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Cambridge Folk Festival: Bright colours in dark times

Cambridge Folk Festival Sunday August 5th 2019 (14758251)
Cambridge Folk Festival Sunday August 5th 2019 (14758251)

This year's Cambridge Folk Festival concluded with a dazzling array of musical gifts. After Talisk's storming Saturday night tour de force, Sunday started to get properly going mid-afternoon with The Unthanks' feast of harmonies followed by Richard Thompson, whose mesmerising guitar virtuosity and sardonic wit captivated the main stage crowd.

Over on stage one Siobhan Miller's dulcet tones were followed by Texan Jarrod Dickenson, who brought a bit of drawl and swagger to proceedings. Dickenson was followed by a different sort of swagger - the musical swagger of the blues with Lil' Jimmy Red and the A Team. Jimmy Reed occupies the territory that Muddy Waters used to prowl. There was more blues on the main stage with the Blind Boys of Alabama and then - an inspired piece of programming - the Blind Boys were joined by Amadou & Miriam for an African/American crossover which was big-hearted and uplifting.

The Club tent has its own centre of gravity and PicaPica's set has to be one of the event's triumphs. The vocal interplay of Josienne Clarke and Samantha Whates is matched by the duo's self-deprecating humour and impeccable accompanying musicianship from Adam Beattie - if they had "best-of" awards every year, Adam Beattie would surely be a strong contender for the guitar win. PicaPica were followed by another festival highlight - the Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican, an irreverent, madcap trio whose unlikely choices of songs to reinvent in a bawdy theatrical style included the Stones' 'Paint It Black', the Bee Gees' 'How Deep Is Your Love' and Kraftwork's 'The Model'.

Insisting they were quite posh really, the onstage banter included a defence of their home town, Barnsley.

"In most cities people smoke spice, but in Barnsley everyone smokes basil," said one of the Doonicans. "They buy the Radio Times when it's not even Christmas, that's how posh it is."

Graham Nash, centre, on stage with singer/guitarist Shane Fontayne, left, and keyboard player/singer Todd Caldwell. Picture: Trevor Lee
Graham Nash, centre, on stage with singer/guitarist Shane Fontayne, left, and keyboard player/singer Todd Caldwell. Picture: Trevor Lee

Speaking for the organisers, operations manager Rebecca Stewart said: “Cambridge Folk Festival 2019 has been a truly special one. From the legends that grace the stage, to the moments of magic that happen across the site, no matter where you find yourself, you’re within a sea of excellence. Nick Mulvey as our guest curator this year has brought a flavour of the music he loves, to share with Cambridge and I think it’s safe to say his contributions have been a hit with the crowds. Thank you to the fans for making this year another resounding success.”

Festivals are all about the moments of magic Rebecca mentions, so here’s some personal ones.

First up, one evening I was having a beer with some chums near stage two when suddenly this gentleman was standing in front of me. I said hello as you do, and asked him his name. Edmond.

I shook his hand and asked him how he was getting on. He said did I know where the disabled area was near the main stage? I offered to escort him over. It all happened in a blink and suddenly I was walking away from the gang holding hands with a random bloke. There was no discussion. My chums - those festival butterflies! - just turned and walked away, on to the Den or wherever, and I took Edmond's hand and set off for the habitat. Reader, it’s surely scary being visually impaired. Edmond explained that he can make out shapes and bright colours - like my shirt - but any sort of reading is completely beyond him. All these people - I can see their faces, their eyes, their expressions, and watch the band on the big screen. But if you’re reliant mainly on sound, a festival must be absolute chaos. I thought Edmond was a bit of a hero.

After I left him in the safety of the disabled persons enclosure where he said he was meeting his friend Dave, I wandered about a bit and ended up in the traders tent looking at the guitars for sale. Such beautiful guitars. And accordions. And piano accordions, and some sort of seemingly medieval stringed instruments, and drums, and bodhrans. Fortunately I’d left my credit card at home. Further along, there were some great ponchos. I tried to work out whether I needed one. Will it be a cold winter? The climate itself is changing: it’s hard to second-guess what’ll happen next. We’ll see - a gift, by the way, that one should make full use of.

Edmond, right, who has visual impairment, with his friend Dave. Picture: Mike Scialom
Edmond, right, who has visual impairment, with his friend Dave. Picture: Mike Scialom

The second abiding memory was watching Graham Nash. I first heard of Nash as part of Crosby, Stills and Nash, whose debut is one of the all-time classics. Then they became a supergroup called Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Nash was the George Harrison of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - the glue, the go-to guy who sorted things out with his positivity and compassion when things got heavy man. And sure enough, at 77, Nash's sunshiney West Coast harmonies are still a breath of fresh air.

The band are great - a keyboardist from Texas, and a guitarist from Muswell Hill. The Nash set started off full of bonhomie, and got more intense with ‘To The Last Whale’, which he co-wrote with Crosby. 'To The Last Whale' was written in 1975, when whales were pretty much mystical beasts of the deep. We didn’t know much about them - we have so much to thank David Attenborough for. And now we know far more about their intelligence, communication, collective behaviour, their echolocation skills… and they're an endangered species. How the world turns - and how artists can describe the arc of the journey as it bends massively out of shape. So thanks Graham Nash. I’ll put up with the occasional dud - ‘Immigration Man’ is vastly over-rated in my view - to have a moment like that.

So what else… did I mention some people gathered in a field, heard some great live music for four days, then got on with their lives?

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