As the sun settled in its rightful place over the picturesque landscape, the festival grounds of Cambridge hummed with anticipation, pulsating with the haunting echoes of the hurdy gurdy.
At first glance, the 2023 line-up had us raising an eyebrow, but any reservations swiftly evaporated. CFF 2023 didn’t just meet expectations; it shattered them, delivering an exhilarating experience that lived up to its storied legacy.
Although the mandolin had seemingly taken a backstage this year, the sonorous rhythms of banjos and double basses unmistakably filled the void, painting a vivid auditory canvas for the eager attendees.
The legendary Stage 1, revered as the ‘Royal Court of Folk’, lived up to its esteemed reputation, emerging as a grand tapestry of both time-honoured legends and budding maestros. Sharon Shannon spun her musical web with dexterity, leaving the audience spellbound with her infectious charisma and precision. Each tune she played was a narrative, immersing the audience into tales both old and new.
Judy Collins, the luminary with a voice that has, for decades, captured the essence of folk, graced the stage with the same magnetism that has made her a living legend. Her crystalline voice conjured poignant moments from her iconic Wildflowers era, transporting listeners on a journey through time. The audience, drawn into her spell, felt the memories and stories behind each song. Songs that have stood the test of time, reflecting societal shifts, personal introspections, and the eternal human condition. The sheer emotion in her performance was palpable, with many in the audience glistening with tears, deeply moved by the authenticity and depth she brought to the stage. In a festival rich with talent, Collins reaffirmed her status as one of the unparallelled voices of her generation.
Fisherman’s Friends, with their robust harmonies, charted a refreshing voyage into maritime life. Their set was like a gust of salty ocean breeze, both invigorating and nostalgic. Meanwhile, The Proclaimers, Scottish legends in their own right, raised the festival’s energy manifold with their anthemic tunes that resonated far and wide.
The festival wasn’t just a homage to the traditional; it was a celebration of evolution. The winners of the Christian Raphael Prize 2022, Angeline Morrison and the Sorrow Songs Band‘s performance was a revelation, seamlessly blending tales of Black British history into the folk genre.
South Yorkshire’s pride, Kate Rusby, glided onto the stage, her presence a testament to over two decades of dedication to the British folk genre. Opening her set with a cheeky remark to her band, she exclaimed, ‘Ready boys, fasten your seatbelts!’ This playful warning was apt. What followed was a masterclass in storytelling and songcraft that only Rusby could deliver.
Endearingly referred to as the ‘songbird’ by many, Rusby’s enchanting voice has solidified her status as an unmissable gem in the British folk crown. Her gift lies not just in her pristine vocals but in her ability to make ancient folk tales feel not only relevant but urgent. After narrating a gripping tale of a woman who exacted poetic justice on a philandering would-be murderer, she playfully commented, ‘Folk music, isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it a bit of grrrl power?’
But it wasn’t just tales of yore that graced her set. Personal anecdotes, interwoven seamlessly with her songs, added layers of intimacy and authenticity. A jesting remark from her guitarist about her developing a ‘vodka problem’ during lockdown lightened the mood. Yet, true or not, it was clear as day that nothing had dimmed the clarity and tenderness of Rusby’s vocals.
Rusby effortlessly blended traditional ballads with her original compositions, delighting both purists and newcomers to the folk scene. Her Northern charm, combined with her penchant for making stories from bygone eras feel contemporary, created a spellbinding atmosphere. The audience was taken on a journey, one where time-worn traditions met modern-day sensibilities, all steered by the unmatched prowess of Kate Rusby.
The indelible link between protest and folk shone brightly in Grace Petrie’s compelling performance. A torchbearer of contemporary folk, Petrie’s fervent melodies echoed the spirit of rebellion. With unwavering commitment to her beliefs, she crafted narratives of change, resistance and hope, reminding attendees of folk music’s deep roots in social activism.
And then, cutting through the traditionalist chords of the festival, was Gangstagrass. Their audacious fusion of bluegrass and rap was a refreshing testament to the genre’s expansive boundaries. Born from the creative genius of producer Rench, Gangstagrass took the stage not just as musicians, but as emblematic representatives of cross-genre experimentation. Their sets were a bold reminder that music, at its core, is about connection and communication. By interweaving the rhythmic cadence of rap with the soulful twangs of bluegrass, they addressed social issues and shared struggles, creating an electrifying atmosphere that challenged the very definitions of folk. It wasn’t just a performance; it was a statement, echoing the ever-evolving nature of folk.
On Stage 2, The Folk Camps Party Band embodied the essence of community spirit. As their energetic chords filled the air, they became the sun summoning radiant smiles, compelling everyone from tiny tots to enthusiastic elders to their feet. The ground transformed into a sprawling dance floor, revelling in the infectious rhythms of their ceilidhs.
Nightfall brought with it new vigour, as Niteworks took command of the main stage. Melding the haunting strains of Scottish traditional music with modern electronic and ambient tones, they offered an enticing blend that left the audience both mesmerised and invigorated. Bagpipes met rave in a musical confluence that was both unexpected and exhilarating.
In 2022, the festival unfurled a rich tapestry of Welsh talent, spotlighting luminaries such as Vrï, Tapestri, Eve Goodman, The Honest Poet, N’famady Kouyaté, and the unparalleled guitarist, Gwenifer Raymond. Fast-forward to this year, and Welsh prodigies once again claimed the limelight, particularly during their dedicated showcase on Stage 3 on Saturday. The audience was enraptured by Lleuwen Steffan‘s mesmerizing guitar skills and the ethereal harp melodies paired with the angelic vocals of Cerys Hafana, marking them as undeniable highlights.
