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Cambridge Folk Festival in Four Stages

Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge - 18 August 2013

One of the things that makes the larger, more established festivals more interesting than their smaller counterparts, is the fact that there is so much choice with more than the one single stage. Therefore, unless you are in the throes of inseparable romance or being stalked relentlessly by some fiendish admirer or you just happen to be a conjoined twin, it's more than likely that your festival experience will be completely different from anyone else's, even the person you happen to be sharing a tent with. These days at the Cambridge Folk Festival, the notion of attempting to see a little bit of everything is really not on the cards due to the festival having at least four stages. On the eve of its half century mark, the choices at the Cambridge Folk Festival have never been quite so varied or quite so plentiful.

The Den

One of the newer features at the Cherry Hinton Hall site is the peaceful refuge they refer to as The Den. Whilst the T shirts came out in force for the big guns, such as The Levellers and The Waterboys, there was always something new, exciting and tasteful happening just around the corner from the main arena in this small secluded Indian-styled marquee, featuring artists that in some cases don't even have a record out let alone a T shirt. It was possible to spend the entire festival at this marquee and come away inspired, musically refreshed and fully believing you got your money's worth.
 
One such artist was singer/songwriter Olivia Chaney who delivered her short set just as dusk approached on the opening night (Thursday). Standing in for the billed Marika Hackman, who for some reason couldn't make it, Olivia appeared somewhat frustrated by the 'Tubular Bells' setting on the house keyboard, Olivia pleaded for someone/anyone to hop up onto the stage and find the 'ordinary piano' setting. Sadly, no such volunteer came forward and the singer had to make do. I heard her say off mic "seriously I won't be playing until you find the piano", which was followed by the singer putting on a melodramatic and comical American accent declaring "I can't work like this!" Although I've heard only a handful of songs by Olivia, I was eager to hear what she could do in front of a live audience and was pleasantly surprised by the results. Alternating between acoustic guitar and resonator electric guitar, together with aforementioned Nord, which Olivia referred to variously as 'Mike Oldfield', 'Tubular Bells' and best of all 'Hammond Toast', the singer stood aside whilst the techs attempted to fix the problem, performing a fabulous version of Bert Jansch's Courting Blues. It was at that point that I realised I was glad to be back at Cambridge and quite possibly in the right place at the right time.

The programme this year in The Den was quite inspired, with memorable performances from the likes of Blue Rose Code and Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, who started their short set with an outstanding version of Who Knows Where the Time Goes, an odd song to start with (normally a finisher), but was so good that under different historical circumstances, I could imagine Sandy Denny herself running up to Josienne after the performance, patting her on the back and inviting her over to the bar for a jug or two with the boys.

The Club Tent

The Club Tent not only serves up a full programme of non-programmed acts throughout the weekend, but also hosts several showcase performances as well as the annual Mojo Interview, which in previous years has included the likes of Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Jimmy Webb and Seasick Steve to name but a few. On Friday morning all four members of the new Irish super group LAPD joined music journalist Colin Irwin on stage for a natter about this and that. Liam O'Flynn, Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny, effectively three members of the much missed super group Planxty, together with Paddy Glackin, one of the founding members of the Bothy Band, relaxed as they answered questions from Irwin first, followed by a handful of questions from the audience, which included "Which Bruce Springsteen song would you like to perform with The Boss if you got a chance?" together with one or two slightly more sensible questions. The interview was entertaining and informative, but all four musicians seemed slightly bewildered by the whole thing.

The Club Tent showcase performances this year included sets by Ewan McLennan on Saturday night as the rain came down for the only time during the entire weekend and Blair Dunlop on Saturday afternoon, both of whom should really be established acts by now and surely must be ready for at least Stage 2 next year. The Club Tent also saw performances by BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winners Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, who seem to have no problem getting an audience immediately on their side, not only through their music but also through their easy going stage craft. On Saturday night, the Irish band We Banjo 3, which I should point out is neither a three-piece band, nor did they have three banjos, played an energetic set, which included a bodhran solo that could even have given Gino Lupari a run for his money. 

Working out a way of seeing all the things you wanted to see at this festival could only really be achieved by closely examining the souvenir programme, this year at the affordable price of just £3.50. Often this task can be almost as difficult as working out how to cross Dublin without passing a pub. Speaking of which, the Guinness was particularly enjoyable this year, but I wish they'd ditch this irritating deposit on beakers silliness. Has any of the organisers ever visited the bar just to see how frustrating this can be and how frustrated the punters can become? I rather enjoyed watching the kids build a plastic beaker mountain on Sunday night.

