To start things off on Thursday I eschewed the delights of Mark Radcliffe’s Family Mahone in favour of the Low Country’s gorgeous and charming low-fi Americana in the Club Tent. Now back to their original line-up, Emily Barker’s singing and Rob Jackson’s understated guitar hit the spot dead-on, with “Country Song For the Dumped” and “Lord I Want An Exit” being particular highlights. It would be nice to hear Emily let rip a bit more, as she does on their first album “Home”, but even without that The Low Country set the bar at a pretty high level for the rest of the festival.
Next I wandered over the Stage 2 to see The Bills first set of the festival. A Canadian five piece, they are part of the current trend for blending traditional folk with influences from all over, in their case particularly Cajun. Excellent players, and fine singers (why does Canada produce so many great vocal groups?) they don’t quite spark it for me but I’m clearly in a minority (not for the first time this festival, as we shall see).
For a change of pace I essay Sleeping Dogz back in the Club Tent. Essentially a vehicle for Wild Willy Barrett (of John Otway fame) they are certainly not Americana, but Wild Willy stands proud in that tradition of British musical eccentrics like the late great Vivian Stanshall and the un-late great Peter Buckley Hill (who will perform his usual midnight acoustic set on Friday) and his surreal and crowd pleasing songs are not to be missed.
Finally on Thursday it’s time for Hayseed Dixie. Given their relentless touring this year there can be few who are not aware of their bluegrass take on classic heavy metal. It only remains to say therefore that a) they are not Spinal Tap, b) they are consummate musicians, c) they are serious about what they do, d) they are serious and literate people (“War Pigs” is covered as their Bush response) and finally e) they are a great live experience, as the packed tent and countless other audiences can testify.
Friday starts with the Mojo Interview of Jimmy Webb in the Club Tent. A songwriter who needs no introduction, for an hour he charms and delights the crowd with tales of how he writes, songs like “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park” and observations like “a lot of songs written today aren’t bad, just unnecessary”, a view any reviewer including this one (and many fans) will echo with a heartfelt “Amen”.
Then it’s off to see Hayseed Dixie debut on the Main Stage and it’s much the same as last night. The band tear it up, the crowd go wild, they finish with “Highway To Hell” and everybody has a ball. Following on is another repeat as the Bills take the stage. Again though they lack spark and their set is poorly paced. They’re better than most at what they do, but hardly essential listening.
A spontaneous visit to the Club Tent is rewarded with a real highlight, as Kerbside do their 15 minutes. A male/female duo from Ireland by way of California, their joyous acoustic folk-pop is a delight and their imminent album (soon to be reviewed on this site) highly recommended. Surely their promotion to greater things cannot be long delayed.
For Martha Wainwright who follows them, and K T Tunstall subsequently I refer you to Jimmy Webb’s comment above, but they both go down a storm.
After KT I need a little inspiration and I have high hopes for Mavis Staples. The youngest of that famous family, she has pedigree to spare, a voice to raise the rafters and years of experience in working a crowd, all of which she used tonight to deliver what sadly leaves your correspondent in the minority in assessing as a so-so set. A hour long set delivers just five songs, including a version of “The Weight” that isn’t a patch on the original, and the revival meeting passion she instils in much if the rest of the crowd all feels a bit too much Vegas for me.
So it’s back to the Club Tent for me for the final music of the evening, and I hit it lucky for the second time today with another highlight, The Smouldering Sons. They come on like a folky White Stripes, with a percussionist bashing away at an impressive array of noisemaker, including a gong, while the guitarist strums furiously while singing powerful and inspiring songs that get your feet moving as well. As with Kerbside earlier, their move to bigger and better things should be imminent.
Saturday’s first offering is The Old Crow Medicine Show on the Main Stage. Last year they blew the festival away so the tent is full to see what they can do this time around. What they can do is deliver an even more exuberant, devil take the hindmost set of material new and old, and they rightly claim the loudest applause so far. Frontman Ketch Secor has moved on from his rebel without a cause look to a slightly incongruous preppy style, but he still drives the band on with aplomb and class. A hit, a palpable hit.
Damien Dempsey’s shouty psychobabble masquerading as songs, and Johnny Dickinson’s poor mans Kelly Joe Phelps take, both leave me cold (yes, it’s minority report time again) so a refreshment or three is taken prior to checking out The English Acoustic Collective on Stage 2. Led by the acclaimed Chris Wood, their exquisite chamber folk has the audience hanging on every note. This is music for the serious folkie, in contrast to the populist and raucous Blazin' Fiddles on simultaneously on Stage 1, but I know where I’d rather be.
