Why Cambridge Folk Festival is the new Glastonbury. 21 reasons why I’ll be going back.

First of all I’d like to ask that you leave your preconceptions of folk music at the door. I wish I’d done that a few years ago. Because I’m pretty sure that what you think, is only a tiny slice of what it’s really like.

Do you reckon you have an open mind when it comes to music? Like to hear something new? Enjoy discovering a fresh sound?

I’ve been a fan of indie rock since my teens. And that’s where, even in my 40s I still gravitate. I’ve done countless live gigs and festivals over the years. Live music has, for me, a way of opening up an artist, or a set of songs in a totally new way. I’ll come back and listen to the albums with new ears. And inevitably, with a mixed bill of musicians in any line-up, will be a way of discovering new sounds.

This summer so far has been one of extremes on the live music front. I worked at Glastonbury back in June, helping out with social media in the Silver Hayes area. Silver Hayes was previously the dance area, and still has a lot of focus on DJs and dance music. But it has evolved to incorporate bands from all over the world, often those on their way to the bigger exposure that the main stages offer. But suffice to say, there wasn’t a great deal of folk music to be heard.

Fast forward to August and I was once again found in a (not so muddy) field but this time at the Cambridge Folk Festival. To be honest, my expectations were not that high. I was expecting to see a fair number of foot tapping, fiddle playing misfits with the odd blast from the past (Joan Baez, The Proclaimers and co) thrown in. Took my Kindle and a chair for what I thought would be the inevitable long periods of boredom.

But oh my, was I wrong.

The Lone Bellow - one of a number of Americana/Alt Country acts over the weekend

The Lone Bellow – one of a number of Americana/Alt Country acts over the weekend

Firstly, I discover that the definition of folk music these days is pretty broad. The guilty pleasure that is alt country was well on display with multiple acts (The Lone Bellow and The Stray Birds good examples). Half the time those well known acts I’d planned to see didn’t get a look in as I was way too busy enjoying the yet-to-be-discovered newer acts on one of the smaller stages. Secondly, I realise that Cambridge was a right of passage for many of the acts that we have grown to know and love over the years. So acts like Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling (both of which have done so much in the quest to broaden the public perception and appreciation of folk), Jake Bugg, Beth Orton, The Staves, Kris Kristofferson, Imelda May, K.D. Lang, The Waterboys, Nancy Griffith, Steve Early, Bruce Cockburn and many more. A look through the archives shows up countless names towards the bottom of the bill (Newton Faulkner, Seasick Steve).

So I was beginning to discover that they way in which I had written off the Cambridge Folk Festival as being folk and therefore not for me was very blinkered, and pretty stupid. All these years I could have been enjoying live music (and acts I really would enjoy) in a significantly more enjoyable and comfortable environment than the big festivals I was at.

Of the many hundreds of acts on offer this year, I saw a small fraction. My top tips from the up-and-coming brigade would include Seafret, Ward Thomas, Jake Isaac (really not folky at all but played a festival appropriate pared down acoustic set), The Emerald Armada and Sorren Maclean. The better known names that I really enjoyed included Nick Mulvey and De Temps Antan. I missed all sorts of fabulousness in Frank Turner, John Butler Trio, The Unthanks and more. But honestly, I really was having such a good time exploring. One tiny stage showcased total unknowns and I was distracted by the very youthful Alba playing her own and a series of covers (Teardrop was particularly beautiful).

Treacherous Orchestra: It's folk but not as you know it

Treacherous Orchestra: It’s folk but not as you know it

The act that truly blew my preconceptions sky high was Treacherous Orchestra. Think traditional Scottish Music meets ACDC (picture 12 black clad rockers on bagpipes, fiddles, pipes and an enormous drum kit) and you have it. No me neither so go check them out. The place was rocking. And only at Cambridge would you be overhearing a conversation about which mode the music was in (Mixolydian, Lydian, Dorian etc) in the middle of an ear splitting gig.

