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Cambridge Folk Festival 2018

Venue: Cherry Hinton
Town: Cambridge
Date: 02-05/08/18

My normal approach to Cambridge is meticulous planning and a long rambling review on a day by day basis, not so this year, a house move just before the event and the heat made me put planning to one side, so with the exception of doing the Brian McNeill Session on the Saturday, Cambridge 2018 was going to be a bit of a mystery ride.

Starting off a review with the penultimate act in the Club Tent on the Thursday night might not be the ordinary thing to do, but then Peter Buckley Hill is far from ordinary, he's a Cambridge Institution or should be in one, take your pick, having performed here since the 80s, even on the years he's not been booked, often turning in shows that ran for many hours after the mainstages have shut down.

By comparison a forty-five minute set was short, but he did manage to have most of the audience, many veterans from previous years, rolling in the aisles. There were heckles, sing-a-longs and irreverence, all soul affirming stuff. If you could find a wall, this was definitely off it. There were hints that this might be his last set here, in which case I'll raise a glass and thank him for the good times and if not, I'll see you next year…

The Club Tent is becoming more and more Stage 3 at Cambridge with more of the acts this year either coming directly through the festival or booked directly by the Folk Clubs that take their turn to run it during the course of the weekend. That meant that there were less opportunities for people to turn up and get a slot to play though there were discoveries to be made both there and in the Den, less of them this year, confusion about sign up times not helping the situation.

I guess the advantage of Clubs bring more of their own acts is that they are known quantities, which I guess is also the main disadvantage. I have seen some truly awful acts perform on the Club Stage, but that has been outweighed by the discoveries of serious talent that had taken the time to queue to play.

One such discovery this year was Bella Collins, she played a session last year up at the Coldhams Common Campsite last year and on the strength of that was offered an appearance at the Den, it was a stunning set, blues of the finest that had the Den silent and rapturous in all the right places. Along with fellow Den artists Smith & Brewer, she made a reappearance at the Brian McNeill Session, where they turned themselves into an impromptu trio. Bella was certainly making a real impression, the sort of impression that gets you bumped up to a bigger stage in following years.

The Brian McNeill Session is my fixed point at Cambridge, I have missed big names in order to enjoy its very special atmosphere and I don't know of anything else quite like it at a festival. It is simply two and a half hours of ever changing music that covers the whole of the acoustic spectrum, you can literally move from Celtic thrash into laid back blues and then some old timey bluegrass. Sometimes you get impromptu pairings as artists warming up in the backstage area hear other artists warming up and invite them to join them on stage. Whilst Brian introduces the acts on stage, Jacqueline does the hard work behind the scene making sure all the ducks are lined up.

The Brian McNeill Session always starts and finishes with the massed ranks of performers playing the session before breaking down into individual performances, it's a great place to catch short sets by artists that you may have missed elsewhere or get an idea of someone you might want to catch later in the festival. Leading the session away was fiddler Matt Tighe, who released his self-titled debut album last year.

There were a lot of Canadians here this year, reminding me indirectly of the West Country take over a couple of years back. Now Cardiff based Darren Eedens lead the charge accompanied by just a fiddler, but would perform with his full band later in the festival, East Pointers and Irish Mythen followed, Irish seemingly catching Darren's string breaking thing from last year. Irish was for me one of those, how come I've missed her before, becoming a must see later act. Feis Rois are always part of the session. This year they came as a five piece, but every year they are something different as Feis Rois is an organisation that supports Celtic music and gives some of the best young players a chance to get out there and experience festivals bringing the next generation of performers through.

Cambridge has a long history of partnering with other organisations, the local folk clubs, Feis Rois, artist organisations from around the world and this year with Newport Jazz Festival to have a band, Darlingside, play at both festivals. Officially they were only playing Stage One, but they kept on popping up all over the festival, including an incredible appearance in the main bar on the Sunday with Birds Of Chicago(Also on my must see list) and Yola Carter, plus a people's choir tucked into the crowd. If you were lucky enough to get to see that set, or even hear it, it was a true festival highlight as well as a tribute to Charles Bradley who should have played the festival last year, but sadly took ill. I was lucky enough also to see them perform a song in the media area earlier on the Sunday.

Both Birds Of Chicago and Yola Carter were at the festival thanks to the curation of Rhiannon Giddens. Jon Boden was the first guest curator last year and essentially the idea is for the curator to bring a selection of artists to the festival that have impressed and inspired them over the years, whilst Boden's influences are definitely folk, Giddens is Americana, mainly in the rawest forms, as well as the aforementioned, her curated acts included Amythyst Kiah, Kaia Kater and Peggy Seeger, who as well as performing also took part in one of the talks this year.

Rhiannon Giddens was one of the hardest working artists at the festival, not only introducing the artists that she brought to the festival, but also turning up for guest slots on all of the stages, doing talks and workshops. I have been lucky enough to listen to her artistic development since her revelatory performance with Carolina Chocolate Drops back in 2010. She performed as part of a number of different combinations during the course of the festival and made every one of them matter, particularly enjoyed her set with Francesco Turrisi, special. Ultimately, she is an artist that feels the music to her very core.

