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Happily mugged on Cambridge Folk Festival opening day




Campers setting up for the weekend at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Picture: Mike Scialom
Campers setting up for the weekend at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Picture: Mike Scialom

The Cambridge Folk Festival weekend got under way on Thursday - gently.

The gates opened for the 54th annual music jamboree at 10am and by midday the camping fields were awash with people scrabbling around with tents, knocking in pegs, regurgitating - perhaps recreating would be kinder - the contents of their domestic life in Cherry Hinton Hall's fields. The setting-up process is one of the more urgent activities of the day, and the threat of rain - fortunately unrealised - put an extra spring in the campers' steps. But by lunchtime the rush eased, and the bars were opening, at which point festival-goers could begin the next vital task - deciding on some sort of rota so to see everyone they wanted to see with a drink on the go. This onerous task was made easier because Stage 1 isn't in action until the Friday: the first day is something of a warm-up, and gives people a chance to wander round the site - rather than dash, shove or stagger. Those joys are all to come!

That moment when you realise your satnav's not going to help. Picture: Mike Scialom
That moment when you realise your satnav's not going to help. Picture: Mike Scialom

What they saw would have been pretty familiar: talk of moving the site to another location is now located on planet gossip, and the behind-the-scenes shenanigans - which saw organisers Cambridge Live leave the city council coop then rejoin the council late last year after failing to meet its financial targets - have all been smoothed over. The festival, one of Europe's premier live events, is now in its 54th year and it ain't going anywhere. There are changes of course: there's a ban on disposable plastic bottles, the festival continues to be gender-balanced as it has been since 2017 - last year it was 60/40 in favour of women - and the design of the plastic beer glasses is now rather lurid, like they were sell-ons from an Amsterdam sex festival. Not that I've been to one of those but folk-festival-branded beer mugs are the minimum the drinking classes deserve, surely. They remind you where you are when you're very drunk, even going so far as to kindly tell you which year it is. The enthusiasm of the drinking class - and the cash they invest in the project - merits nothing less than branded beer mugs.

The Rails are the first band to catch the eye. This Kentish Town outfit are fronted by Kami Thompson - daughter of legends Richard, who plays Stage 1 on Sunday, and Linda - and guitarist James Walbourne, previously with The Pogues and The Pretenders. The uplift was noticeable as they got going. It couldn't be dampened. Even a song with a chorus of 'Save the planet, kill yourself' seemed to have a positive message. This is 2019, folks, the planet's burning, the world is run by maniacs, how you going to survive if you haven't got a sense of humour?

Sam Sweeney was next on Stage 2, and his emotive violin playing and rearrangements of musical styles are met with genuine enthusiasm. I loved 'The Battle of the Somme' (and I never thought I'd ever get to write those words).

Cambridge Folk Festival curator Nick Mulvey's "secret" gig at The Den was one of day one's highlights. Picture: Mike Scialom
Cambridge Folk Festival curator Nick Mulvey's "secret" gig at The Den was one of day one's highlights. Picture: Mike Scialom

The first day closed out - we're talking about the programme, not the into-the-night partying at the Den and elsewhere on the site - with Ralph McTell, one of England's great songsmiths and a man whose wistful voice is matched by impeccable musicianship. McTell distills all that's good about folk music into his set - the story-telling, the eulogies about the lost and struggling, the casual-but-damning observations on human nature, the aper├žus on the injustices of romance, the insights into the ferocity of the firestorm that awaits anyone who steps outside conventional norms... all wrapped up in good grace and an easy approach to between-songs banter.

"My heroes were Woody Guthrie and the great blind ragtime blues players..." McTell says before one song, and indeed his ragtime guitar playing turns out to be an unexpected delight.

"I wrote a couple of songs for Bob," he says by way of another intro. "He doesn't know about them, why should he, but I listened to his songs and they delighted and mystified me... I'm still on the roundabout." At 74, McTell is an elder statesman of folk and he deserves his rapturous welcome.

Ralph McTell at the 2019 Cambridge Folk Festival: 'I'm an old geezer now, and I'm still mystified by man's inhumanity to man'. Picture: Trevor Lee
Ralph McTell at the 2019 Cambridge Folk Festival: 'I'm an old geezer now, and I'm still mystified by man's inhumanity to man'. Picture: Trevor Lee

"I'm an old geezer now," he says later in his stint, "older than some of my heroes, and I'm still mystified by man's inhumanity to man, and in the Yugoslav war...." The song is about how much food you can get from a growbag. Others are tales of comradeship and missing-in-action companions. McTell leaves 'Streets of London' to last.

"I don't normally play this song," he says, "but when you've only got one hit..."

The encore, West 4th Street & Jones, is a poignant take on Bob Dylan and the 1960s.

It's 50 years since Ralph McTell first played Cambridge Folk Festival. He was received like the returning hero he is. But then, on day one, we're all returning heroes.

Personal highlight? This year's guest curator Nick Mulvey's 'secret' shift at The Den as the sun was setting. Check out our list of top ten sets over the weekend here.



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