CAMBRIDGE CITY ROOTS FESTIVAL – Various artists/venues, 22 February – 6 March 2018

Cambridge City Roots Festival
Matt Hammond photographed by Su O’Brien

The City Roots Festival shakes open its umbrella (and hauls on its snow boots) for a second year of folk and roots events. As before, a loose collection of venues and artists are brought under the festival banner, from the already-scheduled to the specially commissioned.

New this year is an extended, two-week timespan. With something happening just about every evening and a few of the daytimes too, is there enough to keep fans busy? Well, it is hard to imagine it being a destination for the whole festival fortnight. But for those within travelling distance (admittedly a pretty wide area) – or those who don’t enjoy the whole festival experience – coming along to individual events seems to work well enough. The potential downside of this is that it tends to favour bigger names who might be touring here anyway. The challenge remains, as ever, to expose upcoming acts to wider audiences.

Inevitably, it’s also harder to keep up continuity across a multi-venue, multiple day festival. Branding is generally more visible this year, which is a definite plus. Some of the artists, though, seem barely aware that they are part of the festival – at least they don’t mention it. In fact, one act, busy lamenting a lack of inclusion (so far) in the summer Cambridge Folk Festival schedule, seems blissfully unaware that they are part of the winter one!

Last year’s closing acts, Sona Jobarteh and Muntu Valdo open the festival this time, bringing welcome African warmth. Haitian voudou from Chouk Bwa Libète goes head to head with a live interview at the University Union with Wilko Johnson. Other acts featuring in the main line-up include Megson, Tom Robinson, Rich Hall, Wildwood Kin and Ward Thomas. As with traditional festivals, there are overlaps, forcing a decision about which act to see!

Although headline acts have been flagged up for some time, a lot more, smaller, ‘fringe’ gigs are still being announced right up to the last minute. This means keeping in constant contact with the website is essential, to pick up on late changes. A lot of the smaller events are admirably free of charge too, cementing the impression of a confident local music-making community.

A family fun day at the Guildhall hosts live acts, children’s activities and a well-attended ukulele workshop. It’s heartening to see so many youngsters taking up their brightly coloured ukes. The downside is that they missed out on a superbly intimate follow-up gig by Muntu Valdo in the hall next door.

In this vast space, his tiny colourfully-dressed figure is surrounded by pedals, coaxing unexpected sounds from his guitars and building up intricate loops. He delivers an impeccable slide blues with an unmistakeably African slant – oh, and he plays a mean harmonica, too. It’s like watching Jimi Hendrix play a Sunday afternoon tea dance: thrilling and strange. As the sun streams in through the civic stained glass, it’s tempting to run out and drag the shoppers in from the streets outside to make them listen to this highly original talent.

Barbara Wibbelmann delivers some fine a capella Gaelic songs and finishes, accompanied by Quentin Rea on guitar, with a delightful ‘La Vie En Rose’. Martin Baxter’s Alternative Arrangements lend some mid-afternoon Americana as well as an upbeat ‘John Barleycorn’. The miles of empty space between seating and stage finally makes sense as ceilidh band Frog On A Bike whip up the dancers to wrap up the afternoon.

Buskers too, are apparently abroad on this cold and sunny day but, despite several slogs around town, they remain stubbornly invisible. Only stalwart singer-songwriter Matt Hammond can be found chilling his fingers, engaging passers-by with his percussive guitar style and promoting his new single, ‘Skylines’.

One of the hazards of a winter festival is always going to be inclement weather and, as with most of the rest of the country, the big hit of snow takes its toll on players and audiences alike. Still with a few line-up tweaks, it seems that all the shows go ahead, which is very impressive.

Following an afternoon masterclass in Miller’s Music shop, CC Smugglers (currently crowdfunding their new album), squash themselves into a tiny corner of the 1815 bar on a snowy evening. Playing a relaxed, mainly acoustic set, this cheery crew deliver their own bluesy, skiffly songs with some great join-in choruses, alongside lounge standards. The keyboard player in particular brings a distinct jazz style to the set, as a small crowd of Lindy Hoppers push back the chairs to whirl around the floor.

SJ Mortimer (now also performing with Morganway) And Her Flying Pigs bring lashings of country, the monthly New Routes night at the Junction features several Americana artists, and traditional music goes on in pubs and clubs across the city. Even the serious business of making a living is once again the subject of a workshop day to encourage musicians to focus further than the next creative impulse.