Anyhow, Cambridge is now on my list well above Glastonbury. And for those of you who have Glasto on the bucket list, I’d urge you to reconsider. The BBC does such a good job of painting it as the ultimate festival, but honestly, I think you might well enjoy Cambridge more. And if you need a little more persuasion, here’s my list why:

  1. Total respect for the music – while the acts were playing, there was hardly ever any talking from the audience. And at the end of each song, the applause was loud and genuine. So many of these artists must play in support of big names and are used to being ignored and talked over whilst people wait for the main act. This level of respect (and it was very genuine too) was altogether more enjoyable, both for those watching and for the artists themselves.
  2. Cross the entire site in 10 minutes  – not enjoying the artist you are currently watching? No problem, have a wander and stick your head inside another half dozen tents all within a few minutes walk. And if, like me, your back cant’ cope with much standing, throw down a blanket or one of those ground level chairs with back support – you’ll normally still have a good view of the act, especially in the smaller tents.
  3. No mud – yes I got a good year without rain, but the stages are all under cover with plenty of space for sitting (on the ground – chairs are only permitted outside)
  4. Easy access to the front – with the average age pretty, well middle aged, there’s not exactly a crush for the mosh pit. But it did mean that you could easily get a really good view of your chosen acts whilst the “day trippers” sat on their chairs eating from their Waitrose hampers on the grassy areas outside the tents.

    Ice with my drink!

    Ice with my drink!

  5. The chilled out vibe – now Glastonbury is often described as the “nicest” festival, with a really chilled out vibe, but I do wonder how much that is to do with the passive smoking of weed that pervades the site, and the not inconsiderable amount of other drugs that are consumed. Cambridge (much to my surprise as I was expecting a Woodstock/Cannabis feel) is more your chilled rose and gin and tonic set. With plenty of cider and Guinness  for the traditionalists. I loved the way that the event was chilled out without the substance abuse. People dozed in the sun between acts and it generally felt as if the world had slowed down.

    The chilled out vibe that is Cambridge Folk Festival

    The chilled out vibe that is Cambridge Folk Festival

  6. The rapid turnover between acts – stage resets and sound checks on the bigger stages were about 20 minutes, on the smaller stages far less. It meant that you got to see far more in a day. And the sound checks were refreshingly simple. “Can I hear myself? Can I hear the rest of the band? Can you hear me? Great: Let’s go”

    Multiple acts finishing off a taster showcase on Stage 2

    Multiple acts finishing off a taster showcase on Stage 2

  7. The Club Tent and Smaller Stage Tasters – local folk clubs run a tent with a broad mix of artists and Stage 2 did a great taster session where each act is given about 10 minutes to perform a couple of songs before rapidly handing over to someone else. It meant that early on in the weekend you could scope out a lot of artists before choosing who to go and see later.
  8. Flush toilets – need I say more?
  9. Laid back security – there’s a no glass rule but otherwise you can bring in all the food and drinks you want. The bag check was a cursory pat down and once each day was underway there was barely checking of wrist bands. I think it’s simply that with such a law abiding demographic, anything more heavy handed was simply not needed.
  10. Audience interaction – such is the nature of folk that the interaction with the audience really added to the show. Guest performers also added something different
  11. Repeat acts – lots of the acts play on multiple stages over the weekend – missed someone good on one day, go and see them the next instead
  12. Easy access to the site and hotels near by – none of the 6 mile queues around Shepton Mallet here. Free shuttle bus to a car park if you don’t fancy the 10 minute walk, plenty of camping for those that want and easy access in and out of the venue. We stayed in a cheap hotel within walking distance.
  13. No litter – there wasn’t the need to reinforce the “Leave not trace” message. People simply cleared up after themselves. It made for a much more pleasant stay for everyone.

