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

Artists’ websites:

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:


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

‘Ideas’ – an official video:

SHEILA K CAMERON – Alone On The Road (Glalell SKC1703CD)

Alone On The RoadIt’s a truth universally acknowledged (pace Jane Austen) that to really sing the blues you have to feel the blues, have to live the blues. As amply demonstrated in Alone On The Road, one of a trilogy of reissues, Sheila K Cameron is most definitely the real thing. Somewhat enigmatic, she’s an artist, a lyricist, a singer – her creative force spilling out in all directions. There’s a relentless, restless outpouring of experience, that one art form simply can’t contain.

Hers is a voice that speaks of maturity and a life lived defiantly, if not always easily. It has a natural, unforced sound with occasional displays of unexpected depth that pack a powerful emotional punch.

Comparisons have been made with Leonard Cohen and there are certainly elements of his style of speak-singing in the flattened out melancholy and resonance of her voice. On ‘When I Say You Owe Me Nothing’ her urgently barked delivery has more than a dash of Nick Cave.

Lyrically, there are so many glimpses of a real original talent on this album. Some standard blues tropes get rehashed, for sure, but always with a unique verbal twist in her original material.

Francis Speirs’ (although credited as Spiers on the album cover) harmonica provides a blistering introduction to the album and then never lets up. In fact, the spot-on accompaniments by Speirs, Geoff Allan, Brian McNeill and Brian Young are what really lift this set of songs into another class altogether, providing a versatile mood-board from the slight country tinge of ‘Mr Moon: I’m Working Against Time’ to the Doors-y fuzz of title-track “Alone On The Road’.

Vocal effects have been used to create an old-school blues atmosphere, as on the loping roll of ‘I Looked Alright This Morning’ and the slightly tinny, compressed ‘Bluebird Outside My Window’ as heard through an old horn gramophone. (This song also contains the divinely blunt put-down “she’s a selfish, self-concerned tart”). In total contrast, ‘Baby How Long’ sounds like she’s right up in your ear, so intimate is the vocal.

Sheila K Cameron is a unique artist whose work deserves a wider audience. Her songs cry out to be heard and will no doubt be reinterpreted by singers of the future. This album is a little treasure trove for lovers of the quirky, the downbeat, the blues.
Su O’Brien

Artist website:

Sadly Sheila K Cameron’s videos are not available to us in the UK – presumably for copyright reasons. Unless you know differently.

SOPHIE RAMSAY – The Seas Between Us (own label SRAM003)

The Seas Between UsThe collection of Scots and Gaelic songs that form The Seas Between Us are largely taken from Burns (either by attribution or orgin), together with Hector Macneil’s ‘My Love’s In Germanie’ and a handful of traditional airs. From the opener, ’Ae Fond Kiss’, we are on well-trodden and familiar ground. However, whether in Gaelic or English, each song has been given thoughtful re-interpretation here. Even the over-familiarity of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has been carefully considered, rephrasing the lines to impart the meaning of those words so often bellowed semi-coherently at midnight, through a fug of alcohol.

Musically, the traditional has been supplemented by open, spacious arrangements with subtle electronic effects, that are quite deliciously and decidedly of the modern age. Occasionally reminiscent of some of Martin Green’s more recent work, here are ghostly plinking pianos, haunting horns and a fluttering flute. But – as if all that alliteration wasn’t tiring enough – there’s the over-use of echo to contend with. On individual tracks it works well enough, in particular on the layered vocals of ‘The Burning Of Auchindoun’ but, over the course of an entire album it starts to become a distraction. In contrast, however, the sudden absence of vocal reverb on ‘My Love’s In Germanie’, plus some disturbing tapping noises, contrives to create quite an effective airless and claustrophobic atmosphere.

A great deal of musical imagination has clearly been brought to bear in the production of this album. A delicate piano line in ‘By Yon Castle Wa’’ turns tensely choppy, ‘The Lea Rig’ features slow, deep, dragging strings, and ‘Bidh Clann Ulaidh’ subtle pipes propel the rhythm. ‘Bothan Àirigh Am Bràighe Raithneach’ (the album booklet helpfully provides translations of the Gaelic lyrics) features an array of eerie hee-haws, like a gently snoring donkey, while elsewhere notably on ‘The Dowie Dens Of Yarrow’, Findlay Napier lends vocal support to Sophie Ramsay’s gentle, breathy, fragile voice.

Overall, the album has a rather subdued and reflective feel. There’s a consistency of mood, perhaps at the expense of creating richer contrasts of emotional light and shade. However, it’s not at all a brash or showy album, simply one that wants to give the songs enough space to speak for themselves.
Su O’Brien

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‘By Yon Castle Wa”:

PIPPA REID-FOSTER – Driftwood Harp (own label PRF2016CD)

Driftwood HarpThere’s a meditative quality to the sound of the harp, something at once hypnotic and calming. It can be a pleasure to put on the Driftwood Harp CD and simply allow the sounds to wash dreamily away, as a soothing backdrop. But, delightful as that idea is, it would be a pity not to take the time to listen carefully to the development of motifs and figures in the tune sets, all of which are delicately detailed.

Reid-Foster’s interpretive skills are very much to the fore, bringing different moods to the tunes. Whether that’s the seasonal joy of ‘Colours Of Autumn/Pip’s Jig’, with its percolating bubbling rhythm, or the wistful and tender ‘Iona, Sraid Nam Marbh’. This latter honours the street of the dead where coffins would process on their final pilgrimage from the bay to the cemetery of the holy isle. It’s a spare, stark and moving piece.

Some of the tunes are inspired by folklore or history, such as the highly evocative ‘Steam Boats On Crinan/Herring Lassies Of Argyll’, celebrating the steam puffers along the Crinan canal and the women who would prepare the fish catches they brought (also documented in Channel 4’s Great Canal Journeys with Timothy West and Prunella Scales). Staccato bursts describe the pace and bustle of the work. Likewise, skittering, tumbling motifs in ‘Kintraw’ depict a small village associated with fairy abductions. Further mythical subjects are to be found in ‘The Selkie’ and ‘The Mermaid Song’, the latter’s delicate watery riffles expanding out into spare soundwashes before returning to complete the musical circle.

The tune sets are often drawn from Scottish airs. The ‘Kilmartin Set’ hops and skips nimbly through three tunes, illustrating Reid-Foster’s skill with combining and arranging both traditional and original music.

Reid-Foster’s own compositions show her evident talent and ability to move beyond the traditional to achieve a much more abstract and modern sound. ‘Elements 1’ overlays and unites the four elements (fire, earth, air, water) while ‘Deirdre In Dreams’ is every bit as dreamlike as its title suggests.

While this CD will undoubtedly make a perfect companion to any form of relaxation, listeners would be well-advised to stay mindful of the subtle details and intelligence of the music.

Su O’Brien

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Here’s a snippet from Pippa’s previous album – ‘Wonderwall’: