Cambridge Folk Festival, Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge

Fun with the civilised folk
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The Independent Culture

With its on-site internet café, morning t'ai chi sessions beside the duck pond, and a quality of basic infrastructure that ensures a maximum five-minute queue for a pint or a pee, the 37-year-old Cambridge Folk Festival continues to stand out as one of the most civilised events in its field.

"Civilised", however, certainly doesn't imply any shortage of fun, as attested by the festival's recent track-record of selling out progressively earlier each year, all 10,000 tickets this time having gone by late June. It's simply that the fun is mostly of the relaxed and mellow, rather than rumbustious and manic, variety, most of the audience spending most of the time literally laid back on the grass before the two main stages, soaking up the sounds along with the sunshine and liquid refreshment, as hordes of sun-hatted children toddle about having their own mini-adventures.

A considerable buzz this year surrounded the presence of Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings (Real Live Rolling Stone At Folk Festival Shocker!), and with a 12-piece line-up also featuring Georgie Fame, Albert Lee, Martin Taylor and Gary Brooker, their set of classic jazz and blues certainly delivered the goods. OK, so maybe they weren't exactly stretching themselves, but these guys coast at a very high level.

Likewise boasting a dozen-strong entourage was the Irish-Mancunian flute-and-whistle genius Mike McGoldrick, tipped by many as a Matt Molloy of his generation. After a blistering acoustic set on Friday, backed by fiddle, guitar and bodhran, he returned next day with the heavy artillery, adding bass, drums, keyboards, accordion and brass, plus the Irish-American singer Karan Casey's bewitching guest vocals. The resulting instrumental assault carried all before it, deploying equal parts power and sophistication in its seamless, densely layered synthesis of traditional melodies, contemporary dancefloor rhythms and jazz-funk work-outs: one of the most adventurous yet intelligently configured sounds currently to be heard in any genre.

McGoldrick also appeared as a regular touring member of Capercaillie, who underlined their standing among Scotland's premier contemporary-Celtic ambassadors with a superbly polished yet red-blooded performance, adroitly balancing barnstorming jigs and reels with the cool but tender radiance of Karen Matheson's Gaelic vocals.

Still in a Celtic vein, the Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon, Galician bagpiper Carlos Nunez and young fiddle/ pipes-led Nova Scotian outfit Slainte Mhath collectively turned in a string of brilliantly exhilarating sets, highlighting not only Celtic music's increasingly internationalist nature but also the dominant creative health of instrumental-based sounds within its sphere.

Among the vocal contingent, Bill (Belinda) Jones, named as best newcomer at this year's BBC Folk Awards, combined fine technical control with a lovely bittersweet tone but a dearth of emotional conviction.

The last has never been a problem for Loudon Wainwright III, who keeps getting better with age, digging ever deeper into his heart and psyche for material and continuing to hone his lyrical gifts, as evinced by a set that provoked alternate gales of laughter and lumps in the throat.

Suzanne Vega, too, eloquent-ly stirred the heartstrings – certainly of those who still hold dear her mid-Eighties releases, which she mostly raided for Sunday's set, proving the enduring mettle of songs such as "Small Blue Thing" and "Gypsy" in the facility with which they wore the recast inflections of a voice now some 15 years older and wiser.

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