However, those in pursuit of a more eclectic blend were in for a treat. Sunday’s Stage 2 witnessed the masterful fusion of Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and the Colombian dynamism of Cimarrón. The audience was regaled with an audacious mix of men in fetish gear donning cowboy hats, enthusiastic maraca-shaking, a vocal powerhouse of a diva, and electrifying Latin-inspired tap dance sequences. It was a testament to the festival’s commitment to both tradition and thrilling innovation.
For those still nursing the remnants of Saturday night, Oi Va Voi offered the perfect tonic. Their klezmer-infused tunes, both lively and soulful, invited everyone to dance away their woes. Zohara Niddam, the lead singer, was a revelation, displaying the strength and range of her voice. Refugee was the track that lingered, encapsulating the group’s essence.
Bringing a touch of Canadian magic to the festival were the vivacious members of Le Vent du Nord. These French-Canadian maestros epitomized versatility, often juggling multiple instruments within a single song. The sweet strains of their hurdy-gurdy narrated tales of two decades of camaraderie, offering the audience a peek into the syrupy joie de vivre that binds them.
As the sun began to dip below the horizon on Sunday, reminiscent of a scene straight from Bram Stoker’s Dracula where darkness begets danger, Kiefer Sutherland took the stage. While many might remember him best as the charismatic vampire David, this evening showcased a different beast entirely. He played a mean guitar, echoing the heartbeats of bourbon-drenched Americana. Flanked by a long-haired lead guitarist, who looked as though he’d stepped straight out of a 1960s acid trip, the pair created riffs and runs that had the crowd stomping in unison. This was no mere novelty act, nor was it death by stereo. Instead, as the last vestiges of sunlight vanished, it was clear: initiation’s over, Kiefer, it’s time to join the folk club.
One of the standout performances hailed from the heartland of Canada. William Prince showcased the very soul of the Canadian Prairies with every note he strummed and every word he crooned. A proud member of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, Prince’s music isn’t just about melody; it’s an exploration of identity, of the relationship between man and nature, and of the intricate web of experiences that define the indigenous communities of his homeland.
Drawing upon these rich traditions and his personal experiences, Prince crafts tales of love, longing and redemption. His deep baritone voice, dripping with sincerity, possesses an ethereal quality, capable of connecting even with those unfamiliar with his stories. There’s an unspoken beauty in his ballads, with each song becoming a portal transporting attendees to the vast expanses of the Canadian landscapes, making them feel the cold breeze, witness the endless horizons, and sense the deep-rooted histories of the First Nations.
His performance at Cambridge was about a shared experience between the artist and his audience, making every listener a participant in his heartfelt journey.
Rufus Wainwright‘s set was nothing short of an elegant dance between legacy and innovation. As the son of folk luminaries Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, Rufus has consistently demonstrated a unique ability to bridge the gap between the traditional and the contemporary. His velvety vocals and intricate piano compositions, were on full display. There’s a poignant theatricality in Rufus’s performances; it’s no surprise given his ventures into opera and his unabashed love for Judy Garland’s repertoire.
His set at Cambridge was a testament to his multifaceted artistry. It was more a journey through the ups and downs of his life, his love stories, and his ever-evolving relationship with music. While many came for the voice they knew and loved, they stayed for the emotions and stories that Rufus so beautifully infused into every note and lyric. Once again, the teary eyes in the audience, especially during his more sombre ballads, bore testament to the profound impact of his music.
There were plenty of fare for those who got bored of banjos and pipes. Although many may not consider them to be folk, some of the loudest applause of the weekend went to Arrested Development. People Everyday got the folkies, old and young, singing along and clammering for an encore. For fans of 1970s style bass driven blues rock, Ferris and Sylvester gave it some welly in the Stage 2 tent, with Issy Ferris’s breathy yet growly vocals blending with Archie Sylvester’s softer tones.
The global spirit of folk was vividly on display with artists who infused the festival with rich international flavors. Lady Blackbird, with her transcendent voice, tapped into the very soul of classic soul and jazz. Invoking the spirit of greats like Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone, her set was a glittering masterclass in emotive vocal delivery, punctuated by songs that moved between powerful crescendos and delicate, soulful whispers.
Angélique Kidjo, on the other hand, was a whirlwind of energy, passion, and unparalleled vocal brilliance. Hailing from Benin, her Afrobeat-infused set showcased her deep roots in West African music traditions. Each song was a story – celebrating unity, love, and the rich tapestry of African culture. Her kinetic, occasionally gravity defying, dance sequences and vibrant rhythms ensured that not a single soul remained seated, making her set one of the unforgettable highlights of the festival.
Amidst the constellation of stars, Imelda May shone bright, epitomizing the festival’s emotional heart. Known for her sultry Dublin drawl, May has often been hailed as a genre chameleon, effortlessly transitioning from rockabilly to jazz. But in Cambridge, her tribute to Sinéad O’Connor was more than a mere performance – it evolved into a raw emotional journey. Each note was drenched in genuine sentiment, not just paying homage but revealing a deeply personal connection that resonated with every spectator.
The authenticity of May’s emotion, the sheer passion in her delivery, and the poignant pauses all combined to create an atmosphere that left many in the audience both moved and reflective. Through this tribute, Imelda May showcased the unparalleled power of music: its capacity to heal, stir memories, and foster deep connections.
Concluding this musical odyssey, it’s clear that the Cambridge Folk Festival 2023 was not merely an event on a calendar. It was a symphony of shared experiences, a journey through the rich tapestry of folk, and a celebration of stories that, though sometimes unsung, remain timeless in their beauty and resonance.
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