Cambridge Folk Festival 2008

8 Aug 2008 in Festival, Music

Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge, 31 July – 3 August 2008

The Chair (© lieve)

THE 44TH wasn’t the sunniest of Cambridge Folk Festivals, but the intermittent rain never threatened any serious mud, and the prevailing mood remained as benignly clement as ever. Underpinning this celebrated mellow atmosphere, which unites a crowd of all ages – literally from tiny babies to senior citizens – is a level of customer care, allied to clockwork-calibre organisation, that’s unsurpassed anywhere on the festival circuit.

Not only were the beer tent and the oft-cleaned toilets largely queue-free all weekend, for instance, thanks to the usual generous apportionment of space, facilities and staff, but after the one lengthy downpour on Saturday afternoon, a team of workers appeared with machines to hoover up the puddles.

Cambridge has long been an important fixture for Scottish artists, particularly since its current director, Eddie Barcan, has been a regular visitor to Celtic Connections almost since that festival’s inception. His appreciation and understanding of what’s happening north of the border has consistently been reflected, in recent years, by a proportion of Scottish music on the bill that punches well above our numerical weight: at least six or seven acts, generally, among an international line-up of around 40.

This happy state of affairs was officially cemented this year by the first ever Scottish Showcase at Cambridge, a partnership deal with the Scottish Arts Council (SAC), by which the eight participating acts from Scotland were highlighted more prominently and proactively within the event as a whole. The initiative was targeted equally at the festival’s famously discerning, 15,000-strong audience and – with Cambridge being just 50 miles from London – the numerous music-industry bigwigs routinely to be found hanging out backstage.

Apart from the SAC itself, the Showcase was probably the biggest deal for Orkney outfit The Chair, whose Scottish festival performances have already earned them honourable mention this year, following on from their Open Stage Award at Celtic Connections in 2007.

Landing such a prestige gig as Cambridge, for an act unknown outwith Scotland, represents a big break at this stage of their career, but probably wouldn’t have been possible – the economics of shipping an eight-piece band from Kirkwall to Cambridge being what they are – without a little help from SAC funds.

“It’s not about us paying fees – that’s the promoter’s job,” emphasises Ian Smith, the SAC’s Head of Music. “It’s about identifying ways we can help to secure the best opportunities for our artists, and then adding value to those opportunities through extra publicity and so on.”

All of which would signify nothing very much if the export being showcased wasn’t up to scratch – but thankfully all our musical ambassadors did us proud, kicking off with the Peatbog Faeries’ first set on Friday (unusually, most Cambridge acts play twice or even three times over the weekend), which resoundingly walked the walk immediately after the SAC hosted a drinks reception backstage.

As a resplendent marriage of the ultra Scottish and traditional – bagpipes, fiddle, whistles, kilts – with the funky and futuristic (monster grooves, sizzling brass, swirly psychedelic soundscapes), the Faeries once again proved themselves a truly world-class force.

The Chair, too, rose triumphantly to the occasion, opening their campaign at the unforgiving hour of midday on Saturday, first up on the main stage. Their high-octane mix of rollicking, beautifully arranged tunes with rhythmic rock’n’roll muscle, plus the odd raw-boned blues or rockabilly song, soon had a goodly share of the initially recumbent audience on their feet and dancing.

By the time they finished their third show the following afternoon – having riotously closed out the Club Tent on Saturday night – Stage 2 was a sea of jigging bodies and waving arms, with one elderly lady in the disabled enclosure dancing manically on crutches. They may have arrived as unknowns, but by Sunday’s end the word on The Chair was most definitely out – which for this taxpayer, at any rate, counts as a job well done all round.

Also new to Cambridge were the Orkney/Penicuik duo of Jeana Leslie and Siobhan Miller, who earned their place on the bill as current holders of the BBC Young Folk Award – a slot at Cambridge being an annual component of the prize – to which the SAC chipped in funding for an additional youth workshop, and the chance to launch their debut album, In A Bleeze, at the above-mentioned reception.

