Cambridge Folk Festival
1 – 4 August 2019
With a curated festival, which Cambridge now is, the attraction for many punters lies in the choices of the curator – in 2018, Rhiannon Giddens cast a strong Americana (for want of a better word) flavour over Cambridge. This year, Nick Mulvey has asserted a more eclectic world music influence, but there were still nuggets of Americana-ish joy to be had.
Opening Stage 2 on Thursday and Stage 1 later in the festival, Ben Caplan gave us a rowdy, carnie-esque set of tunes that threw up thoughts of a young, fiery Tom Waits. In a conversation with Ben he professed his admiration for TW and it was plain to see – there was more to Ben Caplan than mere homage though and his lively sets covered elements of folk and Gogol Bordello-ish gypsy music. Very entertaining – and he had yellow maracas on stage too…
The Rails also occupied a prime spot on Thursday. The new album “Cancel the Sun” sees them moving into rock star territory and this came over visually and sonically in their set, with a beefed up full band sound (“William Taylor” was quite anthemic in this context) and James Walbourne pulling out his best guitar god poses while spouse Kami Thompson was a great visual and musical foil. Having seen the Rails several times, it was clear that a great deal of preparation had gone into this set and it was rewarded with a rapturous response. Onwards and upwards – good luck to them.
Up against the 50th anniversary of Ralph McTell’s first Cambridge performance was Lucy Grubb in the Den. Her performance grew in confidence as her set progressed – references to Johnny Cash and a Kacey Musgraves cover (which actually paled in comparison with some of her own material) planted her firmly in a country camp. Possessing a melodic and narrative lyrical flare that was present in the tracks from her “Dear Walter” EP and other new songs, she displayed real commercial crossover potential.
Friday started with the Mojo interview in the Club Tent. Colin Irwin led Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico through an account of their musical background and history. Somewhat sparsely attended as the interview subjects hadn’t been announced in the programme, but most who were there were held in rapt attention by the guys’ musical war stories, internationalist world view and all-round niceness. Top blokes.
Kerri Watt was an early afternoon fixture on Stage 1. Visually striking in a vertical two shades of denim outfit (you had to be there) her voice – which was at times reminiscent of….Lulu….added a bit of character to a number of mid-paced songs. The addition of Will Pound on harmonica towards the end of the set added a bit more musical dynamism, but I’d like to hear full(er) band recordings before making a judgement.
Graham Nash was the penultimate act on the main stage on Friday and played a perfectly chosen and paced set. Lots of CSNY (and all their other incarnations) tracks and the hits like “Marrakesh Express” and “Love the One You’re With” were held back, after politically influenced earlier tracks like “Military Madness” and “Immigration Man” which found strong approval with the crowd. Ending on “Teach your Children well”, Nash was the perfect Cambridge “icon” act – and vocally and musically he still has fire in his belly.
Following that were Calexico and Iron & Wine – unusually for the final act at Cambridge, the crowd hung around (as opposed to dashing off for the last bus to the Coldham Common campsite). This was much more of a “proper” collaborative performance as opposed to the first time that they toured together where the set was one third Calexico, on third Iron & Wine and one third collaboration, or thereabouts. Most of the “Years to burn” album was played along with a cover of the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses”. Musically, the atmospheric soundscapes of the set brought the night to a relaxed end – for those familiar with the material, it was a subtle delight of a performance, but went somewhat against the Cambridge tradition of a night ending rabble-rousing set.
If the previous night ended on a more gentle note, that certainly couldn’t be levelled at Rob Heron and the Teapad Orchestra who – for me – put on one of the top performances of the festival first thing on Saturday on the main stage. While they have new material yet unreleased, they very wisely played a tried and trusted set of numbers like “Beaujolais”, “Life is a drag”, “Cats and Chickens” and High Speed train”. Add to that the band’s dry humour, charisma and enthusiasm and it was a recipe to melt the hearts of the most pure, died in the wool folkie. At the start of their set, the audience were just drifting into the tent. At the end, the place was rammed and they were going mad. Someone put RH & TTO on prime-time TV now and make them famous.
