There was plenty of sun and a whole heap of fun at Cambridge's 2011 Folk festival. The Fourteen thousand packed cheek to jowl into Cherry Hinton Park enjoyed a weekend of sexy, sassy and sincere performances.
When Katzenjammer took to Stage 2 on Sunday evening it was clear we were about to witness an extraordinary show. The band were eye-catching - four glamorous Scandinavian babes dressed in big wigs and short skirts, one of whom brandished an overgrown triangular lute, they were impossible to ignore. The huge lute - a contrabass Balalaika provided the folk funk throb at the heart of the set, which kicked off with a boogie-fuelled bluegrass number which got everyone in the tent joyously jumping and hollering. The 'Queens of Sultry Sound', their set was packed full of energetic folkie fun which skipped between the surreal and the sublime. They traded turns on the Balalaika but also played a dizzying array of twenty or so traditional instruments one of the girls even playing accordion, harmonica and glockenspiel all at the same time. They joked about Sweden, Glastonbury and one-note intros, we laughed. They played a cover version of Genesis's 'Land of Confusion', we danced. They sang a song with a lyric so lamentful enough to dispel the notion this was just frivolous fun "All that I have left is the voice of the wind blowing through the door of our house", we tried not to cry. Wow, this band was just jaw-droppingly good. They gave one of the most entertaining Festival shows I have seen and were a complete surprise. This was one of those unique and unforgettable Festival moments.
Frank Turner's Friday afternoon set was another great demonstration of showmanship. Ably supported by his band The Sleeping Souls Frank's catchy pop-folk sound was quite enjoyable of itself, but what made his performance stand out was the way he marshalled and cajoled the crowd to get "every single person singing along" by the end of his slot. It wasn't just single people singing along but couples, kids and groups they all joined in with the infectious lyric to 'Photosynthesis' "I won't sit down, I won't shut up and most of all I will not grow up". As most of the Cambridge audience were a fair way clear of thirty the line seemed to strike a chord, not for the folkie purist but this folk music with a beat was well received by the Cambridge crowd.
Peatbog Faeries closed the Festival on Sunday night with a very strong beat indeed. Their thumping four/four beats overlaid with electro squelch and pierced by the strains of fiddle, whistle and bagpipe was a massive crowd pleaser for those who had stayed to the Festival's end. Accompanied by a dazzling lightshow and wringing every ounce of bass from the PA the set was more House than Folk, it was as if "E" had hit Skye twenty years late and they were now exporting the resulting 'Acid Croft' sound. Still after three days of Folk music what better to do than join in and jump around with our slightly crazed Celtic cousins.
Anyone waiting for a choir of big beefy guys to come along would have been spoilt at Cambridge as two came along at once; Port Isaac's The Fisherman's Friends motto "Wake up and smell the kippers" and the pride of man The Spooky Men's Chorale motto "We can grow beards if we want to." If these two acts were to cross on the site's busy walkways the testosterone levels could easily hit critical.
Fortunately The Spooky Men were on Saturday and Fisherman's Friends on Sunday. Both were very funny indeed. The Spooky Men are back on the UK Festival circuit form their native Australia still dreaming of mastodons and making valuable suggestions for improving manly emotional expression, self esteem and tool use through the medium of song. The Fisherman's Friends concentrate on traditional, manly sea shanties like 'Up She Rises', 'South Australia' and 'Green Banana Johnny'- the laughs coming from the banter in between songs. Both acts have plenty of vocal power and superb interaction with the crowd and went down an absolute treat.
Femi Kuti and the Positive Force's supercharged Afrobeat sound and manic stage presence was a bit harder work for the audience, but his show early on Sunday evening was certainly enjoyable. In a theatrical build up the band gradually assembled on the stage before Femi and his dancing girls came on to huge applause. The show was spectacular with the animated frontman running here and there picking up a saxophone or hitting some notes on his Hammond organ. The dancing girls never stopped jiggling and gyrating, which helped out many chaps who found the beat difficult to follow. Even when Femi was making a speech about the importance of African unity the booty shaking didn't let up leading to suspicions that we were being hypnotised into believing the great continent's troubles were mostly due to Europeans and Moslem North Africa. The politics done it was back to the show which, thankfully, was vastly entertaining.
So there were many acts, which were seriously good festival fun, but we know Folk isn't all about fun and Cambridge's line up had the serious side covered too. Spiers & Boden of Bellowhead fame stayed on after the bands sensational Friday night show to give two more performances on the Saturday, one on each stage. Both were brilliant featuring traditional material played with a stomping beat, fiddle and squeezebox - songs like 'Prickle Eye Bush' and 'Bold Sir Rylas' and the instrumental '3 Tunes' - that are the dynamic duo's signature. The Stage 1 show featured touring companions Saltfishforty with whom they did a great version of '3 Tunes' and a particularly fine strathspey and reel dance tune from Burray, an island in the Orkneys where they must have fantastic Ceilidhs, judging by that tune. The pairs newly released retrospective CD 'The Works' was apparently the best seller on the CD stall, according to BBC's Mark Radcliffe and Mike Harding. Number 10 on that list were The Webb Sisters, another talented and attractive surprise hit. Their Saturday evening show filled the Festival's third stage the Club Tent to capacity. Having toured with Leonard Cohen for two years the set was well honed and with a beautiful sound underlying their wistful voices, they were easy on the eye and ear.
