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Cambridge Folk Festival, music review: The evergreen festival where the Morrisons and Cashes are at home


First held in 1965 - five years before Glastonbury came along - the Cambridge Folk Festival is very much the greybeard of the summer music scene, and while it may not be the last word in innovation, for sheer class and integrity, it can't be beaten.

Endless reinvention of traditions is the name of the Cambridge game, and “Folk” doesn't begin to cover the full range of what's on offer at Cherry Hinton Hall - the Festival's sylvan setting on Cambridge's eastern outskirts - which in its 50th year extended to a top-of-the-bill performance last night by Van Morrison.

The great Ulster soul and bluesman - at 68, active for even longer than the Festival itself - was in tremendous voice,   embellishing his performance with sax solos that tingled spines throughout the main-stage arena.

In trademark fedora and dark glasses, he'd equipped himself with a backing band whose playing was magnificently assured, The Van Morrison groove was very much intact, never more so than in gorgeously relaxed renditions of crowd favourites “Moondance” and “Brown Eyed Girl”.

More than a hundred acts featured over four days, with Kate Rusby, Seth Lakeman, Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson standard-bearing for England, and Eddi Reader, the Peatbog Faeries and The High Kings providing the vigorous Celtic flavours without which no Cambridge would be complete.

But Cambridge could never be accused of insularity, and the main stage on Saturday night featured two outstanding US visitors in the satirist supreme Loudon Wainwright III and one of the greats of country music in Roseanne Cash.

Cambridge was looking back and so were both these performers. They each had family in mind. Cash - oldest daughter of Johnny - invoked the spirit of a Civil War-era ancestor in one William Cash in an immaculate set that moved seamlessly from country to blues. It contained a spine-tingling moment in her rendition of that most heart-rending of country classics “Long Black Veil”, with its Hardyesque portrayal of love, loyalty and betrayal.

Loudon Wainwright III has no peer as a chonicler of family life in all its joys and sorrows. We've heard a lot about his relationships with his musician offspring Rufus and Martha, but here he introduced us to a new character in his late father Loudon Wainwright Jnr - a newspaper columnist whose work his son read from. A piece about the death of the family's pet dog was hugely touching and beautifully performed (entirely from memory).

In the meantime the caustic and brilliantly funny “The Morgue” - addressed to a dead ex - was taken from Wainwright's latest album and showed that his songwriting skills are as sharp as ever. That was also a virtue vividly displayed by the Canadian singer-songwriter Lindi Ortega. With her flowing black tresses, red lipstick, and a dress decorated with images of human skulls, Ortega looked like a character out of a David Lynch movie. Her laconic wit and tales of late-night lonesomeness hit the mark every time. And she got a wonderfully rich sound out of her electric acoustic guitar.

Accumulated wisdom was everywhere you looked at Cambridge. That’s its real genre.