After a break of three years David Granville revisits the 2009 Cambridge Folk Festival 2009, looks at what's new and checks out the fine selection of premier Irish, Scottish and Welsh acts at this year's event
SPORTING A new major sponsor in the shape of the Co-op, this year's Cambridge Folk Festival once again succeeded in living up to its well-earned reputation as the best, most family-friendly, and almost certainly the greenest, folk and roots music festival in the land.
Run for public benefit rather than profit by the local city council, and with a background and history that includes strong labour movement connections, the event deserves its pole position in any list of progressive musical events.
Thanks to Unison's long-term sponsorship, the festival has long provided excellent facilities for people with disabilities - including dedicated viewing areas for all three stages.
From the minute you arrive at the festival's Cherry Hinton site, it's clear that the organisers are intent on paying more than mere lip service to green issues. The use of low-watt, long-life light bulbs, shatter-proof re-usable plastic glasses in the bars, the banning of traders' plastic bags, the provision of recycling bags for campers and the composting of all festival caterers' food, should all help to ensure that festival stands a better than average chance of scooping the Greener Festival award for a second year running.
On the face of it, therefore, the sponsorship link-up with the Co-op is an obvious one - or at least it would be if it weren't for the ongoing dispute between the GMB and the Co-op's funeral service business.
Twenty-four-hour Co-op stalls, bereft of the usual rip-off prices normally associated with these sorts of events, did a roaring trade throughout the weekend. Such services, and copious information about the Co-op's ethical policies covering a range of retail and financial services, will no doubt have won it new friends and admirers.
However, in the spirit of constructive criticism, I went along to make my feelings known about the scandalous way in which the Co-op's funeral business has treated its workforce. I was met with a wall, not of hostility or indifference, but one of seemingly genuine ignorance.
Given the prominence of the event I can't help feeling that the GMB has missed an opportunity to get its case across. I don't know how many other people raised the issue with Co-op representatives at the festival but the GMB should have been there in numbers lobbying festival-goers (if they were I didn't see them), many of whom would have been surprised and disappointed to learn of the Co-op's stance and may well have taken the opportunity to express their feelings to Co-op staff.
The GMB's case is just but clearly more needs to be done than passing motions at the TUC, important though this may be.
So what about the music?
As is the tradition, music from the Celtic nations is a key component of the Cambridge Folk Festival, though I heard one or two grumbles about a creeping reliance on 'safe choices' and the marginalisation of the traditional acts within the festival programme.
In fairness, there's always been an eclectic mix of genres at Cambridge. However, the appearance this year of Scouse indie rockers The Zutons proved a step too far for many. Though though they undoubtedly proved be popular with a sizeable section of the crowd, their inclusion seemed out of step with the overall Cambridge vibe and, frankly, unnecessary..
After all, there's certainly no shortage of contemporary folk, blues, African or bluegrass acts capable of cooking up a musical storm. English folk big-band Bellowhead, soulful funk-blues legend Booker T. Jones, the captivating Malian chanteuse Oumou Sangare, the English folk-reggae synthesis of Edward II, the driving blues of Watermelon Slim or the musical tour-de-force offered up by Scotland's The Treacherous Orchestra all more-than-ably demonstrated the point.
In terms of musical quality and enjoyability it's often difficult to differentiate between the acts at Cambridge due to the exceptionally high standard and year-on-year consistency of the bill. I like my folk and roots music but my knowledge is far from encyclopaedic and I learnt a long time ago not to put too much store on familiar names. I like to think of Cambridge as, at least in part, an exceedingly enjoyable schooling. Several of the Irish, Welsh and, with added prominence at this year's festival courtesy of support from the Scottish Arts Council, Scottish acts were either entirely or only vaguely known to me prior to the festival.
Scottish fiddle player Ruairidh Macmillan, whose Thursday-night set in the Club Tent was one of the highlights of the festival, was one of those of whom I knew nothing about. Admittedly, if I'd been paying more attention to Mike Harding and his excellent BBC folk and roots programme I would no doubt have learned that this Highland-raised fiddle virtuoso, voted BBC Radio Scotland's Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2009, was a mighty talent to be reckoned with.
Then again, such advance knowledge would have lessened the surprise and delight of being metaphorically slapped in the face with as fine and furious a set of reels, jigs, hornpipes and the like as any Celtic fiddle-loving folkie can hope for. The slow, delicate tunes and the one song, sung by last year's BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year, Ewan Robertson, weren't half bad either, while the showcase given to the third member of the band, twice all-Ireland and current British bodhran champion Adam Brown, demonstrated the enormous range of sounds and tones that can be rung from one of the most basic instruments on the planet.
