Cambridge Folk Festival was the first music festival I ever went to so it remains a special place and I still get a buzz from going. It is said that once you go you're hooked and it's easy to see why. After 52 years they're well practised, from the frequent courtesy buses that connect the festival site with the camping at Coldham's Common, the train station, car park and City centre, to the incredibly slick and profession change overs between sets. Unlike some other festivals there's no afternoon break to sound check for the evening performance; once the music starts it doesn't stop.
With four stages running from Friday to Sunday, and three on Thursday, the other thing Cambridge can offer is an enormous range of music. Whilst Jake Bugg or Shirley Collins can command Stage 1, outside the main festival arena The Den is the place to head for the stars of tomorrow and those who are just starting to learn their craft.
The Den is probably my favourite stage of all. It's a small marquee with a few rugs scattered around and the stage is designed as a living room, complete with fireplace and wonky pictures on the wall. The atmosphere is laid back, with people sat or sprawled and children coming and going to visit the duck pond just outside. Some of the best music I saw all weekend happened here from FATEA award winner Amy Goddard, whose quietly thoughtful tunes suited the setting beautifully, whilst BRIT trained Chloe Leigh impressed. It was still only Thursday.
On Friday Kizzy Crawford smashed her set and won quite a few new fans. With a voice that belies her age and a confident stage presence, her brand of Blues with a Welsh influence means that her debut album, due out later this year, is already on my "must have" list.
Other acts to note from The Den were Nina Harries, accompanied by her double bass Nancy, who was billed as "Punk Folk Operatic Weird" which was a new genre on me. It gave her a lot to live up to but she came through with flying colours and, in just three songs, showcased her ability really well. Hertfordshire's Emma McGrath also impressed and, supported by brother Zac and Lauren Deakin-Davies, it was great to see her growing confidence both in her music and interaction with the very appreciative audience.
Such is the quality of music at Cambridge I could write a whole review just based on The Den, yet it's the smallest venue at the festival. Key to the Cambridge ethos is that folk music is supported week in week out by local folk clubs and so Stage 3 is called, and will hopefully remain, the Club Tent. Local clubs are given the chance to present acts that have impressed them so you can be assured that the quality is going to be high and the longer slots give performers a chance to show what they're made of. This year we had some real treats.
Emily Mae Winters, who is on a rapidly rising curve, gave a performance that was still being talked about long after she'd finished her set and for all the right reasons. Her new trio with John Parker (bass) and Jasmine Watkiss (fiddle, vocals) works well and gives additional power to Emily's incredible voice. Unusually for Cambridge there were some sounds problems during the set, which may have rattled some artists but Emily took them in her stride showing she is not only talented but also a consummate professional.
Rosie Hood has also formed a trio around her of Ollie King (melodeon, banjo) and Nicola Beazley (fiddle) and this gave her the chance to promote her impressive début album "The Beautiful & The Actual". Rosie is a folk traditionalist but with a refreshingly modern approach and will go from strength to strength.
There are also Open Mic sessions in both The Den and the Club Tent and it was a delight to see Amy Goddard capture a slot in the latter. Her song "Aberfan", FATEA Song of the year 2016, moved more than one of the packed audience to tears.
The Club Tent is also known for another great tradition; the Brian McNeil set, this time on Saturday rather than the usual Friday but keeping the pure energy, drive and passion of a man who has done more to encourage young musicians than anyone I can think of. Yes, there's a bit of hero worship here but it's well deserved. Brian also runs (I doubt he would consider it "curates") another great Cambridge essential, the Saturday session on Stage 2 where over a period of 2 ½ hours a procession of exciting young talent is presented. Highlights this year included Cambridge teaming up with Sligo Live to bring six tremendous young musicians (Tiernan Courell (flute), Richie Delahunty (banjo and guitar), Áine Duffy (concertina), Nell Kelly (fiddle), Donal Linehan (accordion) and Conal McCormack (bodhrán) over to play. Cambridge also has long established links to Scotland's Fèis Rois and five also travelled down from that. Trio Hecla from the Outer Hebrides; Ailis Sutherland (pipes/whistle), Ilona Kennedy (fiddle) and Kaitlin Ross (guitar/vocals) along with duo Charlie Grey & Joseph Peach showed that traditional music has a strong and bright future.
Mention must also be made of Matt Tighe, who is a real Cambridge inspired success story. A Londoner, he decided to learn the fiddle in earnest after visiting the festival some years ago and is shortly to release his eponymous début album, produced by Brian McNeill who invited him to play a couple of tunes at his set on Saturday. He's one to look out for and comparisons have already been made to Sam Kelly.
Not all my time was spent on the smaller stages, as Cambridge is big enough to attract the headline names. Benjamin Francis Leftwich is somebody I've wanted to see for a while and his simple style, concentrating on well presented songs, worked well. Martin Simpson gave a stunning performance on Sunday night and I didn't regret choosing him over Jake Bugg. His new album, out soon, will certainly find its way into my collection. Loudon Wainwright III put on an excellent show which the audience loved and the Hayseed Dixies bought the house down closing the festival later on in the evening.
I saw over 60 acts during the four days, so it's impossible to mention them all, which is a great shame as, with just a couple of exceptions, I would happily see them all again. Go along and discover them for yourselves. Drop in to the big stages for the big names, for sure, but search the fringes as well.
That's the real beauty of Cambridge, it's a big festival that encourages music and musicians but doesn't overwhelm. The smaller stages, juggling and willow weaving workshops and beautiful ground of Cherry Hinton Hall mean you can always find a quiet little backwaters to take a breather.
That's one of the reasons I choose to stay at the Coldham's Common camp-site, rather than at the festival itself. Travel between the two is easy due to the excellent courtesy bus service and Coldhams also has a very low key open mic session which is the perfect place to unwind at the end of the day. It's also somewhere the ace reporter can sniff out a real exclusive. Unfortunately you have me so I managed to miss the surprise set by this year's guest curator Jon Boden. I could half hear him in the distance but it was raining and I was already in my sleeping bag. He sounded pretty good though and might be another rising talent to keep an eye out for the future.
Tony Birch - words and pictures
Amy Goddard http://www.amygoddardmusic.co.uk/
Chloe Leigh https://soundcloud.com/chloeleighmusic
Kizzy Crawford http://www.kizzymerielcrawford.com/
Nina Harries https://ninharries.bandcamp.com/
Emma McGrath https://www.emmamcgrath.co.uk/
Emily Mae Winters http://www.emilymaewinters.com/
Rosie Hood http://www.rosiehood.co.uk/
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