There's a music festival in Europe with history and long standing tradition. I’m not talking about Glastonbury or Isle of Wight, no, this is the Cambridge Folk Festival. Walking around the festival is like a trip down memory lane for this audience. For me, it was my first and hopefully not my last Cambridge Folk Festival. You begin to realise why people have been coming to this festival since 1964. There’s an unlimited number of stages because performers turn up and play all over the arena, and campsite. It's what makes Cambridge a special festival even before the line-up has been announced - to most, the line-up is irrelevant.
Thursday's half-day of music started with The Brass Funkeys, a seven-piece marching band that played a range of fun originals and covers from The White Stripes, Eurthymcs, and Beyoncé. They played to a packed out Club Tent, the third biggest stage. The Willows followed with their quirky americana. Lead vocalist Jade Rhiannon had a faulty mic holder, which caused some laughter from the crowd and her fellow band mates. Willy Mason played later on in the evening with Mara Carlyle on vocals with a singing saw. Mason opened his set with "Gotta Keep Walking", sounding imperious to Joaquim Phoenix in Walk The Line. His set was well received and Mason often spoke to the audience, referring to the miss-print of his age in the festival program (20 instead of 28). The night was capped off by an intimate set by Bombers at The People's Front room. The tiny tent includes sofas and a neat sound system where a collective of musicians play their own music and covers. It's a genius idea that travels around the festival circuit. It's placed in an ideal location, where it's quiet and not too far from the main stages.
The Levellers owned the main stage on Friday evening, opening with "What A Beautiful Day". They were joined by the ever-expected didgeridoo. The main stage was very much the place to be on Friday, as traditional folk became the focus in the afternoon with Korrontzi and Frigg. The former are a fast paced lively band from the Basque Country and the latter from Finland with similar traditional compositions. Then, like with many festivals these days, a dilemma occurred. The Bombay Royale or Bellowhead? Due to an interview with the band earlier in the day and the excitement they have been creating on the festival circuit this summer, I opted to check out The Bombay Royale. Dressed like a Bollywood movie and armed with a blow up elephant, the Australian troop invigorated the Cambridge audience. They were the only artist so far to play a perfect set sound wise. Up to this point, Cambridge had been plagued by sound issues leading to loud bass shrieks. More examples of this occurred on Saturday and Sunday.
Heidi Talbot impressed inside the humid Stage 2 on Saturday with her Scottish traditional songs. The warm weather was something of an upset, but that all changed when the rain started pouring down in the evening. After fantastic sets at the main stage from Makoomba, Steeleye Span, and the Heritage Blues Orchestra, I returned back to the campsite on the spectacular free bus ride to retrieve my wellies. However the rain couldn’t keep the audience away. The Mavericks and KT Tunstall played the main stage, but this wasn't my venture for Saturday night. Instead, The Den played host to a number of spectacular up and coming artists. First was the energetic CC Smugglers with a packed out tent, then came the twee French trio We Were Evergreen. All in all, these are two highlights of the weekend, both playing flawless sets for a youthful audience, the future.
Saturday was drawn to a close back at the Coldham's Common campsite. Every night the campsite organises 'amateur performances' for anyone that would like to play. That being said, the talent inside this relaxed tent was astonishing. A gentleman called Will Varley started playing some hilarious songs. One about the self-checkouts in shops, and one about receiving scam emails. He had a strong voice and had total power over the audience at 1am in the morning. It was a true and inspiring end to my Saturday night.
The 49th Cambridge Folk Festival drew to an intense close on Sunday with the best performances of the weekend. Martin Carthy, an artist I’ve always respected, played a solid set of traditional folk classics. The son of blues legend Muddy Waters, Mud Morganfield, performed a groovy set to a very appreciative audience. The music continued with Valerie June, a singer-songwriter styled on the hard workin' ethics of Dolly Parton. The Tennessee singer had a powerful voice that ringed around Stage 2. Her vocals were a little too high compared to the sound of her acoustic accompaniment, a problem down to the production staff. I noticed members of the audience leave politely during her set, visibly affected by the off-putting sound. Valerie wasn't a headliner, or a standout artist. She was clearly an interesting artist and performed a well routined set, which was a little too scripted for my liking.
The finale was among us, and like Saturday, I decided to stay at The Den. This stage has been impressive every time I stopped by. While The Staves, The Waterboys, and The Chair closed the main stage with as generic music as their names, The Den offered a slice of obscurity. Woodpecker Wooliams spilt beer on the audience as she played an interesting short set with natural emotion. Playing a rare solo set, Woodpecker Wooliams managed synthesizers and a harp long enough to leave a psychological mark on the confused audience. It was a spectacle worth sticking around for, those that were there will always remember her show as a highlight. The follow-up act at The Den was nothing short of a snooze. I hate to be so negative at festivals, but The Cadbury Sisters were too slow, too weak. They had interesting harmonies and a pretty decent cover of Joni Mitchell's "California", but other than that, nothing. Sunday came to a close with an exceptional set by Smugglers Records' Cocos Lovers. The audience danced in circles and the eight piece loved every minute of it. They closed The Den and the 49th Cambridge Folk Festival with an energetic set of some of their best songs.
When it’s all said and done, the Cambridge Folk Festival just ticks all the boxes for a great summer festival. It’s not just a folk festival; it's so much more than that. Many genres are represented at the festival, and over three and a half days, covers a range of music that you'd expect from a general indie rock or pop festival. The up and coming talent is something to be recognised and the big names keep the tickets selling and the fields filled. My highlights include Will Varley as an unofficial performer, The Bombay Royale offering something more than normality, and The Levellers fulfilling everything that was expected of them. Next year will be exceptional, you'll just have to wait and see what the family friendly festival comes up with for their 50th anniversary. It may be huge, it may just be moderately interesting, but one thing is for sure, it will be another Cambridge Folk Festival. On more than one occasion, I heard the phrase which has become something of a cliché at the festival, 'we come every year'. It doesn’t matter who the festival manage to sign up for next year’s anniversary, the fans will come just because it's the Cambridge Folk Festival. The food stalls are immaculate, and the beer is great... It doesn’t matter what I say - this is a tradition that won't be broken anytime soon, and I hope to continue this tradition with my attendance in future years.