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A Walkabout at the Cambridge Folk Festival

Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge
Thrsday 30 July - Sunday 2 August 2015

This year, to celebrate the 51st Cambridge Folk Festival and my own personal 19th visit to the event, I've decided to lift the 'write up' straight from my own personal journal. I hope the following illustrates the four days adequately enough. - AW

Day One: Thursday

Woke early this morning, made a brew and continued my usual pre-festival pursuit of researching some of the newer acts that will be appearing over the weekend at the festival, such as Crewdson and Cevanne, Angaleena Presley (no relation), The Elephant Sessions and Alvin Youngblood Hart. When I say new, I mean new to me. Some of those acts have probably been around for a good while but they've only just appeared on my own personal radar. One of the fun things about this festival has always been the discovery of new artists.

The drive down to Cambridge was almost uneventful, I say 'almost' as Phil's car developed a slight problem with the windscreen wipers; they stopped working just as we got onto the A1, and as it was raining buckets, visibility was almost down to zero. We battled regardless and arrived in Cambridge slightly later than planned, albeit only by half an hour or so. After meeting up with the usual suspects for lunch (Neil, John the Jacket and Morag) at the Robin Hood pub, then dropping my things off at Clarian House, we were on the festival site by mid-afternoon, where I helped Neil tie up the FATEA banner by the Club Tent, whilst Phil went off to get his car fixed. I also managed to sell my spare ticket, albeit at a slightly discounted rate. In all the years I've been coming to the festival, this is the first time I've used 'the tree' as a service. A young woman came up to me by the tree and asked 'are you buying or selling?' If this had happened anywhere else on the site I may have been in trouble! A quick phone call to her friend and the deal was done and I got £130 for my £150 ticket. It pays for the accommodation.

Tonight was all about meeting up with friends; Mick and John and their respective partners, Phil and Jessica, Hedley and Lynn, Kit, Leila and Barbara, Ian and Katy, Steve (the record man), Tracey, then there's my old pal who's actually been over here since May (I really should have made the effort to see her before now), together with all the photographers and press people backstage. The media caravan has been moved to a new location, which is much better. Rather than being stuck along the disabled access track, where the narrow walkway always seems to get cluttered with chairs and bags, the new location is situated a little further towards the main stage near the Smooth Operations base, in a rather more spacious garden area. Much much better.

The music tonight was rather good, Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker being the highlight of the night, with the duo starting their set with Sandy Denny's Like an Old Fashioned Waltz, accompanied by a small band that included Jo Silverston on cello and Anna Jenkins on viola, together with a double bassist and a keyboard player. Other acts tonight included the bluegrass trio Jaywalkers, Hannah Sanders (with Ben Savage), The Elephant Sessions and the bizarre but brilliantly entertaining Scandinavian all-girl group Katzenjammer getting up to their usual tricks. A good start to the festival and surprisingly, back at Clarian House by 11.30pm.

Day Two: Friday

The attic room on the second floor of the Clarian House B&B is so comfortable to wake up in, especially when the sunlight filters through the windows on either side of the roof space, that I'm seriously thinking about moving in permanently. This morning I was up just after 6am and immediately busied myself with the task of editing yesterday's photos, assisted by a strong will to do it and a copious amount of black coffee. The room is located just too far from the kitchen to be aware of the smell of breakfast being cooked, breakfast being fresh duck eggs courtesy of the family pets at the bottom of the garden, which my bedroom overlooks. After a short while however, the thought of one of Helen's fine breakfasts sprang to mind midway through my journalistic endeavours.

After breakfast with the FATEA team, I headed across to the festival site, just a short walk away, to catch a little of Bella Hardy's singing workshop. If there's a better way to start the day then I would like to know about it. The two or three hundred people who turned up to sing a few rounds were of the same opinion and were soon in full swing, singing a few songs, one in particular about having a nice cup of tea in the morning. Towards the end of the workshop, there was an expression of sheer joy on Bella's face when she closed her eyes to listen to everyone sing the songs that she had just taught them. 

Shortly after the workshop, the music journalist Colin Irwin hovered sidestage, slightly nervously contemplating the interview he was just about to present with Frank Turner, who had actually replaced Wilko Johnson, the planned interviewee. Relaxed, candid and smiling throughout, Frank talked about his life in music, his approval of the song writing credentials of Abba, his admiration for his old friend Billy Bragg and his disdain of talking to journalists about his privileged background. "You brought it up" protested Irwin. Despite his initial apprehension, Colin Irwin conducted an interesting and thoroughly entertaining interview.

