Category Archives: Live

Cate Le Bon, Cambridge Junction, February 10 2014

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Cate Le Bon’s hour long set at The Junction last night was brisk, efficient and surprisingly loud and crunchy. Surprising to me, anyway – for some unfathomable reason I’d had her tagged somewhere down the hippy corner of the indie-alternative scene and had been expecting a few bespoke acoustic instruments and possibly some onstage basket weaving and pot throwing as well, but other than the occasional bit of swirly organ reminding me of paisley patterned wallpaper this was a no-nonsense rocking-out set played at high volume but with enough clarity to be able to pick out all the lovely fiddly bits that help give Le Bon’s music its distinctive offbeat character. Other significant distinguishing factors are her wistful, highly proficient and definitely Welsh vocals (she sustains some of the high notes for very impressive stretches of time) and the slightly lurching, loping nature of her compositions. The band (which contains notable musicians Sweet Baboo on bass and H. Hawkline on guitar and keyboards) is as tight as a drum, but the tendency towards including bars containing irregular numbers of beats, unconventional accenting and chord sequences that never quite develop or resolve as you’d expect make the songs as hard to dance to as they’re intriguing to listen to. There’s no shortage of catchy hooks though, as a few listens to the lead tracks I Can’t Help You and Are You With Me Now from her recent Mug Museum album will make clear, and there’s no hint of any proggy indulgence. In the end the only disappointment is the absence of mugs for the sale at the merchandise stand, but that’s a pretty churlish complaint given the musicians’ friendliness and willingness to chat to the fans after the gig. A lovely night out.

Anna Calvi, The Troxy, London, February 8 2014

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English singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Calvi doesn’t seem to be that well known to the great music buying public, possibly because she doesn’t fit neatly into any convenient marketing category, but on the evidence of last night’s gig at The Troxy in east London (a rather beautiful venue, incidentally, which looks like it was a probably a ballroom in a former life) she deserves to be a major star. Her restrained appearance, non-existent stage banter and tastefully minimal back-up band (drummer, keyboard player and percussionist, with the latter two occasionally taking turns on bass) don’t give much of a clue to what’s coming, but believe me, this was a full-on rock’n’roll monster of a set.

Calvi’s stock-in-trade is to set up broody, pulsing atmospherics in which her impeccably twangy electric guitar conjures up lovelorn encounters in oppressive badland locales before soaring operatic choruses dramatically raise the stakes – it’s impressive on record, but quite astonishing to witness live. Imagine the soundtrack to a desert-set David Lynch movie suddenly ramping up into a full-blown torch song and you’re getting somewhere close. Flame-haired divas whose lung-power can fill a hall without the aid of a PA system are not so unusual, but Calvi’s unique in being a genuine guitar hero too, with a technical grasp and inventive flair that would put a lot of prog-rock veterans to shame. She hardly ever resorts to mere strumming while she’s singing, usually picking out spare but ingenious riffs and counter-melodies but sometimes pulling off complex and quite alarmingly ferocious wig-outs. I don’t normally comment on or even notice the lighting at gigs, but here the lightshow complements the music with rare taste and effectiveness, picking Calvi and her Fender out in silhouette as she shreds her way through her solos. The dominant colour is red, which fits as Calvi’s songs seem be to be constantly evoking images of heat, passion and flame, and her choice of Springsteen’s “Fire” as a cover version couldn’t be more appropriate. The pacing, arrangements and dynamics of these songs are highly impressive: none of them seem to go on a second longer than they need to and they all seem as spare and pruned of extraneous layers of sound as they could possible be. The sound in the room is excellent, with Calvi’s powerful vocals ringing out even in the loudest passages and lots of lovely reverb-y space in the quiet parts.

After an encore featuring her rousing singles Blackout and Jezebel Calvi calls it a night…at this venue, anyway. A solo show follows straight on at a pub down the road for those lucky ticket holders not reliant on public transport to get home. She’s an amazing talent, and her profile might get considerably higher before too long: with this much command of the whole sultry/operatic thing surely a Bond theme sometime soon is an inevitability? See her if you get the chance.

Sweet Baboo, The Portland Arms, Cambridge, 20 November 2013

SweetBaboo1I’m getting to really love The Portland Arms as a venue. It’s just the right size to accommodate a band and an audience that’s still able to see the whites of the musician’s eyes even from the back of the hall without it feeling like you’re squashed into someone’s front room, and you generally get excellent sound too. After getting up close and personal with The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band and The Wave Pictures in recent months I went to see Sweet Baboo last night and it was every bit as great a gig as those that went before it.

Sweet Baboo is the stage name of Welsh singer-songwriter-guitarist Stephen Black, and he’s been releasing singles and albums containing charming romantic ballads and boppers for a few years now. He’s been playing live for ages too, though I think this is his first tour as a headliner rather than a support act, in promotion of recent album Ships and the EP Motorhome. On the evidence of this show he and his tastefully minimal band (just bass and drums) deserve their top-of-the-bill status for sure – despite arriving to the venue late due to traffic snarl-ups on a cold and miserable evening and thus failing to get a soundcheck and being forced to set up in front of a waiting crowd they deliver a beautifully rounded set of what sound like instant classics to me and have the good taste to keep it short (I think they were done within an hour) and leave the people wanting more.

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I was in fact really taken aback by how much attack and focus the band had, and how skilfully they managed to vary the dynamics. On record, Baboo’s songs run the risk of sounding a bit winsome and lightweight to me, with his clever way with a mundane metaphor (“this is a song about the Cardiff University electric library”) sometimes standing out as much more interesting than the pleasantly strummed guitars that form the basis for most of the backing tracks. On stage however the band properly rocks and at times even convincingly wigs out – that impressive array of effects pedals is not just there for show – but this is never at the expense of the songs and their melodic and lyrical charms. Baboo turns out to be, like David Tattersall of The Wave Pictures, a really impressive guitarist, capable of lovely flamenco and country flourishes on the acoustic guitar he picks up for the “mellow” section of the set, while his band prove themselves to be positively supple, grooving where appropriate or dialing it down for the quiet numbers (incidentally, I’m very taken with that black Epiphone bass guitar, though I’m not sure I’ve got the funds or houseroom for it). Despite all this conspicuous flair, Baboo maintains a convivial if slightly reticent tone to his between-song chat, as if he can hardly believe that anyone would bother to come out and see him play, though the fact that the room isn’t quite packed is probably more down to the weather than to him.

Baboo rounds the evening off with a solo encore of Tom Waits Rip Off and then heads straight over to man the merch stall, in typically self-effacing style. It’s been a brilliant gig. In one of his songs he’s got the line “Daniel Johnston has got loads of great songs, and I’ve got six” – I think he’s seriously underestimating himself. Catch him while he’s still playing in rooms at the back of pubs.

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Rush: rat race

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Rush is a brash and pacy account of the fierce rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. I’m no student of motor racing and have no idea how much artistic license has been taken here but the way the movie tells it you couldn’t have made up two more sharply contrasting personalities: Hunt is a leonine devil-may-care playboy who spends his off-track hours boozing, drugging, and shagging glamorous models, while Lauda is a fastidious tact-free control freak who seems to regard other people’s desire for human companionship to be a sign of weakness. What they have in common is a mile-wide competitive streak and formidable talent behind the wheel, enough to take both to the brink of becoming world champion in 1976, and that particular season turned out to have moments of drama so singular that makes you wonder why they took so long to make a film out of it.

Ron Howard directs from a script by Peter Morgan, who’s got some impressive form in bringing to life famous 1970s confrontations (see Frost/NixonThe Damned United and The Last King Of Scotland). This is, thankfully, not an experimental or arty piece – it’s tightly focussed on the two men, there’s plenty of helpful expository dialogue and on-screen captions to let you know what’s happening and why and it showcases two really rather excellent performances by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. Hemsworth is apparently Australian but you’d never guess he wasn’t born to good old English privilege and wealth based on what you see here: he captures that combination of floppy-haired charm and old-school entitlement beautifully. Brühl on the other hand has the harder job of getting the audience on-side with the obsessive and asocial Lauda but he pulls it off very well and is considerably aided in his mission by the deadpan and cutting zingers he gets handed by Morgan’s script. The verbal duelling between the two leads was in fact for me a lot more effective than the bulk of the footage of the actual races, which tends to be presented in fast-cutting montages and close-ups that don’t have the physicality of something like the chariot race in Ben-Hur, though as the season reaches its nerve-wracking climax I found myself drawn into the action despite myself.

I’ve probably got the advantage over fans of the sport in that beyond one or two hazy details I had no idea going into the film as to how this story plays out but in the end I found it thrilling, despite my longstanding bewilderment at the appeal of watching fast cars go round and round a track for hours. For fans of F1 this film is I suspect required viewing.

Thomas Dolby: The Invisible Lighthouse

ThomasDolbyLighthouseSo that makes two idiosyncratically English songwriters that I’ve seen play live in Screen One of the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge in support of their new films in the space of two days, though I think you can safely say that the seasoned producer, session player and electronic games designer Thomas Dolby possesses just a touch more technical competence than the blessed John Otway. He’s not however known as a director and this presentation of his forty minute film The Invisible Lighthouse has more of the ambitious Pink Floyd-style concert-plus-lightshow about it than your typical film festival screening: Dolby provides live narration, soundtracking and inventive visual effects from the side of the auditorium while his movie plays, making this a unique and personal event.

