42nd Cambridge Folk Festival

Cherry Hinton Hall

Cherry Hinton Hall

Two contrasting sets on Saturday night summed up this year's Cambridge. First, former indie pop chick Cerys Matthews desperately trying to reinvent herself as a country singer after her heady days with chart toppers Catatonia.

But in truth Cerys remains more Newport than Nashville, failing to convince that she has moved on from the pop world and the dizzy heights of singing Baby It's Cold Outside with Tom Jones.

“I am so nervous about playing a folk festival,” she trilled to her expectant audience. And so she should be after her baby-doll vocals sounded nothing more than fragile in such hallowed company.

So shove over Cerys. Enter the Chieftains for an object lesson in how to entertain the festival, a feat they have been accomplishing off and on since 1969.

This legendary Irish band produced a session as satisfying as a pint of Guinness - reassuringly rich and familiar yet with an edge that can excite, delight and surprise. For me, the show-stopper of the weekend.

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Cerys could also do worse than learn her apparent new craft at the feet of three women, each of whom has been at the top of her game for years and who all took the festival by storm.

On Friday, it was the enigmatic Marcia Ball whose fusion of blues, rock and jazz set the benchmark for the weekend.

Yesterday, it was Eddi Reader with a mature, confident and entertaining set that has become the hallmark of one of Scotland's finest.

Later, the timeless Emmylou Harris showed why she was festival top of the bill with an enchanting performance that drew on country roots, but grew well beyond the one dimensional.

There were other great acts working hard to capture the true spirit of a festival that is in danger of losing its identity in the search for an ever-eclectic mix of styles.

John Tams and Barry Coope played a thought-provoking set, rich in years of experience.

Salsa Celtica also caught the ear with their easy and relaxed Latin rhythms, all about having fun. Festival favourite Lisa Carthy guested for them and proved that her dad, Martin, had taught her well.

Young bloods Seth Lakeman - energy on legs at 100mph and Aussie John Butler, who has a near-Hendrix quality on guitar - showed that the future of roots music is in good hands.

Like Top of the Pops, the Cambridge Folk Festival started in 1964. But this is one musical institution that shows few signs of getting the heave-ho.

Paul Durrant

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