Having arrived, after some delays, on a blisteringly hot Thursday we found that the festival officials had no record of us ever been granted press passes. After some frenzied phone calls and anxious waiting I finally managed to wrangle some press passes and camping out of the desk. Not a fabulous start from the festival but not to worry, we had somewhere to camp (at one of the camp-sites a short bus ride away from the festival) and hadn't yet missed any bands. Stepping into the arena I was greeted with possibly the oldest festival demographic I have ever come across. Each person I saw was either middle aged or a child. People of the early 20s generation were few and far between. It was for your sake, dear reader, that I struggled through this generational isolation, so you better appreciate it.
First band on the 'to see' list was the lovely choral Ahab. The band have a excellent ability to write a pleasing pop-country song, with their harmonic singing creating lovely melodies and filling the tent with their sound. I had the odd feeling, however, that I'd heard it all before. Maybe their vocals sounded a little too Crowded House? Certainly the band were better when they moved away from singing in complete unison to a more contrasting form of harmony. It was at this point that I felt the group really came into their own, where-as before they could easily be accused of failing to distinguish themselves. I was forced to leave Ahab early to catch the currently fashionable Dry The River over at Stage 2 (which was the biggest stage for the day). Dry The River have, over the last year, developed a massive sound. Every song sounds like it was destined to be heard in an arena in front of thousands of people. There are a number of problems with this sound. Firstly the group completely lack the sort of intimate feeling that distinguishes folk music over other genres. Secondly the need for the band to end up creating a massive choon each time leads to each song become predictable and, well, boring. You can predict with near perfect accuracy when the band are going to ramp everything up and the quiet bits in the middle become old hat very quickly. Still, the group are a great live band and deserved to be seen on a bigger stage.
Finishing off the day we had the legendary Billy Bragg performing a tribute to Woody Guthrie. As one of the most popular artists playing the festival it was ludicrous that the organisers could not get the main stage ready in time to house him. This meant that the smaller tent to which he played was completely full, with a large number of people being forced to stand outside unable to see or properly hear. Anyway, Bragg put on a very good show. His voice was as strong as ever and his guitar playing forceful and heartfelt. He did a pleasing run-through of his highlights from Guthrie's catalogue filled with emotional and insightful insights and anecdotes. He has a charming and funny stage presence. However, I did take some objection to his closing song, one of his own composition. Bragg is a famously political performer, and I broadly (although this is of no consequence) agree with his politics. His last track however was simply at attempt to have a pop at as many easy targets as possible. The usual "Cameron is posh" and "Murdoch is evil" stuff was dragged out to the delight of a room of people who completely agreed with him. There is no creativity or attempt to push boundaries here. He is not being confrontational or interesting. He's shouting slogans to a group that never needed convincing anyway.
After an uncomfortable nights sleep caused by the ridiculous amount of heat the sun managed to be chucking down I was just about ready for some lovely folk music to help me through the early afternoon. I was gifted some accomplished and lively traditional folk from family band The Mighty Doonans. The group seemed to have an endless supply of excellent singers and musicians and provided some quality, if uninspired, folk that delighted an audience. Later on, at Stage 2, the accomplished Steve Tilston was enjoyable. He has a great voice and a lot of experience performing and this was demonstrated by his faultless performance. Possibly slightly lacking in flair or any really great songs but was never boring.
I returned to the main stage to catch Four Men and a Dog, who put on a lively and experienced performance. Each musician had a near mastery of their instrument and as such was able to dedicate most of their time to entertaining the largely enthralled audience. June Tabor and The Oyster Band followed, and while they were equally competent they completely lacked the sense of fun of Four Men and a Dog and as such were a disappointing follow up. June Tabor had a grandiose air about her and I began to find her 'deep' and 'profound' stage chat annoying. Next up on the same stage was James Vincent McMorrow, the immediate thing that has to be said about James is that he has a remarkably tender and emotional voice that works particularly well in a live setting. His back music is competent but unspectacular and as such his music is carried entirely by his personality and vocal performance. As such there are some songs that work spectacularly well and others that fall somewhat more flat. Still this was a very good performance and one of the best of the day so far.
There was but a short wait till the Dylan endorsed John Prine took to the stage. It takes a lot for a single singer-songwriter to be something truly special and from immediately hearing him you wouldn't expect this from John Prine. He has a strange voice and his guitar playing isn't remarkable. However something about his relaxed stage attitude, lyrical ability and sense of fun that makes him a very entertaining watch. I was completely transfixed by Prine and it seemed like the majority of the audience agreed with me. Prine seemed genuinely happy to be on stage and his smiling, often laughing face brought great cheer to all of us.
Finishing off the day were one of my very favourite bands The Destroyers. If you aren't familiar with their remarkable music then let me briefly describe them, imagine if Tom Waits had decided to finally fully impersonate a pirate, then chose to be backed by a set of insane gypsies. I had never seen The Destroyers live before yet it's easy to say that they completely lived up to my expectations. Each member of the band acted as if they were fronting it. Constantly fighting for attention, getting up to madcap antics and jumping around the stage like they were somewhat unhinged. In the middle of this chaos, their front man somehow managed to hold the stage completely. For such a tiny old man the amount of energy and attitude that was chucked out was beyond remarkable. I wanted to just stand in amazement but was forced to jump up and down like a tween at a Bieber concert by the sheer energy that the group inject into their performance. This was as much a theatrical show than a standard concert. Without a doubt one of the best live bands currently operating in Britain today.
An early night beckoned after the over excitement caused by another lovely sunny day and The Destroyers, so I was soon faced with yet more sun and yet more folk to digest. Luckily, as I had tired of endless traditional songs by now, today was a blues heavy day. First, however, were the Dirty Three-esque Lau. The group had been hailed by their announcer as the "future of folk music." If this were to come true Explosions in the Sky will surely be hailed as the forefathers of modern folk music within a few years. However Lau certainly were a strong act, held up by excellent musicianship and a hypnotic sense of rhythm.
Next on the stage was the Keb Mo Band. Keb Mo is a excellent stage presence and a great singer and guitar player. While I did not especially care for many of his songs, the musicianship behind them and the numerous number of impressive solo's across different instruments was enough to make this an enjoyable bout of blues-rock. On stage two Phantom Limb were next on the agenda. In their case the music was entirely held up by the remarkable voice of Yolander Quartey. She is a true force of nature with vocal chords that defy comprehension in their sheer power. The group have written a number of strong songs but on whole their catalogue does not quite stand up to the potential shown by their vocalist. Nevertheless this was a very enjoyable bit of blues that did left the audience wanting for more. Next up was the recent Blues Hall of Fame entrant Lazy Lester and Friends. Lester is getting increasingly old but still managed to put on a good performance. While his 12 bar blues style leaves me somewhat cold with it's repetitiveness, he is a strong vocalist and good stage presence. He performed long over his allotted time, causing a headache for the festival organisers but for many in the crowd it was worth it.
I returned to the main stage to catch the influential Roy Harper. It for most of the audience that Harper is a revered and respected artist. In essence the man could have gone up on stage and done anything and it would have been lapped up by the assembled crowd. Luckily for those who don't worship him so Harper put on a good show. Not entirely spectacular, but his combination of excellent lyrical ability and strong vocals meant that he was an enjoyable listen. He could perhaps be accused of rambling a little in his between song 'banter', meaning that he didn't play as much material as I would have liked but hey ho, you can't get everything you want.
Following up Harper were Clannad who were deeply disappointing in all respects. I can't claim to be a Clannad fan to any degree (the indie police would take away my writing licence) but I had an odd sense of curiosity about what they were going to provide. What we got was a awful synth tone and a ridiculous amount of over the top singing. They even managed to make the harp, which can be the most beautiful instrument, sound tacky. All the worst elements of the 80s combined into one neat package.
Finalising the day were Western/Gambian project JuJu. My reactions to this performance were split between tentatively positive and verging on hatred. Firstly their music sounds like exactly the sort of thing you'd expect Ray from High Fidelity (that's the one John Cusack's girlfriend runs off with) to listen to. Fetishising exotic rhythms and instruments to a degree beyond their the inherent worth. Wile Juldeh Camara was undoubtedly an maestro on his ritti, but ultimately due to the limitations of the instrument, produced something worse than what a violin could have. Additionally the group seemed to have an arrogance about them that was not endearing in any respect. That said, perhaps I had grown drunk during the boredom of Clannad, but the group seemed to produce a tribal rhythm that was rather pleasing and certainly got the crowd going.
Finally the final day of the festival had arrived. With the Cambridge Folk Festival being a four day event it is easy to get fatigued of seeing quite so much live music. I had yet more to come though and Ruthie Foster was the first artist of the day of note. I was not familiar with her work but I found a competent songwriter and strong singer. Additionally the band featured some excellent organ playing with rather kindled my growing love for the instrument.
By this time the lovely weather of the festival had abated and a storm had begun. The previously smug older people in chairs suddenly had to scramble to get umbrellas up and many ran to catch the shelter offered by the main stage. Unknown to me my cheap tent was filling with water soaking all of my things. Not to worry however as Seth Lakeman had just taken to the stage. Lakeman has become a major name within folk music of the past decade and it's easy to see why. He has a strong stage presence and a good song-writing talent. He doesn't exactly push boundaries and very much keeps it safe. I must admit I grew a little bored at point during his set. I think in part I had grown tired of the 'standard' folk sound and Lakeman didn't offer anything different enough to be exciting.
Following up Lakeman was african icon Angeligue Kidjo. Now, first let me say that for the record I do not have any love for world music. It's not something I listen to or have any real interest in. That said, Angeligue was one of the best artists I've ever seen. This can near entirely be put down to her stage presence. She isn't the best dancer in the world but she moves with so much attitude and powerful grace that she demands attention. I think each person in the audience was in awe of her and when she moved through the audience everybody seemed to dance a little better just to try and impress her. An amazing show and one I highly recommend you try to catch at some point.
Next I wondered across to The Club Tent to catch the lovely Rachel Sermanni. The young artist had a pretty voice and a strong song-writing talent. Her all female band are all highly competent but seem to inject an extra element of emotion into her melodic folk songs. I quickly, however, had to return to the main stage to see Joan Armatrading. The popular singer was in form this evening. She is an excellent guitar player and strong singer and translates all of this into her live performance. While I may not be the biggest fan of her catalogue I couldn't help but admire her as a performer. The festival was close by pipe maestroes Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson Band. The crowd was in very high spirits and demanded some high tempo tunes which the duo dutifully provided. One could even say that they were piping hot. A good end to what had been a largely positive festival!