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Cambridge Folk Festival - Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge - July 25-28 2013

Wednesday, 31 July 2013 Written by James Ball

The Cambridge Folk Festival is a national institution, and has been running for nearly 50 consecutive years.

Despite having the word “folk” in its title, the festival embraces a number of styles, from blues to Afro-fusion, via rock and acoustic indie, and is split across two sites. The main arena, hosting all the music and a campsite, is in the wooded confines of Cherry Hinton Park.

Complete with a real hippy vibe, it's the place to find the lights, flags and atmosphere. The second area is housed half a mile away at Coldham's Common, and is a more open, plain campsite with a number of stalls, a little on-site entertainment, and a quieter vibe. 

The organisation, from shuttle buses, to family areas and toilets, was first-rate, leaving fans to enjoy a special bill. 


Promising to sound like they’ve “escaped from a New Orleans circus”, the Brass Funkeys delivered an energetic, but slightly ramshackle set. They were certainly crowd pleasers though, especially with renditions of I Want To Be Like You, from the Jungle Book, and Madness' One Step Beyond.

Next up were Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman, a husband/wife duo playing traditional folk music in front of an enthralled crowd. Roberts’ voice carried beautifully and the chemistry between the two was evident.

Willy Mason then took to the stage and provided the festival's first major highlight. He played for an hour, but his smoky voice and delectable swagger meant that he could have played twice as long and the crowd would still have demanded an encore. If Bruce Springsteen ever finally hangs up his guitar strap, the future is in safe hands with this guy.

Finally, on a short first day, was young sensation Lucy Rose and all did not start well for her. Her performance, while solid, seemed a little nervous to begin with and a fair few people started to filter out of the tent, perhaps in search of more traditional fare.

Rose's set featured energetic electric guitars, odd time signatures and much heavier bass than most acts here, but by the third song, a new, different crowd had filled the tent and started singing along to almost everything. Her confidence grew and the set took on a life of its own. The crowd responded to Middle Of The Bed and Red Face like they had been Number 1 singles. She has a long, bright future ahead of her.


Frigg usher in day two. These Finnish stalwarts have been on the scene for well over 10 years now, with an interesting blend of traditional Finnish folk, mixed in with a more American sound. They sounded musically tight, and seemed to be having fun. Sam Lee and Friends were next and, with them having previously been nominated for a prestigious Mercury Music Prize, big things were expected. Ultimately, while there was a lot of soul behind the performance, and certainly an interesting take on the traditional folk genre, something didn't quite click.

LAPD are a folk supergroup if ever there was one, comprising Liam O’Flynn, Andy Irvine, Paddy Glackin & Donal Lunny. With their roots firmly planted in contemporary Irish folk, this awesome foursome were having a hell of a time, and the large crowd in front of the stage were deeply receptive to their efforts. Hard-working and dedicated to their cause, these men left the stage with big beaming grins, and so they should.

Amadou et Mariam, with their large ensemble of musicians blasting their way through some furious, energetic music, brought a real party vibe. It’s very, very easy to see why they’ve been invited to support huge names like U2, Coldplay and Blur during their careers. This set was utterly unmissable.

Levellers took to the stage in front of an enormous crowd. While the biggest cheers were reserved for the hits, including What A Beautiful Day and One Way, they showed that, during a tour de force set, you can’t have a 25-year career and not put on a good show. They were joined on stage for their final song, The Recruiting Sergeant, by headliners Bellowhead in a beautiful coming together of different styles of bands.

Bellowhead themselves showed, quite simply, why they have won so many BBC Radio 2 Best Live Act awards. Not only are the songs perfect for closing a Friday night at a festival, with their catchy, dance-friendly nature, but the band, all 11 of them, are tight and perform perfectly. At one point, the brass players bent down to one knee and played a mini Bond medley, seemingly out of nowhere and to rapturous applause. Even if you don’t like folk music, you must see this band.


Saturday began with an exclusive, intimate set with some very important Scottish youngsters from a group called Feis Rois. They are not a “band” as such, more a sample from a collective of talented young artists, aided by Creative Scotland to make music in the Gaelic language. Despite only having rehearsed for a short while before the festival, the five young talents gelled well as a group, played a whole host of instruments and sang like their lives depended on it. They are an inspiring group who are doing what they love, and that’s what it’s all about.

