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Cambridge Folk Festival 2009

Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge
Thursday 30 July - Sunday 2 August 2009

At any other time of the year, the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall would more or less echo the tranquility of other more well known city locations, such as the various college gardens or the handful of idyllic beauty spots down by the river, where you might be tempted to idle away a few hours punting or alternatively wander over to Parker's Piece for a bit of a reality check. During the last weekend of July however, Cherry Hinton Hall craftily camouflages itself amongst the foliage, whilst fences divide up the grounds into several familiar sections to be inhabited over the next few days by marquees of varying sizes. Once the structure of the village is in place, then it's down to good old fancy decoration, with colours a-plenty being added, either by children's paintings, lofty flags and bunting, or a selection of cheeky folksy artworks by the artist David Owen; not to mention the huge wicker fiddler who precides over the weekend's events.

All this initial effort is provided in order to bring a sense of belonging to the visitors who temporarily claim this village as their own year upon year. In such a setting, the sun is more welcome than the rain, but throughout the weekend both usually come in equal measure. If the Weatherman chooses Sunday to be the sunniest day of the festival, then the rain is normally forgiven for its previous intrusion on either Thursday, Friday or Saturday, or any combination of the three. At around lunchtime on each subsequent day after Thursday, a few thousand people traditionally congregate in front of each of the three stages to bring themselves up to date with all the music they've been listening to over the previous few months. This is how it is with me at any rate. To keep the body functioning properly over the next few days, there are food stalls of all descriptions, providing either spicy or not so spicy dishes, whilst ice cream stalls are kept on their toes as they quickly run out of wafers and two sufficiently sized beer tents rattle out a selection of fine beers as if it's going out of fashion.

Fashion, now there's a curious aspect of Cambridge. The brighter the colours or the weirder the shape, and I'm talking mainly of hats here, the better. Brightly coloured flowery Wellington boots normally come in handy at the festival and on this occasion, no more urgently required than during Saturday afternoon, when the heavens opened at the beginning of Diana Jones' Stage Two set. Speaking to Diana later she described the sound of the rain above her head: "the sound of the rain on the tarp gave energy to the whole set; I felt a little more like a rocker than I am now".

Earlier though, the weather was kinder. If you arrived at the festival site on Thursday morning, you would probably have got your tent up and your wine box opened before a single grey cloud came over. I missed the Thursday afternoon shower by taking refuge in the VIP bar to the side of Stage One, where I helped decorate the interior darkened walls with colourful photographs of previous festival artists. That done, it was time to venture out into the muddy fields to hear some music.

Having enjoyed Laura Marling's Thursday night set a year ago it seemed only right to check out her bloke's band Mumford and Sons who kicked off proceedings on Stage Two. The young quartet led by Marcus Mumford appealed to the large contingent of young female supporters hugging the safety barrier just as Laura and their contemporaries Noah and the Whale had done the year before. With youthful zest and energy, Mumford and Sons provided a good start to the festival.

Kent born Pete Molinari was fresh back from Nashville when he took to the stage on Thursday night. Described as a young country blues artist from the Medway Delta, Molinari brought his own brand of country folk to an eager audience. "It's a bit tough going on after a band like that" he said, and I guess it was, especially having been let down by his harmonica player who was "stuck on the M2". I suspect it was the M11 actually and he was confuzzling his Roman numerals. No matter, Molinari's voice was in fine form as he opened with Love Lies Bleeding, maintaining a fine quality falsetto throughout, reminiscent of a young Phil Everly.

As an avid reader of fRoots I am often bewildered at the inherent disdain for American visitors in the letters pages, especially when it comes to the Cambridge Folk Festival. I personally like the variety the programme offers and I'm in favour of the inclusion of a handful of song based artists such as Diana Jones, Hayes Carll and Beth Nielsen Chapman. I guess this has more to do with the fact that if these artists were excluded, then we would surely have even more fiddle bands, and crikey there's enough of them already. So it was a delight to finally see Alela Diane at the festival on Thursday night. Completing her forty date tour, Alela took to the stage with newly cropped hair, performing songs from her two excellent albums The Pirate's Gospel and the more recent To Be Still. Songs like Dry Glass and Shadows, Tatted Lace and Tired Feet were performed by a band who showed signs of both fatigue and relief, but also a good deal of satisfaction. Personally, I could have done with another half hour or so before she ran off back to California.

