The bill is as eclectic as ever, and the organisers have wisely resisted the temptation to schedule a backward-looking tribute-type affair, so what we have is the sort of musical spread that you could have seen at the 39th, and will be able to see at the 41st. What is unique this year however is that the festival highlights all, without exception, come from the Americana and country artists scattered across the four days.
So, starting as we mean to go on, Thursday evening sees the Broken Family Band, in the first of three performances, take to Stage 2. Featuring several extra musicians, they deliver a much more focussed and tight performance than last year, with a nice mixture of light and shade. “Queen of the Sea” and “Send me flowers (probably the title) are particular highlights.
Hot on their heels comes Tom Robinson, who gives a consummate festival performance performing the sort of material that gives nostalgia a good name, including a reworked and more considered “Glad to be Gay”, but also a stunning “John Walkers Blues”.
Finishing up for the night is Thea Gilmore with full band in tow, whose show is the best I have ever seen her play. A classy performer, wise beyond her years, she has the attitude of Polly Harvey and a way with lyrics not seen since the heyday of Elvis Costello or Bruce Springsteen. That said, her cover of “Bad Moon Rising” is the best thing she does all night, reclaiming it from pub-rock hell and recasting it as a dark, solemn, spectral state-of-the-world warning. “Heartstring Blues”, cranked up to 11, and “Saviours and All” run it close though. Beloved of rock critics and fans of a certain age, despite a string of four star albums and performances, she has yet to make the leap to the larger audience that her talent deserves, and accordingly may be “doomed” to be the next Richard Thompson.
And so Friday dawns. In the words of that great English eccentric Peter Buckley-Hill (who had done a wonderful acoustic show in the middle of the main field from about midnight until far too late) - “Morning has broken/too bloody early/Blackbird has spoken/too bloody loud”. Still, on with the show, and the days entertainment starts with the Broken Family Band again, this time on the main stage. Despite Steven Adams’ comment that “we’re just a little band, we shouldn’t be on this stage” they justify their slot easily, performing even better than the night before. At present they perhaps lack that killer song, and they could still use a bit more oomph, but if they continue to improve at the rate they’ve managed since last year, neither of these can be too far away.
Later on we have the Belles on the club stage, who are a band, but billed as a duo, and then the performance is a solo one by main man Christopher Tolle, despite at least oneother member of the band being present. His lo-fi, washed out vocals and songs probably work better on record than in a solo acoustic singer-songerwriter mode, but there’s enough here to pique the interest and merit a listen to the album.
An unfortunate schedule clash prevents me seeing Josh Ritters first show, but the opportunity to see Loudon Wainwright III’s sole set simply cannot be missed. A festival favourite, he packs out the Main Stage tent with his searingly honest self-portraits and vignettes like “Primrose Hill” and the tear-jerking “White Winos”. He has an immense talent that can occasionally be lost in the humour found in many of his songs, and every word and nuance repays attention. As he admits, he is currently of an age where he is lyrically preoccupied with death and age, but he still manages to finish with the spirited “Presidents Day”, and the crowd roars its approval of its anti-Dubya sentiments, and indeed of his entire set.
As the Divine Comedys irritatingly arch sub-Noel Coward-isms are best avoided, the evening ends with Oysterband, who are still ploughing the same vital, uncompromisingly honest furrow that they started 25 years ago (God! Are we really that old). What starts off as a ceildh ends up as a full-on gig, and while it may not be Americana, this is the sort of music that few Americana fans would dislike.
And so to Saturday. First offering today is Mindy Smith, who is also doing three sets, the first on the main stage. Word is that she is the next big thing, and also that her album (unheard by me) is a bit too polished. Her set is anything but, and a revelation. Accompanied by just a mandolin player, she has a voice full of rain and remembered pain, and despite being as nervous as anyone I’ve ever seen on the Main Stage, delivers a set of tracks from her album to rapt silence and rapturous applause.
There follows a brief interlude on Stage 2 with the Old Crow Medicine Show (of whom more later), who do fifteen minutes of punk bluegrass performed with attitude and sass which blows through the tent like a hurricane of fresh air.
