Cambridge Folk Festival 2016: Friday Night: Lisa O’Neill has an audience

Mortal Tides

Mortal Tides - Credit: Archant

Mortal Tides from Saffron Walden, all former pupils of the County High School closed Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday Night.

Folk Festival Artists

Folk Festival Artists - Credit: Archant

True, they were in The Den, the brightly coloured tent for up and coming bands, but they filled the marquee to overflowing, despite, as singer, Noah Bevington said, “other bands” playing at the same time on the main stages.

Their rivals on Stage One were, Gypsy masters, Gogol Bordello which had everyone dancing to a mixture of compelling music and a circus act. And on Stage Two, Varlden’s Band, 14 musicians with styles from three continents uniting Swedish melodies, Scottish reels and English guitar with Galician pipes playing Balkan medodies, indescribable really, even the festival brochure didn’t attempt it, and with so many of them, it took forever to sound check.

Mortal tides, a foursome playing fiddle, double bass, keyboard and drums, wowed their audience with some lovely violin and harmonies, playing their own compositions including The Fall and Shadows.

This is Cambridge’s 52nd Folk Festival. It was started in the 1960s by Ken Woollard, a Cambridge firefighter who organised the first one from the telephone box outside the fire station.

Folk Festival Artists

Folk Festival Artists - Credit: Archant


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At noon, on the first day of the first festival, four people had turned up at the gate. Now it sells out its 10,000 tickets every year within days.

Artists who are legends from across the world play there but the absolute joys are always the undiscovered gems.

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On Friday, these included Megson, duo Debs and Stu Hanna from Middlesbrough, with a song about an accountant from Billingham, another called Bonny Lad about a soldier in one a modern war and a spine-tingling number called The Long Shot, which they had dedicated to Middlesbrough fans but after Middlesbrough went into the Premiership, they offered it to Newcastle.

“Once you’re certain that all hope is gone, a long shot is better than none.”

Folk Festival Artists

Folk Festival Artists - Credit: Archant

For sheer power, clarity and pure beauty of her voice, the overall revealed treasure of this festival must be Lisa O’Neill.

“Record companies don’t like me,” she said so her first album is called Lisa O’Neill has an album, which is a bit like the first Harry Potter novel being called JK Rowling has Written a Book.

On Friday afternoon on stage two, Lisa sang an a cappella version of The Galway Shawl. Usually this is a big band dance number. The audience held its breath in admiration. It had the vocal authority of opera. She sang it again later on the main stage as the guest of Glen Hansard (the Dublin busker who rose to fame as the singer in the film The Commitments and the movie Once).

Lisa also sang her own song, Rocking the Machine, about how machinery put dockers out of work.

Folk Festival 2016

Folk Festival 2016 - Credit: Archant

She has an affecting way of telling a story. She told the crowd about how cormorants dive near the docks and when you see one, it means that your troubles are over.

The docker comes home to tell his wife and children that he is now unemployed.

“Before I spoke, you read my eyes”. “Like a cormorant, I will dive. We’ll rock the machine until it dies.”

Also new to the festival were an American duo called The Mike and Ruthy Band. They are a married couple on fiddle and guitar who mostly play together but occasionally he goes solo under the name of Ruthless Mike. Stupendous string-playing and delightful harmonies.

The band Edward II takes traditional English songs – even Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron - and turns them into reggae. No one can keep their feet still but when I heard Ewan McColl’s Dirty Old Town re-created in the reggae beat, I knew why I had lived this long.

They are not undiscovered of course, this band has been keeping its audience on its toes for 35 years.

Likewise, Michael McGoldrick, who was on the main stage with his band on Friday afternoon. The flautist has worked with people including Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler. A highlight of his set for me was when he brought in three young girls in his family with their whistles and with them played a melodic piece he had written for Capercaillie.

The festival is a relaxed affair, which is a major part of its charm. It’s not over-crowded, the queues for the food and facilities are rarely too long, the prices are fair and every act on stage also offers humour.

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a solo act playing blues on banjo, piano and violin, had plenty of jokes between songs. My favourite was the riddle: “What has a bottom at the top.” An erudite friend of mine guessed: “The play-bill for A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

But no, the answer is: A leg.

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