Live Reviews

Cambridge Folk Festival 2023: Live Review

Cambridge Folk Festival offers exhilaration, eclecticism and excitement from a festival older, by 5 years, than Glastonbury.

Cambridge Folk Festival

I bloody love Cambridge, me, despite my low attendance record over the years, a paltry, including this, three times. But, after the hurly-burly of Glastonbury, this just felt, you know, like home. With weather predicted neither too hot or too wet, the tidings bode well, as did a superlative line-up, stretching, as ever, the limits of folk to new and ever more surprising limits.

Folk? Well, I’m with Louis Armstrong* in my definition, which means I am happy engaging both with unaccompanied trad as I am with the full onslaught of, well, we’ll get to that.


The day was already fraught with logistics, with diversions across the city and more red lights than the Reeperbahn, leaving me checking in too late to catch one of my must-sees, the mighty Gnoss, reviewed here recently. I’m told they played a blinder; indeed main man Aidan Moodie confirmed that point to me himself, once I had the chance to apologise, despite their unearthly 5pm opening slot for the whole shebang. Likewise, Flyte fell under my actual footfall in the park, arriving just in time for Symbio, who, with their fiddle and hurdy-gurdy line-up suggested archetypal Cambridge fare. Far from it, as with a surely augmented instrument, Johannes Hellman ushered a veritable electronic orchestra out his medieval looking machine. Lars Öjeberget may have had a fairly conventional set up for his fiddle, but was also able to provide some sonic reverberation through his stompbox. This is free ranging instrumental music, using the tools applied as merely the starting point, to provide a haunting (hauntological?) soundscape both futuristic as well as firmly entrenched in the past. In a way, very reminiscent, stylistically, of the works of Archie Churchill-Moss and Tom Moore. magnificent stuff, the duo making a fair few new fans.

A beer and back to the same 2nd tent, the only one open for this opening night, for Ibibio Sound Machine, whose afro-sound system (no Celt), surely exemplifies the inclusiveness of this years festival. Awash with Nigerian rhythms: drums, African percussion, bass and, initially, korego, together with a three piece brass section, doubling on synths and programming, there was a sufficiently hefty slab of bedrock there for Eno Williams to joyously add her wide throated vocals to. (Korego? Think ngoni, but, duly taken to task by its player, Alfred ‘Kari’ Bannerman, it seems it’s a different gourd!) With gourd then switched for guitar, this was as uplifting a way to spend an hour or so as I can recall, the bouncing tent thinking similar. Many of the tracks came from last years Hot Chip produced ‘Electricity’, with Williams’ exuberant effervescence, coupled with reminisces of the background to the songs, and of her own personal heritage, adding to the overall sense of celebration. An hour or so whizzed by in a cauldron of cool vibes, leaving me fit for nowt but my tent.

STOP PRESS: Safely there ensconced, the Coldham’s Common campsite late night silent disco this night was provided by Symbio. Except it wasn’t silent, the duo ramping up the dance in their electronica, beats now far more the fore, which was the perfect lull off to nod. Sweet and weird dreams.


Dawning decent, with no signs even of a cloud in the sky, all was well with the world. Briefed to catch the estimable Maddie Morris, and her peerless voice, she was here part of the English Folk Expo set, as one of the artists granted a year of mentoring from the worthies involved therewith. I could only catch the first half of her short set, ahead of having to keep a date with Blue Rose Code, aka Ross Wilson, making a reluctant farewell to her. White hot from the ground running, Wilson’s shoes seemingly burnt away from his ardour, no prisoners were sought or contemplated, as he produced a belter of a show, high octane and high voltage. Where the introspective and angsty singer of years gone by had gone, Lord only knows, but he and his band knocked the stuffing out of an upbeat set, channelling prime time Van the man into his appealingly idiosyncratic songmanship. Sure, such comparisons have been made before, also John Martyn, but that was a moody, maudlin Celtic Van, this was knock yer socks off early Van, rock’n’soul city central. With songs of a calibre that Mr Morrison hasn’t been able to summon up for decades. Jings, ahead of a bevy of his own material, he even started with ‘Amazing Grace’, some chutzpah for barely midday, before pummelling an exhausted audience into astonishment by closing with a WTF (was that) version of Benny and the Jets, it taking moments to grasp the song, it sounding as interpreted by the E Street band. His crack band, with guitar wiz Lyle Watt his trusty lieutenant, were terrific, augmented, as is now usual, with triumphant trumpet and sax, and it was all a sense of beat that, Cambridge!

