“This is what we were dreaming about for the last two years – to come out and play Cambridge Folk Festival”, said Suzanne Vega during her headline set on Friday. Indeed – how great it was to be back at Cherry Hinton Hall for four days of simply the best music.
Some grumbled about the lack of big names, though Suzanne Vega is a big name of course, but for me after a three year drought (lockdown lasted much longer in Ireland) just the opportunity to hear folk regulars like Spiers & Boden, Show Of Hands and the Young ‘Uns again was all I could ask for. As one friend put it, “It felt like coming home”.
Great to see that they brought back some repeat performances on the line up, which helps to navigate clashes. The workshops were back, the wellness sessions at the Duck Pond, and the artist interview, now sponsored by Songlines Magazine. Sound was good overall, with overspill not troubling me as much as previously. Either the absence of festivals has made me less critical, or I picked the louder shows.
There were reports of problems with the fancy new toilets, which apparently got blocked easily. It only affected me once, right before Suzanne Vega’s set when the site seemed at its busiest. Other than that I have no quibbles. An alcohol-free beer option at the bars would have been nice. Glastonbury caters for that.
The music: I saw 26 shows, plus some bits of things, not included in the countdown. From the top, here goes..
Back with a bang after a 14 year hiatus. I had bought their latest album ‘Ancora’ upon release, but had to wait until now to experience it live. And what an experience: Beautiful melodies, and jaw-droppingly fast trad: Two flutes (how can they play that fast perfectly and in unison?!), guitar and John Joe Kelly’s pulsating bodhrán. Joyous, mindblowing – the absolute best. Flook have an Irish tour coming up in November.
2. CHRISTONE KINGFISH INGRAM
A 23-year-old bluesman from Mississippi and a Grammy winner. He was bound to be good, but I think all present were still amazed at HOW good this was. Christone was accompanied by a drummer, a bass player and an excellent keyboard player. His slot was in the smaller Stage Two tent and it felt like we were in a blues club in Chicago. Christone also left the stage and went for a walkabout, while continuing to play. After this show, people left the tent shaking their heads in disbelief at what they had just witnessed. His CDs sold out instantly.
3. THE YOUNG ‘UNS
Sean, Michael and David started with their version of Billy Bragg’s ‘Between The Wars’, which is totally current again in today’s austerity situation. Although a folk act, the Young ‘Uns excel with their own original compositions based on real life stories. New song ‘Three Dads Walking’ was particularly moving, as were ’Tiny Notes’ (about a girl whose notes left at suicide black spots have been saving lives) and 'Dark Waters', requested by an audience member. They also sang a number of sea shanties and there was a lot of humour. David Eagle’s hilarious song ‘The Day We Drank The Nazis Out Of Town’ was another highlight.
4. SPIERS & BODEN
The sound of Bellowhead, brought back down to the two musicians who started it all. I was a big Bellowhead fan, but at the same time I love the pared down sound of the duo. I saw them twice over the weekend, and went to their interview. It was interesting to hear how they select and adapt material, and how for example they discovered the effect of foot percussion by accident. The discussion about playing the hits versus new material continued here, with Jon Boden acknowledging that it is a balancing act, and citing Noel Gallagher’s approach from Glastonbury. Lockdown had been somewhat welcome for Jon and John, as an opportunity to work on new arrangements.
5. BEANS ON TOAST
Beans’ first time at what he described as “a proper folk festival”, and he went down a storm. Some musicians may tailor their set to what is known as a family-friendly festival, but Beans’ set had the usual amount of swearing and songs about taking drugs. But also songs about love, hope and resilience. Beans On Toast gigs are always wonderfully uplifting experiences - so welcome in our current climate.
Every year at Cambridge there is a relatively unknown band that surprises everybody, and this year Vrï was that band. It was as if people felt they couldn’t applaud long enough to make the band feel how much they were appreciated. Vrï are a trio from Wales, with two fiddles and a cello. They describe themselves as chamber folk. Their set included instrumental sets as well as songs in the Welsh language. They have a new album coming out (sitting in a warehouse in Poland in fact, as they explained) on the Bendigedig label.
7. SHOW OF HANDS
Unfortunately I never got to see Show Of Hands when they were a quartet (with Miranda Sykes and Cormac Byrne). Circumstances forced them to go back to the duo format, for now, but that is still more than enough for a superb show. I chose them over Seasick Steve for my last act on the Friday. Their set included a fair amount of covers, including ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, 'Boys Of Summer' and ‘The Devil’s Right Hand’, but I find them particularly strong on their own songs. ‘Roots’ was a standout moment for me, as well as ‘The Bristol Slaver’, which opened the show.
8. ANGELINE MORRISON
I had heard Angeline Morrison on the radio, talking about her upcoming ‘Sorrow Songs’ project, and that moved me to make the trek to The Den on the campsite for her afternoon gig. Angeline is an academic, who has researched the role of black people in English folk music, an underrepresented topic. She accompanied herself on exotic string instruments and also led the audience in a lovely singalong. Whilst I could see people getting antsy, as Billy Bragg was about to start on the main stage, everyone remained seated on the ground until the end of Angeline’s beautiful set.
