Folk: Crowds in thousands to Cambridge come in for the fair

THE MUSIC begins before any of the three stages are reached. Walking along the pathway through the wooded campground that leads on to the site, the sound of tootling flutes, fiddles firing up and accordions wheezing into life can be heard; a merry idyll in the summer heat and a reminder that at Cambridge there's as many musicians off-stage as there are on.

This year's 10,000 capacity crowd enjoyed a mellow convivial atmosphere where the trappings included standard (t'ai chi, body-painting) and more sophisticated (free 24-hour online access for all, and wine sold in glass bottles) festival fare. But this is one annual gathering where the attention is directed more to the music than most. From its inception Cambridge has embraced a broad definition of what constitutes a folk artist. So it was this year with festival regulars like Loudon Wainwright and The Oyster Band guaranteeing a mood of revivalist fervour while newcomers like the astonishingly accomplished Tarass and young Orkney Islanders Shooglenifty sought new hybrids between modern and traditional forms (anyone for Acid Croft?).

With Sunday's big attraction Kate Rusby in the ascendant there were several great female singers throughout the weekend. On opening night Norma Waterson established her credentials as the lioness of native English song and on Saturday Galway's Delores Keane proved more than capable of wearing the mantle for Ireland - her robust declarations of undying love suffused with a proud eroticism.

Steve Earle's little sister Stacey was a deliciously sprung contrast - her lithe elasticated vocals spun tight around the brooding country soul and sly insinuating grooves supplied by her husband-and-son backing band.

The second stage tent was packed for Eric Bibb Duo, but even those left outside found his beauteous Deep South delta grooves resonated all the more deeply in the sweltering heat.

Back on the main stage, fire, magic and exuberance came in equal measure from Donegal band Altan, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh's voice ringing in bell like rapture, the concentrated duelling and lyrical precision of the band showing that traditional music doesn't have to be staid but at its best is constantly seething and reinventing itself.

The sedate but appreciative afternoon crowd was now on its feet. Hal Ketchum unleashed a secret weapon - his merciless but brilliant guitar player Phillip Donnelly who provided a mercurial backdrop to his cool delivery of unerringly perceptive songs.

That wasn't enough to soften up grumbling diehards for the evening's rank outsider - Nick Cave - as they sloped off to find sessions striking up around the campsite and beer tent.

Those that stayed for Old Nick's ravaged performance, filled with dread and (folk) devils weren't disappointed. The hand-clapping, roof- raising, spirit-soaring finale provided by gospel legends The Blind Boys of Alabama that followed suggested the festival programmers were touched by both genius and a wicked sense of humour.

Highlights from the 35th Cambridge Folk Festival, presented by Billy Bragg in the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall, will be broadcast on BBC 2 tonight, 11.15pm