Cambridge Folk festival review – a safe but charming return

Deep into his Sunday night main stage set, Billy Bragg is halfway through one of his oldest hits, Shirley, when an ecstatic roar spreads rapidly through the crowd, all the way back to the food stands: the England women’s football team have won the Euros final. It’s no disturbance to Bragg – to the contrary, he’s been receiving constant updates on the match throughout his set. Whooping and yelling, he immediately leads the audience in a rousing rendition of Jerusalem. Having already ranted passionately about trans rights, global warming and male violence, he expounds on why we should all rejoice in England’s win.

It’s an apt microcosm of a thoroughly good-natured event. Cambridge Folk festival is essentially celebrating its very survival after the pandemic, and the audience flocks to tai chi and willow-weaving workshops to discover, with no small sense of relief, that the easy charm that has sustained this compact festival for 57 years has been unharmed by a two-year hiatus.

That’s partly because this year’s is a relatively safe bill, one heavily reliant on the tried-and-trusted names with none of the edgy Nick Caves or Julian Copes of recent years. Instead, there is Clannad, now into the third year of their farewell tour; the feverish Spanish rhythms of Gipsy Kings; Show of Hands leading the crowd in rousing choruses; Seasick Steve thrashing out his inimitable blues with characteristic eccentricity.

Seasick Steve.
Thrashing out his inimitable blues … Seasick Steve. Photograph: Aaron Parsons Photography

Warmly applauded for her top hat before she has even sung a note, Suzanne Vega delivers a consummately intimate set that even includes a fetching cover of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. It would have been the festival’s best cover version were it not for the Spooky Men’s Chorale’s wondrous reinvention of Bohemian Rhapsody as a saucy cowboy song. The reliably entertaining Australian choir also provide the weekend’s most emotional contributions with two traditional Ukrainian songs.

Where Cambridge Folk gets adventurous is in its more global-leaning bookings. Afro Celt Sound System have been through a myriad of changes since Simon Emmerson dreamed up their groundbreaking mix of Irish and African music in the mid-90s, but the spectacular sight of Johnny Kalsi attacking his dhol drums still stirs the blood. N’famady Kouyaté from Guinea is a highlight, attacking his balafon – a resilient form of wooden xylophone – with impressive frenzy while a large band blazes away behind him. There’s sheer joy, too, in the exhilarating Chilean band Chico Trujillo, and the ebullient American roots rockers Dustbowl Revival, full of big, chunky brass and an exceptional singer in Lashon Halley.

Dustbowl Revival.
Ebulliant … Dustbowl Revival. Photograph: Aaron Parsons Photography

That said, looking back often proves fruitful. The Mary Wallopers invokes the raucous ghosts of the Dubliners and the Pogues to startling effect and Scotland’s Elephant Sessions lift the roof with relentless Celtic rock of an older vintage. New band the Magpie Arc show that old dogs can learn new tricks with venerable acoustic guitar master Martin Simpson going electric. Meanwhile, the unaccompanied Copper Family – the most venerable name in English traditional song – showcase their newest generation of family singers. The song may remain the same, but the telling is all.


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