There’s a sense that the Cambridge Folk Festival has become one of the must-attend events in the festival calendar. From its rather lowly beginnings, it’s gradually increased its pull and influence to become one of the predominant folk festivals not just in the UK but also in the world, drawing a range of talent from across the globe. This year was no exception, bringing the mainstream names of Nanci Griffith, Joan Armatrading, Seth Lakeman and more to a park in the Cherry Hinton suburb of Cambridge. The addition of a new sponsor – Sky Arts – just confirms its increased exposure. However, the idea of what folk music represents and entails in the 21st century, is something that is up for discussion, a quandary reflected in the choice of acts for the weekend. The lines between various folk-related genres are blurred – the aforementioned trio would probably stretch the definition, in the traditional sense, of the word “folk”. But that mix of styles and interpretations has always kept the Folk Festival relatively fresh, though the inclusion of The Proclaimers and Clannad this year might challenge that premise even further.
The traditionalists are kept happy though with a raft of artists. The Ross Ainslie & Jarlath Henderson Band, who played Stage 2 on Saturday evening, would be the perfect choice of band for a Celidah. Their fusion of raucous riffs and high tempo rhythms ensured the tent was kept alive and invigorated after a day of consuming the heady real ales that were amply available. Kan’s quadruple-headed monster on the Sunday night at the same stage [does this mean “at the same stage of the evening” or “on the same stage” – as in Stage 2?] demonstrated a similar energy, but in a more inventive manner. The quartet of Brian Finnegan (Flook), Aidan O’Rourke (Lau), Ian Stephenson and Jim Goodwin are all lead instrumentalists, which could easily translate into a mess of musical egos, but Kan channel that collective potency into a continuous flow of solos, all lead by Finnegan’s amazing flute skills that, at times, defied belief. Predominantly original compositions, written by each of the individuals, this was supercharged folk music.
An artist with a similar approach, but which had a much less appealing outcome, was Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party. Fay is part of the award-winning folk band Bellowhead, who’ve played the Folk Festival on numerous occasions. Hield has assembled a self-described “folk supergroup” with her partner Jon Boden (also of Bellowhead), and her recent PhD in English Folk feels like the driving force behind her choice of songs – the band have set out to reinvigorate ancient songs from both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, their interpretation lacks concise and interesting character and it sounds a little dry and serious. The only respite comes from the between-song banter where Fay’s Yorkshire sense of humour comes to the fore. It sounds like a deliberate attempt at a more austere counterpoint to the characterful and theatric Bellowhead, but perhaps the charm has also been removed. This is in stark contrast to Cath & Phil Tyler who closed the Den on Friday night. Having witnessed their authentic and raw take on the great folk songbook before, it was a pleasure to hear it again. There’s a transatlantic cross-fertilization of songs, stories and musicality at work here; the magical interpretations of the songs, stripped back to the bare bones of Cath’s haunting singing and Phil’s simple, but emotive playing (whether it’s on guitar or banjo), augmented by the stories of their origin. They’ve unearthed a quasi-hymn from the 1800s about a man who, having lost all his money, has to resort to becoming a sailor to repay his debts. With the current economic gloom and resulting unemployment, it sounds scarily poignant.
Two of the major coups of the festival weekend were getting Roy Harper and Nic Jones onto their respective stages. Harper was in fine voice on the Saturday evening on Stage 1, spitting words at the crowd in his own, unmistakable, style. Jones’ appearance was an even greater pleasure to witness. Thirty years since a car accident left him with serious physical injuries and brain damage, he’s been an irregular performer. Only recently has he been coaxed back into the stage light, and tonight his son accompanies him on guitar with Belinda O’Hooley on keyboard and backing vocals. There’s an air of celebration, of enjoying the fact that he’s able to do this now, and a stroll through his back catalogue throws up gems that still sound as fresh and as topical today as they were back in the ‘70s. A point that O’Hooley was keen to make: the politics and strife of then are the politics and strife of now. Jones’ cover of Radiohead’s ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, with the original’s heavy guitar and over-produced sheen removed, turns it into an emotional tune, wrought with Jones’ classically wavering vocal. It was an honour to be part of such a receptive and appreciative crowd – a beautifully hush descended as the audience hung on his every word. Another treat were Folk Festival regulars The Unthanks – this time accompanied by the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band. I was initially skeptical about this combination, worried that the quiet and affecting vocals of the Unthank sisters would get lost in a blaze of brass. One song was enough to show I was very wrong. The brass band are current British champions, and their delivery, tone and volume were perfectly complementary to the Unthanks’ voices, which were, once again, given ample time and room to fill the main stage. Their set was unadulterated majesty, and it was a perfect combination. Playing a composition written after the birth of Rachel’s first child, a revelatory beauty was unwrapped by her words and the band as she sung “No need to fear the darkness of the night”, and the hairs on the back of my neck quivered as their unforgettable harmony charged the atmosphere.