With such diversity of music to choose from, with venues from snug to cavernous, seated or standing, the organisers have plainly tried to cater for many tastes within the broad spectrum of folk and roots. There is something for everyone here and, as well as the national/international artists, it’s a valuable reminder of what incredible home-grow talents exist across the Eastern region at the moment. See you in 2019!

Su O’Brien

Festival website: www.cambridgelivetrust.co.uk/cityroots

 

She doesn’t seem amused.

PETER KNIGHT AND JOHN SPIERS – Cambridge Junction, City Roots Festival, 6 March 2018

Peter Knight And John Spiers
Photograph by Philip O’Brien

Same venue, different day. In the space of a week, three entirely different acts have made their distinct impressions in this same room. Tonight it’s Peter Knight And John Spiers, an inspired pairing first conceived of in 2016 and now touring Well Met, their first album together, recorded in January this year. The elegance and lyricism of their playing is the common denominator here, each complementing the other, smoothly coursing together like fine clockwork.

Each tune and set is lovingly crafted, with thematic and rhythmic variations explored unhurriedly, inviting the listener in to immerse themselves fully in the possibilities of each one.

Knight’s playing is a revelation. A world away from folky fiddling, it’s fully informed by the classical style, all long sweeping bow strokes and eloquent legato. Yet he never loses the essential folk heart of the music, tracing a graceful line of his own making.

The melodeon is an eerie beast, breathing like a ghost over your shoulder at one minute, harrumphing like a euphonium the next. One moment turning out jolly hornpipes, then droning with deepest melancholy. It’s a curious kind of versatile, but Spiers knows exactly how to capture and manipulate its range, adding maximum colour and savour to the music.

Opening with ‘Paddy Carey’s Jig’, Knight’s waist-height plucking transitions to bowing, as it does on the second tune, the American ‘Waiting For The Federals’. Except here it’s much more a classical chin-held pizzicato, its raindrop effect giving way to a Scottish-influenced playing style that even manages to evoke a hint of distant bagpipes.

‘Easter Thursday/Three Case Knives’ is a fascinating set, reminiscent of Michael Nyman’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, with the melodeon taking on a metronomic drone quality and the fiddle only taking on a more rustic aspect in the later stages.

‘Rosebud In June’, that Steeleye Span stalwart, becomes a beautiful, poignant, almost filmic melody with Knight adopting a more slurred style towards the end. The emotional pull of this and Northumbrian lullaby, ‘Bonny At Morn’ are stand out moments, as is Knight’s virtuoso solo spot.

Since an audience member has shouted out a request, Knight casually picks up and runs with it, saying “I don’t normally do requests – unless I’m asked”. From the album, An Ancient Cause, ‘From A Lullaby Kiss’ demonstrates a touch of gypsy style with the fiddle sounding periodically flute-like. It’s the only song of the evening to feature any sung lyrics, and suitably weighty they are, too.

For Spiers’s solo, we are treated to a trio of hornpipes, two of which are his own. ‘George Green’s College Hornpipe’ is succeeded by ‘Ewan Mac’s Export’, a tune written for a friend moving to Scotland, and ‘Hyena’, originally ‘Autumn Hornpipe’ but renamed by fellow sessioners as “it’s got a high E in it”. His other featured composition, ‘The Long Walk Home’, captures the authentic slow plod of tired feet.

Elsewhere, ‘Cuckoo’, a trio of cuckoo-related tunes, is followed by a jolly hornpipe pairing, ’Scan Testers No.1 Step Dance/Murphy’s Hornpipe’. To Galicia for the coiling waltz,‘A Bruxa’ (‘The Witch’), by Milladoiro’s Antón Seoane, and home again for Nigel Eaton’s ‘Halsway Schottische’, before wrapping up the evening with a spirited encore of ‘Isadora’s Reel’. And what an evening: contemplative, accomplished and one to relish for some time to come.

Su O’Brien

Artists’ website: https://www.peterknight.net/knight-and-spiers

SAM KELLY & THE LOST BOYS – Live at Cambridge Junction, City Roots Festival, 5 March 2018

Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys
Photograph by Philip O’Brien

Battling snow and ice on tour for the past week has clearly taken a toll on this group of musicians (amongst many others no doubt), but that won’t stop them putting on a storming show this evening.

