It's the height of summer which means several things; rain, quiet roads with no school traffic and music festivals. Cambridge this July had all three. The Cambridge Folk Festival was the first music festival I ever attended and it still holds a special place for me. I love everything about it from the train journey to the first walk through the entrance; it has a buzz. The festival itself is held in the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall, a Grade II listed Victorian country house set in a beautiful park and now owned by Cambridge City Council.
Every festival has its own atmosphere and Cambridge is Middle England personified. One of the great traditions is the broadcast of “The Archers” on Sunday morning before the music starts. Hearing those Mummerset accents and Barwick Green drifting across the site, just a mile from the colleges, is surprisingly comforting; like hearing Lilliburlero in a rainforest.
The music is, of course, excellent both in depth and range. There are four stages running Friday to Sunday, just two on the Thursday evening opener, and they continuous. At some festivals there will be afternoon and evening concert but Cambridge doesn't stop and one of the interesting things to watch is the stage crew preparing and sound checking the next act. It's not too bad when you have somebody and a guitar but for one of the bigger bands its a real piece of art yet done in a totally calm and controlled way, taking less than 15 minutes.
The organization, in general, is superb as it should be after 52 years of practice. This year I was fortunate to get a press pass so was able to get behind the scenes and I was even more impressed. I saw 60 acts over the weekend, and missed plenty more, who all had to be marshalled, fed and watered. With 14,000 visitors over four days the bins needed emptying, the toilets cleaning and everyone kept safe and happy. My admiration for the largely volunteer staff has grown enormously.
The acts I saw covered a huge range, from established stars such as Martin Simpson, Jake Bugg and Shirley Collins through to those just starting out. Cambridge has established links with both Sligo Live in Ireland and Feis Rois in Scotland, so musical representatives from both were invited along to show their talent, and didn't they just do that! The future of traditional music looks very bright, but that tradition involves plenty of people who are trying to innovate and experiment. Niteworks (http://niteworksband.com/#home), from the Isle of Skye, play traditional Scottish music but they mix it up with club beats and aren't afraid to go experimental electro and why shouldn't they? If synths and drum kits had been around 200 years ago they would have been used. If traditional music doesn't evolve, doesn't experiment, it becomes a dusty museum piece. Of course, not everyone can pull it off. I did see one electro act who hadn't figured out the difference between “can we?” and “should we?”, which was a pity.
The other thing I became aware of over the weekend is that being a musician just starting out these days isn't only the ability to sing or play an instrument; being able to make that connection with a potential follower in a time of multi-media is equally as important. On the Thursday I saw a very good performer, Chloe Leigh
It's one of those surnames that's easy to get wrong so I caught up with her after her set to check the spelling. I was presented with a professionally printed business card listing everything I needed to know; name, weblinks, facebook, twitter, soundcloud all laid out for me.
A couple of days later I saw a good duo and wanted to get some details from them too. They apologetically explained that they were going to get something set up on facebook before they'd arrived but hadn't quite managed to do so. The message here is to make life easy for your audience because you have a lot of competition.
So great music in a lovely location and an atmosphere which encourages you to enjoy yourself and gives you the ability to do so. I think the best way to appreciate Cambridge is to be mobile; don't stick to one stage but move around the site, have a listen and decide if you're going to stay or try somewhere else. That also gives you plenty of opportunities to pass the reasonably priced and very good food stalls, the market stalls and the beer tents. If Cambridge has one failing it's that they don't do as many real ciders as other festivals, but you can't have everything.
What about the other elements of a British summer? Well the lighter traffic made it easy to cross the road to the nearest supermarket for a personal Cambridge tradition of mine, the breakfast bacon croissants! As for the rain, we were particularly blessed this year...every day and there was even some wind thrown in for free. It didn't stop anyone enjoying themselves, of course. The picnickers outside Stage 1 put on their waterproofs and the children had great fun jumping in the puddles. As soon as the rain stopped, it did eventually, the brollies and ponchos were packed away and we carried on regardless.
If you only ever visit one folk festival this is the one I'd pick as it has everything and is very easy to get to using public transport, thanks to the network of courtesy buses for festival visitors. Away from the festival you also have one of the most historic cities in the country that still has a whiff of dreaming spires about it.
Of course, there are plenty of other festivals around as well, every weekend, but my next trip will be to a new one for me at Towersley, which is just a short drive away. I'm looking forward to that with Jon Boden, Eliza Carthy, Show of Hands and Ange Hardy & Lukas Drinkwater amongst many others on the bill. No doubt I'll also find plenty of new acts as well, which is all part of the fun.