Monday, 4 August 2014

Cambridge Folk Festival (An Americana Perspective) - Friday 1st August - Sunday 3rd August 2014

For a solitary hour on Saturday evening, the 50th Cambridge Folk Music Festival was transported deep down the Mississippi Delta and immersed in an album that is rapidly evolving into a blueprint of perfection for those captivated by the true essence of southern roots music. Rosanne Cash was returning to this premium festival for the first time since 2003 and her full band-near complete performance of THE RIVER AND THE THREAD just eclipsed Jason Isbell as the Americana highlight of an event keen to showcase so much fine roots music from around the world.

The best way to approach a festival of this manageable size is to have your hit list, take a chance on a few unknowns and browse the rest to soak up the atmosphere. With a strong Americana presence this year, the first approach was well stocked, while the second threw up some acts craving to be further explored. No doubt there will be many column inches for the major bookings such as Van Morrison, Richard Thompson, Sinead O’Connor and an endless list of established folk performers but you’ve come to the right place to get a slight Americana slant on the weekend’s proceedings.

Rosanne Cash
THE RIVER AND THE THREAD is an album that gets better with each listen but Rosanne and her top notch band led by husband and key architect John Leventhal took the record to a different plane by devoting 45 minutes and 8 tracks from it to her set. The stories behind the songs breathed extra life into a project which has exceeded all expectations as the band barely wasted a note and Rosanne possessed a stature to equip her roots. The most defining aspect was the sincerity and belief in the project of sharing her heritage. Throw in a couple of songs from THE LIST and ‘Radio Operator’ from BLACK CADILLAC and the hour long set was maximised to perfection. The bar at this festival was set high for a young contender to continue to make his mark.

Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell is that contender. He is being tipped for massive industry recognition at this year’s Americana Music Awards and his Sunday afternoon slot on the main stage added an abundance of credibility to this groundswell of opinion. Supported by his super talented wife Amanda Shires on fiddle, Jason showed no lack of composure, although without his famed band, to showcase a number of tunes from the acclaimed SOUTH EASTERN album and a few more from a wider back catalogue. The stunning song quality, humility to his craft and vocals to pierce a sedate suburban atmosphere marked the set which for me continually peaked from ‘Travelling Alone’, ‘Cover Me Up’, ‘Stockholm’ to one of his older songs ‘Alabama Pines’. Jason Isbell is a performer at ease with his talent, situation and ability to move into the upper echelons of American song writing. Cambridge Folk Festival was a privileged place to be to see him perform.

My Darling Clementine
Over the last couple of years, British husband and wife duo Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgliesh have gone down a storm with UK Americana fans with their tongue in cheek take on classic country music. The outfits may be a touch garish but the songs are top drawer and for this Friday afternoon Stage 2 appearance the duo had the support of a full band. The folk festival crowd loved the Lou-led feminist response song ‘No Matter What Tammy Said’ and Michael showed the diversity of their style with the soulful ‘Our Race Is Run’. The day will come when Michael and Lou move on from this style but another splendid performance of their two My Darling Clementine albums was a pleasure to witness and hopefully acquired some new Cambridge Folk Festival fans taking a chance on a different act.

Samantha Crain
At this point it is worth mentioning a couple of American artists who raised their profile with two contrasting acts. North Mississippi Allstars are a high energy country blues trio who evoked a dose of roots infused mayhem to the main stage on Saturday afternoon. Heavy on percussion and rip roaring on guitars, the trio headed by the Dickinson Brothers , Luther and Cody, electrified the audience with their home state take on the blues with newly acquired bassist Lightnin Malcolm muscling in on the act at opportune moments. A drum led trip by all three band members into the audience mid set combined with the high octane sound ensured there were no mid-afternoon dozers in the vicinity of the main stage. On a more serene note, the impressive singer-songwriter Samantha Crain from the troubadour state of Oklahoma played an inspirational set in the quieter Den venue on Friday tea time and created an impression to be further checked out. There was more than a touch of Lucinda Williams and Mary Gauthier to the sound of Samantha and she quickly became a notable festival find.

Saraj Jarosz
The American contingent at Cambridge this year was swelled by a couple of artists who played a pair of sets across the weekend. Both have an old time feel to them and are slowly becoming sought after acts in the UK. Pokey Lafarge was also part of an array of artists who opened the festival on Thursday evening. Not being on site for this part of the festival made it essential to catch Pokey live on the main stage on Friday afternoon and to see this St Louis native’s take on the tradition of his home town musical heritage captured perfectly the ideals of the festival to celebrate roots music from  across the Atlantic divide. Sarah Jarosz is a fantastic young artist who values the tradition of American roots music having its own beginnings in the British Isles. Two of Sarah’s Cambridge sets were attended and perhaps the most prominent was her Sunday lunch time main stage slot where she and talented band members Alex Hargreaves and Nathanial Smith besotted the early arrivals with a multitude of mesmerising acoustic tunes. Sarah even rotated the sing along numbers with the Tom Waits song ‘Come on Up to The House’ rousing the audience into some vocal involvement on this occasion.

Lindi Ortega
Lindi Ortega is a wonderful complex performer who has courted country and Americana fans alike with an unassuming take on, predominately, the darker and more quirky side of life. Attired with her trusty little red boots and black skull paved dress, Lindi went down a storm with a folk festival audience not too fazed by the left field slant of many performers. Unlike her previous UK visits, Lindi was this time alone with just an acoustic guitar but the familiar songs had that same old magical sound. ‘Cigarettes and Truck Stops’ never fails to move while the glowing ‘Gypsy Child’ is pure autobiographical. For an artist who rarely stands still, she previewed a new song which unsurprisingly was her take on passing through life. Although this was just a fleeting visit, the flame for Lindi Ortega in the UK still flickers brightly.

Raevennan Husbandes
Back onto a final couple of artists who possessed an understanding of the nuances of the Americana genre and were both relatively unknown to me prior to the festival. The Rails are a British based folk rock duo comprising of Kami Thompson, daughter of Richard, and established guitarist James Walbourne. Backed by a fine band, The Rails eased between beautiful harmonic pieces with more than a hint of country to a full on rock sound that ratcheted up the tempo. In contrast young artist Raevennan Husbandes captivated a large gathering in The Den with a bluesy sound supported by the legendary BJ Cole on pedal steel. Her wonderful bio of ‘Afrocentric Quirky Beatnik Songbird’ perfectly sums Raevennan up and she has been added to the ‘ones to look out for’ list.

Jess Morgan
One of the many delights of this, and any other festival, is perusing the smaller stages and a number of artists listened to over the weekend certainly warrant a mention. It was great to catch up with Jess Morgan again as she performed a handful of fine songs in the Club Tent. The same venue hosted an entertaining set from Luke Jackson who included a good version of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ in his selection of songs. She may have been competing with Van Morrison in the background but the beautiful vocals of Kelly Oliver won the match up. Kinver based band Clutching at Straws excelled in the growing trend of making roots music cool for the new younger generation while Goat Roper Rodeo Band are making a similar case for cosmic country blues. All these and many likeminded artists continue to be the pulse of the festival and provide the perfect foil to the bigger fee soaking artists.

There was no complaints with the Americana menu served up by the Cambridge Folk Festival, in this their golden year. The bubbling undercard garnished the selection with a lavished offering of great music to create the perfect base for an emerging superstar and iconic album to crown the feast. Cambridge Folk Festival was awash with stars but as you would expect from an Americana perspective, none shone more brightly than Rosanne Cash and Jason Isbell.

Amanda Shires 
Jason and Amanda

Michael Weston King

Goat Roper Rodeo Band

Clutching at Straws

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