Rychard Carrington reports on Cambridge Folk Festival. Part 2: Band-by-band – Cherry Hinton Hall, 26-29 July 2007

Artist Visiting Cambridgeshire
Thursday night was dominated by young people playing Celtic music (partially through this critic's choice - punters who elected to see Emily Maguire, Seasick Steve, Nick Barraclough and Alabama 3 would have had a totally different evening): Mabon from South Wales, Breabach from Glasgow and No I.D. from Cambridge were all thoroughly talented and rousing. Young Orcadian Kris Drever would have benefited from a quieter audience for his solo guitar-and-vocals performance.

More Celtic music for me on Friday: Sharon Shannon can be relied on to bring out the best of the Irish tradition. The great flautist/piper Michael McGoldrick contributed nicely to her ten-piece band, but the electric instruments detracted slightly from the acoustic pleasures. I've never really cared for the black clothes, leather jackets and shades image and mid-tempo-shuffle rock of The Oyster Band (as if they're overcompensating for their early association with Fiddler's Dram), but, with their folk and political protest elements more pronounced, I enjoyed their performance more than any previous ones since 1987. Under One Sky was a specially commissioned piece, organised by the much-talented and personable John McCusker and featuring many great folk musicians plus Roddy Woomble of Idlwewild and Graham Coxon of Blur. Unfortunately it was beset by technical problems, particularly by a broken string on the double bass. This was an impressive aggregation of talent, but the whole didn't exceed the sum of the able parts: while the performances were tight, the concept, and perhaps even the raison d'etre, were not: the mere mixing of Scottish and English, traditional and popular is no longer radical, in fact eclecticism has become something of an orthodoxy.

To be in Steve Earle's audience, as with Joan Baez and Nanci Griffith, is to feel in the presence of a great. Beyond that, his solo performance communicated more effectively to those at the front than those further back (such as me), who had to cope with limited vision and irritating chatterers. By contrast, The Waterboys employed considerable enthusiasm to put on an excellent show that was easily enjoyed by all. An encore of This Land Is Our Land, featuring guest appearances by Steve Earle, Sharon Shannon, John McCusker and Michael McGoldrick, epitomised the spirit of the festival at its best.

Yet the evening's entertainment was not yet over, for, for those in the know and unexpecting passers-by, it was time for Peter Buckley Hill. As on Thursday and Sunday, as at nearly every Cambridge Folk Festival for many, many years, this fringe institution delights weary audiences with a good hour and a half an hour of ad hoc, unamplified performance of guitar-strumming comic songs. What might seem at first like easy, bawdy humour for the drunk is much strengthened by the comic's masterful way with pun and rhyme, and rendered compelling by the sensitivity and strength of feeling that Buckley Hill bravely, unsmoothly wears on his sleeve. The festival is much enriched by his idiosyncratic contribution.

Saturday's Stage One activities started with a really brilliant performance by Rachel Unthank And The Winterset. Rachel and Becky Unthank exude a charm reminiscent of Kate Rusby and Kathryn Roberts in the mid-1990s: bonny northern lasses, full of humour and fresh enthusiasm, performing mostly traditional material wholly acoustically, with wonderful sweet vocals. But some superb radical arrangements, courtesy of pianist Belinda O'Hooley in particular, give their music a deeper, darker atmosphere. Releasing their second album that very day, they're surely the best new English folk act of the decade. Outstanding.

They were adequately followed, however, by Ruthie Foster, a most gifted gospel-soul-blues-folk-singer from Texas. A natural feel for the beauty of music was communicated superbly through her powerful vocals. Undoubtedly she could be a huge international star: given that the mass market has shown sufficient taste to pick up on Joss Stone, there must be some chance of this.

Yet more great prowess and exuberant spirit was exuded by Irish trad band Four Men And A Dog, after which I needed a break from outstanding music, and purchased a jumbo-sized Yorkshire pudding. At four o'clock the eleven-piece Bellowhead played their lively, brassy arrangements of English trad tunes, proving again how the English tradition can be radically yet faithfully interpreted without having to incorporate rock or techno. Fiddlers' Bid did their fiddle thing tastefully, and Kate Rusby did her Kate Rusby thing likewise. Kate sings as sweetly as ever, ably supported by some of our finest folk musicians. Inevitably, though, the fresh excitement and charm of her earlier youth has worn off a little. Arguably her music now sounds a tad too sweet to really excite.

Fanfare Ciocarlia charmed with their jolly Romanian brass-orientated sounds. Rotund men speaking very little English, they provided everything one would hope for from a Balkan gypsy band. Joan Baez graced the assembled throng with her special presence. Her delicately powerful vocals, selection of emotionally potent material, sensitive political concern and sheer spirit amply justified her status as a major character in the history of folk music, and her continuing relevance and musical appeal.
Toots And The Maytals talked little, but their reggae demonstrated the power of honest good music in a more sensual way, a fine partying note on which to end Saturday night.

I was well tired by this stage, but it was worth rising early for Mike Tabrett's open tai chi session by the duck pond. Like, yet so unlike, Peter Buckley Hill's performances, these really add something extra to the festival, rejuvenating and relaxing the body and soul in preparation for more festivity. Just the sight of the small crowd moving together in such surroundings is rather wonderful. So I was in a receptive mood for the really brilliant music of guitarist Martin Simpson, yet another master manifesting something great in the human spirit though his stirring, intricate music. Andy Cutting's accordion and Danny Thompson's double bass provided appropriate support. Simpson is an exceptionally great musician: it's a sad comment on the still marginal status of folk that he isn't much better known. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, while genuinely able musicians, were also quite hilarious, in a very clever way. In between covers of popular classics from Silver Machine to Theme From Shaft were some of the wittiest song introductions I've ever heard. Their response to the inevitable George Formby associations was typically smart: performing Leaning On A Lampost in a traditional Russian style. Definitely one of the festival highlights.

While Ricky Skaggs kicked up a storm mid-afternoon, I negotiated my way over to the Club Tent, where I enjoyed some good contemporary folk from singer-songwriter Danny Plews and some great traditional folk from young fiddler Jackie Oates. All of us who remember impassioned accordionist Martin Green from Whiskey Before Breakfast enjoyed seeing him in action again in Lau, a critically acclaimed new trio from Scotland, where Martin now resides. He engaged in some fine instrumental duelling with fiddler Aidan O'Rourke.

Toumani Diabate And Symmetric Orchestra brought some rousing West African sounds and thrilling kora-playing to Stage One. They were followed by another deservedly revered big name, Nanci Griffith, who impressed in a rather similar way to Joan Baez the previous night. Yet the real climax was provided by the extraordinary anglicised bluegrass and booze-friendly eccentricity of Wild Willy Barrett and Sleeping Dogz, now established as regular Sunday night festival-closers in the Club Tent. We all joined in bizarre chants of ‘you're not singing anymore', ‘Boris' and ‘more cello', without pausing to wonder why. As exciting a live band as any in the country - and I don't say that about too many of them, honestly.

Then it was time for Peter Buckley Hill again, then the whole experience was cleared up, and normal life resumed again - until next year. Cheers, organisers - nice one, again. Long live Cambridge, long live folk.

(Apologies to all the acts I missed, owing to my inability to be in three places simultaneously.)

Writer: Rychard Carrington
Photo: Claire Borley www.claireborley.co.uk