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:

AMY WADGE AND LUKE JACKSON live at Cambridge Junction

Cambridge City Roots Festival, 7 February 2017

Amy Wadge and Luke Jackson

What comes across so strikingly from an evening with Amy Wadge and Luke Jackson is their natural rapport. Both are hugely talented songwriters, singers and musicians with a constant drive to create new music. They work effortlessly well together and although they like to pass the occasional comment on their age gap, it’s plainly not all that relevant to them.

Wadge and Jackson are near the end of this year’s two-hander tour, cramming 15 dates into 3 weeks. No surprise that Wadge, taking the stage first, admits to feeling rather exhausted – although you’d never know it from the gusto and attack of her performance. She ploughs straight in with ‘Always’, ‘Scream’ and ‘Free Fall’, accompanying herself on guitar or on keyboards.

Luke Jackson joins Wadge for the first of the evening’s duets, ‘Thinking Out Loud’, the 2016 Grammy-award winner, co-written by Wadge with Ed Sheeran. It’s the song that made her an overnight success after 20-odd years of striving. Wadge appears to wear success lightly and with unaffected charm. Her between-songs chat is hugely entertaining, with a seemingly bottomless well of anecdotes that feel cosy and intimate, even when dropping stellar music business names.

The other thing of note is Wadge’s songs themselves, often with threads of personal experience woven throughout them. It’s this that really elevates them, making an emotional connection with the listener. She presents a new song, a kind of working-parent blues: a touching apology to her children, acknowledging that the need to follow one’s dreams is not always compatible with the demands of parenthood. Then there’s ‘One Last Dance’, a beautiful song with an equally inspirational source in her remarkable grandparents. There was definitely something in my eye during this one. The final song of her set is rooted in her mother’s illness, whilst also being a tribute to the strength of anyone struggling with life’s obstacles.

Having followed Luke Jackson’s musical progress for a few years, somehow tonight is the first time I’ve managed to see him live. His voice has matured, becoming richer and, thankfully, losing a few youthful quirks. His quiet confidence and talent simply shine out: he’s so firmly in control of his vocals and his guitar, changing pacing and volume with enviably fluid ease. An a capella verse of ‘Ain’t No Trouble’ builds into a bluesy roll. Slowing down only slightly, he segues straight into ‘Sister’, plucking effortlessly at his guitar with his right hand whilst his left-hand finger-clicks to mark the rhythm.

Amy Wadge returns, duetting with Jackson on ‘Finding Home’, a song written during their last tour, followed by the choppy ‘Is It Me?’ and ‘Better Man’. Finally, the pair move on to ‘Lucy And Her Camera’, an older Jackson song which he’s only recently recorded.

Back on his own again, Jackson runs through ‘Aunt Sally’ and ‘Kansas’, each song prefaced with funny, self-deprecating tales about how they came to be written. Jackson also somehow breathes freshness and meaning into Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – no mean feat with such a very well-worn song. The set closes with Jackson stepping out front of stage to encourage a bit of crowd participation in the chorus of ‘On The Road’.

Wadge, who earlier provided a spiky piano accompaniment to expose the raw beauty of the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Design For Life’ stripped of its rock bombast, joins Jackson one last time as the pair encore with a country-tinged take on Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’.

At time of writing, the tour is over and the pair are off to different destinations in the USA, but their social media suggests they’re keen to do it all again next year. With such a dynamic, creative and yet thoroughly level-headed and likeable duo, that’s got to be a fixture for the diary.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the AMY WADGE link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. 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.

ORDER Tall Tales And Rumours, Luke Jackson’s latest [CD]

Artists’ websites: https://amywadge.com
http://lukepauljackson.com

CAMBRIDGE CITY ROOTS FESTIVAL – Various artists and venues, 3-11 February 2017

City Roots Festival
Photographs by Su O’Brien

The 2017 inaugural City Roots Festival is kind of like an expansion pack for the Cambridge Folk Festival: a winter top-up with lots of bonus features. Aiming to expand the relationship between folk/roots music and the city, the Folk Festival organisers lined up a diverse roster of artists over one week at assorted venues across the city.

Home-grown talent Steven James Adams opened the week with his new band The French Drops, providing witty and lively songs with a conscience. Then there was a choice between Mary Chapin Carpenter (with Edale’s finest, Bella Hardy, in support) with her classic country-infused songs or the edgier sounds of Jim Moray.

A day of workshops on working in the music industry, hosted by Anglia Ruskin University’s music department, was considered, by one attendee at least, to have been very useful. The evening could be rounded off in the evening by some folk club sessions in the Cambridge University Union Bar, or at The Transatlantic Sessions, a melting pot of Celtic and Americana sounds. Or, like me, you might choose to take in an entertaining evening in the company of singer-songwriters Amy Wadge and Luke Jackson.

Replicating the Folk Festival’s “up & coming” stage, The Den, at local venue CB2, was a two-night showcase including Janet Devlin, SJ Mortimer, Honey and the Bear, Mortal Tides, Ben Smith and Jimmy Brewer, and Kerry Devine.

The riotous Mad Dog McCrea returned as headliners, following their support slot for New Model Army just a few months ago. Noble Jacks, their support act, look like being a band worth watching, too. On a completely different tack, skilful guitar playing with a twist was provided by Paolo Angelli & Derek Gripper.

On the final day, the bitter sleet was braved by a staunch group of great musicians who’d rashly agreed to busk around the city, including five-piece band Morganway, Pat Crilly & Greg Camburn, Ben Smith & Jimmy Brewer (whose delicious harmonies almost made it feel like summertime: almost) and guitarist Matt Hammond. And these were just the ones I managed to see, so my apologies to those I missed out. Luckily, there was a warm welcome from the folk clubs inside the Union Bar, a place to retreat and thaw out red-raw fingers to play some fine indoor sets, too.

Sadly, the headliner for the closing night, Salif Keita cancelled due to illness, but Sona Jobarteh stepped up, with Muntu Valdo in support.

There is no question about the quality and diversity of the artists taking part, and Cambridge has the range of venue sizes to manage internationally renowned stars and breakthrough acts. Just a bit of housekeeping needs attention, if – as the organisers hope – this is to become an annual event. Several gigs had no visible City Roots branding at all, leaving a lack of any feeling of cohesion that an umbrella, multi-venue festival like this really needs. In established Cambridge tradition, laminated posters were cable-tied to railings around town and local press published articles, but details of updates to the schedule were often only sketchily available online, like the re-organisation of some of the final day activities. Attention to small details like these would make big improvements to the overall experience, but there’s no doubt that City Roots will be a welcome addition to the festival calendar.

Su O’Brien

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

STEVEN JAMES ADAMS AND THE FRENCH DROPS – live

The Portland Arms (Cambridge City Roots Festival,
3 February 2017)

Steven James Adams

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.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: http://www.stevenjamesadams.com

‘Ideas’ – an official video: