Back from the ever wonderful Cambridge Folk Festival. A very wet year but as all the stages are in tents and the campsite is so comfortable, this wasn't an issue.
There had been some changes in the organisation of the festival, including a new artistic director, which had worried conservative folk fans, but it was fine, apart from some minor issues: Only one way in and out of the Club Tent which did not work well at all. One workshop where there had been three. A single slot policy, so no second chances to see acts. No drinking water tap inside the Arena.
Some good changes too: Print-at-home tickets, a great guest curator (Jon Boden) who appeared everywhere and anywhere and almost seemed like a friend by the end of the weekend, an additional walkway through the 'seated area' and best of all an improvement in sound, particularly on Stage One and in the Den.
Some good things remained: A truly listening audience (no chatter; many artists commented on this), draught Guinness, the best stocked CD stall of any festival and remarkably clean toilets.
And so on to the highlights:
1. MARTIN SIMPSON
Always great, but this felt like his finest hour yet. Introduced by Jon Boden as the best guitarist in the entire universe, Martin played mostly songs from his upcoming album. With him were bass player Ben Nicholls, guitarist John Smith and backing singer Amy Newhouse Smith. The omnipresent Jon Boden guested. The entire tent was hanging onto every note and word. It wasn't just that you could hear a pin drop. During some songs it felt as if the audience held their collective breath. It really was a privilege to be witnessing this concert. Superb sound and interesting introductions from Martin. My friends and I had been off seeing our own choices for a lot of the festival, but for this one we all came together at the front. It was a good thing that Martin was playing the last night as we all felt it just couldn't get any better than this.
2. FRANK TURNER & THE SLEEPING SOULS
Frank Turner was a late announcement for the Saturday night headline slot, replacing Liv On, who sadly had to cancel as Olivia Newton-John is battling cancer. The last time Frank played Cambridge had been a duo show, but now the full band was there and they made the most of it. Julie Fowlis introduced them. Frank curtailed his swearing (somewhat) and the set was folkier. This brought a varied setlist, including 'Rivers', 'To Take You Home', a great new song called 'Be More Kind' and a full band version of 'Back In The Day'. Unexpected highlight was a cover of 'You're The One That I Want', for the people who had bought tickets wanting to see Olivia. It was being recorded and will be sent to her as a 'get well' message. A clip has since emerged on YouTube and been described as both brilliant and bonkers.
I had been glued to the front barrier from 15:30 onwards to secure a front row spot. This was tough but worth it. Readers will know that I am a massive fan and this was my 50th FT gig. Unbeknownst to me a friend of mine had emailed Frank and to my amazement he announced this from the stage and suddenly the spotlight and Sky Arts cameras were on me. As fangirl moments go that was quite a thrill. But there was more.
During 'Photosynthesis' Frank announced an experiment that he needed two volunteers for, which were going to be a guy he met at the signing tent and myself. For a moment I feared that he wanted me to crowdsurf (bearing in mind that I had not been to the toilet for seven hours), but instead we were each to lead a conga line through the audience to the back of the tent and back to the front.
This was such a blast! I had no idea how it went, but all the reviews have made mention of it, so it seems people liked it. My 50th show could not have been more memorable. Thanks Frank, the nicest man in rock (move over Dave Grohl).
3. SHARON SHANNON
The absolute top in Trad. I have followed Sharon since her Waterboys days and she never lets me down. Her band were Jack Maher on guitar and vocals, Sean Regan on fiddle, footstomping and beatboxing, and stalwart Jim Murray on acoustic guitar. Jim has been with Sharon ever since Donogh Hennessy vacated that position to form Lúnasa and his input is invaluable. Highlight was of course the proper 'Galway Girl', which really is a modern folk song that everybody knows without necessarily knowing who wrote it (Sharon did mention that it had been a privilege to work with Steve Earle). This wonderful show made my epic wait at the front barrier considerably easier.
Another excellent trad act, this time from Northern Ireland. Many jokes about that other 'Galway Girl' and the Ed Sheeran connection. This brought 'boo's' from the crowd, which bodhrán player Eamon Murray swiftly capitalized on by announcing, “a surprise, ladies and gentlemen, for one night only...” The crowd gasped, but he added, “Aah, I'm only joking”. There was much joking throughout (Trump referred to as 'that teapot'), and the music was fantastic. Fast trad sets from these superb instrumentalists, plus some lovely songs from Niamh Dunne. Almost as good as Sharon's set. I subtract a minor point for the lengthy bodhrán solo.
5. DAOIRÍ FARRELL
I do not know whose idea it was to put the two time BBC Folk Award winner on in the Club Tent, but there he was and he gave it his all. Lovely bouzouki playing, great chat and above all beautiful singing from the Dubliner. Daoirí is an old-fashioned singer in the tradition of Frank Harte, Luke Kelly and Andy Irvine. I have both his albums but he mostly played songs that aren't on either of them. Regardless, it was a top gig and I will go and see Daoirí again at the earliest opportunity. Daoirí promised hugs for those who would meet him at the signing tent (“I'll spray under me arms”). He finished of with 'The Creggan White Hare', which really is the most beautiful song.
6. CHRIS T-T
Chris was one of Jon Boden's curatees and on request he performed his show of songs based on the poetry of A A Milne. I had never seen Chris before and beforehand thought I would rather have had the opportunity to hear him do his own stuff, but the songs were really moving and I even got a bit teary at times. Chris came across as a super nice guy and his talk was as inspiring as his songs. Chris played guitar and piano, and sang unaccompanied too. Jon Boden guested. Such a pity that I only discovered Chris now that he is on his farewell tour. And his 'Best Of' CD sold out before I could get my hands on a copy.