There was plenty of applause but very little high-pitched screaming for Richard Thompson's Saturday evening set. The sound of his unique voice and distinctive guitar style across the site seemed to be a perfect fit for the Cambridge audience. With all the greats like 'Valerie' and 'Vincent Black Lightning' a few anecdotes and a celebrity guest this was a consummate performance of thinking man's music.
A big dose of Americana provided more upbeat melodies. We were treated to blistering blues from Robert Cray, incessant Cajun rhthyms from Feufollet, the Nashville swagger of Abigail Washburn and the thoughtful country of Caitlin Rose and Rumer. Raul Malo's Saturday night headline set was a Tex/Mex triumph, Mary Chapin Carpenter a great warm up for the waify Laura Marling.
There was no shortage of Celticana at Cambridge, Scottish bands like Saltfishforty and Manran entertained with rousing songs and instrumentals but for me two amazing Irish acts stood out. Martin Hayes supported by Dennis Cahil on guitar was simply mind-blowingly good. The curly locked fiddle maestro worked his instrument to its limits in two astonishing sets which both created an unmistakeable feeling of joy in the audience. The world's fastest fiddler Frankie Gavin playing with legendary De Dannan was on top form.
John Tam's reformed band Home Service was more successful. The band are touring on the back of a recently unearthed live recording of a 1986 Cambridge performance and brought that set back to life twenty five years later with aplomb. Stirring brass and cool guitar solos matched John's serene vocal style. Some of the anti-Thatcher message might be a little out of date but the folk songs like 'Peatbog Soldiers' and original material 'I'm all right Jack' were spot on. As a large part of the crowd had their heydays back in the 80's this set struck their chords, but it was enjoyed by the succeeding generations judging from people's smiles.
All these great performances were squeezed in to one weekend as tightly as the crowd was squeezed in to the Cherry Hinton site. And it was a tight squeeze, any spare space within earshot of stage 1 was immediately occupied by a blanket or fold-up chair. The marked walkways were pretty well respected so it was possible to move around the site, although if you picked the wrong moment and were caught up in a throng it was like the London underground in rush hour not pleasant. Strict and specific rules on chair types and setting up 'bases' in the marquees seemed over the top on the Festival website but on the ground it did make sense. The 'mature' audience did seem quite happy to pitch up and stay in their chairs all day and night watching the acts on the screens, only getting up to eat, drink, toilet or venture forwards for a one particular act or another.
Although pleasantly litter free the site was pretty plainly furnished. A couple of beautiful willow Fox sculptures were the only forms aside from the square lines of Marquees and catering stalls. After dark there the festoon lighting was functional, but certainly not spectacular. There were some mobile entertainers about the site; an oyster eating walrus skit and a steampunk wheelhouse for example, but as there was little space for them to perform they only really worked by the less crowded Stage 2 marquee and front gates. One really interesting feature was the posters which clad the perimeter fences. Designed by artist David Owen they took familiar Pop Art and punk images but gave them a folk twist. They were subversive and anarchic, often containing 'in jokes' and comments on the Folk scene and its characters. Sid Vicious in an English Folk Dance and Song Society T-Shirt, Jackie O but Oates rather than Onasis, godfather of Folk Ewan MacColl singing 'The first time ever I saw your Facebook' and the Folk superhero Lakeman with the tag line 'Devon knows how they make him so dreamy'. They transformed the wire fencing from a cage into a canvas, which was no bad thing. A surprising number were still attached to the fence when we left the site late on Sunday.
Cambridge provides two campsites for festival-goers. Cherry Hinton surrounds the Festival site and so is very convenient, if a bit noisy. You camp under trees so the ground is not great for pegging but with a mallet, willpower and some solar powered fairy lights folks were able to erect some pretty impressive base camps. Coldhams Common campsite is on a sport's pitch about a mile from the festival site so it's a long walk, a good cycle ride or waiting in line for one of the shuttle buses to get between the two. On site the camping was very civilised, lanes were marked out with a grid system, the flat stone-free ground made for easy pitching and parking next to the tent meant easy unloading and security. On site a Coldhams Common there was a general store and catering stalls open late into the night so returning festival goers could enjoy a midnight snack and take in one last show from people brave enough to get up and do a turn. There wasn't really enough water points or toilet facilities for the number of people camped.
All in all the Festival was extremely well organised and delivered a huge amount of fantastic quality entertainment with big hitters, surprise acts and great variety. It was crowded but most people were friendly and the close quarters made for a lot of atmosphere. The Festival is professionally run but not overly commercial. Since 1965 the event has been put on by Cambridge City Council who are now supported by the Co-Operative, Unison and Sky. Sky Arts and the BBC both broadcast performances from the site for a wider audience to enjoy at home so it is the premier showcase for folk and traditional music in Britain. Hopefully the viewers and listeners at home get almost as much out of the Festival as those who brought the tickets, enjoyed the sunshine and created an amazing festival. Cambridge is the sell out Festival that hasn't sold out.
review by: Ian Wright
photos by: James Creaser
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