Live Reviews

Published on October 16th, 2018 | by Gareth Allen


Cambridge Folk Festival Part 2


Its Saturday at the Cambridge Folk Festival and a great line up awaits. Stick in the Wheel, from London, tell the audience with an engaging irony, that they are only on the main stage, as they have been on all the other stages at the festival! The third number into their set is resplendent with gorgeous harmonies, resonant of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, and the dobro guitar, chimes beautifully with the voices.

A song written about the “witches bottle”, has a drone like sound, with percussion sounding for all the world like Mo Tucker, on the first Velvet Underground album. The vocal is haunting, and paints an audio picture of dread, and needing protection.

A song about a “naughty sailor, has the sound of the wind and crashing waves permeating the main stage tent, as the vocal reaches an ethereal place.

A traditional dance tune is played as a nod to the folk festival setting, but with a playful reluctant nonchalance, with the lead melody played on a plastic recorder ‘…as the wooden one hadn’t arrived in time”. It goes down very well with the audience.

‘Over Again’ and ‘Bells of London’, as played with contemporary rhythms, hand clapping and harmony lead vocals from the stage, represent a very attractive new direction in folk.

‘Bedlam Boys’ is a great cover of a classic Steeleye Span song,  that the band makes fully their own, with some searing fiddle work, and a new rhythmic take that really expands the feel of the song. A fabulous set!

The Shee, also on the main stage, had commissioned songs to celebrate their 10th anniversary. ‘Song for Me’ written by Karine Polwart, was one of those commissioned songs, with an echoing chorus of “Oh dear me, what will we do”. Which at one point, the group with a heart-stopping pause sung a cappella, before the instruments came back in with their powerhouse sound.

‘Lady Grey’ by Andy Cutting is beautifully played, with some great solos on electric mandolin and whistle. It’s full of very driven playing and big sounds, that speaks of passion and home.

‘Tom Paine’s voice’, is a song which the group tell us you should never stop singing, and they originally heard played by Dick Gaughan. It has a pretty refrain played by the whistle and a really stirring quality.

On ‘Meltdown’ the interplay between the musicians on stage is full of smiles and great ensemble playing, and just wondrous.

Amythyst Kiah on the second stage was introduced by Rhiannon GIddens, and has a wonderful voice and gentle guitar playing style, that conveys so much emotionally.

‘Death don’t have no mercy in the land’  was musically hypnotic, with a very gothic like chorus. ‘Dig a hole’, a song based on old UK modern ballad, is played with the banjo, and Amythyst describes it as a culturally connecting ballad.

From her new album, Amythyst sings Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’, with a range of haunting vocal inflections and snapping guitar, conveying effortlessly the resonances of dignity and despair, present in this great song. Vera Hall’s ‘Trouble So Hard’ saw a second new verse added and was interpreted with pathos and grace.

Eric Bibb on the main stage, on the second number of the set, saw his band set-up a really cool shuffle beat accompanied by some great blues flourishes.

Eric and the band follow this up with a song that came to him before he flew to Mali, on his first trip to West Africa, and spoke of his anticipation of the trip. It has a pulsating hi-life musical backing, and as the guitarist was soloing, Eric got up to swing with his guitar.

‘With a dollar in my pocket’ a true story about a blues legend friend escaping from dire circumstances, and has a catchy reggae-like beat with a really earthy blues feel, with another scorching guitar solo that garnered some great applause.

Rhiannon GIddens, described from the stage how her guitarist Dirk Powell took the day off from the Joan Baez tour, to play with her. They had collaborated on the ‘Freedom Highway’ album. ‘We could fly’ from the album, Rhiannon shared was based on an African fable about the ability to fly being lost during the years of bondage, and with magic words then found again. It showed off the full range of her wonderful voice and is accompanied by a fiddle solo that speaks to the hope of freedom.

A stunning slow blues is punctuated by the band on cue from Rhiannon, repeatedly hitting a staccato chord. Her voice rings out and shoots out across the audience. A stunning musical moment. 

A Patsy Cline song ‘I’ve got your picture’ sees Rhiannon sing every word with meaning, in a story of loss and memories, with a spiky guitar solo, and discordant piano in the bridge. 

Rhiannon tells the audience that one of her missions in life is to tell the stories that need to be told. This great artist brings those stories alive in the most compelling of ways. 

Patti Smith takes to the stage with her fantastic band, including long time collaborator, guitarist Lenny Kaye. Patti being her authentic self complains “Turn off the smoke, I am not fucking Metallica”. Endearingly she later affirms Metallica, describing how her son showed her a video of Metallica playing to two million people in Russia…” the power of music to overcome divisions and unite”.  Making the link to the edgy communal spirit of metal, tells you all you need to know about the continuing rebel spirit Patti embodies.

A poignant version of “Redondo Beach’ from her debut album ‘Horses’, speaks to the enormity of loss and the transformative nature of love.

‘Pissing in a River’ takes on an anthemic quality, as Patti’s voice and the band, propel the song towards the heavens over Cambridge. The album came from ‘Radio Ethiopia’, received lukewarm reviews when it came out, but it is surely due a reassessment as a very important experimental album.

In this wonderful vein, having viewed earlier ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ painting in Kings College Chapel, Patti with the band improvises around the experience. Its a really exciting moment, of a band taking an enormous risk, and daring the audience to accompany them on some musical high wire balancing.

The set comes to a celebratory finish, of love, and the spirit to reach for the stars, in  ‘Because The Night’, dedicated to her departed husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, and ‘Gloria’, where Tony Shanahan brings alive the piano playing of Richard ‘DNV’ Sohl, on the original recording on ‘Horses’.

A rock and roll set that did literally reach for the stars!