    Happy Folk Festival camper

    Happy Folk Festival camper

  14. Friendly atmosphere – not only are the punters a friendly, chatty bunch, but the artists would hang around after each performance and sell CDs, and chat to people. There simply wasn’t any room for celebrity egos. It was also refreshing to see, on the smaller stages, the artists lugging their own gear, and working with the in-house sound engineer to plug everything in
  15. It’s really small – whilst the festival tends to sell out, it doesn’t mean that there are huge queues everywhere. It feels like the right number of people for the space. And if you don’t want the large crowds of the bigger stages, head over to The Den or the Club tent
  16. Loads for kids and teens to do – music, drawing, juggling crafting and dancing workshops – some led by performers at the festival – were on offer throughout the weekend both on site and in the mornings at the camp site. We really didn’t see bored or out of control children. The atmosphere itself was so calming that the kids picked up on that vibe and if you happen to have a musical prodigy in the family – where better to have them immerse themselves in live music? Check out the little Vine I took below.
  17. It’s a place to be discovered, and to improve yourself – I had arrived on day one, frankly appalled at the number of guitars being lugged around on site. Had assumed that there would be a lot of camp fire strumming going on. But again I was wrong. There were multiple workshops for people to work on their craft as musicians. And opportunities on the smaller stages for amateur musicians to perform (with a chance of a bigger slot later in the festival). It turned out that a load of the people wandering round with instruments were actually performers themselves, but were without roadies and crew. A far cry from the demanding “riders” of the bigger festivals. It really was a place to immerse yourself in a musical culture (of course the roots of folk music in the far reaches of this country are from those places where music was quite literally all around you and the only entertainment and a form of social currency).
  18. It’s not all folk – I reckon you could spend a whole weekend and not have to see the more traditional folk stuff. You’d be missing out a little, but with the hundreds of performances available there really is something for everyone.
  19. The impromptu nature of the genre – you felt like anything could happen. I watched a punter play a piano (yep – random piano in the corner of the beer tent) to accompany his mates who were playing giant Jenga.
  20. It’s not expensive – from £55 for a day to £150 for the full festival (plus concessions). Drinks were reasonably priced and there was plenty of choice of food for a few pounds.
  21. The new take on the old – yep, there was a fair bit of traditional fiddles, bodhran and foot stamping – but somehow you can have that and it is still rock and roll (if you do nothing else having read so far, check out Treacherous Orchestra). But it all went down well with the audience (many of whom were simply Cambridge locals having a great time). And there were some very neat takes on the traditional that brought it bang up to the minute. It also struck me how much in common folk music has with the dance genre – the repetitive beats, the almost hypnotic quality of the upbeat numbers.

I quietly chuckled at the sheer quantity of White Stuff frocks on the women, the immense queue for the FeverTree Gin and Tonic bar (and yes, they did have ice), the gay abandon with which the local academic fraternity got down in the ceilidh. But it was unselfconscious, really no one else was bothered by your cheesy dance moves – in fact, they added to the spirit of the thing. And I loved how much people were clearly enjoying music that they were unfamiliar with – you didn’t need to be a “name” to find listening ears here. And I suspect a lot of the acts went home a little more encouraged to pursue their dreams.

It was a very “white” festival which is a shame. I guess the roots of folk are pretty white, and Cambridge isn’t really known for it’s racial diversity. Yes, a black headliner in Joan Armatrading, and the very occasional other non white performer, but most of the pundits were white British and predominantly middle class. I wonder if there might be space for a world music stream to add into the mix? It would certainly help balance the old school folk.

As a marketer it does make me wonder if they’ve got the branding all wrong. I lost count of the number of conversations I had in the months before the festival with friends that are musicians themselves, or real advocates of live music who had written off the event because of the folk bit. I feel like I need to explain the folk stuff, apologise for it even. I know my friends would have loved it.

So this little blog post is written for them really. It’s my attempt to return next year and have a ball with all of them.

So Cambridge Folk Festival. Thanks for the blast. I’ll be back. The question is will you join me?