Patrick Widdess reports on the Co-operative Cambridge Folk Festival, 29th July - 1st August 2010

Cherry Hinton Hall (Folk Festival)
Folk festival time again! Returning for the second year, I immediately felt at home. There was the second stage filling my ears with music as soon as I came in as revellers wandered amongst the clothing and musical instrument stalls and the all important beer tent. Just around the corner the main stage dominated the main arena, the music wafting over the heads of row upon row of festival goers relaxing in garden chairs. Tucked away in the corner the club tent was hosting a non-stop roll of performers playing short sets to an eager crowd. The folk festival is small, easy to navigate with enough beer and wild tunes to let your hair down but safe and family friendly too.

Still there’s more than enough entertainment for the three and a half days. Once again I couldn’t make the opening night on Thursday and a whole programme of fringe events, workshops and jam sessions passed me by. The club tent alone would have provided a satisfying weekend of live music never mind the main stages. Here’s what I did see:


A merry chorus of tin whistles greeted me as I made my way through the campsite decked with brightly coloured flags and streamers to the entrance of the folk festival on Friday evening. The dark clouds overhead would make their presence felt later but the sun shone brightly in the hearts of the festival goers.
I reached the main stage in time to catch young folk star Seth Lakeman. He deftly alternated between violin and vocals in a slick blend of folk and pop. Following Seth on the main stage were The Imagined Village. About a dozen musicians playing instruments from all four corners of the world piled onto the stage and filled the arena with an ever changing blend of musical styles. An English folk song was accompanied by Middle Eastern drumming. Scarborough Fair was performed with sitar accompaniment and a more unlikely cover closed the set; Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize, performed with the tempo and solemnity of a folk ballad.
The star attraction of the night was hobo bluesman Seasick Steve. Playing tight blues licks and mean slide guitar on a collection of old, battered and home made instruments he can entertain a crowd all night long and crammed as much as he could into an hour long set accompanied by his wild-haired hillbilly drummer. The songs were interspersed with cheery banter in which he was always humble, self-deprecating at times. Having played guitars consisting of little more than a broom handle and some string he finished the set with his drummer scrubbing the floor with a broom then a raucous chorus of Dog House Boogie had the whole tent singing along.
Time for one more band and it was off to the second stage for some 90s nostalgia with The Wonder Stuff. Miles Hunt came swaggering on stage with a bottle of wine looking like a suave drunkard and the set began at a steady pace and the energy built as songs unheard and forgotten were belted out; Welcome to the Cheap Seats, Don’t Let Me Down Gently and Size of a Cow. It was great to see The Wonder Stuff resurface. I’d forgotten how good they were.
The beauty of the folk festival though is discovering great new music at all times and on all stages and there was much to discover over the next two days.


Arriving on site in the early afternoon there was a mellow mood as festival goers lounged around listening to the session on Stage 2 hosted by Brian McNeill. That soon changed when young duo Adam Brown and Alan Mcleod took to the stage and got everyone on their feet with an energetic guitar and accordion number. They were quickly followed by the Quebe Sisters with slick fiddle western swing. The Texan group impressed crowds with a number of appearances over the weekend. Their sound is formidable but having three sisters with such uniform looks and musical style seems a bit manufactured. I found this short set perfectly adequate to sample their sweet singing and accomplished fiddle playing.
More fine English folk followed with Jackie Oates then I got the urge to explore further and wandered on until I came to the club tent where Hobo Jones and The Junkyard Dogs - a trio of hearty buccaneers were giving a lively rendition of What shall we do with the drunken sailor? They were followed by an unscheduled appearance from Seth Lakeman accompanying his father Geoff in a set of traditional folk songs. I’m sure I could have gone to any of the stages and heard something new and interesting. As it happened I was drawn to the main stage where The Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old time string trio were giving an energetic set with beat boxing, fiddling and dancing. They blended the old and the new with a cover of Blu Cantrell’s Hit ‘em up style and had the crowd singing an infectiously jolly chorus of hi-ho-fiddle-ay-dee.
The evening programme kicked off with the Unthanks on the main stage. The band draws on traditional folk making it fresh and exciting and at all times drawing on their audience’s emotions. Two singers Rachel and Becky Unthank front the group and sing like sirens. On a couple of songs they also clog dance with surprising grace and subtlety.
Later Pink Martini filled the stage with a grand piano, bongos and a dozen other instruments for a classy performance that began with a solemn rendition of Bolero. They were then joined by singer China Forbes who should surely sing on a Bond movie and things moved up tempo with swing and R ‘n’ B numbers that had couples dancing on the grass.
The big star of the evening was Natalie Merchant. She has read and listened widely for her latest album Leave Your Sleep. Songs based on poems by e. e. cummings, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Lear and Gerard Manley Hopkins and more are set to music drawing on a range of musical styles. Natalie Merchant performed with a passion that infected the audience and made me wish there was a library handy to look up the works of the poets whose words she weaved into folk, jazz and bluegrass numbers.
Saturday closed with veteran blues trio the Holmes Brothers on the main stage. The grinning, singing, preaching, guitar wielding frontmen Sherman and Wendell Holmes had the crowd rocking till the curfew whilst on the second stage Salsa Celtica fused Scottish and Irish traditional music with salsa in an unusual and energetic combination.


Sunday saw festival goers sporting a bizarre range of headwear for hat day. Paper hats, pirate hats, hat’s made of flowers or in the shape of animals. The winning hat was a stylish bonnet made of melted vinyl records.
The programme for the last day of the festival held another list of unfamiliar names but behind each one lay an exciting and accomplished group of artists who made the last day of the festival a none-stop musical feast.
First there was The Burns Unit on the second stage. It was not their first performance of the weekend and many had clearly come back for a second listen. The members of this Scottish Canadian supergroup look and sound like fresh young indy stars but they’ve all been making music for over a decade. The line-up includes founding member of The Delgados Emma Pollack, Indo-Scottish musical legend Future Pilot AKA, and the prolific King Creosote. Impossible to define, their sound changes with each song from stomping opener Send Them Kids to War with rapping from MC Soom T, to chirpy indy pop single Trouble and melancholy acoustic number Sorry. A talented collective keeping alive the good name of Scottish indy music.
Next on the second stage The Jolly Boys from Jamaica introduced me to a whole new style of music, mento, a forerunner to more popular styles such as reggae. They dress and perform with style and panache and kept the second stage tent packed. They overlapped with Show of Hands on the mainstage, a quintessentially English folk group. Steve Knightley and Phil Beer could hardly be anything other than folk musicians. With their flowing white hair, dulcet singing with lutes, guitars and fiddles they are like a pair of friendly wizards and they certainly cast a spell over their audience who clapped, rocked and sang along, mesmerised by the music.
Next there was a comic turn from The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain, an 8 strong group of smartly-dressed ukulele players who performed numbers by artists including The Sex Pistols, Brittany Spears and a complex medley that included David Bowie, Abba, The Pixies and many more. Then I was drawn back to the second stage for another beautiful set by The Unthanks.
Harper Simon was next up on the main stage and opened with Ever Fallen in Love by the Buzzcocks, which he performed with good humour even when he forgot the words. He could never have competed with the Ukulele Orchestra and admitted as much. He performed a fine solo acoustic set but it wasn’t up to the standard of his father Paul. He was followed by Rokia Traoré from Mali who set the main stage alight singing and jiving in a dazzling performance of infectious African dance music.
The next act needed no introduction. As a single spot light shone in the centre of the stage Kris Kristofferson came on to a welcoming cheer. He was in good voice and though he stumbled over one or two lyrics his tender voice captivated the crowd enthralled to hear a true master of his craft perform his original songs. It would have been a fitting close to the festival but there was still an hour left and whilst Show of Hands did their thing on the second stage Irish super group Lúnasa turned the main arena into a giant ceilidh with everyone dancing to an energetic closing set to the 2010 festival.
It would have been hard to have packed much more into the three days. It was a joy to catch familiar names like Seasick Steve, The Wonderstuff and Kris Kristofferson as well as discovering terrific new music just about every time I went within earshot of a stage. Other entertainers and musicians sprang up all over the site. It wouldn’t be a folk festival without some morris dancing and a colourful troupe turned up on Saturday afternoon led by a tremendous fool with thick red lipstick and feather duster strutting pompously beneath a dainty parasol.
The Cambridge folk festival is a lot more than just folk music. If it was starting now it would probably be labelled a world music and culture festival but folk is a handy four-letter word that has been established a long time. Once again, the organisers put together a diverse line up of acts that were all good and mostly excellent combining musical legends with others less well known but every bit as talented, that were a delight to discover.    

For more photos of the 2010 Cambridge Folk Festival go to

Writer and photographer: Patrick Widdess