The most anticipated appearance of the opening night, which curiously I still consider the bonus night of the festival, having been so used to the festival starting around about Friday tea time, was that of Adrian Edmondson and the Bad Shepherds. Earlier in the evening, just as the sun was beginning to set on Cherry Hinton, the former Young Ones actor returned to comedic form by jumping in puddles just for the benefit of my camera. Festival organiser Eddy Barcan was a little less eager to mess up his Levis but was willing to pose with his mate nevertheless.

Brandishing his mandolin, and surrounded by some exceptionally talented musicians including Maartin Alcock (Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention) and Troy Donockley (Mostly Autumn - but just about everybody else), Edmondson brought the festival to life as the Shepherd's rocked the Casbah with the band's own blend of folk-tinged punk-heyday classics such as I Fought The Law, Hurry Up Harry, London Calling, Once In A Lifetime and surprisingly enough All Around My Hat.

Cambridge woke up on Friday morning to the sound of Brian McNeill's fiddle workshop over in the Club Tent. Unlike previous workshops at the festival, such as Tim O'Brien's mandolin and fiddle workshop or Eric Bibb's blues guitar workshop, both of which were to all intents and purposes, mere demonstrations, Brian conducted a real workshop, where budding fiddlers were invited to open their violin cases immediately and to put aside their inhibitions for the next hour or so. Those of us who were empty handed, were told that we were by no means 'civilians' in this and that we were urged to sing, and you don't argue with the big man.

Colin Irwin was at the helm of the annual Mojo Interview this year, inviting on to the Club Tent stage, five of the key players in the story of one of the most revered folk music labels in this country. The current managing director of Topic Records Tony Engle was joined by Martin Simpson and three members of the same family, Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson and daughter Eliza Carthy. In his introduction, Irwin said "as long as we've got the Test Match special, the omnibus edition of The Archers and Topic Records at the festival, all is well with the world". The interview was informative and gave an insight into how important Topic Records has been over the last 70 years, with lucid recollections from each of the contributors, particularly Engle whose work with the label cannot be underestimated. 

Kicking off Friday afternoon on Stage One was Quebec's Genticorum, whose energetic foot stomping traditional music provided a wake up call for all those who preferred to snooze through the Topic Records interview. The all male Genticorum were followed in quick succession by the supremely more attractive all female sextet The Shee, whose combination of colourful presentation and musical dexterity proved to be a hit with the audience. Their live mixture of Scottish traditional folk, Gaelic song and American bluegrass proved their credentials for a rightful nomination for this year's BBC Radio 2 Horizon Award in February and it was good to see them perform during the afternoon to an enthusiastic crowd on Stage One.

Continuing throughout the afternoon with a specific dance theme, we saw the welcome return of Edward II, whose blend of old English Morris tunes and Jamaican reggae, ensured bums were off canvas seats momentarily, as the infectious rhythms flooded the Cherry Hinton grounds, bringing a bit of sunshine once again to Cambridge. Little wonder the band have been hailed as "the most danceable band on the planet".

