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Cambridge Folk Festival at Fifty

The prospect of spending four days walking around the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall doesn't at first seem all that much of an arduous task; the park is pretty flat after all and it's all relatively small in comparison to other notable parks in the UK. I did however pack three pairs of assorted footwear to see me through the weekend; Doc Martens for the heavy going stuff, a good pair of trainers for the busy periods and beach sandals for the chilled-out workshops and sessions that lie ahead. I was suitably prepared for a weekend of walking, talking, standing still, watching, listening and scribbling. 

The arrival in itself always seems to conjure up the same sort of giddy excitement that a child experiences on Christmas Day; the anticipation of receiving a stocking full of goodies with a slight inkling as to what's in store, usually because you've been going on about it for the last twelve months. Although that stocking is chock full of stuff you have always desired, there are inevitably one or two unwanted gifts that you automatically throw back in Santa's face. There's also one or two pressys that you seem to have been given time and time over, not unlike a predictable pair of socks. For the 50th anniversary year though, Cambridge Folk Festival came up with a memorable bill and presented us with a special treat that most music lovers would be very pleased with indeed.

The sun beamed down on Cherry Hinton for most of Thursday, from first thing in the morning where campers formed an orderly queue alongside the perimeter fence and down along Walpole Road towards the car park at St Bede's School. If the locals' collective hearts were pounding at the thought of another four nights of late night noisy music, then you really would've thought they were used to it by now. After all, it has been happening every summer for the last 50 years. Yes, 50 years of festival fun with no breaks for war, drought or even Ted Heath's three day week. Cambridge Folk Festival is not only a local institution, nor a national institution, but arguably an international institution, rightly recognised as such earlier this year at the BBC Folk Awards, where festival manager Eddie Barcan picked up the Good Tradition Award on behalf of the festival, alongside Joan Woollard, widow of festival founder Ken Woollard.

As the queues developed, the 'selfies' began to pop up on social media sites, encouraged by the festival's media team, with smiling faces all around. When the sun's out, Cambridge smiles a lot and this year was certainly no exception. After dropping my bags off at a local B&B, followed by a bite to eat at the nearby Robin Hood pub, I began my annual walkabout starting at the gates of the Cherry Hinton Hall grounds, dodging the double-decker buses that had already started to bring in fresh punters from St Bede's car park and Coldhams Common, the subsidiary camp site across town. 

The first stop was the concessions stand, where I picked up one of the better T shirts before they were all snapped up, leaving the not so spectacular ones behind. I wasn't all that impressed with the 'guitar pick-shaped logo over the left tit' variety, but the one I managed to pick up featuring John Holder's cartoon musicians, was just right. The artwork is one of the aspects of the festival that seems to have slipped lately, which is such a shame because it used to be so good. John Holder's delicate illustrations that featured on T shirts and posters in the early days seems to have given way to blandness. The posters over the last few years have developed into a plain list of names, whereas Holder's illustrations gave a real sense of time and place.

Although 2014 is the festival's 50th year, I came in at number 25 in 1989, the Silver Jubilee year, in which Ken Woollard featured in caricature on the cover of the black and white programme and accompanying poster. The eclectic bill back then featured everything from The Watersons, Al Stewart and the Boys of the Lough to international visitors such as Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and Ali Farka Toure. The festival site remains pretty much the same these days as it did back then, the only real difference being that stage two was where the concessions tent now stands and vice versa and the Hub and the Den were a good few years off in the future. Although I hadn't managed to visit the festival until that point, I was well aware of it not least through the wonderful old posters that dominated the walls of friends' living rooms, boldly advertising the fact that I had already missed Doc Watson, Ry Cooder, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and the Woodstock Mountain Revue, to name but a few.  

I was reminded of this as I walked through to the media caravan area on Thursday afternoon, stopping to watch one of the crew members on their hands and knees preparing fifty replica posters from each of those fifty years in celebration of the festival's half century, all of which would later be displayed in a long gallery along the privet wall leading down to the main stage. After choosing my T shirt, which I believe sold out completely by close of play on Thursday, together with the obligatory commemorative mug, the only glass wear allowed on site, I made my way to the front of stage two with camera in hand to see the first act of the day.

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin were actually half way through the opening set on stage two when the heavens opened, which fortunately served to clear the muggy atmosphere and remind us once again that we were back at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Other acts on Thursday night included the much discussed London-based Irish outfit Crossharbour, who delivered the goods on the club stage, whilst St Louis' Pokey LaFarge brought a taste of an entirely different era to Cambridge, harking back to a time at least a couple of decades before the very first Cambridge Folk Festival in 1965. Hat Fitz and Cara, a sort of grown up version of White Stripes appeared in the club tent mid-evening with a bluesy repertoire, which was followed by Skinny Lister whose set featured a crowd-surfing double bass player; yes, he was actually perched upon his instrument as it was passed around the crowd. Headliner Newton Faulkner returned to the festival once again and was in a playful mood as he performed a crowd-pleasing set on stage two, rounding off the opening night.

Thursday's highlight though was Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita's set, the duo making their Cambridge debut with a soothing set of instrumental music that brought together the diverse influences of the Classical harp and the traditional African Kora. At first I thought the rain was going to interfere with the gentle music as it pounded upon the marquee roof, but miraculously, the rain stopped during the duo's line check and the sun came out once again just in time. Introduced by the editor of Songlines Magazine Jo Frost, Catrin and Seckou's set was just as good as I had hoped.  

On Friday morning, Nancy Kerr encouraged a 'hands on' fiddle workshop with a dozen or so budding fiddlers present. Meanwhile over in the Den, Sam Lee addressed a gathering of emerging musicians, giving advice about the music business, advice on how young musicians should promote themselves with some cautionary advice on one or two of the pitfalls; 'Mumagers' for instance, that is, mums who take on their dutiful role as manager, mentor and promoter. It was made clear that a pushy mum could be the very thing that keeps a young musician from getting far in the music industry, despite their good intentions. Jo Frost was also present to give advice along with a singer/songwriter whose name escapes me now.

One of the great things about the Cambridge Folk Festival is that it goes to great lengths to encourage young performers, with a packed programme of workshops for singers, musicians and dancers. If those young musicians are not playing on either of the stages, queueing up to sign on for a slot in the club tent or attending a workshop, they can usually be found busking somewhere around the park and more often than not they are very good. I came across mandolin player Joe Tozer and fiddler Aneirin Jones by the duck pond, basking and busking in the sun and playing so well that the thought of why they were not on a stage somewhere inevitably crossed my mind.   

This year's Mojo interview featured representatives from two British folk music dynasties as Colin Irwin interviewed Martin and Eliza Carthy, together with Richard Thompson, who's relaxed and highly informal reminiscences entertained everyone present, especially Thompson's recollections of supporting Chuck Berry back in the day. I've attended every one of the Mojo interviews since they started with Loudon Wainwright back in 2004 and to be honest, this was far from the best. Martin was unusually quiet, Richard was occasionally witty but it's clear he doesn't really enjoy talking in public and Eliza just made it up as she went along, some of her anecdotes devoid of a suitable punch line. Just to have those three people on stage together was in itself a treat. 

Most of the action that I wanted to see on Friday afternoon took place on the main stage. After the unexpected excitement of seeing for the first time the New York powerhouse Hazmat Modine, featuring multi-instrumentalist Rachelle Garniez and guitarist Erik Della Penna, whose distinctive sound filled the main stage marquee, I stayed around to hear a couple from the crowd pleasing Fisherman's Friends, whose set included a rousing 'Happy Birthday' to the festival. I popped over to the Den to catch a little bit of Bridie Jackson and the Arbour, whose name had been circulating the site, getting back to the main stage in time for the second set of the weekend by Pokey LaFarge who once again delivered the kind of music that took the festival to an entirely different place. 

Colin Irwin, during his Mojo interview with Richard Thompson earlier in the morning, pointed out that the singer/songwriter/guitarist had just released a new album entitled Acoustic Classics and inquired as to whether this would be the basis of the evening's set? "No" Thompson responded. "It'll be made up of songs from my next album, Obscure Classics". What Thompson actually delivered was a bit of both, the highlights being I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight, Down Where the Drunkards Roll, Valerie and the obligatory 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, which received nothing short of rapturous applause from the packed marquee. If Thompson had entered crowd-pleaser mode midway through Wall of Death, then the inclusion of Beeswing stilled the audience temporarily as Thompson's most beautiful song was rightly aired at Cambridge Folk Festival's special birthday celebrations. Armed with just the one acoustic guitar, Thompson, clad in black with his now customary matching beret, gave the audience precisely what they wanted. Almost as a matter of course, Persuasion was dedicated to someone in the audience, on this occasion someone called Chris, who I assumed just might have been Chris While, who does a pretty tasty version of the song herself along with her daughter Kellie, both of whom would've no doubt been on site. 

Sinead O'Connor followed Richard Thompson and played a surprisingly good set, which I wasn't expecting at all. If any artist at this years' festival delivered a passionate, heartfelt and completely spell-binding set, it was Sinead O'Connor. I heard the first three numbers from the pit, whilst I was taking photos and then headed to the back of the field to hear the rest. I was soon comparing notes (and snacks) with Norwich singer/songwriter Jess Morgan as Sinead sang her big hit Nothing Compares 2U before heading off to the club tent to watch Jess's own set, sitting in the side enclosure with fellow journalist Jeremy Searle, both of us confident in the fact that we were now hearing a quality singer who deserves more attention.

Friday night wouldn't be the same without a good choice of crazy dance bands and this year was no exception. I managed to catch a little of both the Afro Celt Sound System, who closed proceedings on the main stage and Molotov Jukebox on stage two, featuring the charismatic singer/actress Natalia Tena, who put aside her Harry Potter and Games of Thrones roles, to pick up the accordion and rock out. 

Saturday was probably the most exhausting day so far at the festival with so much happening and therefore so much to do. My initial plan of not trying to do everything was close to being ignored on Saturday as I flittered from one stage to another, completely forgetting to eat or drink and even forgetting my coat as I left the B&B in the pouring rain. Despite being reminded by my host that it was going to rain, I headed over to the festival site in one of Fatea's new 50th Anniversary T shirts, which I'd promised to wear, ducking under trees and traversing all the covered areas leading around to the club tent where I took refuge during a relaxing whistle workshop conducted by Michael McGoldrick along with guitar player John Doyle.

Local duo Ezio opened proceedings on the main stage on Saturday lunchtime with a feelgood set, which suitably warmed the audience up as the sun once again made an appearance. The former La Bottine Souriante accordionist Yves Lambert and his trio brought a taste of French Canadian Québécois music to the afternoon with a set of songs and dance tunes on fiddle, accordion and guitar with a sprinkling of Jew's Harp and slide whistle, which was rewarded with a great audience response. 

From Canada we returned very much to the British Isles and a set by one of England's finest duos who just happen to be father and daughter. Martin and Eliza Carthy are no strangers to the Cambridge Folk Festival having played many times over the years in various combinations. This year though saw Martin and Eliza appearing as a duo for the first time, performing songs from their debut collaboration album The Moral of the Elephant, which was very well received by the audience.

If there had to be a very English contingent on Saturday afternoon, then there also had to be a very American contingent too and this year the festival welcomed back David Bromberg along with multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell who between them delivered a nostalgic set, the kind of folk festival repertoire that's been plundered relentlessly over the last five decades, songs such as Mr Bojangles for instance. It was the closest the festival got to 1960s Greenwich Village, which suited me just fine. The North Mississippi Allstars were one of the big surprises at this year's festival, a band that provided one of the most exciting sets of the day, with a blisteringly good rocking blues set, with guitarist Luther Dickinson at one point playing a tin of beans!

Earlier on Saturday afternoon Brian McNeill once again took the helm on stage two for his annual festival session, the regular part of the weekend where just about everybody was likely to show up and play. I was passing by just as the young South Yorkshire-based unaccompanied singer Kirsty Bromley was invited up on stage to sing as sweetly as a nightingale. Other guests included The Mischa Macpherson and Yves Lambert Trios, Feis Rois and Sarah Jarosz amongst many others. Later in the afternoon, Sarah Jarosz returned to the stage with her own trio to perform the first of her two weekend sets, performing songs from her rapidly growing repertoire of bluegrass inflected self-penned songs.

The hugely popular O'Hooley and Tidow also put in an appearance during the afternoon as did Moulettes, delivering a musically complex set that challenges categorisation. Over on the main stage it was time for the appearance of not one but two super groups so to speak, the first being the very English Full English, featuring a bunch of English folkies singing English folk songs including Fay Hield, Martin Simpson and Seth Lakeman amongst others, followed by a sort of mini Transatlantic Session as the Celtic end of the famed TV sessions took to the stage featuring Ali Bain, Phil Cunningham, Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker and John Doyle, all of whom were in good form.

I'd seen Loudon Wainwright backstage earlier talking to David Bromberg and decided that if there was a time to slow down, take it easy and relax, then it would be during Loudon's set on the main stage. Appearing in white American sports wear with 'Wainwright 50' emblazoned on the back of his shirt in big red letters, the singer/songwriter delighted the audience with a thoroughly engaging set, packed full of songs new and old peppered with his sardonic wit. That wit comes in handy when confronted by a half-witted heckler who probably started in the bar too early. Replacing the Hot 8 Brass Band on stage two was the late addition to the programme Ian Siegal and the Mississippi Young Bloods, made up of members of the previously seen North Mississippi Allstars, who performed yet another great electric blues set.

