Cambridge Folk Festival 2012: Five artists you shouldn’t miss

I’ve been attending the Cambridge Folk Festival every July for 20 years now, while I’ve been lucky enough to write the editorial for the programme for the last 10 of them. This has put me in a very privileged position, getting to see the line-up and hear CDs in advance as well as getting free tickets (and a good camping spot, pictured).

This is the last year I’ll be doing the programme notes. I’ve had a good innings but my heart wasn’t really in it this year, while the fluid nature of the work (thanks to artists and their management being of variable usefulness in terms of hitting deadlines) doesn’t fit well with full-time work (I used to be freelance, so more flexible). Also, the job tends to take over Easter and as my other half works in a school (and we’re not keen on high summer for a holiday) it pretty much wipes out our best getaway opportunity of the year.

I expect I’ll continue attending the Festival though. It’s one of the most famous and long running folk festivals in the world and attracts a diverse and impressive line-up each year. Looking back, I’ve seen the likes of Steve Earle, Joe Strummer, Julian Cope, Ray Davies, Elvis Costello, Christy Moore, Nick Cave, Jimmy Cliff, James Taylor, Buddy Guy, Dr John… and that’s just male solo artist highlights.

On top of that it’s well run and friendly with good food, good beer and a beautiful setting – not to mention regularly cleaned toilets (man, I’m getting old). So as a farewell to the programme notes, I thought I’d pick out five great acts from this year’s line-up: tickets are still available, ladies and gents – and no, I don’t get a cut, more’s the pity.

Benjamin Francis Leftwich

There’s a lot of this kind of stuff about, and I’m not claiming our Benjamin is breaking any moulds here, but this is beautiful singer-songwriter stuff that. I think he manages to just stay on the right side of ‘produced within an inch of its life’, creating just the right atmosphere to match his whimsical style of lyrics.

It’s also great ‘sit in a tent on the grass  in the early evening after drinking all day’ music, which suits his Thursday early evening billing. And I can’t help thinking he’s got the talent to be out of the Cambridge folk Festival’s budget in the next few years.

Treacherous Orchestra

I’ve seen a lot of bands doing dance folk over the years and doing it very well – from the late great Martyn Bennett to Shooglenifty – and there’s no better way to end a folk festival night. But the best I’ve seen has to be Treacherous Orchestra and they’re back at Cambridge this year.

Young, enthusiastic and ridiculously talented, they play the bollocks off every tune in their repertoire and if you have a folky bone in your body it’s impossible not to get swept along with the pure joie de vivre of it all.

June Tabor & Oysterband

Singer June Tabor rose to folk superstardom in the 70s, first in collaboration with Maddy Prior (as ‘Silly Sisters’) and then with guitar virtuoso Martin Simpson, as her incredible voice made her one of traditional music’s finest talents. Oysterband rose to prominence in their current incarnation in the late 80s, gaining a well deserved reputation as boisterous political folk rockers.

These unlikely collaborators came together to release an album of traditional and contemporary music in 1990. Entitled ‘Freedom and Rain’ it remains one of my favourite folk albums, haunting covers of Lou Reed and Billy Bragg sitting perfectly alongside traditional tunes such as Bonnie Sue Cleland.

Last year they got together again to record the follow up, Ragged Kingdom. It’s equally eclectic and equally good, traditional interpretations sharing the stage with Joy Division and Bob Dylan. Oysterband are always awesome live, and the addition of June Tabor can only make it something special.

Nic Jones

One of the most remarkable English folk singer-songwriters of the early 70s, Nic’s career was tragically cut short by a serious car accident in 1982. He was left with serious co-ordination issues and was barely able to play the guitar and unable to play fiddle, while also suffering brain damage. His public appearances have been few and far between and he did not appear on stage again until 2010, singing three songs at Sidmouth Folk Festival.

However, he will be appearing at a select few festivals this summer, including Cambridge, singing his songs for the first time in 30 years accompanied by his son Joseph on guitar. Now in his 60s, he was one of the great finger-picking guitarists of English folk’s finest period and seeing him live is an opportunity not to be missed.


Spiro are a great example of a band I would never have heard of if it wasn’t for the festival. And, if you’d described them to me, I wouldn’t have even considered listening to them. But my word, these guys make a sound that’s truly breathtaking.

Original, beautiful and cinematic, the Spiro sound blends folk dance music with minimalist classical to create unique, rhythmic melodies. There’s a droning quality to it that seems unreal and just makes me want to close my eyes and nod my head like some dumb hippy.  See what I mean about making it sound crap when describing it? I’m really selling it to you, aren’t I? Just play the damn video.

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