I think that only time will tell what a privileged moment it was for those of us who attended The Waterson Family's set on Friday afternoon at this years festival. Two members of this remarkable family on stage today were on the bill of the very first 'Cambridge Folk Music Festival' back in 1965, an astonishing 44 years ago, probably to the day. There wasn't so much the nonesense of being privy to some sort of ancient bygone ritual on this hallowed ground of English folk song, but more a celebration of a family united in the sheer fun of singing together. It wasn't all traditional folk song steeped in a tradition of a far distant past either, otherwise Jerry Garcia's Black Muddy River wouldn't have been in there, nor the absolutely gorgeous Some Old Salty, one of the songs from the pen of the late and much missed Lal Waterson. The family would have been complete with Lal's presence, and no one would have welcomed that more than those nine family members gathered on stage. Original members Norma and Mike Waterson who took centre stage were joined by their respective partners Martin Carthy and Ann Waterson and a whole bunch of the next generation of Watersons including Olly (Knight), Rachel (Waterson), Maria (Gilhooley), Eliza (Carthy) and Eleanor (Waterson), each and every one providing an utterly memorable Cambridge moment.

With a good helping of hard rocking blues and soul, the Massachusetts born singer-songwriter Susan Tedeschi made her Cambridge Festival debut on Friday evening up on Stage One. With a tight band behind her, Tedeschi played her only UK Festival appearance of the year, tearing it up with some extraordinarily fluid guitar playing, reminiscent of a young Bonnie Raitt. With a selection of songs from her four albums, including the most recent 'Hope and desire', the grammy nominated artist played with confidence and assurance, through a set that had the audience literally bouncing.

Over in the Club Tent, the stage was prepared for either a trio of young female Cambridge folk performers or a visiting Maharishi. Twenty year-old button accordion player Bryony Lemon insisted from the start that the audience get up on their feet for the dual purpose of enjoying the set more appropriately and to let more people into the marquee, namely those patiently waiting in the wings. Before we all start being impressed by the musical prowess of such a young and gifted musician, let's not forget that the astonishingly brilliant uillean piper, sister Grace is but 14 years-old and the fiddler Alex Patterson not much older at mere 16. If Mumford and Sons made me feel old on Thursday night, then by this point, they were positively knocking the nails in.

So impressed was I with the youngsters that I chose to miss the beginning of Buffy Sainte-Marie's set on Stage One. When I did eventually reach the stage, the Canadian singer was playing some sort of weird, presumably Piapot Cree Indian mouth instrument, based on a primitive hunting bow. Those with a very large attention span may recall our heroine performing the same song Going Up Cripple Creek with a little help from a donkey called Fred on Sesame Street in 1977. I wish I didn't have to remember these things.

Jon Boden's mad professor stage presence appears to becoming more and more eccentric and I always thought it was John Spiers who was the weird one! Bellowhead have more than proved themselves as a top notch British live folk act over the last five years and their place on the bill of this years festival was almost a given. The set was as sprightly as ever as the eleven-piece ensemble stormed through an energetic and vibrant hour of complex rhythms and consummate daftness, with Boden's trademark pink tie and matching tambourine. 

One of the most anticipated performances of the festival was Rupa and The April Fishes, who played the penultimate spot on Stage Two on Friday night. Raised in both India and France but returning to her birthplace of San Francisco, Rupa Marya now juggles with two professions, that of being both a doctor and a musician. The band's multicultural influences blend together styles as diverse as French Chanson, Gypsy swing, Latin and tango as well as Indian music, all with a tangible spirited feel. The songs, mostly sung in either French or Spanish, brought a taste of the exotic to Cambridge and the entire Stage Two marquee felt like it had been visited by the spirit of the Moulin Rouge. 

One of the highlights at the festival for me was the enthralling Demon Barbers set, featuring part of the famed roadshow, whose energetic dance routines contributed in no small measure towards the band's nomination and subsequent victory at this years BBC Folk Awards picking up the much deserved Best Live Act award. Kicking off with The Good Old Days, the energetic band featuring Damien Barber, Bryony Griffith, Will Hanson, Lee Sykes and Ben Griffin, rounded off Friday night with a spectacular performance that quite possibly should've been saved for the last act on Sunday night's Main Stage One slot. The absence of the rapper section of the show was made up for by a stunningly good set by the band, great and confident singing by Bryony Griffith and some spectacular clogging by the enigmatic dancers.

