Cambridge Folk Festival 2017: The Report

Feature by John Nugent | 23 Aug 2017

The first thing you notice at Cambridge Folk Festival is the camp chairs. It’s not unusual to see camp chairs at an outdoor music festival, but at Cambridge – a venerated veteran of the festival calendar, with more than a few CFF veterans in attendance – camp chairs are something of a way of life. They’re everywhere. Within minutes of the site opening, a vast army of camp chairs arrange themselves across every available space of the arena, in neatly ordered rows, stretching to the horizon. It’s as if Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was sponsored by Millets.

Now in its 53rd year, Cambridge works hard to remain relevant and contemporary, and despite the occasional camp chair-y visual reminder of the event’s rather mature side, there’s plenty to keep things fresh. It begins with an extremely welcome All-Female Friday, with strictly female-led artists across the two main stages on day one, including interesting acts like Lisa Hannigan, Amythyst Kiah and the She Shanties (geddit?) kicking things off nicely.

Bokanté caps Friday night off on Stage 2 in considerable style – seven musicians from four continents flood the stage and engage a by-now giddy crowd into an intoxicating blend of Afrobeat, blues and Caribbean folk. “I know British schools teach Guadeloupean Creole,” quips guitarist Michael League, “but for those who skipped a class, please welcome your translator for the evening,” neatly introducing dazzling lead singer Malika Tirolien. It is, to put it delicately, too eclectic for some of the Cambridge old guard – “self indulgent,” mutters one audience member during an extended allegorical story about a frog – but for most of the crowd, Bokanté, still on their maiden tour, bring an energy and excitement that few acts match this weekend.

And yet, it is a veteran of the festival that leaves the biggest first impression. Shirley Collins, appearing on the main stage a couple of weeks after her 82nd birthday, must be one of the few performers who actually appeared at the original festival incarnation in 1965. Collins’ recent return to the folk scene after almost 40 years of absence is a tragic tale worthy of a folk song itself: after her husband left her suddenly for another woman, Collins found herself without a voice, unable to sing due to dysphonia. But there’s little evidence of this unhappy chapter on stage here – Collins is delightful company, warm and matriarchal, happy to chuckle along to quaint old ditties like Pretty Polly and Old Johnny Buckle. Her voice may have changed since the ‘60s heyday, but the same fierce reverence for an ancient tradition is there.

When Saturday comes, an enthusiastic drum circle in the campsite helps digest a stringently organic breakfast. But more sustenance can be found in the main arena, where a sea of brollies have opened across the camp chair army with regimental orderliness. Mawkin do a decent job of dusting away the cobwebs with their mix of blues, folk and rock; Moxie, who follow, are well-named, showcasing plenty in a vigorous Irish lilt. But in a single-genre festival, it’s the acts who stretch the template that make the biggest impact.

And so it goes with Fantastic Negrito, who explode onto Saturday afternoon with a riot of Californian blues rock that wakes the dozing camp chair residents up like a bolt. “UK, you can kiss me,” screams Xavier Dphrepaulezz; Cherry Hinton Hall seems ready, if bashful, to politely oblige this entreaty. Smatterings of Hendrix are obvious but lyrics like 'America, the shining light / I’ve been waiting so hard but they still won’t let me be' are powerful and painfully relevant.

Over on Stage 2, Roxanne De Bastion impresses with a serious, atmospheric set loaded with powerful themes. A sweet, mellow blend of old folk and new, she sings emotional songs about her hometown of Berlin, her grandfather, a Hungarian pianist, and “not repeating the same mistakes of history”, in one of many stage-level calls-to-action witnessed over the weekend.

Plenty of artists are keen to keep the protest tradition of folk alive. While The Orchestra Of Syrian Musicians seem plucked from the headlines, their mere presence on stage telling a fascinating and tragic story, it’s a largely apolitical set. The best dressed act of the festival (tuxedos and cocktail dresses), they play traditional Syrian music: strings and singers engaging in haunting, meditative, and often fun, inspiring the sleepy afternoon crowd into clapping and dancing. For a group quite literally torn apart and brought together by civil war, it’s hard not be stirred.