Honeyfeet on the second stage see out the night, creating the atmosphere of a New Orleans Mardi Gras, with everyone dancing, and some fabulous trombone playing. The only way to end a night at the Cambridge Folk Festival!



On Sunday, we were treated to an absolute highlight of the festival, the mightily impressive Edgelarks.

‘Yarl’s Wood’, is a song written for the campaign to shut down the detention center, where many face indefinite detention. Hannah remarks that  “Few countries lock up people indefinitely for being refugees”.

With the timbre of a Tracy Thorn vocal, the song is sung so sympathetically by Hannah, that you feel hope emerging from amongst the horror. Phil’s dobro flourishes send shivers down the spine, with a sad yearning quality. Then the two guitars hit a lovely lilting rhythm together that is the sound of hope, with Hannah’s beautiful voice crying out over the guitars. A passionate highlight of the festival.

Phil plays a great train like harp instrumental with a thumping bass drum, which really pulls the audience into the moment, and free’s them to let go with spontaneous clapping and whooping.

A West Midlands folk song to celebrate a significant historical strike has a wonderful chorus of  “Fight for your rights my brothers. Fight for your rights my sisters”. A lovely middle section with a strident full on fiddle and wailing harp conveys the feeling that emanates from the solidarity of taking action together.

Hannah asks the audience to “Let the Festival know you liked us”. If you were at Edgelarks’s set and enjoyed their music as much as this reviewer did. Please do this. 

O&O play in The Den, the venue for new up and coming artists. The Second songComing Over’ has a great clipped guitar rhythm and trading of lead vocals. It’s a fabulous song with a theme of love over long distances… “all of this waiting is making me crazy”, with a romantic chorus of ‘Oooh I’m Coming Over’, accompanied by finger clicking from the audience.

A cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s, ‘Mrs Robinson’ really highlights the songs driving harmonies and perceptive lyrics. Shining a light as it did then, on the stilted closed nature of suburbia in the United States; which young people grew up in and rejected, through rock music, the counterculture and the anti-Vietnam war protests. A very thoughtful reading of the song.

‘Some days’ a song about the challenging days in some relationships, has a sweet emotional intelligence, and some sublime harmonies, conveying the twin feelings of hurt, and the hope of putting things right. Check out O&O, and keep an eye out for this talented duo.

All Our Exes Live in Texas, from Australia, have a quirky and very endearing repartee with each other and the audience.  One song spoke to friends having babies and rejection, with the harmonies sounding like brush blowing through a forlorn Western town. A great vocal breakdown, brought the audience in, clapping in sync with the rhythm.

A new song, written for a boyfriend, where they broke up, and then got together again, saw one of the band quip rather cheekily “So you no longer need to cry when singing it”. The song has a beautiful coda played on guitar and accordion.

A foreboding accordion introduces another song, which is imbued with the most delicate of ascending harmonies, followed by a gentle plucking of the ukulele. The repeating refrain of “eventually”, is accompanied by some of the most atmospheric harmonies of the festival.

The group describe their feminist perspective, and their wish to sing about issues that matter. A song about domestic violence, bravely and with musical affirmation, speaks out. 

Kate Rusby and Friends means a considerably expanded line up to Kate’s regular band. The opening numbers ‘Benjamin Bowmaneer’ and ‘We Will Sing’, are great songs and are even further enhanced, with the expanded line up.

With Eddi Reader, Kate sings ‘Let the Bells Ring’ with its immense crashing waves of music, as the accompanying fiddle seems to reach for the light, and the new beginning the song heralds.

‘Bitter Boy’ written for Kate’s uncle who was a miner, has a very moving accordion solo as the music swelled up in emotion around the stage. Kate shares with the audience that she still can’t sing the song without shedding a tear.

‘I Courted a Sailor’ features some great playing from Michael McGoldrick, and the string section, providing an expansive musical environment, for Kate’s voice to really ring out.

A stand out set finishes with the traditional ‘The Wild Mountain Thyme’. 

Janis Ian, introduces her set, by telling an attentive audience, that they are about to hear the “depressing side of folk”, and to hold onto their seatbelts!

Opening with the simply beautiful yearning ‘Jesse’, she has the audience already and quite wonderfully in her hands.

‘When the party’s over’, with its touching refrain of, “you can fall in love with me”, witnesses Janis’s voice take off and fly high over her delicate guitar lines. Janis sings to the audience at the conclusion of ‘Married in London’, “Love who you can, and fuck all the rest”. She movingly introduces the song with the story of how she and her partner got married and conveys the full emotional significance of this special event in their lives.

‘Bright lights and promises’ is sung as a lilting blues with clipped guitar chords and some ringing blues licks at the songs end. It totally reinvents the song and is a real set highlight.

Janis introduces ‘At Seventeen’ by sharing with the audience that as a songwriter you dream of writing one song that crosses all barriers, to speak to something universal. So for her, performing ‘At Seventeen’ is a complete joy. We are then treated to a very passionate version of this classic song.

Janis’s performance is the highlight of the whole festival and completes with a stunning rap about oppression, where Janis leaves the stage with the words “resist, persist!” ringing in our ears. Around me, the audience members are moved to tears. A transcendent moment.

Another classic Cambridge Folk Festival is thus over much too soon. Here at Sonic Bandwagon, we can’t wait for the 2019 chapter!

With thanks to Becky for the excellent press arrangements, and Anne Robertson for all her musical knowledge, insight and passion, which have contributed enormously to this review.

About the Author

A committed metal head with a love of jazz, soul, and folk. Living in Central Scotland and attending gigs in Edinburgh and Glasgow, with it's really amazing venues. My iconic moment... being invited on stage at the Glasgow Garage, by DevilDriver's Dez Fafara!

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