CAMBRIDGE CITY ROOTS FESTIVAL – Various artists/venues, 22 February – 6 March 2018

Cambridge City Roots Festival
Matt Hammond photographed by Su O’Brien

The City Roots Festival shakes open its umbrella (and hauls on its snow boots) for a second year of folk and roots events. As before, a loose collection of venues and artists are brought under the festival banner, from the already-scheduled to the specially commissioned.

New this year is an extended, two-week timespan. With something happening just about every evening and a few of the daytimes too, is there enough to keep fans busy? Well, it is hard to imagine it being a destination for the whole festival fortnight. But for those within travelling distance (admittedly a pretty wide area) – or those who don’t enjoy the whole festival experience – coming along to individual events seems to work well enough. The potential downside of this is that it tends to favour bigger names who might be touring here anyway. The challenge remains, as ever, to expose upcoming acts to wider audiences.

Inevitably, it’s also harder to keep up continuity across a multi-venue, multiple day festival. Branding is generally more visible this year, which is a definite plus. Some of the artists, though, seem barely aware that they are part of the festival – at least they don’t mention it. In fact, one act, busy lamenting a lack of inclusion (so far) in the summer Cambridge Folk Festival schedule, seems blissfully unaware that they are part of the winter one!

Last year’s closing acts, Sona Jobarteh and Muntu Valdo open the festival this time, bringing welcome African warmth. Haitian voudou from Chouk Bwa Libète goes head to head with a live interview at the University Union with Wilko Johnson. Other acts featuring in the main line-up include Megson, Tom Robinson, Rich Hall, Wildwood Kin and Ward Thomas. As with traditional festivals, there are overlaps, forcing a decision about which act to see!

Although headline acts have been flagged up for some time, a lot more, smaller, ‘fringe’ gigs are still being announced right up to the last minute. This means keeping in constant contact with the website is essential, to pick up on late changes. A lot of the smaller events are admirably free of charge too, cementing the impression of a confident local music-making community.

A family fun day at the Guildhall hosts live acts, children’s activities and a well-attended ukulele workshop. It’s heartening to see so many youngsters taking up their brightly coloured ukes. The downside is that they missed out on a superbly intimate follow-up gig by Muntu Valdo in the hall next door.

In this vast space, his tiny colourfully-dressed figure is surrounded by pedals, coaxing unexpected sounds from his guitars and building up intricate loops. He delivers an impeccable slide blues with an unmistakeably African slant – oh, and he plays a mean harmonica, too. It’s like watching Jimi Hendrix play a Sunday afternoon tea dance: thrilling and strange. As the sun streams in through the civic stained glass, it’s tempting to run out and drag the shoppers in from the streets outside to make them listen to this highly original talent.

Barbara Wibbelmann delivers some fine a capella Gaelic songs and finishes, accompanied by Quentin Rea on guitar, with a delightful ‘La Vie En Rose’. Martin Baxter’s Alternative Arrangements lend some mid-afternoon Americana as well as an upbeat ‘John Barleycorn’. The miles of empty space between seating and stage finally makes sense as ceilidh band Frog On A Bike whip up the dancers to wrap up the afternoon.

Buskers too, are apparently abroad on this cold and sunny day but, despite several slogs around town, they remain stubbornly invisible. Only stalwart singer-songwriter Matt Hammond can be found chilling his fingers, engaging passers-by with his percussive guitar style and promoting his new single, ‘Skylines’.

One of the hazards of a winter festival is always going to be inclement weather and, as with most of the rest of the country, the big hit of snow takes its toll on players and audiences alike. Still with a few line-up tweaks, it seems that all the shows go ahead, which is very impressive.

Following an afternoon masterclass in Miller’s Music shop, CC Smugglers (currently crowdfunding their new album), squash themselves into a tiny corner of the 1815 bar on a snowy evening. Playing a relaxed, mainly acoustic set, this cheery crew deliver their own bluesy, skiffly songs with some great join-in choruses, alongside lounge standards. The keyboard player in particular brings a distinct jazz style to the set, as a small crowd of Lindy Hoppers push back the chairs to whirl around the floor.

SJ Mortimer (now also performing with Morganway) And Her Flying Pigs bring lashings of country, the monthly New Routes night at the Junction features several Americana artists, and traditional music goes on in pubs and clubs across the city. Even the serious business of making a living is once again the subject of a workshop day to encourage musicians to focus further than the next creative impulse.

With such diversity of music to choose from, with venues from snug to cavernous, seated or standing, the organisers have plainly tried to cater for many tastes within the broad spectrum of folk and roots. There is something for everyone here and, as well as the national/international artists, it’s a valuable reminder of what incredible home-grow talents exist across the Eastern region at the moment. See you in 2019!

Su O’Brien

Festival website:


She doesn’t seem amused.