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Cambridge Folk Festival 2016

Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge
Thursday 28 - Sunday 31 July 2016

As in the case of most multiple-stage festivals, there are several ways to make the most of the weekend; there's the painfully well-organised amongst us who arrive early on Thursday, find a comfortable spot in the sun, then take out their newly purchased programmes and meticulously mark each act with ticks and crosses, underlines and parentheses, stars and asterisks, in an impossible endeavour to see everything on the menu. Then there's the specialist connoisseur, who has a clear vision of the weekend ahead, only to be devastated once the inevitable clash is discovered (mine this year was definitely Leyla McCalla and Songs of Separation, both on at around the same time on Saturday). Then there's the energetic, who take delight in running from one stage to the other, that is, the mighty Stage One, the slightly smaller Stage Two, the Club Tent and then for those who like to chill out, the Den. There's those who take their specific 'creatures of habit' spot in front of the main stage for the entire weekend, either out in the sun on a deck chair using their newspaper as a shade or hugging the safety barrier right in front of the stage, in order for the music to come to them, which it often does. Yes, there's many ways to enjoy the Cambridge Folk Festival, from those mentioned above, to those who choose to spend the entire weekend in the bar. Hey, I kid you not.

Once again this year Cambridge offered a wide and varied programme of events across the four stages, not to mention other performance areas such as the People's Frontroom and the Flower Garden, each of which included either concerts, sessions, workshops or talks, with various side attractions such as dance displays, street theatre and children's activities. Running alongside the main events was the usual Hub project with many young musicians joining in with sessions and workshops, collaborating with their peers under the guidance of such notable singers and musicians as Rosie Hood, Maz O'Connor and Sam Carter, resulting in a stage spot on Sunday night.

Whilst the main stage was, as always, pretty much reserved for the big names such as Christy Moore, Glen Hansard, Mary Chapin Carpenter and KT Tunstall, each of whom took their place on this prestigious stage through their reputation alone, some artists have either worked their way up through each of the smaller stages such as the Teeside couple Megson, who finally got their taste of the main stage on Friday, whilst one or two bands have arrived there simply by accident, memorably in the case of the Old Crow Medicine Show, who were merely busking at the 2004 festival when they were asked to replace one of the acts who had missed their plane. They went on to be the darlings of that year's festival. On Sunday the appropriately named Darlingside were likewise quickly promoted to the main stage when the billed artist Charles Bradley unfortunately took ill, the Massachusetts-based quartet went on to win over the audience with a wonderfully well-received set of great songs delivered in CSNY-styled harmonies, all centred around a single microphone. Another one of those magic Cambridge moments.

Thursday night's opening concerts featured a fine headline set by Jon Boden, freshly freed up from his Bellowhead responsibilities to follow his own chosen musical path, in this case significantly sandwiched between two giant horns on either side of the stage. O'Hooley and Tidow showcased songs from their new record, whilst earlier sets by both Ímar and Seafret provided a suitable start to the festival as the crowds acclimatised themselves to their surroundings. The Club Tent and The Den also got off to a good start with such artists as The Dovetail Trio, Will Varley, Flats and Sharps and Solarference.  

Throughout the weekend the festival took pride in its workshops and special events, starting on Friday morning with Chris Wood, who almost reluctantly conducted his songwriting workshop. "Has anyone ever been to a songwriting workshop before?" asked the noted songwriter, "What do they do?" Chris's caustic wit was also present as one of the regular planes flew over during his session. "Is there an airport nearby by any chance?" he enquired. "Hmm, I'll have to remember that if ever I start a festival" he mischievously quipped. O'Hooley and Tidow delivered a 'conversation and music' session in the Flower Garden, whilst Eliza Carthy held a singing workshop on Saturday morning with Bruce McGregor and Rua Macmillan concluding the morning Club Tent workshops with fiddles a-blazin' on Sunday morning.

One of this year's key projects was the Songs of Separation concert which took place midway through Saturday afternoon, featuring ten distinctive voices on the contemporary folk music scene, amongst them Karine Polwart, Eliza Carthy, Mary McMaster, Hannah James and Hannah Read, whose beautifully performed It Was a'for Our Rightful King was one of the highlights of the day. The Flower Garden also offered an ideal space for the Songs of Separation participants to talk about the project later in the afternoon.


By midway through the festival there is always the urge to reflect on what you've seen so far, such as the outstanding and passionate Friday night set by Glen Hansard, who created more dents in his well-worn guitar than Pete Townsend, as he delivered an unexpected but very well received Astral Weeks, as well as his own memorable Falling Slowly, from the film Once. Then there was Nancy Kerr and the Sweet Visitor Band who launched Nancy's quite remarkable new record Instar over the weekend, recreating the album right there up on the main Stage One. The New York-based Mike + Ruth Band's reputation as a hot live band preceded the band's arrival on Saturday, which saw performances in all three of the main stage marquees. Mike and Ruthy's said reputation was confirmed not only by the full band's sets, but also by the couple's duo performance in the Club Tent on Saturday afternoon.

As already mentioned, this reviewer was forced to cut short Leyla McCalla's Stage Two set in order to hot foot over to Stage One to catch the entire Songs of Separation concert. Needless to say, with an appraisal of what's gone down so far, comes the niggling thought of what you've also managed to miss. Jerron 'Blind Boy' Paxton for instance, or Rachel Sermanni over in The Den or dare I say, the entire Saturday afternoon Festival Session hosted as always by Brian McNeill, but I guess it can't be helped if you only have one body at your disposal.

With WOMAD running simultaneously over in Wiltshire, Cambridge as always was keen to provide a flavour of what we like to refer to as World Music over the weekend, with some much anticipated appearances. The Senegalese singer and guitarist Baaba Maal, fresh from his recent appearance on the Jools Holland Later show with Mumford and Sons of all people, brought a taste of West Africa to the main stage on Sunday night, whilst the Afro Celt Sound System returned for another high-octane performance. Having made a huge impression around the UK and Europe, the multi-faceted Världens Band performed a couple of sets over the weekend, winning new friends with their highly infectious rhythms of the world, whilst New York gypsy punksters Gogol Bordello took Friday night by storm with a full-on assault on the eyes as well as the ears. One band that's no stranger to Cambridge is Edward II, whose unique blend of English folk songs with a reggae beat continues to engage audiences both young and not so young alike.

If any of the returning artists to the Cambridge Folk Festival were to bring along a sense of fun, then it would be Barnsley's very own Kate Rusby. On Saturday, we saw the arrival of thousands of super hero masks in either pale blue or brown, being distributed amongst the crowds, their purpose to be revealed later in the afternoon towards the end of Kate's set on the main stage. After Kate's set, made up of songs new and not so new, came the finale, for which the entire band as well as a good percentage of the audience put on the masks (and in the case of the band, capes as well) for Kate's latest release Big Brave Bill, a song about the tea-drinking super hero of the coalfields.     

For most people, the appearance of Christy Moore was the most rewarding of the weekend, a singer who dominated Saturday night on the main stage. It was one of those moments that you couldn't resist sitting down for, not only to listen to Christy Moore's voice, but also to engage with the audience, most of whom sang along to some of his best loved songs, both from his own pen and through interpretations of songs written by other notable songwriters.

I feel it would be amiss not to mention other outstanding performances over the four-day event, such as Della Mae, Le Vent du Nord, Applewood Road, Hattie Briggs, Blazin' Fiddles, Lady Maisery, This is the Kit, Anna and Elizabeth, Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys and the sublime Sam Lee and Friends to name but a few, all of whom could really fill another lengthy review in their own right. There was also a fine conclusion to Sunday night as the New Orleans Hot 8 Brass Band left the stage at the end of their set and marched under parasols in good old Mardi Gras fashion through the crowd and up to the Mojo tent.

It leaves me however, to conclude by mentioning three women from entirely different backgrounds, who between them dominated the main stage on Sunday, with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Imelda May and Eliza Carthy along with her Wayward Band, all of whom have appeared at the festival previously, and all who provided Sunday with something to talk about. If Mary Chapin Carpenter has the power to hold an audience steady through her well-crafted songs and Imelda May can delight her audience with sassy charisma, it is with the fiddle-wielding singer from Robin Hood's Bay and her Wayward Band that this festival might well be remembered. Eliza Carthy once again made the stage her very own for an hour of energy-driven music that just flew by far too quickly. 

A quick count up of festival programmes tells me that this is the twentieth Cambridge Folk Festival I've attended, the first one being back in 1989, when the festival celebrated its 25th year. As the programmes pile up and the memories are stored in both the vaults of the mind and in the photographs I've been allowed to take, there really is no reason to even consider finding somewhere else to spend the last weekend of July. It's a tradition in itself and one that I hope will continue for quite some time to come.  

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky

More photos can be found at our Cambridge Walkabout: