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The Cambridge Club Festival 2021 – Review

For three days in mid-September, Childerley Hall near Cambridge became host to one of the Country’s fastest growing music festivals – The Cambridge Club Festival – a feel good family weekend of music, arts and culture.

Headliners included household names Rag’n Bone Man, Jack Savoreti, Sophie Ellis Bexter, Toploader, Soul II Soul, Shalamar and Heatwave. Plus there was cutting-edge comedy, creative family entertainment, artisan market traders, more than enough food choices and plenty more, not least the Glamping opportunity.

Started in 2017 as the brainchild of five friends who felt that the region was missing a festival that brought together a love for feel-good music, arts and culture. In 2019 it was a one day festival with disco icons Sister Sledge headlining, and a couple of the HCR team went to cover the day. So we were back in 2021 to see a hugely scaled up festival, starting on Friday afternoon, running through to Sunday Evening.

It was undoubtedly a brilliantly run festival – with nothing left to chance. Equally importantly, it was a big site which meant lots of space if that’s what you wanted to feel extra safe. It was a real blend across the arts as well. So yes the music headliners on the main stage, but also three other stages each with their own flavour. Inevitably at these events, there’s that “fear of missing out” wanting to be in two or even three places at once. So we were keen to hear the main stage headliners plus we dipped into the various other stages and events too.

So here’s our highlights for you.

The music line up was clearly the big pull for this festival – all household names with loads of No.1s and awards between them, and not just that, but carefully grouped over the three days. If there was one stand out thing for us, it was how much the performers just loved being on stage again, and doing what they do. It became even more clear when we spoke to some of them backstage. If you add to that the audience relishing quality live music it was a really special sense of performers and audience re-connecting again. For most of the acts this was one of their first post lockdown live big performances. And as they explained to us, on one hand it was a sense of release, but on the other, they had not had the opportunity to rehearse as much in advance as they would have usually.

Beverly Knight MBE kicked off the live Friday evening set, widely recognised as one of the country’s best soul singers over the past 25 years, as well as being a mainstay of West End musical theatre. That theatrical presence was clear to see in her performance, absolutely owning the stage and with that full head of frizzy hair flying all over the place, and a great blend of her hits plus some classic covers too.

Then it was Rag n Bone Man headlining on Friday – his brand new album “Life by Misadventure” debuted at number one in May. We were in the Pit right in front of the stage and we could see close up his big smiles as he was performing his classics and getting the real sense of response from the audience. Of course his track “Giant” was great to hear live, with extra live tweaks and additions in there too. We managed to have a quick chat with him backstage at which point we realised how relevant that song was, as he was well over 6ft tall.

Saturday afternoon kicked off with the disco era legends that are Heatwave. A set full of 70’s classics and rather appropriately, it was sunny and warm. They created that real sense of disco energy and rhythm but with that clean and fresh 21st century production. We interviewed them backstage afterwards, and they were full of the joys of live performance, their mainstay for the last 40 years.

It was then the turn of the NHS Choir to do their magic, with super harmonies and solos and lit the stage with their smart but upbeat colourful outfits. They made a real connection with the audience with wise words about their songs and the call to arms – we are your choir and your NHS. As they came off stage, they were having a good chat with the night’s headliners Sophie Eiilis Bexter and Jack Savoretti who were up next.

Then it was Sophie Ellis Bexter’s turn which was of course very upbeat. An icon of the 2000’s decade and during lockdown she hosted a weekly fun filled “Kitchen Disco” and released her greatest hits album. So that fun and celebration was clear to see on stage, and especially shone through in the final number which was of course “Murder on the Dancefloor”.

The Saturday headliner was Jack Savoretti. His lockdown album (Europiana) was released in the summer and just like his previous album (Singing to Strangers) it went straight to No.1. We had a lovely interview with him, about an hour before he went on stage. Jack is definitely one of those naturally engaging sorts and explained how the new album came about – around the theme of all the best things about being on holiday. So the live set was focussed on his familiar hits to date which is what he felt people wanted to hear right now, before the album tour next year.

Sunday afternoon saw the hugely popular Uncle Funk’s Disco Inferno kick off the live main stage performances, a regular at the Cambridge Club, and you can see why. During lockdown they had a makeover….so new costumes of oversized orange and yellow feathers and flames all over the place. As ever they nailed it with their high energy set led by the wonderful stage performer that is Uncle Funk. Not much short of two hours, the set covered so many of the disco classics, plus a few disco friendly contemporary tunes. Sometimes it seemed like a dance class, leading and directing all the moves from the stage, then in the final number the traditional visit from Uncle Funk into the crowd for some group dancing. We caught up with Uncle Funk backstage afterwards for a great interview including talking about the new style for the band.

Toploader were next, having come to prominence in late 90’s with their big hit track “Dancing in the Moonlight”. It was a big set with the Toploader staples and a fair few covers too. You could really tell that lead Joseph Washbourne was enjoying being on stage again, with the wonderful words to the audience “It’s great to be back in a field again, where we all belong”. We had a chat with Joseph afterwards about the Toploader journey, and it turned out he was a keen gardener.

Sara Cox – the radio presenter – took to the stage later on Sunday afternoon playing an 80’s set. The stage hosted two giant inflatable Rubix Cubes, and the dance moves on stage were led by two fantastically flexible dancers, leading that sort of competition between both sides of the audience. The confetti cannons were doing their magnificent thing, plus as the classic 80’s track “99 Red Balloons” (by Nina) was playing, out came lots of giant red balloons. In the wind they moved rather quickly so we were not quite sure if there were 99 though. Sara commented “That’s quite an expensive way to see which way the wind was blowing”.

The 90’s legends Soul II Soul were the penultimate act for the Festival. Playing their signature upbeat soulful sound with hits from their number one albums. Again your could hear the real sentiment from the stage as the lead singer Jazzy J (Trevor Romero OBE) said to the audience at the end “You’ve made this man’s heart very happy”. Afterwards Trever very kindly welcomed us into his dressing for an interview, talking about his relaunched record label, and that there’s a book on the way too.

Shalamar were the closing act for the Sunday and the Festival. One of those bands that had a foot both the in 70’s disco sound that merged into the 80’s pop. They played all the hits of course. We were hoping for a chat with them afterwards, but it was the birthday of one of the band, so the birthday party started as they came off stage. Rather appropriately they rounded off their set, and the festival with their 1982 classic “A Night to Remember”.

So undoubtedly a music festival through and through. The on trend term these says is “curation” it about creating the right selection of music in the right order. So yes a brilliant curation, a great balance between some of the popular current acts plus the best of the years gone by, but those whose music has genuinely stood the test of time. There was a special one-off magic about the musical performances. Of course every live performance is a one-off, but in all of these performances you could feel that release of 18 months, and that blossoming again of that special connection between performers and their very appreciative audience.

So while the music was absolutely nailed, one of the stand out features of The Cambridge Club Festival is that it’s a much broader festival – about arts and entertainment generally. One of the hidden gems of the festival was the Orchard stage, with the only access being a small bridge over a stream. It really came to life after dark, those trees uplit in multi-colours and a great location for the more chilled aspects of the festival and the laid back DJ sets, plus a great warming hot chocolate on hand.

Another stand out feature was the range of meaningful activities for the children, and carefully tailored to the different age groups as well. They even had their own stage (The Imagination Station) with their own headliners like Andy and the Oddsocks – a proper rock band for juniors. We had a quick backstage chat to Andy just before he went on stage and he was full of energy and raring to go and that was clear to see on stage. So for the young ones it was festival-within-a-festival for sure.

There was also a theme about embracing the Spoken Word, rather than just the sung word. So this was the focus of the stage wonderfully named “The Auditorium of Intrigue” with a serious line up of twenty comedians over the two days – including those from the famous Cambridge Footlights (which has been a springboard for many of our now famous comedians). Plus then some of the more general cultural pundits – Jay Rayner the foodie and Susie the wordsmith.

Of course no festival is complete without the array of various food vans. There were more that you might usually find so lots of choice, not least our favourites, the wood fired pizza, paella, and caribbean kitchen. Of course it was festival prices, but not overly so, mostly around £10 for a plentiful dish and good quality too. When we were talking to Chris Jammer one of the founders, he joked that they extended the festival from one to two and a half days to enable them to try more of the food.

So a full festival, not just with something for everyone, but lots for everyone. It shone for it’s quality production and thoughtfulness in every aspect. Potentially it sets the benchmark for a new generation of festivals – built around a focus on an experience that is all about quality in every aspect. So no mean feat to deliver that quality across that spectrum of the arts, and a real and upgraded bounce back for the large scale live music scene.

So talking to Chris Jammer one of the founders, next year takes yet another giant step forward. Nile Rogers and Chic have carried forward, plus a big global name will be headlining, and will be revealed before Christmas.

The dates for next year are Friday 10th to Sunday 12th June 2022 and you and register for early bird tickets and hear about the line up at www.thecambridgeclub.co.

The Festival kindly donated four weekend tickets for our competition – so many congratulations to Charlie and his family who were there all weekend.

Check out our Podcasts to hear the interviews with Jack Savoretti, Joseph Washbourn (Toploader); Gordon Hulbert (Heatwave); Simon Baker (Uncle Funk’s Disco Inferno); Trevor Romero OBE (Jazzie B of Soul II Soul); Chris Jammer (Festival Founder);

We’ve also put together a video to give a flavour of the festival. It features extracts from their interviews with performers Jack Savoretti, Joseph Washbourn (Toploader), Gordon Hulbert (Heatwave), Simon Baker (Uncle Funk’s Disco Inferno) , Trevor Romero OBE (Jazzie B of Soul II Soul), and Chris Jammer (Festival Founder). Video production by Tom Askew.

On behalf of the HCR team, a big thank you goes out to Sam and Chris (Festival Founders) for having us along and all the chats before and during; Rachel, Dee and Yan from the press team for looking after us and helping secure the interviews. Plus a mention for some of the happy and engaging security team: Mike, Nicole and Ginny – we could tell that you wanted to dance really but your professionalism stood firm.

Paul Askew

Photo credits: Tom Askew & Paul Askew