…which is nicely appropriate, given the subject matter and the autobiographical slant Dolby has given it – his roots are in Suffolk and he grew up near the coast among the peculiarly bleak flatlands of Orford Ness, where a lighthouse has stood since the eighteenth century*. This area is gradually being reclaimed by the sea and the lighthouse (which at one point boasted the most powerful lamp of any in the United Kingdom) was finally deemed unsafe and decommissioned in 2013. On hearing the news Dolby, who has in recent years returned to live here again, felt moved to mark the passing of what he remembered as a formative influence on his childhood by shooting what is in effect a home movie, albeit one that’s been shot and assembled using modern digital technology. He weaves his memories of the lighthouse and its landscape together with stories from his family history and he turns out to have had plenty of illustrious forebears including the builder of the barley malting plant of Snape Maltings, now an arts complex, and the first woman to become the mayor of an English town (Aldeburgh). He’s determined to be present when the lighthouse shines out for the last time but receives scant support from the Ministry of Defence and the National Trust, the bodies responsible for the spit of land on which the lighthouse stands, so takes the opportunity to go on a dawn commando-style reconnaissance mission in his speedboat down one of the murky channels that criss-cross the site and thankfully gets out without detonating any of the unexploded warheads supposedly still concealed in the shingle. At one point the film digresses in a slightly Sebald-ish manner into an account of a dubious extra-terrestrial sighting in a local wood and Dolby has rounded up the footage of US army personnel swearing blind that they witnessed something metallic dissolve into liquid and vanish through the trees (if you want to visit the spot in question it seems to be clearly signposted on a woodland UFO trail). If nothing else this film is a lovely look into a highly distinctive part of the country that very rarely gets much exposure outside regional news bulletins.

After the screening the confident and affable Dolby chats about why and how he chose to make his movie and even goes into the detail of how much particular bits of equipment cost him: he reckons the total cost of the project to be of the order of a modest £1,500. It’s unlikely to receive a conventional release, either in cinemas or on DVD, as he prefers to be present when it’s shown and besides he still enjoys tinkering with it – the beauty of it existing only on his laptop is that it’s easy to chop and change elements without inconveniencing anyone but himself. He rounds off the evening with a few of his old songs, the backing tracks of which have been pre-programmed into his keyboards, and even this provides an impressively multimedia experience with footage from his 80s videos and the visual representations of the songs on his computer being seamlessly projected behind him while he sings. He’s clearly fascinated by the possibilities of technology and is something of a master of the software – the only mechanism that lets him down is the mechanical pivot he uses to secure one of his keyboards to his waist which fails rather badly when he attempts a ZZ Top style spin of the instrument, not that it seems to affect the smooth playing of the music at all. I bought my first Thomas Dolby single in 1981 and now I’ve got to see him live, and at a film festival too. This was an unexpected treat.

* Interestingly Brian Eno, Dolby’s chief competitor in the electronic music boffin stakes, hails from nearby Woodbridge. Must be something in the water.

The Wave Pictures at The Portland Arms, Cambridge, September 11 2013

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I’ve been remiss. I’ve only recently become aware of The Wave Pictures and on the evidence of Wednesday’s gig at the Portland Arms this represents a rather serious case of cultural oversight on my part. They’re a trio from somewhere in Leicestershire who have it seems been regularly releasing collections of witty and infectious deconstructions of personal relationships and neuroses (with particular reference to household condiments) for the last ten years or so. Their wikipedia page lists The Smiths, Jonathan Richman, Darren Hayman, Jeffrey Lewis and The Mountain Goats amongst their influences and collaborators, which places them so firmly in my ball-park they’re practically sitting on my lap and nibbling on my burrito, and if the two or three albums that I’ve heard are anything to go by their songwriter David Tattersall deserves to be as celebrated as any of the above. Musically they come over initially as classic jangly indie-pop, but close attention reveals a rare fluency and judgement in the arrangements and playing. This date was the first on a tour to promote a new album City Forgiveness (which curiously their record company are not going to be releasing for another couple of months) which will be something like their thirteenth…difficult to believe given Tattersall still looks like he’s in the sixth form.

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Support is provided by Mammoth Penguin, who would be worth a mention just for their splendid name even if they weren’t a pretty good power trio in their own right. Their pleasingly diffident and self-deprecatory stage manner contrasts nicely with the crunchy vigour of their performance and the distinctive full-throated delivery of the singer and the crowd get behind them enthusiastically. A short set of short but eventful songs, just the way I like it.

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In what must be a first the main act takes to the stage slightly before the advertised starting time and without any ceremony kick things off with a nimble take on Spaghetti. It’s clear straight away that this is one talented band. Drummer Jonny Helm is all over his kit, managing to hold down a light funky beat at the same time as providing backing vocals while the seemingly unflappable Franic Rozycki (who I saw in June on this very stage playing mandolin in The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel band) plays his bass like a master, throwing in unexpected melodic runs up and down the neck but never straying into irritating muso territory. It’s David Tattersall’s guitar playing however that’s the real revelation: slightly obscured on record by his defiantly English vocals and wordplay it’s actually a bit of a wonder to behold, with full-on bluesy solos, crisp choppy chord-work and delicate picky bits being effortlessly despatched, all on a slightly battered looking Les Paul with no effects pedals anywhere in evidence. I really hadn’t expected anything half as accomplished, and that he’s also able to find his way through his sometimes knotty and tongue-twistery lyrics without fouling up once makes it even more impressive.

