Cambridge Folk Festival 2017

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

Loudon Wainwright III probably harbours only the vaguest memories of the first time he appeared on the bill at his own very first Cambridge Folk Festival back in 1974, when he played to a much smaller audience and from a much smaller stage, which probably overlooked picket fences and camp tents of identical shapes, sizes and colours – green or khaki – your choice!  Shirley Collins evidently holds even fewer memories of her first visit to the festival almost ten years earlier, way back in 1965, the very first festival in fact, where she shared a bill with the likes of The Watersons, Peggy Seeger and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.  When I sit and ponder all of the Cambridge Folk Festivals I’ve attended since my first in 1989, there’s always a sense each time of having experienced and enjoyed just one of several thousand, if not millions, of possible festivals I could have had; with so much going on, the permutations are endless.  So, with this in mind, camera in hand and with a ‘walkabout’ spirit, let me run past you the festival I chose for myself this year, without going into what I had for breakfast, what I was wearing or how much coffee I consumed in 168 hours.

I’ve always taken an interest in the almost subliminal changes that may have occurred since my last visit to the festival.  The only major changes I can recall over the last 25 years or so have been the switching position of the Stage 2 marquee with the concessions tent, the arrival of TV screens on either side of Stage1, the introduction of cash deposits on plastic glasses (oh how we miss the plastic glass mountain which kept the kids busy) and the arrival of the Den.  This year, the removal of an entire section of the Cherry Hinton campsite, presumably to make room for people to stretch their legs, together with the twisting around of the main bar, came as a bit of a shock rather than a surprise; a little like visiting Piccadilly Circus and finding Eros mysteriously pointing his arrow the other way – strange for a regular, but hardly noticeable to newcomers.  The other change this year was the inexplicable re-sizing of the traditional A6 programme to A5, previously so handy to pop in one’s back pocket.

Well they say a change is as good as a rest but some things don’t change and with four main stages and various other side attractions, including street theatre acts, the odd workshop and a multitude of surprises scattered over the four days, including the ever-present storyteller John Row, his beard being as reliable as the Archers omnibus edition, seeing everything is very much out of the question.  These days catching just a fraction of what’s going on is a much more achievable goal.  Coven for instance, I missed in favour of She Drew the Gun.  Then Martin Simpson, who I didn’t see once, choosing instead to ponder over the phenomena that is Jake Bugg.  The young girl leaning on the safety barrier on Sunday night, trembling with excitement and with a visible tear falling down her temporarily tattooed cheek just five minutes before the Nottingham-born singer took to the stage, kind of suggested that I might possibly be at the wrong gig.  Martin Simpson was but a couple of hundred yards away and I found myself in alien territory but curiously transfixed.

The weather was pretty fine this year with one or two showers, but fortunately no other lightning bolts to speak of.  I aimed to commence my own personal Cambridge journey on Thursday by stopping by The Den, which I find increasingly the most interesting stage of the festival.  This is where we are most likely to find the great artists of the future in their embryonic stage.  Chloe Leigh was already onstage, bravely taking one of the opening slots in the initial open mic session and very good she was too, as were most, if not all, of the artists appearing on that stage.  Thursday’s largest stage as always was Stage 2, with a line-up that included The Furrow Collective, introduced incidentally by this year’s guest curator Jon Boden, the popular Mawkin, singer songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Scots power trio Talisk, whilst Midnight Skyracer, a new all-female bluegrass quintet made up of Leanne Thorose, Tabitha Agnew, Laura Carrivick, Charlotte Carrivick and Eleanor Wilkie won over the audience in the Club Stage for what could possibly have been the band’s biggest show yet.  Finally on Thursday night, Daoiri Farrell performed a superb set also in the Club Tent, a performance of Stage 1 standard actually, which recalled the halcyon days of Paul Brady and Andy Irvine, both Cambridge stalwarts and in Daoiri’s case, all rolled up into one.

Friday for all intents and purposes was ‘Ladies Day’ with well over twenty acts of predominantly female personnel across four stages.  Colin Irwin took his regular hot seat on the Club Tent stage to fire routine questions at Shirley Collins, whose recent return to the stage came as a big surprise to many.  Her candour was charming, especially her iconoclastic memories of such figures as Ewan Maccoll, who evidently wasn’t her favourite bloke, as well as fond memories of Alan Lomax and Mississippi Fred McDowell.  Five minutes into the interview, the 12-piece all female a cappella shanty group She Shanties opened proceedings on Stage 1 with some strong Watersons-like vocal workouts, which resounded across the festival site heralding in the first ever gender concentrated Cambridge event.

Each of the four stages saw a stream of acts from the cookie ukulele pop of Amelia “I play my dad’s record collection” Coburn to the Indigo Girls, by way of some highly enjoyable performances in between.  If the Worry Dolls, Ward Thomas and Wildwood Kin handled the country side of things more than adequately, then Rachel Newton, The Rheingans Sisters and Shirley Collins represented the traditional and contemporary folk aspect to the letter, each providing very different aspects of the music from their particular areas.  Other highlights for Friday included the soulful blues of Amythyst Kiah, the indie sensibilities and rock poetry of She Drew the Gun and for my money, the set of the weekend by Irish singer songwriter Lisa Hannigan, whose ethereal songs and gentle delivery enchanted the main stage audience for the duration.  “We’ve been punting today and got to Grantchester” the singer boasted.  During the set, Lisa was joined by two members of her band for a fine a cappella reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem Anahorish.

