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Cambridge Folk Festival 2005

Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge
Thursday 28 - Sunday 31 July 2005

I caught the last half of The Bills' opening set on main stage 2, whilst settling in for what promised to be another great Cambridge festival. This Canadian five-piece band pleased the music hungry crowd with their own special blend of Latin rhythms, Romany melodies and North American folk tunes, with one or two jazz standards thrown in for good measure. I was particularly impressed by their tight vocal arrangements. A good start I thought. The only set I was really interested in seeing on Thursday night was Martha Wainwright's. This was to be her one and only appearance at the festival and there was no way I was going to miss a second of it. Her performance was just as good as I expected, a run through of just about every song from her debut album, each song performed impeccably well. There was a bunch of kids tightly holding onto the safety barrier in front of the stage, each joining in on the chorus of a song called, and I quote, Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole each one knowing and reciting the words perfectly well. I shouldn't really have been so surprised, they probably have all moved on slightly from Eminem. Hayseed Dixie went on next, much to the amusement of everyone there.

On Friday, I went and sat in an almost deserted club tent waiting for the Mojo interview with Jimmy Webb to start. If I was certain to be at one single event at this year's festival, it was this one, not because of this man's undisputed reputation as a great songwriter, the fact that he wrote such classics as Wichita Lineman and By The Time I Get To Phoenix putting those particular towns on the map for one young Brit kid in the Sixties, nor for the fact that he wrote the unfathomable MacArthur Park and something about leaving a cake out in the rain?!? No, it's because I just had to be in the same room as the man who wrote Up Up and Away! Now I have that song firmly fixed in my head for the rest of the day, dammit.

It's always pleasant when you discover that the 'person' is just as impressive as the 'artist' and this was definitely the case with Jimmy Webb, what a lovely man. The hour-long Mojo interview was entertaining and revealing and was peppered with songs from his impressive back catalogue. His anecdotal delivery during Q&A was almost spellbinding. Although his replies were often concise and unburdened by the usual 1960s loss of memory if you remember the Sixties, you weren't there sort of nonsense he still couldn't adequately explain what the hell MacArthur Park was about, so we're all still in the dark on that one.

There seemed to be more festival side shows than usual this year, lots of women on stilts and I'm sure I saw Sir Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing roped together, complete with snow covered skin suits and beards, attempting to scale the north face of one of the festival's green plastic trash bins in the main arena.

KT Tunstall was headling on Friday night in the main stage marquee, playing for just under an hour with her band and delighting some of the younger members of the audience with a set packed with songs from her debut album Eye To The Telescope. There was nothing remotely 'folk-like' about this young Scottish singer songwriter. This wasn't Kate's festival debut, having guested with the Klezmer hip hop band Oi Va Voi back in 2003, but this was definitely the set that she'll be remembered for by Cambridge regulars. As with most young guitar-toting females today, we listen to the songs in the hope that they'll reveal some clues as to the 'is she, isn't she' burning question. I couldn't care less actually.

There was no way I was going to even attempt to negotiate getting to the front of the main stage to see The Proclaimers, who went on straight after Mavis Staples, so I returned to camp and joined in on all the choruses there.

On Saturday morning, Karine Polwart gave a singing workshop during the morning in the club tent. I went along to see if I could pick up any tips but soon tired of the energetic warm up exercises, which comprised of much torso twisting, strenuous swimming strokes and breath-taking breathing exercises. She lost me before she started, but I'm sure if I had stuck around it would've been cool and I would have been slightly fitter. 

After a short but very welcomed afternoon snooze, I went for a walk around the festival site to get myself back in the mood and wake myself up a bit. I bumped into Martha Tilston over by the club tent. She was with Tim, her mandolin player, and fortunately they both remembered me from the Lonsdale so I was able to abandon all the sycophantic pre-amble that goes with talking to festival artistes. Instead, I was treated to, and greeted by, a peck on the cheek and a little cuddle, courtesy of Martha, not Tim, thankfully. We had a little chat and she asked me if I was enjoying the festival, just small talk really.

Martha Tilston was joined by a small band of musicians, the aforementioned Tim on mandolin and fiddle, and a couple of other guys on mandocello, bass and dobro. Martha's set was made up of her own songs from her Bumbling CD, as well as a couple of crowd pleasers, two traditional songs including the beautifully haunting Willy O'Winsbury. Martha accidentally gave herself a fat lip by knocking her guitar against her mouth at the beginning of her set - Ouch! Some of Martha's songs on first hearing sound rather whimsical, but that's the beauty of her song writing and performance. She's like some throwback from the late Sixties, a little like Melanie. I always enjoy seeing Martha and after the set I kept my promise and handed her a glass of red wine backstage.

To close proceedings for Saturday, we got to the front of main stage two to see a most energetic performance by the Australian based Cat Empire, a funky Latino rhythm ensemble, whose charismatic leader Felix Riebl a cross between Jay Kay and Jeff Buckley had all the girls in the audience swooning at his feet. A perfect dance band to finish a great Saturday at the festival. I have no objection to dancing at festivals as long as two rules are stringently followed and adhered to. Those rules are, don't knock into me, or worse, stand on my toes, and secondly, don't expect me to join in. One of these rules was broken frequently by the over-zealous guy in front of me who was oblivious of my existence and went on to poke, jab, slap, punch and toe-stamp me throughout the hour long set. 

