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Cambridge Folk Festival 2012

Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge
Thursday 2 - Sunday 5 August 2012

With so many stages now spread across the relatively small Cherry Hinton Hall grounds on the outskirts of Cambridge city centre, there is no more pleasurable way to experience the festival than as a curious wanderer, taking in little bits here and there, with hardly a chance of catching a full set anywhere, unless you happen to be lodged between the safety barrier at the front of Stage 1 with several thousand people right behind you for the duration of Seth Lakeman's set. Fortunately I was lucky enough to survive this festival without being trapped anywhere, free to wander and to take in all the sights, sounds and smells, amongst a friendly crowd of familiar faces. My own personal festival wander began at around midday on Thursday at the Robin Hood pub right next door to the main festival site, where I met up with a few festival friends, which has become something of a tradition. One of those friends just happens to be photographer Phil Carter who joined me throughout the weekend and whose pictures illustrate the following notes. The sun was already turning me pink as the sound of tent pegs being driven into the soft ground echoed around the sleepy Cambridge park, with a certain air of anticipation as other groups reconvened once again to enjoy their own four days of fun and music.

Whilst Megson kicked things off on Stage 2 on Thursday night, the opening act in the Club Tent was none other than singer-songwriter Polly Paulusma, whose sound check rang out beforehand effectively calling in the relaxed campers who in turn took this pretty much as the official start to the festival. Polly's short set included such notable songs as Dark Side and Tom Petty's Freefalling, a good start to the evening concerts. Naomi Bedford was up next to perform in the club tent, with a set entirely made up of murder ballads (well almost). The singer also performed a song called Bluebirds, from her forthcoming EP, which on the record features a duet with Ron Sexsmith.

By mid-evening we found ourselves pretty much immersed in the current wave of young boy bands, good boy bands but boy bands nevertheless. Previous festivals have seen the likes of Noah and the Whale, Mumford and Son and Stornaway, but this year those slots were occupied by the likes of ahab and Dry the River, both bands attracting long lines of teenage girls clinging onto the safety barriers for dear life, each adorned with daisy chain halos. A familiar sight that added colour to an already colourful festival.

As I caught a tiny bit of York-based singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich's set, who managed to draw a large crowd, it has to be said that Thursday evening really belonged to Billy Bragg, whose tribute to Woody Guthrie on the occasion of the legendary folk singer's 100th birthday was delivered in an entertaining and informative manner, the Cambridge regular revisiting some of the songs from his Mermaid Avenue period, an album he made with the American band Wilko, including Ingrid Bergman and Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.

I was keen to catch Tim Edey and Brendan Power's set in the Club Tent, which meant missing the end of Billy's tribute; the first serious clash of the festival. With soft squelchy ground beneath our feet, left over from the recent bout of heavy rainfall and which actually threatened the festival this year, the button accordion and guitar playing wizard sparred effortlessly with one of the world's most gifted harmonica players. With tunes from their current album Wriggle and Writhe, the duo played a note perfect set with the one solitary casualty, a broken accordion strap.

On Friday morning, Tim Edey returned to the Club Tent to preside over his guitar workshop, which drew a fair sized crowd of guitar players eager to discover some of Tim's tricks. A dazzling guitar player who utilises many styles, Tim revealed that his dad taught him to play in the gypsy-jazz style of Django Reinhardt, a style that doesn't immediately find its way into the repertoire of stage one guitar players. Tim also demonstrated his chops on the button accordion, much to the delight of those present. As Tim left the stage, or to be accurate, the patch of grass in front of the stage, I found myself backstage with the legendary Roy Harper just before he was escorted onstage for his Mojo interview with journalist Colin Irwin. During the interview, a female blackbird flew into the marquee, circled the stage area above Roy's head, before perching upon the stage monitor in front of him. Roy seemed neither surprised nor concerned, in fact there was a distinct feeling that this sort of thing happened to him all the time. The influential singer-songwriter reminisced about his life and career and reflected upon his long association with the festival claiming that he may have been at the very first festival in 1965 with Paul Simon, that he was definitely at the second festival and that he definitely played at the third.

The main stage opened this year with the Mighty Doonans whose big brass sound resonated around the sleepy festival site around lunch time, with a set that included the old Kinks classic Dead End Street, possibly the first time this song has been heard on that stage since Ray Davies sang it when he appeared at the festival 1996. There was also some clog dancing thrown in for good measure. Soon afterwards, singer-songwriter Steve Tilston took to Stage 2 to play his first set at the festival in nineteen years to which he quipped "nice when you get invited back!"  

As evening approached on Friday, June Tabor and the Oysterband appeared fresh from sweeping the board at this year's BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Set to impress, impress the band did with an outstanding Stage 1 set, which included amongst other things their take on the old Jefferson Airplane song White Rabbit bringing a sense of old Woodstock to the festival.

Over on Stage 2 Gretchen Peters returned once again to Cambridge with husband Barry Walsh by her side, who together brought their own brand of country roots music to the festival, with a set that included such songs as Hello Cruel World, Dark Angel and Woman on a Wheel. A fine singer-songwriter if ever I saw one.