If one of the folk festival favourites can get away with stretching the boundaries of their beloved genre, then there was always going to be some leeway elsewhere. This was at its most evident with Lazy Lister & Friends on Stage 2 on Saturday evening. A genuine Blues legend, there wasn’t even a hint of a fiddle or flute on the stage. From the youthful vigour displayed during his set, it was hard to believe he was born in 1933 – the tumbling rhythm and lazy guitar licks ensuring a dirty Blues groove moved through the crowd. To shouts of “encore!” from the audience, Lister answered in his laid-back drawl “Ain’t no bother, we’re just getting warmed up”. On the other end of the age scale, Watford’s The Staves proved that a band with acoustic instruments and lots of vocal harmonies gets quickly classified as “folk”. The three sisters that make up the band have an ear for the American West coast, though, as hints of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles resonate through their rather pretty and accessible pop. James Vincent on the Friday night also took this as his main set of influences, but to his detriment he over-polished them, and the standout feature was his Bon Iver-esque falsetto. Another area that’s been championed by the Folk Festival recently is that of original African music. JuJu on Saturday afternoon on Stage 2 combined Gambian artist Juldeh Camara with guitarist and producer Justin Adams. The latter’s rather classic-rock approach was nicely led astray by Camara’s African melodies, wrestling with his ritti and more than matching Adams’ guitar work.
Most of these acts have a wealth of experience to fall back on and command their places at the weekend on merit alone. So it was a pleasant surprise to see a tent dedicated to upcoming talent. The Den was a hive of activity all weekend, with the late morning slot each day being an open mic opportunity for artists under 25. After this, there was an opportunity to see and hear what the next generation of folk-inspired artists has to say, and it’s perhaps less of a surprise to find that it was a bit of a mixed bag. A large proportion of the bands were able to play impeccably, their music having a beautifully polished sound. The main problem I had was that they had very little of interest to say. The songs were devoid of life – with very little about real lives, people or issues, apart from the few standout artists wrote about their experiences. One of the few exceptions was The Beguilers who took, in the main part, William Blake’s poetry and wove a rich tapestry of intricate acoustic guitar and clarinet, over which Ellie Rose’s exquisite vocals were allowed to shine. Blake’s work was given new life with this simple but textured approach, which made these classic works come to life. Dear Winesberg took a quirkier path through the folk back catalogue, taking some cues from Sufjan Stevens and the Sons of Noel and Adrian. Lead vocalist Chris had a deep, quivering voice that faltered at times, but there was a seriousness here that felt authentic, and their use of violin was used in a more scratching and staccato fashion rather than the usual soaring and crying manner, and their songs harked for a return to the past, of swooping herons, marching bands and cotton wheels.
There were three acts though that stood out above all else. Unsurprisingly, Lau were one of those. The post-folk trio who I’ve waxed lyrical about far too often never fails to disappoint. The live arena is the environment in which they feel most comfortable and it captures the energy created when Martin Green, Kris Drever and Aidan O’Rourke get together. It’s Green’s love for the obscure that drives their more experimental nature – an array of instruments, some of which are played simultaneously, create a mesh of sound from which Drever’s guitar and vocals and O’Rourke’s fiddle playing can entwine. The Miserable Rich, who’ve been part of the Brighton scene for a number of years now, proved they’re one of the most interesting acoustic-based acts currently working. There’s an appreciation of pop-melodies but it is coupled with a rather more obscure pleasure in giving the songs time and space to find their own character. The cello, double bass and guitar never overpower the song or interfere with one another, but join together effortlessly. James de Malplaquet’s strong and soaring vocals act as perfect centre-point, even though he later admits to being rather emotional from being up till 5am the previous morning turning his ex-girlfriend back into his girlfriend. His tales of late night drinking, drugs and peculiar relationships feel perfectly realised. A perfect counterpoint to their youthful exuberance was the rather more delicate approach of Seamus Cater & Viljam Nybacka. Predominantly playing no strings (Nybacka occasionally picked up a bass guitar or ukulele), their set was painted on an open canvas, on which silence and subtle underlying drones took precedence. Cater’s voice was a soulful and aged one that recounted tales of Stalin, relationships and folk music as a whole. His electric organ quietly seeped sporadic chords and each note has its rightful and carefully organised place and pace – even if it was slower than everything else. Of course, these last two acts could only be playing in one place: the upcoming talent tent. Which, I guess, bodes pretty well for the future of folk. Whatever folk may become.