Words by Kevin Bourke
Photo of The Unthanks by Philip Ryalls/Redferns
Nanci Griffith called it “the finest festival in the world.” Just as heartfelt, if a little less decorously, Keb Mo reckons it’s a “bad-ass mo-fo” but the love for the Cambridge Folk Festival is obvious.
Opening the Main Stage at noon on a Saturday isn’t the most enviable of tasks but Louisiana’s Pine Leaf Boys, riding a wave of acclaim for their show on Stage Two the previous night, rocked the house with an exuberant set of Cajun, creole and zydeco that combined respect for their roots with a desire to breathe new life into dancehall standards and more obscure tunes by old masters.
From Louisiana to West Yorkshire. Fay Hield, acclaimed for her solo debut Looking Glass, brought her English folk supergroup The Hurricane Party, including Andy Cutting, Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron and her husband Jon Boden, to Stage One. Her amusing links were nearly as impressive as the powerful playing and Hield’s emotive voice.
After her own set the day before on Stage Two and guesting with John Prine, Gretchen Peters brought her own surprise guest, legendary bassist Danny Thompson, to join her and keyboard-playing husband Barry Walsh for her compelling set on the main stage. Her sophisticated new album Hello Cruel World, perhaps the best of her career, was well represented and, as she pointed out in her intro to old favourite ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’, the success of a song can more accurately be judged not by “how high in the charts, but by how deep in people’s hearts” it goes.
Lau, with guitarist Kris Drever, Martin Green on piano accordion and fiddle player Aidan O’Rourke, proved as joyous and wildly inventive as ever, before Keb Mo and his impressive band took the stage. His sturdy blues boasts a funkier edge these days and a wholly unscientific period of observation at the CD stall indicated that he’d won over a lot of new friends.
With due respect to all the other fine musicians who graced the stage, the real event of the weekend had to be The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, one of those “No, I really was there” gigs. The official launch of their joint Diversions Volume 2 album and featuring possibly one of the largest aggregations ever on Stage One, the first tune, the sublime and moving ‘King Of Rome’, was greeted with such a sustained wave of applause that Adrian McNally had to mock admonish the crowd, “We’ve got a lot of music to fit in, so no more clapping like that, okay?” Gracious and deeply moving yet rippling with humour and mutual affection between the Unthanks and the brass band players, it was topped only by the way the brass band, doing what they know best, marched through the crowd afterwards, playing as they went.
Nanci Griffith’s show by comparison was the sort of intimate affair that encourages you to lean into it. Accompanied just by guitarists Pete and Maura Kennedy with longtime sidekick Pat McInerney on percussion, a lot of it was drawn from her very personal Intersection album. The set-closer was a real surprise, though, a rollicking take on ‘No Expectations’ by the Rolling Stones. Coincidentally, Gretchen Peters had delivered a wonderful version of ‘Wild Horses’ the day before. Is there some sort of new relationship being forged between female singer-songwriters and the craggy old rockers?
Speaking of craggy, old Roy Harper graced the stage for the first time in 26 years with a set that might well have been the same as the last time he played there! I’m a sucker for his barbed delivery of the likes of ‘One Man Rock’n'Roll Band’ and the absolutely non-confrontational ‘I Hate The White Man’, and so were an impressively vociferous section of the crowd. Others were less impressed by the splendidly unrepentant Roy but they might have been more taken than me with the decorous Clannad. Another band who’ve reformed after many years, they are at least recording new material but their set leant heavily on their popular 80s soundtrack work.
The Proclaimers proved what adept, if cheeringly uncynical, popular entertainers they’ve become in front of a packed audience on Stage One, while over on Stage Two Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara’s new collaboration JuJu, now a four-piece with bass and drums, provided an intoxicating mix of improvised trance grooves. Lost in the music, yet still professional enough to finish dead on the curfew deadline – how impressive is that?
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