Backstage at the club tent, Horizon winner Lucy Ward was temporarily lost in her own world for a few moments immediately prior to going on stage. It was actually rather sweet to see how nervous she was, standing in the wings whispering the first song to herself, completely absorbed in thought. "I'm bricking it" she announced as she took to the stage in the Club Tent, with trademark blue hair, going on to perform such songs as Maids When You're Young, Common People, Alice in the Bacon Box and For the Dead Men. After Lucy's excellent and thoroughly engaging set, Lucy's friends David Gibb and Elly Lucas played a short set in The Den, after which I sat and spoke to the duo down by the duck pond (see interview). 

The highlight of the day was catching John Prine for the first time. I have no idea why it's taken so long to see this songwriter live but I'm so glad I saw him on this occasion. A fine performance featuring some of his best loved songs such as Aimless Love, Souvenirs and Lake Marie. Gretchen Peters was invited up onstage for the last number, providing Cambridge with yet another memorable pairing.

One of things you need to be mindful of whilst at Cambridge is to keep an eye on the Club Tent as there are likely to be one or two surprises around the corner. On Friday night the club hosted a performance by local Cambridge-based duo State of the Union featuring Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams, who between them left a lasting impression on those who attended.

On Saturday morning I headed over to the Club Tent to catch Four Men and a Dog's Cathal Hayden conduct his fiddle workshop. Once again the sun was out and the atmosphere was as pleasant as could be. The violin students who attended the workshop probably wanted a more simplified fiddle workshop as the fiddle player explained and demonstrated much more complex fiddle tunes. I'm sure they all took home with them some handy tips nevertheless. Shortly afterwards, Stage 1 re-opened with the vibrant Louisiana sounds of cajun and zydeco outfit Pine Leaf Boys, who provided plenty of midday excitement. Wilson Savoy, the band's accordion player revealing that his father had been building accordions for 52 years. So that's why he was so good!

Fay Hield took to the main Cambridge stage with her new outfit The Hurricane Party, featuring husband Jon Boden, accordion player Andy Cutting, fiddle and cello player Sam Sweeney and multi instrumentalist Rob Harbron. Normally used to singing unaccompanied in the local pubs of Sheffield, Fay made herself quite at home on the big festival stage with a set of traditional songs such as The Briar and the Rose, The Weaver's Daughter, Tarry Trousers and The Lover's Ghost. The occasion also gave the audience an opportunity to see the singer cast aside her usual jeans and jacket in favour of a pretty evening gown for the occasion.

As the annual festival session got underway on Stage 2, featuring a whole bunch of singers and musicians appearing over the weekend, Gretchen Peters' main stage set featured the incomparable Danny Thompson, who joined the singer on double bass, his presence felt immediately around the festival arena. 

By mid-afternoon Belinda O'Hooley made her first appearance of the weekend with partner Heidi Tidow, who between them performed some of their unique songs in the Club Tent. Belinda would not only later conduct her own singing workshop in the pouring rain, but would also be present at one of the festival's highlights on Sunday evening.

As the stage was raised slightly to cater for three outstanding musicians, the power trio Lau delivered precisely what the audience wanted to hear, with a set of breath-takingly inventive music. With Kris Drever, Martin Green and Aidan O'Rourke taking up their usual positions, the trio once again showed the audience what they were capable of with some fearlessly complex arrangements. 

Once again, for those with a keen eye on the Club Tent dry wipe board, another outstanding band was added to the roster as leading Birmingham bluegrass/western swing outfit Toy Hearts took to the stage on Saturday afternoon. Fronted by siblings Hannah and Sophia Johnson, the band were on top form as they made their Cambridge debut with such songs as Carolina, Tequila, Femme Fatale, The Captain and Beaumont Rag.

By teatime on Saturday afternoon, the stage was set for one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend as The Unthanks joined forces with The Brighouse and Rastrick Band, receiveing one of the best receptions at this or any other festival for that matter, with thunderous applause after their first song The King of Rome, the song the band played at this years Folk Awards up in Salford. Launching their new collaborative live album Diversions Vol 2 at the festival, the band presented some of the songs that appear on that record, some of which have been esspecially arranged for this collaboration, including the swing version of The Queen of Hearts, featuring a tongue-firmly-in-cheek Sinatra-esque performance by Chris Price. For the finale of this set, the brass band left the stage, marched around the side of the marquee and performed a couple of numbers amongst the crowd, after which most of the audience really had to draw breath. 

Nanci Griffith and I have something in common in that we both made our debut appearances at the 25th Anniversary Cambridge Folk Festival back in 1989, she as a performer and I as a punter. On Saturday evening the Texas singer-songwriter, wearing tiny Union Jack loafers, started her set with John Prine's The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, whilst huddled together on stage with her fine quartet.

