Cambridge is a triumphant treat of many faces, facets and flavours

Cambridge Folk Festival 2012 review

published: Thu 2nd Aug 2012

around the festival site

Thursday 26th to Sunday 29th July 2012
Cherry Hinton Hall Grounds, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB1 8DW, England MAP
£120 for full weekend
daily capacity: 10000
last updated: Fri 29th Jun 2012

Although Cambridge Folk Festival is, as the title says, a folk festival, it has a decidedly big festival vibe to it. There's a big field, a big stage and big screens. It's also jam-packed with people. There's a diverse sea of faces wherever you look, each an individual, a soul, an island universe of uniqueness. All have their own tastes, preferences and ideas about what 'folk' means to them. And the fine thing about Cambridge is: all they have to do is wander and before long, they'll find their thing.

Fay Hield And The Hurricane Party
For many here, good music means the folk, the whole folk and nothing but the folk. Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party are just the thing for such a crowd. Fay has a PhD. in folk, and her Hurricane Party has the chops to match. They pack out big old Stage 1 on Saturday, creating an intimate atmosphere; the crowd singing along in fine folk club style.

The Club Tent is as it's name suggests, a folk club in a tent. Throughout the weekend its the place to go for those who like their music stripped down and succinct. Pilgrim's Way are a highlight here. They play a headline set on Saturday, tantalisingly showcasing new material due out later this year. Megson, who play here earlier in the day, also have something new out. 'When I Was a Lad' is a new album of children's songs which they've launched here at the festival. Their set is a chilled out affair, and the highlight for many is the very modern folk song, 'The Longshot', which is about "Supporting a crap football team". Folkies worry not, someone still dies; smiles all round then.

Lucy Ward
When Lucy Ward plays here on Friday, its a packed, one in one out affair. I get in just in time for 'Maids When You're Young', and it's clear that the only ones who aren't singing are the ones with no filoorum. 'Canny Lad' is a sing-along classic and 'For the Dead Men' is a fine peace of protest folk.

For many, the stars of the Club Tent, and possibly the festival, are Belinda O'Hooley & Heidi Tidow. They have a canny chemistry with each other and with the crowd which wins them loads of new friends here. Their material explores dying, gossiping and historical lesbian shagging with equivocal ease and if there's nothing there that you like, the between song banter is well worth queueing for.

It's the Club Tent that I head to on first arriving. I'm just in time for ahab, and I can't think of a better band to start a festival with. It's sunny, top down, ballin' the jack down the freeway music. You may have spent most of the day sat in sweaty traffic, but this is the perfect soundtrack to colour your memories Kerouacian. It just puts a big smile on your face.

around the festival site
If you like your folk American in flavour, there's plenty more on offer. Gretchen Peters is worth a visit for her album title alone, 'Hello Cruel World'. She charms them all on the main stage on Saturday, as does Nanci Griffith, who performs later. Between them, Keb' Mo' works his mojo on that guitar of his, to the evident delight of the many blues fans present.

Then there's the Pine Leaf Boys. They're proper Cajun: all swampy fiddle, steamy squeeze box and French lyrics. They play Stage 1 on Sunday morning to a packed crowd. Some folks have got up early, and some seem to have spent the night lying comatose on the grass. They're soon woken up by people dancing the Cambridge Cajun two step around their heads. No one will forget the Pine Leaf Boys.

Raghu Dixit
For fans of far-away folk, Raghu Dixit is an inspired booking. He's the best selling artist in India: all swirling smoky drama and a far-away sounds. A lot of his stuff comes from an Indian Saint Poet and very life affirming it is. After half an hour of Raghu, everyone is singing along in an ancient language and having a whale of a time. He leaves us saying, "I wish the world could be like this: make music, drink a lot of beer, share a lot of love.#2 He's a very wise man.

Some folks come to the festival to wander and discover something new, and there's plenty here for them. New for this year is a drop-in-and-play venue, 'The People's Front Room'. It's a tent with a front room inside it, run by a collective of local musicians. Its right on the main drag and plenty of people pause and listen. I saw the Bombs here. It was completely by chance, but very good they were.

