REVIEW: Patrick Widdess reports on the Co-operative Cambridge Folk Festival, 30 July - 2 August 2009

Steve Lockwood at Cambridge Folk Festival
Cherry Hinton Hall (Folk Festival)
This year was my first time at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and with a line-up consisting of acts as varied as Booker T, The Zutons and Lucinda Williams, along with many other artists I'd yet to hear, there was much to look forward to.




It kicked off for me on Friday evening. It was a warm sunny evening and I broke myself in gently in the Club Tent where a homely mannered MC introduced duos and solo artists who played short tight acoustic sets in quick succession. Having acclimatised, I moved to the main stage for Buffy Sainte Marie. A Native North American from Saskatchewan, Buffy has become an outspoken ambassador for her own culture and has absorbed many others, which immediately comes across in her set that opens with thigh-slapping Americana rock; then she straps on an acoustic guitar for a more folky number. Next she produces a hunting bow: fashioned out of a twisted twig and a piece of wire it does not appear to be a promising instrument but she puts it to her lips and starts producing a twangy, Jew's harp style melody with which she accompanies herself. Things continue in similar fashion, which is to say they change for every song for the rest of the set.


Next on the main stage Bellowhead delivered a loud and energetic performance with furious fiddle playing, banjoes, brass section and all manner of other instruments played by an 11-strong folk-rock powerhouse. The closing act on the main stage was The Zutons, a slightly odd choice for a folk festival but then they're a slightly odd band. The atmosphere quickly changed to that of a pop concert. The thing that unifies the diverse acts at the Cambridge Folk Festival is their talent for writing and performing songs and music. The Zutons certainly fulfill these requirements and they had a younger crowd packing out the arena and singing along to their hit songs. I opted to finish with something a bit more low key and returned to the Club Tent where local blues outfit Hot Lips And Chilli Fingers were the closing act. Frontman Steve Lockwood (pictured) is widely regarded as one of the world's leading harmonica players and he and guitarist Chris Newman have credentials equal to many acts on the main stage. They played an electrifying set including a rousing instrumental version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps and a raunchy rendition of Baby Scratch My Back. It was an exhilarating but all too short set that left the crowd crying for more. There was plenty more to come but not that night. It was time to get some rest.




Saturday started in a leisurely fashion. People ambled about or sat down to late breakfasts. A folk group was jamming outside the beer tent. Crooked Still opened up on the main stage. This Boston-based five piece played a placid folky set with a wacky banjo player reciting comic verses in between the songs. They were one of the hardest working bands at the festival, playing every stage over the weekend. The pace picked up mid-afternoon with Jim Moray on the main stage. This up and coming musician has more talent than he knows what to do with. Drawing on a rich palette of styles his band creates a strong and diverse sound that is getting increasingly widespread attention. At times they do too much. Most songs were accompanied with a backing track which sometimes detracted from the skill of the live musicians on stage. At one point during a heavily electronic number the band were accompanying a rap by an absentee performer. Another song was based on a traditional song Barbara Allan: I remember my father singing this a cappella in my youth. It seemed very overproduced with synthesizers, echoing vocals and multiple effects.


Cara Dillon followed with plainer Irish folk. Beautiful songs delicately sung. Things got more raucous when Blazin' Fiddles took to the stage. They were a bit like Bellowhead with most of the line up on violin and seemed to be constantly trying to outdo each other to be the fastest, most frantic performer. Another act with plenty of juice was the hotly tipped Hot Club Of Cow Town. This sharply dressed trio have revitalised jazz and swing for the 21st century. Their set on the second stage had the whole tent bouncing to upbeat retro sounds delivered with endless vigour and panache. The bright chirpiness of the event was disrupted in the evening when the heavens opened and the tents became packed ever more tightly. There were good incentives for doing so beyond keeping dry. The main stage played host to an impressive run of world-renowned acts, kicking off with the legendary Booker T. Taking his seat at his old organ he gave a nod and a grin and he and his band began to play. The band were a surprisingly motley crew for Booker T's laid-back disposition. Indeed some members looked like they could be in that very band with their long hair and tattoos. The opening numbers were new and somewhat vague sounding instrumentals then, he introduced a tune he wrote when he was 16, Green Onions. There can be few people in the world who haven't heard this groovy melody and it was quite a rocking live version. This set a lively pace that was maintained for the rest of the set. By the end the deluge had ceased and the sky was painted red with a beautiful sunset. Soon the stage was set for LA Latino superstars Los Lobos. With 36 years of experience they veered between slow and soulful songs and fast, rhythmic dance numbers.


