While there are several “specialist” Americana festivals like Maverick and Ramblin’ Roots, for the Americana fan Cambridge Folk Festival has for many years always had much to offer. It rightly prides itself on its eclecticism – both Joe Strummer and Nick Cave have played there in the past – and interpreting “folk” very broadly and this year was no different with Patti Smith, Songhoy Blues and St Paul & The Broken Bones all performing.
Americana was well-represented again and one American artist was ubiquitous and their presence made the festival one of the best ever. That artist was Rhiannon Giddens, late of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and now of an acclaimed solo career and the second guest curator the festival has had. The artists she selected to perform – Peggy Seeger, Yola Carter, Birds of Chicago, Amethyst Kiah and Kaia Kater – all delivered in spades while Giddens herself did the best set of the festival with her band on the main stage as well as doing an unannounced duo traditional set on Stage 2, interviewing Peggy Seeger, taking part in a panel on mental health in the music industry, teaching in the children’s area and leading the closing songwriter session in the Club tent on Sunday night, where many of her guests also performed. Whoever takes up the curation baton next year will have their work cut out to match her.
As ever the festival provided a host of great moment and memories, expected and unexpected. Festival stalwart Peter Buckley-Hill, a regular since the 1980s and much loved for his witty and occasionally groan-worthy songs, took to the Club Tent stage for what was billed as his last ever performance and a full house sang every word and cheered him to the rafters. Two years earlier Darlingside (above) had taken the festival by storm with three sets that were career-changing and established them as many people’s favourite new band. This year they returned as conquering heroes to deliver a brilliant Main Stage set, with their harmonies as glorious as ever and their songwriting going from strength to strength. And as previously on Sunday they appeared in the beer tent, this time accompanied by Yola Carter and Birds of Chicago, and did a mini set which was ever better. The moment when they started “Go Back” and the entire tent sang the words while they listened took them completely by surprise and was a real “I was there” moment.
On the home-grown front Ben Smith & Jimmy Brewer are two of the finest guitarists out there and did two great sets. The musical interplay between them is jaw-dropping and they were clearly having a blast as were their audience. Yola Carter, while still seeming to have some contractual issues dogging her (much talk of her new album “that I can’t tell you anything about”) has a voice amongst voices. For those who remember her from Phantom Limb she’s just got better and she poured everything into a full-on finale that would have had Aretha Franklin saying “Respect”. A more low-key delight was provided by ace guitarist Vera van Heeringen and her trio, delivering classy and effortlessly brilliant bluegrass-based songs to an entranced Club Tent. Yet another Club Tent highlight was Paul McClure, aka The Rutland Troubadour, whose all-too-brief set was replete with fine songs and dry humour. Edgelarks, aka Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin, also did two sets (the two set thing was a theme of early festivals and is hopefully making a return) where Henry’s dobro playing and harmonica work, perhaps the best in the country, and Martin’s songs and vocals, which pulse with a quiet intensity, were outstanding. Canadian Gordie Mackeeman’s high energy old-time music brought an afternoon audience in the Main Stage tent to their feet (though none can dance as well as he can, let alone while simultaneously playing the fiddle), the songs and playing from John Smith (above) entranced Stage 2 and Eliza Carthy fronted her big band like a scarlet-clad dervish, as well as doing a low key duo set with David Delarre a short while later.
With a bill this good some performers were missed due to the inevitable clashes, but good things were also heard of John Moreland, William Crighton (above), Roseanne Cash, John Prine and many others. After last years’ all-female line-up on Friday on the Main Stage the impression this year (admittedly without doing the research) is that the percentage of women performers was again a bit higher than previously, which can only be a good thing. The food stalls are also improving after years of being a bit rubbish, there’s a bit more space in the arena created by reducing the on-site camping and all this plus a few more tweaks here and there show a festival that is not content to sit on its (considerable) laurels but is striving to be that bit better each year. This approach paid off in spades making 2018 a vintage year from a festival that looks set to have many more of them.
The superb photos accompanying this review were all taken by Robin Hynes (Northline Photography). Check him out on Facebook, Flickr and his website (http://www.northlinephotography.com/).