Cambridge Folk Festival 2018

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

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

To my knowledge nobody got married at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival, nor did anyone have a civil partnership, but the old rhyme provides a good enough message to help reflect on the past weekend, especially after hearing Rob Heron and His Tea Pad Orchestra use the term during their Thursday night performance in the Club Tent. There’s always a sense of the old, the new, the borrowed and occasionally the blue here at Cherry Hinton Hall, regardless of which way around they pitch the beer tent or what size the programme is; there’s just something in the fabric of the place that makes us want to return time and time again. I’ve returned over twenty times now and in that time very little has changed, notably the size of the festival site. I’ve popped by the Cherry Hinton Hall grounds at other times of the year and I can confirm that it takes little more than a couple of minutes to walk from one end to the other diagonally, yet when 14,000 people are stretched out on their blankets with the daily newspapers covering their heads, protecting themselves from the rays of the sun, it takes a good deal longer.

Something old? Well the festival itself has been around for over half a century now and this year it welcomed back an artist who appeared at the very first one back in 1965, although according to Peggy Seeger it was as far back as 1961. Peggy may be in possession of less vivid recollections in terms of certain dates and times, but what she has no problem remembering is the songs that she’s been singing for all those years and this weekend, accompanied by her son Calum MacColl, the New York City-born singer delivered some of her most cherished songs before an appreciative audience. If Peggy was on form during her own Main Stage set on Friday afternoon, she was equally on form in conversation with Rhiannon Giddens earlier in the afternoon in the Flower Garden, where a number of people had gathered for the annual Mojo interview. Rhiannon couldn’t get a word in, which seemed only right as Peggy had a tale to tell, and tell it she did with her memoir First Time Ever not too far from her mind.

Something new? Well there’s always something new at the festival, a festival that prides itself on nurturing new talent, whether that’s in the now very much established youth area, The Hub, this year presided over by a hard working team led by Rosie Hood and Nicola Beazley, or in some of the new and established acts being given their first Cambridge exposure. The arrival at the festival of Allison Russell and JT Nero, otherwise known as Birds of Chicago, has been a long time coming and with no small measure of appreciation, this year’s guest curator Rhiannon Giddens made a personal dream come true. Sandwiched nicely between Main Stage appearances by American legends Janis Ian and John Prine, Birds of Chicago delighted a packed Stage Two audience with songs from their current album Love in Wartime, although their actual debut occurred a couple of hours earlier when the husband/wife team appeared in the bar alongside Darlingside and Yola Carter, performing Black Sabbath’s “Changes”. Rhiannon brought together a choice selection of artists, including Birds of Chicago and Yola, as well as Peggy Seeger, Amythyst Kiah and Kaia Kater, each of whom performed their own sets throughout the weekend and then gathered with the exception of Seeger, for a grand finale in the Club Tent on Sunday night, which was one of the most moving performances I’ve seen at the festival so far.

It’s always a pleasure to see newcomers at the festival, whether they be new to the scene, or very much established acts making their Cambridge debut. Songhoy Blues are a relatively new band from Mali, whose Friday night set was one of the most energy-driven sets of the weekend. Singer Aliou Touré eloquently described the scene before him as a sort of spiritual gathering, where religions and creeds pale into insignificance compared to the power of music – “everyone’s here for music and everyone’s smiling” noted the singer. It would be difficult to give a mention to each and every one of the newcomers as there were so many, spread across at least four stages, but for me Alden, Patterson and Dashwood’s performance in The Den could quite easily have been transferred to the Main Stage with little fuss at all. The Shackleton Trio, another new outfit to the festival, played that very stage, bringing their British, Scandinavian and North American influences to a festival not too far from their home.

Something borrowed? We need look no further than Patti Smith’s temporary loan of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, which was performed word perfect with the help of a piece of paper in her broken and bandaged hand, preceded by a brief nod to the Swedish Academy. The singer acknowledged the fact that nerves prevented her getting through the song at the Nobel Prize ceremony, who stood in for his Bobness in Stockholm a couple of years ago, but no such fumbling on this occasion. The song was delivered before an appreciative audience who were only too glad to show their appreciation afterwards. Patti Smith really did go down a storm on Saturday night, closing with “Because the Night” and “Gloria”, both of which were delivered in precisely the same manner as the thirty year-old who delivered them in the first place.

Something blue? Well, we were all lucky enough to have nothing but blue skies throughout the entire weekend, along with scorching Mediterranean sunshine. Blue could also refer to The Blues and who better to deliver that than one of the festival’s old pals Eric Bibb. Eric has been coming to the festival for several years now and always receives the sort of welcome he thoroughly deserves. Smart, cool, age-defying and with that ever-present and alluring smile, Eric Bibb was relaxed as he performed a selection of his best loved songs with his small band, such as “Needed Time” and the rather jaunty yet poignant “Mole in the Ground”, leaving a satisfied crowd to bask in the open fields as the evening sun went down.

Other highlights of the 54th Cambridge Folk Festival included the huge voice and equally huge personality of Irish Mythen, the return of Drever, McCusker and Woomble, festival favourite Kate Rusby joined by a whole bunch of friends including Eddi Reader, the beautifully crafted harmonies of Darlingside, a delightful performance by Vera Van Heeringen and her trio, a Main Stage performance by the young piper Brighde Chaimbeul, who along with guitarist Jenn Butterworth demonstrated that just two musicians could sound as big as an entire orchestra, the hilarious Club Tent performance from a Cambridge institution, Peter Buckley Hill, to name but a few. Then the various workshops and sessions throughout the weekend provided young and old with plenty to think about. But in the end, I would have to say that the star of the weekend was the festival itself. Fifty-three down and still going strong, so here’s to the next one, when we’ll probably have something older, something newer, maybe something borrowed, and in the meantime, I’ll probably remain slightly blue – it’s a whole year away.