Saturday soon returned to normal with the return of male artists to the stage throughout the day with appearances by Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, LAU, Fantastic Negrito, Skerryvore, Moxie, Mawkin and the highly animated CC Smugglers, all of whom delivered excellent sets during the day and well into the night.  In the morning Sky Arts commandeered The Den with their cameras for the first time and predictably many couldn’t get past the walkie-talkies on the door.  It was a little bit like going to church on the week that Songs of Praise are filming.  No matter, I turned on my heels and headed for the Festival Session, Brian McNeill’s annual bash on Stage 2, where for three hours, the Scots musician encouraged collaboration with a whole host of singers and musicians appearing elsewhere on the bill, this year including CC Smugglers, Mawkin and Roxanne de Bastion amongst others.  If anything might be considered an institution at the Cambridge Folk Festival, it’s this.

During the afternoon, Stage 1 saw the arrival of Fantastic Negrito, whose brash showmanship, which marries shades of Prince with a blast of blues, divided the audience in Marmite fashion.  Alternatively, the much anticipated Orchestra of Syrian Musicians’ set was both classy and musically adventurous, with each musician in formal dress, a world away from the muddy conclusion to the day when the rain came.  By late afternoon the audience was treated to a couple of back to back sets featuring the very best of Irish music with County Kerry’s Beoga and County Clare’s Sharon Shannon, each performing their own brand of Irish traditional and contemporary music with a touch of predictable Penguin Cafe Orchestra thrown in. Replacing the originally planned grief and healing Liv On collaboration between Olivia Newton John, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Amy Sky, Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls stepped into the breach with a blistering set at one point honouring Olivia with a generous rendition of “You’re the One That I Want” to the delight of much of the audience and the bemusement of hardcore Frank fans.  The showmanship, energy and attack of any Frank Turner gig is a sure fire winner, this included.  My heart went out to the Isle of Tiree’s Skerryvore who had to follow as the rain poured.

By Sunday, it became obvious that several underlined acts in my well-thumbed programme had been inadvertently missed due to being unexpectedly transfixed to other sets.  A more achievable list was compiled for the final day, with Jon Cleary highlighted out of a love for the music of New Orleans, Jake Bugg out of pure curiosity, Daphne’s Flight out of an unfulfilled need and Loudon Wainwright III out of long term fan obligation.  This festival favourite was joined by old friends David Mansfield and Chaim Tannenbaum, the three seated together throughout, largely due to Loudon’s recent operation, resulting in the temporary use of a walking aid, which the singer joked about; “When I usually play, I play with myself” he said, “sorry, it’s the tablets”.  The set was packed with Wainwright favourites such as “Swimming Song”, “School Days” and “Cardboard Boxes”, with a brief but impassioned tribute to the late Joan Woollard, widow of the man who first brought Loudon to the festival in the first place, Ken Woollard.  The highlight of the set was Loudon’s reading of the late Michael Marra song “Hermless”, which still brings a tear.  Shortly after the set, Operations Director Neil Jones delivered the message we had all been waiting for, the announcement of the 2018 guest curator, which was revealed as Rhiannon Giddens, and a wise choice in my opinion.

With further performances by Lewis and Leigh, Jake Isaac, The Eskies, Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party and Oysterband, Sunday concluded with the hugely popular Hayseed Dixie.  Personally, I prefer a gentler conclusion to a very busy and eventful festival, relaxing in the Club Tent with my feet up side stage as Daphne took her final flight of the weekend, bubbles and all.  With singers of this quality, Chris While, Julie Matthews, Christine Collister, Helen Watson and Melanie Harrold, it seemed to be the ideal place to be as the festival reached its conclusion with multi-coloured Pride flags waving, just in case anyone present might still be afflicted with chronic bigotry.  Daphne’s Flight’s set was incidentally matched measure for measure by their hilarious soundcheck, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.

Enjoying a final pint of Guinness in the bar, totalling about five over the entire weekend (I take this job far too seriously), as security rolled down the marquee flaps before the Hayseed Dixie crowd realised they’d missed the last pint, I pondered upon all the other journeys I could have taken over the weekend.  Should I have gone to see Jon Boden and the Remnant Kings instead of Lau?  I don’t think so.  Did a few more moments of Shirley Collins really warrant missing Cara Dillon?  Not sure.  Shirley Collins’ set just might be that all important event that could be remembered as a once in a lifetime moment, a little like the Nic Jones set a few years back.  I concluded that with each festival journey we take, the results bring their own rewards and whatever we miss this time, we’ll catch up with next.  Was it the best Cambridge Folk Festival ever?  No. Was it worth the walkabout?  Oh yes, I think so.