Although it’s been ten years since State last ventured across the water to partake of the UK’s most established folk, roots and acoustic event, on the surface not much at Cambridge Festival has changed. It feels a relatively small site, an L shape with each of the two main stages at either end, and the sight of row upon row of camping chairs set out for the day is still at odds with the usual festival experience. Yet as we wander around we do find some nice new additions, particularly The Den stage that will play host to some impressive new talent over the weekend. Although there is still a respectful approach to traditional music at its core, Cambridge is a broad church and – while you won’t find anyone poking at a laptop or cranking up an electric guitar – there’s a huge amount to enjoy. Here’s our top ten picks…
Distilling the Cambridge experience down to “blood pudding, mud and Morris dancing”, Ani DiFranco protegee Mitchell proves that there’s plenty of room for original songwriting amongst the historical material on show. Probably best enjoyed in a more intimate setting rather than the larger second stage, she is nonetheless an intriguing prospect – particularly when she treats us to a couple of tunes from her Orpheus inspired folk opera Hadestown. A Bon Iver tour support is coming up, if she makes it to Europe we suggest you get along early.
Over the top, slightly eccentric, divas are in short supply at Cambridge so thank heavens for the first lady of African music. Banishing the rain, her main stage showing is a riot of colour, humour and joyous music. Backed by a surprisingly rocking band, Kidjo shimmies, shakes, appears in the middle of the audience and is hugely entertaining. A reworked version of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ is a highlight, as is her tribute to mentor Miriam Mekaba, but it’s a complete performance that will live long in the memory.
There aren’t many artists here who’ve had a genuine top five hit single, yet Soria still finds herself on the festival’s smallest stage. That success may have come via a TV ad cover version and an X Factor reinterpretation but she’s very much the real deal. A soulful element to her solo guitar and vocal brings a nice new twist and it’s refreshing to hear this type of artist in such a natural, raw guise.
Signed to the historic Topic label, Fay Hield deals in folk music in its most traditional sense, while still managing to bring her own personality to proceedings. A gutsy singer (with more than a hint of Maddy Prior in her demeanour), she is backed by an equally hard hitting band that includes Andy Cutting and Bellowhead’s Jon Boden. A world away from the cosy image of folk music, she proves that the medium is in safe hands.
Just one of the acts to pack the tiny Den stage, King Charles may have been forced to leave his full complement at home but in truth this solo guise suits him immensely. Cutting an exotic figure against the tent’s eastern meets front room decor, he largely lets his music do the talking and immediately sounds completely at home amongst the traditional elements.
Cambridge has provided some nice surprises over the weekend and this is the best by a mile. Performing as a five piece (as opposed to their more expansive recording version, including Mumford & Sons’ Ted Dwane), Moulettes still bring a sense of enigmatic style to the Den stage. Unperturbed by their cramped surroundings, the range of instruments mask a deceptively simple approach to writing clever, catchy pop songs. Driven by Hannah Miller’s cello and Georgina Leach’s searing violin, topped off by beautiful vocals, Moulettes are a wonder to behold.
A name that may not mean much outside of this world, this Sunday night appearance has a huge resonance for those who pack the second stage tent. Returning to live performance thirty years after a car crash left him with severe physical injuries and brain damage, Jones cuts a frail figure on stage but – with the support of Belinda Jones and son Joseph – he triumphs. Reading the words from a lectern, the crack in his voice only makes it more effective, particularly on a heartbreaking version of Radiohead’s ‘Fake Plastic Trees’. We often talk about emotion in music but, as he leaves to a wall of applause and cheers, there is genuinely not a dry eye in the house.
Major label signees they may be, The Staves nevertheless feel right at home here. Their second show of the weekend sees them battle with the noise of a swift, violent thunderstorm but the rapidly swelling tent is there to do more than just shelter. As a band, the trio aren’t quite there yet in terms of performance but the harmony lead material is spot on and they leave the festival with their reputation enhanced ever further.
Not many acts arrive on stage with a gleaming silver trophy sat on the side of the stage, yet Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band are justifiably proud of their status as British champions. They make a mighty noise, although tempered in this collaboration with the sublime Unthanks. The band appear stripped down to their core five members, yet bolstered by the backing that shines behind them. It’s all moving stuff, especially on the old mining songs that sound all the more emotive in this context. For an Unthanks show it’s all quite upbeat too, with Chris Price belting out a big band version of ‘Queen Of Hearts’ and the Brighouse crew getting the main stage crowd moving with their one hit in 125 years, ‘The Floral Dance’.
An unknown name but a familiar face greets us on the second stage, as Dervish’s Cathy Jordan sits centre stage, dressed like a Wild West bar girl. It turns out to be a fitting look, with the trio exploring the links between Irish and American music with impressive results. Bowler hatted Rick Harping adds some bluesy harmonica, while ex-Dervish member Seamie O’Dowd brings searing Appalachian fiddle. Jordan is as engaging as ever, whether singing sweetly or just bantering with the audience.
Tickets for Cambridge Festival 2013 are on sale here.