It hardly takes long for a Cambridge Folk Festival newbie to recognise just how important an event it is. Very family friendly, with truly excellent facilities and catering, the festival attracts an audience that spans generations, no doubt introducing many to artists they may not otherwise hear. If the true definition of folk is music for and of the people, then this festival succeeds on many levels. With artist signings, interviews, jam sessions and music workshops, it is a uniquely open and inclusive music event, with an intimate atmosphere and strong sense of community.
Love for the festival comes from beyond the audience too. It is clearly an event that the artists love. Keb Mo refers to it as one of the most prestigious events in the world,The Staves call it their favourite festival and blues singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster is delighted to be invited back. Not even a storm of biblical proportions on the closing day could dilute the high spirits that are in evidence everywhere on site.
There are two large stages, plus an endearingly tiny stage for up and coming artists called The Den, situated just outside the main arena as part of the campsite. This is where the quite wonderful London based singer-songwriter Eska performs early on Saturday. The announcer correctly identifies that Eska is operating within an English folk tradition, but there are also hints of soul, jazz and other improvised forms of music in the songs that constitute her warm, compelling English Skies project. This is a more low-key performance than her recent concert at Londons Queen Elizabeth Hall, cleverly adapted to suit the environment, with use of a multi-tracked backing choir on ipod and with some subtle textures and highly musical contributions from her supporting players, including the superb, versatile multi instrumentalist Julian Ferraretto. A rich and rewarding performance of some sophisticated music that deserves much wider attention.
For many festival-goers, the highlight of the day must have been the collaboration between the folk ensemble The Unthanks and the award winning Brigstock and Rastick Brass Band. The set draws from the bands back catalogue but also includes a suite commissioned specifically for this project, which makes great use of the rich colours and vibrant timbres of the brass band. It is striking how much dynamic control this band has – comfortably able to play extremely quietly when required. The cheesy Michael Buble (or Manhattan Transfer, as the band suggest) style swing of Queen of Hearts is a bit mawkish, and the insistence on letting every contributor have a turn on lead vocals often seems to leave Rachel and Becky Unthank in their seats, somewhat unsure of what to do with themselves. The sound, however, is consistently vivid and enthralling, and neatly capped off with a march past through the audience from the brass band at the end.
The ever popular Nanci Griffith could surely have had a headline slot but seems happy to be onstage in the early evening. She has a light, breezy sound and she combines steadfast left-libertarian politics with thoroughly inoffensive music played with disarming subtlety by her small ensemble (which includes the most inobstrusive of drummers). Her between-song patter finds her on fine form (the best day of my life was the day I drove myself out of Texas!) and her voice has a warm, ingratiating quality that perhaps explains her enduring success. She honours the Rolling Stones in their 50th anniversary year by playing No Expectations.The real highlight of the day must have been the legendary Roy Harper, whose voice seems to have acquired a greater gravitas with age, something that suits his judicious selection of songs from his substantial catalogue. He remains a master storyteller and peerless observer, and songs such as Another Day, When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease, and the tempestuous Me & My Woman are some of the greatest achievements in British acoustic music. The enraptured crowd are happy to indulge his apparent inability to operate his foot pedals.
Over on the second stage, the collaboration between Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara as JuJu brings the evening to a celebratory, thrilling conclusion, with complex and riveting grooves and a poised, spontaneous feel. It also provides a welcome respite from the singer-songwriter sound.
The massive hailstorm that drenched the site on Sunday lunchtime probably irritated many, but it certainly benefited Karine Polwart as everyone packed into the main marquee to escape the rain. Her understated delivery and thoughtful arrangements showed considerable skill. She also proved adept at engaging the audience, especially when joined by a small choir formed during her singing workshop the previous day.On the second stage, The Staves brought melancholy, slow paced tunes, beautiful harmonies and self mocking good humour to the delight of a large crowd. Even better was Anais Mitchell, joined by her longtime collaborator and friend from Vermont Michael Chorney on guitar. Mitchell delivered her richly imagined and nuanced narratives with compelling clarity, whilst Chorney provided intuitive and affecting musicianship on songs old and new, including two from the outstanding folk opera Hadestown. The blend between their two guitars seemed effortless. Towards the end of the set, she introduced Jefferson Hamer, her collaborator on a forthcoming album of English child ballads, demonstrating her abiding love for the traditional music of these Isles and a project perfectly pitched for this festival. Lau then brought their own, inventive refashioning of traditional folk music, and their upcoming Tucker Martine-produced album will surely be well worth a listen.
The most memorable performance of the entire weekend came from the legendary balladeer Nic Jones, returning to the stage under his own name for the first time since his devastating road accident in 1982, which left him brain damaged. This was a very human performance, delivered with remarkable wit and positivity, and a profound honesty that cut through all the obstacles that Jones faces. Accompanied by his son Joe on guitar and by Belinda OHooley on keyboards, Jones spent the entire set clutching a lectern from which he read the lyrics, singing with a wonderful combination of commanding knowledge, compassion and individual frailty. The set drew from his substantial repertoire of folk standards (Barrack Street and Little Pot Stove among them) but peaked with two unexpected delights – a glorious interpretation of Radioheads Fake Plastic Trees and a genuinely moving new original song – called Now. This was right up there with Brian Wilson in the league of great rehabilitations. Long may it continue.
In spite of her decades of success, its easy to feel a touch of sympathy for Joan Armatrading. She remains resolutely uncool and underrated, and whilst the audience whoop with delight at length for the hits (Love And Affection, I Love It When You Call Me Names, Drop The Pilot and Me Myself I among them), they treat her jazzier, more challenging new material with indifference. Still, this surprisingly sprightly performance, whilst a little too slick at times, serves as a reminder of her talents as a singer and writer. Its a lively, spirited end to a quite splendid weekend.