Cambridge Day 2: Suddenly It’s Soggy…
Launching his terrific new album Vagrant Stanzas on the Main Stage, Martin Simpson reflected that he’d been coming to the Cambridge Folk Festival since he was a teenager, playing onstage for the first time in 1976. This year he celebrated his sixtieth birthday and he’s obviously still as passionately committed to exploring the living tradition as he ever was. Dedicating his first song In The Pines to the late J.J. Cale, Simpson delivered a set, substantially drawn from that new album, that was supple, subtle and elegant. Simply, he’s one of the best.
Taking over on the Main Stage Songlines Music Awards Best Newcomer winners Mokoomba were apparently an unfamiliar name to most of the audience. So their Pan-African fusion came as a joyful surprise, with their Rising Tide album subsequently flying out of the on-site record store.
A much more familiar name, Thea Gilmore, pulled a capacity crowd over on Stage 2. Even if her Cambridge record (attended five festivals, played at 2) is meagre compared to Simpson’s, her sharp songwriting and engaging stage presence has already made her a firm favourite with this audience. Flanked not only by husband, producer and ever-present right-hand man Nigel Stonier but also a greatly expanded band, including the great Robbie McIntosh on guitar, hers was a typically thrilling set, complete with revelations about being a Jake Thackray fan, that closed with London, one of the songs she posthumously co-wrote (too complicated to explain!) with the great Sandy Denny and the unofficial anthem of last year’s Olympics in London.
Back to the Main Stage for one of the real finds of the festival. As the bracing, adventurous and hugely entertaining Bellowhead are to folk, so Heritage Blues Orchestra are to the blues. At the risk of sounding like I’m going overboard in the flush of first love, their muscular combination of blues, New Orleans, gospel and jazz could make them the modern blues band of your dreams. Invoking Son House, New Orleans and Howlin’ Wolf as well as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Debussy, this was a thoroughly enthralling sixty minutes.
More low-key (despite her sparkly dress) but just as terrific in her own way, over on the second stage Bella Hardy, joined by The Midnight Watch, confirmed that she’s one of the most genuinely exciting talents to have emerged in the last decade. The very first song she wrote, Three Black Feathers, was a BBC Folk Awards nomination for Best Original Song five years ago and she actually won that same award in 2012 for her powerful The Herring Girl. That song was one of the highlights of an impressive set, hardly interrupted by the long-threatened downpour that instantly turned the site into the sort of mud-pit that’s just as much a necessary part of modern festivals as big screens and beer tents.
BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet are festival veterans, of course, and they winningly combined old favourites with selections from their twenty-fifth studio album From Bamako To Carencro. You’ve surely got to love the very idea of Cajun-ified (Doucet’s word, not mine!) James Brown, haven’t you?
Since her unexpected breakthrough in 2005, coinciding with her last Cambridge Festival show, KT Tunstall has matured into an enthralling live performer, confidently mixing her own popular favourites with somewhat unlikely cover versions, including The Boys Of Summer and Bruce’s State Trooper.
A couple of years ago, Raul Malo tore up the place headlining on the Saturday night. He was back on the same slot this year, playing with reformed funsters The Mavericks and their lilting retro-TexMex pop-country managed to turn the place into a dancehall again. New songs from their In Time album, such as set-opener Back In Your Arms, rubbed shoulders with old favourites like All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down and, inevitably, Dance The Night Away. Coincidentally or not, they missed out on Here Comes The Rain and – guess what? – the deluge outside stopped before the end of the set.