Live Reviews

Published on August 15th, 2017 | by Gareth Allen


The Cambridge Folk Festival 2017 – Review Part One

The Cambridge Folk Festival, which began in 1965, is a Festival that articulates a wonderful diversity, in the range of music it embraces. This year you could experience blues, dance beats, intoxicating traditional reels, murder ballads, and yes even bluegrass rock and metal!

The atmosphere is relaxed, and the site has an intimate feel, although it’s still a big Festival. Moreover, as many artists commented from the stage, it is an audience really intent on listening to the music being played. The Festival also makes a big effort to be family friendly and provide good access for disabled people.

The Festival fans are also interesting. The rows and rows of camp chairs might lead you to think this might all be very sedate.  Not for a minute….the constant dancing, the embracing of often quite edgy music that is really pushing boundaries, and the engagement with social and political issues, tells the story of a really engaged and dynamic audience.


Friday at the Festival was ‘Women’s Takeover Day’, and it was an incredible day of music, with a tangible feeling of empowerment and celebration. It was also a completely female line-up on the Main Stages 1 and 2. Woman at the festival wore flower bands in their hair, which also felt such a powerful emblem of confident self and collective identity.

Amelia Coburn on Stage 2, with a ukulele and a voice to die for, was the first artist we caught. Though sadly it was towards the end of the set. Amelia introduced the Jam’s Down in the Tube Station at Midnight as “a song about getting mugged”. Her stunning version, brought out the often brutal nature of urban life, at the heart of the song, in the most beguiling way. Amelia then revealed to the audience that she was “…the most nervous I have ever been”, and received a round of appreciative and supportive applause. Her final song, a fragile and poignant version of David Bowie’s Life on Mars, showed an artist able to completely take her audience with her.

On Stage 1, the Rachel Newton Band, brought Rachel on harp and voice, together with a superb band comprising fiddle, brass, keyboards and drums. A Gaelic ballad commenced the set, with gentle soaring melodies played on fiddle and harp, and Rachel’s voice blending them all together. Then the band thunder in, and the music move’s into a tremendous groove, with an evocative instrumental section, that sees the band weaving around a refrain from Rachel’s harp. The ensemble playing is simply breathtaking.

During the set a member of the audience inexplicably shouts out “….can you turn the bass drum down please“. Rachel congruently replies back “We like bass in this band!”, to very appreciative applause.

Rachel goes on to announce that “We are going to play another murder ballad…The Bloody Gardener“. Beginning with a mournful fiddle melody, Rachel’s voice has a fabulous storytelling quality to it, that completely draws you into the song, and its story of  bloody murder. A piercing trumpet solo during the song catches the mood of the piece completely.

Wildwood Kin sees a packed Stage 2, with people standing outside the tented area. Their alternative folk sound has a real understanding of classic pop, particularly in Emillie, Beth and Meghann’s three part harmonies. When the voices are unaccompanied it’s completely exhilarating

A highlight is Turning Tides, the title track of the forthcoming album. It is introduced as a song about family, and honest and open communication, in a world where communication is so influenced by social media. It’s a song with a gentle conversational tone and a fusion of voices and instruments, that recalls the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys at their height.

Wildwood Kin follow this with a beautifully ethereal cover of Crosby Stills and Nash’s Helplessly Hoping. Meghann charmingly from the stage says “Forgive the onstage chatter, we had a review that described us as ‘pleasantly awkward’, and we can’t shake it….but we want to be ourselves“.

Near the end of the set, Take me home, with its west coast Americana sound, has a joyful and expansive sound, that is a hallmark of this fabulous performance.

Coven on Stage 1 are a collective, that bring together Belinda O’Hooley, Heidi Tidow, Grace Petrie, and Lady Maisery (Rowan Rheingans, Hannah James and Hazel Askew). They are a remarkable gathering together of exceptionally talented musicians and singers, united in speaking up against oppression and for social justice.

Bread and Roses is beautifully sung by the collective voices, bringing a moving passion to this anthem to struggle and what life can be, in a world free of exploitation and oppression. It follows the music Mimi Farina wonderfully put to these great words. Coven describe how they like to play folk songs “as they tell us so much”. A version of Leon Rosselson’s  “Palaces of Gold” illustrates this perfectly…”It’s 50 years old but speaks to what happened at Grenville”.

Lady Maisery perform This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush, with their voices full of understanding and warmth for how change and trauma are dealt with. With its sparse fiddle, accordion and piano accompaniment, its the most gentle and poignant performance of the Festival. Lady Maisery’s version was originally released in March 2013 to celebrate International Women’s Day, and raise money for the organisation End Violence Against Women.

