In 2018, Cambridge Folk Festival curator Rhiannon Giddens oversaw a cornucopia of Americana roots goodies. In 2019 with Nick Mulvey curating, the festival swerved more towards an eclectic world music bill but there was still (just) enough to satisfy the Americana aficionados.
Thursday is traditionally the day with the smallest programme and this year was no different. Ben Caplan got things underway on Stage 2 with a set of entertaining Canadian gypsy-folk , beards and yellow maracas - not as off-putting as it sounded. Ben and band provided a range of musically varied songs grounded in the folk genre but spiced with a large dollop of the love child of Tom Waits & Gogol Bordello. In a subsequent conversation with Ben, he professed a strong admiration for Waits and it clearly shows in his at times carnivalesque music.
Biggest crowd of the day was - deservedly - pulled by The Rails. Ably abetted by Rockingbird Sean Read on keyboards, who for once was prominent in the mix, this was a set which packed rock-star punch both in the visual and sonic delivery. Tracks from the new album “Cancel the Sun” mixed seamlessly with favourites like “William Taylor”. The band had obviously taken great care visually and musically over this showcase event and it paid dividends with a rapturous response from the packed Stage 2 audience.
Last on in the Den, up against the 50th Anniversary of Ralph McTell on Stage 2 was Lucy Grubb - understandably a little nervous to be playing a prestigious event at a young age, Lucy visibly grew in confidence as her set progressed. Playing in a tight trio featuring banjo, keyboards and additional guitar, lyrical cues to a generic everyman Johnny and explicit reference to Johnny Cash saw her wearing songwriter-country influences on her sleeve. What came across was Lucy’s strong ear for melody and a strong narrative in her lyrics - at one point she covered Kacey Musgraves’ “Slow Burn” but her own material was strong enough for Lucy not to have included the cover.
Friday began for the early risers with the Mojo interview - Joey Burns and John Convertino, questioned by Colin Irwin, ran amiably through the varying branches of their musical family tree and their admirably internationalist and tolerant world-view. They certainly did their reputations no harm whatsoever amongst the committed and curious who came to listen.
Early afternoon saw the arrival of Kerri Watt on the main stage. Armed only with a guitar, and an at times sweet/soulful Lulu-esque voice, she played a mid-paced set of pop country that was not unpleasant. The addition of Will Pound on harmonica added more dynamics to her sound, including a spirited cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” - she’s an act I’d like to hear with a full band before passing full judgment.
One of the big names of the festival was Graham Nash, the penultimate main stage act on Friday. Performing a set heavy with songs from CSNY and its subsequent derivations Nash showed a strong political sensibility with songs like “Military Madness” (referencing Trump in a non-complimentary manner) and “Immigration Man” before integrating classics such as “Marrakesh Express” and “Love the one you’re with” into the set’s climax, ending with a rousing encore of “Chicago” followed by “Teach your children well”.
Following Graham Nash, the baton was passed to Calexico and Iron & Wine. Ending the day is a bit of a double-edged sword at Cambridge: yes, there is the status of nominally being the headliner, but in practical terms the audience tends to thin out as people flock to the last campsite and town-centre buses. It happens every year, so it was pleasing to see a much fuller tent than in the preceding two years stick around for a subtle delight of a set. The last time that I saw the Calexico/Iron & Wine combination it was at the time they first got together and the concert was very much a composite event – three mini-gigs within one gig - with some collaboration, due to the paucity of material that they’d produced. This time, it’s very much a shared and cohesive whole, with the core of the set being drawn from the “Years to burn” album. Highlights for me were the opening, the album title track and a fluent “Father Mountain”. Improvisation, which Joey Burns had discussed in the earlier Mojo interview as being part of his joy in performing, was present but not self-indulgent - the discipline of a curfew-controlled festival set had artistic merit in ensuring that things didn’t stray close to noodly free jazz!
Last year, Rob Heron & the Teapad Orchestrawere wowing the Club Tent - this year they’d got the opening Saturday slot on the main stage - and deservedly so. In sweltering heat and the usual suited and booted attire, they dragged the early morning crowd up into a state of near fan-worshipping hysteria through a set of rootsy rockabilly-tinged swing, all laced with their usual dry humour and working class and proud politics. Put these guys on mainstream TV on a show like the Tube used to be and they’d be huge - it’s an absolute travesty that they’re not - yet. New recordings are apparently in the works, so watch out for them.
A gem of an act was tucked away in the Den - The Marriage- Dave Burn (ahab/Orphan Colours) and Kirsten Adamson played a duo set of fantastic quality. Top notch harmony and solo vocals and some stunning guitar work from DB (He commented that someone had whooped after one solo, which had never happened before, which made him feel warm inside...) If Emmylou and Gram or the Civil Wars had come from Edinburgh and London, you get some idea of where their harmony laden sound is rooted. Songs, as Dave announced, were mainly about getting dumped... which is always good inspiration for writing material. Add to that warm and lively stage personas and it was no shock that a good proportion of the seated audience got to their feet and gave them a standing ovation. One to bookmark - this was the first time they’d played in a year due to Kirsten having a baby - here’s hoping it’s not so long until the next time. The fact that the duo played a couple of newly penned songs would seem to suggest that they are about to enter a more active period.
Headlining the Saturday night was Lucinda Williams, returning after a six year absence from the Cambridge stage. Due to festival time constraints the “Car wheels on a gravel road” album was not played through in its entirety but mixed in with other songs like “Something about what happens when we talk” and “Changed the locks” which was affectionately dedicated to Tom Petty, who’d covered it. “Joy” of the “Car Wheels” tracks stood out to these ears with a particularly biting delivery from Lucinda and grungy southern rock backing from Buick 6 who threw in a couple of riffing nods to “Purple Haze” too. An a capella Faith and Grace” was the first encore followed by “Get right with God” complete with Creedence-like guitar and speeded up gospel final section - and then “Foolishness” ended matters with Lucinda listing a whole bunch of things that she does and doesn’t want in her life, to the delight of the rapt audience.
(The reviewer/photographer confesses to missing the Sunday as he had to make a 150 mile drive home to play a gig himself)
So, all in all, a much more musically varied festival – as mentioned at the outset, there were fewer acts that might be classed as falling into the Americana genre, but those that did were engaging and entertaining. Of those that fell just outside that (arbitrary?) distinction Gruff Rhys performed a set that was part performance art and indie-songwriter to the bemusement of the folkier purists. Walking on with a sign that said “Applause” and another which said “Louder” – and then another that said “Prolonged applause” was not unexpected from the former Super Furry Animals man. Talisk, the Scottish trio had the final Saturday slot and if there’s such a thing as a Scottish folk Ramones, they are it. Concertina player Mohsen Amini has to be seen to be believed in the energy of his performance – the perfect festival good time band. Jose Gonzalez has come to wider attention through the use of his cover of the song “Heartbeats” in a TV ad and despite most of the audience seemingly only familiar with that song, he played a gentle set that went down well on a warm afternoon.
See you in 2020…
Written and photographed for Lonesome Highway by Nick Barber
Above: Lucinda Williams, The Rails, Calexico and Iron & Wine, Graham Nash, Rob Heron & the Teapad Orchestra and Ben Caplan.
For additional Cambridge Festival pictures from Nick check out the link below: