I finally ended my four month long gig drought last night and in a new and exciting change for me the act I went to see wasn’t someone of pensionable age. The 18 year old Jake Bugg was one of my highlights of the Cambridge Folk Festival last year when he lit up the room (or tent, to be accurate) armed only with an acoustic guitar, a distinctively plaintive and refreshingly regional vocal style and an enormously pleasing set of brisk and skiffly confections which seemed to hark back to a less complicated age. Since then his career has progressed very satisfactorily, with a bestselling album, a sell-out tour and a fair amount of exposure in the media, where his unique selling points tend to be reduced to youth and authenticity. These angles seem a bit beside the point to me – I like him mainly because he knows how to knock out catchy unpretentious tunes that don’t strain for significance and don’t hang around too long. Judging by the enthusiastic response at the Corn Exchange last night I’m not alone.
Bugg’s now got some musicians to back him up, but the line-up’s about as minimal as it could be to qualify as a full band: just a drummer and a bassist, neither of whom contribute much if anything in the way of backing vocals, with the only concession to rock’n’roll extravagance being the impressive range of guitars the main man gets to play during the course of the set. They crack through the songs from the album with a minimum of fuss, the faster ones jogging along with the zip and charm of Eddie Cochrane and the ballads (which Bugg tends to play solo) having something of the supple and melodic wistfulness of Simon and Garfunkel about them. The sound in the hall is great and the lad can really sing, though his clear high-register crooning makes an incongruous contrast with his barely audible song introductions and half-embarrassed thank yous to the crowd. This reticence is maybe the main factor preventing the show from really taking off – you can’t fault him for not having developed a convincing show-man schtick yet what with the speed with which his career has rocketed but there is a sense that this performance is possibly a bit rushed and perfunctory, with opportunities to exploit the dynamics and contrasts of his material not really exploited. A clue to both this slightly dour persona and another possible influence is given by his choice of encore, Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, the lolloping beat of which the band render very convincingly. He’s over and out in under an hour, and the hearteningly mixed age audience lap it up, particularly the sprightly anthems Lightning Bolt and Two Fingers, although the tendency of certain audience members to insist on whooping and chatting noisily during the slow ones does detract somewhat from the experience. It would be nice to see him again in a slightly less barn-like environment, though at this rate the next chance to see him you might be at the O2. As an antidote to both maufactured X factor style pop and achingly hip and challenging indie-rock I can highly recommend him, mumbled stage banter and all.