Folk review: Cambridge Folk Festival

KT Tunstall returned to charm the Cambridge crowd. Picture: Getty
KT Tunstall returned to charm the Cambridge crowd. Picture: Getty
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LIKE all good music festivals, you don’t have to stick to the main stages to hear something interesting at the Cambridge Folk Festival.

There were informal sessions springing up all over the site, budding musicians practising their open stage slots beside their campervans and buskers entertaining the bus queue at night.

However, the official programme got off to a mellow start on Thursday night with a meditative set from Willy Mason and the fragrant, indie-flavoured meanderings of Lucy Rose, before kicking off in earnest on Friday with spirited opening sets from Basque ensemble Korrontzi and Finnish string band Frigg, who moved seamlessly from collective fiddling frenzy to Nordic melancholy before ending on a non-Scandic hoedown.

Sam Lee and friends provided a change of pace with a thoughtful set of travellers’ tales related using intriguing Indo-Asian instrumentation, while anyone looking for a guaranteed chill-out could find it round at the Den, a tented hideaway on the fringes of the site dedicated to up-coming artists.

Back in the main arena, the veteran acts shone brightly, not least Irish supergroup LAPD, comprising ex-Planxty/Bothy Band members Liam O’Flynn, Andy Irvine, Paddy Glackin and Donal Lunny, and bluesy Americana singer/songwriter Darrell Scott, who turned in a terrific set, equally tough and tender.

While some crazy fools were Stripping the Willow in the heat of the afternoon, oiled by the Monster Ceilidh Band, Amadou and Mariam hit a more hypnotic groove with their Afro rock’n’roll jams before headliners Bellowhead got the crowd jumping with their idiosyncratic big band jigs and reels, spiced with Motown-meets-New Orleans brass.

As the sun beat down on Saturday, Breabach and Le Vent du Nord provided a combined Scots-Quebecois front, while Zimbabwe’s Mokoomba easily proved to be the coolest band of the festival at the hottest point of the day with their blend of southern African musical traditions and super-charged dancing.

Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span had some fan dance moves of her own to celebrate her band’s first Cambridge appearance in almost 20 years, while KT Tunstall returned to the festival for the first time since 2005 with a new album, a new band and the old infectious charm.

John Hegley opened proceedings on Sunday by swiftly disproving his claim that “poetry can be fun, but not today” with his warm and witty alphabet – and animal-themed children’s concert (adults allowed if supervised).

Following low-key sets by Heidi Talbot and Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, BeauSoleil upped the tempo with a Cajun dance party nicely shaded by Michael Doucet’s soulful vocals, while Mud Morganfield, son of Muddy Waters, brought some testifying girth to his sharp band’s Chicago blues workout.

The Waterboys were on full-blooded, at times, ferocious form, then it was left to two Scottish combos – Orcadian octet the Chair, about whom there is nothing sedentary, and Sketch, a new outfit helmed by Peatbog Faerie Iain Copeland, with unlikely disco and dubstep influences – to push the festival to a euphoric, clubby crescendo.