Coil and Spring was co written by Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow with Boff Whalley of Chumbawamba, in dedication to Pussy Riot’s brave protest in a Russian Orthodox Church Cathedral in Moscow. Voices swirl beautifully around the stage, and speak to courage and defiance. Its another Festival defining performance.

Grace Petrie leads off her song If There’s A Fire In Your Heart, a rousing song of hope and the power of acting together, which sees dancing and singing spontaneously breaking out in the audience. The song’s chorus to this reviewer represents some of the most evocative and empathic words written in recent years by any artist: “If there’s a fire in your heart, it only needs to be a candle. Every fire in the world started from one spark. Take the fire in all our hearts, we will be more than they can handle. Take my hand in here tonight, and we will light up all the dark.

A transcendent set, which set the Festival alight!

Ward Thomas are sisters Cathy and Lizzy Ward Thomas, who play the most exciting and energising country music. They are given a lovely introduction before they come on stage; and this is something given to every artist who performs, and conveys the care the Festival has for its artists.

Its country music with an edge, as evidenced in a song like When Its Not Me, which is a song about “small town gossip”, with the suggestion from Cathy and Lizzy that it might be something they have experienced. Its sung with real conviction, with the  two voices inter-whining in the most compelling way.

Material with its chorus line of “If all I see  is the outside, not the inside, it matters”, is a song of  acute yearning, as the keyboards flow magically around the voices. Cathy and Lizzy notice something in the audience, and we hear mischievously from the stage  “There are girls out there with fairy lights. Its very cool.”

Cartwheels is performed bathed in purple lighting, with a totally endearing melody, and a real emotional intelligence in the words; which with real insight, tell of what we will do to prevent becoming invisible in a relationship. Its a very special song, full of deep insight.

Near the end of the set a competition is run with each side of the audience singing a line back. Its the sort of thing that can feel a little clichéd, but in the hands of Ward Thomas its a sweet moment of engagement with the audience.

Shirley Collins

Shirley Collins return to the Cambridge Folk Festival stage is an eagerly anticipated event.  She played at the very first Cambridge Folk Festival in 1965, and is a simply remarkable vocalist, and  also of major importance as a folk song collector. She helped to ensured that many songs that were only known orally, were collected and made available to everyone. Last years album Lodestar, her first in 38 years, is an extraordinary album, dealing unflinching with some very dark themes. 

Playing with the five piece Lodestar band, each of the songs are introduced by actor Pip Barnes, who as co-narrator with Shirley, describes the background and story to each song. Its format that really draws you into the performance, and into thinking about each individual song’s meaning.

Washed Ashore tells the story of a couple laid to rest in a churchyard, with the sad and touching back-story of how a woman finds a sailor washed ashore, only to realise its her lover. In her grieving she dies, and they are laid to rest together. Shirley’s voice is heartbreaking and captures so beautifully the emotional resonance of the song, as a graceful fiddle melody complements her voice perfectly.

Death and the Lady, was an oral song, it is thought from the time of the black death. Pip describes how it begins with a setting of the scene line, characteristic of so many traditional songs “As I was out walking one morning…”. It tells the story of a woman meeting an old man on the way, who turns out to be death. Shirley’s voice lets the song unfold in the most natural of ways, such that you take the journey with the woman, trying everything to bargain with death for more time. The wind blowing strongly through the surrounding trees, and the tent panels and roof backstage at Stage 1, seem to be mirroring this chilling song. Shirley at the songs conclusion says with a gentle laugh  ”Thank you. I am now going to cheer up, that’s enough of a body count “. There is no doubt in my mind that Shirley could carry an audience at a metal festival with songs like this!

Glen Redman

An Arkansaw mountain song, is sung in Shirley’s “best Sussex French”, and by now the faces on the audience at the front, show they are completely smitten with Shirley, and this astonishing performance.

A special mention must be made of Glen Redman, a Morris dancer (in the Cotswold style), who came on stage to dance several times, and added a whole new layer to several of the songs. He blows several kisses to Shirley at the end of the final number, and Shirley says to the audience in the most self effacing manner, ”Thank you very much, its been lovely to play for you”. A literally perfect and inspirational set.

Indigo Girls

The Indigo Girls close off the evening on Stage 1. introduced as artists who “Speak up for gay rights, the environment and much else that needs speaking up for “. Early in the set, a magnificent version of Shame On You, is played, and the group of musicians playing with Amy and Emily, including fiddle/dulcimer and accordion, really take flight, with some fiery playing. Sadly your reviewer has to leave to get transport back into Cambridge.

So its a joyous Friday at the Cambridge Folk Festival, full of moments that will stay in the memory for a long time to come.

With many thanks to Mike Ainscoe for the photograph of Coven on stage and crowd shot. All other photos by Gareth Allen.


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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