True folkies must find Cambridge a bit of a trial. The city's not really a place where you can dress up in Merrie England gear — it's too metro to go retro, in other words. With a headline act chosen to draw a non-folk crowd (this year's model was Elvis Costello, who confided that he "used to be allergic to folk music"), the bill is as likely to draw popsters as the real ale/ finger-in-the-ear mob. So it proved; the dwindling band of tie-dye traditionalists had to rub shoulders with plenty of plain-looking town types.
Still, the folkies were out in force in some corners of the foreign field. The St John's Ambulance tent was having to compete for business with a homeopathic mob who had set up opposite and who were specialising in two truly essential festival cures — for sunburn and hangovers. Hobgoblin Music were flogging their bodhrans and mandolins, and other traders were keeping the side up, too, what with Perfect Potatoes to eat, reclaimed waistcoats and velvety wizard hats to wear, Mexican hammocks to snooze in and chunks of crystal to — well, to put on the mantelpiece, I suppose.
The Club Tent, where the humbler acts queued for their allotted 13 minutes of fame, was the last refuge for the hard-line Folkfest crowd. With festival tankards hanging from their waistbands by little straps — by their thongs shall you know them — they were keen to hear laments, but also ready to whoop at the slightest suggestion of an accelerated tempo. As Prism's fiddler raised the roof with a jig sequence, a fat man mimed bagpipe-playing on a hunk of green glass, thus demonstrating that the empty Mateus bottle is to folk music what the tennis-racket is to rock.
At the other end of the scale, the main stages — Cambridge has two — offered a wickedly high-quality line-up. Guy Clark's Texan wit and wisdom, simultaneously solid and whimsical; Capercaillie's satisfying meanderings between the sort of music they played before they got involved in Rob Roy and the Clannad-tinged electric sound they've played since; Tim and Mollie O'Brien's folksy-country-bluesy-gospelly set (the sort of crossover stuff Ry Cooder patented a few years back); these were the highlights before Costello made his way into the spotlight with a crack or two about Cambridge and its KGB links of days gone by.
Elvis played without the Attractions, but not without attraction, throwing in some new (ie unrecognised) numbers among acoustic versions of old favourites ("Alison", "New Amsterdam"). The irony was that the start of the archrocker's man-and-his-guitar set was, for those at the back, drowned out by Sharon Shannon and her band, playing trad Irish stuff with brilliant abandon on Stage Two. "Veteran Rocker Blown off Stage by Irish Accordionist", the headlines should have read; or, for short, "Revenge of the Folkies."