Again, though, it was talent and skill that centrally delivered the impact, as they captivated the crowd with exquisitely arrayed versions of songs traditional and modern, deftly complemented by fiddle, piano and step-dancing.

As a sampler or snapshot to illustrate both the teeming musical diversity and the prevailing quality of musicianship encompassed by today’s Scottish folk scene, the eight featured acts were commendably well chosen.

From their respective generational and gender contexts, Brian McNeill and Karine Polwart each flew the Saltire for bitingly articulate songwriting, compellingly phrased vocals and the rattling of complacent cages.

Jazz drummer Tom Bancroft allied his improvisational virtuosity with a liberal serving of vaudeville/slapstick-style daftness in hosting the highly successful folk festival debut of his Kidsamonium show, winner of the 2007 BBC Jazz Award for Innovation.

Despite starting off with a half-empty tent (being up against Britfolk pin-up Seth Lakeman followed by 60s legend Judy Collins on the main stage), the brilliantly head-to-head Scottish/Irish piping of Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson, also on their first Cambridge visit, swiftly drew a throng like moths to a flame, their incandescent duelling powered along by Ali Hutton’s guitar, Duncan Lyall on bass and Martin O’Neill on percussion.

And whooping up the Club Tent in one of the early-bird slots on Thursday night, when half-a-dozen or so local and up’n’coming acts perform as a preamble to the main three-day event, were Findlay Napier and the Bar Room Mountaineers, proving not only that their fresh, quirky brand of Scottish contemporary folk-pop is developing apace, but that it can travel.

Given that Cambridge is, after all, an English festival – albeit one that’s never received a penny from the Arts Council of England – there was also a diverse spread of folk-based sounds from south of the border. Highlights included a richly entertaining set from Eliza Carthy, mixing classic traditional fare with self-penned material from her boldly adventurous new album, Dreams of Breathing Underwater, and a chattily companionable hour in the ever-rewarding company of Billy Bragg, including mass singalongs to ‘Between the Wars’ and (naturally) ‘New England’.

Both Carthy and Bragg also featured in the weekend’s main English showpiece, the live version of producer Simon Emmerson’s multicultural extravaganza The Imagined Village, rounding off Saturday’s main-stage bill alongside the likes of Carthy’s dad Martin, Anglo-Indian singer Sheila Chandra, dhol drummer Johnny Kalsi and Transglobal Underground’s Tim Whelan.

Despite its admirable ambitions and classy credentials, however, the project in the flesh seemed overburdened with a sense of its own importance, giving off a faint but deadening whiff of self-aggrandisement that saw this listener, at least, escaping to Stage 2, where the Peatbog Faeries were again bringing the house down in proper Saturday-night style.

First and foremost, however, Cambridge is an international festival, in terms of both its outstanding reputation and its programming policy, as well as being one that’s always championed the widest possible definition of the other F-word in its name. It’s this illustrious and cosmopolitan context that makes the Scottish Showcase so significant, underlining our artists’ duly-earned presence alongside A-list stars from right across the folk/roots spectrum.

This year’s top attractions ranged from k.d. lang, who thankfully got her monitor mix sorted in time to comprehensively slay the big-tent crowd with her magnificent version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, to Virginian bluegrass virtuoso Tim O’Brien, settling in for a couple of memorable backporch-style sessions with fiddler John McCusker, Altan accordionist Dermot Byrne and Irish guitar god Arty McGlynn.

Then there was the inordinately hot’n’funky Grupo Fantasma, a Latin posse from Texas who opened all 21 of Prince’s O2 Arena shows last year, and a spellbinding performance from Martha Wainwright, by turns teasing and splenetic, painfully confessional and hauntingly understated.

Dressed to impress in a black micro-dress, hot-pink stockings and four-inch silver spike heels, Wainwright also embodied the balance of continuity and change that Cambridge strikes so skilfully. Having made her Thursday-night debut here in 2005, this time she rightly commanded the big main stage – a stage that her father Loudon, as a long-time Cambridge favourite, has graced many a time before her, and to which she paid tribute with a delicately wrought, intensely felt cover of his anti-war song ‘Pretty Good Day’.

© Sue Wilson, 2008