Cambridge Folk Festival
at Cherry Hinton Hall Grounds,
Cambridge, England
(28-31 July 2005)

Anyone who's been to the well-organised Cambridge Folk Festival before will know what a relaxed-yet-vibrant atmosphere it offers, and that the range of music on offer is hugely eclectic. This year's festival was no exception, with musicians checking in from England, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, America and Africa.

Working your way through the crowds is a feat that usually involves negotiating picnic rugs, piles of empty drink cans and families relaxing in camping chairs. With your festival programme in hand, you eagerly thumb your way through its pages, working out which tent to head for first -- and you know you're in music heaven! My festival attendance was limited to July 29-30, but what an array of music I enjoyed.

First gig was by the phenomenal Scottish folk/jazz orchestra, the Unusual Suspects, the brainchild of musical directors Corrina Hewat and David Milligan. The Main Stage was packed with a standing crowd, and the gig was a riotous frenzy of glorious sound (fiddles, pipes and brass competing with the most insistent of percussion and rhythm sections). This gig was performed without even a sound check -- and you wouldn't have known it, though if anything, I'd have liked the volume to have been a little louder to feel the impact of superb sets such as "Fiddle Frenzy," "Bass Strathspey" and "Bulgarian Ceilidh" even more deeply. A great reception from the crowd, and Hewat and Milligan led the whole beautiful shebang with considerable aplomb and enjoyment.

Next up was Mercury-nominated Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall. There were hordes of her fans in attendance -- you felt decidedly squashed as more and more people piled into the main tent to listen. A superb set it was, too -- though there was absolutely NO new material to be enjoyed by those who go to her gigs regularly. However, Tunstall and her band have meshed beautifully and play an exciting, polished, punchy set. Tunstall makes good use of her Akai Headrush loop pedal, and there's excitement in the crowd when she does so. Her voice is dynamite, and she was on top form, working her way through cracking British chart hits such as "Black Horse & the Cherry Tree," "Other Side of the World" and soon-to-be-a-hit "Suddenly I See." Perhaps most breathtaking of all were "Stopping the Love," with superb keyboard, trumpet and cello solos, and a brilliant rendition of "Heal Over," effortlessly interspersed with a gorgeous snatch of Annie Lennox's "Sweet Dreams." All captured on film by the BBC's cameras, and greeted with huge applause from the crowd.

I found Saturday's gigs much more satisfying listening, however. Xose Manuel Budino's afternoon set was a revelation. Having enjoyed his excellent CD Zume De Terra, I was able to anticipate the blast of Galician fusion I was about to hear, but nothing could prepare me for the aplomb and sheer showmanship with which he carried it all off. His 5-piece band was a powerhouse of sound -- drums, percussion, bass and electric guitar meshed sublimely with Galician bagpipe, low whistle and electronic sound archive samples collected half a century ago and pumped through the main tent's speakers at volume. It was a formula that had an instant and palpable effect on the audience, who got into the groove straight away and danced for an extremely enjoyable hour to Budino's exciting brand of Spanish-Celtic fusion -- full on tunes such as "Galo Galan," "Nos" and "Danza dos Arxinas." Budino's use of archive sounds is exciting (his music features the voices of Galician workers of over half a century ago); his stage presence is sexy, and he connects well with his audience. He's an accomplished piper and low whistler and plays with huge flourish.

Karine Polwart and her band took to the stage next, and played a set of beautiful, lyrically inspired songs to an attentive, communicative audience. Karine has an easy, friendly rapport with her crowd, and intersperses her compositions with lively, intelligent and genuinely witty conversation. Last year she played in Cambridge's Club Tent -- a place where newcomers get the chance to shine. This year she graduated to Main Stage, and deservedly so with her sublime album Faultlines picking up award after award -- her song "The Sun's Coming Over the Hill" scooped BBC Radio 2 Folk Song of the Year -- and was performed here to a pretty stunned audience. Songs such as "Daisy," "Only One Way" and a wealth of beautiful new songs (Karine is not a musician who seems content to perform the same old material over and over again) made a huge impact on an appreciative crowd -- and, buoyed by a successful singing workshop earlier on Saturday, Karine soon got THIS crowd singing along. This is a singer-songwriter who's fast approaching a pinnacle of satisfying creativity. Her band, comprising Steven Polwart, Mattie Foulds, Kev Maguire, Inge Thomson and Aidan O'Rourke, was on tight, lyrical form, and this set was a pleasure to witness from start to finish.

Scottish band Blazin' Fiddles burst onto the stage next, and this fast-paced combination of five fiddles, one guitar and a keyboard really meant business. This is a band genuinely suited to the festival format, and they launched into a heady set of jigs, strathspeys and reels with no delay whatsoever, barking orders at the crowd to clap and cheer along at regular intervals. Guitarist Marc Clement had to re-string his guitar at the beginning of the set, but the band played on around him, heedless of the interruption. Andy Thorburn was in his usual element bashing out jazzy sounds on his keyboard, whilst the fiddlers -- Allan Henderson, Aidan O'Rourke, Catriona MacDonald, Bruce MacGregor and Iain MacFarlane -- thrashed out tunes relentlessly. It was great to see the BBC capturing all this afternoon's gigs on film -- they will hopefully produce excellent coverage for the television programmes to be broadcast in the UK in a few weeks' time.

My festival ended with a visit to the Club Tent, where Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis (from the Scottish Hebridean island of North Uist) was performing a showcase set -- and this was a delightful performance. She sang a range of songs from her beautiful solo album Mar a tha mo Chridhe, accompanied by bouzouki, acoustic guitar and fiddle. Besides possessing a voice at once cool and sublime, Julie is a fine instrumentalist in her own right, and this afternoon she played Scottish small pipes and whistle. The audience was less than attentive to begin with, but as the set progressed, a hush descended, peoples' attention became fully focused on the stage, and you could have heard a pin drop by the time Julie sang a glorious puirt a beul set, topped off with an exquisite and unaccompanied Gaelic lament, with Eamonn Doorley adding vocals during each chorus. The audience's applause at the end of the set justified her refreshing and moving performance.

Cambridge Folk Festival is highly recommended to anyone wanting to experience live sounds alongside like-minded souls. But it's essential to book your tickets as soon as they go on sale!

- Rambles
written by Debbie Koritsas
published 27 August 2005