Often good things can be found on the smaller stages and I got a tip-off that The Marriage, playing in the Den, were worth checking out. I knew of Dave Burns through his role in ahab and Orphan Colours, but his duo with Kirsten Adamson (sister of Callum, ex-ahab and daughter of Stuart of Big Country) had criminally bypassed me. Singing songs about getting dumped rarely sounded so good. Dave’s guitar playing, not usually brought to the fore in Orphan Colours was on show here and very impressive it is too. Kirsten’s characterful voice was a real revelation, both as a lead and harmony instrument – shades of Emmylou and Gram and the Civil Wars (if they came from Edinburgh and London) are evoked by the duo. The pair hadn’t played for a year as Kirsten has had a baby, but the number of new songs performed and the stage talk of more to come was very welcome. Definitely the most pleasant surprise of the festival.
Later that same night was the much awaited return of Lucinda Williams to the Cambridge stage that she’d graced six years earlier (there was some trepidation amongst the time served journos in the pit at memories of unpleasantness surrounding that previous show) but fortunately all was well on this occasion. On this tour Lucinda has been playing all of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” but festival time constraints meant that she mixed highlights of the album into the set, along with other songs like “Something about what happens when we talk” and “West Memphis” as well as covers of “Can’t let go” by Randy Weeks and Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor”. A ten song set and three encores (An a capella “Faith and Grace”/”Get right with God”/”Foolishness”) exorcised fully the demons of her previous visit and brought her several more new fans.
Outside of the more obviously Americana type artists, Gruff Rhys performed a set that was part performance art to the bemusement of the folkier purists. Walking on with a sign that said “Applause” and another which said “Louder” – and then another that said “Prolonged applause” was not unexpected (yet still surprising) from the former Super Furry Animals man. Talisk, the Scottish trio had the final Saturday slot and played with a ferocious energy that scorched those hardy souls still standing from the day’s heat. Concertina player Mohsen Amini has to be seen to be believed in the energy of his performance – the perfect festival rabble-rousing band. Jose Gonzalez has come to wider attention through the use of his cover of the song “Heartbeats” in a TV ad and despite most of the audience seemingly only familiar with that song, he played a gentle set that went down well on a warm afternoon.
2020? Why not…
Courtesy Nick Barber
It should go without saying; but ………. ALL PHOTOS ARE SUBJECT TO COPYRIGHT LAWS. If you want to download/use any of Nick’s photos get in touch and we will organise ‘something’.
Ben Caplan – https://photos.app.goo.gl/HUZd3AMFFm2cCfku8
The Rails – https://photos.app.goo.gl/1Cgko9esqAA3MkEe7
Lucy Grubb – https://photos.app.goo.gl/RN9Tb45msad9T8Fw9
Kerri Watt – https://photos.app.goo.gl/vTRM4NdzoySqGzNd7
Graham Nash – https://photos.app.goo.gl/q4gr2rEBRhRDQk1T8
Calexico + Iron & Wine – https://photos.app.goo.gl/JSy9znT8p8KD9Ui68
Rob Heron & the Teapad Orchestra – https://photos.app.goo.gl/1ZjSHsMmGVNpHta19
The Marriage – https://photos.app.goo.gl/EKLhtqPGESXT9tMf9
Lucinda Williams – https://photos.app.goo.gl/Ctu8YkSfgJ6p9EHJ8
Gruff Rhys – https://photos.app.goo.gl/ZtmvmFo7EwzWhuqb7
Talisk – https://photos.app.goo.gl/oerWDsHFpoJtAgpg6
Jose Gonzalez – https://photos.app.goo.gl/LpC9XZNvX4k2sy8M6
Various Festival shots – https://photos.app.goo.gl/xcjbJMyvX7rfaUmz9