Fifty years ago an unlikely combination – the local city council and Ken Woollard, a fireman and left-wing activist who lived nearby – were inspired by the Newport Folk Festival to hatch a plan to host their own festival in Cambridge. A young Paul Simon played, it sold 1,400 tickets and they just about broke even.
Fast forward to 2014 and, this year celebrating its golden anniversary, the festival’s going as strong as ever – its capacity some 10 times bigger than its first outing, and still a sell-out. Woollard continued as organiser until his death in 1993, but his wife Joan is still a regular and can be seen chatting to staff backstage. It’s doubtful she’d find many similarities between the campsite of ’64 and ’14 – flower baskets adorning super-tents, pinot from chill-boxes and snacks of cheese boards and olives – are all run of the mill now, but inside the festival site the year could’ve been plucked from the air.
Contrary to the folk fan’s stuffy, tweed-and-tanktop image, your average Cambridge-goer is a musical sponge, eagerly sucking up as much interesting, varied music as possible, and while at first look the line-up might be a little on the retro side, there were lots of new discoveries to be made. Like Lindi Ortega – although she might raise an eyebrow at being called ‘new’, having played in dive bars for at least a decade before finally raising her head above the surface with her album Little Red Boots in 2011. Her bluesy Americana tells tales of her self proclaimed “disastrous love life”, which are cheery despite their theme. She’s melancholic to the core, but a lively, witty performer, flirting with her audience and sounding so much bigger than just her acoustic guitar and bellowing voice.
Jason Isbell – formerly of Drive By Truckers – also impressed. Now on his fourth solo album, he left his band at home, performing instead with his wife and sometime collaborator Amanda Shires. Again, for someone so rooted in the southern tradition of heartbreak and pain, he’s engaging and funny. The duo are a near perfect match; her voice complements his gravely vocal through songs which are made even more intense given their relationship. “I know these songs are pretty sad,” he admits, “but the people who write happy songs are the saddest sons of bitches.”
Perhaps more inkeeping with the traditional Cambridge line-up, O’Hooley and Tidow are shamelessly proud of their Yorkshire roots, leading sing-alongs about their love of real ale and the factory down t’road. They take a serious turn for Two Mothers, a song about child immigration, which silences the tent and showcases their talent for story telling. Likewise, My Darling Clementine enjoy a good story, giving classic country love duets an acidic twist, their retort to Tammy Wynette, No Matter What Tammy Said (I Won’t Stand By Him) being a stand out.
The Thompson family bridge the generation gap; Richard is a main stage regular, while it’s his daughter Kami and her husband James Walbourne’s band The Rails’, first time. They attract a warm crowd for a set that lacked the direction of Thompson senior, Walbourne’s voice sometimes feeling too weak for the sounds it was up against.
Of course there’s still a place for the old-timers, most of who provide a reassuring nod to the festival’s roots. Loudon Wainwright III reminisces of losing a guitar after a few too many drinks at the 1974 outing, before scooping up the audience into the palm of his hand for a witty, heartfelt and thoroughly entertaining set, which included journalism from his late father, songs for his family…and a somewhat misjudged new song, reflecting that his woes “ain’t Gaza”.
Clever programming saw the headliners play before the final act of the night in what is a simple formula; bring out the headliners, and then give everyone the opportunity to cut loose after hitting the beer tent. It meant that Van Morrison – who played a hits-packed set with lashings of crowd-pleasing jazz – played before Lunasa. Sinead O’Connor – who bravely starts her set with a cover of sometime collaborator John Grant’s Queen Of Denmark – played with an almost unnerving intensity, before making way for the brilliant Afro Celt Sound System whose fusion blast of Irish, Scottish and West African rhythms was a festival highlight. Following Roseanne Cash were The Peatbog Fairies, who were nothing if not predictable in forcing the picnic blankets away to make room for some rather enthusiastic dancing, which Skinny Lister – a Pogues-ish stomp-along band – also provided in the Club Tent.
In its golden year this felt like a typically confident line-up, which summed up the entire ethos of the Cambridge Folk Festival; celebrating its heritage, with one eye always on the future.