Support act, Honey And The Bear (aka Jon Hart & Lucy Sampson) deliver a half-hour set of earwormy, catchy songs, culminating in ‘William’ from their 2016 EP, About Time Too and the galloping, riffling ‘Wristburner’. Their slightly low-key stage presence belies their lively, well-crafted and perfectly performed music. And it turns out that there’s so much more to this versatile duo: manning the merch stall, driving the van and even providing the evening’s sound tech. Headliners, book them now, while you can.

A short while later, the seven-piece line-up of Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys fills the stage as percussionist Evan Carson sets a grinding groove for the first song, ‘Hickathrift’, the tale of a legendary Norfolk giant-killer.

With so many big, sing-along tunes on both the band’s albums to date, from ‘The Golden Vanity’ via the deceptively jolly ‘Angeline The Baker’, the call-and-response of ‘The Keeper’ or the barrelling ‘Jolly Waggoners’, featuring a frenzied banjo part from Jamie Francis, it’s blindingly obvious why this band is such a festival success.

Then there’s the dry, irreverent and often charmingly unfiltered humour that allows them to respect what they do without being in thrall to it. If you’re after reverential folk that won’t poke fun at the often ludicrous and/or plain old sexist scenarios of some songs, this might not be the band for you. If you want a solid, tight set of superb musicians who know how to have a good time, then they’re a must-see.

Still, it’s not all wall-to-wall party. The well-paced set contains many quieter moments, such as the tender rendition of ‘If I Were A Blackbird’, and Cornish ballad ‘Grwello Glaw’ (‘Let It Rain’). Originating from Kelly’s time with The Changing Room, it’s an appropriate choice for a St Piran’s Day gig. (Also, we’re told, it will be the first dance the band plays for Hart and Sampson’s wedding in June. Altogether now: aaahhh!).

A rather different sound comes with ‘The Shiny Ship’, an effect-laden track from the Pretty Peggy album that has been reworked for the live environment. Carson’s shimmering cymbals and hard rapping drum offset Graham Coe’s shoulder-slung, psychedelic, droning cello to create an atmosphere of moody mystery.

For the family members present in the audience, Kelly dedicates a cover of Dire Straits’ ‘Sultans Of Swing’ which starts leisurely before building into a floorshaker. Finishing with Archie Moss’s melodeon leading the mischievous cross-dressing tale, ‘The Close Shave’ and buffered by tunes from Ciaran Algar and Toby Shaer, the set ends on a whirling high.

As the audience erupts in appreciation, the band returns in typically self-deprecating fashion. “The dressing room was locked” deadpans Algar. Meanwhile, there are two clear contenders for an encore among the crowd. Carson holds a vote, defying Algar’s sardonic, “This is not a democracy”. 48% want ‘The Chain’, but 52% are pro ‘Greenland Whale’, so there it is. Luckily, this is one vote that doesn’t cause deep or lasting division, as we all sing happily together before going our separate ways home.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: http://www.samkelly.org/

‘Sultans Of Swing’ – live at the other Cambridge Festival:

McGOLDRICK, McCUSKER & DOYLE– City Roots Festival, The Junction, Cambridge (27 February 2018)

McGoldrick, McCusker & Doyle
Photograph by Su O’Brien

Even on this icy night, the venue is full, the crowd enthusiastic – a significant portion seemingly also having attended the recent Transatlantic Sessions. It’s the second visit to Cambridge in very short order for this trio of musicians and they are most warmly welcomed back. (As a side note, it looks like a simple accident of timing prevented Transatlantic Sessions from inclusion in this year’s City Roots festival).

Arriving slightly late (delayed by a missing bike lock key), the band is already underway, so it’s John Doyle’s Child song ‘What Put The Blood’ that makes the first impression. John McCusker follows with a trio of songs from his Hello Goodbye album incorporating a tender tune for his daughter, called ‘It’s A Girl’ with a strathspey link into ‘Billy’s’, a reel for Billy Connolly.

Doyle then takes up an elegant, restrained electric guitar for ‘Liberty’s Sweet Shore’, about the mass death of thousands fleeing the famine en route to Canada. Doyle’s plainly touched by a recent meeting with an elderly woman in Scotland who’d somehow survived this horrific ordeal.