Over on the other stage, Jinda Biant was making a lower key storm, but with no less presence, an affable Sikh toting a glorious semi-acoustic, and inhabiting some classic country blues: Good Night Irene, songs of that ilk, with many of his own. Not many players get to the delta via Indian classical music, but that was his journey, with a crack rhythm section to scaffold his mid-afternoon mississippi shades. One to watch. The contrast then for James Yorkston and Nina Persson was quite intense, their slot hitting just the spot in the balmy summer sun, his friendly burr and her ice cool chill a surprisingly decent fit. Yorkston began on piano, switching to guitar, while the ex-Cardigan was largely impassive, vocals apart, and the occasional broad smile, usually during Yorkston’s song introductions. Surprisingly conventional songs, almost fitting the bill of a stage show, it wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea, or what either have done elsewhere and before, but, time and place, this day, perfect.

Back to the big stage for a replendently red-gowned Eliza Carthy, and her splendid Restitution Band. We reviewed the album here, this show largely of songs drawn therefrom. A good record, it came to even greater life in the flesh, in no small part to the obvious enjoyment the ensemble were having. The David Delarre, guitar, and Saul Rose, melodeon, show was particularly engaging, as they bounced, literally and metaphorically, across each other. Mention must also be made of the extraordinary gown worn by bassist, Ben Seal, which, had his bandleader boss allowed it, might have drawn attention from her. But, having the time of her life, she was having none of it, and from ‘Snows That Melt The Soonest’ to ‘Good Morning, Mr Walker’, a blast it was, start to finish. Plus the odd tear as we recalled her ma, Norma, her Auntie Lal and even Sinead. And I daren’t miss out ‘Whirly Whorl’, “we all love a song about shagging”, cueing her trademark filthy laugh and an audience singalong.

Egypt’s Ayoub Sisters were then giving a slightly over smooth folk world fusion for my ears, uber smooth strings revisioning sometimes overly familiar tunes. My notes suggested “film music”, but maybe it was the time of day, which led also to a big misjudgement, causing me to miss Lady Blackbird, who apparently nailed her early afternoon slot, people referencing her set all weekend thereafter, citing both the aural and visual wallop projected. It meant a gap and a mosey around the site, pleased to see how little has changed over the years, the marquees and bars largely where they have been of late, the marketplace as quirky as ever and the food stalls as enticing. Prices, inevitably, have risen, but were broadly valid and believable. (The yardstick of many is the pint; £6 here, so cheaper than Glastonbury!) People all friendly and up for a natter, whether reminsicing over past years or anticipating later highlights.

Early evening had the feel of a party, so Siobhan Miller‘s set was just the ticket. Her evocation of a lively central belt music pub had everyone singing and swaying, as songs both familiar and new, very much as her album, segued and swirled together. Ideal for the build of the evening, with traditional favourites like ‘Wild Rover’ sounding, in the flesh, more believable than on record, given she is such a fresh-faced lassie. A familiar fare of Scots trad with that broad hint of Country and West End (of Glasgow), the audience were getting well primed.

So who would have thought that esteemed L.A. hip-hop rappers, Arrested Development, were folk music? Fun trying to imagine the meeting when that was first pitched, it proved a sainted decision, the roof of the marquee fair lifted off into the stratosphere. New, its true, to me, bar reputation, I dare say the same may have been true for the inquisitive crowd filling the area, perhaps the oldest, greyest and whitest audience the band have ever encountered. (Sorry, Cambridge, it’s true, however much the demographic shifts slowly downward.) Within seconds it became clear this was going to be talked about for years, as the crowd exploded, a heaving sea of glee, the stage not dissimilar. An extraordinarily tight band, with the guitarist, J. J. Boogie, toting the best beard, and some of the best riffs, of the weekend, that aspect alone was stupendous. But add in the turntables of One Love, capable also of some fiery rap, and the vocal skills of Fareedah Aleem and April Allen, and the inevitable focus of frontman and group originator, and main vocalist, Speech, and a splendid time was both guaranteed, gauged and given. Aleem won extra points aplenty from the aghast amazement of observers, as she threw her frame about the stage with a remarkable abandon. Wonderful, wonderful stuff, and may I now say my line about how, for many present, their earlier understanding of hip-hop may have been that gait between hip replacement surgeries….? OK, maybe not. But what a show, how to headline and some. (Second stage bill-toppers Stornoway were yet to play across the way, but, when they did, I remembered they weren’t my bag back then, in their first existence, let alone now, for their reformation. Not a criticism, just personal taste, meaning my sleeping bag was ready for my wilting body).


When CFF announced some changes to their scheduling, earlier in the year, deciding to lose some of the staple of, and sometimes even staid, local folk club involvements at the third main stage, there was a brief flurry of social media concern. I confess my fear was more that the legend that is Brian McNeill might also have become surplus to requirements. Praise be, that was not so, he popping up on a number of occasions, as well as keeping his 3 plus hour session on the Saturday afternoon. The burly ex-Battlefield man has always utilised this slot to promote and put forward new blood and new life, both from those already appearing and many who officially weren’t, in particular his unbridled support for Fèis Rois. This is a longstanding western highlands and islands institution, to foster the music and culture of the Gaelic community, the Gàidhealtachd, and every year he brings down the cream of their current crop of young players and singers. This year was no exception, and never fails to bring a tear to the eye of this writer, being of Hebridean lineage, as they take turn to play, individually and collectively, wondering which present will be back in the future, as members of the next wave of Gaelic bands to break through, of which there is currently a flood. The next few hours were spent dipping in and out of this delight.

Had it not been that Angeline Morrison was playing elswehere I would have stayed, but she was, and I was, no way, going to miss that. I think it fair to say her record, and project, ‘The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience’, was one of last years outstanding releases. A tall and imposing woman of colour, Birmingham born, based in Cornwall, she has a voice that could charm the dead, often with a mournful lilt, fitting, perhaps, to her repertoire. Part history lesson and, for the greater part, more a collage of stunningly presented songs, in a live seting she is anything but the starchy sobersides such work might suggest, being a wryly aware enough individual to know how to deliver best her damning testament. Aided by Clarke Camilleri on guitar and banjo, last night seen as Jinda Biant’s bassist, Hamilton Gross on fiddle and the wonderful Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne (Granny’s Attic) on concertina and melodeons. Morrison also played, mainly, autoharp, and all added their vocals to hers. In turns moving, joyful, uplifting and incendiary, it was a highlight of the whole festival. Highly, highly recommended.

Back to the big man, Mr McNeill, to find Orcadian beserkers The Chair on their double fiddle folk rock whirlwind, more of whom later, a great taster duly provided. The delightful Annie Dressner then gave a short 3 song set, her acerbic New York singer-songwritery making new friends. Now resident in the UK, besides her own stuff, check out her recent collaboration with David Ford. Next up was Nigel Wearne, an affable Aussie, who had appeared on Thursday and was also offering workshops over the rest of the schedule. Accompanying himself on banjo, his agreeable songs appealed greatly, as did his playing and between song patter of his homeland outback. A luthier also, with most of his instruments made by his own hands, I was sorry to miss his apparently exemplary slide guitar playing. He also wears a very fine line in shirt!

Le Vent Du Nord have a reputation for stealing shows and I can see why. Now into, just, their third decade of existence, Nicolas Boulerice omnipresent since 2001, the current five piece seems now fairly constant and well-gelled. Wild acoustic frenzies are their metier of these Québécois musicians, built on French Canadian traditions, themselves not that far removed from the more southern francophone styles of their Louisiana cajun cousins, if a little more frenetic still. Fiddles, squeezeboxes, guitars, bouzoukis, and the second appearance this weekend of hudy-gurdies, all appear, their raggedly proficient vocal harmonies all adding to the melée, with the constant patter of footwork to maintain the momentum. At any one time, up to two of the players will have a board under their feet, specifically for that purpose. A perfect mid-afternoon fillip, it all every bit as good as the show we caught recently.

