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Cambridge Folk Festival

Venue: Cherry Hinton
Town: Cambridge
Date: 1st - 4th August 2019
Website: https://www.cambridgelive.org.uk/folk-festival

This year I'm handing over to Tony Birch for the long, rambling review, but first a couple of quick ones. Thanks to all of the Cambridge Staff that once again helped make this such a great festival without you it just wouldn't happen, special thanks to the media who worked so hard to make this happen, along with all the backstage crews. A nod to all the other pit ponies and festival regulars we bump into and to those that couldn't be there, but fingers crossed for next. There's news on the various galleries at the end of Tony's piece and to be fair, between us we took a lot, I mean a lot, of photos. Oh and if you're the tosser that stole our banner and are reading this, please mail it back. Tony, all yours

Galleries

Thursday - Friday - Saturday - Sunday - The Sister Of Elva Hill - Brian McNeill Session

Thursday

I love the first day of CFF. With the main stage not open and smaller crowds it's a chance to ease yourself in and catch up with people. What is exactly the same as any other day is the quality of the music and the chance to see both the big names and new faces.

Photocredit Tony BirchStarting off in The Den, the smallest stage, we had a real treat with Ben Denny Mo who made the relatively short trip from Norfolk and impressed with blues and good vocal impact.

Katey Brooks is one of the rising Americana stars, although her music will cross boundaries into rocky pop and folk. It's always a pleasure to see her play.

Something new for me this year was the chance to photograph interviews, which is a different technique to snapping a stage act. The relationship between interviewer and interviewee comes in to it and I enjoyed seeing Lizzy Hardingham and Amy Goddard in another role a musician has.

My first visit to Stage 2 was for a pair of great folk singers. Sam Sweeney brought his first world war fiddle and a band of fine musicians with him. The audience loved it! Tradition at its very best by one of the very best.

It's almost surprising that I've never seen Ralph McTell before. But, in his 50th anniversary of playing Cambridge he showed why he is still so highly regarded. He dominated the stage, and yet with such an air of conviviality, that it's no surprise Streets of London was the song of choice on the bus back to the campsite.

I finished the night back in The Den for another great talent. Lucy Grubb is also from Norfolk, although when singing you'd be forgiven for thinking it's the one in Virginia. There are so many good "Americana" singers around at the moment and testament to her potential is that the crowd built rapidly during her set. It was the highlight of my day, certainly, but with so much more still to come.

Friday

Photocredit Tony BirchStage 1 opened Friday morning with something completely unique, that deserves an album of its own. The Sisters of Elva Hill is a folk ballet . With traditional and original songs by Lucy Ward, Anna Esslemont and Helga Ragnarsdóttir with choreography by Deborah Norris of The Henwives Tales this adaptation of Kate Krackernuts stunned the audience with visual spectacle and music.

Of course it worked because dance has always been associated with traditional song and what Deborah did so well was to combine ballet with traditional dance forms, so at one stage, which I don't have pictures of, the fairies were dancing rapper but with flower garlands rather than blades.

It was a real privilege to be at this premier and I hope it appears at other festivals and venues in the future so that more people can see it.

Photographing dance was fun, too. They move around a bit more than musicians do!

There was plenty of other activity around the festival apart from the ballet and that's one of the great things about the festival. Apart from the main names there are sessions, rising stars in The Den, familiar acts in the Club Tent and interviews all over the place.

Highlights of the day included a reinvigorated The Tweed Project with Greg Russell, Ciaran Algar, Ali Levack, Josie Duncan Pablo Lafuente, and Evan Carson exploring traditional music from across the boarders and giving it their own high energy drive.

Familiar faces included Amy Goddard, Oka Vanga, Lucy Ward, Chris Fox in a trio with Zoë Wren and John Parker.

New faces included Annie Dressner who really impressed me with her Greenwich Village sound and Katherine Priddy whose songs weave tales based on myths and legends. Over from Canada, Mo Kenney impressed everyone and I do hope she comes back soon.

Photocredit Tony BirchBecky Langan is a phenomenal guitarist from Manchester I'd not seen before but she left me, and everyone else in the audience, open mouthed at her virtuosity on the guitar. You keep looking round wondering where all the other musicians are hiding because one person can't be doing that much.

It was also good to see Laura Kirby in a duo, that may be a band, The Yes Mess who played with a real joy that lifted the audience.