Mike McGoldrick’s seemingly bottomless lungs and dancing fingers are in fine form as he takes the reins on ‘Leaving South Uist / Lochaber Badger’, two tunes learned and loved from earlier Transatlantic Sessions. To round off the first session, the crowd joins in with the deceptively jolly sea shanty ‘Billy O’Shea’, a cautionary tale of pressganging and death. Doyle momentarily loses his thread and, casting heavenwards for inspiration, he fills on guitar, greeted by an encouraging roar of support from the audience as he finds his place once more. It’s reassuring to know that even the most gifted among us is only human, after all!

A quintet of tunes including ‘Keane O’Hara’, ‘Rip The Calico’ and ‘Coming Of Age’ opens the second session, all taken from the new album, The Wishing Tree, and followed up by ‘Across The Western Ocean’ a downbeat sea shanty learned from Doyle’s father. The band happily jumbles over the various tune titles, finally settling on a relaxed, “they’re all on the CD” – which pretty much sums up their easy-going unforced rapport, the kind that only years of friendship can bring.

When they play, it’s a different matter altogether. There is a precision and clarity that unites them. Totally focused, totally in sync, every note is played cleanly: no smudging, blurring or elision. From bow strokes, to finger placing to chords, the line of the music is always sharply defined and crisp, no matter how fast the tempo gets.

They’re superb quick-change artistes too, swapping out instruments mid-tuneset in the blink of an eye, not missing a beat. Starting on whistles, McGoldrick switches to flute and McCusker to fiddle, whilst Doyle changes guitar. As the tune gathers pace, the sheer physical effort is etched on their faces and in their body movements, with Doyle arched over his instrument, practically driving it into the floor. Afterwards, McCusker only says drily, “Well, that went slightly faster than we’d hoped”.

Doyle presents his murder ballad ‘Burke And Hare’, with its chorus based on a children’s rhyme, and ‘The Apprentice Boy’ (aka ‘Charming Anne’) which he introduces as “an optimistic song – my only one”. McCusker’s tender ‘Leaving Friday Harbour’ provides a tender, wistful interlude.

The audience remains utterly engaged and absorbed, rocking out with the faster numbers, quietly attentive on the slower ones. At the end of the show, there’s uproarious applause and foot-stomping until the band returns with an encore of ‘The Banks Of The Bann’.

Never having seen this trio play before (I know), their superb musicianship delivered so much more than expected and, mostly, with apparently effortless ease. What an absolute pleasure to share in their warmth, intimacy and richly talented company for the past couple of hours.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Believe it or not, these guys don’t have a dedicated web-site.

Live at Warwick Folk Festival:

Cambridge City Roots Festival – the line-up

Cambridge City

The spirit of the world-famous Cambridge Folk Festival will inject the city with winter cheer in February and March, when Cambridge’s second city-wide winter folk and roots festival opens for two weeks of exceptional music and events.

An all-encompassing Corn Exchange line-up includes: the soaring, Gambian sun-drenched chords of stunning Kora virtuoso and opening Festival headliner, Sona Jobarteh performing alongside Cameroon’s blues and jazz artist Muntu Valdo; the Americana-tinged sound of Wildwood Kin – crowned this year as legendary broadcaster Bob Harris’s ‘Emerging Artist of the Year’ –  supporting Cambridge Folk Festival summer headliner, Ward Thomas; award-winning comic Rich Hall performing Hoedown – a withering dissection of Trump’s America which finishes as a celebration of Americana with stand-up, improvised ballads, and amazing musicianship…’Blissfully funny’ (The Guardian) and Cambridge born Tom Robinson with the 2-4-6-8 Motorway 40th Anniversary show. Tom is one of the founding team for BBC Radio 6, where he hosts three shows a week and has become known as a champion of new emerging artists via BBC Introducing.