I hadn’t necessarily meant to catch the Julian Taylor band, but glancing sidewards as I walked past the tent, I caught sight of a familiar face,, sufficient to draw me in, that proving to be a bit of good fortune. For, on bass, there was the irrepressible Michelle Stodart. Another Canadian, the Cambridge /Canada links as solid as ever, Taylor plays a form of what I would call So.Cal. blues and soul, with hints of Terence Trent-D’Arby about his style, his timbre and, to an extent, i.e. braids, his appearance. Narrative songs, all tinged with a social conscience, it prove for a diverting and pleasant unexpected interlude. On lead guitar was another familiar face, Rae Husbandes, the Moulette, who so enriched the Levellers Collective live shows of earlier this year. I didn’t catch the name of the drummer, another female, who gave as good thump as anyone all weekend.

I gave Gangstagrass only sufficient time to bolster my prejudice, i.e. nearly no time at all. Yes, enough to confirm that their bluegrass instrumental credentials are spot on, as well as, now the expert after the night before, their rapping. Just not in the same cup of tea. Unlike Breabach, always welcome in any cup of anything, popular always on this site. It seeming only five minutes since seeing them before, at Wickham, last year. It is fair to say that any new boy tremors that may then have been shown by Conal McDonagh, have long since evaporated, his role as joint pipe and whistle man, along with Calum McCrimmon, seeming now set in stone. Megan Henderson sang and played sweeter than ever, perhaps mindful that her baby daughter was backstage, and needing some sleep, with proud dad Ewan Robertson also on top of his game, on guitar and second vocal. (Sir) James Lindsay, hardest working man in Scottish music was just, no change there, magisterial. I was lucky also, after their performance, to personally compliment McCrimmon on yet another wonderful pair of tartan trews, from his extensive collection.

Most festivals would feel that more than enough, but, still in daylight, the festival kept giving. Next up was Barnsley’s finest, Kate Rusby, seen many times over the years. But it was almost a shock, in a good way, how she and the band have progressed and evolved, last years ’30’ galvanising not a few changes in direction, some perhaps stimulated by Hand Me Down, the covers album of a couple of years earlier. If I say the show was electric, that is true on many levels, not least the array of axes on hand for the perusal of erstwhile banjo man, record producer and husband, Damien O’Kane. He is still the last two, by the way, but he had a rack of electric guitars, telecasters and all that, to put many a guitar hero to shame, using them all and effectively, as duly noted by At The Barrier co-owner Mike Ainscoe here. Likewise, melodeon man, Nick Cooke, spent a fair old amount of time on electric rhythm guitar, whilst further guitar duties were on hand for Lost Boy lynchpin, Sam Kelly, no slouch himself, his faithful sky blue guitar making me look all the more forward to round three of False Lights, his electric band with Jim Moray, due in the Autumn. On keyboards, bass(es) and his feature bass moog was ex-Treacherous Orchestra basement room ballast, Duncan Lyall, the band rounded out by Josh Clarke’s drums. Most of the songs came from these two albums, all with the singer’s endearingly gauche introductions. A highlight was actually the “men/boys” instrumental wig out, with bags of welly, with some later lighter fare to balance that, with the banjo coming out eventually. Do you like my new direction? Yes, please.

I wasn’t sure about Rufus Wainwright. ‘Folkocracy’, the album, his 50th birthday gift to himself, I like, even if a bit of a curate’s egg. If this was going to be the main source, we would be OK. Trying to outdo Ms. Carthy the day before, he was in a long blue number, split up each leg, to show off his striped ankle socks, a powder blue scarf about his neck. His backing singers were in similar, his large band likewise, if less identity uncertain. To start he seemed a little brittle, nervous even, it taking until he strapped on a guitar for him to seem more relaxed. Apart from a slightly off-piste diversion, to indulge the more Broadway operatic side of his coin, thankfully he stuck largely to Folkocracy, the trickle of audience members leaving, as he strayed, perhaps sufficient for him to return to script. Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ and the Mamas and Papas ‘Twelve Thirty’ perhaps went down best, but I preferred his chilling take on ‘Down By The Willow Garden’ and the chilling ‘Going To a Town’. With Anohni on the album, here utilising step-sister, Lucy Wainwright-Roche, present as one of his backing singers, it is a gallingly beautiful song, actually one of his own. Towards the end we got a reprise of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, a third version of the event, after the Ayoub Sisters yesterday and Kate Rusby earlier. By the end I think it fair to say he won over any uncertainty, and I left with a greater respect than I arrived.

And still there’s more! Probably fair to note the composition of the audience undertook some radical redistribution at this point, with, shall we say, a more energised quotient replacing those satiated by Wainwright’s ennui. Niteworks are huge in their homeland, and can sell out Barrowlands in an instant, with England slower on any such investiture in the brand. They have played Cambridge before, if lower on the bill, so it was a vindication for me to see them getting this headline slot. Of course, I am a fan, and fully converted to their cause, hefty slabs of techno, to use the old money, leavened with the best of Gaelic song. With only an hour or so available to play, Allan MacDonald had earlier told me they would be concentrated more towards bangers than ballads, and that showed itself to be the case. Dark outside, they utilised the full backdrop of the lighting available, belting their tunes out in alternate shadows and harsh glares. Hardcore house electronica might not seem the obvious backdrop for bagpipes, but, believe you me, it is, fitting like a skean dhu in a gartered socktop. Honorary fifth member, Fiona MacAskill and her fiddle, were also present and correct, she coaxing both traditional melody and treated walls of sound out of her instrument. Cherry picking from all three albums, four if you include the debut EP, the set was wide-ranging, Gaelic songs taken by Ellen MacDonald, no relation, with Beth Malcolm voicing their entry into lowland and central belt Scots traditions, with her, and their, visceral version of broadsheet ballad, John Riley. Malcolm had also appeared in the previous days Showcase Expo event, for Scotland. Ruraidh Graham bashed the living daylights out of his part traditional and part electronic drums, the pounding rhythms insistent, with bass man, Chris Nicolson giving it all his too, when not himself at the array of synths and sequencers. Final member, Innes Strachan, in charge of electronics and programming, has always seeme to avoid the spotlight, now grasping it like a pro, shaven head gleaming in the lights as he strains and sways over his equipment. You could tell the infusion of support from the enraptured throng was maxing up their confidence and the set went from high to higher. All has to eventually end but, when it did, Skye had surely conquered the fens, with Graham’s, in particular, glee at their performance spilling over, and out of his shirt, as he swung himself on his bandmate’s shoulders. Wonderful/iontach!!!


Rain, rain, go away the story of the day. Well, it did, briefly, enough for me to disassemble my tent, but it was a steady dreich early morning to close, this having some inevitable bearing on the unfolding day. Needing a change from the mayhem of the night before, I had been pointed toward William Prince, another Canadian, or, more accurately, a member of the Peguis First Nation. A battered about brick shithouse of a man, in denim jacket and a bashful yet baleful countenance, it was just he and his guitar. And a problem, initially, with his sound engineer, turning his response and reaction to the false start into an impromptu song. With a voice midway between Steve Earle and James McMurtrey, his songs come out in a cosy and well constructed narrative, with an engagingly conversational style. Clearly a thoughtful and sensitive fella, if not unfamiliar with the wild side, or so he hinted, when he came to dedicate. a song to the memory of John Prine, this was another clear touchstone. I hadn’t heard him or of him before; I now have most his albums.

And then it was the rain that made me investigate Oi Va Voi more than any careful planning, glad then that I did. A nominally klezmer band from North London, whilst retaining the full gamut of Jewish musical tropes, covering both bar-mitzvah bangers and more exotic Sephardic traditions of Southern Spain and the mediterranean, they are a product of the “fusion everything” movement of the turn of the century, wrt world music, and are so unafraid to add in elements of ska, dub and even metal. Soaring vocals and searing violin, each courtesy Anna Phoebe, trumpet and clarinet, the latter from leader, Steve Levi, himself also a suitably vibrant baritone voice, all rounded by a guitar, bass and drums rhythm section. Mention has to go to Michael Vinaver, the guitarist, who could mix flamenco, reggae and hardcore riffing into, often, the same tune. A decent find.

Some repite back at tent three, another showcase, this time for Ireland. Only managing to catch a couple of artists, Gráinne Hunt and Síomha, the former I really took to. With a style, voice and demeanour reminiscent of Nanci Griffith, she has a striking presence, not least when she covered Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Mandinka’, in tribute. Síomha had an altogether different presence, echoes in her range of a mix of the jazzier notes of Joni, crossed with a more innocent Mary Coughlan, with a guitar style resonating that former name. I wish there had been greater opportunity to take in more these sessions, one each for the four UK nations.

