28th to 31st July 2016
With seven venues operating over four days, Cambridge Folk Festival provides a real challenge to the reviewer. What to see? Who to miss? Legendary figures of the roots music scene on the massive main arenas, or the stars of tomorrow in the intimate Den?
O’Hooley & Tidow owned Thursday night, their muscular pop sensibility and sharply observed lyrics reminiscent of XTC and the symphonic piano drive of Keane. Joined by a tight band, they launched their critically acclaimed new album ‘Shadows’. Strong and committed narratives delivered by two voices soaring in harmony, contemporary folk storytelling at its very best.
All this and a cheeky accapella cover of Massive Attack.
John Boden performing solo, gave us highlights from ten or more years at the top, roared on by a noisy audience. A little too bombastic for this reviewer’s taste with more than a whiff of emperor’s new clothes. Back at Cobham’s Common Zoe Wren played a beautiful set on the club stage for the Milkmaid Folk Club session.
Kids of all ages were delighted by the vegetable driven lunacy of the Barrow Band on Friday morning and Nancy Kerr and the Sweet Visitor Band showed their class.
Edward II rocked stage one with tracks from the acclaimed ‘Manchester’s Improving Daily’ album. Front man Simon Care gurning like a 70’s rock god as he ripped out fluid melodeon runs; their reggae readings of folk classics like ‘Dirty Old Town’, somewhat curiously juxtaposed with solo unaccompanied female vocals.
Shortly afterwards Laura Victoria (cello and vocals) and Jo Cox (banjo) entered the crowd that gathered in the tiny People’s Front Room. Nearby O’Hooley & Tidow were performing an acoustic set in the Rose Garden to an attentive audience, shortly before your reviewer was accosted by what appeared to be two Ents from Fangorn Forest. Closer examination of the copyright laws showed them to be Treeants by Megabeast.
B-movie zombie folk rockers Glory Strokes, resplendent in fright wigs as well as makeup, looked slightly out of place on the warm, sunny afternoon. Friends tell me that bluesman Jerome ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton was awesome following them on stage two. The energetic Gaorsach Rapper and Step were on site all weekend. Their Friday night Cobham’s Common set a particular treat.
Elsewhere Gogol Bordello rocked the main stage, playing what no less than two of my party described as the best gig of their lives. The following day all were wearing purple.
Saturday saw the excellent festival session run by the legendary Brian McNeill, giving a taste of many of the artists at the festival. Then Sam Outlaw gave us a nuanced mix of modern C&W classics, riding that fine line between affectionate homage and pastiche with lines like ‘I know you’re much too young, and your Daddy owns a gun.’ A tight rhythm section was joined by Molly Jensen on guitar and vocal with Matt Park on pedal steel.
Kate Rusby took the stage and played a superb set, mostly drawn from her new album. Twenty years on, she bears little resemblance to the nervous teenager flicking water on her ears and blushing deep crimson in front of the microphone. Exuding class and authority she ruled the main stage with her first rate band. Including a string quartet, and the talented Nick Cook on melodeon. Trademark husky vocals have never sounded better. Embracing both traditional and self-penned songs with subtle grace. She has an easy self-deprecating manner with the crowd who joined in enthusiastically, donning cardboard spectacles for the climax ‘Big Brave Bill from Barnsley’.
Darlingside made the most of their unexpected elevation to stage one status, sharp harmonies and superb musicianship in the nu-folk style of Iron and Wine or Midlake.
Mike and Ruthy gave us a blast of rootsy Americana with a full band and horn section on stage two. And as the sun went down, we discovered that the gin and cocktail bar took contactless credit cards.
Lady Maisery gave a sparkling display of mouth-music. Three voices blending perfectly with accordion, fiddle and harp on a spirited set of reels. The 11 piece multinational Varlden’s Band blended the folk music of pretty much the whole world into a virtuosic whole. As a result sounding oddly samey after the first few numbers. The legendary Mary Chapin-Carpenter showed true class as she ripped out classic after classic, delighting the packed crowd on a sunny afternoon.
Sam Kelly and the all-star Lost Boys hit stage two hard with a blistering display of blues rock. The band showing their hard rock roots in the Zeppelin-esque opener ‘Crash on the Levee’.
In Evan Carson they have one of the few percussionists capable to redefining the often formulaic folk rock genre.
The Cash Box Kings gave a blistering display of powerhouse Chicago blues. Frontman Oscar ‘43rd Street’ Wilson has a truly charismatic and dramatic presence. Holding the audience in the palm of one giant paw as he led the accomplished band through a series of classics. Linking the present to the birth of electric blues on the south side of the windy city, and thence to its roots in the Mississippi delta.
Joel Paterson’s guitar snarling and flirting. Joe Nosek’s brutal harmonica, rough and tough as nails down a rusting iron girder.
In the six years since her last appearance at the festival; Imelda Mae has become an international star. Today she showed us why.
Propelled by the percussive bass storm that is Slap Happy she took us through a coruscating set of red hot blues. Climaxing with the sad and reflective ‘The Girl I Used to Be’ showing depth, vulnerability, and that she is far more than just another blues shouter.
And finally the Hot 8 Brass Band took stage two apart with their high-octane mix of percussion and horns. Backstage, festival organiser Eddie Barcan could be seen grooving gently. Enjoying the fruits of yet another year’s labour. He should be very proud, a superb festival. Thank you Eddie.
Laura Thomas 2nd August