At Cambridge Junction, an array of City Roots music is on offer: Chouk Bwa Libète bring drums, poetry and trance from Haiti’s vodou heartland; BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards winners Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys rediscover and renew the music of Sam’s gaelic heritage, transcending boundaries of trad and popular music; Cambridge Folk Festival favourites and three of the world’s finest folk musicians, Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker and John Doyle set the stage alight playing material from their latest album, The Wishing Tree and legendary ex-Steeleye Span fiddle player, Peter Knight joins forces with John Spiers, one of the leading melodeon players of his generation for an unmissable gig. Cambridge Junction also presents a very special evening at St Barnabas Church featuring BBC 2 Radio 2 Folk Award nominees Megson.

Appearing at renowned city music venue, The Portland Arms will be folk festival Club Tent sensation, Darren Eedens & The Slim Pickin’s – whether they’re held spellbound by a poignant ballad or jumping up and down as one to a stomping groove, Darren’s command of an audience is absolute!

Following the success of last year’s Creative Roots, the festival’s valuable professional development day will be held at The Portland Arms. Music industry professionals will once again gather to offer a career development day of workshops, talks and sessions, offering gems of advice and a wealth of experience.

Drop-in music sessions around the city; a special City Roots Family Day with free attractions including craft workshops, face-painting, storytelling, Come And Try’ ukulele workshop and fun walkabout characters; plus what promises to be a sell-out City Roots highlight – a fascinating live interview, in association with the Cambridge Union Society, with charismatic Canvey Island rocker Wilko Johnson – and it’s safe to say City Roots will be one of the most anticipated events in Cambridge in 2018!

Festival website: click here

MAD DOG McREA – Live at Cambridge Junction (Cambridge City Roots Festival)

Mad Dog Mcrea

It’s a chilly Wednesday in February, but there’s the heat of a storming party going on from the minute the door opens into the Cambridge Junction. Those delightful friends of blacksmiths, Noble Jacks, opening tonight for Mad Dog Mcrea, are already onstage giving it their all, whipping the audience up with their infectious energy and fun.

Mad Dog Mcrea kick off as ferociously as they mean to go on, storming straight in with ‘A Longer Road’. The sonic whirlwind continues with a blast through ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ (a song “older than Newton’s theory of gravity“), ‘Heart Of Stone’ from the superb Almost Home album and ‘Johnny No Legs’ (aka ‘My Son John’).

The band may be a banjo player down this evening, but there’s no loss of fullness of sound and no let-up in quality. Especial kudos are due to Dan Crimp’s extraordinary versatility on whistles/flutes and Nicky Powell’s muscular fiddle playing. They get to demonstrate their range on a couple of wild tune sets, that also feature jazzy breaks and funked-up basslines. Elsewhere, there’s a bit of hoedown fiddle on ‘Stupid Things’ and some ‘Zorba The Greek’ in the mid-section of ‘Black Fly’. The very non-PC, very funny ‘Pikey Killed My Goldfish’ is introduced gleefully as “folk drum and bass”. These Mad Dogs certainly love to throw in a bit of everything and the kitchen sink.

Always appearing just one drink away from complete chaos, they nevertheless manage to maintain control, pacing themselves tightly over a lengthy set. For an hour and forty minutes there’s no loss of momentum or drive, and the band engages warmly with the crowd at every opportunity, freely inviting song requests (which they happily fulfil without so much as a pause to remember the chords), onstage jam sessions and post-gig drinks aboard their legendary tour bus. Singer Michael Mathieson passes a bottle of cheap port around the audience, to their evident delight, since it comes back empty. But, as a slight edge seems to develop, threatening to cross over from boisterousness to aggression, the band deftly contains the crowd by switching mood, to a couple of slower numbers, including a surprisingly straight, lyrical cover of Richard Thompson’s ‘Beeswing’.

The Pied Pipers of Party close with a rousing finale of their anthems ‘Am I Drinking Enough’, followed by ‘Happy Bus’, its klezmer rhythms broken by a reggae mid-section that incorporates snatches of Gogol Bordello’s ‘Start Wearing Purple’. And if Eugene Hütz’s band seem at all close to Mad Dog Mcrea, it’s because they are both voracious musical melting-pots whose live performances retain a just-the-right-side-of-messy, edge-of-mayhem, sheer rabble-rousing vitality. Pondering this similarity for a moment, my husband (and photographer for the evening) leans over, “Guinness Bordello?” he suggests. The happy bus rolls on.
Su O’Brien

Artists’ website: www.maddogmcrea.co.uk  www.noblejacks.com

‘The Happy Bus’ – official video: