Annie Dressner kicks off day four in the Den, and whilst I’m somewhat disappointed to have missed Karine Polwart’s singing workshop, Annie consoles my misery. The New York City singer songwriter is backed by husband Paul Goodwin, which culminates into a stripped back sound. Opener September is slightly reminiscent of Kasey Chambers, the vocals childlike though the sound more melancholic, whilst Cigarette is more Jenny Owen Youngs. For me it’s Brooklyn that’s the winner, capturing a true sense of the city in the song.
In an unprecedented move for a reviewer, I end up heading back for a second stint of Karine Polwart, this time on Stage 1. It turns out to be a wise move as the lightening clashes overhead and a hail storm quickly follows. Whilst it adds an atmospheric edge to the band’s sound it makes me regret the flip flops I have optimistically decided to sport. Thankfully Karine offers up two different sets over the weekend, and I’m treated to a heartbreaking rendition of personal favourite Sorry as well as Kings of Birds complete with a choir fashioned from her earlier workshop.
I have to confess at this point with the rain still lashing down, I decide to stay put regardless of who I’d planned to see, a move which turns out in my favour as the wonderful Ruthie Foster takes to the stage. Another new artist on my list, she fuses soulful vocals with heavier bluesy guitar and it’s clear from the reaction of the crowd that I’m late to the Ruthie Foster fan club. Whilst the opener This Time has a more rocky vibe, its follow up has a more gospel sound, sampling parts of U2’s One to my delight. Nevertheless it’s the feelings style Real Love which highlights her vocal prowess, boasting a note hold that many would envy.
With the cloud breaking I move backwards for Seth Lakeman and with the sea of chairs disbanded, the space at the rear of the stage becomes a dance floor for those prepared to brave the puddles. With a guest performance from Kathryn Roberts and brother Sean joining him in the band it’s a rousing set. Cormac Byrne adds a pulsating drum rhythm to More Than Money, bringing it a new lease of life. Whilst Lady of the Sea (Hear Her Calling) has been missing from the set list recently, it makes a welcome return today and with The Hurlers and The Colliers also weaving their way into his slot, whilst some might be trying to avoid the mud at all costs, for me it acts as an indicator to remove my shoes and dance away.
Packed under the cover of Stage 2, as lashing rain turns the field into a massive bowl of chocolate pudding, Anais Mitchell is thoroughly absorbing. Accompanied by long term collaborator Michael Chorney, she works through tracks from her ‘folk opera’ turned 2010 album Hadestown, snippets of older material and songs from the 2012 release Young Man In America. Highlights include Tailor and Shepherd, with the latter bowling over an audience which by this time included a smitten Karine Polwart.
The removal of shoes seemed wise to start, but with the wet ground in the Club Tent comes 100s of worms and though some may pay a fortune to have animals suck at their feet, I can’t help but find it somewhat distracting during Rachel Sermanni’s set. I manage to stick around long enough for the slightly unusual Ever Since The Chocolate and Breathe Easy, which highlights her ability to write effortlessly beautiful numbers. Nevertheless, at Pirate Song I admit defeat, noting Rachel’s forthcoming album as a must have for those who like more contemporary folk, and head off for dryer land.
My early departure leads me to catch the end of The Moulettes in The Den and I’m instantly drawn in by their up tempo folk meets cabaret style set up, with the erratic Bloodshed In The Woodshed. This leads into a heartfelt set from Karima Francis who rapidly becomes a highlight of my day with her emotive songs. Though she’s recently played Hard Rock Calling she seems at home on the tiny stage, encouraging those on the peripheral to move inside. Whilst for many on the site the toss up seems to be Loreena McKennitt or Nic Jones, I feel like I’ve won the trump card and as she strikes up The Remedy, an autobiographical number about the eating disorder that has taken her away from music over the past few years, it feels authentic though littered with sadness. As she sings out “life is always as hard as we make it” it’s clear this autobiographical element is a strong feature of her latest work, but this coupled with her humour makes the Blackpool singer who claims she “never got taught how to speak right, just how to rob things” even more endearing.
For the final act there’s little debate, and as Joan Armatrading strides confidently onto Stage 1 I feel instantly convinced I’ve made the right choice. Whilst Show Some Emotion starts low key, it’s not long before it builds into a more electro version of the song, which blends neatly with the new material from her recent album Starlight. Sadly some of the older numbers, especially the likes of Love and Affection feel too overworked, leaving me to long for a more stripped back acoustic offering, but generally the set becomes one big sing-a-long with Love It When You Call Me Names benefiting from its drum heavy rework.
As she rounds off the set with Drop The Pilot, a song which my nursery was painted to, I can’t help but feel like the early influences of music in my life have finally been recognised with my trip to Cambridge. Though I’m wet, tired and facing a long drive home, I’m left with a sense that if I could only attend one festival for the rest of my life, Cambridge would be my choice. As the beer glasses so adeptly say, Cambridge really is ‘cool as folk’.
Photos © Jo Cox and must not be reproduced without prior consent