July has seen mixed fortunes for Cambridge based music festivals with Lodestar announcing its cancelation due to lack of ticket sales. There was no such issue for Cambridge Lives’ expertly run Cambridge Folk Festival.
One of the few UK events of its kind to annually sell out in advance, this year saw a sell out for a staggering 23rd consecutive year. Since first opening its doors back in 1965 (five years before Glastonbury) Cambridge Folk Festival has perfected the right formula to see it become an institution on a global scale. Bringing together the right mix of iconic figures in folk music, emerging new talent, an ability to attract touring stars from the US and, crucially, an ability to reinvent traditions are all key in the evergreen festivals success. With much anticipation going into the weekend, CFF16 duly delivered as the standard barer for folk festivals.
Closing Stage 2 on night one was the brilliant Jon Boden, a man who has seen many CFF performances with his previous outfit, Bellowhead. Over the course of his career Jon Boden has become one of the outstanding performers of traditional music of his generation however his solo slot saw him preview a more simple, pared down sound. Boden also started the trend of reinterpretations with a yearning arrangement of Whitney Houston’s pop hit ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’. Whilst on the same night O’Hooley & Tidow sang Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ acapella, later in the weekend KT Tunstall would take on ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ whereas Sam Kelly – recently crowned BBC Folk Award Horizon winner – delivered a lovely version of Dire Straits’ ‘Sultans Of Swing’.
Also impressing on night one were Seafret who graduated from their set at The Den last year to Stage 2. The duo who aside from their impressive vocals and sound seemed to have a fan base already there, with lots of teen girls singing along. Over on the Club Tent, Will Varley provided some silver-tongued serenading with a set drawing from his much-lauded third album ‘Postcards From Ursa Minor’.
Friday saw Glen Hansard (pictured above) deliver one of the most engaging and moving sets of the weekend that cemented his reputation as an unparalleled front man. Known for his work with the influential Irish group The Frames and one half of the acclaimed duo The Swell Season, Hansard’s set drew from his real-life inspired solo material. Particular highlight was the raw ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’ lifted from the soundtrack to Once, for which Hansard won an Oscar.
Elsewhere on the Friday, master of flutes, whistles and Uillean pipes Michael McGoldrick, complete with band, delivered a master class in traditional folk music. Patch and The Giant provided some Balkan inspired sounds with sweet harmonies and varied accompaniments. Bluegrass (ish) outfit Cardboard Fox brought re-imagined folk songs taken from a very different perspective to The Den stage, whereas Jerron Blind Boy Paxton provided two of the best sets from the weekend’s ‘little known acts’ category. Hailing from Los Angeles, Paxton is a multi-instrumentalist whose set was focused on carrying on the tradition of acoustic blues that was started back in the 1920s and 1930s. The modern-day old-time bluesman and singer was hands down one of the discoveries of the weekend.
Explosive gypsy punks Gogol Bordello put on an unbelievable show to close the Friday night. Marching drums pounded, accordions wheezed and frontman Eugene Hutz was shirtless and wild-eyed, in a whirlwind of high-kicking cowboy boots and red wine. Very quickly the nine-piece quickly had CFF16 jumping.
Saturday opened with the terrifically abrasive Stick In The Wheel whose set was a mix of traditional folk with a punk like confrontational nature. As authentic as it comes, the five-piece were brutally honest and grabbing. The Mike and Ruthy Band swung by Cherry Hinton on their first UK tour. Consisting of members of The Mammals, the new look outfit pleased with their synergy of old time and new folk energy. Other notable American performers catching the eye on Saturday included Applewood Road. The trio delivering a polished yet rootsy set filled with original folk tunes with lovely 3-part harmonies. The outstanding US performers and all round story of the weekend came courtesy of New Jersey outfit Darlingside. Their first ever UK show on Stage 2 was quickly followed by an impromptu promotion to the main stage to perform again to fill in for funk and soul legend Charles Bradley who had to cancel due to ill health. With a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young feel harmony set up, Darlingside’s adventurous sonic landscape, group vocals and wry intelligent lyrics defy easy categorisation.
Kíla’s brand of hip-shaking, smile-making, funky, groovy brand of trad out was well received, as too was the returning Kate Rusby. A superstar of the British acoustic scene, few can rival Rusby’s ability to bring traditional music to modern life. A revamped Afro Celt Sound System (pictured above) got the main stage jumping to a level to rival Gogol the night previous. Arriving with a reputation for exhilarating shows their CFF 16 set scaled new heights of drama and excitement.
Christy Moore closed the Saturday with his seventh appearance at the festival; the first was in 1973 with Planxty, the crossover folk group that put him on the map. His repertoire consisting of songs about war, famine and injustice were moving but his set also incorporated jollier moments too. Jewel in the crown had to be his very Cambridge inspired cover, a song “by Cambridge boys for a Cambridge boy” explained Moore before breaking out into a mellow take on Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’.
Sunday brought one of the best sets of the weekend via the charming This Is The Kit. Kate Stable’s witty alt-folk delivery is a great mix of her anecdotes and narrations entertaining the ever-intrigued crowd. This Is The Kit were followed by the legendary Hot 8 Brass Band. They are among the very best exponents of big brass jazz, blending classic covers with new and funk-fuelled original tunes, and are one massive hoot, a perfect end to the weekend.
Earlier in the day rising star Sam Kelly and The Lost Boys impressed with their take on traditional music, including shanties. Sam’s smooth, tuneful voice is a pleasure to listen to. Undeniably contemporary and pop-inflected it may be, yet it easily carries the emotional weight of his chosen songs with impressive control. Sam Lee started his set with an apology. 2015 had been the first year Lee had missed in the last 8 or 9. Delivering a set filled with instrumental textures and vocals all had been forgiven by the time Lee and Friends finished their set in the middle of the crowd performing an a capella version of ‘Lovely Molly’. Senegalese musician Baaba Maal stole the show on the closing day. Maal and his band made music that was as beautiful, as glorious and as joyous as any heard over the weekend.
The 52nd edition of this national institution will go down as one of the best yet.
Images by Jordan Harris