Words by Kevin Bourke
Photo of Raghu Dixit by Philip Ryalls/Redferns
One of the many reasons why the Cambridge Folk Festival is the pre-eminent event of its kind in Europe is that for decades the organisers have fearlessly programmed popular veterans alongside up-and-comers and the sort of world music or blues acts that you wouldn’t normally find in any folk club.
In common with many other big festivals, though, the sheer number of performances and an increasing number of stages, notably the addition of the youth-orientated The Den this year, can lead to clashes. Pretty much as soon as I arrived, I fell foul of a combination of poor timing, parking issues and suddenly finding that I would actually have to walk past BBC Folk Award-winning veteran Steve Tilston on Stage 2 meant missing Songlines favourite Raghu Dixit on Stage One early Friday afternoon. By all accounts, though, he blew the crowd away.
The same could be said for the usually-reliable Irish traditional band Four Men & A Dog, staging one of their occasional reunions on Stage One. But in this case, it was not their impeccable musicianship and the showmanship of bodhrán player Gino Lupari that left an indelible impression but the sheer volume of their set which had people moving.
By the time they were followed on the main stage by another hugely popular reunion, the magnificent June Tabor & Oysterband, the sound had started to settle down for one of the festival’s early highlights. June and the Oysters’ John Jones, the Gram and Emmylou of heart-on-sleeve committed folk-rock, not only kicked proverbial butt on the expected likes of ‘Bonnie Bunch O’Roses’, but also offered some fascinating surprises, confessing a shared admiration of The Velvet Underground, for instance, before playing ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’. They dug out the tragedy underneath the myth on a truly transcendent version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, too.
By contrast, Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow was the new kid in town, despite his impressive beard. After storming Stage Two last year, he was promoted to the key position of mid-evening on the Main Stage, although that meant going head-to-head with the Opening of the Olympics, screening (silently) on the TV screen in the bar. McMorrow’s songs of heartbreak and desire proved a convincing winner in this particular competition.
At the first Cambridge Folk Festival I ever attended back in 1972, John Prine performed, as did Steve Goodman. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then and Prine has had his own challenges to face. But he celebrated his late friend ‘Stevie’ with a version of ‘Souvenirs’ that was just one of the highlights of a set that fairly bristled with tremendous songs, wryly and winningly delivered by a veteran who by now has a huge and virtually unimpeachable back-catalogue.
Traditionally, the closing acts are not of the introspective songwriter persuasion, which neither Stage One’s 12-piece Scottish folk big-band Treacherous Orchestra or Stage Two’s even bigger band The Destroyers, with their “gypsy folk music with a Gothic turbo charge,” could reasonably be accused of. Both, it should be said, were considerably livelier than that tedious, supposedly-celebratory Olympic Opening Parade.
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