From the first song on you know that you’re in safe hands and the evening flies by. They play songs old and new, including one from the forthcoming album that features high-life style guitar playing that recalls Paul Simon’s Graceland, and a couple (Now You Are Pregnant and Sleepy Eye) that afford Jonny Helm an opportunity to emerge from behind his kit and treat us to his soulful lead vocals – honestly, he looks like he’s having his very heart torn in two while he’s singing them. The material ranges from old school indie stompers (Leave The Scene Behind) through ballads (Red Wine Teeth) and even something that sounds a bit like a proper respectable blues. One of the most striking aspects is the band’s willingness to leave space in their material (instruments often drop out and sometimes Franic’s bass is the only sound to be heard) and to be, you know, quiet. On a couple of occasions Tattersall mutes his guitar right down and starts singing a song softly off-mic – at first the chatter from the back of the audience drowns him out, but it doesn’t take long for people to catch on, shut up and give him their full attention. You can’t imagine ever witnessing this kind of dynamic at Wembley Stadium.

WavePictures3After ninety minutes or so they leave us with the rowdy Friday Night In Loughborough and the house lights come on…except they don’t leave us, they go straight to the back of the room to man the merchandise stall. This gig was a rare treat. If you like your pop quirky and literate and English you should go see this group as soon as you can, and even if you don’t you should probably go anyway just because they’re such damn good musicians.

Guest blog! Nicola reviews the live “David Bowie Is Happening Now” event

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Back in June I went to the much talked about David Bowie Is exhibition at the V & A (after rediscovering my fascination for the man a couple of years ago. Here’s guest blogger Nicola’s take on the screening of the event that was held to mark its closing in London:

I didn’t see the Bowie exhibition at the V & A, making me, it seems, one of only a few Bowie fans for whom it didn’t appeal. The live event ‘David Bowie is happening now’, transmitted live to cinemas across the UK, however did.  The chance to hear the curators talking about the exhibition pieces and explaining why particular artefacts from Bowie’s archive were considered representative of its themes was the draw.

The event got off to a shaky start with the presenters directing their opening words to the audience members at the V&A and not to camera.  With the presenters turning their heads in every direction other than straight ahead it looked like they couldn’t find the right camera.  And nerves got the better of one presenter who couldn’t wrestle them into submission for the best part of the show.

As one might expect, we were guided around from the beginning of the exhibition with live commentary and pre-recorded footage from guest commentators and members of the public, before the focus returned to the stage with the first of a series of special guests being invited to talk, setting the format for the evening as we were slowly led around the various rooms.

Guests included Hanif Kureishi, Kansai Yamamoto, Jarvis Cocker, Sir Christopher Frayling, Paul Morley, Terry O’Neill and Michael Clark, providing plenty of added value.  When clothes designer Kansai Yamamoto took to the stage the event really took off.  He was clearly moved by the recognition of his talents via the inclusion of his iconic pieces.  By his own admission, his English hadn’t improved much in the decades since he created the Aladdin Sane outfit, but there was a power in his delivery even as he struggled to find the next word.  He managed to raise a ripple of laughter when he revealed that  the first time he met his future muse Bowie was wearing an outfit he had designed to be worn by women.  All the invited guests spoke well and interestingly and had something different to say – there was only one fawning appreciation of Bowie but this inclusion was to represent the fan.

Standout moments included the shared amazement that Bowie had the foresight to keep EVERYTHING: every doodle, every scribble, every scrap ensuring a comprehensive archive; Bowie’s vision: he thought BIG from the outset and refined his ideas on paper; his skill at finding the right collaborators; Paul Morley and others commenting on Bowie’s naive handwriting on scrawled lyrics, which make Bowie’s genius appear to be mere child’s play, belying the enduring power and magnificence of the songs they became; members of the public impressing on today’s audience the impact of Bowie singing Starman on TV; the colour and flamboyance of every new persona he invented, many represented by beautifully tailored outfits; and the photographic images taken throughout Bowie’s long musical career that, in Nicholas Coleridge’s words, somehow remain timeless.

Michael Clark discussed Bowie’s legacy which the exhibition successfully conveys.  The live event covered much of what one would expect, yet the production team were wise not to gloss over the rich seams captured in the details that lead one to a better understanding of the subject, thus also retaining the exhibition’s inspirational quality. One pre-recorded voice in particular struck a chord: a young visitor to the exhibition said that, having seen Bowie’s hand-written lyrics, she was going home to have a go.

Sir Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, wanted to make the Pompeii exhibition accessible to as many people as possible.  Hence, he brought the exhibition to the UK’s cinema screens.  With the Bowie exhibition being the fastest selling sell-out exhibition in the V&A’s history, the screening of the live event meant that anyone who wasn’t lucky enough get a ticket could still get a taste of what they missed, which has got to be a good thing.  Although, for anyone who would still like to see the Bowie exhibition in person, I am pleased to report that it is a travelling exhibition, ending in Paris in 2015.

