Cambridge Folk Festival, one of the longest running folk festivals in the world, established in 1965, has always promoted equality and inclusion. Original founder, the late Ken Woollard, gave all artists the same billing on posters and publicity arguing that “they are all good”. More recently, Cambridge has added its name to Keychange, the worldwide equality movement seeking to place more female artists at the forefront of music festivals. The pledge is to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022 and this year the Cambridge exceeded this by achieving a 60:40 split.
At the forefront in supporting this initiative was the inspired choice of Rhiannon Giddens as Guest Curator. Giddens first appeared at the festival as co-leader of the Grammy award winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, in 2010. She made a striking return as a solo artist in 2015. Throwing herself fully into her 2018 role she hand-picked a selection of young and upcoming roots musicians – Yola Carter, Kaia Kater, Amythyst Kiah, Birds of Chicago (Allison Russell and JT Nero) and folk icon, Peggy Seeger. Giddens personally introduced each one as well as leading ‘the youngsters’ in a memorable set, which closed out the festival in the venue for showcasing grassroots music -The Club Tent.
Giddens’ boundless energy and enthusiasm permeated the weekend; she participated in workshops, talks, gave impromptu performances, interviewed Seeger and delivered, what was for many, the highlight of the festival, her own stunning set. Her backing band included Dirk Powell, the banjo and fiddle player extraordinaire, currently touring with Joan Baez. Introducing him Giddens explained that he had a day off so was able to join her! Blending a range of musical styles (bluegrass, folk, gospel) and instruments, Giddens’ between song, historically informed commentary added real context to her choice of songs. The performance was a tour de force.
Friday night headliners First Aid Kit (Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg) executed an altogether muscular set. Their latest album Ruins belies their reputation for prettiness and whimsy and is grittier and edgier than previous releases. A deliberate ploy and one so well received at the festival. Playing to a packed marquee, their crowd-pleasing performance stretched their folk pop sensibilities and explored new musical territory. Klara described their sound as ‘harmonies and head-banging’ and it’s a description that I wouldn’t disagree with.
Saturday’s headliner was Patti Smith, the high priestess of punk. She’s enjoyed much commercial success not only for her music but also for her poetry, photography and visual art. Now in her early 70’s she’s still pushing at the boundaries and as a ‘veteran’ she was always going to deliver with panache and style. Taking the stage, she immediately asked for the smoke machine to be turned off “I’m not Metallica, can we get rid of the [expletive] smoke?” It just endeared her all the more to the crowd, many of which had been attracted to this year’s festival by the opportunity to see her perform. And perform she did…wishing Barak Obama a happy birthday (August 4th)…dedicating a folk song (Bob Dylan’s ‘Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’) to her friends in Stockholm. The words were written on a sheet of paper – Smith had accepted Dylan’s Nobel prize for literature and sang this song but through nervousness, had forgotten the lyrics to the second verse – that wasn’t about to happen here!…segued into a Christmas carol ‘We Three Kings’ after reciting a poem inspired by a visit, earlier in the day, to King’s College Chapel…dedicating ‘Because The Night’ to her late husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. She is quite rightly held in the highest renown; she’s fierce, she’s political, she’s dynamic, she’s passionate and is the embodiment of artistic honesty. Bravo!
John Prine, Sunday’s headliner was appearing at the festival for the sixth time but remains as relevant as ever. His latest album The Tree Of Forgiveness is his first collection of original material since 2005’s Grammy award winning Fair and Square. His now gravely vocals (he’s overcome more than one cancer scare) compounded by a ‘frog in his throat’ only served to add more gravitas to his lyrics – I will never tire of hearing ‘Lake Marie’, ‘Sam Stone’ and ‘Hello In There’. He dedicated ‘Souvenirs’ to his late friend and musical compadre, Steve Goodman, who had appeared with him at his first Cambridge festival, back in 1973. New songs alongside favourites from his back catalogue featured in Prine’s 75-minute set – it was a treat for both hearts and minds. Many of Prine’s songs, on the surface, seems to have similarities with each other but keep listening, peel away at the layers, explore the nuances, and it’s easy to see why he’s so revered and in demand as a mentor to younger musicians.
Cambridge provides an eclectically varied roster of musicians; the audience’s wide age range, often three generations of the same family, means that there is something for every one and my own personal highlights included…
Darlingside – the Massachusetts based quartet were the ‘twinned act’ – that is the ‘twinning’ between Cambridge and America’s Newport Folk Festival. Having appeared at the latter, the previous weekend, Darlingside flew across the Atlantic to appear at the former. It was a return visit to Cambridge; they triumphed two years ago when having appeared on the festival’s second stage, they stepped up to the main stage to plug a gap that had been unexpectedly left by the last minute withdrawal through illness of soul legend Charles Bradley. Sadly, he died last September and they paid homage to him by dedicating a song during a surprise set in the Guinness Tent. Their full set, on main stage, saw us enjoy their gorgeous four-part harmonies, around a single microphone. As well as material from their own collections ‘Singularity’ ‘Go Back’ ‘White Horses’ and more, they offered up an acapella version of Neil Young’s ‘Red Sun’ that was simply spine tingling. Ending with ‘Best of the Best of Times’ they deservedly received an impassioned ovation with many calls for ‘more!’.
Eric Bibb’s set shifted the emphasis of the festival over to the blues. He’s the master of contemporary acoustic blues and with more than thirty albums to his name, has a wealth of material to choose from. He started with “an old song, I love to sing” – ‘Going Down Slow’ and moved through favourites including ‘Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad which invoked his first Cambridge appearance in 1997 (yes, I was there!). I just adore his version of the traditional, ‘Needed Time’ and think it a great song but particularly suited to the festival atmosphere where everyone sang along with him.
Yola Carter, one of the acts curated by Giddens, performed on the second stage. Launching a solo career, a couple of years ago, she has become a firm favourite with the Americana community here in the UK, winning awards at the annual AMA UK conference in successive years. She’s an engaging performer with a big personality and an even bigger voice. She’s just recorded an album (in Nashville) so that is much anticipated. From the little I’ve heard of the material she has written, its going to be a winner. Meantime, enjoy her EP Orphan Offering but better still, see her live performance. You’ll be blown away!
Stick In The Wheel, were described to me as ‘The Clash doing folk music’ and that was an apt description! South Londoners fronted by Nicola Kearey – whose between song commentaries showed a droll sense of humour – are intent on expanding the horizons of folk. Their song choices illuminate a politically conscious take on life in 21st century Britain; yes there is anger in the presentation but the humour softens some pretty tough messages.
Janis Ian who will always be remembered for writing ‘At Seventeen’ took the main stage, solo with just a guitar and voice. I write ‘just guitar and voice’ but what I really mean to convey is just how accomplished a guitarist she is. She joked about how she used to use a pedal board but was told that it wasn’t what folk singers ‘did’ so she got rid of it only to find that other folk guitarists started using them! She plays a custom made guitar and easily held the audience’s attention with her singing, playing and belief that “art has the power to bring about change, because we speak from out truth”. Forthright in her views and ‘comfortable in her own skin’ this diminutive woman has an impressive pedigree and you can’t help but warm to her.
There is so much to choose from at festivals with Cambridge being no exception. It’s always a thrill to see such a strong line up but then the challenge is deciding which performances are ‘must sees’ – it’s a great dilemma to have! Roll on 2019!