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

Martin Green of Lau at Cambridge Folk Festival
Cherry Hinton Hall (Folk Festival)


Time again for the annual Cambridge Folk Festival experience. Like Christmas, it has an all-absorbing culture of its own. It's quite unlike anything I do the rest of the time, yet when I'm there it feels thoroughly familiar and natural, and it's hard to appreciate that there is life outside that knows little or nothing of all this, that the rest of the world is rotating quite regularly.


The festival has been innovative in its laudable determination to go green, and, for those interested, it has kept abreast of modern communications technology; yet mostly the set-up remains pleasingly familiar. Indeed, the now heretical ethos 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' seems to apply. The established pattern continues very successfully. The festival is, however, more crowded than it used to be, which entails a lot of standing up and weaving in and out of dense throngs, and requires quite some stamina for punters present from 6pm on Thursday through to 11 pm on Sunday. Fortunately the battle against those who treat the music tents as a private picnic area, getting in everyone's way and paying scant attention to the music, seems to have been largely won: many thanks to the organisers for their stand on this.


As always, there's far more to the festival than just the performances on Stage One. There's much good food, good drink (notably the wondrous hot spicy cider) and good clothes for sale, there's all manner of children's entertainment, workshops on this and that, healing, juggling, willow sculpture and oh, much, much more. If you've been, you know all this; if you haven't, what can I do but recommend that you should – as long as you can handle crowds and folk music.


Thus, each festival-goer's experience is quite different from the next one's. Even just in terms of music listened to, with three tents in action simultaneously there are numerous permutations. Almost certainly no one saw exactly the combination of acts that I did. I completely missed headliners The Zutons, The Saw Doctors, Los Lobos and Lucinda Williams, for instance. But anyway, this is how I got on:




Music commenced in the Club Tent on Thursday in an odd but impressive way with Cambridge band Sunday Driver, who looked most resplendent with their Victorian garb and their Indian instruments. They describe their influences as Victorian Calcutta and Victorian London, and they have developed their intriguing fusion successfully. Next on was a very exciting, very young traditional Welsh band, Calan. They played traditional tunes in a way that reminded me how melodic, rhythmic and thrilling traditional music can be: no adulteration or gimmickry necessary. I hope they flourish. Cambridge supports young trad musicians very well; possibly it's when they get a little older that the going gets tougher.


Time for a hot spicy cider, followed by some music by American singer-songwriter Alela Diane, whose country-rock arrangements seemed a little dull after the previous two bands. There was a lot of American country, blues and bluegrass on offer at the festival, as always, but, being more of a British folk aficionado, I saw little of it. The final act on Stage Two that evening were Adrian Edmondson And The Bad Shepherds. Their gambit was performing classic punk songs in the style of traditional folk. The project was sincere and successful, the result being not a comedy of incongruity but genuinely good folk music. Edmondson, whose prowess and reputation as a comedian proved somewhat incidental, played mandolin and sang – not too tunefully, but with a clear enunciation which rendered the often indecipherable lyrics of the originals intelligible, revealing a surprising degree of good poetry within them. Troy Donockley (pipes and whistles), Martin Allcock (twelve-string guitar) and  Andy Dinan (fiddle) accompanied, generally improving upon the coarse rock of the punk versions. Music finishes at ten on the Thursday, so next it was time to cycle home.




The further one gets into the festival, the longer it takes to find a satisfactory place to lock one's bicycle. But I always find somewhere in the end. I arrived at Stage One to the resounding sound of a capella singing by The Waterson Family. Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy are familiar fixtures (at this Festival, and most other places on the English folk scene), but it was a rare treat to see Mike Waterson (Norma's brother), from the original sixties version of The Watersons. With other relatives Rachel Straw, Eleanor Waterson, Maria Gilhooley and Oliver Knight they were a sterling example of the English folk tradition in action, in all its power and pathos.


A bit later Buffy Sainte-Marie connected us with the American folk protest tradition that peaked, at least in terms of popularity and influence, in the early 1960s. Like Joan Baez, Buffy, a Native American, is an incessant political activist, a thoughtful social commentator, a sensitive songwriter and a strong singer. She also looks very young for sixty-eight. The quality of her numbers varied a little: generally the solo acoustic accompaniment worked better than the rock backing (but then I always think that about singer-songwriters). It is good that the alliance of folk music with progressive politics is still extant, and it is good to witness such inspiring people, whom one admires for their strength of conviction as much as for their enviable talents.


Many of us have become quite familiar with Bellowhead, so one needs to remind oneself quite how extraordinary this eleven-piece band are. Their playing remains as enthusiastic as their arrangements of mostly traditional material are innovative. Their lively set was very well-received, and rightly so. I then left Stage One to the thoroughly non-folkie Zutons, to see The Demon Barbers at Stage Two. The Barbers are a tremendous live act, featuring (not always all at the same time) a troupe of clog dancers (there was quite a lot of that at the festival this year; it is exciting to watch), a rap-style vocalist who made extraordinary sound-effect noises, a rock rhythm section, and some great fiddle from Bryony Griffith. On paper this might sound a flashy, contrived concoction, but based on the solid foundation of Damien Barber's deep love of  the folk tradition (influenced by his hero Peter Bellamy), it worked a treated as entertaining, authentic folk music. Then it was time to go home again.




