to the mic to perform Sandy’s timeless “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, I have to confess, I would never in a million years have come up with Guy Secretan from Green Wing!  But there you go, Richard Thompson can never be accused of being predictable!  Fresh from their stint as Leonard Cohen’s band mates, The Webb Sisters presented their showcase performance over in the Club Tent to a packed house. With strong vocal harmonies and beautiful harp and guitar interaction, Charley and Hattie brought a sense of the ethereal to the festival, or at the very least, in Cohen’s words, the sublime.  It would have been impossible to leave the legendary ‘Pentangle cherry’ on the tree on Saturday night, despite so much other good things going on simultaneously.  Even the poor sound quality didn’t detract from the joy and nostalgia of seeing this band in its original form once again.  The original members, Jacqui McShee, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Danny Thompson and Terry Cox, delivered a set of songs that have not changed one bit in over forty years such as their one and only hit “Light Flight”, the dreamy “Once I Had a Sweetheart” and the unmistakable 1960s sound of “The House Carpenter”, featuring John Renbourn attempting a challenging half-lotus position in order to play the sitar, with varying degrees of success.  The cherry picking continued with a must-see stripped-down acoustic set, courtesy of Winchester’s Polly and the Billets Doux, featuring the unmistakable voice of Polly Perry, who wore for the occasion a dress full of cherries just ready to be picked.  To a child of the Fifties, the resemblance to Julie Christie, together with a truly original voice and a fun attitude, meant that it was one cherry not to be missed.  I’ll be sending a billet doux to the festival organisers pleading them to book this act for one of the bigger stages next year for sure.  The sun was hot even at 9.30am on Sunday morning, almost guaranteeing the best day of the weekend so far in terms of the weather.  The soaring temperatures and clear skies put smiles on the faces of those already congregated before the Main Stage to hear the Archers omnibus edition, whilst perusing the Sunday supplements. Some late night revellers were still sleeping off Jim Moray’s Silent Ceilidh which ran well into the early hours.  Still, even at this time on a Sunday morning, the Guinness pints were already being pulled.  Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends were over in the Club Tent conducting their well-attended singing workshop, whilst Abigail Washburn prepared for her Main Stage performance, once again alongside musical partner Kai Welch.  One of the things visitors to the Cambridge Folk Festival notice immediately these days, is the varying age range of the audience.  There appears to be no discernible demographic anymore as more and more teenagers come to the festival, which has to be a good thing, together with more and more younger kids as well.  On Sunday afternoon, an area was cordoned off to allow children from various local schools the opportunity to see a special children’s concert on Stage 2, featuring The Spooky Men’s Chorale, one of Australia’s premiere vocal combos.  The sixteen-piece choir, that had already performed their main festival spot on Saturday night, returned to entertain the kids in their own distinctive way.  The marquee was filled to bursting point with hundreds of children as the grownups gathered around the parameters, watching with just as much interest as the kids as the scary men in black worked their magic.  Whilst Missouri’s Nathaniel Rateliff performed in the Club Tent, delivering each song with his distinctly recognisable voice, John Tams prepared the return of Home Service to the Main Stage at Cambridge after a good 25 years.  Recreating that blend of brass, courtesy of Paul Archibald, Roger Williams and Andy Findon and the lead guitar pyrotechnics of Graeme Taylor, John Tams presented a thoughtful and richly orchestrated set, which pleased the audience enormously.  I’m still uncertain whether Rumer’s Sunday afternoon set worked terribly well on the Main Stage, it all seemed a little too laid back, verging on dullness.  Perhaps the thinking behind this inclusion was an attempt to recreate last year’s Pink Martini spot, which worked tremendously well.  For something a little more gutsier, Stage 2 was where the cherries were, this time in the shape of the young Nashville-born singer Caitlin Rose, whose charismatic sassiness could not be hidden behind those big diva shades for too long.  The Den provided possibly the ideal place to showcase a performance by Vermont-born singer/guitarist/banjo player Sam Amidon.  Relaxed and stone-faced, this enigmatic performer delivered his highly original interpretations of old folk tunes in an oft-surreal manner, especially in his guitar solos, which he unashamedly screeched along to occasionally.  Wonderfully eccentric.  With only six hours between stepping off a plane to stepping up onto the Main Stage, a cheerful Mary Chapin Carpenter brought a touch of class to proceedings with a set of familiar songs from a repertoire spanning almost a quarter of a century, including “Stones in the Road” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me”, to some newer material from her current album The Age of Miracles.  One of the unexpected surprises of the evening was the appearance on Stage 2 by the all-female Norwegian band Katzenjammer, who managed to stir up both the adrenaline and testosterone simultaneously.  Arguably the most bizarre band ever to play the festival, there could be little doubt to the band’s infectious sense of fun.  Anne Marit Bergheim, Marianne Sveen, Solveig Heilo and Turid Jørgensen demonstrated their multi-tasking multi-instrumentalist prowess by alternating between all the instruments on stage from banjos and mandolins to huge yellow smiley-faced contrabass Balalaikas, dancing around the stage like Nordic nymphs, giving the photographers at the front the opportunity to become full-on paparazzi for a moment or two, which almost threatened to break out into excitable chaos.  I don’t ever remember that happening at Cambridge with the likes of Dick Gaughan or Leon Rosselson.  Times are certainly a-changing.  With the veritable feast of foto frenzy over, the highlight of the day, if not the entire festival, was Laura Marling’s gorgeous Sunday night set, featuring songs from both albums to date, together with one or two songs from her forthcoming third album, A Creature I Don’t Know, due for release next month. Laura’s previous Stage 2 performance a few years ago saw a vulnerable waif-like teenager, partially lost in an adult world, with only her songs to protect her.  Now a few years on and a good deal of experience behind her, Laura Marling dominated the stage, the audience and the festival.  A pleasure to witness and a suitably memorable finale to one of the better Cambridge Festivals of recent years.