Cambridge Folk Festival 2022 review

Suzanne Vega tips her hat to Cambridge

By Liz Thomson

On the last weekend of July, as they have every year since 1965, when an enlightened city council decided that Cambridge – like Newport, Rhode Island – would have a folk festival, thousands of people trekked to Cherry Hinton to enjoy what is now Britain’s premier folk event. One of the biggest in Europe and celebrated throughout the world, Cambridge is a calendar fixture and its return after the inevitable Covid absence was clearly very welcome.

Some 1,400 people came to that first festival, which featured the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Shirley Collins, Bob Davenport, Peggy Seeger, Hedy West, Isla Cameron, the Watersons and Paul Simon, a late addition to the bill. Now around ten times that number gather in the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall, drawn this year by a rich and diverse programme that brought together performers from around the world, newbies and established artists, festival debuts and returnees, soloists and bands, each of whom find a place on one of the two big-tent stages, or in the Hub or the Den. It was in the Den that Angeline Morrison made her Cambridge debut, telling stories about brown people in folk music and singing to autoharp and Appalachian dulcimer. Remember her name.

The music-making spills out into the vast campsites, and of course there’s singing workshops and much besides (knitting, for example) at this vast family-friendly festival. It’s also possible to buy an exquisite hand-crafted guitar or fiddle. While many people are constantly on the move, checking out events hither and yon, many more – perhaps the majority – settle themselves for the long weekend on folding chairs and rugs, reading the papers, doing a crossword, or snoozing in the sun as they watch Stage 1 on the big screen, stirring themselves only to recharge their glasses or partake of some high-quality festival food – or, of course, for a comfort break. Everything these days is thankfully more sophisticated but there’s no escaping the lines!

By early evening Friday, everyone was happily ensconced, many having enjoyed the traditional sounds of the Copper Family earlier in the day, or those perennial festival crowd-pleasers, Show of Hands, who popped up across the site throughout the weekend. But Friday belonged to Suzanne Vega, part of New York’s so-called Fast Folk movement in the 1980s . She and guitarist Gerry Leonard played an hour-long set that featured new and old songs, including the hits “Marlene On the Wall” (the top hat was in evidence, of course), “Luka”, her extraordinary song about child abuse, and “Tom’s Diner”. Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side” also got an outing – it was a 1979 concert by Reed that helped Vega find her voice and the two played a special concert in Prague for Vaclav Havel, Joan Baez and soprano Renee Fleming completing that extraordinary line-up.

Seasick Steve – his long white beard threatening to tangle in his guitar strings – ploughed his unique furrow, previewing tracks from his forthcoming album Only On Vinyl: “That’s its title and that’s how it is. You have to go to the record store.” Sadly “events” have delayed pressing and shipping and for Seasick Steve and others we will have to wait. Not good for artists who badly need to boost their post-Covid revenue in the merch tent.

Billy Bragg

On Saturday, the sweet harmonies of Roswell were among the day’s gentle reveille in the Club Tent while, on the main stage, Welsh band VRi provided a more energetic awakening. They were followed by The Young ‘Uns, a very splendid trio from County Durham who mix sea shanties, narrative ballads, and topical songs – great harmonies and a big and exhilarating sound that, without looking, suggested a choir. They also had terrific stage presence. “Dark Water”, Sean Cooney’s song about the journey of Syrian refugee Hesham Modamani, was a highlight – sad, profound, beautifully sung. “The Day We Drank the Nazis Out of Town” was a witty and clever crowd-pleaser.

This Is the Kit’s jazz-folk fusion was not a success, though perhaps the problem lay in the sound. Spell Songs, something of a folk supergroup drawing on some very skilled instrumentalists, made an altogether more beautiful noise with their settings of Robert Macfarlane’s words. They were joined onstage by “our glorious leader”, Jackie Morris, the illustrator who worked with Macfarlane. The whole thing, nature at its heart, was perfect for Cambridge.

They were followed by Afro Celt Sound System , who’ve been creating world music for three decades now. The combination of bodhran and African drum, and the sheer energy and exuberance captivated everyone. However many Otter beers you’d downed, such a hi-octane performance was impossible to sleep through. Passenger, aka Michael David Rosenberg, received a big welcome and he certainly knows how to work a crowd. I’m just not sure I understand his success. Then again, there are many singer-songwriters who seem pretty unremarkable yet who still find a place on the stage.

Sunday afternoon was another exercise in contrasts: On the one hand Sam Lee’s studious research and masterly singing, complete with quarter tones and tasteful portamento. On the other, in-your-face Billy Bragg (pictured above), demanding the audience cheer the Lionesses and sing “Jerusalem” in their honour while rapping about transgender rights, anti-maskers (“We have to think about the common good”) and unions. The Tory-bashing went down well, of course, and it’s always comforting to be among like-minds – but we’re still awaiting “the great leap forward” and right now, as the Union fragments, appeals to English patriotism feel very uncomfortable, even though Bragg’s vision is a wholly benign one.