With camera in hand, my usual early afternoon walkabout revealed quite a hive of activity throughout the site, with the Youth programme getting under way around at the Hub under the supervision of Rosie Hood, the newly appointed co-ordinator. The small marquee was full to capacity with young musicians circling the red tent, holding their respective instruments before them, ready for a weekend of tuition, collaboration and most importantly fun. Breabach's Ewan Robertson and Megan Henderson were both there to lend a hand and some of their own experience. Meanwhile, other slightly younger kids were being entertained on Stage Two by David Gibb. 

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino took the main stage by storm this afternoon, with their infectious dance-based rhythms. The first three song rule, which photographers abide by here at the festival, were treated to one of Silvia Perrone's dance routines during the second song of their set, which was a relief. None of us would have liked to have missed any of that. By contrast, country singer Angaleena Presley followed with a set of self-penned songs. The coal miner's daughter from the hills of Kentucky and one third of the trio Pistol Annies (along with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Moore), showcased some of the songs from her current album American Middle Class, bringing a flavour of southern country to Cambridge.

The sun was probably too hot this afternoon and I found myself looking for cover by dipping in and out of marquees, although resisting the bar until a little later. I found refuge in the Stage One Guest Area where I sat down for half an hour with Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker for a chat. Quite a lot has happened since we last spoke and so there was a lot to catch up on. My original plan to focus on women in music, which I had second thoughts about just before the festival, was apparently one of the things Josienne was actually looking forward to talking about. No matter, we soon covered the interview with all sorts of other non-specific things, some of which Ben could also get involved with. 

I sat under a tree in the shade just by the Hub Cafe to talk to Bella Hardy. I originally intended the interview to be quite brief, just a sound bite for the radio show, but alas we got involved. We actually went on to talk for over half and hour about just about everything under the sun. Bella was a delight to talk to and it was a well overdue chat. 

Today I also met up with the singer-songwriter Tracey Browne backstage at the Club Tent, where she works throughout the weekend as part of the stage crew. Chris Smither was on stage singing Link of Chain yet it was Frank Turner that we could hear throughout the interview, who was performing solo on the main stage some distance away. Once again, the interview was well overdue and it was nice to finally sit down and catch up.

The other music today was wide and varied and I managed throughout the day to catch little bits of Wilko Johnson, Hattie Briggs, Twelfth Day, Blackbeard's Tea Party, The Proclaimers, Nick Mulvey, Peggy Seeger and Frank Turner, who incidentally closed his set with Queen's Somebody to Love, bringing a bit of Live Aid to Cambridge. Another fine day and not yet midway through.

Day Three: Saturday

I guess it's an indication of a particularly good day when Joan Baez is actually fourth on your list of people to see. Had the iconic American folk singer been available for a chat with me for my radio show, then she would still only have made it to number two on my list of priorities on today's schedule, which included meeting up with the relatively new Olivia Chaney, my own personal Cambridge highlight of the weekend. Would Olivia's set meet with my lofty expectations and more importantly, what would she be like, would she be a lovely outgoing personality or would she be a miserable pain in the neck? These thoughts come to you when you're about to embark on unchartered territory and these thoughts were certainly with me over breakfast and then stayed with me for a good part of the day. 

By the time I arrived on site this morning Peggy Seeger was already on stage in the Club Tent talking to Colin Irwin about her life and work, which in all fairness is the same thing. Could there be a more iconic figure in the folk community? This is Pete Seeger's kid sister for Heaven's sake. It was another beautiful morning with blue skies and plenty of sunshine. The bars were already open and people had already begun to set out their stalls on the grass in front of Stage One, casually thumbing through copies of the Guardian and chatting to their neighbours about how good Wilko Johnson was yesterday, and "what's the name of his bass player again?"

I had an appointment to meet up with Maya, Oliver and Charlie of Pennsylvania's The Stray Birds backstage and I was eager to get my first planned interview of the day out of the way. I sat for a while with their UK PR man Loudon Temple and their bassist Charlie Muench, wrestling with an irritating wasp who was interested in my matching yellow and black pen, whilst the band's manager went off to try and locate the other two members of the band. I now understand why they're called Stray Birds. The Irish band Goitse had already started their Main Stage set, getting the afternoon concert off to a good start and the trio were up next, which was all a little too close for comfort for me to be bothering them with an interview. I did suggest moving it back to after their set but once Maya and Oliver joined us shortly afterwards, they were happy to go ahead and we sat for a while to chat. 

It's always good to get the first interview out of the way; it kind of loosens the tongue and prepares you for a day of talking. The 'official' talking is always good, but just bumping into people like Chris While and having a right old natter off mic, like old mates, is equally fulfilling. I keep promising myself to take it a little easier when I'm at Cambridge and to choose one occupation and then focus on that one thing; either to write about the festival for the website, do interviews for the radio show or take photographs with the 'proper' photographers in the pit. Year upon year though, with increasing predictability, I completely ignore my own good advice and attempt to squeeze it all in. Shortly after the Stray Birds interview, I was down in the pit in front of Stage One pointing my camera at the three musicians who went on to deliver a wonderful set. Three musicians, one microphone, it's all you really need.

With so much going on at the festival, there's bound to be clashes in the programme and the ability to be in two places at the same time would be a very useful thing. With the arrival of The Den a few years ago, those clashes became all the more frequent. For me personally, today's big clash was Gretchen Peters and Olivia Chaney on Stage One and Stage Two respectively. It was all the more disappointing as I had an interview lined up with both musicians after their respective sets. Some clever manoeuvres enabled me to catch the beginning of Gretchen's set and then a quick sprint over to the second stage to see all of Olivia's set, so far this weekend being the only full set I've managed to sit through in its entirety. I wrote Olivia's set list out in my head prior to the festival and then quite amazingly, she went and performed it more or less how I had imagined, apart from the opening Barbara Allen, which I didn't expect. I've been banging on about Olivia's rendition of There's Not a Swain since I first heard and reviewed the album a few months ago and despite Olivia telling me a few weeks ago that she would perhaps not be performing the song at Cambridge due to its complex tuning, it was both a surprise and a delight to finally hear her sing the song live. 

After her set I grabbed about twenty minutes with Olivia in her cabin next to the stage and chatted to her whilst her dad, a younger version of whom appears on the cover of the album, left us there and went for a wander around the festival site. I can report now that Olivia is certainly not a pain in the neck, which was a relief. She was actually the perfect interviewee and I must say, I left the cabin shortly afterwards rather pleased with myself, whilst hot-footing it over to the backstage of Stage One to meet my next appointment with Gretchen Peters.

I met up with Gretchen in precisely the same place that I'd spoken to the Stray Birds earlier in the day and the same wasp was there, endeavouring to irritate me further. Wearing shades and appearing totally relaxed, the New York-born, now Nashville-based singer-songwriter was only too pleased to field the barrage of questions I had lined up for her. Actually, this is not quite true. When I first met up with Gretchen a few years ago, I exhausted all those questions then. This was more or less a catch up, but perhaps if I were to be totally honest, it was just an excuse to spend a few minutes with one of the nicest artists on the planet. Gretchen is such an easy person to chat to and I left her shortly afterwards feeling rather uplifted by the experience.

The rest of the day was equally exciting with some great music from the likes of Rhiannon Giddens, The Skatalites, Stick in the Wheel, Alvin Youngblood Hart (what a great name), The Unthanks and Joan Baez of course. I also had a few words with the young Cotswolds-based singer-songwriter Hattie Briggs who I'd seen performing in The Den earlier on at the festival and who was happy to chat to me whilst we walked towards the main stage where the John Butler Trio were playing. "My guitarist has just texted me to tell me not to miss this act whatever I do."

I left the festival in the capable hands of the Treacherous Orchestra, demonstrating the fact that Saturday night is indeed alright for piping! A good day to be at the festival, and I managed to return to Clarian House with a significant feeling of accomplishment.

Day Four: Sunday

The fourth day at the Cambridge Folk Festival gently eased itself in with The Archers Omnibus edition, which was once again broadcast over the PA system, a tradition that the festival just can't seem to (or doesn't want to) let go of. Even at Cambridge, the gentle goings on in Ambridge are just as important today as they were yesterday. The sun was almost uncomfortably hot as a crowd began to develop for what promised to be a great finale with Sunday newspaper supplements resting upon assorted knees across the main arena, providing a blanket of vibrant colour. I soon embarked on my usual midday walkabout with camera in hand and a heavy bag on my back, which after three days was becoming an equally heavy burden. Do I really have to carry my laptop everywhere?

After popping by the Club Tent to catch some of Adam Sutherland and Innes Watson's fiddle workshop, which had attracted a reasonably large gathering of fiddlers all eager to pick up some tips, I headed over to the front of Stage One to take photographs of the Quebecois trio De Temps Antan. Taking to the stage at 11.30am prompt, the band soon swept away all trace of sleepy Ambridge and with little encouragement, soon had everyone on their feet, especially down at the front. This was 'wake up' music if ever I heard it. Whilst the band entertained a pretty full main stage crowd, I slipped into the bar next to the stage to catch up with Rosie Hood, who had been busy all weekend with the young musicians around at the Hub. Rosie filled me in on the progress of the Hub Band, who we were all looking forward to hearing perform later in the day. 

