Cambridge Folk Festival, Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge

Folk memories
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The Independent Culture

It was all the Queen's fault. Such was the prevailing consensus around the 38th Cambridge Folk Festival, which, having enjoyed a good two decades of consistent fine weather in its regular, late-July slot, this year shifted its dates by a week – a belated side-effect of the Jubilee holiday – and got roundly rained on for its pains. Clinching the case against Her Majesty, the previous weekend – when Cambridge's loyal 10,000-strong crowd would otherwise have been congregating in the leafy grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall – had been customarily hot and sunny, whereas the festival itself was punctuated by cloudbursts of near-biblical ferocity.

It was all the Queen's fault. Such was the prevailing consensus around the 38th Cambridge Folk Festival, which, having enjoyed a good two decades of consistent fine weather in its regular, late-July slot, this year shifted its dates by a week – a belated side-effect of the Jubilee holiday – and got roundly rained on for its pains. Clinching the case against Her Majesty, the previous weekend – when Cambridge's loyal 10,000-strong crowd would otherwise have been congregating in the leafy grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall – had been customarily hot and sunny, whereas the festival itself was punctuated by cloudbursts of near-biblical ferocity.

Thankfully, however, the rain interposed only periodically between long stretches of sunshine. Add in Cambridge's famously laid-back ambience, and a high-quality programme even by its own exalted standards, and the result was a sublime four-day weekend.

Nearly 50 acts to choose from necessitated much muddy shuttling between the three stages, but the effort was rewarded by a plethora of standout performances. Among the Celtic contingent, the fast-rising stars Malinky gave a sterling send-off to their new second album, Three Ravens, with their all-acoustic Scots/Irish marriage of tight, vibrant instrumentals and outstanding lead vocals. The phenomenal Give Way, four sisters from Edinburgh aged 13-16, wielding accordion, fiddle, keyboards and percussion, proved themselves worthy current holders of the BBC Young Folk Award, combining fiery modern attitude and ceilidh charm with scarily precocious élan.

Fiddler's Bid, a seven-piece from Shetland fronted by four young champions of the islands' trademark instrument, comprehensively raised the roof with their gorgeously orchestrated melodies and heavyweight rhythmic drive, while Salsa Celtica demonstrated just how far and happily Scottish music can travel, splicing together a big-band Latin party groove with cheeky touches of fiddles, bagpipes and whistles.

In the Irish corner, both the long-distinguished Altan and the hotly tipped newcomers Slide joyously paraded the inexhaustible riches of their native song and tune traditions – inexhaustible, that is, when interpreted with the abundance of empathy, appetite and personality displayed by both bands. Cara Dillon continued her apparently unstoppable ascent towards the pantheon of great Irish singers with a brace of bewitching performances, stylishly backed as ever by brothers Sam and Seth Lakeman on piano, guitar and fiddle. Erstwhile honorary Irishman Mike Scott, however, leading an acoustic version of the new Waterboys line-up, sounded vocally like a straitened facsimile of himself, lacking his characteristic range and command, while the arrangements were hampered by heavy-handed piano and fiddle work.

Flying the home flag, meanwhile, the singer, fiddler and famous folk progeny Eliza Carthy unveiled her new duo project with the Cambridge-based accordion demon Martin Green, a mainly instrumental collaboration that digs gleefully into the guts of an adroitly chosen English, American and Scandinavian repertoire. Fellow- local boys Ezio, peddling powerful, original songwriting and a virtuoso twin-guitar attack, may still be struggling for the wider recognition they deserve, but their commanding set ensured a vociferous reception. Less so, unfortunately, for Romania's celebrated gypsy ambassadors Taraf de Haidouks, whose mad, manic and marvellous performance failed to grip the main-stage crowd simply because you need to see them for their unique sound and swagger to work its spell, which is tricky in a tent full of thousands of standing people.

Last, but far from least, this year's American delegation was headed by the triple big guns of John Prine, Iris DeMent and the Indigo Girls. Each in turn served up their own richly seasoned helping of big-hearted songcraft and bruised lyricism, while the banjo-picker extraordinaire, Alison Brown, leading her slick jazz-inclined quartet, took her much-maligned instrument to places few would have dreamt they could go.

The discovery of the weekend, though, was Quebec's La Volée d'Castors, a six-piece maelstrom of Acadian/Celtic tunes and ballads, forging their own distinctive path along the trail first blazed by their compatriots La Bottine Souriante.

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