Cambridge Folk Festival 2014 @ Cherry Hinton Hall, 31/07/2014 – 3/08/2014

Cambridge Folk Festival 2It may not be as big as Glastonbury or as hip as Latitude, but as it turns 50, it's clear that Cambridge Folk Festival is doing something right. A commitment to showcasing the best live music regardless of mainstream fads along with a family friendly, laid back atmosphere have made this event a firm favourite with musicians and festival goers alike, with many returning year-after-year. The organisers are going all out for this year's 50th anniversary extravaganza, and over a long weekend they turn Cherry Hinton Hall, a humble park outside the centre of Cambridge, into a world-class venue for outstanding new acts, established names and living legends.

The Thursday evening programme is a meze platter of international sounds before the festival gets into full swing on Friday with the opening of the main stage. Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin kick things off on Stage, 2 performing on violin, vocals, guitar, harmonica, human beatbox and stomp box between them. This is no warm up to a half-empty tent but an outstanding set from a dynamic duo worthy of a peek time slot. The marquee becomes even more crowded when the heavens open to baptise the festival ensuring a huge crowd for Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita. It’s an unlikely collaboration, beautifully entwining the music of Wales and Senegal. In sharp contrast to the duo’s tranquil melodies Pokey LaFarge and his band from Missouri follow with a blazing set of old school American folk rock.

Finally, Newton Faulkner brings things back home and up-to-date with his innovative English folk music, first performed in a showcase slot at the 2006 folk festival. He’s greeted with rapturous applause as he performs songs from last year’s Studio Zoo album along with earlier classics. He’s joined for part of the set by a guitarist, cellist and backing vocalist which he admits he isn’t used to. The charismatic one man band certainly seems to have little need for his bandmates, though they brilliantly embellish closing song “Write It on Your Skin” with some atmospheric drone and distortion.

It’s a diverse and culturally rich opening night on the second stage. Perhaps the most memorable moment comes from The Mariachis (as seen on the Doritos advert) who performing traditional numbers and covers. These include “Whatever You Want” by Status Quo among the crowd and grabbing ladies to dance with them as the sun emerges from behind thick storm clouds.

Festival goers sunning themselves in front of the main stage on Friday have a rich programme of music to enjoy while lounging in their deck chairs, though New York blues outfit Hazmat Modine demands a bit more energy. The line-up, which includes tuba and claviola, deliver a rocking set led by athletic front man Wade Schuman, who alternates between vocals and high speed harmonica solos.

Fisherman’s Friends are another early highlight. This group of genuine Cornish fishermen singing sea shanties is one of the most unlikely success stories of recent years. The eight singers' combined voices are quite phenomenal and their rendition of South Australia is particularly rousing.

Elsewhere there’s entertainment available in more intimate settings. The club tent’s afternoon programme is filled with musicians from the region's folk clubs playing short sets. Not all the performances have the impact of the main stage acts, but the musicians play from the heart and there’s plenty of variety for the audience.

The People’s Front Room is a marquee big enough for half a dozen people and lavishly furnished with sofas, carpets, red wallpaper and surreal decor. It’s worth visiting just to sprawl on its comfy furniture, and to catch a a solo set by soul singer Rebecca Heyne, who leaves one with no desire to leave. The Den offers a similar atmosphere on a larger scale, giving a formidable platform for new acts including light acoustic pop outfit The Intermission Project.

In the evening, though, the acts on the main stage are unmissable. Richard Thompson is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest living guitarists and songwriters. Hearing him perform a solo acoustic set, it’s not hard to see why. He doesn’t seem to consider playing less than half a dozen notes per bar a fair challenge and his lyrics strike a chord with anyone who has ever lived and loved. Every word and note resonates with perfect clarity across the evening air.

Sinead O’Connor opens her set with a cover of John Grant's “Queen of Denmark”. The song is a perfect vehicle for her entire vocal range from soft and tender to heavy rock fury. She may have released her best known work decades ago, but her voice remains incredible and capable of delivering powerful results in any genre she works in.