The Gipsy Kings, whose own roots are no less political, were a welcome release and, long before “Bamboleo”, midway through their set, the audience was clapping and dancing – a little girl in front of me in her flamenco-style dress, much to the delight of those around her. Rumba-flamenco is endlessly infectious, the big sound of those unison rhythm guitars and Tonino Baliardo’s lead, the compás and clapping, the grainy, inflected vocals of Nicolas Reyes (pictured above) – no matter that, like the blues they are mostly sad – are irresistible. So too their arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.

Beyond he scores of acts, Cambridge is about the power of community, albeit one which still attracts a very white audience. It is gentle, kindly, eco and unflash and while the flower-bedecked hats and long straggly beards can seem somewhat de trop, folkies are a welcoming and well-meaning bunch. Cambridge is a reminder of a kinder gentler time and, just for a weekend, we all returned to it.

Source: Cambridge Folk Festival 2022 review – a welcome Cherry Hinton reunion

The Cambridge Folk Festival at Home 2020

The Cambridge Folk Festival at Home 2020 will be a celebration of all things Cambridge that you can enjoy from your garden or living room.

It’s the next best thing to the popular annual Folk Festival event, which was sadly cancelled because of the pandemic.

Taking place over the festival weekend, 30 July-2 August, it will feature exclusive video content from artists, talks and workshops, Cambridge-curated playlists, and plenty of ways to join in on social media.

BBC Folk Singer of the Year Bella Hardy will lead a virtual choir workshop on Saturday 11 July, teaching you to sing The Parting Glass in three-part harmony. You’ll then have the opportunity to make a video of yourself singing and be included in the Virtual Choir, which will debut over the Festival weekend! Find more details about how you can participate HERE.

A highlight of the weekend will be the Songlines Interview, featuring Songlines Magazine editor Jo Frost in conversation with Fatoumata Diawara, which will be available to watch on Facebook.

Further talks and workshops will include a talk about environmentalism from folk singer Sam Lee, a storytelling workshop with Alex Ultradish, a movement workshop created by The Sisters of Elva Hill choreographer Debbie Norris, yoga sessions for you to join, and more.

Cambridge Folk Festival 2019: Our Team Picks 

Three of the Folk Radio UK that are heading to Cherry Hinton Hall for Cambridge Folk Festival this year tell us their top must-see acts.

Three of the Folk Radio UK team will soon be heading to Cherry Hinton Hall for this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival (1-4 August 2019). Below, you can read about the top five acts that they are each most looking forward to seeing. Between them, they came up with a great selection of acts – no easy task considering the vast lineup.

Danny Neil

Two of my eagerly anticipated appearances at this year’s festival were responsible for my favourite albums in 2018. Lisa O’Neill’s ‘Heard A Long Gone Song’ was a revelation, a record on the Rough Trade imprint River Lea mixing up traditional and original material. Her voice just sounds so lived in; an instrument that was tailor-made to interpret hardcore folk songs. She’s as serious a proposition as I’d imagine Anne Briggs was when making a name for herself in the sixties clubs and whilst Lisa may not possess Anne’s high-ranging purity of tone, her strength of character alone more than makes up for this and to misquote Dylan she “hits all those notes”. This artist is the real deal without a doubt. At ten years and four albums in I’m arriving a little late to the Lisa O’Neill party, still in the world of traditional leaning folk she is my must-see artist of the year and I absolutely cannot wait for this one.

By contrast, it seems to be rather stating the obvious to recommend a legend like Richard Thompson, but nevertheless, that’s exactly what I’m doing. And I continue to, telling anyone I know attending this year that whatever they do, they must not miss this man. Personally, I have seen him more times than I can recall, but he never lets an audience down. I’m entertaining the thought that it’s high time an appreciation is written for the last twenty years of his career alone, there’s a strong argument they’ve seen Thompson’s strongest writing and greatest performances. There aren’t too many 70-year-old music artists you can legitimately make that claim for.


Nick Mulvey is this year’s guest curator, an inspiring choice given the wide-ranging, multi-genre sounds he weaves into his music. Nick’s is an acoustic pop style that avoids the box-ticking pitfalls that hit-seeking mainstream troubadours fall down. Instead, he has the happy knack of whipping up the feel-good vibes that should find a warm reception amongst a chilled festival crowd. I also find Tunng to be a mouth-watering prospect having last caught them at a folk festival thirteen years ago when their folktronica wizardry was still in its embryonic stage. Theirs has been a musical evolution that continues to fascinate, for me a band who reward returning investigations. And on that subject, it’s vital to try out a bit of the unknown at any festival and open yourself up to exciting discoveries. If I were to choose an act on the curiosity of name alone it has to be The Bar-Steward Sons Of Val Doonican. Of course, that one could go badly wrong, but half the fun is in the finding out! [ . . . ]

Continue at: Cambridge Folk Festival 2019: Our Team Picks | Folk Radio