Welcome return as Cambridge Folk Festival becomes one big highlight
Cambridge Folk Festival made its very welcome return to the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall this weekend, with its celebratory feel enhanced by a stellar line-up raring to go after a two-year enforced absence.
Suzanne Vega summed it up best during her Saturday evening set on the main stage: “This is what I was dreaming about for the last two years… When can I come out and play…. In Cambridge!!” Massive cheer for that one from the densely packed crowd.
The four-day event – the last was in 2019 – began on Thursday. The first thing to do when getting on site is to check that all the key components are in place, and they are, from the main stages to the Club Tent to The Den, and the Hub, plus the food stalls (my favourite is Season’s Cafe but Taste of Tibet was pretty awesome too).
All the other stalwarts are in place – the tent where budding musicians play together, the children’s area, the artist sessions, and stands for local community groups – and there seems to be a lot more going on at Coldham’s Common this year as the camp site facility takes on its own colours. Davina and the Vagabonds on Stage 2 were highly rated on the Thursday, which of course is slightly lower-key as the main stage action starts on Friday afternoon.
There was a dance frenzy on Stage 2 with Simon Care Trio kicking off a vast ceilidh groove which turned the marquee into a giddying whirl of music-directed legs and arms. Traditionalists might point out that there’s nothing more authentic – and fun – than dancing to folk music in a tent. If you were there, you’d agree.
On the main stage, The Young’uns achieved something similar on the main stage – the main stage audience is a bit different because it’s divvied up into those under the roof and those (mostly sitting) on the grass and each is somehow a very different audience. They were followed by solid sets from Findlay, and then Spiers and Boden.
The evening’s larks on the main stage began with Dustbowl Revival, an inspired booking for this US band which leans heavily into Americana, soul, bluegrass and New Orleans funk in a glorious mash-up which revels in the diversity of its band members, with standout vocal performances by Zach Lupetin and Lashon Halley, and a kick-butt brass section with Ulf Bjorlin on trombone and Max Rubin on trumpet.
Suzanne Vega came on and played the first couple of songs in a jaunty top hat. It’s incredible to hear Marlene on the Wall and Small Blue Thing. Her first album set new standards for lyrical density and musical ingenuity when it appeared in 1985 and the songs sound fantastically fresh. She moved on to Caramel, wisecracking “some people still think this about dessert”.
She’s a sassy New Yorker with a nice line in between-song banter and tonight she has a secret weapon – surely one of the world’s top ten guitarists at this moment in time – called Gerry Leonard. Gerry is “from Dublin”, Suzanne tells us, and his backstory includes stints with Bowie, Rufus Wainwright, Roger Waters... Suzanne’s own guitar playing is already fantastically intricate and ethereal, but Gerry takes the songs up another level.
His melodic invention and technical proficiency turn his guitar into an orchestra, from gales of sound to fragile picking in a blink. Gypsy – “everyone has a first love,” says Suzanne, “and when I sing about mine it makes people think about theirs” – is followed by In Liverpool.
She says: “People think of this as a family festival” and throws in a winsome and world-weary Walk on the Wild Side. Next, The Queen and the Soldier, and Gerry is getting all pastoral for this tale of courtly love that ends in tragedy. How come no one made a film out of that elegiac story yet? Some Journey leads up to the terrible epiphany that is Luka, and she closes with Tom’s Diner. It’s an enthralling performance and Suzanne Vega will be back in Cambridge for a February concert at the Corn Exchange.
I bumped into Seasick Steve backstage and he was a real gent when I asked him for a selfie, said he didn’t really know what that meant and would I mind if he declined? Of course, this is America’s numero uno backwoodsman poet, and he has a mighty steely gaze, so it wasn’t really much of a question at all. When I agreed to drop the idea, he said “I can give you something though… a handshake” and stuck out his hand, so that’s my story to warn the public not to expect Seasick Steve on Instagram any time soon. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news and all, but catch him live if you can, his musicianship is astonishing.
If you do manage to get along – there are a few tickets on the festival website – don’t forget to drop in at the trading stalls, where all the familiar stalls are there, from musical instruments to tattoos to clothes and all the rest.