Cambridge Folk Festival 2018 a resounding – and countrified – success
With the sun shining, music fans of all ages gathered to witness the best in folk, blues, country, Americana, roots and beyond. Adrian Peel attended on Friday and Sunday, while Mike Scialom attended on Saturday,
Arriving on Friday evening after work, I was treated to the sight of English folk musician Eliza Carthy whipping the audience into a frenzy on the main stage with her brand of hich-energy folk. Enjoyable as it was, it was headline acts First Aid Kit and Rosanne Cash whom I was particularly keen to see.
Rather infuriatingly, the organisers had put both acts on at the same time, meaning I would have to choose one or flit between Stages 1 and 2. First World problems... I started watching the two Gram Parsons-loving Swedish sisters known as First Aid Kit and had never seen the press area so packed.
I had 20 minutes to decide whether I was going to stay for the whole set or go over and see Johnny Cash’s eldest daughter, who has been making great music since the late 1970s. I wasn’t too impressed with their choice of opening tracks, to be honest, finding them rather noisy, drowning out the steel guitar and coming across as much less country than some of their other material.
I therefore decided to head over to Stage 2, though as I was making my way through the vast crowds of people, First Aid Kit started to get good, performing the excellent Stay Gold off their 2014 album of the same name.
Still, I’d started walking so carried on. First Aid Kit will be returning to Cambridge soon anyway – to the Corn Exchange in November – though I was unaware of this at the time...
Over on the second stage, Rosanne Cash was just kicking off her well-received set with only herself and husband/musical collaborator, John Leventhal, on stage playing acoustic guitars – the latter with a great deal of vigour and dexterity. I’d rather hoped she would have a full band with her, but oh well...
Ms Cash played songs from her most recent album, the widely-acclaimed The River & the Thread (2014), her upcoming new album, She Remembers Everything, and a couple of bona-fide country classics: Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe and The Carter Family’s Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree.
Rosanne recalled going on tour at the age of 18 with her father, and on that same tour was Carl Perkins and the Carter Family – who taught her the song. “Half their songs were about death, the other half were about loss,” joked the 63-year-old singer.
She also recalled that she initially wanted to become a songwriter, rather than a performer, and said that Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris’ decision to cover her composition, Western Wall, as a duo was an inspiring moment in her career.
“Seems like this is the best stage in the whole damn place!” announced Rosanne towards the end of her set – which concluded with her first number one hit, Seven Year Ache, from 1981.
She certainly succeeded in creating an electric atmosphere over on Stage 2 and I for one would have liked to hear more – especially from that golden period during the 1980s when she experienced a staggering run of 11 number ones.
Patti Smith’s Saturday evening set at the Cambridge Folk Festival sought to overturn a stuttering performance in Stockholm when she collected the Nobel Prize for Literature on behalf of the winner, Bob Dylan.
Apparently the occasion had got the better of her during the ceremony. “Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue,” she said later of the incident 18 months ago.
Quite a surprise, not least because one of the things Patti, 71, really brings to the rock’n’roll – sorry folk music – party is her tendency to be incendiary both in terms of her lyrics and also in her onstage presence.
She bosses the show. Nerves don’t come into it, and no one would dare do what someone did at a Liam Gallagher concert a couple of weeks ago – throw a fish onstage.
On a hot August night at the Cherry Hinton site the set list seemed flexible, and indeed included a tribute to Cambridge apparently made up earlier in the day – a tribute to Smith’s extraordinary energy and devotion to her muse. The show starts (a little slowly, perhaps) with two classics – Wing and Redondo Beach.
At the next between-songs break Patti explains that she’s “a little bit banged up” because she injured her hand – one of her fingers is bandaged and there’s a wrist support – so “sorry if I’m not my usual Nureyev self” then unexpectedly giggles and adds: “Actually what my doctor told me is that it’s an 11 year-old boy’s sports injury.”
You had to laugh, and the huge crowd duly obliged. “Today is Barack Obama’s birthday, and I’d like to wish him happy birthday,” she adds to cheers. “Would that we could have those golden years back again.”
Introducing the next song, she referred to the incident in which she collected the Nobel Prize for Literature on behalf of Bob Dylan last year, and omitted some of the words to A Hard Rain’s A’ Gonna Fall during her performance at the ceremony in Sweden. Or rather, as she put it: “I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.”
She told her Cambridge Folk Festival audience: “People probably know that folk is not our forte... I would like to dedicate this to all friends in Stockholm,” and launched into a very vivid reinterpretation of Hard Rain... and invited the audience to sing the chorus, which the crowd accomplished with commendable volume. Thanks for coming to town, Patti!
Grammy Award-winner and 2018 Cambridge Folk Festival curator Rhiannon Giddens performed multiple sets over the weekend. This included a surprise acoustic showcase on the second stage, before blowing the crowd away on Saturday night with her full band warming the tent up for Patti Smith – watched by Sunday headliner John Prine who was celebrating his wife’s birthday on site.
On the Sunday, just before Prine’s set, Giddens came out on stage and addressed the crowd, calling the previous few days “one of the best weekends of my life.”
Of all I saw on the final day, it was country/folk icon Prine who impressed me the most, with a fantastic collection of songs that had the crowd in raptures – and hysterics.
Before Prine, there was golden-voiced Yorkshire lass, Kate Rusby, and 67-year-old folk singer Janis Ian, who announced at the start that she “represents the depressing side of folk music,” telling the audience to “buckle your seatbelts.” On stage alone armed with an acoustic guitar, the seasoned pro treated the crowd to some pretty decent songs, including Jesse, Light A Light and I’m Still Standing Here. The biggest cheer, however, came when the openly lesbian artist sang a tune about loving who you want to love.
Janis said it was good to be back at the festival and noted it had been a long time since her previous visit. “I had a wah-wah pedal last time I was here and was told we weren’t allowed that,” she recalled, noting how things have changed since 1991. “Now we’re allowed them, I’ve thrown it away!”
Backed by four very talented musicians – including an amazing steel guitar/fiddle/mandolin/guitar player and a bassist he described as “the best bass player in the world” – John Prine kicked off his outstanding set with Six O’ Clock News, a great track from 1971.
Bringing things right up to date, the 71-year-old, who later performed a few songs with just him and his guitar, then played the groovy Knockin’ on Your Screen Door off his latest album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness. “I wrote this in 1968, when I was three years old,” he joked, ahead of another humourous little ditty. He also observed that this was his sixth Cambridge Folk Festival appearance. “Thanks for having me back,” he said.
There were some truly gorgeous moments in the set, including Angel from Montgomery, Lake Marie and Souvenirs.
After witnessing Prine’s truly memorable performance, I headed over to Stage 2 to see Texan singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman. Despite some minor vocal issues, she was quite good – but after she’d done Old Church Hymns and Nursery Rhymes – a tune she wrote for the late, great Waylon Jennings – I felt it wasn’t really going to get any better than that, so headed for home.
If I were to sum up my 2018 Cambridge Folk Festival experience in one sentence, it would be “better – and ‘countrier’ – than last year.” With that in mind, could we possibly have Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam in 2019, please?