Cambridge Folk Festival 2019

Live Review | Cherry Hinton Hall | Review & Photos by Allan Wilkinson

One of the real pleasures in life, along with second hand record shops, Jaffa Cakes and a nice chianti, is to perch upon an old tree stump alongside Cherry Hinton Hall slurping Guinness, whilst thumbing through the latest edition of the Cambridge Folk Festival programme. With four stages playing host to several acts simultaneously, being selective can be a major requirement and figuring out a workable plan is fairly tricky, but enormous fun at the same time. With one or two acts though, dithering becomes redundant and this year the choices of where to be soon became clear. Graham Nash and Richard Thompson were both immediately added to my own personal ‘must see’ list, before I was halfway down that first pint. The two British legends, one from the north and the other from the south, both OBEs and both having cut their teeth in the beat combos of the Swinging Sixties, having held important roles within those formative bands, were both on form at the festival. The two musicians could easily have chosen to perform their latest opus(es), something that might be remembered for years to come, leaving their respective audiences stunned by their sheer artistic creativity, but chose instead to deliver all their ‘hits’ and play to the crowd, effectively leaving their audiences calling for more. Rising to the occasion, Graham Nash appeared in the manner of one of rock’s elder statesmen, resurrecting such songs as “Our House”, “Marrakesh Express”, “Pre Road Downs” and “Teach Your Children” from the Crosby Stills Nash era, as well as one or two memorable songs from his subsequent solo career, notably the autobiographical “Military Madness”, with its memorable opening line “In an upstairs room in Blackpool, by the side of a northern sea, the army had my father, and my mother was having me..” If the inclusion of Stephen Stills’ Deja-Vu-period “4+20” surprised one or two, then “A Day in the Life” must have astonished many. Fifty-seven years after the singer introduced us to his inimitable high harmony vocal, the Lancashire-born singer songwriter and activist proved that he can still deliver the goods with a surprisingly untarnished voice. On Sunday evening, Richard Thompson stood in precisely the same spotlight and likewise opened his own impressive songbook with the sublime “Beeswing”, the heart stopping “Persuasion” and the obligatory “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, just one great song after another, a fan claiming afterwards that “he made me cry again” which he so often does. Thompson’s set was crammed with powerful and emotive songs from a prolific repertoire now spanning over half a century. During those fifty years, Cambridge audiences have delighted in the former Fairport Convention guitarist’s frequent appearances at the festival and especially those stripped down to the bare essentials of one man, one guitar. Often joined at some point by a special guest, Christine Collister and Stephen Mangan springing immediately to mind, this year, Richard was joined by his new partner, singer songwriter Zara Phillips, who made an appearance just after Richard’s impassioned reading of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, written by his former band mate Sandy Denny. Providing backing vocals on Wall of Death, his companion stayed around for the remainder of the set. Good humoured throughout, Thompson was both playful and relaxed, even when hounded by a section of the audience over an alleged sound issue “one at a time please” he quipped, before continuing in his usual unconcerned manner.

Stage Two usually enjoys five hours of self indulgence on Thursday evenings, when for one night only, the stage serves as the largest on site, a few hours prior to it being outranked by Stage One. By mid-evening the husband/wife team of James Walbourne and Kami Thompson, otherwise known as The Rails, returned to the festival on the eve of the release of Cancel the Sun, the band’s brand new album, due out in mid-August. Speaking before their set, Kami admitted to initially inheriting her father Richard’s dark brooding mood during her formative years and her mother Linda’s influence in more recent years. After a five-year gap, the London-based duo took to the stage, poised to deliver their much anticipated opening night set, which included songs from the imminently expected third album, notably the mesmerizing “Mossy Well.” When asked if she had buried James, as suggested in the video promo accompanying the song, Kami quipped “oh that would be giving it away.. only I know where the bodies are buried.” With a handful of familiar songs from the Rails’ back catalogue, including “Late Surrender”, “William Taylor” and “Fair Warning”, James and Kami brandished electric guitars for some finely tuned and energy-injected folk rock, which effectively heralded in the fifty-fifth Cambridge Folk Festival on this warm mid-summer evening. A couple of days later, on Saturday afternoon, Stage Two also saw the arrival of the utterly feral Amy Montgomery, who sent a wave of disbelief across the marquee and out into the field beyond, a young singer from Northern Ireland who delivered a wild performance, whilst giving the audience something they didn’t know they wanted. Bluesy, gutsy, engaging and utterly individual, the fresh-faced singer played a blistering set, reminiscent of the heyday of the iconic pop festivals of the Sixties, tentatively stepping into the shoes of both Janis Joplin or Grace Slick, names the singer had barely heard of before she hit the music scene, let alone been influenced by. Accompanied by her band, consisting of producer Michael Mormecha on drums, Zach Trouton on guitar and keyboards and Benton Flavelle-Cobain on bass, the swampy groove of such songs as “Tree Song” and “Dangerous” rang out across the festival site, alerting everyone to Amy’s highly convincing delivery, effectively enticing afternoon sun worshippers out of their catatonic states in order to sit up and take notice.

