The weekend before last was the Cambridge Folk Festival; I've never yet been to a bad Folk Festival, but this year we were particularly lucky with both the weather and the music.
The highlight for me this year was Richard Thompson: he's always a joy to listen to whether he's with his band or (as this time) accompanied only by his guitar; he's got a back catalogue of hits that could fill a four-hour set (never mind the strictly-no-encores hour on stage one which was his lot); and this time he was on jolly good form, taking us on an emotional rollercoaster from the inevitable tears at "Beeswing" and "1952 Vincent Black Lightning", to the creepiness of "Cold Kisses", to a modern-day music-hall number about the continuing competence of his c*ck. Hmm. Still, given that mere seconds before the show I had been holding forth to my companions (with only the picture in the programme as proof) to the effect that RT was still fully qualified to be my man, I felt thoroughly vindicated.
I suspect for many people, however, the star attraction of the festival was Emmylou Harris -- also still sexy at nearly-sixty, but you're not allowed to say that about women, because it trivialises their artistic merits. Not that anything could trivialise her voice -- such bright-shining clarity and strength that, frankly, she could sing the phone book and it would have still been spellbinding. I loved the Neil Young cover ("Mother Nature") without recognising it as such (not being a big Young fan) but for me, the a cappella numbers were the best bits -- particularly the encore, "Bright Morning Star", with harmonies that quite rightly brought the house down.
Not quite on the same global scale, but The Broken Family Band always go down particularly well with the home crowd, and this time they were so good that we saw them twice -- once on the main stage, and once in the club tent, where they were so damned hot they nearly caught fire. Great guest vocals too from Eddi Reader (the first time) and Emily Barker (the second time) in the excellent sing-along anti-love-song "Alone in the Make-Out Room" (the one that begins I want you to die with my hands around your throat / or with me in the castle and you in the moat...).
There's nearly always one new band who make me want to race out and buy all their albums (hurrah!), and this year it was Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. Being named after "Lanark" is the recommendation that you think it should be, though you might not have predicted a quartet of gorgeous girls singing traditional Geordie folk songs. Strong voices, gloriously unflinching harmonies, and a great stage presence. They also win the award for the best soundcheck of the festival, as keyboardist Belinda O'Hooley subverted the folk agenda with piano renditions of hits of the 80s under cover of testing the microphones.
A quick roundup of the rest: Cerys Matthews was good but not as exciting as I'd hoped; Eddi Reader did an enjoyable set including a rousing rendition of "Charlie is my darling" and the predictable but still fun audience-karaoke of "Perfect"; Van Eyken (led by Tim van Eyken of Doctor Faustus) seem to be as good as Doctor Faustus (which honestly isn't meant to be the damning-with-faint-praise that it may appear); Chumbawamba (performing an acoustic set this time) have become less angry, but on the plus side, this means you can hear their words; Nickel Creek are fine but they don't really live up to the Radio 2 hype; Teddy Thompson isn't as interesting as his father; and the Anna Massie Band (who we only went to see because of the sounds-a-bit-like coincidence) were jolly good.
• Rachel Unthank and the Winterset [also see myspace]
• The Broken Family Band [also see myspace]
Reviews of the festival:
• addedentry reviews more concisely from his own perspective (by which I don't just mean being able to see over people's heads)
• sion_a has some interesting thoughts on definitions of 'folk'
• A more balanced review from the Independent, but hey, they get paid to do this properly