After a cracking weekend at Cambridge Folk Festival, Andy Hughes is left impressed by the progressive nature of the event
Photos: Jordan Harris
It is still possible, in 2017, to find intelligent people who think that folk music means large men in cable knit sweaters with bushy beards
drinking from engraved tankards with a finger in the ear singing about fair maidens milking cows in cotton dresses. Fortunately, the annual Cambridge Folk Festival continues comprehensively to shatter such out-dated cliché images – confirming that folk music is as vibrant, inventive, exciting, and varied, as any musical genre you can find.
Due, as always, to the inability to cover every single performance, and the requirement to focus on the acoustic guitar performers, the standard apologies to those artists not mentioned purely for reasons of available space.
Friday was dubbed by the media as ‘Women’s Takeover Day’ which takes far too seriously the decision to put out an all-female line-up – hardly revolutionary for an event that has always prided itself on an even distribution of genders when selecting its performers across all its areas and venues.
A major highlight of the day was the performance by Amythyst Kiah who evokes both Dolly Parton and Tracy Chapman with her spellbinding voice and uncluttered lyrical finger-picking guitar work.
Also up there in the memory-creation area was Liverpool band She Drew The Gun, described as ‘psych-pop’ (me neither) by the media, who created a fabulous mash-up of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ with Sugarbabes’ ‘Overload’; a wonderful fan-developing performance.
Friday was also a day of contrasts – the lyrically heartfelt singing and playing of Lisa Hannigan was far more enjoyable than the by-the-numbers ‘country’ music of Ward Thomas which was a little too slick for a weekend audience that likes the emotion at the front of its entertainment.
Saturday, and Fantastic Negrito completely lived up to that adjective, setting the bar seriously high for those to follow later in the day. This is where modern acoustic music is headed, and as usual, CFF is picking him up early, before America takes him away from us.
Cambridge Folk Festival planners are experts at picking just the right band to round off each night, and Indigo Girls slotted in perfectly. Their lengthy career sees them losing none of the social and political bite of their material, and on the night their peerless harmonies were embellished by Lucy Wainwright-Roche who has been touring with them. It was a warm and wonderful end to a varied and diverse day of music.
One of the great advantages of the Cherry Hinton site is the clever way they use a relatively small area and give it the feeling of space and variety by making each stage unique: not an easy task considering their proximity, which means you can leave one stage audience and join the other in less than one minute. Over on Stage Two, Roxanne De Bastion gave a winning performance of acoustic songs sung in a voice that greatly appeals, and backed by a winning personality – music to check out more closely if she performs near you.
Stage One provided a veritable feast of spirited and passionate performances to round off Saturday night – Jon Boden And The Remnant Kings brought a brand-new set of songs for their performance, reflecting Boden’s unofficial ‘King of Cambridge’ status – underlined by his selection as the inaugural Guest Curator for this year’s event – that he carried off such a bold move. Acoustic music doesn’t do hierarchies, but if it did, Boden would be at the top end without a doubt.
Six studio albums in, there’ll be plenty at Cambridge unaware that Frank Turner started out singing with a hardcore rock band. But he brought all that stagecraft and experience to the Cambridge stage; his show setting the seal on a wonderful day and night of music. Stepping in to replace Olivia Newton-John at short notice, Turner gave the adoring audience a rocking ‘You’re The One That I Want’ which somehow fitted in perfectly with the vibe and atmosphere he and his band created. A class act.
Sunday’s strongest selection was once again delivered from Stage One with veteran acoustic player and performance genius Loudon Wainwright III playing from a stool (recovering from recent surgery) and providing his standard mix of witty lyrics, cleverly understated guitar playing, and an endless variety of facial expressions for the big screen to pick up. Not for nothing is Loudon one of this event’s most frequent, and appreciated performers. Although Stage One had the lion’s share of the audience for the evening, a special mention for another Cambridge legend, Martin Simpson, whose performance saw the Stage Two audience space packed to capacity, with plenty more people gathering at the open side of the marquee to catch a glimpse of his wonderful performance.
There is a time at any festival, where one moment of one performance by one artist or band encapsulates the special atmosphere unique to the event, and that was during The Oysterband’s very special show, when everyone, band and audience together experienced the sheer joy that is acoustic music played with passion and pleasure. This was a particularly hard act to follow, and that task was placed on the slim shoulders of festival headline performer, Jake Bugg.
It’s hard to believe that CFF’s proven antennae for spotting talent brought a teenage Jake Bugg to play the smallest stage, The Den, back in 2012. Now, five years later, he returned to headline the festival. During that time, Bugg’s impressive talents as songwriter and performer have seen him rise to the heights of popularity, and watching his show here, it’s very easy to see why.
As a singer and as a guitarist, Bugg transcends his appearance, and indeed his young age, with the breadth and maturity of his playing and singing. Armed only with a parlour-sized acoustic guitar and the occasional musical and moral support of his keyboard player, Bugg transfixed the audience from the start with the atmospheric voice he uses to deliver his poignant and emotional songs. For acoustic guitar fans, Bugg demonstrates his mastery of his instrument, mixing delicate fingerstyle work with ringing hard-hit chords, which he uses to build his unique soundscapes. It’s only when he speaks to the audience that you remember just how young he is; his shy, minimal stage chat, completely at odds with the lyrical visions he paints with his powerful vocal delivery. If he had any nerves about carrying the headline slot at this most prestigious of acoustic musical showcases, Bugg hid them well, and clearly enjoyed the rapt attention and ringing applause that greeted his performance tonight.
Folk music is varied and diverse in the instrumentation it uses to deliver – but it is fitting that the headline at the year’s – at times rain-sodden – festival is an acoustic musician. Proof if any were needed of the power and versatility of the acoustic guitar.
Until next year!