7. RACHEL NEWTON
Rachel is a harpist and singer from Glasgow. She is in the Furrow Collective, but it was her own gig that really impressed me. The festival has so much quality traditional music that it is hard to stand out, yet this band offered something different. The instrumentals were harp-led, and the band members played fiddle, drums, keyboard and trombone. Rachel did a cover of 'Jolene', which coincidentally Amythyst Kiah who was on after her also played, in a very different version. This was one of the gigs where I realized how good and crystal clear the sound was. One of my discoveries and CD purchases of the fest.
8. FANTASTIC NEGRITO
For something completely different – Fantastic Negrito is a blues singer from Oakland, who is a Prince fan, who sounds not unlike Jack White and whose show was more James Brown. Just what you needed when proceedings started to get a bit twee. A true showman with a great band. He immediately had everyone's attention. He played 'In The Pines' and talked about an imaginary fight between Leadbelly and Kurt Cobain. Later in the day, as I was doing my toilet/water bottle/pint-running around I saw a huge queue for Fantastic Negrito at the signing tent. Every year Cambridge manages to spring a surprise like this on its audience.
9. SHE DREW THE GUN
A four-piece from Liverpool, headed by Louisa Roach, who had impressed me at Glastonbury. Not folk, but a rock band with really good songs with a message. In between songs Louisa 'spoke poetry'. Their single 'Poem' is quite a masterpiece and received a rapturous applause. They finished with a song called 'Thank You', which acknowledges their influences. The lyrics consist of a list of names of women who do not require a surname:
“Aretha, Joni, Nina, Alanis; Elle, Dolly, Annie, Janice; Patti, Fiona, Tracy, Chrissie; Kim, Debbie, Dusty, Stevie, Missy... Kirsty, Courtney, Tori, KD; Alicia, Cyndi, PJ, Amy.... I just want to say thank you. Life would have been more lean without you”. A very simple but lovely song. I predict a great future for this band.
10. INDIGO GIRLS
I was a fan of the Indigo Girls in the late 80s/early 90s and then forgot about them. But here they were, headlining Cambridge's 'Ladies day', unchanged from 25 years ago. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have very different voices that harmonize perfectly together. They have always stood up for everything that is righteous, which the world needs again right now. They started with newer, strong material. They were joined by an exceptionally good violin player, Lyris Hung, and Lucy Wainwright Roche on guitar and backing vocals. They finished of with older songs 'Galileo', 'Kid Fears' and their smash hit 'Closer To Fine', which to me is one of those rare perfect songs that everybody wants to bellow along to – and everybody did. A joyous moment.
11. LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III
Attracting the largest crowd at Stage One over the weekend was Mr Acerbic Wit himself. He seemed a bit mellower than last time, though still intend on bringing us songs “on the motif of death and decay”. Seated due to a recent operation (you never know if he is serious or joking) and accompanied by Chaim Tannenbaum and David Mansfield, they were calmly brilliant. Highlight of the show was 'Schooldays', which Loudon said he wrote when he was feeling old, looking back on his schooldays. He wrote the song at 25.
12. FAY HIELD AND THE HURRICANE PARTY
For the folk purists. Not the type of music I would go out of my way to see, but I enjoy it when I encounter it. Fay comes across as a teacher, which I believe she is, but likeable at the same time. Jon Boden (him again) accompanied Fay on fiddle and finger-in-the-ear singing and the Hurricane Party are a tight outfit; they made it all seem effortless.
13. LISA HANNIGAN
The second female singer/songwriter I have had to revize my opinion on this summer. At Glastonbury I gave Laura Marling a go and discovered that I quite liked her, and now the same for Lisa Hannigan. I knew that Lisa has been touring extensively, selling out theatres all over Europe, so this was bound to be a well played-in band. Lisa herself played piano, mandolin and harmonium. I love the way she can make her voice sound like a singing saw. Some of her stuff is really quiet and the Cambridge audience shone again during this show by being absolutely quiet and reverent. Lewis & Leigh guested.
14. JON BODEN & THE REMNANT KINGS
I often complain about musicians who give in to the demand that they 'play the hits' so I can only applaud Jon Boden for his ambitious endeavour, taking to the main stage with a new big band, playing not-easy-on-the-ear material that no one has heard. The songs seem interesting and I look forward to hearing 'Afterglow'. There were some issues with sound, a loose wire on Jon's microphone that never got fixed and the uneasiness of a new band. Jon himself was much less relaxed than during his other appearances. I still enjoyed it, but then I have a soft spot for Jon ever since standing next to him at a bar at Roskilde many years ago, when I was drunk enough not to be star-struck. We had a chat and he was lovely.
A band from Limerick and Sligo that I had heard about but not seen before. An impressive young band who can do both trad and fusion. I bought their CD 'Planted', and looking through the 'thank you' section I see they have crossed paths with Lúnasa, Solas, Seamie O'Dowd, Pádraig Rynne, i.e. these guys are the real deal.
I have to stop somewhere, but I also enjoyed bluegrass outfit Darren Eedens & the Slim Pickins, Tennessee blues singer Amythyst Kiah, Sheffield's the Buffalo Skinners who headlined the Den on Sunday and the Eskies from Dublin, who reminded me of the Sawdoctors.