With a long weekend of blissful sunshine and a line-up longer than any of their tangly beards, punters at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival had a whole lot to smile about.
While the event attracts many local to the area, a good-sized contingency had made lengthy journeys to camp just a couple of minutes’ walk from the stages or at the larger campsite just a handy shuttle bus away.
Cambridge Folk Festival has the best of both worlds in many senses. It is small enough to move between stages quickly yet has enough choice to make such stage hopping worthwhile. There are plenty of activities around the campsites for the weekenders yet it has the big names to work as freestanding music event for the day-trippers. Children are well catered for, with everything from clog dancing classes and face painting to being hugged by giant furry sloths but there are sufficient bars and late night shindigs to avoid it feeling like a creche. The faithful traditional crowd have their loyalty rewarded with classic acts and star-studded folk sessions, while the line-up also provides opportunities for up and coming young acts to showcase their talents.
Like many in the audience, Nick Mulvey , the guest curator for 2019, is a local lad with international influences. An ethnomusicology graduate with two Mercury Music Prize nominations under his fairtrade belt, he is much respected on the wider music scene as well as having specialist appeal. His work encompasses environmental and social justice themes so he was the perfect choice as curator in a year when there is an increasing urgency over climate change. His choices of bands reflected his global outlook. On Stage 1 on Saturday, Zimbabwean Chartwell Durito had everyone singing along with a catchy line sure to be hummed for weeks to come.
On the second stage later that afternoon, the drum beats of Fofoulah brought vibrancy and energy to anyone who was starting to flag in the heat. Taking the main stage on Sunday, Algerian desert rock blues band Imarhan smashed up a few stereotypes with an electric guitarist combining a Fender t-shirt and a headscarf, together with traditional vocals and toe-tapping percussion.
On the subject of international artists, the Canadian contingency was particularly strong. With the striking appearance of a latter day Green Man crossed with an eccentric professor, Ben Caplan opened Stage 2 on Thursday and took to the main stage on Friday with his intense performances, including tracks from his stage show Old Stock: A Refugee Story, which tells the tale of two Jewish immigrants to Canada. With well-crafted, thoughtful and nuanced lyrics cutting through lazy interpretations of religion and culture, his blend of klezmer-infused folk pop and booming, growly vocals, together with his theatrical stage presence, soon attracted the crowds.
Also on Friday, despite sporting the t-shirt, Mo Kenney destroyed any chances of sponsorship by slating Moosehead Lager as the worst beer ever but drew in the second stage with the simplicity of her guitar and gentle delivery of poignant lyrics. Similarly, Dylan Menzie demonstrated the enduring power of the guitarist singer-songwriter with a set that appealed to the folkies and the indie kids alike.
On the subject of men with indie credibility, Gruff Rhys, frontperson of Super Furry Animals, entered the stage with placards demanding ‘Applause’ and ‘Louder’ before launching into an applause worthy set. Soft-spoken Britfolk pin-up Roo Panes enchanted the main field with his dulcet tones floating over dreamy, ethereal tunes.
One traditionalist festival-goer was overheard to complain about some of the ‘new fangled’ music coming from one of the food stalls on Sunday morning rather than The Archers. He needn’t have worried – shortly after his comment, the familiar Ambridge theme and tales of country life were blasting through the main speakers. Although the festival has always interpreted the genre widely, those yearning for traditional folk from Britain and Ireland were treated to a number of high calibre performances on all of the stages. Particular highlights were McGoldrick, McCusker and Doyle on the main stage, as well as Sunday headline act, Daoiri Farrell’s All-Star Celtic Session. The fast, traditional music isn’t just for the older folk though, as Scottish trio Talisk closed the main stage on Saturday with an uplifting, high-energy performance powered in particular by Mohsen Amini’s franticly enthusiastic concertina playing, displaying true mastery of the craft.
