Cambridge Folk Festival one of the best ever

Cambridge Folk Festival

Cambridge Folk Festival - Credit: Archant

Singer Rhiannon Giddens from North Carolina was so good, we didn’t know how the next act was going to follow her. And the next act was Joan Baez. That’s how great the 51st Cambridge Folk Festival was. It was one of the best in decades. It was one unforgettable act after another and we were all singing and all dancing.

Cambridge Folk Festival

Cambridge Folk Festival - Credit: Archant

Singer Rhiannon Giddens from North Carolina was so good, we didn’t know how the next act was going to follow her. And the next act was Joan Baez.

That’s how great the 51st Cambridge Folk Festival was. It was one of the best in decades. It was one unforgettable act after another and we were all singing and all dancing.

First off, there were the three Joans: that’s Joan Baez, Joan Amatrading and Joan Woollard, wife of the late Ken Woollard, who founded the festival in 1964. No, they didn’t sing together but they were there.

Ken, a fireman, organised the early festivals from the payphone inside Cambridge Fire Station. At noon on the first day of the first festival, four people were at the gate. Now, 10,000 tickets sell out every year.

Cambridge Folk Festival

Cambridge Folk Festival - Credit: Archant

In the early years, some American performers just turned up unbooked but Joan Woollard says that was sometimes to avoid the draft for Vietnam.

Ken died in 1993, aged 67. His wife, Joan, now 87, has not missed a single festival. As Show of Hands (possibly the most eloquent rebels Exeter ever produced) wowed the main stage on Saturday, she told me: “The festival was the idea of a friend of ours. He said to Ken ‘you’ve got a guitar, you can do it.’”

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In fact Ken only strummed the guitar and his favourite music wasn’t folk, it was jazz but Joan said: “He was very good at organising people without them realising that they were being organised.” The first festivals were run by volunteers. Joan made meals for them.

Their friend was Philip Abrams, a fellow of Peterhouse, a city councillor and like the Woollards a member of the Labour Party. The Woollards joined the party in the 1950s soon after they were married. They lived in Cambridge’s Romsey Town. Joan, who was born in the city, said: “Romsey was known as Red Russia before the war.”

The festival is always full of surprises. I didn’t expect on the opening night to hear a soprano singing Elgar. Josienne Clarke (billed in a duo that turned out to be a five piece with cello, keyboard and viola) kept telling the audience that her music was miserable. She said we could take the misery home with us on her CD. I thought why would I want to do that – until I heard her version of Nina Simone’s For All We know.

The party was really started by two women’s groups, whose musicianship is breathtaking: Multi-award-winning Fara are four young violinists and a pianist from Scotland, who play like angels.

And ending Thursday night with a riot was Katzenjammer.

These four Norwegian girls look as if they have just stepped out of St Trinian’s. They swap instruments for each number. They play 15 instruments between them – up-side-down and back to front - and standing on their heads. And they all sing. Powerfully. It’s jazz, it’s rock, it’s electric and eclectic. It’s all played at the speed of a motorbike and it’s wonderful.

Three Irish bands share my prize for getting people to dance: Talisk, from Scotland, this year’s Radio 2 Young Folk Award Winners, a trio of violin, concertina and guitar; Goitse a five-piece from Dublin who were playing their first gig in England, and festival veterans Danu, celebrating their 20th year as doyens of the Irish music scene. Danu’s Donal Clancy in Danu is the son of Liam Clancy. Continuity is something else this festival has: The Clancy brothers played in the first festival in 1964.

But far and away, this year’s festival supreme highlight was classically trained opera singer, Rhiannon Giddens from North Carolina singing her own rich version of country and western.

Rhiannon came to the festival five years ago as the singer in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, (also an inspirational band). Her beautiful, thrilling, trilling voice does the impossible – graciously and effortlessly. After her set, there was a rush to the record tent and her CDs sold out.

Saturday night had a remarkable triple bill of female acts. Before Rhiannon came The Unthanks, two sisters from the North East. Their beautiful, clear voices touch your hearts with Dave Sudbury’s song, which begins: “In the west end of Derby lives a working man who says I can’t fly but me pigeons can’.

They usually sing a glorious a capella but this time, they were also accompanied by a magical small orchestra with violin, cello, guitar and piano, plus a sublime trumpet played by Lizzie Jones from Wales. Their set was Heaven.

And after Rhiannon, there was Baez. Even if her voice is a little husky now, she has an irresistible warmth. She can get a crowd of thousands believing she is singing only to each one of them. We all joined in with It’s All Over Now Baby Blue and John Lennon’s Imagine. It was intimate.

The miracle story of the festival was Wilco Johnson. The Dr Feelgood guitarist was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012. He refused chemotherapy and instead went on a farewell tour. He was too ill to play the final gigs. Then everything changed. He had an 11-hour operation at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge to remove a three-kilogram tumour. His return to the stage was a benefit concert for the hospital. Now, he looks fit as a fiddle and he’s certainly ready to go with his Mick Jagger rooster head flick and his two foot shuffle slide across the stage

And talking of legends, we swayed our hips to the Skatalites, the band which started ska. Saxophonist Lester Sterling and singer Doreen Shaffer, began in the 1960s to mix up boogie-woogie, blues, jazz and R&B. They backed Bob Marley and Toots and the Maytals. They still lead the group and their version of the theme from the Guns of Navarone had all of Stage One rocking on Saturday afternoon.

Our third Joan, Miss Amatrading wowed the crowds on Sunday evening. She said she wasn’t going to sing it but the thousands of fans still greeted her with Love and Affection.

This family festival, where every audience comfort is thought of, is as vibrant and exciting as it was 50 years ago, when as Joan Woollard says, there weren’t many festivals for it to model itself on. I think this weekend, half a century on, Ken, the kind fireman, who stipulated among other things that the food sold should be wholesome and fairly priced, would have been proud of his legacy.

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