Cambridge Folk Festival, 25 – 28 July 2013, with photos by Soo Martin

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My second year attending the wonder that is the Cambridge Folk Festival, and whereas last year was about acclimatisation and making sure I didn’t miss the acts I’d noted in advance this time I went for a looser, more scattergun approach – wandering in and out of things and trying not to buckle to the pressure to be in the crowd for the big names if there happened to be something that sounded more interesting going on elsewhere. As before, I’m astonished at the quality of this event on more or less every level, from the artists on the bill to the catering and clear-up arrangements to the intoxicatingly tempting stalls selling musical instruments to the uniformly polite and considerate attendees. If you’re remotely interested in unpretentious and vital music where the spectacle’s all in the playing rather than the trappings it’s really worth considering getting a ticket even if you’re not sure about folk as a genre.

So here are some impressions of the acts I saw, with photographic evidence provided by the excellent Soo Martin (apart from the two blurry ones, which are courtesy of my rubbish camera phone). I’m very aware I inevitably missed a whole bunch of good stuff, but you can’t be in five places at once, even at a festival this geographically compact. This is going to ramble on a bit, so you might want to get yourself a cup of tea (herbal, naturally) at this point.

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Opening slot at the Club Tent goes to The Brass Funkeys, a local ensemble who specialise in pumping out lively versions of pop standards rearranged for trombone, trumpet, sax and especially pleasingly, sousaphone. They get everyone bopping with their takes on Seven Nation ArmyOne Step Beyond and Sweet Dreams and there’s almost tangible disappointment in the crowd when they have to wrap it up after only forty minutes. Next year they deserve to be headlining somewhere.

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Husband and wife duo Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, formerly of seasoned folk outfit Equation, have recently re-emerged after a period of maternity and paternity leave with a strong new album Hidden People, from which much of their set here is drawn. It’s respectful, traditional sounding stuff that showcases Roberts’ powerful voice (particularly on the sinister ballad Huldra, sung with no accompaniment) and the duo’s talent for narrative songwriting.

WillyMason

Willy Mason is a world-weary bluesman’s name if I’ve ever heard one, and despite still only being in his twenties the man in question sure lives up to it. His voice is soulful and lived-in, his delivery is laconic and his songs are pleasingly full of tough lessons, though the compositions display an originality and invention slightly at odds with his sleepy-eyed stage persona. He’s best when playing solo, or with just one of his cohorts playing a saw behind him – when the full band come on he tends to get a bit drowned out, particularly by the keyboard which has surely been given far too much prominence in the mix.

RustyShackle

Meanwhile, my Club Tent correspondent reports that Welsh quintet Rusty Shackle are a right laugh, and big fans of lampshades too.

LucyRose

Upcoming star Lucy Rose seems slightly bemused to be playing at a folk festival, and understandably so as her music has almost nothing of the traditional about it. It’s pretty impressive nonetheless, and the audience love it despite an absence to my ears of easy crowd-pleasing devices like hooks and obvious choruses: it’s a blend of dance beats, complex riffs that never quite settle into grooves and Rose’s delicate vocals and guitar playing.

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I only caught the end of Ellie Rusbridge‘s set at the intimate Den but wished I’d seen more – charming and baroque fiddle-adorned chamber-pop, slightly in the manner of Regina Spektor. A lovely way to come down after a loud evening in a packed marquee.

DeadRatOrchestra

Well, that was unexpected, who knew cotton field hollering was alive and well in Colchester? That far flung town’s Dead Rat Orchestra alternate sultry dirges performed on violin and harmonium with O Brother Where Art Thou style spirituals and it’s a heady mix. At one point the three committedly bearded men place a log in the middle of tent and go at it with hatchets, the blows forming a percussive backdrop for one heartfelt acapella lament. Were Health & Safety consulted about this?

LarkinPoe

Larkin Poe are as bright and radio friendly as the writers who make up their name are doomy and depressing. Rebecca and Megan are two-thirds of former folk act The Lovell Sisters, and it’s presumably elder sister Jessica who was the major roots music fan as the new group trade in commercial hooky pop that seems tailor made for accompanying videos featuring fast cars and deserts. They’re pretty talented, mind: good tunes and good voices, and the appearance of a mandolin and a dobro gives a clue to where they came from musically.

DarrellScott

My pick of the festival, and one I really didn’t see coming, is journeyman songwriter and guitarist Darrell Scott. I’d never even heard of him before the Friday, but his fifty minute solo set on Stage 2 left me gasping. This man is the full package. He’s got brilliant, evocative, carefully structured and disciplined songs, sung in a rich, warm and unfussy style, and as a player he’s impossibly talented, with his fingers dextrously picking out complex patterns in places where the compositions need variety and drama, or strumming cleanly and unshowily where the words and vocal melodies need to ring out. His subject matter tends to be drawn from his impoverished upbringing in Tennessee and he throws in some background about this and his close relationship with his musician father between numbers. Go see him if he ever happens to be playing on the same landmass as you.

