Now in its 55th year, an impressive achievement in itself, Cambridge Folk Festival continues to go from strength to strength and this year’s event was one of the best. At the top of the bill there were a lot of heavy hitters and they all delivered. Lucinda Williams wiped away memories of her dreadful appearance a few years ago with an outstanding set that, while it wasn’t the complete airing of ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ that she’s been touring was nevertheless full-on, committed, and contained a lot of fan-pleasers. Her backing trio Buick 6 was also outstanding, particularly Stuart Mathis on guitar.
Richard Thompson also played a set of crowd-pleasers including a fine take on Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’, ’Beeswing’ and a rare outing for ‘Persuasion’, though he did retain his reputation for perversity by ending with ‘My Enemy’, one of the less accessible songs from 2013’s ‘Electric’. But pride of place had to go to Graham Nash who, as with the previous two, knew what a festival set should consist of and delivered it. Despite heading towards 80 his voice remains amazing, his politics fiery and with songs of the calibre of ‘Marrakesh Express’ and ‘Teach Your Children’ his set is pretty much perfect, as a rammed tent could testify.
One of the festival’s great strengths has always been the middle and bottom of the bill, and this year was no different. The Rails delivered an impassioned set on Thursday, with James Walbourne playing like a man possessed and songs from their new album ‘Cancel the Sun’, as good as anything they’ve done. Also on Thursday Canada’s Old Man Luedecke wowed the club tent with a set that combined folksy charm, honesty and serious songwriting, while star in the making Lucy Grubb delivered her brand of home-grown Americana to a rapturous crowd at the Den stage. Later on in the weekend Wales’ Gentle Good’s pastoral folk, the UK’s Jack Rutter and his neo-traditional songs, The Marriage, a duo of Dave Burn of Ahab and Orphan Colours and Kirsten Adamson delivered superb harmonies and quality songs, The Mardlers (or half of them anyway) made the most of their all too brief slot in the Club tent to bring it to its feet with powerful and lyrical songs and playing and there simple isn’t a better band out there at getting the audience dancing and clapping than Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra..
From the more left-field side came The Sisters Of Elva Hill, a folk ballet (possibly the first ever?) conceived by acclaimed folk singer Lucy Ward and choreographer Deborah Norris. Many people, including this reviewer, had no idea what they would be getting with this, let alone if it would work, but it did, and how. The dancers were spectacular, Ward held everything together as the singer-cum-narrator and the band were on it, with Anna Essiemont on fiddle a whirling pixie who commanded the stage. A triumph. Lucy Ward would also deliver a typically impassioned and powerful set in the Club tent a few hours later. At the more world music end of the spectrum Algerian outfit Imarhan brought the second wave of desert blues to the Main Stage with hypnotic grooves and rhythms while earlier the more subtle charms of Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita weaved the harp and kora together to quite beautiful effect.
No festival is perfect of course and at Cambridge it was hard not to baulk at being charged £8 for a souvenir beer glass while, more importantly, some of the scheduling was a bit odd: regardless of their talent UK country singer Sarah Darling and Canadian folk trio The Once aren’t yet headliners, and putting The Unthanks acapella set on in the club tent meant it was impossible for many people to get anywhere near it. But in the great scheme of things these are small gripes and Cambridge continues to push forward and be better every year and you can’t ask for more than that. A wonderful weekend.
The great photos accompanying this review were yet again taken by our man Robin Hynes of Northline Photography. For more from Cambridge and elsewhere check him out on Facebook, Flickr and at his website (http://www.northlinephotography.com/).