A great set from a great set of young traditional musicians.
Talking of which, Macmillan was proceeded in the club tent by the only Welsh act of the festival. Calan are a vibrant and outrageously young five-piece, featuring guitar, accordion, fiddles, various whistles, harp and, on occasion, the pibgorn, a single-reed traditional Welsh drone horn from Ynys Mon.
Anything that Calan may have lost on by way of inexperience was certainly made up in spades by an easy stage presence and a surfeit of fine playing and singing. Their set of driving tunes, traditional Welsh folk songs and the odd original composition easily won over the Cambridge crowd. It would be surprising if such a winning performance didn't secure them a place on a larger stage in the years to come.
It's a well-worn path from club tent to either of the two main stages at the festival. One Irish act who's done just that is now widely recognised as one of folk music's leading lights.
I was lucky enough to catch Cara Dillon when she gave a showcase performance in the club Tent back in 2001. One year later and she was, justifiably, elevated to the main stage.
Since then the only way's been up for Cara Dillon, who is now the best-known and most commercially successful of a batch of fine female vocalists from Dungiven in Co. Derry to have emerged on the traditional and contemporary folk music scene in recent years.
Her return to a more traditional, acoustic sound certainly went down well with the Cambridge crowd. Stunningly beautiful renditions of The Braes of Skreen and The Parting Glass were for me the highlights of a set that had the whole crowd wishing that she would go on longer - not an infrequent experience at Cambridge given the tight scheduling of acts.
Dillon was followed by Scottish fiddle virtuosos Blazin' Fiddles whose set of fast and furious tunes on the main stage late on Saturday afternoon brought the house down.
The group's personnel, Allan Henderson, Iain MacFarlane, Catriona Macdonald and Bruce MacGregor (fiddles) supported by Anna Massie (guitar) and Andy Thorburn (piano), may have changed a little since their 2002 debut album Fire On!, but the end result is very much the same.
Comprising musicians from a range of top Scottish traditional music acts, - Peatbog Faeries, Wolfestone, Boys of the Lough and Usual Suspects - you'd expect nothing less than rip-roaring quality. Definitely a band that does exactly what it says on the tin - they even managed to include musical reference to The Specials in their final tour-de-force, Miss jenna.
The six-piece female group The Shee were another of Scottish acts featured at this year's festival. Energetic, youthful and outrageously talented. Clear, honey-dew vocals and harmonies accompanied by fiddles, viola, harp, salter, piano accordion and clogs are their trademark.
The Shee, deliver a successful blend of traditional Scottish tunes, Gaelic songs, clog dancing, with a touch of bluegrass for good measure - an adventurous cross-over repertoire by any standards, but one that most definitely works.
A big Dick Gaughan fan, I was delighted by their version of Tom Paine's Bones. Their set finished in fine style with two set of self-penned tunes in traditional style; the first inspired by, of all things, football.
Battlefield Band founder and multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Brian McNeill has something of a fixture at the Cambridge Festival. This year was no exception. In addition to hosting the ever-popular festival session in the Radio 2 tent, bringing together some of the finest traditional musicians at the festival on one stage, he was also to be found in the Club Tent on the Friday morning running a fiddle workshop.
Since the death of her father in in the late 1990s, Scottish singer Eddie Reader has delved deep into her Scottish musical and literary heritage, resulting in the release of Eddie Reader Sings Robbie Burns to great critical acclaim in 2003 and a further traditional album, Peacetime,
Reader and her stellar band, featuring, among others, John McCusker and vocalist Heidi Talbot lay down an an examplarary set, including Willie Stewart and Ae Fond Kiss, from the Burns album, old favourites like Bell, Book and Candle and two Boo Heweredine songs, Dragonflies and NewYork City, from her latest album, Love Is The Way.
Another of this year's Scottish contingent to feature on the main stage on Saturday afternoon are a traditional act with a very contemporary feel. Lau, twice voted best group at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awardsre, are Kris Drever (guitar, vocals), Martin Green (piano accordion) and Aidan O'Rourke (fiddle).
Respected musicians in their own right, and to be found, in various combinations, gracing the line-ups of some of the most respected figures in the folk world of these islands, it didn't take long to find out why.
If epic ballads, original composition, seriously fine musical accompaniment and virtuoso playing are your bag - and let's be honest, why wouldn't it be if you're at the Cambridge Folk Festival - these lads are worth checking out if, like me, you've not heard them before.
Though I've the utmost respect for the musical talents and writing abilities of Irish music legend Paul Brady, he often just doesn't do it for me, proving the point that respect doesn't always equate to enjoyment.
