Rychard Carrington reports on the Cambridge Folk Festival, 31 July - 3 August 2008

44th Cambridge Folk Festival
It's one of those annual occasions, like Christmas, which one just takes in one's stride when one's done it all before, you know, oh so many times. It takes the return to normality on subsequent days to make one appreciate quite what a special event Cambridge Folk Festival is. While there, one gets blasé about some of the best music of its kind in the world playing right in front of you. One also takes for granted the plethora of activities available, even if one doesn't fancy any of the three music tents. For instance there was a children's music and dance workshop, simple instrument making, face painting, children's painting, street art workshop, storytelling, Ramshacklicious Theatre Company performing street theatre, willow sculpture, more simple instrument making, another children's music and dance workshop, and t'ai chi; and that's just between 9.30 and 12 on Sunday morning, just on the Coldham's Common campsite. Then there's The Hub school for young musicians, people on stilts, in silly costumes etc., wandering around, stalls selling lots of folk CDs and musical instruments, lots of nice ethnic clothes, jewellery and gimmicks, homeopathy, massage, hot'n'spicey cider. Not exactly your usual high-street fare, but while you're there it all seems so regular.

It's Britain's - some say Europe's - biggest folk festival, but it's also the folk festival that stretches the definition of folk more than any other. Musicians who've earned a meagre living for decades playing traditional music in folk clubs might feel aggrieved at the high proportion of acts who've never played a folk club or a traditional English folksong in their lives (and at the evident preference for traditional music to be represented by young musicians rather than middle-aged or elderly ones), but each year by the end of the Festival the general high quality of the acts justifies the selection for me.

The two tents in operation on the opening Thursday evening were crowded right from the start, and even more so during the short, sharp showers of rain which were to visit us intermittently throughout the Festival. In the Club Tent, Megson and Finlay Napier were pleasant and able, but a little too mild for the occasion. The Shivers's more raucous sound worked better: they give the impression they've absorbed The Rolling Stones' classic Exile On Main Street album rather thoroughly, and then made the intriguing decision to reproduce that sound on acoustic instruments. The final act 3 Daft Monkeys were most successful: operating in the post-anarcho-punk folk milieu of The Levellers, the Cornish trio succeeded mainly due to female Daft Monkey Athene's winning presence and excellent fiddling, which drew on a variety of traditions in a style reminiscent of Horace X's Hazel Fairburn. Meanwhile on Stage Two Cherryholmes's exciting bluegrass thrilled all, apparently, and my spy informs me that young singer Laura Marling showed great talent and strong presence, although the spy thought that Laura might like to think about performing solo, rather than with a band.

I often think that about singer-songwriters, too. There's something special about an individual standing alone on stage, communicating to a crowd just through their character, their words and their music. This, I think, counts for far more than a smooth band who can successfully reproduce the sounds of the studio. My three favourite performances all had something of this feel of the individual communicating strength of personality, depth and sincerity of feeling, as well as talent, through words and music. Chris Wood on Stage Two had a whole packed, standing and drinking crowd listening in enthralled silence, to his intelligent, moving and perfectly-crafted songs. Billy Bragg was back to his distinctive solo performance with just electric guitar, an arrangement that has always worked particulay well for him. I've seen him about five times, and this time was the best. His wit and thoughtfulness comes out equally in his speaking (the word ‘banter' doesn't do it justice) and in his lyrics. Bragg is not another rock singer who's expediently become a little folk-friendly in middle-age: he identifies firmly with folk, contemplates its ethos and the function of protest-singing very keenly, keeping alive the notion of folk as not just a loose style but as a movement and a community. Judy Collins has lived within that community for many decades. Backed by a pianist, she told tales from her long life in folksinging, and put new feeling into some over-familiar songs (e.g. Both Sides Now, Leaving On A Jet Plane) with her really beautiful, powerful vocals.

k.d. lang and Joan Armatrading, on the other hand, each employed accomplished bands to help them produce polished performances which confirmed their class. Yet both of them, I thought, needed to have given a little more of themselves as individuals, interesting people that they undoubtedly are, to render their performances really special, in the face of so much strong competition.

