FolkWorld Issue 40 11/2009; Live Report by Alex Monaghan

Great Music, Good Weather, Cheap Cider
Cambridge Folk Festival, 30 July - 2 August 2009


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A four-day festival in the heart of Cambridge, definitely one of the UK's premier festivals with a 45-year pedigree, in one of the greenest (and wettest) parts of England - but the weather looked kind this year. And it's big - three main stages, lots of impedimenta, and some of the biggest acts in folk and world music. Surprisingly, and uniquely in the UK, this major festival is run by the local council - organised, staffed, and largely funded, although there are commercial sponsors too. Why don't other councils copy this model?

Last time I was at Cambridge, in 2003, the main sponsor was a brewery. Since then BBC Radio 2 have had a few years as sponsor, and are still heavily involved, but the mantle of main sponsor was taken up this year by ... the Co-Op!


Genticorum @ FolkWorld: FW#37

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This makes more sense than you might think, as their regional manager told me: the Co-Op ethos is grass-roots, community-based, slightly left of centre (a lonely place these days), and less urban than the big supermarkets. Most importantly for festival-goers, there will now be a Co-Op tent selling groceries at High Street prices, including brand-name cider at a pound a pint.

Day 1 dawned fair and breezy, perfect for pitching tents, but I live close enough to commute so I avoided the floodplains and bided my time until the Friday. The Thursday evening programme is mainly a sop to the campers, who have indeed been sopping wet some years: no big names, but I did regret missing Genticorum who were over from Quebec, a fabulous trio of singers and musicians who only graced Cambridge for a short time. Whilst most of the Cambridge audience is English, and there's a high proportion of English acts booked, the festival ranges far and wide for its talent: in 2003 there were a lot of world music acts - Orchestre Baobab, Toumani Diabate and the like - but 2009 promised fewer of these. Instead, the English were joined by quite a few North Americans and a lot of Scots, but these guys were mostly not scheduled until Day 2.

Day 2 started sunny, so much so that I took a big hat, and the weather lasted all day. With only patches of mud, most of the site was carpeted in T-shirts and bare flesh, much of it tattooed, some of it prosthetic, and a lot of it old enough to have witnessed the first Cambridge Folk Festival. After the tempting strains of The Cock & Bull Band's Franco-English ceilidh, and the more recent Steamchicken version of English barn dance tunes, I headed for a youth workshop given by the six ladies of The Shee, fresh from far wetter festivals, in shorts and wellies and a crowd of expectant youngsters. Impressively, after forty minutes or so, they were ready to perform a complex arrangement of instrumental and vocal harmonies based around a couple of The Shee's tunes, much to the delight of kids and parents: job well done. After a quick chat, and an introduction to accordionist Amy Thatcher (the acceptable version of Martin Green), I sloped off to catch Martin Hayes & Denis Cahill.

Disaster! The three guitar-toting guys on stage turned out to be hairy Texan singer-songwriter Hayes Cahill (don't they have first names in Texas?) and his sidekicks. So, no sweet Clare fiddle and bluesy guitar: more to the point, this left only one serious Irish act in the whole festival - WHERE WERE THE IRISH?! Plenty in the crowd, and in the Guinness-sponsored bars, but precious few on stage. With the prospect of Susan Tedeschi (who?) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (before my time) on Stage 1, I headed over to see what Cambridge Folk Club were offering on Stage 3 and was delighted to find young Irish box player Bryony Lemon, new to me, launching her debut CD.

Brian McNeill

Brian McNeill @ FolkWorld:
FW#4, #10, #10, #12, #19, #22

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Good old reels and jigs, the occasional waltz, and no songs at all - right up my street. But there was a snag. Bryony and her two teenage friends were excellent on button box, fiddle and pipes, and I have to say there is something wrong with a folk festival's PA when it can't accommodate three girls on traditional acoustic instruments. We had feedback, we had cut-outs, there was no way to balance the sound, and so Bryony's brilliance was only appreciated in flashes. I'm not criticising the sound engineers - they did a first class job throughout the festival - but it seems that we may have forgotten how to cope with folk instruments. No problems with all the guitar-vocalists, of course, or with Brian McNeill's cittern which ended the night for me.

Day 3, and still no rain: most of the muddy patches were drying up nicely as I trawled through the stalls before things really got going. All sorts of weird and wonderful clothing, from ethnic to Gothic, and a wide range of non-mainstream toys were displayed alongside the instruments, CDs, T-shirts and camping equipment you'd expect at a folk festival. A storm was forecast for the evening, and a lot of merchandise would get very wet. In the meantime, Newgrass whizz-kids Crooked Still were trying to play on two stages at once, and I wanted to catch Ruairidh MacMillan who was doing a few spots as this years Scottish Young Traditional Musician winner. I found him running another youth workshop, with fiddlers from twelve to twenty-something: he was teaching them a good solid West Highland strathspey, getting them fired up nicely, and then adding reel after reel to the set, until he asked "Can anyone remember how the first tune goes?" and it all went quiet. But despite breaking a string and having fiddlers poached by the story-teller next door, Ruairidh's passion and focus never wavered. Once again, within an hour there was an impressive performance of fine Scottish fiddling from people who'd probably never heard the like before: result!