I'm not sure why I feel this way about Brady, but perhaps it's because he has, on occasion, strayed a little too far into easy listening territory.
It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find little evidence of this side of Brady's music - unless he slipped it it during the short time I was away catching a couple of songs by Imelda May on the Radio 2 stage. A
Anyway, it would be fair to say that Brady and his tight-as-a-duck's-arse band registered at the very top end of my personal expectations, with the inclusion of Busted Loose, Crazy Dreams and Hard Station from my favourite Brady album particularly welcome. And by the time he ended his set with The World is What You Make It, I couldn't help thinking that perhaps I ought to reconsider some of the more negative feelings I'd started out with.
The Saw Doctors is another band that this reviewer has mixed feelings about. The band's studio offerings, while always competent and lively, are rarely able to capture the energy and raw excitement of the band's legendary live performances.
Topping the bill on the main stage on the Saturday, the Tuam Cowboys didn't disappoint, Whatever the Saw Doctors lack in subtlety they make up for in spades, delivering a suitably upbeat, danceable and sing-along set packed with crowd-pleasers from the band's back catalogue. Given the deluge which had descended upon the Cambridge crowd earlier in the evening, the good Doctors proved the perfect shot in the arm to compensate for the mud, damp and chill temporarily provided by the weather.
Despite a brilliant set from Cara Dillon on the Saturday, there's little doubt which Irish act won the most plaudits from the Cambridge crowd in 2009.
Performing a set of largely traditional tunes - with a Rory Gallagher song thrown in to keep us on our toes - the virtuoso offerings of Máirtín O'Connor (accordion), Cathal Hayden (fiddle, banjo) and Séamie O'Dowd (guitar,vocals) - joined for the set by a fine bodhran player (whose name I didn't catch) - were greeted with enthusiastic appreciation from the off.
Despite the eclectic mix of folk, blues and roots genres to be found at Cambridge these days - and every conceivable blend of cross-over imaginable - the subtlety and skill in traditional Irish form is a treat indeed.
The appreciative and enthusiastic response of the Cambridge crowd is also living proof that a knowledgeable audience still exists for performers operating at the subtle, traditional end of the spectrum. Everybody likes a fast and furious reel or a jig but these boys can enthral whatever the volume or tempo.
Unfortunately, I only caught a couple of numbers by be-quiffed Dublin Liberties rockabilly belle Imelda May, having sacrificed the middle part of Paul Brady's set, to whip across to the Radio 2 tent.
By the time I arrived it was too crowded to get a good view. What mattered though was the sound, which was electric in every sense of the word. By the time I arrived the joint was absolutely jumping.
The band and were as slick as they come. with the drummer and bass providing a pounding rhythm for the quick-fire guitar, honking sax and Imelda May's powerful, bluesy vocals.
I liked what I heard so much that I bought one of her CDs, Love Tattoo, on my next visit to the Mojo stall. A mixture of raunchy rockabilly. blues, skiffle, with the odd torch song for good measure, it's a real delight. I'll definitely be looking to catch her live in the future.
For those who missed the Brian McNeil led-session in the Radio 2 tent, there was one final opportunity to catch the assembled multitude of Scottish (and one Irish) folk musicians that is The Treacherous Orchestra.
An overwhelmingly young thirteen-piece Celtic folk-dance powerhouse, the Orchestra are simply capable of blowing up a musical storm on any day of the week with the letter Y in it. Strictly trad it ain't - not that I heard any complaints as they injected a by then four-day tired audience with one last joyous shot of Celtic musical energy.
Providing a toe-tapping mixture original and traditional tunes with dance beats and exemplarary musicianship, the Orchestra comprise Ross Ainslie (pipes and whistles), Bo Jingham (flutes and whistles), Adam Sutherland and Innes Watson (fiddles), Éamonn Coyne and John Sommerville (banjo and accordion), Michael Bryan and Spad Reid (guitars), Paul Jennings and Fraser Stone (drums and percussion), and Duncan Lyle (double bass).
The influence of Celtic-dance cross-over pioneers Shoogenlifty, Peatbog Faeries and the now sadly deceased Martyn Bennett alongside more recent incarnations such as Salsa Celtica is evident. Not that this is in any way surprising given that the outfit features past and current members of Salsa Celtica, Peatbog Faeries, Croft No. Five, Session A9, Old Blind Dogs and Back of the Moon, among others.
Theirs is a big sound and ideal for the festival setting. The crowd went away uplifted and happy with the sound of furiously played reels and jigs ringing in their ears all the way back to the campsite.
Well done Cambridge, another great festival - and remember, what's written about above is just the half of it.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2009 David Granville