Monthly Archives: July 2012

Cambridge Folk Festival, 26 – 29 July, 2012

Been a bit thin on the ground with the blog entries of late, but here’s a whopper for you. I was thinking of breaking my Cambridge Folk Festival 2012 review up into more digestible chunks, but it was fairly intense for me, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t be for you too. I think I saw something like 18 full sets over the four days, plus oodles of snippets of music here and there, which is quite a lot to process for a stay-at-home like me.

First up, some general points of order. Disgracefully, I’ve lived in or around Cambridge for over forty years and have never before been to this event. I think this has been down to two factors: first, it’s a Festival, and the thought of being penned in with thousands of beer drinkers and competing sources of loud noise for days on end has never appealed to me, and secondly, it presumably involves Folk, which I’ve always found a bit too…well…authentic for my tastes.

Turns out I’m a blinkered idiot. This event is brilliantly organised, attended in the main by reasonable considerate people and features a bewildering range of musics, the only unifying factor of which seems to be that none of them feature the overdriven feedback that so excites 15 year old boys. You should go. Seriously. It’s ace. If you get crowd-phobic there are loads of nice under-populated woody bits you can hide away in, there are stalls selling bizarre and wonderful instruments you can twang around on, the food is excellent, and if you can get the sun to shine too then you’re completely sorted.

Anyway, obviously with as many acts playing simultaneously as you get here no-one could possibly catch everything, but here’s my personal Top Ten of Folk Festival experiences:

10. After three days of almost ironically glorious sunshine the heavens opened on Sunday afternoon, and not in a small way. Those of us who were canny enough to have looked at the forecast were however snugly tucked away by then in The Den, a tastefully decored marquee situated towards the edge of the site which had been thoughtfully kitted out with rugs for chilled out folk to get generally mellow on. Here we spent the thunderstorm taking in three excellent contrasting acts: young singer-songwriter Lucy Kitt, whose melodic and briskly strummed songs had a definite 70s California feel, experimental trio Three Cane Whale, who delivered a set of intricate and quirky instrumentals with titles like “Sluice” that sounded like they could be soundtracks to surreal Czech animations, and the highly impressive Tom Copson, who really could be headed for the big-time based on his looks, confidence, easy charisma and, oh yeah, abundance of talent. His vocals soar, he can handle himself on a range of instruments, he knows how to vary the approach, and he’s already got a repertoire of instantly appealing songs. And roughly at the time he was singing Rainbow Coming the sun came out.

9. Nanci Griffith wrapped up her set by bringing on The Clap Brothers, two burly bandannaed roadies, to assist with the audience participation element of the all-purpose expression of pissed-off-ness that is Hell, No. These two impassive slabs stood at the front of the stage, arms folded and with eyes hidden behind sunglasses not moving a muscle until that point in the chorus where the audience was required to join in, whereupon they broke formation, faced each other and executed a mighty and unequivocal double clap. Griffith was great value: chatty, crowd-pleasing, with some simple accessible songs and a great stripped-down band. She can sing a bit too.

8. Roy Harper obviously relishes his status as a legendary anti-establishment figure, although he now looks less like a rebel and more like Richard Harris’s Dumbledore. His solo set was defiantly uncommercial and peppered with slightly self-regarding anecdotes about his forward-looking unconventionality, but his voice and guitar playing are still powerful enough to redeem him. And some of his songs are just gorgeous: he played the achingly poignant Another Day and ended with the moving When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease, the song that John Peel used to joke he wanted played at his funeral*.

7. The 18 year old Jake Bugg had various factors working against him during his set at one of the outside tents – he arrived half an hour late, and had to compete with the noise from the main stage and the hideous Sky Arts lounge – but he rose above them magnificently. As soon as he started in on his immediately catchy and dynamic set the crowd was with him. The songs are fast and short and witty and tuneful, and he cranks them out on his acoustic guitar with the minimum of fuss – he reminds me more than anything of Lonnie Donegan, although he doesn’t particularly sound like him. This lad’s gonna be a star.

6. After some exceptionally skilful and persuasive salesmanship I went home on the first night with a rather beautiful banjo (although actually I didn’t take that much persuading. I’ve been pressing my face up against the window of music shops gawping at the things for about two years now). Now I’ve got to work out how to play the blighter.

5. I can’t have seen Billy Bragg live for about 15 years and had kind of forgotten what a great performer he is. His Folk Festival set was in honour of what would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday and was made up of Bragg’s new settings of Guthrie’s unrecorded lyrics, and while the Bard of Barking took the time and trouble to put each song in context it never felt like a sociology lesson and there was plenty of room for some excellent and seemingly spontaneous banter. Bragg is self-deprecatory about his talents (“I’m not a musician, I’m a guitarist. A musician is someone who can play the piano, or the flute. Playing the guitar’s more like a trick, like playing the spoons”) but he sounds like a pretty authentic country-blues man to me, and he can really project vocally. And he gets extra points for refusing to let Sky broadcast his set.

4. The most extraordinary achievement I witnessed on a technical level was the pristine sound that the crew managed for The Unthanks with The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band. It’s basically the equivalent of a full orchestra, set up and soundchecked within half an hour. The Unthanks specialise in heartbreaking, but never depressing, tales of Northern woe (pit disasters, drunkenness and wife beating, and so on) and the mournful backing their songs get here is the perfect fit, particularly when the arrangements are this skilfully worked out and played. It’s not all dismality though – there’s a Las Vegas arrangement of the traditional folk tune Queen Of Hearts thrown in, and towards the end the singers leave the stage and let the band run through the immortal Floral Dance. All that’s missing is Terry Wogan.

3. John Prine is a country-rock singer-songwriter who’s been releasing albums since the early 70s and is highly rated by many people who ought to know, including Bob Dylan. I’d never knowingly heard or sought out anything by him before Friday night, possibly because his album covers are so horrible (mullets, droopy taches, singlets, cars). More fool me – he comes on stage on his own, armed only with a couple of beat-up acoustic guitars, and reels off around a dozen utterly brilliant compositions, delivered in a beautifully seasoned, gravel-lined croon. His subject matter tends to be the trials, travails and lovelife complications of the ordinary working man, which is hardly original, but he has such a good ear for the telling detail and the killer rhyme that you believe every word. On the evidence of this set he’s as great as Johnny Cash or Tom Waits, and considerably more nuanced than Springsteen. Gonna go and get all those albums ASAP, and display those sleeves with pride.

2. June Tabor is folk royalty, and The Oysterband are pretty damn respected too so I thought it would only be polite to make an effort to see them, even if I did fear that we’d get one or two between-song lectures about how history is mis-reported by the victors and how the Romany people are still unfairly oppressed. Turns out we did get said lectures, but my God did the formidable Ms Tabor earn the right – she’s fiercely intelligent and articulate, besides being possibly the greatest singer I’ve ever witnessed live. Don’t know what it is, but when she sings something you believe every word. Her band for the night are pretty damn versatile too, capable of laying down supple and powerful grooves that are the equal of any stadium headliner you could mention. Most impressive of all is their willingness to take on material outside of the traditional folk canon: three songs in they completely nail The Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties with a version that while lacking the monolithic weirdness of the original still maintains its ominous thrum. They captured my heart with that, then broke it into little pieces a little later by rendering Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart as a funereal harmony-laden ballad, before throwing in a cheeky take on Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit as a sweetener. Absolutely awesome, man, and my highpoint of the festival, with the possible exception of…

1. As previously reported, the great folk guitarist and singer Nic Jones has been absent from the live circuit for thirty years, due to life-threatening injuries suffered in a car accident in 1982. In recent years he’s been writing and singing again, but his live appearances have been limited to the odd guest spot here and there, so his 45 minute set here is nothing short of historic. These days Jones doesn’t play the guitar live but this isn’t the drawback it might appear as his son Joseph is on hand, and miraculously he seems to have inherited his father’s hitherto-unique skill with the instrument, making it function as percussive as much as harmonic backing. There’s also a keyboard player, Belinda O’Hooley, to complete the small but perfectly formed combo. I must admit to a certain amount of foreboding about this performance, as I was worried that Jones might not yet be up to the task of presenting his act to a live audience, but as soon as you catch sight of him enthusiastically bobbing around the wings you somehow know that everything’s going to be all right. More than all right, in fact – this is a brilliant, moving, intimate, funny set, delivered with warmth and much inter-band banter. Jones may be reading his lyrics from a lectern these days, but he still sings like an angel, with an edge of vulnerability that tears at the heart. The material is a nice mix of new and old and traditional and surprising – the songs from the classic Penguin Eggs probably go down best with the crowd, but he finds space for a couple of quite beautiful recent compositions, and a stellar cover of Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees. Everyone in the tent seems to be on a high by the end, including Jones, who seems like he would be happy to go on all night. A very special set.

