Words by Kevin Bourke
Photo of Angélique Kidjo by Philip Ryalls/Redferns
The Unwanted may have saddled themselves with a name that makes them sound like identi-punks but they sound pretty great, fusing Appalachian with Irish music and blessed with a winning delivery. Their set, incidentally, featured a fine version of The Stones’ ‘No Expectations’, the second time over the weekend that that particular tune had been musically revisited on the Main Stage. Strange, but an indication of how the nature of ‘folk music’ is constantly shifting.
The skies had been threatening all morning but the heavens finally opened halfway through Karine Polwart’s characteristically bracing set on Stage One. With her usual trio of husband Steven and bassist Inga Thompson expanded for the occasion, she launched her new album Traces with style and grace, confirming that she’s developed into one of the leading contemporary singers and songwriters in these isles.
Karine is something of a regular favourite but Texan blues maven Ruthie Foster had only played at Cambridge once before, as part of an acoustic duo in 2007. This time around she brought her full band for an impressive blend of soul, rock and blues that saw a flurry of interest at the on-site CD stall, always a reliable indicator of audience favour. Finding herself allocated a dressing room between Joan Armatrading and Angélique Kidjo meant she was “on fire”, she said, as well as providing a handy snapshot of the festival’s breadth.
Next up on Stage One came another regular Cambridge favourite Seth Lakeman. Refusing to coast, Seth delivered a powerful and committed show, galvanising the now fairly-sodden audience before Angélique Kidjo took over the stage and the audience, even taking credit for the sun shining again! Sassy, exuberant and utterly compelling, she pulled off most of the tricks in her considerable repertoire, including dancing in the audience and getting quite a few of them onstage to join her and her band in an extended closer.
In between Seth and Angélique I managed to slither over to Stage Two to catch a few minutes of Anais Mitchell, professing her love of British traditional music and confessing how much she was looking forward to seeing the great Nic Jones on that same stage.
The return of Nic Jones was awaited with bated breath by more people than just Anais, though. A man who, if he didn’t actually write the book on English folk music of the 60s and 70s, should certainly appear in the first few lines, Nic’s career was tragically interrupted in 1982 when a car crash left him with serious physical injuries and unable to perform. This was his first full performance in 30 years and his very appearance onstage provoked wild cheers. Flanked by his son Joe on guitar and Belinda O’Hooley on keys, he proved physically frail but unexpectedly cheery as he, slightly raggedly but affectingly, sang his way through a set full of classics like ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’ and ‘Yarmouth Town’ (with the aforementioned Anais Mitchell, Pete Kennedy from the Nanci Griffith band and most of The Unthanks singing along around me in the Guest Area). There were surprises too, including a version of Radiohead’s ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ (“anyone who’s spoken to my dad since 1995 will know how much he loves this band”, wryly reported Joe) and even a new song about living in the here and now. Closing with ‘The Little Pot Stove’, this rather lovely and intimate performance reminded many of us just how much he’s been missed for the last 30 years.
Over on Stage One, meanwhile, Canadian singer-composer and multi-instrumentalist Loreena McKennit was delivering an altogether bigger show, impressing way beyond her substantial and devoted fan-base. Her ‘eclectic Celtic’ music proved to be all that Clannad hadn’t been the night before, in fact, gutsy but keeping a mystical Celtic essence. There was a hint of Tori Amos here and there and even a harp-driven version of ‘The Lady Of Shallot’ proved one of the unexpected (to me anyway) hits of the day.
Joan Armatrading has four decades of hits to trade on, and she’s quite happy to play the likes of ‘Love And Affection’ for a wildly appreciative audience. But she also knows perfectly well that any self-respecting songwriter has to keep moving forward. So she’s a couple of months into a mammoth European tour that draws just as much on recent albums like Into The Blue, This Charming Life and Starlight, a loose trilogy inspired, respectively, by blues, rock and jazz. On those recent albums she’s played everything herself but the inevitably looser nature of live performance breathes life into the newer songs and buoys up the older hits.
Is it all folk? Of course it is… and here’s to next year’s glorious mash-up of the old, the new and the utterly unexpected at Cambridge 2013. Tickets, remarkably, are already on sale at: www.cambridgefolkfestival.co.uk.