Neeeding sustenance, Judy Collins serenaded my late lunch, showing her voice little changed over the five plus decades since her versions of songs by that same Joni, by Leonard Cohen and Dylan were regular radio staples. Impossibly of its time, the people at my table seemed bemused by it all, my having to raunch her up a bit, by pointing out she was the Judy in Stephen Stills/CSN’s Suite Judy Blue Eyes. They had heard of him. at least. More impressive than memorable, though, overall.

Remember The Chair, yesterday? Well today was their second full slot, they having gone up against Niteworks last night, a slot they were never going to win. Looking a little the worse for wear, they nonetheless rattled off a tremendous and rousing set, a maestrom of fiddles, mandolin and accordion, with a bottom line of acoustic guitar, bass, drums and percussion. Eight of them, so quite the wall of sound, with mischevious fiddle maestro Douglas Montgomery, throwing in some wah wah into the eightsome reels and strathspeys. A mellower moment was provided by the rich tones of Brian Cromarty for their version of Tom Waits’ shanty, ‘Shiver my Timbers’. Cromarty, the mandolin and banjo player, doubles also as the other half, with Montgomery, in the less frenetic duo of Saltfish Forty, but today was strictly dancehall.

Kiefer Sutherland was next. Yes, you read right, Donald’s boy, he apparently “always” first a singer songwriter. A tight band, plying competent session-man Americana, made him possibly sound and seem better than some of his material. Great tatts, mind. Talking of looking good, over in the second tent, Hollie Cook looked blooming marvellous, in billowing satin, plaits, shades and Docs. She and a three piece band issued forth a dub heavy set of reggae, which sounded a whole lot bigger than the four souls on stage, not least as the keyboard player was mixing dub effects live, with a keyboard top gizmo, the guitarist doing the same with foot pedals. Stupendous, really, as were the powerhouse cacophonies coming from the drumkit. Cook, daughter of Pistols drummer Paul, has class and form here, with a breezy and bright vocal tone, making for another splendid booking in this eclectic festival.

Just about hanging on, I reckoned I could manage one last act. Hell, I had to, Elephant Sessions up there with Niteworks as the two giants of neo-trad, each here to make up for Culloden. Hard funk fiddle music is how I had explained them to those uncertain, when asked, and that is what they gave. Which fails, of course, to mention the huge part played by mandolinist, Alasdair Taylor, whose unmistakeable silhouette is as much a trademark of the band as the sound they produce. Playing near every track from last years release, For The Night, they were in orbit from the huge thump of drums and rumble of bass that opened proceedings, and, indeed, most tunes. Greg Barry (drums and samples) and Seth Tinsley (bass and synth) are the driving force for Taylor’s mandolin and Euan Smillie’s fiddle to dance in the sky. Sort of like a melodic electrical storm, heavy both on thunder and lightning. For the second time in 24 hours, the Cambridgeshire turf was shaking, inviting Richter scale estimations. With an additional guitarist filling out the sound, name unremembered (sorry), this was a blast. One brief respite came as Smillie and Tinsley gave a slow burn to a lingering air, moog bass the sonic subtext to the fiddle, Barry adding some rudimentary taps. But it couldn’t last, those other present returning to the stage to knock yet more stuffing out the White Heather club. The nameless guitarist gave it full axe warrior on the closer, earning impressed looks both from the rest of the stage and the arena, surely earning himself some credits next time around. A wonderful ending to a wonderful four days entertainment. I had to miss Angelique Kidjo, losing thus both my planned start and finish for this lustrous event, which was a huge shame, blame traffic and knees, failing also to catch a late Sunday appearance by Granny’s Attic. Next time maybe, as, for sure, I’ll be back. Folk? I should cocoa.

* “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” Louis Armstrong.

Cambridge Folk Festival: Website / Facebook / YouTube / Twitter / Instagram

If you would like to keep up with At The Barrier, you can like us on Facebook here, follow us on Twitter here, and follow us on Instagram here. We really appreciate all your support.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.