As ever, the classic big names whose fame spans far beyond the folk world were very much in attendance. Graham Nash (as in ‘Crosby, Stills and’) charmed everyone, from the hippies to the hipsters, on Friday evening with his message of positivity for a more peaceful world. On Sunday, folk-rock legend Richard Thompson sported his trademark beret and demonstrated that he had lost neither his finger picking skills nor his dry sense of humour.
Lucinda Williams, together with her backing band Buick 6, was a definite highlight of the weekend – vocals with just enough slur to be rock ‘n’ roll and exceptional musicianship combined in a performance that was tight yet emotive, including a rendition of West Memphis, an intelligent and thoughtful account of a real-life miscarriage of justice case.
Jarrod Dickenson was one not to miss. The soft Southern drawl and delicate tone in his voice made for heartfelt delivery, including duetting with his equally talented wife, Claire. On the blues side, Lil’ Jimmy Reed sported a spectacular sparkly silver shirt matching the glint in his eye. With a lifetime of experience, there was still plenty of energy, passion and drive in his stage show.
Accompanied by his father on guitar and clutching his can of Carlsberg in a tent full of real ale connoisseurs, Jack Broadbent looked like a prog rocker who’d been up partying all night. With the personality of a younger Russell Brand, he played up to the photographers, but his prowess on the slide guitar playing revealed a real talent and the soul of an old blues man underneath it all.
There’s nothing quite like a bit of swing first thing on a Saturday, and Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra woke everyone up with their honky tonk blend of skiffle, ragtime, country, bluegrass and rockabilly with catchy tunes, Life’s a Drag and Holy Moly.
The bigger stages didn’t have all the fun though. Club Tent headliners, Barnsley’s own The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican closed the festival with a bigger crowd than the main stage. Clad in their trademark knitted tank tops, their parody versions of well-known songs, such as Massage in a Brothel to the tune of Message in a Bottle, ended the weekend with a sing-along party. But beneath the puns and glossy wigs were three talented folk musicians.
“The outstanding breakthrough performance of the weekend had to be Amy Montgomery “
Amy Montgomery has been likened to Janis Joplin and Grace Slick but this young performer has her own unique style.
This bright-eyed young Irish artist burst onto the second stage taking no prisoners. With her striking, almost Bolan-esque appearance, seventies rock influences, and exceptionally powerful gravelly vocals, she delivered a fearless performance that is sure to increase her fast growing fanbase. Amy Montgomery is going places and she says she’s ready for it. We are just glad we got to witness this talent at such an exciting time in its development.
“Amy Montgomery is one of the few performers who stops you dead in your tracks and forces you to lower your lens to breathe in the sheer brilliance of it all” Carl Byron Batson
Wellbeing was perhaps an overriding theme of the festival this year – individual self-care, looking out for each other and caring for the planet. As well as facilitating workshops for the Sing4Sane project, singer-songwriter Melissa James was a ray of sunshine as she opened the main stage on Sunday, with a well-received set and opportunities for everyone to join in. As in previous years, there were sessions on positive thinking, t’ai chi and yoga in the wellbeing area by the pond.
In relation to the planet, the food stalls had even more of a vegan bent than in recent years but the biggest change was the banning of single use plastic bottles on site, which not only benefitted the environment in the wider sense but also significantly reduced litter on site. There was no shortage of places to fill water containers and, as before, the bar sold reusable drinks containers. Those who habitually carry their own tankards at such events were well placed to make use of the new policy.
We raise our tankard of Otter Ale in appreciation of Cambridge Folk Festival 2019 that delivered one and all to a happy place with a packed line-up of folk, roots, Americana, blues, country and more. More authenticity, less plastic.
Words by Sarah Corbett-Batson
Photos copyright Carl Byron Batson and Sarah Corbett-Batson. Not to be reproduced or used without express prior written permission
Image sets and interviews from Cambridge Folk Festival 2019 with Amy Montgomery, Jarrod Dickenson, Ben Caplan and The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican coming soon