15 August 02003

Cambridge Folk Festival - Review

A great festival, once I'd battled the trains to get there. I was attracted by the headline names — particularly Julian Cope, Linda Thompson (who subsequently cancelled), Laura Cantrell, my first chance to see Alasdair Roberts, and to a lesser extent Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash. But it was the time I spent in the club tent watching acts not even mentioned in the programme that I enjoyed most. In particular I'll keep an eye on Note for a Child (you can get their CD EP at the time of writing free from the web site), and the incredible combination of celtic harp and uilleann pipes from Harriet Earis and Colman Connelly. There was more energy in their set than you'd see from The Darkness (I imagine).

Among the rest, Afro Celts put on a spectacular and very showy show, but without the visuals I think the music is too predictable. I saw two sets by Laura Cantrell, who is always confident, assured and gracious. Eliza Carthy was disappointing, and when it comes to Ron Sexsmith, I've never been able to see the appeal: it's not just the uncomfortable performance style; the songs are lame and facile. Martin Simpson was repeatedly introduced as the best guitarist in the UK. If that's true — I'm no technical judge — he showed admirable restraint by not showing off, and good manners by paying tribute to Martin Carthy and Bob Dylan. Julian Cope was himself. He's an entertainer, but whether he really cuts it as a musician and performer in his solo shows, I'm not sure.

By Sunday evening, Yonder Mountain String Band were playing their third set of the festival and had built a substantial reputation. I saw them twice, and they were just the right thing for a festival of this kind. Again I'm not sure if I'd enjoy them as much on record, but live they give off 'authentic' Oh Brother Where Art Thou vibes. The club tent was jumping by the time they finished, so it was a hard act for Alasdair Roberts, alone with his guitar, to follow. He seemed almost apologetic as he worked his way through a set of mostly traditional songs. I wondered if he was adjusting his set-list for the folk festival audience, since Alasdair's web site is noticeably ambivalent about his folk status "Alasdair wouldn't say what they [the Glasgow Herald] wanted him to say in the interview (that he was a 'folk singer' or something)." But exactly a week later I saw Alasdair again in the very different setting of the ICA on the day UK temperatures topped 100F, and he did an acapella performance of more traditional songs.

Sunday closed with another un-billed peformance in the club tent by Wild Willie Barrett — a manic mix of virtuousity and comedy that made a perfect ending.

Here's the BBC review of the festival, and at the time of writing you can get interviews, video and other Cambridge features at Radio 2's mini-site. Legend has it that I can be spotted in the BBC4 footage of the Orchestra Baobab.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Reviews on 15 August 02003