And so to the Duhks, who, judging by the rammed tent and full photographer’s pit, are widely anticipated. But, and careful readers may detect a theme here, they are of marginal appeal at best to me. Another “bit of everything” band, who can play and sing superlatively, if only they could make up their minds what to play and sing. Far from melding their diverse styles to produce something new and unique, what they deliver is three minutes of Motown followed by three minutes of folk, followed by three minutes of rock, followed by, well you get the idea. It all gets a bit tiresome frankly (particularly the drummers Ecstasy style whistle-blowing) and so I head back to the Main Stage for Jimmy Webb’s main set.
His material is predictably great, and we are clearly in the presence of a master songwriter, but also of a very nervous singer whose voice is only ok at the best of times, and who persists in singing too far from the mike. It’s a good set and I feel privileged to have seen him, but he was better in the Club Tent with a smaller crowd, and his voice is also better suited to that size of audience and the sort of intimate settings that characterised his “Ten Easy Pieces” album of his classics.
Next, taking Lucinda William’s place, is Laura Cantrell, whose background (New York banker) and sometimes homogeneous vocal style puts some people off. But not me, and not the crowd tonight. Her voice is crystal, her songs incisive, and in what could have been a graveyard slot she triumphs. Her band though are a bit of a disappointment, for though they are perhaps technically superior to her usual European touring crew they lack their panache and their playing is a bit soulless. But Laura transcends them and leaves everyone wanting more.
Finally tonight we have The Blind Boys Of Alabama. Nearly seventy years since their founding they still feature two original members and are still the best gospel outfit around. You don’t have to believe to be uplifted by their power and soul, and their hour of power ifs as good a way to end the evening as any.
And so to Sunday, which starts with me giving the Duhks on the Main Stage a second chance. Unfortunately, despite displaying that classic Canadian vocal ability again, they don’t. It’s essentially the same set, and despite the excellence of founder Leonard Podalak they just don’t do it for me, and I still want to kill their drummer.
Next though comes Mary Gauthier. A magnificent lyricist and intense singer, after her well-documented travails she now seems more at peace with herself, and her latest album “Mercy Now” is easily her best. I’d missed her Stage Two set yesterday in order to hear the divine Kate Rusby, but there hadn’t been any particular buzz about it that I’d heard. What she delivered this time though was a moment akin to Pulp at Glastonbury in 1995, right person, right place, right time, and perhaps the set that propels her into the stratosphere where she belongs. Had the proverbial pin fallen it would have sounded like a thunderclap, as “I Drink”, “Prayer Without Words”, song after great song, sail through the crowd like battlecruisers, all steely menace and intensity. A grandchildren moment.
A break for further refreshment awaits before catching Shemekia Copeland, a blues powerhouse of the old school, who rips through a set of life-affirming songs with infectious foot stomping enthusiasm, much to the delight of all. Then after a break for some fine “proper folk” in the Club Tent from Mercury prize nominee Seth Lakeman and the trance-like and hypnotic Touaregs Tinariwen I settle myself for Rodney Crowell and the Outsiders, featuring the redoubtable Will Kimbrough. It’s an uncompromising set, taken almost exclusively from his last three, career-best, semi-autobiographical albums, with nary a hint of his early hits until “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” at the death. His music drives into the audience like a steamhammer, it responds and pushes the energy right back, Crowell responds and gradually the whole tent winds up the noise, intensity and power. A cover of “Tobacco Road” ratchets it up way beyond 11, and then comes his, no our, take on “Like A Rolling Stone”. For it is ours, a call and response catechism that brings it all back home and in the darkness binds us. It’s glorious, it’s transcendent, and as we all sing “How Does It Feel?” we know exactly how we feel, and how we feel is truly, madly, exuberantly happy. An astonishing set.
There’s barely time to recover before The Old Crow Medicine Show take the stage in a packed Club Tent to deliver probably their best set of the weekend, and Wild Willy Barrett, as is now something of a tradition, brings everything to a close in his inimitable surreal style.
As I stagger out of the tent, it comes to me that this was one of the best Cambridges ever and I’ve been to 20 now. In particular Rodney Crowell, Mary Gauthier, Kerbside, Smouldering Sons and The Low Country were the peaks, but Jimmy Webb, the Blind Boys and many others all gave of their best, and what bests they were. Roll on next year.