Continue on past the People's Front Room, and then past the excellent festival coffee shop and you'll reach The Den. You're off the main site now and the atmosphere is a definitely more chilled. People sit, people lie and people loll. It's a sit and soak it up kind of place, with many fine emerging artists on show.

It's not without some degree of mental turmoil that I visit the Den on Thursday night. I say this because Billy Bragg is on fine form, celebrating 100 years of Woody Guthrie on Stage 2. Billy's music is as entertaining as ever and his between song chit chat is poignant and funny. If this wasn't enough, he wins hearts and minds by declaring that he has refused to be filmed by Sky, much to the joy of the crowd. It's with regret that I walk out on Billy but on the plus side, I get to discover the silky string sounds of Urusen in the Den, and all in all, I think I made a good call.

Moulettes are another Den highlight when they perform here on Sunday. It's an assured performance: funky, quirky and peppered with humour. Their music takes you on a mystery tour of twists and turns. You never quite know what's around the next corner, but its always something nice. And when someone asks about their background, they reply, 'Patchy'. My kind of outfit.

The Staves, another rapidly ascending bunch of assured females, make a whole load of new friends when they perform on Stage 2 on Sunday. Their perky, self penned songs have a sunlight and bubblegum brightness to them, and their sweet harmonies are a perfect match. Well worth checking out.

The brilliance of the Moulettes and their ilk is, I'm sure, due in no small part to their refusal to comply with trends, genres and pigeon-holes. There's a fine vein of this running through Cambridge 2012. Take Spiro. Many of their tunes are inspired by traditional sources, but you'd never know it; it's modern, trippy, trancey stuff. They're not afraid to cast their net further, though, and there's even a tune inspired by early video game, Pong. They end on 'We Will Be Absorbed', which is about, well, dying and being absorbed. John Barleycorn would be proud.

The Unwanted
Acts such as these prove that there is a gold mine of inspiration to be found in the in-between places, the gaps between the musical worlds. The Unwanted fuse Irish and Appalachian music and come up with something that is definitely more than the sum of its' parts. There's only three of them but they produce a big old-timey sound that folks just can't help be drawn to. Once they're drawn in, they stay. Its seductive and utterly irresistible.

The beautiful thing about folk festivals, for me, is the way they blur the boundaries between artist and audience, offering an array of joining-in opportunities in the form of singarounds, workshops, talks and ceilidhs. A couple of workshops of the 'come and try....' kind catch my eye on account of the sheer scale of their ambition. The Coldhams Common site plays host to 'Come and Try Fiddle' workshops and on the main site, you can try your hand at the Northumbrian Pipes. Workshops that can progress complete beginners in such demanding instruments in such a small time are surely performing minor miracles, and its ace to see them here doing their thing.

Singing wise, there's a couple of festival big names. Both Belinda O'Hooley and Karine Polwart are running workshops here. Anyone who is inspired by their concerts can have the ultimate joining in experience; can't argue with that.

Ceilidh wise, Blackbeard's Tea Party are a class act. On Friday, they play two ceilidhs in succession, ensuring we all get our chance to dance. They’re the perfect choice for this festival, whipping up energetic crowd with a polished, intense and very groovy set.

The Destroyers
Then, on Saturday night, Jim Moray's Silent Ceilidh is an ideal way to keep the party going late without annoying the locals. It could be considered a tough gig for Jim, as he's following The Destroyers. There's about fifteen of them and, led in their wild, frenzied abandon by a man in a fez, they offer cautionary tales. You have greedy bankers stealing money, mad professors being buried alive and to top it all, 'There's a Hole in the Universe'. Like all the best acts, they are a mirrored microcosm of their audience. Band and crowd alike jerk and jump like Luigi Galvani's frogs reincarnate. They're impossible to keep still to and impossible to keep quiet to: the festival highlight for many.

around the festival site (silent ceilidh)
But follow them Jim does. It's just him on the laptop and Phil Bassindale calling, and that's all we need for a feast of fun. You can have either a folk or modern soundtrack on your headphones and with a bit of Moray magic the two soundtracks coexist harmoniously. The event provides a moment of pure festival comedy in the form of the security men. They're stood at the entrance, in their high-vis attire, trying to look 'ard. Trouble is, every now and again, and with no prior warning, couples in ballroom hold come galloping at them, forcing them to either hold the line or run. They run, and their looks of bemused terror are a joy to behold.