Everyone on site expected a downpour sometime on Saturday and they eventually got one during the late afternoon. Severe weather warnings had been announced from the media caravan by mid afternoon and the skies looked considerably bleak. For some, it would be a matter of taking up residence in either of the stage marquees; for others it would be an exodus to the sanctuary of the two bars. For many however, it was a case of riding out the storm in the open fields. It's only rain after all.

Earlier in the morning though, things were still bright and beautiful, and Rachel Unthank's singing workshop helped to keep at bay any real consideration for the weather. Rachel is no stranger to running singing workshops, even though most of them up to now have been by and large for children in schools up and down the country. Breaking off from a busy schedule, which has included recording a new album, reshuffling the band, preparing a grueling forty-date tour and, oh yes, getting married, Rachel brightened up Saturday morning by presenting a workshop aimed at getting everyone singing, with a little help from her younger sister Becky. I was quite amazed at just how many happy campers, who had incidentally already endured two nights in a damp tent, would be willing to go along with Rachel's Rubber Chicken warm up routine, but they did, without so much as a peep.

I enjoy workshops that are just that, hands on joining in sort of workshops, so much so that anything masquerading as a workshop, such as last year's fiddle and mandolin workshop, just won't do. Rachel was determined to get everyone singing and not just because she wanted us to, but because we wanted to. Using examples of folk songs from around the world, including a Yorkshire street call and response song, which has been recorded and promises to be on the forthcoming third Unthank album, Rachel's command over communal singing successfully lifted the spirits of those in the Club Tent, the culmination of the workshop being a beautiful four part rendition of The Newcastle Lullaby.

Directly after Rachel's workshop, I interviewed the siblings in the VIP Bar to the side of the main stage, just as Crooked Still were setting up for their main stage appearance. I asked Rachel about her approach to singing and how she felt about running workshops generally: "I really enjoy singing with a large number of people. It's really different from singing on your own or just with a couple of people. There's something quite spiritual about it and this morning those people were quick and good and they made a lovely sound. I've done a lot of workshops up in the Noth East for choirs and for kids and I do really enjoy it because it's what it's all about really".

After a good long natter to the Unthanks, I wandered down to the front of Stage One to see Hayes Carll's second set at the festival, having caught a bit of his Friday night set on Stage Two. Performing songs from his albums Little Rock and Trouble In Mind, Carll exchanged the gritty Texas bars, which he is used to working in, for Cherry Hinton's gentle green fields, including in his set the songs Knocking Over Whiskeys and Good Friends. Carll is said to have honed his craft in the seedier bars of the Gulf Coast of Texas by playing in front of tough crowds, six nights a week and has worked with amongst others, the legendary Guy Clark. Together with a wealth of good well constructed songs in the vein of Townes Van Zandt, Carll also proved to be something of a raconteur between songs.

In Andrew Webster's introduction, it was revealed that the BBC radio broadcast of Jim Moray's recent appearance at WOMAD, was extended from a planned two song allocation to the entire set, it being so good. Repeating for Cambridge some of the same magic, Jim Moray and his exceptionally good band including Mawkin:Causley's James Delarre on violin and hurdy gurdy, performed a strong set to a packed and buzzing main stage audience, with songs from his current album Low Culture including Leaving Australia, Rufford Park Poachers and  Lucy Wan as well as one or two from his first album, the title song Sweet England and Gypsies. Concluding the set with Moray's take on the infectious XTC song All You Pretty Girls, the charismatic Moray preceded the performance with a dedication to a handful of such pretty girls in the audience.

Jon Boden and the Remnant Kings made their Cambridge debut on Stage Two mid afternoon on Saturday. Boden had been quite busy over the weekend appearing with Bellowhead on Friday night, and then again popping up in the main stage marquee to do an impromptu session with a bunch of people who had been following texts provided by the BBC giving hints to a 'special musical event' and then finally with his new band The Remnant Kings. In a relatively short period of time Jon Boden has become a much respected and hard working musician in collaboration with the likes of John Spiers, Bellowhead and Eliza Carthy but this exclusive festival appearance showed Boden in his own project and in a much more restrained mood as he performed songs from his current album 'Songs From the Floodplain'.