Levellers

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This far into their rabble-rousing career alt-folkies The Levellers could probably raise the roof at a festival in their sleep. Thankfully, they’re very definitely awake for this one and do exactly what the occasion demands by cranking out one singalong anthem after another, with a minimum of time wasted on showboating and coasting on their undoubted versatility. Hell, I don’t even know most of these songs and even I was singing along. One high point is when an impish white-faced character unexpectedly comes on wielding a didgeridoo, which he then seems to play continuously for about ten minutes, all the way through the next couple of numbers. Another is when the band insouciantly play their best known song One Way only halfway through the set, and another is when they bring on headliners Bellowhead to help them with the encore The Recruiting Sergeant. A brilliantly energetic set with no lulls…and towards the end it suddenly occurred to me how much my beloved Decemberists take after them, though I’m sure it can’t be deliberate…

BohoDancer

To round evening two off another sortie to the Den where Danish trio Boho Dancer‘s pared down, but somehow still otherworldly sound fits in perfectly with the alternative boutique vibe of this small and cosy stage. Their songs aren’t exactly catchy, but they hang in the air nicely and the audience seems to appreciate having something non-bombastic to fill their ears with.

MartinSimpson

Stage 1 is a big old marquee but folk legend Martin Simpson fills it effortlessly with just an acoustic guitar, some deft and soulful playing and a bunch of stories, some spoken and some set to music. He announces the news of the death of J.J.Cale and dedicates the opening In The Pines to him, and then uses a reminisce of teenage parties as a launchpad for a take on Leonard Cohen’s The Stranger Song that’s considerably more filled out musically than the original. His own songs are just as memorable, particularly the story of a heroic but officially unrecognised World War One soldier and his donkey. Another set that seems much too short.

SteeleyeSpan

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Did I just say folk legend? What does that make Steeleye Span, one of the key acts in bringing folk in from the margins at the end of the sixties and playing here for the first time in nearly twenty years? Rumour has it that this line-up doesn’t have much in common with the 1969 version other than singer Maddy Prior, but let’s not be purist about it – they sound in rude health, with a beefed-up electric sound that verges on the proggier end of heavy metal at times. Most of the set is taken from their current album, based on a Terry Pratchett novel, so we get lyrically dark takes of supernatural beings and shady morris dancing practices set to complex, but generally tight and disciplined arrangements. Actually, most of the time it sounds pretty great, and plenty varied in terms of dynamics and the range of instruments both ancient and modern pressed into service. At the end they give in and let the audience sing along to All Around My Hat, which after last year’s experience of hearing the Brighouse and Rastrick Band play The Floral Dance, puts me one further down the road of collecting Radio 2 classics from my youth.

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The Heritage Blues Orchestra sounds like something dreamed up by a government focus group but they’re actually a bona fide group of highly talented blues and jazz practitioners from New Orleans. At the base of their sound is an authentically swampy blues pulse, carried mainly by guitarists Junior Mack and Bill Sims Jr – this is augmented by the highly impressive vocals of Chaney Sims and urgent harmonica of Vincent Bucher, with a four piece brass section providing added punch and occasionally keening held notes a bit reminiscent of Miles Davis. However they put it together it boogies like a madman and the audience end up with sore hands from all the involuntary clapping along they find themselves doing.

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…meanwhile over in the Club Tent celebrated local songwriter Boo Hewerdine and American slide guitarist Brooks Williams are covering Alt-J and cracking jokes under the name State Of The Union.

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If in terms of pure attack most folk guitarists are a gently wagging finger then the cheery Australian Tommy Emmanuel is an inter-continental ballistic missile. This guy’s surely a freak of nature: he hits his amped-up acoustic harder and faster than anyone I’ve ever seen, yet at the same time the delicacy and accuracy of the wildly complicated picking he’s doing is utterly faultless. He seems to be able to not only play rhythm and lead lines simultaneously but also function as his own drummer – he often lets his left hand sound the notes and chords on its own while his right hand beats out syncopated rhythms on the body of his instrument. In terms of the sheer number of notes he manages to play over the course of his hour long set he must be the world record holder by a considerable margin. It’s truly awesome, so much so that you can forgive him his reliance on standards and hoary old blues progressions as the starting points of his extended workouts and the overly sentimental nature of some of his original songs. If you’re going to look him up on youtube try to find his version of Over The Rainbow, in which he somehow conjures up what sounds like a harp, or his song Mombasa which climaxes with him successfully emulating a full African drum troupe.

CCSmugglers

My spies tell me that CC Smugglers nearly caused a riot over in the Den. Standing room only, apparently…look out for them on a main stage next year.

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Last day, and I get on site in time to catch most of John Hegley‘s delightful lunchtime children’s concert (apologies for the above indistinct picture of a far-off stage, but I didn’t feel like elbowing the kids out of the way to get a closer shot). Hegley works his way through the alphabet, throwing in daft definitions, songs and a marquee-load of the brilliant comic poems he’s loved for. I haven’t seen him for years so it’s reassuring he’s still standing up for spectacle wearers everywhere and drawing our attention to dogs whenever he can.