9. SPELL SONGS
Supergroups often do not work, but that is certainly not the case for Spell Songs. On stage were Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Rachel Newton, Kris Drever, Seckou Keita and Jim Molyneux (Beth Porter on maternity leave), as well as painter Jackie Morris, whose work we could see progress on a screen. The ensemble sang songs from their two albums and it was just perfect from start to finish. A noble cause (preservation of nature and the words that describe it) and beautiful, calming music, led by Seckou Keita’s kora. It left you somehow feeling cleansed and rejuvenated.
10. SUZANNE VEGA
When I was 16 I worked in a record shop, and the one record we played all the time was Suzanne Vega’s debut album. It brought such joy of recognition when she opened her set with ‘Marlene On The Wall’. Suzanne was accompanied by Gerry Leonard on electric guitar. She opted for a total crowd-pleasing show, which just reminded you how many great songs she has written. ‘Gypsy’, ‘The Queen And The Soldier’ and ‘Luka’ were my favourites on the night, but the entire set was excellent. I had never seen Suzanne before and had not expected her to be so smiley and upbeat.
A bit like Blondie, Guise is a band, but depending on circumstances it can also be Jess Guise solo, which is what we got here. Jess released her debut album ‘Youngest Daughter’ earlier this year. She is a very good songwriter, and an actress by profession, with very engaging chat in between songs. Quite a few fans of her husband (and producer) Frank Turner had made the trek to The Den. The show finished with her best song, ‘Brother In Arms’, about her late father, who was a big folk fan. Jess talked about how special it was to be playing her father’s guitar at Cambridge Folk Festival.
12. KATHERINE PRIDDY
My first time seeing Katherine Priddy live and I can only say that all the critical acclaim she has received is truly well deserved. Katherine had the opening slot on the main stage on Sunday, which is always a lovely slot. Her music is very quiet and it reminded me how spoilt we are at Cambridge to be able to stand amongst an audience that really listens. Katherine will be supporting Loudon Wainwright III on his upcoming tour.
13. SAM LEE
I had caught a livestream of Sam’s during lockdown and had been particularly impressed by his unconventional band, who were with him for this Stage Two appearance. Sam is known for his song-collecting travels, as well as for his ‘Singing with nightingales’ project, but here he was first and foremost as a singer, singing many songs from his acclaimed, Bernard Butler-produced, album ‘Old Wow’. Another very engaging stage presence. Many an indie band can learn from folk singers in this regard.
14. ELEPHANT SESSIONS
Elephant Sessions from the Scottish highlands are neo-trad: instrumental trad, with a heavy dance beat underneath. They came on at 21:20 on Saturday night in the Stage Two tent, and this was as near to a rave as Cambridge got. A great light show, plenty of smoke and an actual moshpit. I cannot have been the only one who stood there thinking how I had missed this.
15. JANICE BURNS & JON DORAN
From listening to Janice Burns & Jon Doran's self-titled debut EP I knew they were going to be well worth seeing. I have been coming to Cambridge since 2005 and have seen many folk duos who sing traditional repertoire over the years. It is not easy to stand out within this format and to present this type of material in a fresh manner, but Janice and Jon managed just that.
16. BURD ELLEN
This Scottish duo, Debbie Armour and Gayle Brogan, describe their music as drone folk and eldritch spook. They made a big impression on the 2020 Cambridge Folk Festival online edition. I would have thought they deserved a higher billing, although their performance worked well in the intimate living room environment of The Den. Sound effects are an important ingredient of Burd Ellen's pieces, and it was fascinating to see this being produced live by Gayle, who stood bent over a soundboard with all kinds of gadgetry.
17. BILLY BRAGG
Billy's set started off quite low key. His voice is much lower than it once was, and he played a number of slow songs. 'Sexuality' shifted tempo somewhat, but it was talk of the football that really lifted the mood. Extra time in the Women's Euro Final took place during Billy's set, and he enquired about the score in between songs. Victory came halfway during 'Greetings To The New Brunette', when a roar started up that went through the tent like a Mexican wave. It was quite a moment and Billy was visibly emotional. He urged the crowd to use this positive achievement to unify a divided country. He finished with a rousing rendition of 'There Is Power In A Union'.
18. DUSTBOWL REVIVAL
A melting pot of a band, in the background of its members as well as musical styles. I had not planned on seeing Dustbowl Revival, but the slot fitted and I ended up really liking their show. Their set included a number of protest songs, once a staple ingredient of folk music, but nowadays feeling almost radical, but very welcome.
19. IZZIE WALSH
Can you fall in love with a song? I put a Izzie Walsh's song 'Haunted' on my festival playlist, and every time it came on I had to check - "What IS this?" A classic rock song, reminiscent of Patti Smith and Stevie Nicks. Check out Izzie's debut EP ‘Ideals’. 'Blue Collar Coastline' is another great song. Izzie is from Manchester, and performed as part of the English Folk Expo's mentoring programme. A bright future beckons.
20. THE MAGPIE ARC
A folk supergroup, featuring Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr and Findlay Napier. They have released three EPs and live they are a work in progress. I would have loved to have seen Martin solo, but of course musicians need the opportunity to do diversify and it is understandable that they are keen to collaborate post lockdown.
Next year's Cambridge Folk Festival will take place from 27 to 30 July.