Martha Wainwright had a band (as well as loud pink socks), but also sang several numbers with just her acoustic guitar. Her powerful vocals carried the strength of feelings of her songwriting evocatively. Three highlights, though, were all covers: tribute to late Cherry Hinton resident Syd Barrett's See Emily Play, her father's lateral anti-war song Pretty Good Day, and a climactic Stormy Weather.

Eliza Carthy's new album of self-penned songs is quite a step away from folk, but her performance on Friday had an interesting and successful musical texture, with a slightly sinister carnival feel, a little akin to Bellowhead. Her excellent fiddleplaying is still very much at the centre of her band's sound, and she stills addresses the audience with the same impertinent charm.

Isle of Skye's Peatbog Faeries have reduced the techno element since I last saw them. Now there are rock and jazz-funk elements, but the trad Celtic sounds - bagpipes, fiddle, etc, are well to the fore, and the result is great melodic and rhythmic dance music.

The Levellers ended Friday night on Stage One (not for the first time) with their familiar rousing folk-punk party sound. The sight of Jeremy Cunningham bouncing up and down with his huge dreads adds something extra.

Opinion was divided about The Imagined Village. Some loved it, others, such as me, found it too contrived, postmodern and inorganic, too much like an Arts-Council-funded conceptual art installation that ‘challenges preconceptions' bla-di-bla-di-blah. What was good about it, I think, was the quality of the individual contributors - including Chris Wood, Martin and Eliza Carthy, Billy Bragg, Benjamin Zephaniah, Johnny Kalsi, The Copper Family - rather than how they blended together. Others would disagree.

Seth Lakeman has found a remarkable degree of level of popularity with the public at large. Why, I even saw his latest CD in the album chart section in Asda today. Quite why he appeals to a wider audience more than all the other folk acts isn't clear - good looks is the only obvious theory. Yet for serious connoisseurs of contemporary folk (who surely don't shop in Asda) he has a lot to offer. His strident, narrative-strong songs are steeped in the folk tradition, and in live performance they develop into exciting, brooding instrumental workouts, featuring Seth on fiddle and guitar, brother Sean on guitar, Ben Nicholls on acoustic bass and Andy Tween on drums. All acoustic, but rather like those vintage instrumental workouts from the heyday of rock, a bit like vintage Fairport, in fact. This time the presence of backing musicians was well justified. A great band, doing something distinctive that isn't obviously commercial at all.

Richard Hawley dressed in black with shades, talks with dour Sheffield humour, and performed classily sentimental love songs with arrangements that combine pre-Beatles rock'n'roll with 50s crooner-style lushness. As with Roy Orbison, the contrast of dark masculine reserve of manner with the effusive and tender romance of the material hit the soft spots in one's heart, whilst also giving off a ‘not to be messed with' vibe. An impressive, distinctive talent, albeit not what we're used to in folk.

Who else? Eric Bibb produced great laid-back good vibes out of the blues, and New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint created hearty, funky mardigras revelry. Tim O'Brien played stirling bluegrass and more besides, accompanied by John McCusker on fiddle and Altan's Dermot Byrne on accordion - a less self-conscious multiculturalism than The Imagined Village. Altan, of course, continue to play their wonderfully tuneful Irish traditional music very well. Devon Sproule sings and writes sensitively, evoking the gentler side of her native Virginia (not that I've ever been there).

In the Club Tent, Yula went furthest of all in pandering to my preference for under-accompaniment. Totally a cappella, she performed great music, and went down very well with the Club Tent crowd, proving that if have a good voice, strong material, and an engaging manner then there's no need to bother with any of those instruments.

My review of Ely Folk Festival criticised Jade for the negative impact of a rhythm section on her sound, so I was very pleased to see her band back as an acoustic fourpiece. Jade has great charm, classic hippy female beauty, and a powerful voice to boot.

My spy informs me female singer Katus was ‘a little box of magic'. Singing traditional material in both Czech and English, accompanying herself on guitar and flute, she created delight in the Club Tent on Friday night.

Bella Hardy, a young singer and fiddler who tutors even younger musicians at The aforementioned Hub, played traditional material very well in the Club Tent on Saturday, backed by Ian Stephenson on guitar and Chris Sherburn on squeezebox and cynical jokes.

And then I went home to bed.

(Apologies to the acts I missed out: sorry I couldn't be everywhere at once - I am working on it.)

Wryter: Rychard Carrington

Photo: Paul Rule