Theres nothing quite like Sunday morning at Cambridge Folk Festival. I'm always struck by the peace that seems to surround it. They still relay The Archers radio soap over the sound system and middle aged couples sit in their deck chairs reading the Sunday Telegraph and the Observer colour supplement. It's all very English, very Home Counties. Fat and flushed beer bellies inhabit the Guinness tent at ten in the morning drinking copious quantities of the black stuff before midday. I have no idea how they do that. There's a much younger audience emerging at Cambridge thank God, although you tend not to see any of them until after lunch. They're probably sleeping off a good Saturday night party.

The other notable thing about Sunday at Cambridge is that you are aware from the get go that you are on the home run. The crucial facilities are always unbelievably uninhabitable by Sunday morning but I'll not go into details for the sake of common decency, something some of the festival goers don't have in abundance. What I can reveal is that I ventured in there this morning and found a plate of half eaten curry on the floor in one of the cubicles. It makes you wonder if you are really part of the same breed of animal.

Johnny Dickinson is an incredibly talented slide guitar player who just happens to be blessed with a remarkably confident Paul Rogers-esque bluesy voice. The fact that he hails from Northumberland and not the Mississippi Delta makes absolutely no difference when you hear how good he is. Johnny dropped by the Lonsdale a couple of years ago and played a few songs for us for free. Now he's playing the main stage at Cambridge, that's how far he's gone in such a short space of time. He played a few songs from his new album English Summer as well as one or two from his fine debut Castles and Old Kings.

Canadian five-piece fusion band The Duhks - pronounced The Ducks - were next band to take to the main stage. I felt I had to hang around at the front of the stage between Johnny Dickinson and the next act Mary Gauthier, even though I suspected almost an hour of more fiddle diddle tunes in between. The blend of styles were in fact not easy to categorise and they did have their own 'sound', a little bit of French Canadian with a sprinkle of Scottish and Appalachian old timey thrown in. They were young, energetic and I guess they brought some of their unique charisma to the festival.

Bob Harris introduced Mary Gauthier to the stage, a singer who he has championed on his radio show for months now. Mary is a New Orleans country blues singer, much in the same vein as Townes Van Zandt, songs of hard living and hard drinking. She was apparently in prison by her eighteenth birthday and has had her fair share of trouble. She tells it how it is. Someone asked her if it is difficult writing those songs - 'Nope, it's living it that's hard, the writing it down is the easy part.' 

There was something authentic about Mary Gauthier though and the set was well received by the Cambridge regulars. She was joined by a Nashvile guitar player for her set.

Cambridge isn't known for it's contribution to what has come to be known as 'world music' though it does endeavour to put on relevant acts every now and again. I was particularly looking forward to the Tinariwen set tonight. The seven-piece band made up from nomadic Touaregs from the Southern Sahara Desert, came on in full traditional costume and struggled with the local English, speaking and singing in their complex Tamashek language throughout. The only English the leader and spokesman for the band could muster was 'welcome to the desert', which he said after every song. It all added to their incredibly intriguing mistique.

Sunday night drew in as we headed towards the last few sets of this year's festival. The last evening is often fraut with disappointment, mainly due to everyone wanting to close up shop. The bars often close earlier than advertised and there's always a much more visible police presence at the exits. I concede this might be in the interest of public safety, but it doesn't alter the fact that the overall atmosphere changes during the course of the evening. I'm not a big fan of Christy Moore and so I intended to make my final set of the 2005 festival an hour of Rodney Crowell, who provided one of the finest sets I've ever seen at the festival. His high energy set reminded me of a sort of country Bruce Springstein, a Texan Elvis. He rocked good and proper, playing songs from his prolific back catalogue as well as a couple from his latest offering The Outsider. He managed to get the entire audience on his side with an outstanding version of Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone, an amazing performance. So moved by Rodney Crowell's performance, I went directly over to the Mojo tent to shake the man's hand, picking up a copy of The Outsider on the way. Sometimes you have to lower the standard of your pride and sycophant unashamedly in order to show your appreciation. 

The very last band I caught at this year's festival was the same band who delighted the audience last year when they unexpectedly were asked to stand in for a last minute cancellation. The Old Crow Medicine Show played a lively bluegrass/old timey set, in a 'packed to the rafters' - if tents had rafters - club tent. The festival was almost over, all that was left to do was to finish the evening off with a communial pint of Guinness in the Guinness tent with everybody. I think I saw everything I came to see, and did all the things I wanted to do, although there's always something missing, you can't do it all. 

All in all a fair festival, certainly not the best by any stretch of the imagination, but good nevertheless. Highlights were definitely Marthas Wainwright and Tilston, KT Tunstall, Rodney Crowell and Jimmy Webb's interview. 

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky