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:

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