REVIEW: Cambridge Folk Festival

Sinead O'Connor. Picture: DANIEL ACKERLEY 2014. Sinead O'Connor. Picture: DANIEL ACKERLEY 2014.

Monday, August 4, 2014
8:49 AM

This year’s Cambridge Folk Festival celebrated 50 years. ANGELA SINGER was there.

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Cambridge Folk Festival has a loyal following. People go every year, some of them stand in the same places in the tent. Some of them wear the same clothes.

This 50th anniversary year didn’t have to be special. All it had to be was just as good, offering us the same mixture of musical mastery and passion with panache.

And yes it did. By far my favourite act was Aly Bain playing with Phil Cunningham. They are virtuoso musicians and very funny. They are phenomenal, the Morecambe and Wise of folk music.

Aly Bain is acclaimed as Scotland’s finest fiddle player in the Celtic tradition. No he isn’t. He is the world’s finest fiddle player in any tradition – at times he plays his fiddle like a classical violin. He can play it to make you want to dance, like the cheerful waltz composed in memory of a couple called Cliff and Viv who had loved to waltz and like the wistful, plaintive, beautiful piece that Cunningham, accordionist and wit, composed in memory of his brother.

Cunningham is droll, in an off-hand Scottish way. He told the audience: “We were asked to play at a funeral, to play a little piece as the man was being lowered down. We said we would do it. But we got there late. There was no one there, except the fellas filling in the grave. But a deal is a deal so we played anyway.

“Afterwards one of them said to us: ‘I’ve never heard anything so moving and I’ve been installing septic tanks for 40 years.”

What was different from 50 years ago? Well at noon on the first day of the first festival, four people had turned up. The festival was organised by fireman Ken Woollard, largely from the phone box outside Cambridge Fire Station where he worked.

A memorial bench was unveiled to Ken this weekend to mark the 50 years. The first show included an unknown singer-song writer called Paul Simon...as well as The Clancy Brothers.

Paul Simon wasn’t on the bill this year but there was Finbarr Clancy, a nephew of the Clancy Brothers singing with The High Kings whose set was pure celtic: McAlpine’s Fusiliers, The Rocky Road to Dublin, Whiskey in the Jar. The audience joined in with The Blooming Heather and the Leaving of Liverpool, sung like hymns.

There was a powerful base of Celtic music this year including Cara Dillon with a wonderful rendition of The Parting Glass and the impossibly talented Irish acoustic group Lunasa who put a smile on your face as soon as they start playing with the wonderful force of it.

Over the years the music base has got wider, folk gets mixed with jazz and rock. Friday night saw the sheer operatic power of Sinead O’Connor. You can tell she has been trained in bel canto because she certainly can belto. She sang Nothing Compares to You....and nothing did. The American band Pokey LaFarge, named after its band leader, was a delightful mixture of Dixie and swing, early jazz and ragtime.

The Moulettes, described as frontrunners in the British acoustic scene, play bassoon, clarinet, harp, double bass, the auto-harp and an interestingly shaped cello, specially made by the cellist’s father. They sing harmonies like the Andrews Sisters.

On Saturday afternoon, Loudon Wainwright III, singer and raconteur, (he’s a comedy act really), tickled the audience’s tummy with his stories about his dog and his marriages.

He sang a song he wrote in his London hotel while watching the news. It’s called It Ain’t Gaza. Things were bad he sang, but “hell, it ain’t Gaza”. Then he went into “it ain’t cancer”. A bit much for British sensibilities, but we got over it. He paid tribute to Ken Woollard, as he always does and gave thanks to Ken’s wife Joan, who on the applause, stood up modestly from her chair in the VIP tent.

Duo Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, brought up in earthy Yorkshire, sang a song called The Hum, inspired by a neighbour who couldn’t sell her house because of the noise of the factory nearby.

Some things have changed over the 50 years. In the 90s, you could have got high just sniffing the air as you went in. The number of arrests the police made each year was part of the story. That’s all gone now, you barely see anyone smoke a cigarette.

When Brian McNeil, hosting a Saturday afternoon session, invited the audience to pitch in with the chorus “Join the Union...sell your labour, not your soul” it didn’t get the rousing thunder of voices it would have done in the 1970s. I think actually, it was only me.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Van Morrison wowed the main stage on Sunday night and the crowd went wild for both, singing along to Van Morrison’s Gloria. Mambazo included a song dedicated to Nelson Mandela called Long Walk to Freedom and also, unexpectedly, a song that is a tribute to mothers-in-law.

The audience chuckled but this was not a joke. The band leader said: “This is the reason we have our wives and they help us bring up our children.”

How refreshing. It was a good 50th birthday party.

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