Stage 2

On Thursday night only, Stage 2 is promoted to main stage status and this year saw performances by Jamie Smith's Mabon, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, Willy Mason and Lucy Rose, whilst over in the Club Tent, Larkin Poe made their festival debut. Anyone familiar with the pages of the Northern Sky website will appreciate that there's only so much gushing one can pour onto a single band or artist before it can become repetitive. Having accepted that I have possibly run out of things to say about the Georgia-based band, I figured it was time to ask for someone else's opinion. Bumping into broadcasters Mark Radcliffe and John Leonard at the bar, I asked them for their considered thoughts. Radcliffe was of the opinion that although both of their sets were remarkable, the band's Club Tent set was better than their Stage 2 set. Leonard stroked his chin. That was that then. It has to be said that the music the band played over the weekend bore little resemblance to the music the band played when they hit the UK in 2011, with an acoustic roots repertoire that was so good, we all had trouble identifying a definitive favourite song. Larkin Poe these days is quite a different affair. Gone is the girl-next-door southern charm, replaced by pop-oriented cosmetics, together with a much rockier Lynyrd Skynyrd groove; still good, but not quite as magical, despite attracting just about everybody onsite, curious to know what all the fuss was all about, even the children's storyteller and festival stalwart John Row. 

The other eagerly anticipated set of the weekend was Friday night's appearance by Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo, who suffered some curious lighting issues. Although Emily is clearly the leader of this band, I didn't quite see the point of lighting her up like a Christmas tree, whilst leaving the other musicians completely in the dark. The music however, was spot on. Stage 2 also hosted the annual festival session on Saturday afternoon, featuring contributions from The Chair, Frigg, Korrontzi, Le Vent du Nord and Martin Simpson to name but a few. The stage also played host to children's events including a children's concert featuring John Hegley and also by far the most utterly bewildering performance of the weekend courtesy of the bizarre Valerie June. The less said about that the better.

Stage 1

Having been a regular visitor to the festival, this being my seventeenth since my first visit in 1989, I have been privileged enough to witness some remarkable concerts over the years on the main stage. Off the top of my head the standouts remain Ray Davies (1996), Jackson Browne (1997), Dr John (2000), Guy Clark (1995), Ron Sexsmith (2003), Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (2004), Booker T (2009), Rodney Crowell (2005), Kate and Anna McGarrigle (1995), Jimmy Cliffe (2004), Devon Sproule (2008), Rachel Unthank and the Winterset (2007), Rodrigo Y Gabriela (2006), The Quebe Sisters (2010), Laura Marling (2011), all three appearances by Steve Earle, Alison Krauss and Union Station (1996), Townes Van Zandt (1996) and countless Richard Thompson appearances. Once upon a time they would bring the main stage forward using fork lift trucks so that everyone could get a bit of the sun, even the performers. Those days are gone.  

This year I spent very little time at the main stage due to the other more interesting things happening elsewhere, but I did choose one or two moments in front of one of the giant screens with an ice cream in the sun. One of those was Martin Simpson, who has over the years become a firm Cambridge favourite. On Saturday afternoon Martin chose to launch his new album Vagrant Stanzas at the festival. Shortly after his Main Stage performance, the singer/guitarist could be seen signing copies of his new record at the Mojo Tent, which attracted a long queue. Similar sized queues could be seen throughout the weekend at the signing tent as Cambridge provided an orderly and civilised way for fans to meet their respective heroes.

Later on Saturday evening, I was tempted to go down to the front to catch a bit of Tommy Emmanuel's set, mainly to see if he really has only got ten fingers. The Australian guitarist dazzled the audience almost into submission by the sheer brilliance of his playing, which often takes twists and turns you weren't expecting. A pure showman, Emmanuel's performance might just join the above list of standout Stage 1 performances.

On Sunday morning, Tommy Emmanuel could be seen up close and personal as guitarists young and old joined the musician for his Club Tent workshop, where he proceeded to impart some of his trade secrets and good advice to an attentive audience. Just as Tommy was going through the rudiments of the difficult F chord, I received a text from my son to tell me that Cocos Lovers had set up in the field in front of the Stage 1 screens to bask and busk in the sun. As the band was on the top of my 'must see' list after listening constantly to the Kent-based collective's new record GOLD OR DUST, I was over there in a shot.     

The other 'must see' item in the programme was the Sunday afternoon Stage 1 appearance by the legendary folk duo Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, who played as well as I've seen them over the last few decades. Even if they hadn't played quite as well, there's always something quite magical about seeing these two stalwarts of the English music scene together bouncing ideas off one another. The other reason for the determination to see them is that Swarb is on the verge of retiring, which will be a great loss to Cambridge, to the folk world and to music in general.

Well over the years I've noticed that Sunday nights often bring a little sadness to the festival, as the concessions stalls start packing up early, including the bar, which I sometimes forget and which in turn leads to disappointment. Therefore this year I was fully prepared and decided to do as the Romans do and wind down early myself. Forgoing the main stage after a wonderful set by The Staves and retreating to the place where the festival began for me a few days before, back at the Den to see The Cadbury Sisters and finally once again Cocos Lovers, whose Under the Hawthorn Tree, had become for me the soundtrack of this year's festival. Next year will be the festival's 50th anniversary and many will expect something special; the return of Mr Paul 'Simons' perhaps? 

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky