Cambridge folk festival, Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge

Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge

"As this is an experimental festival, we're going to try out a new song," said Joe Strummer, as his band the Mescaleros eased into a rumbling, reggae-influenced bass line and yet another edgy piece, Get Down Moses. The crowd, squeezed into the covered area in front of the stage to escape the rain, cheered in approval.

What has happened to Britain's best-known folk festival? The organisers have clearly noted the success of Womad and decided to become as eclectic as possible. So this year's line-up included former punks as well as traditionals, blues artists and country singers.

It led to some startling programming. The highlight came early on Saturday evening. Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, along with their daughter Eliza Carthy, appeared as part of Blue Murder, a close-harmony vocal group (it also includes Norma's brother Mike Waterson and that fine trio, Coope Boyes and Simpson). Their stirring repertoire veered from gospel to country and sea shanties, and a favourite of the late Lal Waterson, Some Old Salty.

The next band on stage sampled Lal Waterson's original recording of that song, but in a very different context. Until now, Chumbawamba have been known for their musical and physical attacks on politicians and their rousing anthem Tubthumping. Now they have undergone a transformation. They are still a slick, synthesised political cabaret band, but they have discovered folk music, and the new album Readymades includes samples of people from Coope Boyes and Simpson to Davy Graham. Thoughtful new songs such as Salt Fare, North Sea and Jacob's Ladder made a bizarre contrast with Alice Nutter's drunken nun routine, but this was a genuinely original performance.

As for the rest, there were blues from Cambridge favourite Eric Bibb and the gutsy Holmes Brothers, solo country ballads from Iris Dement and folk-rock from the Oyster Band. Strummer matched the old Clash hits and reggae favourites with his thoughtful new songs on asylum and multiculturalism. This was a line-up that didn't deserve a downpour.


Robin Denselow

The GuardianTramp

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