The closing act was The Saw Doctors, an evergreen Irish folk-rock act who's onstage antics were as sharp and entertaining as their music. The crowd were singing along from the start and in the middle of the set they all swapped instruments mid-song, culminating in the drummer taking centre stage, guitar raised above his head triumphantly. The band have attracted a loyal following over the years and on stage they blend slick showmanship with a friendly down to earth manner. Frontmen Davy Carton and Leo Moran are the kind of people you can image spending a night with in an Irish pub singing and drinking Guinness all night long. The end of their set was just the right music for such an occasion, loud and riotous folk songs that had people skipping and whirling arm-in-arm on the muddy ground till they collapsed or the curfew fell on another night at the festival.




The sun was shining again on the last day. The grass was covered with people on folding chairs playing cards, reading the papers and letting long screeching balloons go flying into the sky as they had been all weekend. The crowd was chilled but the music was still red hot. After The Saw Doctors' folk-pop the night before Mairtin O'Connor, Cathal Hayden and Seamie O'Dowd went back to the roots of Irish folk with an intense set of jigs and reels that got the lethargic audience jumping to their feet, then jumping some more.


Lau played the main stage in the middle of the afternoon. Featuring local folk hero Martin Green the trio play meandering instrumentals on guitar, accordion and violin. Gently ambient for the most part the music occasionally crescendoes in a maelstrom of sound like Mogwai doing acoustic folk. Eddi Reader followed, a stalwart of the UK music scene for over 25 years. I've heard her name repeatedly over the years as a chart topping pop star and a folk singer playing in local pubs. On stage she is radiant and completely in her element singing her happy heart out and heaping praise on her fellow musicians, including respected songwriter and long-term collaborator Boo Hewerdine.


Talented though the main stage performers were, one could be forgiven for tiring of guitars and accordions. Everything changed in the evening with the arrival of Oumou Sangare, a vibrant singer from Malawi whose band's colourful costumes and exotic melodies were fresh and uplifting.


Lucinda Williams was perhaps the performer most people were waiting to see. She received an ecstatic reception on the main stage but responded in a grumpy manner. Picking up her guitar she started a song solo, stopped after the first line, whinged that she couldn't do it, at which point she was joined by her band, and together they delivered a solid set to please the fans.


A more exciting act was to be found on the second stage. Watermelon Slim is a man who looks and sounds like he sold his soul to the devil for the blues. Decked in black with a Stetson pulled down low he plays a mean slide guitar and sings out loud gesturing boldly like a fire and brimstone preacher with his band the workers backing him all the way. A couple of numbers into the set he trades his guitar for a harmonica on which he's equally accomplished. Then he dismisses his band for a number and discards his instruments and Mississippi delta blues for an Irish folk song, accompanying himself with a simple hand clap; then the band return and the mayhem carries on. I was reluctant to leave but I knew the festival held one final treat in the Club Tent. Veteran Folk Festival performer Wild Willy Barrett was headlining the club tent. This eccentric white-bearded gent and his fellow players combine traditional English folk with a surreal sense of humour. They are the only band I've seen perform with a brown wheelie bin, or one of any other colour for that matter. No doubt Moving Tone's Wild Willy Barrett expert Rychard Carrington will have more to say on this performance.


Despite bitter pleas from the crowd his set and the festival soon came to an end. Over the three days I was lucky to discover a whole batch of artists that I feel privileged to have seen perform. All the music provided a superb soundtrack to a pleasant weekend relaxing in the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall with other music lovers, peacefully enjoying the music, beer and, at times, the weather.


It's not hard to see why the festival is still going strong after 45 years. The music is still echoing in my head and when I close my eyes the sky is full of bright long balloons screeching up to the heavens. When the memories start to fade I'll probably be setting off to next year's festival.



Writer: Patrick Widdess

Photograph: Patrick Widdess


Patrick Widdess's other photos of Cambridge Folk Festival 2009

Rychard Carrington's Cambridge Folk Festival 2009 review