Even though Rosanne Cash, Peatbog Faeries, Eddi Reader and Seth Lakeman continued the evening's music on the two main stages, together with The Mischa Macpherson Trio and The Young'uns in the club tent, there was nothing that could really follow Loudon Wainwright, who is without any shadow of doubt one of the festival's most popular entertainers, so I soon found myself enjoying another pint of Guinness at the bar. Saturday ended a little later than the other three days with Jim Moray's late night Silent Ceilidh, which is always a strange thing to see, a marquee full of people with only the sound is shuffling feet.

The sun was out early on Sunday morning as Martin Simpson demonstrated a master class of guitar playing, no doubt leaving a marquee full of budding guitarists manically depressed. There's one way of playing a guitar and then there's Martin's. Elsewhere Teesside's The Young'uns took to the main stage like ducks to water, their Mojo signing queue being apparently the longest of the entire weekend, due in no small part to the trio's infectious spirit and good humour. Sarah Jarosz went down equally as well shortly afterwards; Jarosz relishing in the fact that she was not only playing the main stage at the festival, but also at the very special 50th anniversary.

The worst kept secret of the weekend was the 'surprise guest' appearance by Kate Rusby, who performed on stage two during the afternoon after a much hyped game of Chinese whispers. I'm not sure why we were subjected to all the secrecy, I can only assume it was due to the fact that Kate had just had her own festival just a couple of weeks before and felt that it may have affected numbers. The programme entry 'surprise guest' was never going to be the surprise everyone had hoped for, it became immediately apparent once the Barnsley diva arrived on site, her instantly recognisable curls bobbing along through the festival site prior to her set. Kate's set however was as popular as expected, the singer delivering a bunch of songs from her new album Ghost, which was officially launched a couple of weeks earlier at Kate's own shindig up in Barnsley.

After taking a few photos during the first three numbers of Kate's set, I rushed over to catch the rest of Jason Isbell's set, who was already onstage with his singer/fiddler wife Amanda Shires, the two of them performing a superb set. Having missed Eddi Reader when she played her stage two set on Saturday, I was pleased to hear that the singer would be playing once again in the club tent on Sunday and rushed over to catch her set. Kirsty Bromley had the difficult job of following Eddi with a couple of unaccompanied songs and was then joined by Jamie Roberts on a guitar he borrowed from Hobgoblin for the last number, all of which was enjoyed by the few people who stayed behind after Eddi's predictably popular set. 

One of the most eagerly anticipated sets of the weekend for me personally was The Rails, featuring Kami Thompson and James Walbourne. I had a feeling I was going to enjoy their show having played their debut album to death leading up to this weekend. I wasn't at all disappointed as the band played a great set on stage two on Sunday afternoon. Wearing sunglasses throughout the first three songs, the singer, who just happens to be Richard and Linda's daughter, took them off a couple of minutes before the end of the third number, just in time to give the photographers a peek at the face behind the shades. 

The other notable appearances on Sunday were country singer Lindi Ortega, who soon had the audience on her side, performing delightfully entertaining set and Ladysmith Black Mambazo of course, whose distinct harmonies resounded throughout the festival site early on Sunday evening as the sun went down. The celebrated African vocal band also invited a huge chorus line onto the stage with them, probably breaking the record for how many people could fit onto the main stage this weekend. 

Rumours circulated the festival site all day with regard to Van Morrison's appearance. I lost count of how many times I heard the joke 'there are two kinds of people, those who like Van Morrison and those who have met him'. Repeating the joke to someone was like saying 'you need a saddle on that' to a Great Dane owner or 'you should stop then' to someone called Mr Smokestoomuch. The joke had worn thin by the time the great man arrived on site. The truth is that despite the infamous nightmare of the personality, Van Morrison provided one of the best sets of the weekend, delivering on cue some of his most familiar songs, such as Gloria, Brown Eyed Girl and Moondance, all backed by a first rate band of stella jazz musicians. I want to hate Van Morrison but I just don't. I think we have to accept that he is one of the handful of living artists who deserves the right to be difficult, along with someone like Dylan.

So with 50 years of festival fun almost over, together with a personal 25 years under my belt, there was only one more thing to do as Lunasa and the Peatbogs saw out the final night and that was to relax in the bar with a few friends and chat about our own personal favourite moments of both this festival and all the others that we had collectively attended over the years. We all seemed to be in agreement, that if this wasn't the best festival in its 50 year history, then it was pretty close. Who's for number 51?

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky