CAMBRIDGE FOLK FESTIVAL
29 July 1 August 2010
Ticket sales for the 46th Cambridge Folk Festival had not been what they might have been, particularly weekend ones, but on the selfish side that meant a nice small queue to get in and plenty of space to camp. A stroll round the site also revealed a couple of excellent additions to the general ambiance. The Tree Of Lost Things is a tree with strings hanging off it where you can tie a luggage label with something you've lost written on it. It's a poignant but also funny experience looking at the labels as "innocence" nestles next to "my pint." Positively groaning with the weight of labels by Sunday afternoon, it proves a great success. As indeed is David Owen's subversive pop-art, which appears all round the site. Undercutting familiar and conventional images they're sought out and photographed frequently and you can see the full set in his gallery here. http://theinkcorporation.co.uk/the-gallery/
And so to the music. The four main acts of the opening evening all promised much on paper, but all only partially delivered. Openers Ezio have great songs from Ezio Lunedei and great guitar from Mark "Booga" Fowell but theirs was a set more reminiscent of contractual obligation than fire and emotion. It wasn't bad no set that contains songs like "Braver Than You Are" could be just lacking in oomph. By contrast flavours de jour Port Isaac's Fishermans Friends had oomph in spades, or at least they did when they sang together. Unfortunately the Cornish shantymen's live approach, with different members leading successive songs, exposed some less than powerful (and in one case less than in tune) voices. To be fair, this is a group of local friends who sing for fun and have suddenly been catapulted into the limelight, but Coope, Boyes and Simpson they aren't. The between song introductions are an entertaining mix of innuendo and straight smut, but position the band at the novelty end of the market and they're better than that, because when they got it right the raw emotional power of their performances was spine-tingling.
Following that set was never going to be easy but Lissie, another whose star is not so much rising as exploding, rose to the challenge. For once it's easy to see what the hype is about as she has a gutsy voice, a feisty and endearingly gauche persona, a funky band and some great tunes. The whole however is curiously less than the sum of those parts. For every good song there's one that starts with a great hook but degenerates into chugging, and another that never quite starts at all. Too much of the set sounds like superior AOR and if that floats your boat fine, but she appears capable of so much more so it would be a pity if she settled for less.
Festival band of the summer Stornoway headlined in the by now traditional nu-folk slot filled in previous years by Noah & the Whale and Laura Marling. With a debut album to draw on that's been (rightly) praised to the skies, filled with delicate tunes, great lyrics and wistful singing from Brian Biggs they sweep all before them with the audience alternately hanging on and screaming to their every word. A neutral observer though, of which in fairness it must be said there are few, at least at this gig, would note that despite having performed in some form for more than five years they are not a natural stage band and Brian Biggs is not a natural front man. Presence, patter, everything that distinguishes a live show from an album, are all absent. The songs are faithfully reproduced and that's it. Is that enough? The audience would say, indeed scream, yes and it may be for now but for the future, when they're no longer the next big thing, probably not.
On Friday Breabach open the main stage. Opinions on them will undoubtedly be conditioned by whether you like bagpipes or not, as they feature two sets. Personally I do, but even for me there's not enough abandoned wild skirling for my liking, possibly out of consideration for those who don't but apart from that it's a respectable if not especially outstanding set of diddlyness. Then come The Quebe Sisters for the first of their festival outings. Again fairness forces me to note that they went down an absolute storm. Their note for note recreation of "O Brother..." era music with three fiddles and harmonies plus bass and guitar is note-perfect. However there's no interplay between the fiddles, everything from the fixed smiles to the patter is cheesy beyond belief and above all the songs all sound the same, whether it's the pain of "Cold Cold Heart" or the jauntiest singalong. After the first fifteen minutes I found them dull, but this was an opinion I was to revise on Saturday, though perhaps not in the way you might expect.
Following on was the much heralded collaboration between ace Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon and rockabilly girl Imelda May. Conversation centred on how on earth it would work, given that Shannon is not noted for her stage presence and May is the polar opposite. In the event it didn't matter, because what was presented was a standard (good, but standard) Shannon set with May guesting for three numbers during which Shannon and her musicians acted as her backing band. Apart from one song of the three, "Go Tell The Devil" where Shannon's accordion weaved in and out of May's feisty vocals with gay abandon true collaboration was there none.
A shot interlude in the Club Tent for Peter Buckley-Hill to weave his eccentric comedy magic and it's back to the main stage for Seth Lakeman, who has a new and somewhat different album in tow. The crowd roar for the old foot-stompers but is less certain about the new more understated material, which illustrates his dilemma perfectly. Still it's a fine set and hits the perfect balance between pounding rocking beats accompanied by sawing fiddle and more thoughtful and quieter storytelling. A change of pace is provided by Belshazzar's Feast in the Club Tent. Paul Sartin (Bellowhead) and Paul Hutchinson are both very accomplished musicians but here play it for laughs, with mis-steps, banter and genial insults (each other and the audience). Between all this though there's some superb playing and their forty minutes passes all too quickly. From here it's hotfoot to Stage 2 to catch Mama Rosin, who provide a storming finish to the evening. A Swiss trio who weave all manner of music into their basic Cajun sound, they provide a dirty, high energy opportunity for the capacity crowd to throw themselves about, one that they avail themselves of to a man, and who could blame them with music this good.
Saturday opens with Joe Pug on the main stage. Regardless of the quality of his songs, and they're not bad, he is the most shameless early Dylan impersonator I've seen nasal style, harp, phrasing, word style, you name it and I beat a hasty retreat. Much the same happens when the next big collaboration, The Burns Unit, take the stage. Featuring musicians from Canada and Scotland their shtick is to bang drums very hard and be generally loud. Oh, and they've got a rapper. PBS6 do this sort of thing so much better so the bar beckons. Up next though is what proves to be another festival highlight, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Fundamentally they do the same thing as the Quebe Sisters take an old style of music and old songs and present it to a new generation but the gulf between the acts is vast. The CCDs have energy, exuberance and joy, are better musicians and have an honest presentation none of that "were all so glad to be here at <fill in name of location here> rubbish from them. Their black string and jug band music is a hoot and the whole tent, no in fact the whole site, goes mad for them
Over on Stage 2 Jackie Oates plus band deliver a beautiful and delicate set. Oates' voice is one of the finest around, possessed of a sweet and beguiling naivety that works perfectly on her cover of The Sugarcubes "Birthday" but also on the true desolation of "Past Caring" where it conveys the depths of despair in the song to perfection. The band is also ace, quiet, understated, no fancy footwork, just what the music needs. She's followed by Johnny Flynn, a man blessed (or cursed) with looks that bring all the screamers to the tent. He plays guitar, fiddle and trumpet annoyingly well and writes great songs, as close to folk as nu-folk. Oh, and he's great on stage. Despite competing with The Unthanks on the main stage he pulls a big crowd and delivers a fine set.
Next comes country diva Kathy Mattea in acoustic mode in the first of the big American slots. Now, let it be understood that she can most definitely still cut it but if I hear one more artist explain how they were prompted to embark on a quasi-spiritual journey by one event or another (these things without exception always happening when, as Spinal Tap would have it, their appeal has become more selective) I shall not be accountable for my actions. Just spare me the worthiness and sing the damn songs! Curmudgeon's Corner may be my natural home but really, next!
A visit to the Club Tent restores my spirits, as Fay Hield delivers some hardcore trad, including an unaccompanied and extremely long murder ballad that has "seeping flesh" and "the scent of death spreading." Marvellous. Next in the same tent, which is packed to bursting, come The Quebe Sisters for their second set and this is where my opinion of them changes. Previously, you'll recall (or at least I hope you will, it was after all barely two screens ago) I was merely bored by them. Since then however I have seen the Chocolate Drops and when the sisters launch into a set identical in every respect to their previous one (and I mean identical, songs, order, word for word patter, stage movements, the lot) I realise that I actually hate them. Why? They're slick, sugary, soulless, and cynical, they're like Mcdonalds and have every chance of being as big. They probably have meetings about how best to maximise their product opportunities and practice their fixed rictus grins in front of the mirror. Curmudgeon's corner is starting to feel like my natural home.
Fortunately Natalie Merchant is on next on the main stage and she, well she is just perfect. As artistically uncompromising as any screaming "we mean it maaaan!" rocker, her latest album of old and obscure poems set to music shouldn't work but it does and the crowd lap it up. She ventures on to hallowed territory by doing "Crazy Man Michael" but does it magnificently and her eclectic set, one minute a country hoedown, the next a slow jazzer has soul and passion to burn and will prove to be the best thing at the festival by some margin.
A quick visit to the Club tent for Cruel Folk (biker folk, a trifle too scatological perhaps but fun) and Dave Wood (writer of "May the Kindness," covered by Jackie Oates) for some peace, love and understanding and Saturday is done.
Sunday, according to the schedule, promises to be a series of mad dashes but all is calm at first as Jackie Oates opens the Main Stage in appropriate fashion. A lovely "Sweet Nightingale" is the highlight and her developing between song dry wit entertains. She also varies her set from Saturday, which is a Good Thing. By contracts Gretchen Peters may only have a keyboard accompanist and her own acoustic guitar but boy does she make some noise with them. Equal best moments are her tribute to Alex Chilton, a slowed right down and painfully tense version of "The Letter" and her story of getting a million dollars donated to Planned Parenthood in Sarah Palin's name after she briefly used "Independence Day" as her campaign song. Peters speculated that Palin didn't listen to the words before using it. Me, I suspect she did but refudiated them.
Next on the agenda are The Jolly Boys on Stage 2. All at least 60, they play mento, the forerunner of Jamaican reggae. Now I know nothing of mento but on this evidence it appears to be soporific easy listening covers of the likes of "Golden Brown", "Perfect Day" and "Do It Again". The crowd love it but yet again it's Curmudgeon's Corner, population me.
Fortunately Show of Hands are next on the Main Stage. At their own gigs they can appear over-professional, stripped of some of the spontaneity that makes a gig what it is but in a constrained festival set, well it's like Queen at Live Aid. They came , they saw, they conquered. "Country Life, Cousin Jack" and above all "Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed," their righteous skewering of bankers, are all faultless and Steve Knightley is not above sending himself up, noting "AIG"'s debt to Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" by singing several bars, much to the crowds delight.
I next hasten to the Club Tent to catch Johnny Kearney and Lucy Farrell who are very young, very nervous but very very good. Totally convincing, shorn of all artifice, they sing delicate traditional songs and one or two of their own, and even manage to turn the nursery rhyme "Jack & Jill" into a haunting lament. Future stars without a doubt. A stroll to Stage 2 offers The Unthanks in their new full-on incarnation with getting on for a dozen people on stage. The pudding is a little over-egged but Becky & Rachel's voices are always worth hearing and they are clearly striving to move their music on, which can only be applauded.
And so to Harper Simon. Son of Paul, half, with Edie Brickell, of The Heavy Circles (whose first album of two years ago will hopefully be their last) he is frankly appalling and achieves the near impossible feat of all but clearing the tent. Can't sing, can't play, doesn't dance (not even a little). "Nepotism" is a word much bandied about afterwards and while I'm sure that the festival organisers endeavour to book acts on merit the ball was not so much dropped here as flung on to the next pitch. The hour he's allocated does however have one positive it leaves plenty of time to acquire more beer.
Festival headliner Kris Kristofferson, while almost certainly not the best choice commercially, and cause of a number of "who?" questions in the preceding days has the presence, gravitas and above all songs to succeed. This, after all, is the man who wrote “Sunday Morning Coming Down” “Help Me Make It through the Night” and “Me And Bobby McGee”, all of which are played and all of which are excellent and while his newer material may not be their equal (but then whose is?) it's at worst solid and he comes away having won the crowd over. It's just left to Show of Hands to wind things up on Stage 2, and wind them up they surely do, with a different but equally rousing set that is the perfect finish and sends everyone out happy.
Musically this was a solid year rather than an outstanding one but as ever some superlative performances, with Natalie Merchant, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell leading the way. On the infrastructure down side the roll of dishonour is headed by (but by no means limited to) the food, which remains dull and dreadful, the smallness of the new screens and the ridiculous refund management for the (excellent) glass recycling scheme. All these things and others need sorting, particularly as ticket sales appear to be declining after years of instant sell-out, though this year at least that may well be down to the bill, which wasn't that commercial and lacked anything to provide any of the unique "Cambridge moments" that were a feature of past festivals. Fortunately these things should not be difficult to fix and the festival remains the best of the season