This was my sixth Cambridge Folk Festival, and I was much more ambivalent about the lineup this year than I have been in previous years -- not to mention worried about whether it would be enough to convince addedentry of the Folk Festival's potential fun factor (see what he thought!). I was looking forward to Idlewild, and Kate Rusby, but I'd seen both before and the rest of the people playing were a mixture of the people who appear every year and the people I'd only vaguely heard of. The Folk Festival is relaxed enough that there's a fair amount of fun to be had from just sitting in a field with a pint of ale and listening to pleasant music in the background; but as the date drew nearer and the weather looked wilder, I started to wonder if the whole thing would prove to be a dreadful waste of 60 quid.
I needn't have worried. Despite a slightly disappointing Thursday night (Martha Wainwright was merely okay, and Hayseed Dixie would have been fun for about 20 minutes but after 40 the joke was really wearing thin) the Festival proved to contain as good a mixture of music as ever, and apart from a bit of drizzle on Saturday night (just enough for us to don our umbrella hats) the weather was fine. Of course, this meant that the gazebo army was out in force, setting up chairs and tables and even tents (you think I'm joking) in the areas outside the stages so that it was near-impossible to navigate some areas of the site; but it also meant that we could sit on the grass and tap our toes while resting our tired legs.
The main draw (and I'm not talking about the pleasant herbal smell that wafted through the air) for me this year was Idlewild, though I suspected that their "acoustic" set would just be an ordinary set with quieter guitars -- a noisy indie band looking lost without their amps. I was wrong: despite Roddy Woomble's admissions of nervousness at playing to such a different type of audience, they came across as a confident alt-folk band, complete with fiddles and accordions, hats, and an Edwin Morgan poem set to music. The songs from the most recent albums made a lot more sense in this context, and earlier songs (including a pleasingly jangly and melodic "When I Argue I See Shapes") were given a convincing reworking.
Most of the rest of the lineup were much as expected -- Kate Rusby never fails to delight, KT Tunstall sounds like the Radio 2 playlist staple that she's rapidly becoming (and I don't mean that in a bad way), Karine Polwart was still singing the same songs as last year but was still sensitive and engaging, NOI.D. were still sparkling with trad folk fervour (and it's good to see they've remained together through GCSEs and girlfriends). Kathryn Tickell (first rule of folk: female musicians have to be called Kate or some variant thereof) was also lively and entertaining, and it was great to hear her playing one of the tunes she'd attempted to teach us at the fiddle-playing workshop on Friday morning (worth getting in at 10:30 for!).
More surprising highlights of the weekend included: Blazin' Fiddles, who were a barrelful of bounce-up-and-down fun; Laura Cantrell, whose gorgeous pop-country actually made me wish we'd got close enough to the stage to see the person producing such a crystal-clear sound; the Unusual Suspects, who sounded like a giant brass-section-enhanced folk session; and Bellowhead, who sounded more like I had expected Unusual Suspects to, huge and flamboyant and dynamic. (Bellowhead are fronted by the tried and tested pairing of Spiers and Boden, who've unfailingly impressed me at previous Folk Festivals.)
It seems slightly odd to compare the Folk Festival to Glastonbury, but the festivals' ranges of music are converging enough that it's not quite the comparison of, oh, chalk horses and Richard Cheese, say, that it might once have been. This year saw the Folk Festival adorning its tents with garishly-coloured giant inflatable puffballs like those in Glastonbury's dance area, though there appeared to be a total lack of the non-musical circus-style happenings (at which Glastonbury still excels) that have taken place in previous years; I'm not convinced this is a good trade-off. The Folk Festival certainly suffers by comparison with Glastonbury in some ways (many things do, despite the truth of kaet's recent incisive comments); but it matches the music in quality if not in quantity, and what it lacks in size it gains in intimacy and accessibility. The beer's better, too, with the Portable Pub Company providing Badger on tap; but the point where the Folk Festival really beats Glastonbury hands-down is this: is has flush toilets. Sometimes it's the little luxuries that make all the difference.