Cambridge Folk Festival Celebrates Fifty Years
As one’s own tally of birthdays piles up, a certain amount of nostalgia almost inevitably creeps into the annual festivities. That’s okay, I think, as long as you keep looking forward as well.
So it was with the great Cambridge Folk Festival, celebrating its Fiftieth birthday this year in typically eclectic and energetic fashion but with an appropriate nod to its heritage and the odd glance over its shoulder here and there.
Martin Carthy, who turned 73 just a few months ago, performed at only the second festival and has been back umpteen times since. But when he delivered a typically forthright and rousing set on the Saturday morning it was not only in the company of his daughter Eliza, herself no stranger to the Cambridge stage, but also with a new album, The Moral of The Elephant, to introduce, remarkably his first as a duo with Eliza.
Another familiar, always welcome, face at Cambridge is Richard Thompson. Indeed, I can still remember seeing him play a storming set with then-wife Linda at the first Cambridge folk festival I ever attended, in the mid-Seventies. His set on Friday evening was fully as brilliant as ever – you often still can’t quite believe it’s just the one guy playing – while on the Sunday evening over on Stage 2, his and Linda’s daughter Kami Thompson was herself playing, with James Walbourne, in their band The Rails.
There were echoes and bright shadows like that all over the place. The High Kings, for instance, featured Finbarr Clancy, son of Bobby Clancy, who had appeared with his brothers, and Tommy Makem, at the first Cambridge festival. You could even make a case for Ladysmith Black Mambazo reflecting not only the celebrated eclectism of the festival but also a little bit of its glorious history too, through their association with Paul Simon. Famously, as a complete unknown (and yet to find his direction home), Simon played at that first Cambridge Festival for the princely sum of £15.
I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out too far in suggesting that the likes of Sinead O’Connor and Van Morrison probably picked up a bit more than that for their respective appearances on the Saturday and Sunday nights. Whether they were to everyone’s taste or not (O’Connor, having apparently fallen through a time-warp into the Eighties, proved particularly divisive, although she at least smiled a bit onstage, unlike you-know-who), their presence proved just how determinedly inclusive the festival has always been.
Friday afternoon saw an emotional Festival return for the much-loved Fisherman’s Friends, making one of their first major live appearances since the tragic loss of singer Trevor Grills and tour manager Paul McMullen in a 2013 accident. That same afternoon saw the unveiling of a memorial bench to remember Ken Woollard who developed the Festival from its beginnings in 1965 until his death in 1993, with Ken’s widow Joan Woollard present to say a few words.
On a lighter note, Ken would no doubt have loved the way that not long after, the Festival’s smallest stage, The Den, which showcases up and coming young acts, had its first ever onstage marriage proposal when a Festival attendee asked for his girlfriend’s hand in marriage in front of a cheering crowd. Thankfully, she said yes!
Woollard would also have very much have approved of the fearlessly-raucous North Mississippi Allstars, I'm sure, despite the doubts of a few more trad-minded punters. But it would have been worth having them on the Main Stage on Saturday afternoon just to see the startled expressions on the faces of some less-attentive (dare I say, elderly) festival-goers who suddenly found the trio literally banging the drum for the Hill Country blues in their faces as they sashayed through the crowd.
Later on, over on Stage Two, they were repurposed as The Mississippi Mudbloods to accompany British bluesman Ian Siegal, who won over plenty of new fans, including BBC Radio’s Mark Radcliffe, as he disclosed over a pint of foaming ale, the better to fortify him between a live broadcast in the afternoon and a guest appearance with that night’s Stage Two headliner Seth Lakeman.
Although it seemed to me that there were fewer this year of the multiple appearances that have long been one of the most useful features of the festival, Lakeman himself doubled up earlier in the day as a member of The Full English. Inevitably dubbed a “folk supergroup” with Lakeman, Martin Simpson, Fay Hield, Nancy Kerr, Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron and Ben Nicholls in their number, they rarely get the chance to perform together live, so this was a fairly unique –and hugely enjoyable - opportunity to experience their re-imaginings of folk songs first collected in the early twentieth century and now digitized for all by the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
One day in the far future, someone may find themselves collecting the songs of Loudon Wainwright 111 – and what a treasure trove of hilarity, heartbreak, family history, strangeness, charm and unique artistry they’ll be exploring. Sometimes, and I’m ashamed to admit it, I find myself forgetting just how great he is and then I’ll hear an album, like his new gem Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet) or get to see him live once more and be firmly reminded.
Rosanne Cash, no slouch herself when it comes to great songwriting (and family history!), followed him onstage and generously acknowledged Wainwright as “one of the great songwriters of our time”. I’d seen her accompanied just by husband John Leventhal a few days before but here she had a full band, touching hearts and minds with a set substantially drawn from her wonderful collection The River & The Thread.
Like Kami Thompson, Eliza Carthy, the Dickinson brothers and various Wainwrights over the years, Cash comes from something of a musical dynasty. One of the particular pleasures of the Cambridge Folk Festival is spotting the youthful stars of the future alongside the splendid veterans, like the hugely engaging and proficient David Bromberg and Larry Campbell or the fierce Oysterband. Personally, I was hugely impressed, for instance, by Luke Jackson and Maz O’Connor, to name just two, who both showcased in the Club Tent.
But there’s always someone relatively new who seems to be everywhere and the name on people’s lips. This year it was Sarah Jarosz who won friends throughout the weekend. She even put in a guest appearance with the surprise guest on Stage 2 on Sunday afternoon. With hindsight, it was obvious that this spot had to go to Kate Rusby. The hugely-popular “Barnsley babe” is not only one of the brightest stars on the British folk scene but, like Eliza Carthy, she has virtually grown up amongst this crowd. Hardly anyone in the overjoyed capacity audience who tried to squeeze in to share their love and admiration will have heard her new album The Ghost yet but they still wanted to hear her play it live because they trust her to keep the tradition alive by pushing it forward.
Fittingly, Rusby also appeared later on Stage 1 immediately after Van Morrison’s headline set, to lead an emotional Festival crowd sing-a-long of the folk classic Wild Mountain Thyme.
And so the music lives on and the circle remains unbroken. Fifty years on and the Cambridge Folk Festival still feels younger than yesterday.
*Tickets for the 51st Cambridge Folk Festival will go on sale on 1 December 2014. The Festival will run from 30 July to 2 August 2015.