Images courtesy of Rich Etteridge
One of the wonderful things about festivals, any festival, is the chance to find new music. Cambridge Folk Festival is no different, as despite an obvious inclination to revive and regurgitate songs that go back decades, if not centuries, there is an awful lot of original material to see here too. Regardless of whether the band is new itself or just newly discovered, I defy anyone to leave the festival without having purchased a couple of records or scribbled down a few names to investigate further, and this year was no different.
One of the best places for this is The Den, a relatively recent addition to the festival tucked away around the back of the main arena by the duck pond. It’s fast become my favourite stage on site, and that’s nothing to do with having the best toilets on site nearby (wooden seats, gasp!), but more to do with its tranquil setting, relaxed ambiance and the variety of music on offer. Jake Bugg was here last year and The Staves and Passenger the year before, so there’s every chance of seeing the next ‘big thing’ here at some point, and even if you don’t, well you’re bound to have a thoroughly nice time anyway. We started off here on Sunday with Jess Morgan who I had the good fortune to see at Cambridge Folk Club a few weeks ago, and like there, she delivered a flawless performance that sounds identical live as it does on record. Liz Lawrence came next with hints of reggae and motown in an accomplished acoustic guitar set, ‘Bedroom Hero’ being the stand out song. Another impressive act up at The Den were Joe Innes and the Cavalacade, a five-piece band from London. Life changing events such as finding a dead rat and then pondering your mortality is as good a subject for a song as any in my book, and from that opener of ‘Pet Cemetery’ their set progressed with a series of light, breezy pop-folk songs, including a wonderful male-female conversation piece called ‘Sweetheart Revolution I’. Check them out.
Down at Stage 2 we discovered another new band, well new to us at least. With a growing collection of awards and rave reviews, it’s pretty evident that We Banjo 3 are making ever increasing waves in the folk scene and it didn’t take long to see why. Somewhat confusingly made up of only two banjos, but also a fiddler and guitarist, the band set about one of the best shows of the weekend. Over the course of an hour an outstanding set followed, with all four evidently talented members sparring instruments and making seamless transitions between songs and jigs. The whole tent was bouncing throughout in time to the frantic rhythms, and when the band played ‘We All Need More Kindness in the World’ before changing it to ‘We All Need More Banjos in the World’, there was a definite roar of agreement. And I’m certainly not one to argue.
Onto the evenings proceedings on the main stage then, and starting us off were The Staves. Introduced as a Cambridge Folk Festival success story, the three sisters from Watford have made a step up each year from The Den, to Stage 2 and then now to here on Stage 1. They’re an endearing trio, further helped by proclaiming their love for the festival and it was pretty evident the affection was returned back at them. Performance wise they were as good as ever, and having seen them in the intimate pre-renovated Portland Arms back room last year, and now on the might of the main stage here, it seems to matter not where they are – they have an ability to fill whatever their surroundings are with the voices and harmonies that have made their name. Their rendition of ‘Wisely and Slow’ gathered around the same microphone was almost choir like, while ‘Mexico’ was beautifully delivered also. As the sun set over the back of the main arena and The Staves looked out over their crowd and deemed them as “looking like angels”, you suspect that their love affair with Cambridge Folk Festival won’t end here.
Folk-Rock legends The Waterboys came next, and having eased us into the set with ‘Strange Boat’, proceeded to deliver a lesson in crowd entertainment and delivery of good, honest rock’n’roll music. Mike Scott and his band have been going for 30 years now and it was clear to see, with a highly accomplished set littered with back catalogue classics and some jaw dropping instrumentals. ‘The Whole of the Moon’ was in there of course, but it was the likes of set closers ‘This is the Sea’ and ‘Be My Enemy’ that stole the show, along with a dramatically macabre masked theatrical act preceding ‘Mad as the Mist & Snow’. There was however a moment, mid-set, where Scott sang the opening line of ‘Don’t Bang the Drum’ which seemed to sum up the whole weekend in an instant – ‘Well here we are in a special place’ – well, quite.
And so we came to our final act of the entire weekend, and on a day where new discoveries had been made and original music had been found, it was left to a past-master of novelty songs to close it all off in his normal, uproarious fashion. Step forward Peter Buckley Hill, a Cambridge Folk Festival institution and a teller of tales and singer of songs so old and well worn, that even a Buckley Hill first timer could feel like they’d seen his act his a hundred times. Wisecracks and gags came aplenty, along with songs of Adolf & Eva’s sex life and the death of Slobodan Milosovic, and it has to be said, where else could a weekend of so many, vastly different musical styles from so many far flung countries come to an end with a song about stuffing puffins? Cambridge Folk Festival, that’s where.
Roll on the 50th birthday party next year!