Cambridge Folk Festival at Cherry Hinton Park Cambridge, Sunday
Judy Collins was the big news of Sunday at Cambridge Folk Festival.
Aged 84, she still has a crystal-clear voice, full of music. She can hold a note so long that the audience was fighting for breath.
She sang Both Sides Now, the song she is known and loved for, written by Joni Mitchell, and another by Jacques Brel, but mainly songs from her own 1967 album Wildflowers. She told the crowd: “You are looking at American idol of 1956.”
She was 17 then. By 1967, aged 28, she had released six albums and met and inspired both Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. She knew them before they were famous.
“He called me and said he had some new songs. He came to my house. I recorded a number of his songs… I told him to sing his own songs.”
Wildflowers is a collection of her own compositions and three by Leonard Cohen. “He kept sending me songs. He was very present. Then he said why don’t you write your own songs.”
She knew Pete Seeger; she knew Woody Guthrie. “I was the only girl in town who didn’t write songs. I met a girl who wrote songs, Joni Mitchell. No one knew her. I had a call one night at 3am – who rings you at 3am?” It was a friend of hers. She said, are you alright? “He put her on the phone. She sang Both Sides Now. I said I’ll be right over.”
Collins was full of stories. She had told another friend to give up smoking. “He didn’t want to give up smoking, but I told him to go to the doctor and ask for help.
He went to the doctor and said he didn’t want to give up smoking, but Judy had told him he had to come. The doctor said if he continued smoking it would take an hour off his life – and God would give that hour to Keith Richards.”
She had another Stones tale: “Mick Jagger was looking in a mirror. He looked at Keith. He said Keith do you see these lines? Keith said Ah ha. Mick said they are laughter lines. Keith replied: Nothing is that funny.”
Accompanied for her set by the superb Unity String Quartet and her musical director pianist Russell Walden, she closed her act by inviting her audience to join in with Amazing Grace.
Sunday in Stage One had begun gently with an hour of sublime calm from the lyrical voice of the Canadian First Nation singer-songwriter, William Prince – just one man on a guitar singing about life and love. His songwriting has been described as a masterclass in skilful simplicity. The compere told the audience: “It felt like therapy. I could hear you listening.”
We were woken up after that of course by The Fishermen’s Friends, the first ever traditional folk act to appear in the top ten of the UK Albums Chart. Stage One was packed solid for them as they blasted out their wit and tunes. “Get up Jack John sit down/He’ll go ashore to buy some girl a gown.”
Over in Stage Three, the venue formerly known as The Club Tent, the evening saw Faith i Branco, the Balkan band playing Balkan Gypsy Roma influenced music at breath-taking speed – 500 miles an hour – with Faith Ristic on accordion, Branko Ristic on violin, Matt Baker on guitar and Brian Heddeman on drums. Superbly adept musicianship.
Some fun followed them on Stage Three with Granny’s Attic, an award-winning folk trio who sing and dance in unison comically and sometimes lie on the floor when playing. Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne is on melodeon, Anglo concertina, and vocals.
George Sansome sings, and plays guitar and Lewis Wood sings and plays violin. This is English folk- hand-written. They met at secondary school in Worcester. Sometimes they are a cappella. Sometimes they are playing furiously. Stage Three (aka The Club Tent) is the small, secret delight of the festival.
It’s relaxed, usually not so crowded, there is room to sit on the floor in the front or stand at the back. It has its own bar.
But then came the grand finale on Stage One – Imelda May. Magnificent, magical, Queen of the stage, she came forward, she moved around to get closer to the audience. Her powerful voice was deeply moving.
Her band was compelling. No one in the crowd of thousands kept still – not even in the VIP tent at the side where people were jumping up and down.
She paid tribute to the late English guitarist Jeff Beck, once of The Yardbirds. He died in January aged 78. She said: “I miss him dreadfully.” She left the stage after first appearing in her black dress with a top with flowing sleeves and came back wearing a simple black t-shirt saying Sinead O’Connor. “Sinead was my friend.
She was always there for me in times of need. Let us (here) be a church in honour of those who changed the world.”
After nearly an hour of galvanising anthems, she let the audience join in with the chorus of Nothing Compares and the festival crowd sang reverently and tunefully nothing compares, nothing compares… as she held the mic to them.
Meanwhile, she had stirred the blood with the numbers Black Tears, Just One Kiss her own song, Big Bad Handsome Man, and Sixth Sense, A Different Kind of Love, and Johnny Got a Gun. Some were velvet smooth, some were impossible to keep still to.
Then there was Teenage Kicks which had everybody yelling the chorus, followed by Tainted Love. By then, a woman on crutches was leaning on one and waving the other in the air.
They are already planning next year’s festival. I hope I am there.
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