The jewel in Cambridge’s live music scene and with a reputation that goes way beyond our city boarders, the Cambridge Folk Festival returned with one its most diverse, modern and female heavy line ups ever. 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. This year it was blessed with wall-to-wall sunshine, but the quality of the programming ensured that the weather wasn’t the only takeaway from the festival’s 54th edition.
Our Friday kicked off with Chris Fox and Zoe Wren live at The Club Tent, then a quick step over to The Den for Alice Phelps who leads her band on harp completed with her powerfully husky vocals. This was followed by a spellbinding set at Stage 2 by the John Smith Trio. Smith, an independent musician who has toured the world for almost fifteen years with his guitar and suitcase and it seems to be leaving its mark as Smith’s crowds are swelling. Those who caught Smith’s early afternoon set were treated to a vivid performance of sparse but evocative trans-Atlantic folk, topped by engrossing guitar playing. Folk Festival favourite Eliza Carthy was back in town this year, bringing The Wayward band with her. The Wayward band is bursting with some of the finest players in recent times, including members of Bellowhead, Mawkin, Blowzabella, Edward II, Emily Portman Trio, Peatbog Fairies, Dreams of Tall Buildings & Tyde and their sound filled the Bellowhead shape in this year’s line up.
On the first full day of music at this year’s event, it was New Zealand artist Marlon Williams stole hearts on the main stage. Williams has one of those voices that’s heard once and never forgotten; a glorious croon full of vibrato and bravado that he uses to beautiful effect across both his 2015 debut album and its follow-up, this year’s wonderful ‘Make Way For Love’ LP. Williams reappeared later in the night, guesting on the gorgeous ‘Nobody Gets What They Want’ during First Aid Kit’s triumphant headline set.
Friday’s stand out set came from Songhoy Blues, who quite simply were ace. In a live setting, Songhoy Blues stretch themselves beyond their record material, with hints of R&B, soul and hip-hop all fusing seamlessly with the band’s trademark exuberant sound. Hailing from the town of Gao in north-eastern Mali, Songhoy Blues came together in Bamako naming themselves in celebration of their displaced Songhoy people and culture. Their break came in September 2013 when the band were invited to record with Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the Africa Express album, ‘Maison des Jeunes’. Their debut album, ‘Music In Exile’, also produced by Zinner, was released to widespread acclaim in February 2015. This was followed by sophomore album ‘Résistance’ in 2017. Lyrically and sonically, ‘Résistance’ is a huge leap forward for Songhoy Blues, and performed live it is musical snapshot of a band at the top of their game. The band’s natural habitat is the live one, frontman Aliou Touré elatedly struts, dances and shimmies around the stage leading the crowd in the most vibrant set of the day, their fantastic licks and moves drawing the biggest dancing crowd of the whole weekend.
Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg delivered a masterful headline set, packed with harmonies and gorgeous duets. First Aid Kit‘s set drew heavily from their recent album and fourth LP, ‘Ruins’ with ‘It’s A Shame’ ‘Fireworks’ and ‘Emmylou’ drawing big crowd reactions. As did their take on Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’. The sisters flicked between intimate, folk ditties to fully fledged pop stars in a twisting, memorable headline slot. After the tremendous First Aid Kit, stage 2 was closed by Melbourne’s Pierce Brothers, whose set was overflowing with fun. Elsewhere, Alabama eight-piece St Paul and the Broken Bones, brought a variety of soul, funk and jazz flavours to close the main stage.
There was a sense of anticipation on site all day Saturday. The legendary punk, poet and icon Patti Smith was due to play our little piece of Cambridge this evening. Surely no legend to play Cambridge Folk Festival has been as iconic or heroic as the Dame of the 70s New York Punk explosion? The luminous Smith did not disappoint, singing compelling songs of love and protest to a massive crowd. Smith’s set drew tracks from her work with the Patti Smith Group, her own solo material and covers of Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, Jim Carroll band’s ‘People Who Died’ and the customary set closer cover of Them’s ‘Gloria’. Smith’s stage musings also won our hearts, “Can we get rid of the smoke? Seriously, I’m not Metallica – get rid of the fucking smoke?” sticking with us. On stage Smith is a captivating presence, both for her iconic status but also her righteous voice of protest and radiant urgency.