Following that, on Stage 1, was one of about 700 live performances by We Banjo 3, who woke the sleepy crowd up pretty well with a solid, fun set. Later that afternoon, Martin Simpson took to the stage and brought each of his 35 years of experience to the forefront as he rattled through a smoky, deep set.

Meanwhile, over on Stage 2, Irish legend in the making Heidi Talbot was treating a large audience to some beautiful, relaxing music, interspersed with fun singalongs and stories. The focus was, unsurprisingly, centred on newest album 'Angels Without Wings', but a couple of stripped back covers from Sandy Denny and Karine Polwart resonated equally well. Mokoomba, much like Amadou et Mariam, then brought a real upbeat mood to the site, but just fell a bit short of the highs of the night before.

It’s hard to imagine that Bella Hardy has been on the music circuit for over 10 years, considering her youthful appearance, and she lets her experience shine through with her Midnight Watch band. She sauntered her way through a solid Stage 2 set, showing plenty of spark and stage presence without setting the world alight.

Tommy Emmanuel’s set was special. What this guy does with a guitar had jaws on the floor. The man takes a standard electro-acoustic guitar and plays every single part of it. Not just the strings, but the sides and back, as well as turning the microphone into his own personal bass drum. This is music at its most pure, and it was astonishing to watch.

Following Emmanuel was one of the most hotly anticipated acts of the weekend as KT Tunstall made her first appearance at the festival for eight years. She concentrated her set on her hugely popular debut album, 'Eye to the Telescope', and new offering, 'Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon'. Highlights included a storming version of Black Horse And The Cherry Tree, which segued seamlessly into the second cover of Seven Nation Army of the weekend - after the Brass Funkeys. The new tracks resonated beautifully as the rain began to fall on the site, but the biggest cheer was for a brilliant performance of Don Henley's Boys of Summer.

Finally, the party atmosphere continued into the night as the Mavericks took to the stage. While it was clear everyone was waiting for Dance the Night Away, which eventually dropped to an enormous reception just before the end, it didn’t take long for the entire crowd to be dancing to every single track. They are a true festival band.


What better way to start your fourth consecutive day of live music than with the Rambling Boys of Pleasure? Another folk supergroup, arguably led by Gino Lupari, the Irish-Italian former frontman of Four Men and a Dog, they lead the bleary-eyed Sunday morning crowd through a set interspersed with fun ditties and truly heartfelt ballads, combined with a series of hilarious anecdotes. This band are the complete package.

Meanwhile, on Stage Two, former busker and Peel Session performer John Hegley brought one of his specialist children's shows to the site. This is a masterstroke of an idea by festival organisers to deliver something special for the younger generation.

One of the true feature acts of the weekend was Gaelic language specialists Capercaille, who have 30 years' experience to draw upon. Getting a Gaelic language single into the UK Top 40 is no mean feat, but the set itself was a little more relaxed and less lively that others throughout the weekend, and a little lacking as a result.

When the Staves took to the stage immediately afterwards, though, all was forgiven. These three (plus “their boys”) have really mastered the knack of vocal harmony and every single track has been pieced together meticulously in order to create something really delicate and enthralling. When the full band were playing, it was intense and fun. When it was just the three ladies, it was more poignant and fragile, and the banter between each track was, in places, BBFC 15-rated, and probably not suitable for Radio 2. Brilliant.

Jim Moray was up next in the Club Tent for a “secret” set, even though it was advertised in the programme. Fresh from putting on his onesie-themed silent Ceilidh the night before, he returned to his good old-fashioned live set. Of course, by old-fashioned we mean folk with an experimental edge to keep things fresh and interesting throughout.

Up last are rock legends the Waterboys. You would think that a band that has had over 70 different members since they first formed 30 years ago, and one that took a seven year break in the '90s, wouldn’t have the sheer togetherness that they showed. Total classics such as Glastonbury Song and UK Number 3 hit The Whole of the Moon got the biggest receptions of the night, but overall it was a strong performance by a great band. Next year Cambridge Folk Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary and promises to make it a party to remember. Make sure you’re there.

All images by Craig Willis.


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