Honourable mentions to Benjamin Francis Leftwich, James Vincent McMorrow, Eska and Lau. Biggest, and in fact only, disappointment: Joan Armatrading, who seems to have betrayed her considerable powers as a songwriter and singer by persisting with a horrible stadium band who litter her songs with turd-like guitar solos and nasty synthetic keyboard sounds. I know the Folk Festival’s supposed to be a bit retro, but I was expecting 1588, not 1988.

* They didn’t play it in the end. I know, I was there. Though they did play Teenage Kicks and Grinderswitch’s Pickin’ The Blues (the old Peel show theme tune).

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Adam Buxton’s Bug, The Junction, Cambridge 22nd July 2012

I’ve not been posting much recently, as I’ve been heavily pre-occupied (in a good way) with something else so haven’t had the chance to see or read or listen to much worth reporting on (although I have managed to get through the first season of Game Of Thrones, which provided suitably ludicrous light relief from my labours). I’m about to emerge blinking into the sunlight though, so this blog should start seeing more frequent updates than I’ve managed over the last month.

Something I did make a point of catching though was Adam Buxton’s Bug, a presentation of weird and wonderful videos that started off as an occasional show at the BFI on London’s South Bank and has now graduated to a TV show on Sky Atlantic. I haven’t got access to Sky, but as part of Cambridge’s Comedy Festival Adam appeared at The Junction on Sunday with a ninety minute version of the show.

Bug looks on paper like a pretty lazy concept – essentially a bunch of YouTube clips which don’t have much to do with each other, with some links and anecdotes to hold it together – but Buxton cares about his stuff and has put together an evening that’s both surprisingly slick and hi-tech, and pleasingly down-to-earth and accessible. Not to mention frequently hilarious. He cut his teeth as one half of the legendary Adam & Joe, who spent the 90s making fantastically funny and irreverent TV shows which sent up media pomposity with wit and no small invention, before embarking on a radio career that culminated in their legendary BBC 6music show that’s probably the funniest thing I’ve come across so far this century.

Adam & Joe are on indefinite hiatus while Joe Cornish pursues his promising career as a proper movie director. This is obviously a damn shame but at least Adam’s still around to entertain us with painstakingly collated weirdness and trivia, orchestrated via a Keynote presentation from his MacBook. The bulk of what he shows are videos to accompany terrifyingly cutting-edge dance tracks, and while the music is usually pretty challenging to my ears the visuals are generally eye-poppingly effective. We get retro board games being used to illustrate wave forms before being mutilated and minced, a gang of kids’ harmless shoot-out with toy weapons being transformed into something downright sinister with the addition of cartoon splurges of gore and a South African performance art couple’s bizarre take on an everyday instance of family conflict. Adam provides top quality added value by highlighting and sending up the witless and invariably terribly spelled comments that YouTube viewers have left – he’s irrepressibly exhibitionist in a lovely self-deprecatory way and his range of funny voices is, unusually for a comedian, genuinely hilarious. There are also some home movies and spoofs (Adam’s a pretty competent film-maker and knows some very talented directors so these are much slicker than you might expect from the description), a truly disturbing take on Gordon Ramsay’s inner cell structure, some conceptual art oddities (William Wegman’s synchronised weimaranas are mesmerising) and a piece called City Of Samba that renders the Rio carnival into something that looks like it’s being performed by stop motion models. This last isn’t funny at all but is definitely absolutely extraordinary. If anything there’s too much to take in and your head starts feeling over-stimulated, but the beauty is that you can watch everything again at home at your leisure afterwards. On the basis of this night out I’d recommend you watch the TV show if you’re at all interested in seeing what amazing visuals are possible to achieve with a bit of technology and a lot of imagination.

Moonrise Kingdom: pubescent storm

Moonrise Kingdom is a quirky comedy-drama that overcomes any objections you might have to its potentially queasy subject matter of two twelve year olds falling in love by its unpredictable and consistently charming script, some deftly deadpan performances by a supporting cast of old pros and above all the great natural beauty of its location: a lush and largely unspoiled island off New England, the lovely primary-coloured houses, school halls and police stations of which house a reassuringly eclectic assortment of oddballs. Amongst the latter we find two sympathetic and somewhat unfulfilled authority figures in the shape of Bruce Willis’s police officer Captain Sharp and Edward Norton’s scoutmaster Randy Ward. It’s these two who have to launch an island-wide hunt when precocious orphan Sam absconds from scout camp with Suzy, the daughter of a pair of brittle and argumentative lawyers. For added drama, an on-screen narrator pops up to inform us that a major storm is on its way.