If everyone in the world grabbed an instrument and started dancing and jamming, it would probably sound something like Afro Celt Sound System, who return to the festival they first played in the 90s to close Friday night with a massive multi-ethnic stage show. Musicians on Irish, African and Indian instruments jive and duel on stage. Acoustic instruments blend with hardcore electronica creating infectious rhythms in a frenzied circus of music and dance.

Extraordinary showmanship and living folk heritage is the order of the day on the main stage on Saturday. The embodiment of English folk Martin Carthy duets with his daughter Eliza Carthy in a set that’s informal and professional in equal measure. Eliza kicks off her shoes after walking on stage, and then the two have a brief discussion about lyrics before playing their hearts out.

Later North Mississippi Allstars kick up an almighty racket. The three members all do a bit of vocals, guitar and percussion. The latter is by far their favourite with clattering beats accompanying their raucous rock and roll. In the middle of the set they all take up drums and made a procession through the packed tent, beating a tight rhythm all the way.

There are many fine singer-songwriters throughout the day delivering instantly memorable lyrics, including festival regulars Megson whose title track from their latest album In a Box is a touching and amusing song about being sentimentally attached to junk in the attic. The queue to see them in the club tent stretches halfway across the field.

On the second stage O’Hooley and Tiddow sing songs of factories, and children separated from their parents, and a rollicking song about real ale to keep the spirits up. Moulettes enchant their audience with myths and fairy tales woven into songs with elaborate multi-instrumental arrangements. The seven members, most playing at least two instruments, must have caused a headache for the tech crew but the lengthy setup time is worth the wait.

Richard Thompson demonstrated the previous night how much skill it takes to hold an audience of thousands with only guitar and voice. Loudon Wainwright III rises to the challenge and quickly wins the crowd over with his rich sense of humour. “This is a folk festival,” he cries after a heckler's repeated attempts to de-rail his second song. “Let’s all sing Kumbaya then beat the shit out of him!” Along with songs old and new, Wainwright pays tribute to his family with songs about his mother and son, and recites an essay on a family dog his father wrote for Life Magazine, five to ten minutes of pure spoken word that grips the audience as much as the music.

Few artists have lived a life as musically rich as Roseanne Cash, who performed with her legendary father from an early age. She plays a sublime set embellished with tales of her life and family history, a unique and unmissable experience for fans of country and American folk.

Peatbog Faeires bring the night to a rousing finish with traditional Scottish dance music spliced with techno. Bagpipes and fiddle versus electric guitar and synths kick off a crazy new-age rave until the curfew.

Sunday starts and ends with comedy. Singer-songwriter Will Varley gives an entertaining early afternoon set in the Den with songs about the history of the world and self service checkouts among other random topics - a budding British Loudon Wainwright.

There is a birthday surprise on stage two as Kate Rusby, full of northern charm, plays a set including songs from her new album. The stage is packed with musicians and up-and-coming US singer Sarah Jarosz, who played both main stages over the weekend, joins in for a couple of songs.

The evening line-up on the main stage features world music stars Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The melodies of the male African choir, now into their third generation, are a beautiful soundtrack to the summer evening. They are followed by Van Morrison, a man of few words but bursting with music. He performs his hits assuredly backed by a big band that never seem to miss a note. Predictably, “Brown Eyed Girl”, given a light jazz reworking, gets everyone on their feet, as does the closer “Gloria”. The band continues an energetic jam long after their leader has left the stage.

Still, the festival is not quite over. Kate Rusby returns to lead a sing-along of folk classic “Wild Mountain Thyme”, then dance bands keep the party going on the main stages till the close. The club tent, however, offers something more off the wall. New Rope String Band performs jigs, reels, slapstick and magic in a highly original comedy show. Many a traditional folk tune was played on guitar, accordion and fiddle over the weekend, but the three man troupe are the only ones to play one by hitting each other with multicoloured plastic tubes fired from a homemade catapult. The show also features ingenious routines mixing video and live action, and semi-nudity. It’s an irreverent, side-splitting finale to a very special folk festival.

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