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Cambridge Folk Fest: Dori Freeman, Nancy Kerr, Anna & Elizabeth, and Stick in the Wheel

Just south of Cambridge, England, lies Cherry Hinton Hall, the park that hosts Cambridge Folk Festival. It’s a quintessential English park with the duck pond, the young families, the wide-open grassy spaces, and the consequent wildlife.

For one long weekend every summer though that all changes. Over the last few days of July around fourteen thousand people descend on Cherry Hinton Hall to experience  live some of the finest roots, American country, folk, gospel, Bluegrass, singer songwriter, Cajun, ceilidhs, blues and klezmer that can be curated into a four-day period.

Way back in 1965 the original Cambridge Folk Festival managed to flog 1,400 tickets, which almost, but not quite, succeeded in covering costs. That first bill included the Clancy Brothers, Peggy Seeger, and a young Paul Simon who released The Paul Simon Songbook that same year. Roll on half a century, and on its 50th birthday the festival was awarded the Good Tradition Award at BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, which, to quote the BBC, was given for a “contribution to the preservation, dissemination and continuance/progression of traditional music over a number of years.”

Over those years the cream of the creamiest have graced the festival’s stages. From Joan Baez, to Richard Thompson, and the likes of Van Morrison, Sinéad O'Connor, Martin Carthy, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Lucinda Williams, John Prine, Keb' Mo', and Billy Bragg - the list goes on. However, it’s not just the established performers that set the pace; there is a healthy focus on new talent, on fresh and contemporary takes on the art. At Cambridge you find an international ‘Pick n Mix’ of folk/roots royalty and young upstarts – pretenders to the throne.

Appalachian singer songwriter Dori Freeman is performing on the festival’s emerging talent stage ‘The Den’ this year. Freeman released her self-titled debut album Dori Freeman, (produced by Teddy Thompson) earlier in 2015. Cambridge is the only European show she is playing in July. “Cambridge Folk is one of those hailed festivals you hear musicians rave about” she told me when I asked how come the long trip for just one festival. “So many of my favourite artists have played there - Fairport Convention, the Wainwrights, Caitlin Rose, a lot of good ones. I don't think I could ask for a better introduction to the UK than playing this fest.”

She’s been touring a lot since the album’s release. “I had the pleasure of opening a handful of shows for Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones which was the perfect way to start out my "touring" experience.” At Cambridge she’ll most likely be performing solo. “I’ll be playing acoustic versions of songs I recorded with a full band on the album. I've also written some new songs over the last year that I'm excited to share. And I've been working in a few of my grandfather's songs as of late so I might sneak one of those in there as well.”

Folk musician Nancy Kerr is a different kettle of fish. Having played the festival previously, she is heading back with a full band for a return visit this year. According to the songwriter and fiddle player “the gorgeous warm audience definitely represents the highest density of friendly, supportive lovers of good music per square foot you could find anywhere.” It makes sense then that her performance at the festival will have a special element to it.  She is releasing her new album Instar in September, which examines the interaction between people and the environment- a thread that runs through numerous folk songs. There will be preview copies of Instar available on the day, and “Cambridge mainstage on Friday will be the place where we perform most of the material for the very first time” she explained. “It’s a huge pleasure for me and very significant.”

Kerr, who was 2015’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards ‘Folk Singer of the Year’ is debuting a special 6-piece line-up of her Sweet Visitor Band at her mainstage show. “This has never happened before and may not again in quite the same way. Arrangements for the songs on the new album vary from sonic fullness with drums, guitars, bass and fiddles, to pared-down acoustic textures featuring sounds like Rowan Rheingans’ amazing ban-sitar and James Fagan’s bouzouki. Gifted bassist Rick Foot is guesting with us. My focus is on my vocals, but showcasing fiddle and acoustic guitar too. Ultimately I’m very lucky in that it’s all aimed at supporting the content of my songs and really communicating their narratives and message – which are about contacting the truth, hope and humanity in troubled times.”

American traditional musicians Anna and Elizabeth will be offering their own very special take on folk art at Cambridge, in this their second visit to England. Both members of the duet, Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth Laprelle are not only extraordinary musicians; they are also visual artists, historians, and storytellers.  “We found the audiences (last year) to be just so wonderful and such appreciative listeners to these old songs. It’s been fun, as well, to connect with some of the musicians from the UK and Ireland.”

Anna and Elizabeth’s distinctive approach to their art looks set to unfold a heritage-inspired performance that will stay with their audience long after the festival. “This winter, we took time off the road to spend time in the places that we are from — Vermont, and rural Virginia, to learn more about the traditional songs from both regions. We visited archives, interviewed the families of singers that had been recorded in the 1940s, and retraced the steps of ballad collectors. This spring, we spent six weeks at an artist retreat, exploring the material we found — the songs, stories and tunes — arranging the music, making new visual elements and puppets, and writing. (We’re) really excited to start to share some of this material with audiences!”

Sun to Sun, their 2012 album of ballads, lullabies and dance tunes from the Southern tradition, is due to be reissued with remastered audio this September. “The songs from that record have never really left the rotation in our live sets — or in our lives” they told me,  adding “the bulk of them come from a pair of amazing traditional singers — Addie Graham, from Kentucky, and Texas Gladden, from Virginia, both of whom passed many decades ago. We’ve had the great pleasure of learning about them, and their music, from their grandchildren. (We’re) excited to continue to tell those stories. Besides, they’re beautiful beautiful songs.”

London Folk group, Stick in the Wheel, played Cambridge Folk Festival last year to a packed out tent. “We were one of the five "breakthrough acts" to showcase at the Club stage” they explained, “with one act being asked back for 2016. So I guess that's us.”

To describe themselves they say: “We play the music of our people. We sing in our own accents. We record in our kitchens and living rooms. This is our culture, our tradition.” That DIY/punk/skiffle outlook is resonating with a growing number of people, culminating in 2015 offering up no less than nine nominations and awards of various hues.

That packed out tent gig at Cambridge last year just about passed without incident. “There was a lot of clapping along, and singing along as usual. I remember a lot of bemused faces initially, gradually turning into smiles” they recalled. “Hasp” is the quietest track we play and it's known for always invoking some sort of happening - recently we've had people fainting, audiences squabbling. This time I think we got away without incident. We did a signing straight after so there was no time to reflect. When we got there, there was a massive queue but then we saw it was for another band and we had like, two people, and one of them was our mate Nidge. So it was fine.”

2016 has proved to be another massive year for the band. There have been two more folk award nominations, and then Billy Bragg invited them to play his Left Field stage at Glastonbury. “Selling out two nights at Cafe Oto back in May curating our own label residency, with Lynched and John Kirkpatrick, has been a high point” they went on to explain. “To pack that many non-folk people into an avant-garde contemporary music venue to listen to radical trad was something we're very proud of.  And we hope to do again.”

“Our From Here Records split release with Lynched that's just come out is not a conventional release either - it's a 24 page newspaper that comes with a download code - that seems to be flying out of the shops too. Ian (guitarist who produced the album) is in demand as a producer so he's always busy. Plus doing everything ourselves keeps us on our toes.”

Running from 28th - 31st July 2016, this is just a taste of what the festival has on offer. For more info visit Cambridge folk Festival.