Cambridge Folk Festival is unlike other music festivals: an impromptu conga-line, Bodrhán drumming in the fish and chip queue, a silent ceilidh, trad ballads alongside rocktronica and, lest we forget, those hundreds and hundreds of fold-up chairs are all part of the marshmallow medley that make the festival unique. Its quirky nature and relaxed vibe are part of the charm, and one of the reason’s that thousands of loyal festival goers return time and time again to Cherry Hinton Hall in Cambridge every August. But it is without a doubt the delectable smorgasbord of today’s best live folk music that brings the crowds back in their droves, and this year’s line up certainly didn’t disappoint: from vintage legends Shirley Collins, Martin Simpson and Loudon Wainwright to pop-sensations Jake Bugg and Ward Thomas, and alt-country Southern Gothic Amythyst Kiah to the boisterous, rebel rousing Mawkin, there was something for every folk-flavoured taste.
In the world of live music and festivals, Cambridge Folk Festival is hardly radical. But to the well-attuned ear, below the surface of this year’s festival hummed a note of quiet revolution. Take Fantastic Negrito (above) for instance. Grinning at the audience with his bluesy, black roots, badass attitude as the audience clapped along to his catchy “take this bullshit and turn it into goodshit”, the former drug-dealing turned Grammy Award winner promulgated his quiet wisdom that “politicians want to take a group of diverse people and divide them by their differences. Artists just want to unite.” He was right. If the Cambridge Folk Festival spirit could be bottled up and distilled into its raw essence, then it would be fizzing with a quiet but determined conviction that folk music – in all its various guises – has the power to unite and serve as a force of social change.
In fact, the DIY drive to use music as a tool for political protest was a quietly pulsating part of this year’s festival. When Theresa May isn’t running through fields of wheat, it seems that she is inspiring a new generation of angry young Tory-bashers to take to the stage and use their music to rail against the establishment. Lau (below), for example, whilst fitting snugly into the more experimental areas of contemporary folk by engaging hypnotic, jazzy soundscapes as an antidote to the more traditional hyperactive jigs and reels, used their performance as a chance to publicise their views amongst their liberal-eared audience by draping a large We Love the NHS banner across the stage. Still a seasoned social commentator, Frank Turner charmed crowds with his upbeat bouncy sing-a-long set, whilst Coven singer Grace Petrie was greeted with cheers after her syrupy sweet introduction of herself as not just a protest singer but a “socialist, feminist, lesbian, left-wing protest singer.”
But this year’s festival was not just about belting out left-wing lyrics. It was more subtle than that. Bev Burton’s rigorous programming combined with the chosen acts of guest curator John Boden of Bellowhead fame (dubbed the “King of the Festival” after he spent the weekend zooming between hosting fiddle sessions and headlining on the main stage) put together a brilliantly varied programme of artists from the UK, USA and even Syria (the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, whose members had all fled the conflict in Syria). Notably, Friday’s line-up was wholly dedicated to women: from the gutsy, southern gothic Tennessee blue-grass Amythyst Kiah and otherworldly, ethereal vocals of Lisa Hannigan to the fresh-faced, poppy (slightly annoying) Ward Thomas and the vintage tones of the politically sharp activists and razor-sharp rockers Indigo Girls, it was a celebration of female folk in all its kaleidoscopic forms. Although the acts themselves were a little tepid on the richter scale of subversive artists, the fact that festival organisers did not feel the need to publicly trumpet the female-only line up proves a respect-worthy piece of important programming.
All of this makes Cambridge Folk Festival sound like a political rally. It wasn’t. Whilst the flame of revolution certainly flickered, it was soft and didn’t outshine other elements of the festival: a sense of fun, creativity and a sense of celebration by coming together. Friday saw the welcome return of folk veteran Shirley Collins who appeared at the first ever folk festival in 1965 and, after over 30 years out of the spotlight, brought about an emotional reaction to audiences young and old. On Sunday the legendary, larger than life Loudon Wainwright III entertained audiences with some of his more light-hearted songs with prosaic interludes akin to an accomplished comedian, offering some welcome comic relief and cheerful spirit as the heavens opened and the rain thrashed down. By contrast, The Urban Folk Theory positively killed it with their insane sprinting rhythms and sea-saw strings, making it impossible not to dance and clap, whilst south London born Jake Isaac (below) was clearly the biggest hit of the festival as his addictively catchy folktronica-meets-Glastonbury-showstopper left festival goers with a buzzy sweet-tasting hunger for more.
In fact, Jake Isaac is a prime example of exactly what Cambridge Folk Festival does best. Folk music by its nature is fluid and in constant flux, so by giving space to new or emerging artists in the Den Stage or on the Club Stage, the festival not only nurtures new talent but promises festival goers the chance of uncovering some of the freshest and most exciting live acts that they may otherwise never encounter. It was only in 2012 that a relatively unknown Jake Bugg played on the smallest Den Stage and now, five years later, here he was headlining on the biggest stage as one of the star attractions of the weekend. With such a small festival site and only four stages, it was almost impossible not to stumble on something new. From the last minute addition of the bagpipe, fiddle and whistle-playing Hecla in the Club Tent to the eerily authentic sounding Fairport Convention-esque Trials of Cato, there were some absolute gems to be discovered and, one would hope, to be enjoyed again in the future.
This year’s Cambridge Folk Festival was always going to be a hit amongst folkies and loyal followers. But although it has a 52 year history and status as one of the longest running and most famous folk festivals in the world, there was at times a slightly tired sense of having done it all before. Whilst the live acts themselves were mostly great and the line-up solid, there was nothing breath-takingly new or exciting that distinguished the festival from previous years. Luckily, though, it seems that Cambridge Folk Festival still has one or two tricks up its sleeve as it was announced to great applause that the feisty, Tennessee-born Rhiannon Giddens will be guest curator for 2018. The combination of Giddens’ cajun banjo southern bluegrass African-Americana soul and fiddle-playing Gaelic sass offers a vitalising and much-needed burst of fizzy hope for the future of the festival, as it is clear that she offers the perfect infusion of radical, red-hot energy needed to reach across boundaries and genres into the nichest nooks and crannies of both new and finely aged talent to create the most fiery fusion folk festival yet.
Words by Anna Millward
Images by Rich Etteridge