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Cambridge Folk Festival 2023 Friday review: Highlights from across the musical rainbow





Cambridge Folk Festival is really an annual exploratory discussion between purists and avantgardists - is folk music a singer with a guitar emoting about social issues, or is it an entertainment genre enriched by adopting new musical styles?

The answer of course is both, but it’s been a debate which began when Bob Dylan went electric at Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and it shows no signs of abating any time soon.

Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, . Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, . Picture: Keith Heppell

The Festival opens on the Thursday nowadays, and leans into craft work and storytelling to begin with: it’s Friday when the music starts on Stage 1 and the early bird award this year went to the Sharon Shannon Trio who enhanced everyone with a distinctly Irish feel - the heart of the purist genre.

Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, Folk Camps Party Band with caller Fee Lock . Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, Folk Camps Party Band with caller Fee Lock . Picture: Keith Heppell

By teatime it was Eliza Carthy and The Restitution - Eliza, of course, being at the heart of the folk family, what with her dad being Martin Carthy and her mum Norma Waterson. Eliza looks amazing in a stunning red dress and she’s got the fire in her voice - and her band - to match, so that was fun.

Eliza Carthy + The Restitution, Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom
Eliza Carthy + The Restitution, Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom

Over on Stage 2, the hot money was on The Ayoub Sisters. The sisters, Sarah and Laura, took to the stage late in the afternoon. Their Coptic parents are Egyptian and they were born in Glasgow.

“We are Scottish and we are Egyptian,” says Laura by way of introduction, and indeed their music is a fabulous mix of Middle Eastern and Celtic. One of the great things about them - their entirely original musical style - is they’ve got great rhythm: their songs really swing.

The Ayoub Sisters, Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom
The Ayoub Sisters, Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom

“For this one we are going to add multiple multiple layers of strings which are good fun,” says Laura. “I don’t know if you’ve seen Pulp Fiction, but it has a Dick Dale song called Misirlu.”

Sarah uses her cello as a beat box to slap out a rhythm, records it, plays it back, and then plays cello over the top of it, accompanied by Laura’s violin. Ed Sheeran eat your heart out. There’s a gorgeous mix of scales and melodies, with the sort of musical shape-shifting which only a Scottish-Egyptian sisterhood could possibly achieve - eerie, atmospheric, Middle Eastern. Included in their repertoire is their version of Greensleeves and a Beethoven sonata - a hugely impressive and entertaining set.

Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, Folk Camps Party Band with caller Fee Lock . Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, Folk Camps Party Band with caller Fee Lock . Picture: Keith Heppell

Lady Blackbird also went down a storm on the main stage as the evening began. For those unfamiliar with the New Mexico-born vocalist, imagine Tina Turner and Nina Simone in one commanding alt-jazz package. But there’s something of the music hall about Lady Blackbird which has the crowd in all of a flutter. I actually prefer her version of Nina Simone’s Blackbird, and I’m a huge Nina Simone fan.

Storyteller at Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom
Storyteller at Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom

It looked to me like the audience numbers were slightly lower this year. In some ways this is good - you can buy a drink faster, and navigating around the Cherry Hinton Hall site is (slightly) easier.

Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday. Picture: Keith Heppell

I spoke to one of the musicians and he said: “Yes it does seem to be a bit lower but I was at Ely Folk Festival a month ago and it was 200 or 300 down from previous years, which is a lot if the venue is for 1,500 people. But you’ve got to remember there’s 227 music festivals in the UK every year, there’s really only so much to go round.”

Arrested Development, Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom
Arrested Development, Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom

One of the highlights of Friday at the Cambridge Folk Festival has to be Arrested Development. I mean, yes they’re hip hop, which maybe infuriates the purists, but this festival needed to find its feet and get some in-your-face rhythm going and these folks from Atlanta Georgia know how to deliver. Their rendition of People Everyday was an absolute zinger and the whole set had an upbeat feel. Cowbebs suitably banished.

The Proclaimers, Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom
The Proclaimers, Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom

The Proclaimers had a hard act to follow and Fife identical twins Craig Read and Charles Read have a hard core following. Familiar and enduring, they’re like family here, and made a lot of people happy, and I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) shows their conviction is undimmed.

The Proclaimers, Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom
The Proclaimers, Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom
Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday,The Longest Johns on stage 2 . Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday,The Longest Johns on stage 2 . Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, James Yorkston and Nina Perssonon stage 1. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, James Yorkston and Nina Perssonon stage 1. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, . Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, . Picture: Keith Heppell

So a great first evening, though hopefully there will be some tributes to Sinead O’Connor over the weekend. Sinead played Cambridge Folk Festival in 2014 and it was a joy to be there. Her departure from life’s main stage last week aged just 56 is a huge loss and not just to the music world. She remained an untamed spirit and her political voice will resonate through the ages for its bravery, and for her profound poetic beauty. She called herself ‘a protest singer’ and every folkie knows that to make a stand, to call out injustice in the world, is part of the job description. Bring it on!



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