It wouldn't be a British festival without a bit of rain and, true to form, on Sunday afternoon, the sun has a bit too much Old Rosie, and decides to go for a bit of a wander. Cue lorry loads of extra large hailstones followed by four days worth of rain in short order. Many people are sent scurrying, never to return, but hopefully, once they've dried out, they'll seek consolation in the many festival highlights that had occurred so far at Cambridge 2012.

around the festival site (in the crowds)
One such memorable moment is The Unthanks with The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band playing 'King of Rome' on Saturday. Its a real tearjerker and gains rapturous applause. There's about forty of them on stage and thus, for their set, they have a lot of options sound wise. Rachel and Becky's sisterly harmonies are therefore not as prominent as some might expect. They are quiet for lengthy periods, and don't sing at all on 'Queen of Hearts', which is all Shirley Bassey swing, with a male vocal. A rousing version of 'The Floral Dance' from the band gets a slightly restrained response from the crowd. It's clearly the sisters they want to hear.

As moments of pure festival brilliance go, The Proclaimers are right up there. They are the perfect headline act on Saturday night. We all sing along to the hits we grew up with, at the top of our voices and in our best fake Scottish accents. 'Sunhsine On Leith' is hard to beat as a sing along moment of festival togetherness and the na na na nas from '500 Miles' continue well into the night.

around the festival site (in the crowds)
It's fair to say that we'd been well and truly spoiled by the festival line-up before the rain came down. But there's more to come, and it begins with Karine Polwart. It's music for the mind to wander to and Karine's songs take us to some wild and wondrous places. Much of the set is comprised of material from her new album ‘Traces’ and very promising it sounds.

Everyone loves Seth Lakeman. His audience comprises stomping pensioners, moshing teens, and toddlers jiggling on their parent's shoulders. Much of the set comes from 'Tales from the Barrel House', and there are plenty of old faves including, 'Setting of the Sun', 'Riflemen of War', 'Colliers' and 'Hear Her Calling'. Its perfect stuff for scaring the clouds away.

If Seth scares the clouds away, then Anais Mitchell sings the sun out. It's a mesmerising, inspiring performance, enthralling all who are present. Anais ensures that our earholes are wide open for Lau, who have a new album out in October, 'Race the Loser'. Some of the new stuff is in the set. It's a proper mood enhancing rave of a concert, full of big sonic soundscapes The mood builds and builds until it boils, it's a perfect set up for what happens next.

Nic Jones
You have to be a rock star to be applauded for walking out for a soundcheck but that's exactly what happens to Nic Jones when he appears. When he's introduced for the gig proper, we get the inevitable 'back in the day' bit. What follows though, is all the proof you need that he deserves to be top of the tree in the here and now. He opens with 'Seven Yellow Gypsies' accompanied by his son Joe on guitar, and is later joined by Belinda O' Hooley. But the voice, the guitar sound; it's all there: a pinch-yourself perfect moment. Other old faves follow, but like the rest of us, Nic has moved on. There's an inspired Radiohead cover and a couple of self penned songs. Belinda seems to be right on Nic's wavelength in more ways than one. They're a great match; her style is well suited to Nic's intimate delivery, which draws us in to the experience. In the crowd, the initially rapturous mood snowballs, every song is cheered to the roof and, by the time they end on 'Little Pot Stove', everyone is singing along, beaming like the prodigal sun. It's a fine, final highlight, topping off a triumphant, top notch festival.
review by: James Creaser

photos by: Ian Wright

Thursday 26th to Sunday 29th July 2012
Cherry Hinton Hall Grounds, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB1 8DW, England MAP
£120 for full weekend
daily capacity: 10000
last updated: Fri 29th Jun 2012

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