CarthySwarbrick

Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick (acoustic guitar and fiddle, respectively) came to prominence in the sixties via their tireless efforts to bring traditional British folk music to a wider audience, and they’re reunited on the main stage on Sunday afternoon to play some venerable ballads and jigs. It feels like an odd platform for this (they’d surely be more at home in the back room of a coaching inn next to a log fire) but they don’t seem to mind and their chatty and convivial stage manner is a nice contrast to the knotty and often esoterically accented material they’re presenting (Carthy must be well practised at funny time signatures by now, but he makes it clear he doesn’t find them particularly intuitive to play in). Ancient yarns and not quite so ancient anecdotes abound.

LizLawrence

Back in the Den Liz Lawrence supplies tunes much more recent and much more easily digestible. She accompanies herself on crisply strummed acoustic guitar and sings her clear and catchy songs in an attractive soul-y drawl that has something of the Winehouse about it. She’s also the winner of my just dreamt up “best original lyric of the festival” competition with the unassailably ambivalent “I’m stuck between Rock and Roll and Health and Safety”.

WeBanjo3

We Banjo 3 are initially a bit confusing, given that there are actually four of them and only two of them play the banjo, but that’s about the only false note in their high-energy crowd-pleasing set. These Irish lads put on a right proper hoedown that has the audience toe-tapping from the start and screaming for more by the end and somehow seems miles fresher and nimbler than your average wedding ceilidh. Irresistibly infectious.

MudMorganfield

Mud Morganfield bears a startling physical resemblance to his father Muddy Waters and it turns out that the similarities between them don’t stop there but extend absolutely to the music. Morganfield’s set is straight down the line classic Chicago blues, played by a backing band of slicked back, sharp suited, weathered faced men who’ve come straight from central casting. The man himself has got the impossibly deep and rumbly vocals off pat and booms his way through a bunch of well-worn standards with aplomb. Close your eyes and it could be Muddy himself. Open them again and it still could.

Staves

The Staves have been gradually moving up through the various size stages at the festival over the last few years and now find themselves with an evening slot on Stage 1 itself. It doesn’t seem to phase them. These sisters from Watford specialise in gorgeous three part harmonies which they apply to their own generally mellow, but with a hint of bittersweet, compositions to arresting effect. They’ve got a couple of lads in tow to handle the bass and drums when things need to rock out but the high points of their performance are inevitably when they use just a single guitar as backing and let their voices do their stuff. All three Staves are comfortable covering short breaks for retuning and swapping instruments by exchanging down-to-earth banter with the crowd – it’s like they come here every night to do this. When they eventually hit on the right, commercially irresistible tune they’ll be bestriding the world.

Waterboys

And so, the finale (for me, anyway. There are more acts available for a while for those lucky enough not to turn into organically grown pumpkins at ten o’clock every evening). Way, way back in the day I used to get quite snooty about The Waterboys and Mike Scott’s cod-mystical leanings, but after witnessing this blistering set I’m right there at the Humility Foods concession with my order for extra-large pie. The band play with the kind of urgent rock’n’roll scrappiness that I suddenly realise I’ve been desperate for over the long weekend, reeling off half a dozen unexpectedly familiar (and, yes, actually really great) selections from their back catalogue in short order before repeating The Levellers’ gesture of throwing down their big hit (in this case The Whole Of The Moon) only midway through their slot. And then…they abruptly raise the stakes by indulging in some theatricals involving two members of the band stalking each other in Venetian masks that has the effect of reminding me of how sinister I always find old footage of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, before Scott leads the group through a positively incendiary version of Don’t Bang The Drum, with lurid green lighting heightening the atmosphere. Suddenly, we’re not at a nice polite folk festival anymore, but in some Satanic alternative reality. They close out with This Is The Sea to wild applause and whooping before coming back to seal the deal with the garage-punky Be Me Enemy. The place explodes with adulation and I spot the perfect point to sign off on the festival. I should do this every Sunday evening to set me up for the week.

Anyway if you’re still here thanks for reading. This really is a spectacularly good event, and it may well be worth booking early for next year’s if you’re thinking about going: it’s the 50th anniversary year, and surely there’ll be someone appropriately monumental on the bill. Baez? Seeger? Thompson? Surely not Dylan?

Half Man Half Biscuit, Cambridge Junction, 4/7/2013

HMHB2

Half Man Half Biscuit’s set at The Junction last night was just cracking, a robust (and at times veering surprisingly close to nimble) run through some of the highlights of one of the finest back catalogues in modern pop music. On record the Biccies’ unique selling point is Nigel Blackwell’s unrivalled genius for lyrics, with seemingly every song containing at least one hilarious and immortal couplet of a quality that ought to make Cohen, Dylan et al think about chucking it in and getting a job in Safeways. In a live environment however, the emphasis is more on the pithy and catchy chunkiness of the tunes and the pleasing unfussiness of their approach that in some ways makes the band come over like a Birkenhead version of The Ramones: they just crank ’em out, one after the other. I counted at least 23 songs in the hour and three-quarters they were on, which is surely consummate value for money. The only pauses are for a few of Nigel’s deadpan comedy observations on aspects of the local geography. This show is the second leg of a rare East Anglian foray for the group and follows an appearance at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket, and a clue to how they fill their downtime between gigs is given by Nigel’s very first comment to the audience: “Anglesey Abbey: not bad.” This is in time followed up by references to local villages Great and Little Wilbraham and Swaffhams Prior and Bulbeck – my guess is that Nigel is a man who likes his OS maps.

