A look back at last weekend’s Cambridge Folk Festival
Words by Kevin Bourke
With its 50th anniversary looming next year, the Cambridge Folk Festival remains the pre-eminent event of its sort, quite probably in the world.
They’ve developed an uncanny knack for mixing big names like Bellowhead, Amadou & Mariam and The Waterboys with old favourites such as Steeleye Span and Martin Simpson, pulling in capacity crowds who are then exposed to new music from around the world that they might not otherwise have discovered.
The first full day of the festival on the main stage, for instance, opened with a one-two whammy from Korrontzi, infectiously exploring the music of the Basque region, and Finnish supergroup Frigg, offering a rousing blend of Nordic folk, American bluegrass and, erm, The Rolling Stones. Both of them went down a storm and set up a receptive audience for the more reflective, if equally electrifying, trance-folk of Sam Lee and Friends. Sam is the leading light in The Nest Collective, who are playing a huge part in regenerating the contemporary live club scene. He also curates The Den, one of the festival’s innovations over the last few years and the place to go if you wanted to check out what today’s folk kids – and believe me, there are a lot of them – are cooking up.
Of course, it’s impossible to get to see and hear everyone, and I should acknowledge that the esteemed Mark Radcliffe has already mildly berated me for not finding time to check out Larkin Poe. Don’t repeat my mistake, from all reports.
Back on the main stage, the superb Austin-based songwriter Patty Griffin, delivered an impressive and touching set drawn largely from her acclaimed American Kid. By a strange coincidence, over on Stage Two Darrell Scott, her erstwhile bandmate in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, was winning friends left and right for his deft songwriting (“country music how I remember it”, as he says) and his jaw-dropping musicianship. His upcoming tour with old pal Tim O’Brien, promoting their once-in-a-decade joint album, Memories and Moments, should be unmissable.
Line-ups don’t get much more stellar than LAPD, including three quarters of the hugely-influential Planxty and the original Bothy Band fiddler amongst their number. Liam O’Flynn, Andy Irvine, Paddy Glackin and Donal Lunny are simply legendary names in Irish music and they didn’t disappoint with a quicksilver set of superb playing. Earlier in the day at their onstage interview with Colin Irwin, they’d told some hilarious, occasionally scurrilous, tales from their shared history and their musical and personal bond shone out from the stage.
Amadou & Mariam have rapidly become adept practitioners of the crowd-pleasing festival set and their high-energy early evening hour seemed to slightly stun the crowds pouring in for The Levellers. I opted instead to hop over to Stage Two for Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo. Side-stage at least, you could often still hear the folk-Clash musical stylings of The Levellers but Emily’s often-autobiographical tunes proved robust enough to weather the onslaught with some aplomb.
Headlining on the main stage, Bellowhead once again made a convincing claim to be the best live band in the land, certainly in the ‘folk-jazz-burlesque big band’ category. Boden is, of course, a brazen, only slightly demented, frontman but his umpteen band-mates are hardly shrinking violets either. Intoxicating, witty and deceptively slick beneath their shambolic exterior, you sometimes wonder if there’s anything they couldn’t breathe new life into. Then you start dancing again…