The Portland Arms (Cambridge City Roots Festival,
3 February 2017)
Singer-songwriter Steven James Adams returns to home turf in Cambridge to play the packed, intimate venue at The Portland Arms, with support provided by the intriguingly angular sounds of indie trio Mammoth Penguins. This evening’s gig also kicks off the very first Cambridge City Roots festival.
City Roots, a week-long winter mini-fest held at venues across the city, is presented by the organisers of the Cambridge Folk Festival and provides an umbrella for a diverse series of gigs, buskers and workshops. It also aims to strengthen the relationship between the city and the folk/roots music scene.
As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, tonight Adams is also showcasing his new band, The French Drops, following a prolonged solo spell. He confesses to some nervousness about playing this first gig with a band again. Unused to being surrounded by these three “beautiful young boys”: Michael Wood (previously of Singing Adams), David Stewart and Dan Fordham (two members of The Drink), he confides that he’s become more used to doing it on his own. Cue many good-natured double-entendres from the crowd…
Many of the evening’s songs are taken from Adams’ two most recent solo albums, Old Magick and House Music, and without any preamble, the band launches straight into ‘Black Cloud’. The chattering crowd falls silent and attentive within a couple of bars. Adams self-deprecatingly comments on his “suitably upbeat” opener but he does seem to start off in a slightly reflective mood this evening. However, his wry wit shines through and defies any pessimism, as a romp through ‘Kings Of The Back Of The Bus’ ably demonstrates.
Judging from his introductions, the Adams song catalogue divides roughly into being “about, like, the world and stuff” – like bittersweet new song, ‘A Joke’ – or “a song about feelings” like ‘French Drop’. So the slower, “feelings” song ‘Ideas’ is immediately followed by the “world” song ‘Togetherness’. This tender song, with its gorgeous opening line “You are welcome here” seems all the more heartening in these chilling times. Offered a choice between another song about feelings or Satan, well, there’s no contest for this audience. Satan it is, and the band launch into ‘Tears Of Happiness’ with its delicious opposition between the brightness of the music, and darker lyrics referencing Kenneth Anger films and “mopping up blood from a silver plate“.
The second new song of the evening ‘Free Will’, another “world” song, takes a turn for the heavier, demonstrating that Adams and his band are capable of rocking out with the best of them. The hour or so long set is rounded off with ‘Drinking From The River’, ‘How We Get Through’, ‘You Broke My Fucking Heart’ (a Broken Family Band song) and ‘Sonny’, a real crowd-pleaser.
After the usual kerfuffle, Adams re-appears solo for an encore. Hopping down into the crowd with his guitar and strolling around like a mediaeval troubadour, he delivers a magnificent version of John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’, just for starters. He weaves through the crowd, saying “hi” to friends, wiggling his hips and generally looking like he’s having fun now that the pressures of the evening are behind him.
Adams’s naturally relaxed, warm delivery and genuine rapport with the crowd is a delight and really lifts the evening into something extra special. If he’s not yet received the levels of success he so thoroughly deserves, it’s certainly not through any lack of talent as songwriter or performer. His lyrics are wickedly funny and astute, his melodies almost irritatingly catchy and if Steven James Adams and The French Drop are playing near you, go along. It’s going to be a great night.
‘Ideas’ – an official video: