Images courtesy of Rich Etteridge
For all the oddities and variety on show at Cambridge Folk Festival, traditional folk culture is still very much at its forefront. Whether it be of a cultural influence, indigenous or oral tradition, there’s generally always something going on somewhere on site that is more upstanding of folk in its traditional sense. And the opening session on Saturday afternoon on Stage 2 was as good a showcase of this as any, where for almost three hours a selection of artists of various nationalities and styles came and went. First we had Frigg from Finland who brought their own specific sound of ‘Nordgrass’ (Nordic folk and American bluegrass, obviously!), starting proceedings with ‘Raj Raj Raj!’ a direct translation for ‘Let’s Party!’ to which a few of the less hungover attendees duly obliged. La Vent du Nord came next came with accordions a plenty, and if my translations are correct started with a song about the Dutch Revolution (either that or they told us), and while I actually had no clue to the lyrics, the songs were sung with gusto in both solo and in unison, and would best be described as ‘jolly’. Lovely stuff. Teenage folk sensations Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar then treated us to a fantastic ‘nine minute mega-mash of greatest hits’ before a band introduced as an ‘Irish supergroup’ came on. After the initial disappointment that it wasn’t a combination of Westlife and B*witched with Shane MacGowan as front man, we were soon more than impressed by not only the fantastic instrumental skills of The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, including elaborate use of the Bhodrán, but also of the sheer awfulness of band member Gino Lupari’s jokes.
Moving down to Stage 1, we found ourselves watching what was probably the highlight of the weekend for me. Makoomba had arrived in town and well, didn’t you just know it? Pounding African drums, a pulsating tempo and well-crafted rhythmic dancing directed by vocalist Mathias Muzaza led to one of the liveliest and most energetic sets of the weekend. There were fantastic guitar solos, emotion wrought acapellas, and elements of Ladysmith Black Mzambo; all accompanied by a whirlwind of colours and most enjoyably of all, it was clear that the fun the band were having on stage was being mirrored by the entire audience. Leaving Mokoomba to soak up wild applause we made our way up to The Den and to more domestic roots.
We’d already seen a fair variety of acts up at The Den over the weekend, so it came as no great surprise that once again we found ourselves watching some artists you could describe as a bit less mainstream. Describing themselves as ‘pretentious folk’, Band of Buriers were about as cheery as they sound but their act of spoken word set over melancholy strings was absorbing nonetheless. The Ballina Whalers then produced a well harmonised collection of sea shanties borrowed from through the ages, with the group featuring the outstanding voice of Sam Brookes who went on to perform a solo set the following day. Making our way back main stage we were then distracted at The Peoples Front Room by a lady we soon came to know as Jez Sings Things. While I think Jez Shouts Things might be more apt, she’s certainly got an interesting act. Think Tim Minchin with ADHD. She’s quite excitable and easily distracted – “Shit, there’s some police – act like nothing’s happened!” – but quite entertaining in a wacky, storytelling way all the same. Immediately after her came a more calm and collected act in the shape of Rochdale singer songwriter Kid Called Sorrow. Usually a solo artist but this time accompanied well by piano, drums and a fiddle, an excellent collection of real life tales followed, with definite comparisons to Arctic Monkey’s frontman Alex Turner both in sound and style.
It was around this time that the heavens finally opened, having been kept well at bay for the past three days, and as we squeezed into an already rammed Stage 1 tent for KT Tunstall I have to admit I had my reservations. While Tunstall was undoubtedly one of the biggest, and probably most recognised, names on the bill over the weekend, she’s not an artist who has ever really done a great deal for me. She’s always seemed a bit, well, ‘meh’’. But how pleasantly surprised I was! She was fantastic from start to finish, mixing the set up well with better known numbers such as ‘Other Side of the World’ and ‘Suddenly I See’ while incorporating excellent covers of Don Henley’s ‘Boys of Summer’, some Bruce Springsteen and even The White Stripes ‘Seven Nation Army’. As she sent a Mexican wave back through the tent and incorporating the rows of umbrellas outside, she finished with a rendition of ‘Hallowed Ground’ and it was pretty evident that the Stage 1 crowd were pretty impressed with what they saw, me included.
Saturday night’s music closed with The Mavericks who had the crowd in party mood from the word go. Lead singer Raul Malo led the band through a well-honed act consisting of old favourites as well as newer material of their 2013 comeback album ‘In Time’, firmly cementing their reputation as great live band. Renditions of ‘All Over Again’, ‘Back in Your Arms Again’ and yes, ‘Dance the Night Away’, had the audience moving to big American beats, some Latin influence and a very impressive selection of hats. A great show.
As the crowds filed out and back to their respective homes for the night, thankfully under now clear skies, we made our way up to Stage 2 where we caught the very end of what looked to have been a raucous set from The Chair. Well positioned at the back of the tent for their close, we then quickly found ourselves at the front of a rapidly growing queue for Jim Moray’s Silent Ceilidh. With two options on your headphones – traditional ceilidh music or the likes of Rihanna and Co, both set to the same beat – the tent is directed through a selection of dance moves. So around we stomped and we whirled, some more clueless than others (apparently accidentally dump tackling people isn’t part of the act?) and while the volume is on full blast for all involved, anyone peering in would have been met by the quite eerie sight of a tent full of people dancing to silence. Of all the entertaining things I’ve ever done while strictly adhering to the local council’s noise limitation curfews, it’s definitely up there – and on top of that, it’s yet another example of the festival keeping in touch with its traditional folk roots. They have always done Ceilidh dancing with headphones on, haven’t they?