It’s always been about new music in addition to well established big names at Cambridge Folk Festival and this, the 51st year, was no exception. Skinny Lister have just released their second album Down on DeptfordBroadway and were the most exciting new group I have seen for years. I do not exaggerate when I say that they are the ultimate festival experience. There set mixes pure English folk and pure English punk with a tinge of indie into an exciting high energy cocktail not quite like anything you’ve experienced before. Yes, there are hints of familiar flavours but this is something different which gets you singing, dancing and asking did they really just go crowd surfing with a double bass? Last year they were on in the Club Tent and this year it was a mid-afternoon session on Stage Two hopefully next year they will be one of the headlining acts on that stage. If you want to get a flavour of the mix I’d say go over to You Tube and compare their official videos for This is War and What Can I Say? Both tracks are off the new album and show the diversity in style they cover (as well as being great tracks, although I much prefer This is War).
The other great new group I discovered this year were Finch and the Moon who did two sets in the Coldham’s Common late night club tent run by the Milk Maid Folk Club (who are currently looking to set up a folk arts centre in Bury St. Edmunds). It says so much about the group that Terry who runs this open mic style tent gave them two slots. Normally, people only get one set over the weekend. This young duo seem to have modelled themselves a bit on the 60’s Greenwich Village Folk Scene, as depicted in Inside Llewyn Davis and it was fitting one of the songs they did was a spine tingling version of Five Hundred Miles which was in the style of Timberlake and Mulligan’s version but even purer. The thing about this duo is they are understated in many ways but have a great stage presence which can only be achieved when you are being enchanted by the music.
Another fairly new group I enjoyed were The Stray Birds who were playing most stages. I caught them on the main stage on Saturday morning. These were a bluegrass group from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They stood around one old style mic and with their guitar, double bass and fiddle gave us a taste of the mountains. The harmonies from them were great and I really enjoyed their old style approach to bluegrass although it was not as frenetic and high energy as Old Crow Medicine Show’s style. New Shoes was a great two stepper which was fun and enabled people to dance if they wanted.
Rhiannon Giddens was another American artist I hadn’t come across before but I really enjoyed her tour of musical history. She had an amazing voice and as she played a range of instruments and sang you realised she was very much the real deal. She was out promoting her debut solo album Tomorrow is My Turn.
Of the more established acts which I caught Wilko Johnson who played the main stage on Friday was perhaps the most heart-warming to see. The story of his overcoming a terminal diagnosis is well known and one can only say he plays with the obvious enthusiasm of one who knows what it truly means to be alive. His was a storming set. There was no chat between numbers but rather he went from one great full energy blues number to another. It can sometimes be easy to forget how Punk had some roots in the pub rock of the mid 1970’s but this set was a useful reminder. BBC 6 Music has recently been posing the question “What is Rock and Roll?” Well, this was the answer in its purest form, particularly Going Back Home which was the forth song of the set. Drums, bass, guitar and vocals going through great songs finishing the main set with Back in the Night and giving an encore of Johnny be Good.
Friday also saw Frank Turner playing his version of urban folk with tunes like “We Can Get Better ‘Cause We’re Not Dead Yet” which kicked the set off. There was the odd drinking song in this set which lived up to the hype around it, although in the coffee queue I heard somebody who’d seen him at Cambridge a couple of years ago saying this was not a patch on that and they were a bit disappointed. For the majority of the set Turner was playing with Matt Nazir who needs to be acknowledged for his part too particularly as the material which the duo played was stronger than the couple of solo numbers Turner gave.
Show of Hands played twice on the Saturday and I caught their early set which could best be described as a sing-a-long set. The depth they get from Miranda Sykes playing with them now (as she has for some years) is clear and the humour of this group can never been failed. They opened with AIG and included Roots, Cousin Jack and Galway Farmer within their set. They also played The Keeper from their World War One commemoration album Centenary, which was a haunting and moving number which used the harmony with Sykes voice to great effect. Sweet Bella was a blues number and whilst clearly one for the crowd to join in with it seemed a bit odd coming from them. It was a bit like ordering a beer and getting one of the Crabbies Strawberry and Lime drinks which was being promoted over the weekend. It was tasty but somehow just seemed wrong. It was more something you would have imagined being in Johnson’s set.
Gretchen Peters has a new album Blackbirds out and her voice had you melting from the beginning. There is a pure poetry in her music be it in a number about an oil spill or one of the love gone wrong numbers. Her country voice as soft, rich and velvety as the scarlet top she wore. It was the sort of music you could enjoy curled up on the sofa with a bottle of wine.
The Skatalites were the ideal Saturday afternoon chill out band. You could dance to them or simply relax, listen and enjoy the this talented group who have been going in one form or another for half a century now.
The Unthanks who are headlining both Folk East and Greenbelt are the current darlings of the English Folk scene and it is not without good reason. They are talented and great to listen to, but having just witnessed the high energy Skinny Lister I realised that I just prefer down and dirty low culture to the more refined stuff. I could appreciate this but I was very much listening rather than engaging with what was happening. By the way if you can get to hear them at either of these festivals do. They are both special festivals who need your support and are organised by people whose hearts and souls are very much the driving force.
Joan Baez played a wonderful set which mixed her own material with covers from her friends (such as Steve Earle, Bob Dylan and more). It was an interesting set to listen to the lyrics of because she has obviously been reflecting on her own mortality. I really liked her version of Steve Earle’s God is God which I wasn’t familiar with and an interpretation of Swing Low which differed in tune from the Rugby version we were all familiar with. The crowd all joined in with House of the Rising Sun and from that point it was v much sing-a-long time including a really moving version of John Lennon’s Imagine.
I have to say that whilst I am used to good festival sets the Saturday set at Cambridge this year was the strongest I have ever come across in terms of a whole days music. There wasn’t any moment in the day when I wasn’t thinking how lucky am I being able to enjoy this stuff. It was really good to see the handover to Cambridge Live had not adversely impacted the festival and it will be exciting to see how it develops in the coming years. They have put a number of great performances up on their You Tube channel if you want a flavour of the weekend and Mark Radcliffe's Radio Two Show from the festival is available until the end of the month on listen again.
Sunday rounded off my trip to the festival year. In addition to listening to the wonderful story teller John Row (who just happens to be my dad and is pictured in the opening shot of Guardian’s Sarah Lee’s photo tour to the festival) and some of the other tellers in the flower garden I enjoyed listening to Bella Hardy’s set which highlighted the contemporary cross over between mainstream culture and trad folk and Joan Armatrading’s set of two halves. The first half was good, because that is what she is a great artist but there seemed to be a certain sense she is dealing with stuff and was taking on the audience as a result. In the second half she just used her guitar and voice to kick butt. Ok I am biased but it was a great end to my festival (I had to leave early and so didn’t catch the final acts).