From our Senior Festival Correspondent

Back in 1964 the City Council was inspired to approach a leftie local fireman and habitue of Cambridge Folk Club to promote a folk festival.  Their motives are lost in the mists of time, but Ken Woolard, who was to remain in charge till his death in 1993, gave up the decorating and window-cleaning and set to, inspired by his visit to the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.  It seems that fires and treed cats are not over-evident in Cambridge, as for many years Ken combined the welfare of the citizenry with his real love.  Eddie Barcan, his successor as Artistic Director, paints an inspiring cameo of Ken sliding down the pole and legging across to a red call-box to manage affairs, pressing button B to negotiate with Pete Seegar.  Said call-box is now on the tourist map and known to the cognoscenti as “Ken’s Office”.

Eddie gave an interesting interview on the history and philosophy of the event – booking policy, order of play etc, essentially telling us the current line-up follows the same catholic approach as 1965.  Such is the status of the event that artists are often ready to compromise on fees, permitting bigger names than the size of the event could otherwise support.  Part of the continuing success of the event must be down to the site.  Cherry Hinton Hall is handily placed in the Cambridge suburbs, offering a sylvan area for camping and a closely adjacent, if compact, event field.  Offsite but handy parking, good services, food and organisation add to the charm.  Well over 50% of the attendees are regulars.

Musical highlights?  On Thursday I was particularly taken with Catrin Finch on harp playing alongside Senegalese Kora player, Seckou Keita.  Seckou brings a smiling joy to his playing: the Kora is like a giant gourd with three pylons and myriad stings.  It has an enormous chromatic and tonal range, happily complementing the mellow harp.  A special honorable mention for Skinny Lister, who brewed up a real storm with their English ceilidh(?) music.  Not many bands feature a crowd-surfing bass player complete with instrument! 

Friday brought (inter, of course myriad alia) Fisherman’s Friends, robustly providing the purist alternative to Adge Cutler; Richard Thomson with his usual charm and musicianship and a great set from Mc Goldrick, Mc Cusker and Doyle, in the Irish tradition but with a nod to progressive influences and, again, virtuoso playing.  Colin Irwin of Mojo hosted a charming short interview with Richard Thomson, Martin and Eliza Carthy, reminiscing about both Cambridge and their dynastic contributions to the folk scene over many years.  Martin and Eliza played together next day: good to see such creativity and harmony between Eliza and her dad – wonderful material and music.  Eliza sounded like a young Vera Lynn (look her up!): a very pure and unforced voice.

On Saturday we had The Full English, totally unfazed by the burden of carrying forward the torch(es) of Grainger, Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  The line-up features Seth Lakeman, McCarthy M. Sam Sweeney and other top names and the quality from what is something of a pick-up band was astonishing.  It was interesting to compare Seth Lakeman’s solo set later that day.  The boy sure can play, but was let down by poor microphone technique and (here I go!) too many watts.  Loudon Wainwright III did the comedy spot, which amounted to a musical genealogy of his tribe.  One cannot but admire a man who can enlist the musical support not only of his kids, but also several of his former wives!

I’ll just mention three from Sunday.  I loved Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, fiddle and squeeze box in perfect harmony.  A mellow Scottish set that managed to create a lovely club atmosphere in a tent with a couple of thousand souls.  A rapturous reception.   Van Morrison headlined.  Call me innocent, but I had not hitherto been exposed to this Ulster force of nature. Musically gifted and with an excellent jazz-orientated ensemble, it was a pity that the sound was undermined by the vision.  To my old mind, Van has all the charm of one of Murphy’s shorter planks, a plumber for a tailor and Mike Mercury for a choreographer.  Otherwise, very good.  And then the there was, for me, the real piece de resistance. 

Ladysmith Black Mambazo has become a world phenomenon.  Almost as old as the festival, the band includes the sons and a grandson of the founding father.  With a charm and vitality old Van would run a mile from, they sang just five long pieces a capella, with a presentation you could still imagine going down a storm in the township.  The dancing and tomfoolery helped to interpret the words, the total opaqueness  of which mattered less than a (very small) jot.  LBM closed their set with “Homeless”, enlisting the support of an ad-hoc choir of local citizens, young and old, trained on the day, which happily took the festival back to its roots.  A young Paul Simon was in the very first festival line-up, watched by just 1400 punters.

All in all, a great event.  Programme and domestic arrangements great.  A relaxed and friendly atmosphere, good enough weather, although the ale line-up lags the music by a country mile.  It does not wear its socialist roots on its sleeve in any obvious way: on the contrary, my financial adviser expressed some concern at the overtly capitalist intention of the Council to devolve the event to a trust, thus shuffling it off the balance sheet whilst keeping the profits in the P&L.  We learnt that the festival makes a regular profit at the event level, whilst contributing over a million to the local economy.

My regular readers will recall my report from Latitude last year.  There is a strong overlap in the clientele on both ambience and geographic grounds but, for me, the events are very different.  On the grounds of musicianship, scale, charm and watts (there I go again) this is still folk at heart.  Music in all its forms is given its place (absent outright pop; little jazz) but more intimately and accessibly. You wouldn’t spot its municipal mien, save perhaps in good bogs and safe elves, nor does it skimp in any way in pursuit of a healthy bottom line.

Just shift the ale concession and I’ll be back!