There was no rest planned for Cambridge as the next band, Brooklyn's The Lone Bellow, continued in quick succession to create a bit of a stir with their infectious music, with most eyes on the fantastically named Kanene Donehey Pipkin, who threw herself into the set as if there was no tomorrow. My usual pleasant and fruitful pursuit of discovering less familiar bands over the course of the weekend was fortunately paying off in dividends and The Lone Bellow made it onto the list of outfits I'll be playing on my radio show for weeks to come for certain. 

Just before Bella Hardy's much anticipated set, I had an appointment with the other Hardy girl over at the Club Tent. I'd already been introduced to Ange Hardy on Friday night and so all formalities were over and done with leaving us to chat about the important stuff in a relaxed manner in the welcomed shade of the backstage cabin, where we caught up on such details as who Ange Hardy actually is and how she managed to secure herself one of the handful of lucrative showcase spots in the Club Tent over the weekend. We chatted for a while and I came away feeling a little more informed and was looking forward to seeing the singer later in the afternoon. 

Bella Hardy soon followed The Lone Bellow on Stage One, with a sublime set, which included much of the singer's new record, the achingly beautiful With the Dawn. I'm not sure the audience were actually quite ready for such personal and emotionally charged songs but I certainly was and although I was given the privilege of standing in the pit to take photographs, I found myself standing stock-still, right there in front of the singer, completely transfixed, from Anna Massie's delicate banjo introduction of First Light of the Morning, through to the end of the three opening songs. Had I not been required to leave the pit after those three songs, I would have been more than happy to stand right there on that very spot until the end of Bella's set. 

One of the things that actually motivated me to move from my spot in the pit, was the tip off from the media team that there was going to be a photo opportunity over in the Guinness Tent, where the very popular Mike Rosenberg, otherwise known globally as Passenger, had agreed to perform a handful of songs in the place where his Cambridge journey began four years ago, on that occasion back in 2011, busking before a handful of willing listeners. A lot of water has subsequently gone under the bridge and this afternoon it soon became obvious why this un-billed appearance had been kept such a secret. I have to say, Passenger had kept pretty much off my own personal radar until this moment, but I instantly understood his appeal, especially amongst the young. One young girl asked Mike to sign her little green ukulele, which I'm sure she will now treasure. 

This afternoon I continued my walkabout even though my feet had stopped talking to my head after a heated disagreement. My feet wanted to throw in the towel around mid-afternoon but my head was determined to go on and so developed a dispute, which continued well into the evening. It was almost as if I was attempting to fit in as much as I possibly could over the fading few hours of the festival, catching glimpses of, either visually or audibly, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and Joan Armatrading on Stage One, Ange Hardy and Matt Woosey in the Club Tent, Sorren Maclean in the Den and The Stray Birds and Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting (who I also saw briefly conducting his melodeon workshop in the Flower Garden) and Nancy Kerr on Stage Two. My feet rather sarcastically reminded my head that it was simply impossible to see everything so why bother trying?

The Punch Brothers were responsible for the eventual truce between my feet and head, when I finally sat down to hear some absolutely brilliantly executed note perfect music from a group of musicians whose reputation preceded them. The last time I saw Chris Thile on the main stage here at Cambridge was way back in 2006 when he appeared with his then band Nickel Creek. He stole the show back then and he did the same today with an excellent set, demonstrating right there before us, a master class of pure musical craftmanship. 

The sun, which had delighted everyone throughout the day, began to fall by mid-evening as Keston Cobblers Club rounded off their Stage Two set, making way for the unexpectedly vibrant Ben Miller Band, whilst Passenger made his solo debut on Stage One, all on his own but certainly not alone as he showed his gratitude for being so openly welcomed back to Cambridge, performing an engaging set of self-penned songs. My last appointment of the day (and in fact the festival) was to nip over to the Club Tent to see Mishaped Pearls and have a quick chat with them by the Mojo signing tent. The only thing that could possibly follow such a full-on, busy and hugely enjoyable weekend, would be a feast of music, song and dance courtesy of the Demon Barbers XL on Stage Two, whose music saw out the evening as the tarpaulin covers were once again draped over the bars for another year. 

For me, it was back to Clarian House and a comfortable bed, with an assortment of music new and old going through my head, together with a certain sense of satisfaction and contentment. This, my nineteenth Cambridge Folk Festival, is probably up there with the best of them, which is largely due to the friends, colleagues and partners I've made over the years, but also the diverse and sometimes challenging music the organisers continue to bring to the festival year upon year. Long may it continue.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky