Cambridge Folk Festival, Cherry Hinton Hall, 27-30 July 2017

Every festival, everywhere, delivers a special moment or two, things that it will be remembered for in years to come.  This year’s Cambridge Folk Festival was no different, with two hugely significant moments.

The first was the sad death of Joan Woollard a few days before the start of the festival.  The widow of Ken Woollard, who started the festival back in 1965 and was its director until his death in 1993, she was a huge folk music fan and hugely instrumental in helping Ken establish and run it.  A round of applause from the crowd on Saturday night in the main stage marquee and a lower key singaround by Ken’s commemorative bench on Sunday were fitting tributes.

The second took place on Friday, when the entire main stage bill was female, as were the comperes.  No tokenism here, the artistic ability and commercial clout of all nine acts meant that their slots were completely merited.  There has been much debate about female musicians, or rather the lack of them, on festival bills generally and Cambridge showed that in its 52nd year it can still show the way to other events in any genre and the programmer, Bev Burton, deserves massive props.

There were other changes this year too, all for the better.  The arena was expanded significantly, making a real difference to what is always a crowded site.  The festival food, always a weakness at Cambridge, improved significantly, in particular with the amazing vegan Indian outfit Spicebox and a “guerrilla kitchen” offering sublime bao.  To accommodate these changes the Club Tent was relocated slightly, which was fine and reduced sound bleed into it from the main stages but unfortunately meant access was more difficult when things got busy.  Easy to sort though and hopefully will be for next year.

Said Club Tent is often neglected by many festival goers unless there’s a “name” performing, which is a pity as the fifteen minute slots showcase some amazing if unheralded performers, many of whom would not be out of place on a main stage.  This year’s highlights included the somewhat scurrilous and hugely entertaining Cruel Folk, singer-songwriter Mark Shepherd who was possessed of a gloriously huge voice and sang some great songs with it and rousing and hugely talented new-ish trio The Trials Of Cato.  Further up the awareness ladder Midnight Skyracer, the Carrivick Sisters new project, had real bit and power as well as the expected great musicianship, Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage sang and played superbly and are clearly going to be a force on the scene in years to come, Rosie Hood delivered a beautiful set that showed exactly why she is one of *the* traditional singers of her generation, and of course no Club Tent bill would be complete without Wild Willy Barrett’s French Connection closing proceedings on Sunday as only they can.

The Den, a relatively recent addition to the stages, continues to focus on younger performers and those who stretch the definitions of folk and push at its boundaries.  The inevitable clashes meant that the only performer this reviewer saw was American Appalachian/old-time man Sam Gleaves, whose forty minutes passed in a flash and whose engaging manner on stage and great songs won the hearts of everyone who saw him.

Stage 2, the smaller of the main stages, has always provided some of the best festival moments.  It’s something to do with it being enclosed, not allowing chairs, and people having to come to it rather than sit in front of it and let the music pass in front of them.  Festival openers Mawkin did themselves proud and have matured into one of the finest folk bands out there.  Their sound is muscular, their playing brilliant and they know how to have fun, as does their audience.  By contrast female family trio Wildwood Kin offer an Americana/folk mix with great singing and are clearly delighted to be there, Belshazzar’s Feast delivered their trademark humour, including bringing Jon Boden on to play triangle for one note, and bring the house down.  Female five piece Daphne’s Flight, reformed after twenty-two years and including Christine Collister and Chris While, are powerful and passionate and their return is clearly long overdue.  But set of the stage, indeed of the festival, belongs to CC Smugglers, on a main stage for the first time after years of graft, guerrilla busking and paying their dues.  It may be chucking it down but not only is the tent rammed for their set but there’s precious little space outside and the Smugglers respond as only they can, delivering a high energy good time set that has everyone dancing and smiling.  There’s no better live band out there.

Stage 1, by contrast, is a bit of a mixed bag, with some sets and performers just not really hitting it.  But enough do to make it a solid, if not vintage set of performances.  Indigo Girls, who headline on Friday, slightly misjudge their setlist with too many mid-set longueurs and slow ballads, but the ending trio of “Galileo”, “Kid Fears” and of course the joyous affirmative mass singing of “Closer To Fine” bring it all back home.  Earlier in the day Coven, a new-ish outfit consisting of O’Hooley & Tidow, Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie, and perhaps the most significant outfit of Woman’s Takeover Day play to rapturous applause.  For this reviewer though Petrie remains a no-no but this is clearly a minority opinion, quite possibly a minority of one on the day.  By contrast The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians warm everybody’s hearts – forced to leave their country by civil war, they come on in full evening dress and captivate everyone with a mix of classical Arabian and Syrian music.  Arising from the ashes of the late lamented ahab Orphan Colours open the final day with a great set of country-rock with a hint of pop.  Later on festival favourite Loudon Wainwright III, accompanied by no less than David Mansfield and Chaim Tannenbaum, shows that his fire and skill are undiminished at by either age (he’s 71) or a recent back operation as he plays favourites and new material and banters with the audience.  By contrast Oysterband, who follow immediately after, deliver an impassioned set with the keynote song being “My Country Too”, a state of the nation song that says everything that needs to be said about the mess the UK finds itself in thanks to our leaders.  It’s a hugely powerful set delivered as only they can.

And so another Cambridge came to an end.  Yes it rained a bit but nobody cared because after more than half a century it remains the best folk festival out there.

All pictures from Robin Hynes and you can see more of his great festival shots here.

About Jeremy Searle 887 Articles
Deputy Editor & Videos Editor at Americana UK, promoter at Greenbird Promotions, writer for R2 and Maverick magazines, possessor of more CDs than is entirely decent and inveterate hoarder.
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Well, it’s a bit late but we’ve only just come across your very positive mention of us playing the festival club tent in 2017…………So thanks for that! All the best, Cruel Folk.