Cambridge Folk festival review – a safe but charming return | music festivals


DIn the midst of his Sunday night main stage set, Billy Bragg is halfway through one of his oldest hits, Greetings to the New Brunette, when an ecstatic roar quickly spreads through the crowd, all the way to the food stalls: the England women’s football team have won the Euro final. It’s not disturbing for Bragg – on the contrary, he receives constant updates on the game throughout his set. Shouting and screaming, he immediately draws the audience into a rousing rendition of Jerusalem. Having previously spoken passionately about trans rights, global warming and male violence, he explains why we should all rejoice in England’s victory.

It’s a fitting microcosm of a thoroughly good-natured event. The Cambridge Folk festival is essentially celebrating its survival even after the pandemic, and audiences flock to the tai chi and willow weaving workshops to find, with some relief, that the easy charm that has sustained this compact festival for 57 years has been free from a two-year hiatus.

That’s partly because this year is a relatively safe bill, heavily reliant on tried and trusted names without any of the pissed off Nick Caves or Julian Copes of the past few years. Instead there’s Clannad, now in the third year of their farewell tour; the feverish Spanish rhythms of Gipsy Kings; Show of Hands leading the crowd in rousing choruses; Seasick Steve delivers his inimitable blues with characteristic eccentricity.

Beating his inimitable blues… Seasick Steve. Photography: Aaron Parsons Photography

Warmly applauded for her top hat before she even sang a note, Suzanne Vega delivers a perfectly intimate set that even includes a tantalizing cover of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. It would have been the best cover version of the festival if not for Spooky Men’s Chorale’s wonderful reimagining of Bohemian Rhapsody as a sassy cowboy song. The entertaining and reliable Australian choir also provides the most moving contributions of the weekend with two traditional Ukrainian songs.

Where Cambridge Folk gets adventurous is in its more global bookings. Afro Celt Sound System has gone through myriad changes since Simon Emmerson dreamed up his revolutionary blend of Irish and African music in the mid-90s, but the spectacular sight of Johnny Kalsi attacking his dhol drums still stirs the blood. Guinea’s N’famady Kouyaté is a highlight, attacking his balafon – a tough form of wooden xylophone – with impressive frenzy as a large band blazes behind him. There’s also pure joy in uplifting Chilean band Chico Trujillo and exuberant American roots rockers Dustbowl Revival, full of big, chunky horns and a standout vocalist in Lashon Halley.

Revival Dustbowl.
Boiling… Dustbowl Revival. Photography: Aaron Parsons Photography

That said, looking back often proves fruitful. The Mary Wallopers summon the raucous ghosts of the Dubliners and Pogues to startling effect and Scotland’s Elephant Sessions raise the roof with relentless Celtic rock from an older vintage. New band Magpie Arc shows that old dogs can learn new tricks with venerable acoustic guitar master Martin Simpson going electric. Meanwhile, the unaccompanied Copper Family – the most venerable name in traditional English song – presents its new generation of family singers. The song may stay the same, but the story is everything.

This article was last updated on August 3, 2022. Billy Bragg’s song title is more widely known as Greetings to the New Brunette, not Shirley, as an earlier version said.

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