Where many Irish music giants started
Michael McDonagh was at this year’s recent Cambridge Folk Festival, an event that has always been popular with Irish acts and music lovers and one he’s been going to since the 1960s. It made him think about what’s changed…and about what’s stayed the same
On a beautiful sunny afternoon I arrived full of nostalgia at Cherry Hinton Hall Cambridge last weekend for the 52nd Cambridge Folk Festival. I was here to take in the festival and see my old friend Christy Moore headline on Saturday night.
Christy had been one of my first clients in 1969 when I got into the music business and I vividly recall coming up for the first time in 1970 with Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty (Humblebums) and have been countless times over the years. When I arrived on the site back then I remember coming across a group of Irish musicians enjoying an impromptu a session of jigs and reels on the grass in front of the bar tent, my first encounter with the remarkable Chieftains, who were on the bill on the main stage that year.
They were just relaxing having fun playing together over a drink absorbing the unique atmosphere of Cambridge. I wondered what it was that generated this atmosphere and made this festival so special and how it had managed to survive over so many years, to be such a success. This year was no exception, as like every year for the last 23 it had completely sold out.
The very first Cambridge Folk Festival was in 1965 headlined by an Irish group, The Clancy Brothers, with a young Paul Simon performing a short set earlier on. It was fitting that it was Irishman Van Morrison who came and topped the bill for the 50th Anniversary and over the years Cambridge has always had a close affinity with Irish musicians and performers.
So many giants of Irish Music have appeared at this unique annual event, often before they were famous, returning when they were established as huge stars.
Christy himself first came with Planxty in 1973, whilst the list of Irish talent has included The Dubliners, The Johnstons, Sweeneys Men, Andy Irvine & Paul Brady, Stockton’s Wing, The Fureys & Davey Arthur, De Danann, The Doonan Family, The Pogues, Mary Coughlan, Patrick Street, The Whiskey Priests, Clannad, Storm, Mary Black, The Saw Doctors, Altan, Sharron Shannon, Sinead Lohan, Hothouse Flowers, Brian Kennedy, The Waterboys, Lunasa, Damien Dempsey, Four Men and a Dog, Cara Dillon, Sinead O’Connor, The High Kings, Danu and so many more. This year was no exception as Glen Hansard stole the show on Friday night, The Afro-Celt Sound System (minus James Mc- Nally) went on before Christy on Saturday and on Sunday Imelda May took the top spot. I wondered why it was that this quintessentially English Folk Festival had always been a bit like a fleadh with an abundance of Irish music that has made it so successful.
Then it occurred to me that it lay in the roots and philosophy from day one. Back in 1964 the original organiser, fireman Ken Woollard, had seen the seminal film Jazz On A Summer’s Day, a lyrical documentary on the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and he based the first Cambridge Folk Festival on what he saw, trying to emulate their atmosphere and respect for great music. Ken was deeply influenced by the film as were so many of us who saw it at the time.
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stone talks of it and Van Morrison said it had inspired him to take up the saxophone. Cambridge was no Newport Rhode Island and certainly missed out on the sunshine, sea and the yachts but the music orientated family event in a small enclosed location at a time of cultural change was a good benchmark for Woollard to base his concept on when Cambridge Council gave him a budget of £1,200. It was inspired of him to have as his main attraction the Clancy Brothers, who although Irish had become huge in America by taking Irish folk songs to a main– stream audience.
That philosophy has been carried through to today, If it is not broken don’t fix it. This balance of English, American and Irish talent in a friendly non-competitive very well organised atmosphere is what makes it such a lovely experience for everybody involved to be there.
The limitations of the size of the location at Cherry Hinton Hall have also proved to be one of the reasons the festival works so well, as it could never outgrow itself and become too big and overblown. The capacity is fixed at 14,000 people so more or less nothing changes and people come back year after year to enjoy the music and the company.
Well of course there have been tweaks. Technology improves things so there are now TV screens so the performers can be seen at the back and when I first came everybody sat around the grass come sunshine or storm on blankets but now the motorway service stations have done great business supplying picnic chairs with built in drinks holders, so now a self-seated audience relaxes and takes in the music.
Looking across the mixed crowd of both younger and older fans, some having now got older fatter and bald with beer bellies and clutching their pint pots they look like they have been sitting in the same place since 1969 but all are clearly enjoying their annual fix of music.
Operations Director of Cambridge Live Neil Jones feels that the continued success of this idiosyncratic festival is down “to the unique atmosphere that other bigger festivals do not have, making it a great way to spend a summer weekend by coming up to camp for four days or just coming up for one of the days”.
This year, as always Christy gave a masterful performance with a set that included a soulful version of Shane MacGowan’s Brown Eyes and having looked at his Planxty set list from 1973, he revived Euan MacColls ‘Moving On Song” but then was inspired to include a folk interpretation of ‘a song about a local Cambridge man’, when he introduced Pink Floyds tribute to their founder member the late Syd Barrat by giving us an emotional Shine on You Crazy Diamond. The entire audience joined in, like some ethereal country cathedral choir.
Fair play to you Christy for being spot on and capturing the mood. Cambridge always throws up some new surprises though and earlier in the day on Stage 2 I was pleasantly surprised to see a young American band from Boston making their debut in the UK and was so impressed by their vocal harmonies around one microphone.
For sure they were the discovery of the year getting the chance to play a second set on the main stage when another performer was taken ill. Watch out for Darlingside, I predict big things for them and thankfully there is an Irish connection. An elated Auyon Mukharji from the band told me after their set that he had spent a year living in Galway to learn the mandolin and was blown away by the warm reception at Cambridge.
Wandering around the bars and stalls, taking it all in and fondly recalling all those times I had been here before, with musicians I was working with over these 46 years, I came across, to my delight, at exactly the same place where I had come across the Chieftains playing for fun all those years ago, a ‘massed group’ of young Irish musicians, including some from Sligo Live, coming together for the fun of playing jigs and reels together to carry on the tradition.
This is what makes Cambridge, great music for all in a wonderful caring atmosphere.
Long may it continue but book early for 2017 as it always sells out in advance.