Back to the smaller stage, Belshazzar's Feast offer a uniquely English experience. The trad two-piece engender a boisterous belly laugh of an atmosphere, each song dripping with drollery and apocryphal backstories. The music is only slightly more serious: traditional, and seriously accomplished, but still playful, drawing from an array of instruments of varying sincerity. The Cor Anglais is an austere instrument; the slide whistle, less so. We’re treated to “the only love song from Norfolk to involve two separate families”, a genuinely funny game of ‘Consequences’ in which the crowd selects songs from an English Folk Songbook, and occasional left turns into The Archers theme tune or No Nay Never.

The festival’s first guest curator, Jon Boden, could be found everywhere this weekend, popping up as a guest musician a few times. The erstwhile Bellowhead frontman’s main set is with his band The Remnant Kings, but while the folk faithful are sated, it’s a curiously subdued affair, lacking the vigour needed to cut through the evening drizzle. Those suffering from fiddle fatigue could find refuge in the humble Club Tent, which frequently volunteered more intriguing delights, like Brian McNeill, who pleasingly sets up one song with a story about a visit to the National Mining Museum; the John Ward Trio, who intersperse bodhrán drum solos with charming folksy strains like Jack the Lad and Jenny Followed the Fish; or Charlie Grey and Joseph Peach, two Scottish lads who look young enough to have been ID'd for the cans of beer they swig periodically, but play sweet, simple and effective instrumentals on violin and piano.

Alas, it can’t all be so solid: Celtic rockers Skerryvore close the main stage on Saturday, and are every bit the cheesy, dad-friendly Radio 2 dirge they threaten to be from the moment we’re asked to get our mobile phone lights out, Robbie Williams-style. When the frontman cheerfully informs us: “This one’s called Good To Go,” it feels as good a time for us to actually go. Saturday might have ended earlier, had we not stumbled upon the singular pleasures of silent disco line dancing, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Come Sunday, the need for more esoteric fare away from the main stages becomes keener, and The Den – a small tent near a pond, with patterned rugs on the ground and fringed lampshades hanging from the ceiling – provides it. Coming direct “from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky”, Sam Gleaves brings Southern hospitality to the soggy fields of Cambridgeshire with eminently likeable bluegrass folk. Flitting between a banjo and fiddle (the latter of which he smilingly admits cannot produce a good face while playing), Gleaves sings wholesome ditties with a modern edge – some about living as a gay man in the rural south, others about the current US political situation (“every artist has a ‘November song’”, he says, referring to Trump’s election).

Elsewhere in The Den, Count Drachma get past the possible accusations of cultural appropriation with good humour (“I presume none of you speak Zulu?”), rousing musicianship, and the caveat that half of the band are from South Africa. It might seem odd for a largely white band to perform largely Zulu & Xhosa folk songs, but it works beautifully: slick, sunny, slightly jazzy and instantly warming. Back on the main stage, Loudon Wainwright III is as close to folk royalty as this bill gets (even if, in the minds of some, he’s been eclipsed by his talented progeny). Hobbling to the stage, Wainwright seems to acknowledge his place with sharp wit, expressing surprise at the young people in the crowd before embarking on a song about being an old fogey, and threatens to play Kumbaya if we don’t join in.

As if to emphasise the tension between old and new that Cambridge grapples with, Jake Bugg follows Wainwright on the main stage a couple of hours later. Five years earlier, he appeared at The Den as a relative unknown; today, he’s a chart-botherer, major label heartthrob, and the festival’s big commercial draw – and still only 23. Bugg stays acoustic and mostly unaccompanied throughout his set, and perhaps lacks the charisma a headliner ought to offer; there’s a sense the crowd are waiting impatiently to hear Lightning Bolt, aka 'the one from the advert’, so they can all go home.

Those who stay are rewarded with the unique charms of Hayseed Dixie, a band who invented the genre ‘rockgrass’, playing pacy bluegrass cover versions of pop-rock standards like Ace Of Spades and Seven Nation Army. It’s an atypically energetic end to a generally rather genteel festival; enough, even, to rouse a stoic camp chair occupant away from his crossword and into one final, frantic dance.