When Patrick Widdess texted me at 11.30 with the message “Im at the fest u?”, I was still in bed. Oh well, good to know that Moving Tone reporting at the Cambridge Folk Festival is in capable hands.  When I finally arrived Jim Moray was performing on the main stage. I saw him earlier this year at The Junction; this set confirmed the very high opinion of him I formed then. This most pleasant young man with a deep love of traditional music is so wrongly represented as an enfant terrible. Shortly afterwards Jon Boden And The Remnant Kings were on on Stage Two. Rather similarly, Boden (also of Bellowhead) is a splendid young man with a passion for traditional folk, musically inventive, delivering with great energy and flair, accompanied by other young musicians of kindred spirit. Magnificent! Then there was Bella Hardy, who rather fits the same description, apart from being a young lady, obviously. It is seriously heartening that traditional English folk is being perpetuated by such appealing talents, much younger than myself.


Next I ate a giant Yorkshire pudding (with vegetables and chips inside it), from the Giant Yorkshire Puddings stall. Traditional English food, cooked with culinary invention, delivered with energy and flair. It is seriously heartening that Yorkshire puddings are being perpetuated by such appealing talents. The pudding acts as a container for the rest of the food, though, so you have to negotiate skilfully between  the pitfalls of leaving the actual Yorkshire pudding until you've eaten the rest, and of having the other items spill out all over the place.


The Shee were on at Stage Two (I didn't bother much with the Stage One today – hope Patrick was there). This all-female six-piece played traditional Scottish music (there was quite a lot of that about, thanks to the sponsorship of the Scottish Arts Council), and they played it very well. Then to the Club Tent for another first-class set by Jim Moray. This set included Moray's composition Adam Ant In His Padded Cell, a wonderful, tender song, perhaps the best I heard all festival. A little later unostentatious Bristolian quartet Spiro produced an excellent set of traditional tunes, intricately developed. While all this was going on, the heavens opened in no uncertain terms, and everyone in the tent became very grateful they weren't outside. The torrent slackened off before too long, but mud became a dominant feature of the environment from this point on. Poor campers!


Standing in Stage Two for the rest of the evening, memories of the rows of seats at Ely Folk Festival were growing increasingly fond. Lau were predictably excellent. Local-boy-made-good Martin Green (pictured) always gets a good reception, of course; in Aidan O'Rourke and Kris Drever he has found peers who match his prowess and invention. The end product is subtle, powerful, captivating acoustic folk music. Just what the doctor ordered.  After a tiring wait on came The Treacherous Orchestra – a thirteen-piece Glaswegian band playing more Scottish folk in a lively, dancey manner, with interesting musical twists. A rousing end to the evening, indeed. Hopefully the people at Stage One had a good time of it, too.




Mike Tabrett's tai chi and chi gong session by the duckpond at 9.30 is a brilliant way to start off a Folk Festival day. It's a great sight, everyone in motion together, and it fills participants up with healthy chi energy to counterbalance any jadedness or hedonistic excess.


Nevertheless I completely failed to get up in time to go to it. When I did finally arrive I popped into the market area to buy some clothes. As I passed Stage Two Crooked Still were producing a pleasing, sedate, string-orientated sound. I purchased a cup of tea, and then patronised the Club Tent, where Ely Folk Club were the hosts for the afternoon. Essex singer-songwriter Adrian Nation delivered a good set. Nice guitar, good voice. Then on to Stage One to witness a magnificent performance by Eddi Reader (abetted by Boo Hewerdine, John McCusker, B. J. Cole and many others). She really is a star, isn't she? Such a natural. Beautiful.


After some more drinking and whatnot I went to good old Stage Two, where Cara Dillon delivered a sweet acoustic set of considerable polish and charm, with a band including Sam Lakeman and Brian Finnegan and Ed Boyd from the late Flook. Then time for dinner, but while I was queueing for a 'Rajun Cajun' at the excellent Blue Moon vegetarian stall, I met the great Peter Buckley Hill, true hero of Cambridge Folk Festival for many, many years, whose impromptu sets of comic songs have rounded off so many evenings after the official programme has ended (see Moving Tone innerview). He told me he performing some unlikely gigs as support for the science writer Richard Dawkins, But alas, he wasn't performing tonight, as he was busy preparing for his major organising role at the Edinburgh Fringe. So I'd missed his music altogether this year. Doh! Do look out for him, readers, if you attend the Folk Festival in future. 


Jazzy Irish singer Imelda May sounded good, but Stage Two was too crowded to get a decent view, so I opted to spend the rest of the evening in the Club Tent, where Hitchin Folk club were now hosting. New Rope String Band were hilarious musical comedians, very clever clowns. Definitely one of the most  entertaining acts of the festival. Then came The Hub Band, about twenty-five seriously junior (average age under sixteen?) musicians who had received training by Bella Hardy during the festival and become an impressively cohesive unit. I wonder how many of them will be stars in their own right in due course. The amount of young talent in folk seems ever increasing, which is great. Further impressive performances came from Virginian ex-pat Andy Willcox, singer-songwriter-sound-engineer Tracy Bell, and very hearty a capella trad singer Sam Walter. Then the grand climax with Wild Willy Barrett and Sleeping Dogz – old favourites of the Club Tent, Hitchin Folk Club and yours truly. Perhaps their set was slightly less wild and slightly shorter than in previous years, but the blend of rowdiness, eccentricity and accomplished quirky musicianship still produced a fitting climax, before we all wandered slowly back to our ordinary lives.


Rychard Carrington's prestigious Act Of The Day awards:



1) Calan

2) Adrian Edmondson And The Bad Shepherds

3) Sunday Driver



1) The Demon Barbers

2) Bellowhead

3) The Waterson Family



1) Jim Moray

2) Jon Boden And The Remnant Kings

3) Bella Hardy



1) New Rope String Band

2) Eddi Reader

3) Sleeping Dogz



Writer: Rychard Carrington

Photograph: Patrick Widdess


Patrick Widdess's review of Cambridge Folk Festival 2009

Patrick Widdess's other photos of Cambridge Folk Festival 2009