Headlining Saturday night was for me one of the festival highlights, certainly in terms of pure nostalgia. After being brought up on the music and songs of Roy Harper, it was time to take the weight off my wandering feet, relax in the comfort of a white plastic chair to the side of the stage, close my eyes and enjoy a set full of very familiar songs as the sun set down over Cherry Hinton. Starting with Highway Blues, the singer continued with Another Day, I Hate the White Man, Commune, One Man Rock and Roll Band, Twelve Hours of Sunset, Me and My Woman and finally When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease. Another extraordinarily good Cambridge moment.

After some festival fatigue set in with performances by the likes of Clannad, I ventured around to the Club Tent once again in order to see Cheshire-based trio Pilgrims Way, who played a rather nice set to a packed marquee. Whilst loitering around the backstage area, the sound of three youthful voices rang out as Hertfordshire trio The Folk quickly rehearsed their short set before going on stage. The trio, comprising Lauren Deakin Davies, Rose Goodship and Lucy Holmes, performed songs from their Wait Forever EP. Eager to jump off stage directly after their short set in order to join in with the chorus of (I'm Gonna Be) 500 Miles, courtesy of The Proclaimers, I gathered the three teenagers up for a brief chat and an exclusive performance (see interview).

After three days of Met Office miscalculations, Sunday provided the first real sign of the rain that was to come. Even during the morning, the sun was still pinking the forehead as Karine Polwart heralded in the morning with her singing workshop, which soon had a hundred voices singing gospel tunes in harmony. 

Whilst one of the Club Tent's sound techs, singer-songwriter Tracey Browne, opened the Ely Folk Club section of the afternoon's proceedings on that stage with a handful of her own songs, I found myself attracted to some expressive guitar wizardry coming from the Mojo signing tent, as local Cambridge guitar player David Youngs performed some of his sublime guitar pieces as the rain continued to threaten to spit down on his parade, at one point placing a blue plastic bag over his little pre-amp.

Whilst The Staves were on Stage 2 singing Icarus, something less welcomed fell from the sky in the form of heavy rainfall, which was to last pretty much throughout the rest of the day. We'd been lucky so far but now the rains came with determination. The kids loved it, proceeding to splash about in puddles. When I say kids, I do of course also mean the aforementioned teenagers with daisy chains in their hair. I waited under cover at the artists catering unit for my opportunity to speak to Joan Armatrading as the rain grew more intense. Poor Martin Simpson sat drenched as actor Stephen Mangan interviewed him in the flower garden before the tv cameras.

I can't tell stress how much I wanted to interview Nic Jones on Sunday afternoon before his set, but I decided not to pester him as Belinda O'Hooley had told me the previous night that the legendary singer was being interviewed by just about everyone at the festival and that she was afraid he might be worn out before he actually gets up to perform. I reluctantly left him alone. Shortly afterwards I finally came face to face with Joan Armatrading, who I found very friendly and courteous, who chose to stand for the duration of our short interview. "I'm too old to sit" she joked. 

As I left Joan to prepare for her evening set I made a bee line for Stage 2 in eager anticipation of Anais Mitchell's debut appearance at the festival, who went on to perform a gentle set of songs including Cosmic American, The Shepherd, Wilderland and Young Man in America. Jefferson Hamer joined Anais for a reading of the Child ballad Sir Patrick Spens before Michael Chorney returned for a stunning performance on He Did, marred only by some badly timed sound problems during the best part of the song. Normal service soon resumed for the final song, Tailor, once again from her current album Young Man in America. This was one of my highlights of the entire festival.

After Anais Mitchell's set I darted quickly over to the Club Tent in order to catch Blair Dunlop's set, which attracted a standing only crowd as he performed such songs and tunes as Richard Thompson's Vincent Black Lightning, the instrumental Shebeg Shemore/Crab Meat Hornpipe, the self-penned Fallout and in honour of the festival highlight which was to follow, the Nic Jones classic Canadee-I-O.

The undisputed high point of this year's festival for me and by far the most emotional moment came when Nic Jones took to the stage to perform his first full length set in thirty years. Returning to the stage after all that time, following a nasty road traffic accident in 1982, Nic fully intended to enjoy the moment, smiling throughout whilst revisiting a repertoire that has remained in limbo over the ensuing years and which has recently taken on a greater significance especially with younger singers. A privileged moment for all. My own personal favourite moment was standing shoulder to shoulder with Anais Mitchell, Jim Moray, the Unthank siblings and others, who all joined in on the chorus of Little Pot Stove. It doesn't get any better than that.

As the rain continued into the night, Joan Armatrading performed a fine evening set featuring some of her best known songs such as Show Some Emotion, All the Way From America and Love and Affection, a song that the singer told me earlier, has always been in her set.

With two sore feet (four if you count Phil's), a pink face and a head and heart full of memories, my wandering ended as the forty-eighth Cambridge Folk Festival came to an end as we stood ankle deep in a puddle. We covered some ground over the four days, taking in what we aimed to, avoiding one or two acts, missing one or two simply due to the 'can't be in two places at the same time' problem, but all in all, a fine and memorable festival with one or two very special moments.

Words: Allan Wilkinson
Pictures: Phil Carter and Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky in association with FATEA