No Cambridge would be complete without Brian McNeill, who is rightly described as a legend. There was even time for a subtle dig at Fatea editor, Neil King who ended up introducing Brian the year before, when Brian's ready, he's ready His drive, his passion for music is a strong as ever and still he champions the future generations. It was a real thrill to see him joined on stage first by Matt Tighe and then RURA.

Finally, any day that ends with Holy Moly and the Crackers is a good day. Their energy leaves me exhausted so I've no idea what it does to them!

Saturday

Up with the lark on Saturday - mainly in search of caffeine - but lots and lots to see and do.

Photocredit Tony Birch

One of the fixtures of Saturday morning is the Brian McNeill session where lots of people come on to showcase their talent in just one or two songs and you occasionally get surprises turning up. Amy Goddard came on to sing Aberfan, yes I cried, but was then joined by Odette Michell and Zoë Wren to form a trio called The Honeybees which was stunning! Three superb voices that worked so well together and hopefully it won't be a one-off.

Smith & Brewer have played this session in previous years and once again ripped up the stage with some brilliant blues from two great guitarists.

Away from the session Lizzy Hardingham made her mark in the Club Tent with her powerful voice and hopefully will get invited back next year, she certainly deserves to.

Cambridge works hard to bring the best of traditional world music to teh stage and this year was no exception. Chartwell Dutiro, originally from Zimbabwe played music on an Mbira, which is kind of thumb piano using a gourd as a soundbox. It's a different sound but very interesting to hear.

Back in the Club Tent it was good to catch up with I, Claudia, a Cambridge local I'd seen just once before. Hard to categorise but jazzy folky soul with huge energy probably gets you there. Certainly one to see if you can.

In what may have been a late change, duo Mardwell certainly entertained but I can't find anything about them so if you do know them please do tag away.

Photocredit Tony BirchAs part of the Brian McNeill session earlier, Cambridge has had a long association with Fèis Rois which gives people. especially youngsters, a chance to get involved in traditional Scottish music and the best of the best get a slot at Cambridge. It's always a highlight and this year was no exception with five very talented singers and musicians showing that the future is in good hands.

Finally, more world music this time from Fofoulah, who are London based but take the traditional music and of Senegal and Gambia by combine it with other elements including rock and electronica to make something new whilst keeping the core intact. To me, that's what tradition is all about.

Saturday evening is the big night and there was a terrific line-up with the common thread, as always, being superb musicianship. Gruff Rhys gave us plenty of laughs and some great rocky pop to get things going.

Rachael Dadd was another new name for me but, with six albums under her belt and a raft of recommendations, I'm glad I finally caught up with her. With a really strong band an poppy folk she impressed everyone who saw her.

Photocredit Tony BirchKathryn Tickell was incredible to watch, again with a great band around her she so much energy and skill to her set. Whether on the Northumbrian pipes or fiddle her music is very firmly based in the landscape and people of her home and it's no wonder the awards and nominations keep flowing. It was difficult to take photos because I just wanted to dance!

I'd not see Maz O'Connor for a long time and that's something I'm glad I put right. She immediately captures your attention with beautifully balanced songs of great charm and with John Parker and Patsy Reid supporting her the music was a joy to listen to.

If you want to see how to combine showmanship and great music in one set then Talisk and the standard everyone else tries to reach. Watching them is exhausting, you're never going to stand still, and they so clearly enjoy every minute of being on stage it's infectious. Mohsen Amini is, without doubt, the best concertina player in the country and can do things that just don't look possible. Hayley Keenan is a fine fiddle player and Graeme Armstrong drives everything along on guitar. The quality is the reason why they win awards again and again.

It was a long day but fantastic and Sunday was still to come.

Sunday

Photocredit Tony BirchDay four and I was starting to get a bit tired, but a Polish breakfast and couple of coffees got me back up and going for what turned out to be an incredible day. There's a tradition at Cambridge that "The Archers" is broadcast and Barwick Green playing out over the site is very comforting. Cambridge still keeps the traditions that make it a folk festival, so there are sessions in the beer tent, and willow weaving in among the big name stars and long may that continue. They don't have many dance sides either, so the Tower Ravens were good to see. Those blades are steel!

The music opened with Melissa James introducing the #Sing4sane project which uses song and music to raise awareness of mental health issues. Melissa had been working with a choir at the festival but unfortunately we were out of the photo pit before they came on, which is a pity. Maybe another time.