Bookended by two notable acts from Yorkshire, Huddersfield’s Bryony Griffith and Barnsley’s own Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican, who between them both opened the festival on Friday afternoon and brought it to a close on Sunday night, the latter’s lead singer crowd surfing to “Jump Around”, the Club Tent offered over fifty further acts throughout the weekend. Shortly after Bryony’s opening set, Nova Scotia’s Old Man Luedecke made his Cambridge debut. The first thing you notice is that he’s not an old man at all, in fact he hasn’t yet reached middle age. The second thing you notice is that he’s a consummate professional, whose thoughtful songs cover a broad scope, from dreaming of wealth, the world of sardines and the recent passing of his father. Delivered in a highly articulate fashion, each word intended to be immediately understood and each stroke of his banjo string heard, Chris Luedecke made an impressive debut at the festival before continuing on his travels up and down the country. Choosing just two acts to represent the Club Tent, home to a handful of local folk clubs throughout the weekend, is difficult to say the least. As we skip over a myriad of well-chosen acts such as Ryan Young & Jenn Butterworth, Annie Dressner, Odette Michell, Becky Mills and Oka Vanga, it was with high expectations that I approached the venue on Sunday night for a curious set by the experimental quartet PicaPica, albeit slimmed down to a trio for this festival appearance. The focus was very much on the ethereal twin voices of Josienne Clarke and Samantha Waites, accompanied by Adam Beattie’s empathetic acoustic guitar, who were all in a playful mood as they stretched the variety and texture of their expressive vocal pyrotechnics, weaving in and out of complex melodies, each playing a crucial role in the performances and with timing being of the essence; one note out of place and the house of cards would’ve come tumbling down, but we are talking about two incredible voices here, whose dovetailed vocal parts were both fascinatingly and confidently delivered. One of the highlights of the Club Tent this year.

The fine artist Sarah Allbrook may very well have captured the vibrant colours of the Den and surrounding area in oils, but it was such acts as the London-based duo Copper Viper and Sheffield-based ‘fluter’ Michael Walsh who provided the right sounds to accompany these beautiful visual images. The tight harmony singing of the bluegrass outfit Copper Viper, comprised of guitarist Robin Joel Sangster and fiddle/mandolin player Duncan Menzies, was immediately rewarding and encouraged passers by to stop and listen. Huddled around a single condenser microphone in true old time fashion, the duo showcased songs from their debut record Cut it Down, Count the Rings and proved that what they put down on record, was just as good (if not better) live. Precisely twenty-four hours earlier, Michael Walsh’s set came just at the right time, as the Saturday afternoon met Saturday evening, the sun beating down on the tranquility of the nearby Wilderness and Wellbeing areas and the duck pond in between. The vivid red circus marquee has become a much appreciated part of the festival in recent years, a place where people can relax and become totally absorbed in new music, whilst reclining in the open sunlight. It was Michael’s late father who introduced his son to the term ‘quarehawk’, a description of someone who might be “a little bit odd, a little bit strange, a little bit eclectic, a little bit naughty and a little bit clever” Michael, a self-confessed quarehawk, surrounded himself with a handful of fellow quarehawks to help him launch his so-titled debut album. With his wooden flute and tin whistle to the fore, the Manchester-born musician welcomed each of his collaborators to the stage, including Liz Hanley on fiddle, Paul Daly also on flute, Jonathan Vidler, who recited Mike Garry’s moving poem “The Visitor” and Michael’s wife Sarah, who demonstrated some of her nimble footwork on stage. A memorable set to ease us into the evening.

It may occasionally be referred to as ‘global music’ or ‘international music’, depending on current trends, but ‘World Music’, a term coined by Charlie Gillett and friends back in the late 1980s, is still for my money the most useful and unambiguous term for an area covered so well each year at the Cambridge Folk Festival. This year, festival curator Nick Mulvey was responsible for many of the musicians representing music from around the world, choosing the Welsh/Sengalese collaborative partnership of Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita, the London-based fusion outfit Fofoulah, Sahara Desert rockers Imarhan and Zimbabwe’s master of the mbira, Chartwell Dutiro. Catrin and Seckou not only delivered some of their sublime harp and kora music on Saturday afternoon, but also one or two playful moments, not least Seckou’s whimsical fly-swatting routine, accompanied by the BBC Radio 2 Best Musician of the Year nominee’s infectious smile peeking through his double-necked instrument. The Tuareg music of the Sahara Desert has become an immediately recognisable, almost unmistakable sound over the past few years, with plenty of outfits already steeped in the genre. The guitar-led blues associated with such bands as Tinarimen and Tamikrest always seems to attract attention at this particular festival and the five-piece Algerian outfit Imarhan didn’t disappoint, their riff-laden grooves permeating through the Cherry Hinton site on Sunday afternoon. Mixing sabar beats, electronics and echo effects with occasional shamanic chants, Fofoulah – pronounced foff-alla – was fronted by Gambian sabar drummer Kaw Secka together with the energy-driven routines of percussionist/dancer Batch Gueye. If Fofoulah demonstrated the uptempo party beats of the Gambia, then Chartwell Dutiro brought a much more delicate sound to Cambridge. Accompanied by Jori Buchel, the two musicians interweaved their thumb plucked instruments of joy, each housed within two giant calabash gourds. A former member of Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited, the quiet, almost unassuming musician provided an hour of highly spiritual music, wearing his porcupine quill headdress with pride. Sunday’s headline performance however, saw the return of the legendary purveyors of gospel, The Blind Boys of Alabama, now down to just three members, together with Mali’s Amadou & Mariam, both sharing the main stage. Under the heading ‘From Bamako to Birmingham’ Cambridge saw a perfect example of empathetic musicians coming together for an hour or so of blissful global unity.