There was quite a lot of politics at Cambridge this year with both a big and little p, society is getting knocked out of kilter with a seemingly relentless drive to divide rather than unite. Pretty much all of the American artists felt the need to apologise for Trump, with Janis Ian putting it most succinctly with the one word description, 'wank€r'. Janis then went on to deliver a surprising set and one that showed that she is still an artist that pushes at the boundaries and that messages really do sink in better when they are written in the key of life. Her performance certainly turned the opinion of this jaded hack.

I've had some so-so experiences with some of the older American artists at Cambridge over the years, but not so this year. I was concerned when Patti Smith put additional restrictions on the snappers at the festival, unnecessarily so as it turned out. There was one bit just before starting her second song where she stopped and uttered the line "Could you turn off the smoke? I'm not f@cking Metallica." It's been more than twenty five years since I saw Patti perform, she may have gotten older, but she's not aged, the spirit and fire is still there. One of my moments of the festival was being stood watching the big screen with several of the other pit ponies singing along to "Because The Night". Patti was right, there was too much stage smoke this year.

John Prine had the similar spot on the Sunday evening. The years have thrown a number of challenges John Prine's way, but he is a great example of what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and somehow his voice has survived all that nature has thrown at it as have his song writing and performing. He looks old for his 71 year old frame, but his music still makes you think about life and the world and he still knows how to deliver a song.

I've seen Prine at Cambridge a few times, but Birds Of Chicago were making their debut performance. Birds Of Chicago, JT & Allison, recently released one of my favourite album of the year so far, "Love In Wartime", just get it, an album of hope over adversity, dark but not without views of the light. I've never been to a Birds Of Chicago set where I've not walked away without shedding at least a tear and this was no exception, they put so much into their songs and performances that it's impossible not to be moved by them. They are, as I'm fortunate to know, a wonderful couple who put so much light into a room as well as their music. They were joined at the end of their set for a number by Darlingside with JT taking careful not of who joined who at what mic.

Cambridge is a festival that looks to the future with plenty of activities and workshops, some, like the Hub Band directed towards the younger audience, others like those held at the start of the day at the Club Tent open to all, this year had Eliza Carthy covering songwriting, Beth Nielsen Chapman doing singing and the Shee doing what was alternatively described as a string workshop which brought about the wonderful description of Amy Thatcher as someone that brings an accordion to a string workshop, or a simply a Shee workshop. As it was the band divided themselves into two parts and delivered tunes.

It would be remiss of me not to mention two more of the acts that I managed to catch on Stage Two and I'll start off with Moore Moss Rutter, a trio with no punctuation. In Tom Moore, Archie Churchill-Moss and Jack Rutter, they do have three of the country's best younger folk musicians in a single trio. They always seem to perform together with no ego, ensuring that the music is always the most important thing.

The second is a veteran performer, I hope she doesn't mind that description, Rosanne Cash, together with her husband John Leventhal they delivered a set of contemporary Americana that really reflected the genres deepest roots as well as more recent trips around the Delta. It had a real atmosphere to it and was a set that showed you really don't need to define music with a boundary, it will always find a way to break out.

There are always great young and aspiring acts at Cambridge, this year I'm going to name Zoe Wren who has got a number of interesting side projects going, Chris Fox is definitely a name to keep an eye on, he's been supporting Ange Hardy amongst others, Bella Gaffney & Polly Bolton, Amy & The Calamities, Sarah Munro, blues harpist Kera Royale are all acts that impressed, but for me Bella Collins is very much a real deal, see her when you get the chance because it'll be for proper money soon.

As always it was good to catch up with old friends and make some new ones. Good to see so many of the pit ponies there. Thanks to the Festival team, particularly those that helped make doing this review and photography so much easier. The craic was good and looking forward to seeing you next year.

I've saved the best for last and so did the festival, not just the best of a fantastic selection to end Cambridge on the night, but one of the best finishes in years. On a hot, sweaty and yes sultry stage in the Club Tent, Rhiannon Giddens brought most of the acts that she curated at the festival for a Song Session. It really was one of those once in a lifetime experiences, so many great songwriters and performers squeezed on to the Club Tent Stage performing stripped back Americana. At times it seemed more packed on stage than in the audience and it was squeezed standing room only there.

Much sung with a gospel talent, I was literally in awe at times, the vocal quality, the playing, a genuine sense of all being in it together Rhiannon Giddens curated a great slice of the festival and the most spectacular finale. Wow.

Just one final note, between last year's festival and this, I and the festival lost a good friend, Tim Holt, both the festival and this review are dedicated to him. On the Friday evening, wearing my Fatea Pink t-shirt, a few of us, many of whom had attended his funeral, gathered in the bar to have a drink to his memory and say goodbye at a place and event we knew was always close to his heart. The sun shone, the music was great, it did Tim proud.

Neil King - Words, pictures

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