Tales from the Rails – Cambridge Folk Festival & the Sea of Heads

Last Saturday I had the absolute pleasure of performing at Cambridge Folk Festival and I’m still floating on a cloud of fuzzy happiness. It had been one of those dates, seemingly forever in the future, until it was suddenly the night before as I was packing up my small assortment of guitar leads, the red boots and CDs & Vinyls into a small suitcase.

I was booked in to play as a duo with Stuart Irwin on bass. We were in a hotel room in LA at the beginning of our US tour when the offer to play came through back in February. I appreciate that sounds pretty luxurious, but the hotel room was a present from an amazing musician friend and came after a night spent in a weed cupboard (read all about that here!).

I’d been looking forward to being a part of the festival for so long and was really keen to try and eradicate any points of potential logistical failure.. So, there were no actual train tracks involved in getting to and from the Festival (sorry for the false advertising!) – We rented the cheapest car the local rental service had on offer and left ridiculously early with packed sandwiches on Saturday morning to avoid London traffic. After an all too easy one hour drive, we rolled into the little artist car park, unloaded our gear out of the little rental car and into a van, which took us to registration, a one-minute walk from the backstage area of Stage 2. Everything was so easy and ran so smoothly, I was almost taken aback by how relaxed everyone (including myself) was. Cambridge Folk Festival is small… much smaller than I had expected somehow. You can walk from one end of the site to the other in a very leisurely 10 minutes. Having said that, the last Festival I had played was Glastonbury, so anything would have seemed small in comparison.

I was booked in to play a solo mini set as part of Brian McNeil’s ‘Festival Sessions’ a couple of hours prior to our main show, apparently this was one the most popular, regular features of the festival. The movie that was starting to unfold before my eyes in the backstage area was quite something. About thirty musicians belonging to various different line-ups all started unpacking, tuning and playing their various folky instruments, fiddles, acoustic guitars, more fiddles… I really don’t consider myself a folk singer, so I took on the role of spectator, it really felt like looking back onto a scene from the early 1960’s. It was quite an operation and Brian did well trying to accommodate everyone, assigning and re-assigning 5 – 10 minute slots (I was allocated seven). Finally, it was nearly my turn and I was called up towards the back entrance of Stage 2.

it was one of those moments. I had spent the last hour backstage and had no inkling of how full the tent might be… I popped my head around the plastic sheet, separating me from the stage. “Holy shit!” I said out loud… “it’s packed!”’ I turned to Brian, who smiled, “How should I introduce you? How should I describe your music?”

“Uhm…modern story telling?”

“I like it!”, he called as he stepped towards the microphone..

Where did that come from? I mean, it’s not wrong, but I wonder whether my brain panicked and tried to come up with a description that would appease the traditional folk audience (a wash of fiddle-i-dee fiddling and foot stomping was to be heard from the other side and I wondered how my non-fiddle songs would go down. Would the ghost of Pete Seeger pull the plug on me?

It took me about half a song to warm up and, before I knew it, my seven minutes were up. It was pretty great that I got to be part of Brian’s ‘Festival Session’. Not only was the crowd in an exceptional great and generous mood, but no folk legends haunted the stage and, as I’d already been out there, I wasn’t nervous when it came to our set later that afternoon.

The show itself is hard to recount. It’s one of the best times I’ve had on stage ever, so with a week between the experience and the retelling, it’s hard to find words that will do it justice. I suppose it’s what one might imagine a great show would feel like when dreaming about it as a child, year’s before you actually ever step in front of strangers to perform songs you’ve written. I was truly amazed at the sea of heads and hadn’t anticipated the crowd in front of Stage 2 to be so big, as it had ebbed and flowed since that first showcase. I don’t know if anyone else feels this way, but the larger and more anonymous a crowd, the easier it is for me to perform. Not that I’ve had that many opportunities to test this, but it’s my going theory… I think it’s much harder to find that magic space outside of yourself when you’re playing to 100 – 200 people you vaguely know. As it happens, there were about …hold it…2000 friendly strangers (OK, not all strangers, spotted some familiar faces in the front rows!) listening and singing along with us at Cambridge Folk Festival and it was just incredible. I mean, they’re fuzzy in this snapshot, but look at them:

I think we managed to capture the feeling quite well in this selfie, taken about 30 seconds after the show:

To all the people I got to meet at Cambridge Folk Festival, I can’t thank you enough. I hope you keep in touch and hope you enjoy Heirlooms & Hearsay if you grabbed a copy. Thanks also to all the staff, be it in the little record shop, the amazing sound technicians and backstage helpers, everyone made us feel so welcome and so at ease, it was an absolute pleasure. Thanks also to Paul, Gareth and Sue Marchant from BBC Cambridgeshire, for taking time to chat with me and a HUGE thank you to the wonderful Bev Burton for booking me!

We spent the rest of the day soaking up the music, watching smiley Sharon Shannon on Stage 1 (whom I got to open for a couple of years ago in Cambridge) as well as some great acts in the tiny Den stage, drinking some Otter Bitter, enjoying the amazing backstage food (brilliantly cooked steak – I was seriously impressed) and skipping through the patches of light rain that interspersed the sunshine.

We floated home on that fuzzy cloud and here I am, a week later, still feeling it. Tomorrow a new adventure begins. I’m going on tour opening for Lambchop across the UK. I’m really looking forward to it… but it’s going to take something really special to knock this one off pole position.

More Tales from the rails to come soon…

With thanks to the photographers who took the good pictures (i.e. not my selfies!):
1) Rich Etteridge (me on stage, solo)
2) Daniel Waterfield (from the crowd)
3) Neil King (FATEA) (Stuart & me on stage)
4) Charles Sturman (me on stage at piano)

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