I couldn't hang around because over in the Club Tent were two big rising stars, there were so many this festival. Odette Michell made her first appearance and I'm pretty certain it won't be her last. Odette showed that she's learning her trade fast and handled a sound problem brilliantly, turning it to her advantage. Already a excellent writer of traditional English songs that sound as if they've been around for ever she's one to watch.

I'm going to be honest, I'm a bit biased when it comes to Elizabeth & Jameson, having seen them almost from the start and watched them grow into an excellent duo. From different musical backgrounds Hannah and Griff have created something original and their new album is already eagerly awaited. It's always a joy to see them

Following them were yet another incredible duo. Jacob & Drinkwater are individually gifted singers, musicians and writer but together they have an understanding of each other honed by long years of hard work that makes their live show a real experience. Sometimes you think there must be telepathy going on. What a tear, as well, when Emily Barker joined them on stage.

Photocredit Tony BirchThe international flavour of the festival continued with Imarhan from Algeria and again we saw tradition being used to create new rather than just repeat what's gone before. Traditional instruments and songs merged with desert blues made for an exciting show.

Rounding off this one The Unthanks showed why they're so highly regarded. Having a long association with the festival they've progressed from Club Tent to Main Stage and continue to explore and innovate around the traditions of their Northumbrian roots.

It was a great start to the day, with so much more to come.

Talking about ticking one off the wish list! Huge thanks to Brian Player for letting me photograph some of his interviews, particularly the one with Richard Thompson - RT. It taught me a lot about fame because he's such a genuine person - who just happens to write and perform some amazing songs. I've seen him before and it doesn't matter how big the audience it always feels like a group of friends down the local folk club, with an enormous sense of conviviality. That was a special experience!

just as good was an evening spent in The Den where Jacob & Drinkwater played their second set of the day although it took we a while to sort the camera setting, but it was just as good as earlier in the day.

Photocredit Tony BirchEmily Mae Winters is becoming a bit of a Cambridge fixture and in a trio with John Parker and Ben Walker has found a combination I think works really well. Fresh of the back of her "High Romance" album tour Emily is performing at such a high level at the moment and is always a joy to watch. Emily is somebody else who brings the audience in with her and makes it so warming.

I'd heard of the Stables before, but this was my first chance to see them and their indie-folk went down really well, with the audience getting up to dance along. Not bad for the last day of a festival! They're very worth checking out.

Finally, as I thought, it was over to Stage 2 for Sarah Darling who is also riding high with the latest album "Wonderland" topping the UK Americana chart. You can see why. With an incredible stage presence her excellent voice doesn't just sing a song, but lives it.

It was, as I thought at the time, a great way to finish an excellent Cambridge.I could have a quick beer and be back in my sleeping bag for 11 ready to go back to work on Monday. It didn't quite work out that way, but that's a whole new post.

So, my grown up plan to get a good night's sleep was going swimmingly until a fb post pops up from Annie Dressner who was playing the final open mic session at Coldhams Common campsite, where I was staying. Annie was a new artist for me and I'd really enjoyed seeing her play earlier, so I thought I'd go along. What harm could it do?

I got back to the site to hear a very familiar voice already playing. Zoë Wren had already signed up for the session and informed us she'd be back later with Chris Fox.

Photocredit Tony BirchI gave in disgracefully and headed for the bar. Three pints later I'm walking back to the tent at 1am trying to eat a hot-dog! It was a fantastic way to end the weekend though.

Zoe has one of the finest voices you'll ever hear and can sing such a range of songs. Her latest EP "Inspired" lets her explore new directions as well as covering some of the classics and shows she'll fit any venue or festival. I'll never miss teh chance to see her if I can help it.

Annie, from New York but now living in Cambridge, has a sound that is both different yet familiar with that accent to it and her beautiful songs, mostly about bad boy friend choices, have been on play since I bought her latest album "Broken Into Pieces".

Chris Fox is making a real name for himself, impressing so much at Purbeck Rising that he's back this year to play a couple of sets. Writing songs based around stories and films he likes his fusion of folk, blues and soul really makes him stand out.

Also playing that night were two other acts, that I can only tell were CJ, a Cambridge regular, and Alangel who was working at the festival and stepped in at short notice. His a capella versions of some soul classics went down a treat.

Every year I think Cambridge can't get better, but it always does.

Words & Picture Tony Birch

Galleries

Thursday - Friday - Saturday - Sunday - The Sister Of Elva Hill - Brian McNeill Session

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