Cambridge folk festival review – verve and energy in a female-focused weekend

Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge
Rhiannon Giddens, Patti Smith and First Aid Kit kicked up a storm, but with mellower moments from the likes of Eric Bibb and Darlingside this was a wide-ranging and happy festival

The folk music industry isn’t immune to the anguished debate and self-examination stemming from stories of sexism, inequality and disrespect reverberating through the arts. Old stereotypes of women providing decoration at the front while the blokes do the serious music behind were illuminated by the recent BBC Radio 2 Folk awards when all the nominations for singer of the year were women while musician of the year had an all-male shortlist.

Last year, incoming Cambridge folk festival booker, Bev Burton, made her mark by programming a day of mostly female acts, a noble gesture dented somewhat by the series of lame Americana artists. No lameness this year, though – not with the powerful voices of Patti Smith, Eliza Carthy, Peggy Seeger, Amythyst Kiah, Grace Petrie, Rioghnach Connolly, Janis Ian, Irish Mythen, Nicola Kearey of Stick in the Wheel and the Shee on the bill.

First Aid Kit perform at the Cambridge folk festival, Cherry Hinton Hall, 4 August 2018.
Unexpected venom … First Aid Kit at the Cambridge folk festival. Photograph: Keith Mayhew/Retna/

The excellent First Aid Kit weighed in with unexpected venom. Essentially a superior pop act with country tendencies, the Swedish Söderberg sisters showed a potent edge, which exploded furiously in the punky anger of You Are the Problem Here, tackling the subject of rape. Such naked emotion – and their equally bitter explanation afterwards – was one of the festival highlights, though a mean version of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill wasn’t far behind.

Patti Smith, too, proved an inspired choice of headliner. Taking exception to the smoke machine that greeted her entrance (“I’m not Metallica – get rid of the fucking smoke!”), she proceeded to surprise and entertain with an admirable set that included a menacing version of Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – donning glasses and using a prompt script to prevent a repetition of the Stockholm incident, when she forgot the words while performing in acceptance of Bob’s Nobel prize for literature. She even sang a carol, We Three Kings of Orient Are, with a stirring Because the Night and a tumultuous Gloria to close.

Patti Smith at the Cambridge folk festival.
Inspired headliner … Patti Smith at the Cambridge folk festival. Photograph: RMV/Rex/Shutterstock

The most ubiquitous – and influential – presence at the festival, though, was Rhiannon Giddens, who grasped her role as guest curator with verve, energy and invention. Aside from her majestic main-stage performance, juggling instruments, musical styles and song provenance with remarkable fluency, she popped up all over the site, doing secret sets, holding children’s workshops, leading a panel discussion on women in the music industry, while swapping anecdotes and insights with one of her primary influences, the redoubtable Peggy Seeger, whose own wit and musical passion show no hint of waning at 83.

Amid all the street theatre, storytelling sessions and workshops – everything from bodhrán-playing to knitting – the festival illustrated its social conscience with events including a discussion about mental health in the music industry. There were some lovely mellow moments, too, notably from the endearing Eric Bibb, the soulful John Smith Trio and Darlingside, a modern Crosby Stills Nash and Young shaping four-part harmonies around one mic, who – invoking the spirit of Phil Collins at Live Aid – had stepped off stage at Newport folk festival in Rhode Island to fly straight to Cambridge and be greeted as returning heroes.

Darlingside at the Cambridge folk festival, Cherry Hinton Hall, 4 August 2018.
A modern CSNY … Darlingside at the Cambridge folk festival. Photograph: Steve Ross/ROS/Capital Pictures

Glorious weather helps, of course, and with Elephant Sessions, Gordie MacKeeman, Songhoy Blues and Eliza Carthy’s Wayward Band – watched admiringly from the side by the two grand dames of folk, Norma Waterson and Peggy Seeger – kicking up all manner of happy storms, there were smiles aplenty all over the weekend.


Colin Irwin

The GuardianTramp

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