Director Wes Anderson has always taken a mannered and stylised approach to his various accounts of troubled well-heeled families, which has in my view generally made for films that are gorgeous to look at but often difficult to properly engage with as the characters tend to be irritatingly insular, over-articulate and selfish. In this respect Moonrise Kingdom isn’t any great departure, but it’s somehow a lot more involving than the other Anderson films I’ve seen, maybe because the storyline is relatively linear and kicks in straight away, and maybe because it’s a lot easier to believe in a self-absorbed pair of lead characters if they happen to be children. Sam is a bespectacled and slightly smarmy geek, but he’s a resourceful one and displays courage and initiative at more than one crisis point while Suzy is unhappy and misunderstood, but more than willing to take the chance to break free from her lonely life when someone ready to take her on an adventure turns up. The scenes of the couple getting to know each other could easily have seemed embarrassing or exploitative so its nice to report that they’re actually quite sweet, with young actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward acquitting themselves well.

Moonrise Kingdom comes in at a commendably brisk 94 minutes, and after all the meteorological hints dropped at the start you can kind of guess the nature of the climax, although the through-route of the plot may surprise you. Fans of Bill Murray will want to see this just for another variation on his world-weary schtick, and you’re never going to do better for a starchy social services representative than Tilda Swinton, but it’s surprisingly Bruce Willis who turns out to be the heart of the film, and he doesn’t even get to defuse any bombs. Above all, this is worth a watch just for the scenery: coastlines, meadows, forests and pleasingly precisely maintained scout camps. And the font used for the credits is divine.

RIP The Word Magazine 2003 – 2012

A couple of days ago the news came through to me (via Twitter, how modern) that The Word magazine was closing. This was kind of a shock – it’s the only magazine of any type that I make a point of reading every month, and there have been none of the tell-tale drop-offs in quality or desperate advertising promotions in recent issues that would have been indications that it was destined for the dumper. It would be tastelessly melodramatic to compare the closure of a music periodical to the death of a friend, but I did feel surprisingly upset about it, and I’m far from the only one judging from the flood of despondent messages on the magazine’s online forum. So what’s the big deal?

Word (the definite article was added later) was set up in 2003 by media old hands David Hepworth and Mark Ellen, who you may remember from their stint as Old Grey Whistle Test presenters even if you didn’t know about their central roles in the launches of such august publications as Smash Hits, Q, Empire, Heat and even Just Seventeen. All successful brands, but you get the definite feeling that The Word is where their hearts lay – it was a small-scale, independently produced venture (though no less glossy or less packed with interviews with respected elder statesmen of rock than its nearest competitors Mojo and Uncut) run by an enthusiastic and talented team out of a small office in Islington. It was clearly aimed at a relatively affluent, literate and middle-aged demographic and Hepworth and Ellen positively relished running features of unusual length and depth on eminent music veterans, backstage histories and interesting newcomers as well as, somewhat less characteristically for this type of magazine, cutting edge developments in digital music and the internet and the changes these would force on both the industry and listeners’ habits. Hepworth in particular has always been willing to embrace and discuss media innovations that might, ironically, eventually herald the demise of traditional periodical publishing, and The Word spawned two offshoots that are great examples of how a magazine can succeed in engaging with its audience via digital means: the aforementioned forum, the regular users of which are unusually articulate and tolerant of lively debate, and the weekly podcast, which typically featured Hepworth and Ellen informally chewing over topical issues with a rotating cast of guest journalists and musicians. In case of all of this sounds a bit po-faced I should emphasise that the main reason The Word engendered such an unusual degree of affection and loyalty from its readers was that it was fun: unpretentious, witty, well-informed and often approaching established showbiz phenomena from angles that simply would never have occurred to you. I managed to unexpectedly fluke my way onto the podcast once, and after chatting with Mark Ellen afterwards I can confirm that he really is as funny, generous and engaging in real life as he comes across in the podcast and in print.

I’m not too devastated by the magazine’s closure, though. Hepworth’s always been a canny and unsentimental operator and I’d be surprised if he hasn’t got a strong idea about what he’s going to do next – an internet or tablet-only incarnation of something reassuringly Word-like seems like a good possibility to me. But I’ll miss The Word – even if I wasn’t always that interested in the subject matter (a prog-rock special, anyone?) the writing was usually accessible and incisive enough to make the thing worth reading more or less cover to cover. And I was looking forward to more of the gigs they’d started to put on recently (like this one)…and I’d never have come across C.W.Stoneking with them…and the free CDs were pretty good sometimes too…pah. Where’s me real ale and Incredible String Band boxset when I need em?