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.

Ward Thomas share the official video for ‘Push For The Stride’

With the sounds of Country music permeating in the UK after the success of the hit television series Nashville, people both within and outside the music business have been asking – where are Britain’s home-grown country stars? Ward Thomas may well be providing some of the answers. They are on the threshold of becoming one of the first genuine major British Country acts.

Ward Thomas are 20-year old twin sisters Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas from Hampshire. Whilst in sixth form, a rough demo of the Ward Thomas track “Footnotes” found its way into the hands of Nashville’s most respected session musicians, leading to the recording of a debut album ‘From Where We Stand’ (out 21st July) that could spearhead a UK Country sound.

Hampshire and Country music may not be obvious bed fellows but these girls, brought up on a rural live stock farm from a family line that included artists and authors, have had Country music in their blood ever since they were introduced to the music of Carrie Underwood, Johnny Cash, Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss by a cousin in their early teens. “We fell hard for Country”, as Catherine puts it. One listen to the vocal cadences and close harmonies on their debut album ‘From Where We Stand’ and Nashville and Hampshire suddenly don’t seem all that far apart.

Written in its entirety in the UK, without the help of A-list song writers, yet recorded in Nashville with some of Country Music’s finest including Bobby Blazier, Dan Dugmore and Chris Rodriquez, ‘From Where We Stand’ retains a certain Englishness which combined with the ‘Nashville’ sound gives us Ward Thomas’ own individual UK take on Country music. Their authentic Country sound with British influences and stories has been embraced in Nashville and the debut album can boast guest appearances from Grammy Award winner Michael Omartian (who appears on the track “Take That Train”) and Country Music superstar Vince Gill, winner of 18 CMA awards and 20 Grammys.

Lead single ‘Push For The Stride’, (follow up to their Radio 2 playlisted Footnotes EP), opens with strident guitars, melodic piano and vibrant harmonies. It’s an uplifting, up-tempo country-pop tune with a serious message about going after your dreams. The album contains a range of moods and textures – from heartfelt and exquisitely sung ballads like ‘Try’ and ‘From Where I Stand’ which was written about their parents’ divorce to barnstormers like ‘Way Back When’, ‘Town Called Ugley’ and ‘Push For the Stride’. Dan Dugmore’s swirling pedal steel supports the lilting melody of ‘Footnotes’, and Chris Rodriguez’s playful, chiming guitar and Blazier’s propulsive drumming balance the twins’ ardent vocals on another highlight, ‘Guest List’, which features one of many catchy choruses that will keep the listener hooked.

In the spring of 2014, Ward Thomas released their ‘Footnotes EP’ with lead single ‘The Good And The Right’ making it onto the BBC Radio 2 Playlist. Terry Wogan interviewed the twins on his popular Radio 2 show and they were also featured in a special Radio 2 documentary on country music broadcast in March. That same month they appeared at the Country2Country Festival at London’s O2 Arena where they were interviewed by BBC London News. More recently they have been featured in the Sunday Times Culture and recently performed at Maverick Festival in early July.

Debut Album ‘From Where We Stand’ released 21st July
Single ‘Push For The Stride’ also released 21st July

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).

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Country is being re-born…(Ward-Thomas are)…fresh artists with country influences and the dexterity to create a credible home grown version of the music – Sunday Times Culture

“Young, country-pop duo with terrific original songs, and the delivery to make them unforgettable” – Alan Cackett, Maverick Magazine

WARD THOMAS – Debut EP: Footnotes

Ward ThomasWard Thomas are a Country / Americana duo from Hampshire, comprised of 19-year old twin sisters Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas.  Their new first UK EP has just been released with the promise of their full length debut album to follow later this Summer.

Hampshire and Country music may not be obvious bed fellows but these girls, brought up on a rural live stock farm from a family line that included artists and authors, have had Country music in their blood ever since they were introduced to the music of Carrie Underwood, Johnny Cash, Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss by a cousin in their early teens. “We fell hard for Country”, as Catherine puts it. One listen to the vocal cadences and close harmonies on their ‘Footnotes’ EP and Nashville and Hampshire suddenly don’t seem all that far apart.

Since a demo recording of the song “Footnotes” found its way into the hands of top Nashville session musician Bobby Blazier, the girls have spent much of the last two years recording in Nashville with Blazier and other top Country players including Dan Dugmore and Chris Rodriquez. The resulting Ward Thomas album will feature guest appearances from Grammy Award winner Michael Omartian (who appears on the EP track “Take That Train”) and Country Music superstar Vince Gill, winner of 18 CMA awards and 20 Grammys.  2014 will now see Ward Thomas turning their attention to their home country with a first UK release.

The 4-song EP features three original songs co-written by the girls and recorded out in Nashville and a cover of Dougie MacLean’s classic ‘Caledonia’. The lead track, a song about the bittersweet relationship with technology entitled ‘The Good & The Right’, is the perfect barn-storming showcase for the girls’ song-writing and vocal talents. This is backed by ‘Footnotes’, (“writing “Footnotes” was the first time we felt we were not just singers but songwriters too” says Lizzy), which highlights their beguiling harmonies and a vocal blend perhaps only twins can possess. Their easy way with story telling is perfectly encapsulated in ‘Take That Train’, a true-life story about love lost and a chance for redemption, inspired by Lizzy’s brief encounter with a complete stranger on a train who confided in her, recounting her whole life story,

Ward Thomas’s own life story has also helped them define their sound and own brand of Country music. “Our parents went through a divorce, so our father built his London business and our Mom went back to school to get her art degree,” says Catherine, “Lizzy had a bad riding accident and many more ups and downs helped us grow to consider life beyond the farm. It might seem unusual for two British 19-year-olds to be so into Country music but we love the sound and the stories – and cows, chickens and goats have the same language in rural Hampshire as they do below the Mason-Dixon line!”

Also nice to see Dan Gordon, another young Hampshire singer-song-writing talent strutting his stuff on guitar in the video.

For more details visit the artists’ website: www.wardthomasmusic.com