It may generally be seen as something of a niche or specialist festival, but the Cambridge Folk Festival defiantly refuses to conform to any stereotypes of what folk music is all about. In 2012, as in any other year, it is possible to catch some stalwarts of the UK folk scene (this year, Clannad and June Tabor performing with Oysterband are probably the best examples of this) but the festival takes an admirably broad view of what constitutes folk music, bringing acts from around the world into the relaxed, pleasant environment of Cherry Hinton. A long established event, it may not quite generate the same level of media excitement as Glastonbury or the controversial Hyde Park concerts, but it continues to go from strength to strength. With live music across four days, its also in some ways one of the longest and biggest festivals in the calendar, in duration if not necessarily in audience capacity.
This year, the festival has secured some real coups in rare performances from some justly legendary singer-songwriters. With performances from Roy Harper (with interest in his superb catalogue reinvigorated by the recent reissue programme) and, perhaps even more excitingly, from Nic Jones and John Prine (the latter still wildly underrated in this country), there is a veritable deluge of inspiration and insight across the weekend. All three should be unmissable. The final night is headlined by an intelligent and sophisticated songwriter now completely neglected by the media in the UK – Joan Armatrading. Its remarkable that Armatrading can still draw significant audiences in spite of almost zero publicity or acclaim. Whilst she has determinedly traversed her own path in recent years, eschewing attempts to court the mainstream, her work deserves wider recognition.
Further away from the headline acts, there are some tantalising prospects. The superb Beninoise singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo will deliver a no doubt thrilling performance, whilst Justin Adams and Juldeh Camaras JuJu project also look set to be a big festival highlight. Another collaborative project stands out in a crowded line-up – The Unthanks, already a wonderful ensemble in their own right, will perform with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. This should lead to some compelling and rich arrangements of traditional folk music and original songs.
Many performers have taken the opportunity to celebrate the centenary of Woody Guthries birth this year, none more appropriately than Billy Bragg, who so memorably brought some of Guthries unfinished songs to brilliant life with the Mermaid Avenue project. He headlines the Thursday night, bringing a celebration of Guthries life and music that promises to set a tremendously high standard for the rest of the weekend.
The Guthrie centenary naturally sets a useful context for the broader presence of American folk music in this diverse and exciting festival line-up. Keb Mo will bring a healthy dose of the blues, whilst Anais Mitchell will perform in a duo with her longstanding producer and arranger Michael Chorney. Mitchell and Chorney are finally getting some attention and acclaim over here, and Mitchells dense, compelling narratives will surely be a significant highlight of the festival.
So, for a supposedly specialist festival, the weekend promises a rich and varied line-up that will both satisfy and challenge the loyal audience, as well as no doubt attracting some curious newcomers. It promises to be a weekend to savour and remember.
Cambridge Folk Festival takes place from 26-29 July 2012 at Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge. More at cambridgefolkfestival.co.uk.