Toby Venables reports on the Michael McGoldrick Band – Cambridge Folk Festival, 1 Aug 2008

44th Cambridge Folk Festival

It’s Sod’s Law, isn’t it? There I am, interviewing and reviewing for Moving Tone at the Cambridge Folk Festival, it’s Day One and already I’m bloody loving it. All the interview requests are in, and, after wonderful sets from Cherryholmes and Eliza Carthy I’m eagerly anticipating the next act on Stage 1: the Michael McGoldrick Band. Then, on my mobile, comes the call to an interview – scheduled slap bang in the middle of their set.

For my money, Mancunian Irish instrumental music maestro McGoldrick is sure to be one of the highlights of the Festival. Yet chatting with Peter Morrison, piper from the Skye band Peatbog Faeries is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. So, which is it going to be? Rock or hard place? Frying pan or fire?

Compere Myke Clifford put even greater pressure on my decision by introducing the band with the words: ‘there are five great flute players on the world, and this man is one of them...’ and off the band flew into the first set of tunes – with Michael McGoldrick not on flute this time, but the uillean pipes. It’s a glorious sound. It was exactly this kind of stuff – in a packed pub and later on recordings – that first turned me on to folk music years ago, and while the material he’s playing is mostly traditional in content and style, he has those big stage arrangements that I’ve always loved, inspired by the revolutionary work of the later incarnation of Moving Hearts. This is essentially a scaling up of a pub session to stadium proportions, beefing up the percussion and backing without losing any of the intimacy or sincerity of the driving traditional melodies. It sounds easy enough, but as Moving Hearts’ Donal Lunny pointed out to me backstage at the Festival years ago (while perched on a bag of peat), it needs careful handling; just slapping a rock rhythm on top of traditional material can result in it being ‘chopped up’ (Lunny’s words). It was in the rhythm section that Lunny found ingenious new ways to arrange things, and McGoldrick has that same sensibility in spades.

McGoldrick switches to timber flute, and the rhythms bob, weave and bounce irresistibly. It’s impossible to stand still when he gets in full swing. Why would you want to? Unfortunately, right now, my own treacherous feet have to take me away from Stage 1 and in the direction of the planned interview. I drag myself away, somewhat reluctantly, my ears craning further towards the stage with each step taken away from it.

Waiting by the Media Caravan I’m able to indulge a few more fabulous, rhythmic tunes and get snippets of stage banter on my way backstage. I just catch something about a problem with his fiddle player, and the fact that his replacement had to learn the entire set on the way to the Festival in the van with his fiddle and an iPod. That gets a big cheer from the crowd. But I only half heard it. Did I get that right? I ask one of the press liaison staff for confirmation, but she looks at me in utter disbelief – until I realise she thinks I’m saying the guy learned to play the fiddle in the van on the way to the Festival. Now, that really would be something - but I'm not sure even Cambridge Folk Festival is capable of that kind of miracle.

With a half-heard bodhran solo echoing away in the background, I go into my meeting with Mr Morrison, and a highly animated chat ensues, for which a distant McGoldrick provides the soundtrack (and, as our talk continues, some of the points of reference for the conversation). No, I’ve no regrets. It’s just an embarrassment of riches, that's all.

Life’s like that sometimes – and the Festival is like that a lot. Just remind me not to make a fuss when the only problem is that there are too many good things on offer. And if there’s anyone out there who saw the rest and can fill in the gaps, get in touch...

Writer: Toby Venables

Photo: Paul Rule