With two appearances at this years' Cambridge Festival, Derbyshire's Bella Hardy assembled a fine band of musicians to showcase her new album In The Shadow of the Mountains which she launched over the weekend. Bella has come a long way in the last two years since the release of her debut solo album Night Visiting, already with three BBC Folk Award nominations under her belt, as well as reaching the finals of the BBC Young Folk Awards in 2004, she has become one of the leading lights on the British folk scene. Bella took command of both sets during the weekend and proved that she has the potential to take her music to places she probably hasn't even dreamed of yet.

Ella Edmondson returned to the Club Tent this year, this time with her fine trio consisting of Buddy Valentine on Bass and Si Paull on percussion, to perform songs from her debut album Hold Your Horses released earlier this year. I asked Ella how this time compared to her first appearance in 2008: "Oh it was totally different, last time I just jumped up and did a couple of songs on my own, this time I have a band with me and it's a whole different experience". A year can make a difference in music and Ella has come on in leaps and bounds over the last twelve months, presenting herself as a much more assured performer. Ella's songs have strong radio friendly melodic structures, which could potentially cross the boundaries of alternative acoustic and folk pop with ease. Songs such as Go Without, Fold and Run and Hide, all of which were played during her set. Bad Shepherd Andy Dinan added a further dimension adding some pretty tasty fiddle to Breath.

Diana Jones played two remarkable sets during the weekend, the first on Saturday night just as the heavens opened. Drawing on old time, country blues and mountain music of her native Tennessee, Diana is imbued with the same sort of authenticity as captured in the songs of Iris DeMent and Gillian Welch. With a selection of songs from both My Remembrance Of You and the follow up Better Times Will Come, Diana captivated her audience with her outstanding performance.

I spoke to Diana backstage and asked her how she felt about playing on the main stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival: "Oh I'm honoured. I played two years ago in the Club Tent, with my friend Bo Stapleton and that was great fun and sort of a taste, but it's great to come back and do two sets and to get to know people and to be backstage. Everyone's so lovely, it's so well run; it's great, it's just like a little village, I love it".  

Probably the most familiar sound at Cambridge this year, especially to anyone of my generation, would be that of Booker T of the MGs fame. As the Stax house band, Booker T and the MGs were responsible for the sound that underpins most of the classic Otis Redding and Sam and Dave numbers as well as being responsible for such timeless hits as Green Onions and Time Is Tight, both of which the band played during their set. Throughout the afternoon I noticed a couple of cricket fans sharing a set of headphones, intently listening to the latest Test results and thought how ironic it would be to hear Booker T's Soul Limbo being played live from the stage as Graham (not Green) Onions came out to play. Time was indeed tight as Booker T waited in the wings as at one point during the stage set up, no less than seven stage personnel surrounded his B3 Hammond Organ, all presumably making sure the old thing worked properly, which it seemed to in the end.

After the storm of Saturday came the sun drenched Sunday. For the first time in living memory, I ducked out of the Cherry Hinton camp site after Saturday's storm, to the comfort of a warm bed in Cambridge, courtesy of my niece's kind hospitality. I'm not sure it was an entirely honourable thing to do; I usually stick it out through thick or thin, even though camping at my time of life is becoming difficult. So the thought of a warm bed, a shower, a bottle of wine, the late night re-showing of Never Mind the Buzzcocks and the pretty certain possibility of a cooked breakfast this morning was just too good to decline. I did weigh up the situation and gave it some consideration. I think it was the sight of my tent standing in a paddling pool by the light of the moon that tipped the balance. 

So, after returning to the festival site just before noon, refreshed and smelling like the contents of Barbara Cartland's handbag, I made my way through the crowds to catch Bella Hardy's main stage set. At Cambridge every effort is made to ensure you get to see your favourite act, with multiple appearances by some of the key players. The headliners are often booked for just the one appearance, but other acts can be seen at least once on both of the two main stages. I was determined to see both of Bella's sets.