Our Saturday kicked off with Guest Curator Rhiannon Giddens continuing her quest to play every stage on site as she popped up in a secret set on Stage 2. Giddens appeared again later in the day, in her scheduled slot on the main stage. Giddens’ second performance, much like all appearances elsewhere around the site all weekend, was simply incredible. A stand out being her cover of Johnny Cash’s ‘Wayfaring Stranger’. A moment to cherish from a Guest Curator whose passion and enthusiasm for the role will not be forgotten and hard to match for next year’s inhabitant.
Over on The Den we caught Zoe Wren performing a really impressive second set of the weekend that was beautifully sung. On the same stage we caught Tom Ryder’s new project, exciting folk/pop duo, LOZT. The duo is all about stunning melodies and Lauren and Tom’s vocal harmonies are simply divine.
A trio of our Saturday faves were found on Stage 2. Firstly, was Canadian outfit East Pointers who brought a chirpy sound filled with a blend of Celtic tunes, songs and step-dances moulded into something unique. The same stage hosted Irish Mayen, who were both awesome and funny. Stage 2 was closed by Manchester’s deep soul outfit Honeyfeet. The seven-piece brought their conduit of jazz, folk and hip hop stylings to Cambridge in one of the most dynamic sets of the weekend.
On the main stage, East London five-piece, Stick In The Wheel stood out, the band have a sound that stretches the genre of folk. Their precision folk is filled with anger and lust and made them one of the most intriguing acts performing this year. Later in the day Eric Bibb excited a massive crowd with a set full of his amazing blues sounds, seamlessly being the perfect soundtrack for the weather.
The story of Saturday had to be Darlingside returning to play the main stage in their own right. Two years ago, the Massachusetts 4-piece indie folk band Darlingside were the talk of Cambridge Folk Festival. They captured the hearts of festival goers with their two sets in the same afternoon. The second set came about last minute to cover and step in for the legendary Charles Bradley in the penultimate slot on the main stage that evening. Two years on and the band are back, thanks in part to the festival’s twinning with this year’s Newport Folk Festival. Memories of 2016 are obviously still fresh in everyone’s minds, with the band reminiscing on how much they love Cambridge’s Folk Festival and the crowd in turn, acting like the boys are one of their own. The band impressed with extraordinary harmonies embraced on their recent LP ‘Extralife’. There was hints of Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens, Grandaddy and even The Beach Boys in their wall-of-sound baroque indie-pop-sprinkled-with-folk.
On the final day of music, it was our penultimate set of the night that stuck with us the most. Local musician James Page, joined by Si Dartford, was performing under his moniker of Sivu. In a set that clearly meant a lot to Page, he impressed with his highly emotive falsettos. Earlier on the same stage we took in Fellow Pynins. Their spellbinding music employs the sounds of the mandolin, banjo, guitar, bouzouki and their voices in harmony to tell the stories of this human existence, the hardships of farming life to the eerie edges of dreams and the gallant joys of pleasantries and love.
Kaia Kater, like Darlingside, was at this year’s event as part of the twinning with Newport Folk Festival. The wonderfully talented vocalist and banjo player impressed with her unique blend of soul and bluegrass. Darlingside popped up again on Sunday, playing an impromptu set in one of the sites bars. They were obviously keen to get the most out of their two days in Cambridge having driven all the way from Inverness-shire on Saturday morning.
Rob Vincent impressed on Stage 2 with his modern take on country rock, Polly Paulusma and Edgelarks were both on top form on the club Tent, as were Punk Floyd, a band hailing from Sweden, who perform folk-punk covers of Pink Floyd classics that pay respect to one of the world’s biggest selling bands in their own inimitable humorous style. Sunday belonged to Birds of Chicago, a duo who combine a volatile energy in the live setting with soul-searching lyrics, delivered with spiralling melodic beauty that is irresistible to any Americana lovers.
Images by Rich Etteridge