Live | Cambridge Folk Festival 2019

‘Good to see you again, folks!’ read the screens next to stage one on Thursday, the opening evening of 2019’s Cambridge Folk Festival; a not unfounded assumption that audiences return year after year. Thursday night has traditionally been a soft launch to the weekend but this year sees unprecedented numbers getting an early start on the sunshine, eating, drinking, wicker-weaving, dancing and music to be enjoyed. A not-very-cryptic ‘secret set’ listed on the programme ushered a couple of hundred into and around the Den, the Festival’s emerging talent venue, for what everyone correctly assumed was Guest Curator Nick Mulvey’s first of three sets for the weekend. Mulvey first played the Den in 2012 and returns this year having invited raft of musicians from around the world to take part in the line up. 

(Nick Mulvey, photo Ben Willmott)

On Friday Mulvey’s set on the larger stage two gave voice to his approach to this curation. In keeping with songs of his own like ‘We Are Never Apart’ during which he rallied the audience to sing along with the line ‘paint the earth, paint the earth on me’, Mulvey championed the current environment x music festival crossover by extolling David Attenborough’s presentation at Glastonbury this year: “we’ll become active in the ways that we need to by falling deeply in love with reality, then we’ll protect what we need to.” Combining reflections like this with songs like ‘Myela’, ‘Unconditional’ and ‘Anthropocene’ lent each of Mulveys sets the quality of a lullabaic call to arms. 

The trio of headliners on Friday evening’s stage one set a dangerously high bar, beginning with the enigmatic José González who thanked the crowd, played the hits and got off stage with efficiency. A cover of the 1929 hymn ‘I’ll fly away’ was one of those unexpected festival moments you’re never ready for and can’t quite believe is happening. Following the legendary Graham Nash were Calexico with Iron and Wine, the latter longtime collaborators having recorded, and embarked on touring, their first album ‘Years to Burn’. Sam Beam of Iron and Wine asks if the audience are emotionally exhausted from the day’s music, having heard some for himself: “well too bad because we’re going to play some more songs for you.” Not nearly enough songs, with a set cut abruptly short, but which included tracks from the collaborated album as well as the Iron and Wine classic ‘Naked as we came’. The collaboration embarks on the european leg of their tour in November.

Saturday was all about the Den. Joshua Burnside serenaded with modern folk tales set in a northern irish context; brimming with memory and a quieted anger, with a reminiscence of Sufjan Stevens in both sound and style. Rosie Carney’s deftness belied her years, both in her musicianship and in dealing with an overly enthusiastic heckler in the audience. Carney’s most-played song on Spotify, ‘Thousand’, brought the audience to a hush, and her haunting treatment of ‘Girls just want to have fun’ confirmed that Carney is one to keep an ear out for.

An Index on Censorship hosted discussion in the Flower Garden saw journalist/songwriter Jade Cuttle and Dan Tsu of Lyrix Organix ask “what next” for the Festival, and for arts events more widely, to keep engaging in a way which affects change. The conclusion was that it’s all in the programming; a focus on integrating activism within a fusion of genres. Perhaps this means that in future years discussions like this will find themselves better publicised and in more central venues in future Cambridge Folk Festival programmes.

Sunday’s stage one opened with Roo Panes (accompanied by Josh Flowers and Samuel Glazebrook); his introduction revolving around some astounding but forgotten statistics about how many millions of plays his songs currently enjoy on music streaming services. His recent collaboration with anti-slavery charity International Justice Mission saw his song ‘Warrior’ paired with a narrative music video. Utterly charmed and primed for a final day of sunshine and live music, the audience left his set, which included the familiar ‘Home from home’, ‘Tiger striped sky’ and ‘Thinking of Japan’, and seemingly most of the several hundred immediately joined the (lengthy) queue for his CD signing session. 

From the clean cut Roo Panes to the…slightly less clean cut Jack Broadbent, whose only UK set this year happened on stage two and was the standout discovery of the day. Joined by his father on bass, the Milton Keynes-born blues slide guitarist spent most of the first 15 minutes sassing the photographers and bringing the audience to tears of laughter. ‘Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more’ the audience sang with Broadbent at the end of his set, our words in total contradiction to the relentless applause which followed.

(Jack Broadbent, photo Rich Etteridge)

Closing the Festival for team FFS was duo Stables in the Den, whose twinkling low-fi pop-folk was a perfect match for the warm glow (and at this point, low energy – even the compère is forgetting bands’ names) of the final evening. It’s been an uncertain year for Cambridge Folk Festival, having changed hands again to be back in the care of Cambridge City Council, and the absence of references to the twinning with Newport Folk Festival and of the Folk Festival’s paid membership club was noticeable. No mention either as to who might be Mulvey’s successor as Guest Curator for the 2020 Festival, and it’ll be interesting to see how the curatorship continues to evolve around the people who take it on – certainly this year proves that it can’t be a package deal, and instead needs to fit around the contours of each individual curator’s connections and calling. The heart of the Festival remains steady; even if this year its limbs had some growing pains.

Words: Angeline Liles
Photos: Ben Willmott and Rich Etteridge