Back over to the main stage for Blazin' Fiddles, with newbie Anna Massie on guitar: all dressed in cowboy hats, Cat MacDonald in a cheer-leader outfit, the music as good as ever. Beautiful airs, grand old reels, and a novelty set of "strolkas" - strathspeys played as Kerry polkas, right down to the funky keyboard vamping, fabulous! With some great solo fiddling and some massive ensemble arrangements, these six guys went down a storm. Talking of which, the skies were darkening in the west as Stage 2 beckoned with Hot Club of Cowtown followed by The Shee. A big build-up from the MC ushered three nattily-dressed guys and a very striking lady on stage, and the music started.


Maírtín O'Connor @ FolkWorld:#22,#24,#38,#39

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The word "phenomenal" doesn't really cover it: I was checking my socks to see if they'd been blown out of my wellies, other people were whooping and mobbing the stage. It's hard to explain the overwhelming appeal of Hot Club, but these three virtuosi drew everyone into their music: the rapid-fire chirping guitar, the wailing blues fiddle, and the pounding slap-bass thunder, while their new jazz drummer walked the beat in the background. My socks may have stayed on my feet, but the rest of me was blown away. I wasn't the only one: the lady next to me was too dazed to remember her jacket (big mistake!), and there was heated discussion afterwards as to which of the three was the star, whether their appeal was musical or magnetic, and which was the best album to buy. Their CDs don't have the same awesome impact as the live act: you have to catch these guys if they come near you!

After a short break we were ready for The Shee, with a very hard act to follow and an altogether gentler approach despite their six-strong instrumentals and vocals. The crowd didn't really warm to these Northern lasses until Amy doffed her accordion and donned a pair of purple clogs to give us a brilliant solo dance routine. And then the heavens opened, and suddenly the tents were extremely popular, the rain was hammering on the canvas, lightning flashed, mud began to bubble up everywhere, and Mairtin O'Connor walked on stage to say how much at home he felt in this weather. As the only real Irish interest for me, the Crossroads quartet was an expected highlight - the atmosphere of a packed and steaming tent, with the elements venting their fury all around, gave an almost mythical edge to their music. Mairtin was joined by Cathal Hayden on fiddle and banjo, Jimmy Higgins on drums, and Seamie O'Dowd as the guitar-vocalist. Good honest Galway reels and jigs, many of them written by Mairtin, were leavened with an occasional song and a number of showpieces including a version of The Queen of Sheba from Mairtin's De Dannan days. Nostalgia was running freely - or was the tent leaking? After all the encores, I must admit I skipped Lau and braved the rain for a second dose of Hot Club on Stage 3, well worth getting wet for. If there's one thing I'll remember from this festival, it's Elana James singing Deed I do - and I don't generally go for singers. To finish a great night, The Treacherous Orchestra took the floor as the storm was abating, confusing the audience into rapturous applause with their long, swirling, hypnotic arrangements of modern Scottish tunes. Many names to watch out for here, including Adam Sutherland, Ali Hutton, Innes Watson, Kevin O'Neill, and Ross Ainslie who got more mentions than anyone else despite not actually being there!

Day 4 saw the return of the sun, but the festival site was still very swampy when I arrived with my son for a Sunday of family fun. I pointed out the wettest spots: "That's where three people disappeared up to their necks yesterday, here's the Wellie Graveyard, mind those young ladies mud-wrestling" -

Bella Hardy

Bella Hardy @ FolkWorld: FW#36,#40

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and we squelched across the quaking causeway to catch The New Rope String Band at their children's show - very slick, very funny, and musically astonishing. The late great Joe Scurfield has been replaced by two people - a fitting compliment - and this legendary comic act has become a 4-piece with two of its members in skirts. The name change still confuses me - "New Rope" is surely worth more than "Old Rope" - but their performance has maintained the same quality of irreverent wit, and the things they do with boomwackers will bring tears to your eyes.

Following nibbles with the Scottish Arts Council, and a great wee floor show from Feis Ross young musicians, the afternoon was an opportunity to hear a bit more of Mairtin O'Connor and catch the neglected Lau as they growled their way through a dark and menacing set with some interesting cameos including Bella Hardy and Corinna Hewitt on backing vocals. Lau are always great live, full of unexpected twists and able to pump out an enormous sound for a trio, but still not quite as gobsmacking as Hot Club of Cowtown. The rest of the afternoon is a bit of a blur now, lying in the sun listening to some of the best music on the planet: even the food was good, the air was full of whizzing balloons, and among all the hip and trendy clothing I distinctly recall a group of guys in West Ham T-shirts - how weird is that? The mud was almost all gone when we left, picking plums from roadside trees and driving home with a rucksack full of souvenirs.

Great music, good weather (mostly), cheap cider, and as colourful a crowd as you could wish to see outside Castlefest: Cambridge is still a big spectacle and a great draw for overseas acts, but maybe less of a showcase for Celtic music these days. The English were well represented, the World Music craze seems to have died down, and the promised Scandinavian invasion still hasn't happened, but the Scots and Irish are on the cusp. Maybe Riverdance has passed its sell-by date, maybe pipes are just too powerful for rural England, but I'd certainly like to see the Celts rise again in Cambridge! Mention it to the manager next time you're in the Co-Op.

Photo Credits: (1) Genticorum, (4) Bella Hardy (by Cambridge Folk Festival / Press Photo); (2) Brian McNeill, (3) O'Connor Hayden O'Dowd (by Walkin' Tom).

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