A little later I finally get to hear Josh Ritter, and is he ever worth the wait. A cut and a half above most other singer-songwriters, he is a class act, and is engaging and patently delighted (and ever so slightly amazed) to be at Cambridge performing. This is his annus mirabilis and he’s enjoying every minute, as do the crowd. Occasionally reminiscent of Leonard Cohen on speed, his set is over all too soon, and he is cheered to the echo.
Afterwards we have the Levellers (acoustic, same set for the last ten years, uninspiring) and Jim Moray (full band, a bit too rock and roll, but with a willingness to try new things and styles that stands in stark relief to the Levellers).
But then, but then, we have a highlight. The Dixie Hummingbirds plane has been delayed, and so the Main Stage is treated to the Old Crow Medicine Show doing a full set. With David Rawlings on banjo they seize their opportunity like Tony Blair seizes an excuse and forty-five blistering minutes later have staked their claim as band of the festival. Impossibly young, irreverent (even to Gillian Welch who plays drums on a couple of tracks (yes, you did read that right, Gillian Welch plays drums). David Rawlings is clearly having a ball too, and the OCMS clearly have a storied future ahead of them.
In search of something a bit more laid back I then hasten to the Club Tent to catch Mindy Smith’s second show of the day. In these somewhat more intimate surroundings she seems more relaxed and less together. She oozes a defiant vulnerability and a steely determination, but is clearly feeling the pressure and the set is akin to public therapy, but wonderful for all that. It also includes her amazing take on “Jolene”, which is worth the price of admission alone.
A hasty dash to the Main Stage follows, just in time for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, which turns out to be one of the highlights of the festival. Gillian Welch, whatever her passion for her music, can appear to over-intellectualise it and seem aloof and distant live, rather like the Queen at The Millenium Dome on New Years Eve, but tonight, buoyed by the festival atmosphere and crowd she comes across and warm and intimate. David Rawlings, warmed up by his stint with OCMS, does his guitar work with even more verve than usual and the whole show is wonderful. “Time (The Revelator)”, “By the mark”, “Lay me down a pallet on your floor”, there’s not a low point anywhere. Awesome.
Sundays first offering is Polly Paulusma in the Club tent, and her breathy, safe sound makes Katie Melua seem edgy. When she sings “I’ll do anything” you can’t help feeling that she’t imagining returning a library book late. Fortunately cutting my time short here allows ample time to get to the Main Stage for the much anticipated Asleep at the Wheel. Legends of the country scene, in Ray Benson they have a front man and a half and as expected every member of the band is a master of their instrument and can sing well. The show is also as slick and tight as you’d imagine, but ultimately leaves me rather cold. Bob Wills Western Swing? Absolutely, nothing wrong with the original. Jon Langford and pals revisionist updates? Absolutely too, nothing wrong with bringing the music into the new millennium. This however, feels like a bunch of session musicians, all technical ability and no soul. The comparison between their version of “Roly Poly” and the Handsome Family’s is definitive, the one something you admire, the other something you engage with emotionally. A shame.
Fortunately Mindy Smith’s third set, this time on Stage 2, is up next, and its something of a cross between the previous two. Not quite as “professional” as the first one, nor as “lost” as the second, it’s the best of the three. Her stripped raw performance is astonishing, and yet more fans are won over.
On the Americana side of things the last offering is the Dixie Hummingbirds, whose sweet gospel music is the perfect note to end Stage 2 on. Featuring one member who has been with them since 1938, they are magical – imagine a sweeter Blind Boys of Alabama. I must confess though that pleasure takes precedence over duty at this point, and my festival ends in the club tent with Wild Willy Barrett, yet another amazing English eccentric, and my last tenner goes on a t-shirt with “Please don’t throw me to the Christians” on it – irresistible.
So, a great festival and some great performances. As this is an Americana-focussed review I haven’t detailed some of the more folky high spots, including Jim Moray in the Club Tent and Jimmy Cliff on the Main Stage. But, notwithstanding these, and despite the relative disappointment of Asleep at the Wheel, the highlights were all Americana: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Mindy Smith, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Broken Family Band, which can only bode well for the future of the genre. Roll on 2005!