Why I left it too late to see both Lau and Crooked Still I have no idea, so I found myself running from one stage to the other during Sunday afternoon, in an endeavour to see highlights from both bands' sets. Crooked Still were on excellent form, with the additional words of wisdom between the songs and tunes courtesy of banjo player Greg Liszt.

The combined force of Kris Drever, Martin Green and Aidan O'Rourke has always been enough to excite audiences who attend Lau gigs for the last couple of years or so, but with the release of Arc Light, the band have expanded to include pedal steel guitarist Stuart Nisbett and on backing vocals Bella Hardy and Corrina Hewat, bringing to the highly orchestrated set several pieces of music that appear to be more trance-like than previous compositions. Although I consider myself a Lau fan, I do have a softer spot for Kris Drever's singing and the inclusion of Winter Moon was most welcomed.

Martin Simpson played two sets at this years festival, one with a full band on Stage One and then again on Stage Two solo. I chose Simpson's solo set for a good reason. Although Simpson's many collaborations have proven to be successful, it is as a solo performer that I feel we get the best out of him. It's the style of guitar playing that is uniquely his that brings out the pure soul of this extraordinary performer. Simpson can have the best band in the land and it still couldn't possibly match the intense beauty of his single weeping note in the opening few bars of The Greymore Hare in a darkened room. Having said that, the guy is only human and it's good to have your friends around and the friends he chooses are probably the best you can possibly get. On stage with him throughout this weekend were Andy Cutting, Andy Seward and Keith Angel, with additional help from BJ Cole and Jon Boden. Pretty good company.

Paul Brady returned to the Cambridge Folk Festival on Sunday, the first time since 1995, although his very first appearance at the Festival was way back in 1969 when he made an appearance with his then band The Johnstons. Well known on the traditional Irish music scene for many years before embarking on a career as a contemporary song writer, Brady has become one of Ireland's most enduring singer-songwriters, having recorded several albums with The Johnstons before joining Planxty in 1974, replacing Christy Moore. After establishing himself as one of Ireland's premiere folk singers, Brady went through an extraordinary career change emerging as a contemporary songwriter and performer in 1978. Since then, a series of fine albums have emerged and many of his songs have been recorded by many artists including Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby and Trisha Yearwood.

I spoke to Paul backstage before his set and asked him how he feels about the fact that so many artists have picked up on his songs and have subsequently recorded them: "I'm pleased that people like the songs that I wrote; I didn't really write the songs for other people though, I wrote songs for myself and for my own records but at the time, although my records weren't going out of the stores in zillions, they were going around the artistic community like wildfire and a lot of people were picking up on songs of mine, so that was a very exciting time". Some of those songs were included in his Stage One set in the final couple of hours of this years festival such as Crazy Dreams, Nobody Knows and The World Is What You Make It.

After such an excellent festival, I would sincerely have liked to have written a more positive review of headliner Lucinda Williams' performance on Stage One on Sunday night. The thought of that particular spot each year at Cambridge, the last five years for example being Beth Orton (2004), Christy Moore (2005), Emmylou Harris (2006), Nanci Griffith (2007) and Joan Armatrading (2008), seems to show an emerging pattern of excellence. Unfortunately, this year, either a bit of stagefright or soap operatic drama Queen histrionics led to the first failure during this slot. I was in the pit taking notes when the singer announced "I hate cameras" before launching into her first song, stopping less than ten seconds into it and going on to say "I can't do this, I can't handle the cameras". None of the photographers waited around to be politely asked to leave, they had all already made up their minds that they didn't particularly want to take a picture, quickly gathering up their bits and bobs and vacated the front of stage area immediately. I was probably free to stay and continue to take notes but I decided to make a speedy exit just in case she started on the journalists too. I therefore cannot comment on the set. The only blemish on an otherwise excellent festival, which I look forward to returning to next year.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky