The Cambridge Folk Festival made its much-loved return to the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall this weekend, with its festive atmosphere bolstered by a stellar lineup eager to go after an enforced two-year absence.
Suzanne Vega summed it up best during her Saturday night set on the main stage: “This is what I’ve been dreaming about for two years… When can I go out and play…. In Cambridge!! Thumbs up for that one from the dense crowd.
The four-day event – the last being in 2019 – started on Thursday. The first thing to do when you get there is to check that all the key elements are in place, and they are, from the main stages to the club tent to The Den and the Hub, as well as the food stalls (my favorite is Season’s Cafe but Taste of Tibet was pretty awesome too).
All the other mainstays are in place – the tent where budding musicians play together, the children’s area, the artist sessions and stalls of local community groups – and it looks like there’s a lot more going on at Coldham’s Common this year as a campsite, the establishment takes on its own colors. Davina and the Drifters on Stage 2 were highly rated on Thursday, which of course is slightly lower as the main stage action starts on Friday afternoon.
There was a dancing frenzy on Stage 2 with the Simon Care Trio kicking off a vast ceilidh groove that transformed the marquee into a dizzying whirlwind of music-driven legs and arms. Traditionalists might point out that there’s nothing more authentic – and fun – than dancing to folk music in a tent. If you were there, you would agree.
On the main stage, The Young’uns did something similar on the main stage – the main stage audience is a bit different because it’s split between those under the roof and those (mostly seated) on the grass and each is somehow very different viewers. They were followed by strong sets from Findlay, then Spiers and Boden.
The larks of the evening on the main stage began with Dustbowl Revival, an inspired booking for this American band that leans heavily on Americana, soul, bluegrass and New Orleans funk in a mash-up glorious band that revels in the diversity of its band members, with vocal performances from Zach Lupetin and Liz Beebe, and a kick-butt horn section with Ulf Bjorlin on trombone and Matthew Rubin on trumpet.
Suzanne Vega arrived and played the first two songs in a flippant top hat. It’s amazing to hear Marlene on the wall and little blue thing. His debut album set new standards of lyrical density and musical ingenuity when released in 1985 and the songs sound fantastically fresh. She went to Caramelwisecracking “some people still think that about dessert”.
She’s a sassy New Yorker with a great line between songs and tonight she’s got a secret weapon – surely one of the top ten guitarists in the world right now – called Gerry Leonard. Gerry is “from Dublin”, Suzanne tells us, and his backstory includes passages with Bowie, Rufus Wainwright, Roger Waters… Suzanne’s guitar playing is already incredibly complex and ethereal, but Gerry elevates the songs to a other level.
His melodic invention and his technical mastery transform his guitar into an orchestra, going from a gust of wind to a fragile picking in the blink of an eye. Gypsy – “everyone has a first love”, says Suzanne, “and when I sing on mine it makes people think about theirs” – is followed by In Liverpool.
She says, “People think it’s a family festival” and casts a seductive, world-weary look Walk on the wild side. Next, The Queen and the Soldier, and Gerry goes all pastoral for this courtly love story that ends in tragedy. How come no one has made a movie out of this elegiac story yet? A travel leads to the terrible epiphany that is Lucasand it ends with Tom’s dinner. It’s an exciting performance and Suzanne Vega will be back in Cambridge for a concert in February at the Corn Exchange.
I bumped into Seasick Steve backstage and he was a real gentleman when I asked him for a selfie I said he didn’t really know what that meant and would I mind if he refused? Of course, he’s America’s number one backwoodsman poet, and he has a powerful steely gaze, so it wasn’t really a question at all. When I agreed to drop the idea, he said “I can give you something though…a handshake” and held out his hand, so this is my story to warn the audience not to expect Seasick Steve on Instagram anytime soon. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news and all, but catch him live if you can, his musicianship is amazing.
If you can get along – there are a few tickets on the festival website – be sure to head to the trade stalls, where all the familiar stalls are, from musical instruments to tattoos to clothes and everything else.
The teams there are having fun too and it’s a joy to see. Sunday highlights include Katherine Priddy, Billy Bragg, Clannad and Gypsy Kings with Nicholas Reyes.