REVIEW: We Banjo 3 are highlight of Cambridge Folk Festival

We Bango 3

We Bango 3 - Credit: Archant

THE music at Cambridge Folk Festival, which celebrates 50 years next year, has evolved some way from its folk roots but no one cares, they just dance to it.

The crowd rocked the tent to The Bombay Royale from Australia, which promised Bollywood but was really a big band with a couple of Indian style dancers.

All is fusion now. Ten years ago, it was scintillating to hear saxophones and trumpets and lots of eclectic electric behind your traditional reels. Now, it is a treat to hear a solo violin. Megan Henderson playing with the Scottish band Breabach, and also with the Irish singer Heidi Talbot, lifted the soul.

That said, The Levellers were wonderful, opening with a big hit instead of building up to it – why make the crowd wait. On Friday, they sang It’s a Beautiful Day and it was. Bellowhead followed them headlining on the Friday main stage, blasting out their, big sound with Jon Boden’s brilliant, manic performance on the fiddle and as lead singer. The Mavericks were magnificent, allowing people to end Saturday by Dancing the Night Away.

It seemed harder to find music straight from its roots this year but it was there. A lovely pool of acoustic calm came from St Neots Folk Club on Saturday afternoon in The Club Tent. There were some great harmonies from Floyd, Hartwell and Hines from the town on double bass, flute and guitar. Erica Lyons, originally from Liverpool, gave an unembellished and moving version of Danny Boy.

And back in the bustle of the main stage on Saturday evening was the extraordinary acoustic guitarist Tommy Emmanuel. For one man and one instrument to fill the main stage arena was remarkable as was his technical brilliance.

BBC Radio 2 Award Winner, singer Bella Hardy (she won the award in 2012 for The Herring Girl as Best Original Song) was a privilege to hear, playing with her band The Midnight Watch. And Korrontzi, the Basque country band, founded by accordionist Agus Barandiaran offered traditional Basque music on authentic instruments. After a rousing Stage 2 set on Saturday evening, conjuring up images of a Spanish hillside, Agus jumped off the stage and continued playing his accordion through the crowd and out of the back of the tent, where some of his audience followed him.

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Best buzz this year? My vote by far and away for the sheer joy of their performance - and their thrilling musicianship is for two acoustic acts: the duo Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar and the quartet We Banjo 3.

Still aged only 17 and 20, writing their own songs and reels, Greg and Ciaran are multi-instrumentalists and winners of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award. They played three energetic sets at the festival with Greg on guitar and vocals, and Ciaran on the fiddle and the banter. Ciaran is an All-Ireland and all-Britain fiddle champion. They met at a folk club in Runcorn. Who else would offer you a love song from Stoke? The late Ken Woollard, who started the festival in 1964 – organising it from the phone box outside the fire station where he worked - must surely have been somewhere smiling.

Only We Banjo 3 could have followed them, a quartet of two sets of brothers, David and Martin Howley and Enda and Fergal Scahill from the West of Ireland, playing two banjos, a guitar and a fiddle. Martin is seven times all Ireland Banjo Champion and was the first banjo player to perform at Nashville’s Grand Ol Opry. Enda is a published author on banjo techniques and Fergal is one of Irish music’s most acclaimed fiddle players.

I thought when they first came on the stage for a sound check that the youngest, guitarist David Howley, was a lad they had given a chance. But he turned out to be a powerhouse, the lead fella, singer and front man. This is a mainly blue grass with a touch of Irish. It’s musicianship at its most accomplished. Their ensemble playing is fast and full of joy. It is impossible not to dance to it. They could have performed the whole four-day festival by themselves. The crowd went wild. This was early Sunday evening, the festival carried on for a few hours more, but for me, no one could follow them.