A sense of homecoming prevailed as thousands of music fans arrived at Cherry Hinton Hall this past weekend to celebrate the return of Cambridge Folk Festival after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. The grounds once again rang to the sound of folk and contemporary roots music in all its different guises and old friends – performers and public alike - were happily reunited.
Thursday’s programme saw folk favourites Spiers and Boden bring Stage 2 to an exhilarating close. During the Songlines Interview with journalist Kevin Bourke the following day in The Club Tent, they gave fascinating insights into their careers and commented on how they had played Cambridge frequently over the years in their various formations, including with supergroup Bellowhead.
Earlier on Thursday evening, Davina & The Vagabonds made a legion of new fans on Stage 2, with a theatrical performance of New Orleans blues, jazz and gospel.
Main Stage 1 opened on Friday with a set from one of folk music’s oldest families, The Copper Family of Rottingdean, who shared songs they have been singing for generations, lovingly preserving them for the future.
Many highlights followed during the day, including: leading force in British folk, Show of Hands – the redoubtable Steve Knightley and Phil Beer - who were one of the few acts to play both Stages 1 and 2; the unveiling of the specially-commissioned Folk Ballet: The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth, and The Magpie Arc, featuring multi-award winning folk luminaries Nancy Kerr, Martin Simpson, Tom A Wright (The Albion Band) and Alex Hunter.
The evening concluded in style with a scintillating performance from iconic American singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, who, accompanied by multi-talented guitarist Gerry Leonard, treated the Stage 1 audience to a collection of her best-known hits, such as Marlene On The Wall, Luka and Tom’s Diner, followed by a rousing, crowd-pleasing set from the fabled Seasick Steve.
Commenting on her return to Cambridge, Suzanne Vega said: “It’s great to play the Cambridge Folk Festival again, it’s always a unique atmosphere and the audiences really listen.” Suzanne will return to the city next February for a show at The Corn Exchange.
Saturday’s line-up featured return visits by several Festival favourites, including award-winning singer-songwriter Passenger who began his Cambridge journey playing The Den, and this year closed Stage 1 to a rapturous response.
Highly rated, alt.folk band This Is The Kit, who debuted in 2016, also delivered a mesmerising set on Main Stage 1 and was followed by one of the most anticipated performances of the Festival: Spell Songs, which combined music, literature, language and art to reawaken a love of the wild. The Spell Songs ensemble features the renowned talents of Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Kris Drever, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter and Jim Molyneux.
Another popular reappearance came from European and African based collective Afro Celt Sound System, who fused folk traditions of different cultures into an energetic, uplifting show.
Main stage 2 boasted an eclectic mix of sounds from the beautiful Gaelic tones of Julie Fowlis to the big-voiced blues rock of Elles Bailey, the indie folk of Elephant Sessions to the quirky man anthems of The Spooky Men’s Chorale.
Melding folk and funk, Los Angeles collective and stand-out act, Dustbowl Revival, broke this year’s Festival record for CD sales and the longest queue at Songlines Signing Tent.
The ever-popular Festival Session made for a delightful afternoon and the innovative Silent Ceilidh took revellers into the small hours.
Sunday dawned with the threat of rain but nothing could dampen the spirits of Festival goers eager to enjoy another day of first-class music and entertainment.
Clannad, currently on their final world tour, bade a poignant farewell to fans when they played the Festival’s inaugural Folk Legends slot on Sunday afternoon. Speaking to the Cambridge Independent newspaper, the band’s Moya Brennan commented: “For me, Cambridge is the epitome of folk music. I think they’ve retained a lot of the tradition of folk music; they’ve really been true to that and I like it for that.”
Nick Hart, winner of The Christian Raphael Prize last year took to the stage in the Club Tent as part of his prize and wowed the audience with his unique and thoughtful take on traditional English folk songs. Now in its 4th year, the Christian Raphael Prize seeks to award a talented musician or group of musicians the tools they need to take the next step towards becoming a successful professional, including a financial contribution and a spot on the Club Tent Stage the following year.
Talking about the impact of being awarded the prize Nick Hart explained “It was a real honour to have been chosen as the recipient of The Christian Raphael Prize and the money was incredibly useful in allowing me to take a few more risks and push things a little further than I would otherwise. I was able to justify the expense of a music video and PR for the album which really helped, and getting to play the festival was a real treat.”
18 of the artists performing in The Den this year were considered for the prize and the winner, announced at the Festival on Sunday, was Angeline Morrison.
Former Christian Raphael Prize recipient Katherine Priddy progressed to Main Stage 1 this year, where she opened proceedings on Sunday afternoon with a beguiling set of songs from her debut album The Eternal Rocks Beneath.
West African music was brilliantly represented by Orchestra Baobab, celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2022 and talented, young, multi-instrumentalist N’famady Kouyaté.
Folksong collector and conservationist Sam Lee enthralled the crowd with beautifully sung versions of traditional songs and Yorkshire’s finest O’Hooley and Tidow, marking 10 years of performing as a duo, captivated with selections from their catalogue, including the title track from hit TV series “Gentleman Jack”.
There was much to impress from headline artists. Gipsy Kings featuring Nicolas Reyes brought the Stage 1 audience to its feet with their irresistible blend of traditional flamenco styles, Western pop and Latin rhythms. Fierce political campaigner Billy Bragg performed a powerful set, taking in gender rights, global warming and more as well as leading the crowd in a rendition of “Jerusalem” when news broke that the English football lionesses had won the Euro 22 final. Blues prodigy, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram rocked a packed Stage 2.
Sharing an opening night last Thursday with the conclusion of the Queen’s baton relay at the opening ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, the folk baton was well and truly taken up by the younger artists performing at the Festival. Audiences discovered a wide array of new, rising stars in The Club Tent, which included performances from Cambridge Folk Festival ’22 Tastemaker Showcase Series artists Nick Hart, Maddie Morris, Jinda Biant, Flo Perlin and Arny Margret. Also Emerging Talent Stage, The Den where many newcomers made their mark and began their Cambridge journeys, much like Passenger and Jake Bugg before them, to the Main Stages.
Many Festival goers participated in the varied workshops over the weekend, from singing, songwriting and playing to learning new crafts, painting, tai-chi and yoga. Storytelling and special talks on contemporary topics including mental health and the environment were well attended and younger members of the audience were superbly catered for with a range of activities from clog dancing to face painting and fiddle lessons.
Cambridge Folk Festival 2023 will take place at Cherry Hinton Hall on 27-30 July. Look out for tickets going on sale: www.cambridgefolkfestival.co.uk