The band’s straight-ahead, high-speed delivery is responded to favourably by a boisterous crowd which pleasingly doesn’t consist entirely of middle-aged men. A full-on moshpit has developed by the fourth number, occasioning your intrepid reporter’s partial retreat to somewhere nearer the back of the hall, but the pushing and shoving is conducted with high spirits and never becomes threatening and it’s actually nice to see a crowd engaging with the music rather than just standing there solemnly recording everything on camera-phones. Everyone seems to know the words and sings along lustily – it’s kind of delightful to be part of a room of people all yelling Fuckin’ ‘Ell, It’s Fred Titmus* or You’re Going On After Crispy Ambulance** or, most poignantly, For What Is Chatteris*** Without You In It. The material HMHB play tonight covers all but one or two of their dozen or so albums and EPs and it’s particularly nice to hear Time Flies By When You’re The Driver Of A Train from their debut Back In The DHSS, an album which had me literally rolling on the floor with laughter when I first heard it in 1986. The most recent songs aired are Joy In Leeuwarden and Rock And Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools from 2011’s 90 Bisodol (Crimond) and there’s room also for the relatively obscure Whit Week Malarkey and Bogus Official as well as the inevitable, and rapturously received, Joy Division Oven Gloves and a stonking take on Holiday In Cambodia for the encore.

The Rolling Stones headlined at Glastonbury last weekend and by all accounts it was a pretty jim-dandy gig…but some of us know who the real greatest rock’n’roll group in the country are.

HMHB1

* Stalwart English cricket player of the 50s, 60s and 70s

** One of Factory Records’ not so celebrated signings

*** Sleepy and somewhat isolated Fenland town. I played in a band who came second in the 1991 Chatteris Rock Competition, you know.

The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel band, The Portland Arms, Cambridge 7 June 2013

JeffreyLewisPeterStampfelGreat fun was had last night watching Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel, two prolific outputters and interpreters of…I dunno…folk-psych-country-rock, possibly? The New York based Lewis seems to have a soft spot for Cambridge as he was only here last nine months ago (maybe he’s twigged that there’s a ready-made vaguely bohemian audience that’s receptive to his lovely faux-artless flights of whimsy) – this time he’s accompanied by the faintly legendary Stampfel, who may be seventy-five years old but has the enthusiasm and exuberance of a toddler who’s just come off a sherbet and lucozade binge. Fifty years ago Stampfel made his name as a member of underground groups The Fugs and The Holy Modal Rounders but he’s hardly resting on his laurels now, as the fearsome rate that he’s been releasing albums and getting involved in musical collaborations is testament to. Lewis is half his age but the partnership feels like a good and natural fit, with the two men taking turns to present the songs and talk to the audience – there’s a nice relaxed vibe about the evening that makes it feel more like an impromptu bar session than a formal show. The frontman are backed by Isabel Martin on bass, Heather Wagner on drums and Franic, on loan from the Wave Pictures, on mandolin, which blends in nicely with Lewis’s acoustic guitar and Stampfel’s banjo and violin.

Material-wise, this is about as eclectic a mix of stuff as anything I can remember seeing. There are some quirky folksongs (including a nice singalong extolling the virtues of eating roadkill), a fair sampling of things from Lewis’s and Stampfel’s back catalogues and loads of covers, some from sources you might expect (Daniel Johnston), some completely out of left-field (Hawkwind? The Fall? Goldfinger?!) Every now and then Lewis encourages Stampfel to recreate an advertising jingle from his youth and these paeans to detergents and petroleum jelly are lovingly rendered in three part harmony. Stampfel seems genuinely delighted to be here and relishes his daffy old man persona, coming off as some mutant hybrid of Albert Einstein and John Otway, and while he might have trouble keeping his banjo strap attached and occasionally forget which microphone he’s supposed to be using his vocals and playing are right on the money. The show’s long, but it’s plenty varied – Lewis, who has an alternative career going as a talented comic book artist, at one point stands on a chair and narrates a funny and surreally seamy story about video rentals while flipping through a book of illustrations he’s done for it, like he’s the teacher and we’re a primary school class. And the set isn’t completely given over to throwaways and funnies: towards the end Lewis sings What Would Pussy Riot Do, an impassioned piece about freedom and censorship. A really entertaining and unpredictable gig, and it was also nice to see the musicians mixing freely with the audience both before and after the set.

PeterStampfel