Continued: I hot-foot it back to stage 1 for Jason Isbell. The fourth major contingent of Cambridge’s American quartet alongside Rosanne Cash, Sarah Jarosz and Loudon Wainwright III, Isbell is a songwriter who leaves it all out on stage. He can’t hide how he feels and it affords his music a brutal beauty. Live, those emotions take on additional weight. His set is wonderfully paced and brilliantly performed. If it were just Jason it would be great, but Mr. Isbell is a package deal these days, and his wife Amanda Shires adds backing vocals and beautiful cameos with her fiddle on most of the songs. He starts with the rolling riff of Different Days and the road-weary Travelling Alone, a natural successor to the classic highway songs of Guthrie, Taylor and Kristofferson. The 400 Unit song Alabama Pines is great, as is Stockholm. In-between, Elephant, the excruciatingly painful account of watching a friend die of cancer, is a resigned gut-punch tragedy. I eulogised about its studio version when Southeastern was released, but live its morbid humour and total candor is something else. You can tell it means a lot to Isbell.
There’s plenty of banter between husband and wife and an easy rapport with the crowd, evident in the way they acknowledge Isbell’s gratitude for their support and their inclination to side with Shires when he offers up the occasional cheeky quip about married life. Shires sings Drop And Lift from her album Down Under The Doves which has a lovely harmony line. Cover Me Up is outstanding; a love song wrapped in relief and redemption, and Relatively Easy reminds us all there’s more to life than personal troubles. When Isbell sings ‘My angry heart beats relatively easy’ it might sum up his recent history neatly, but there are layers upon layers to unpick and the crowd laps it up. They finish with Warren Zevon’s I’m Your Mutineer. There’s light and shade in every song. They soar and sweep like a bird on the wing, restlessly riding thermals in search of a place to rest. It might appear cruel, but I hope Isbell doesn’t find that place too soon, because the pain of experience informs every lyric and the music is the better for it.
- Different Days
- Travelling Alone
- The Magician
- Live Oak
- Alabama Pines
- Drop And Lift (Amanda)
- Cover Me Up
- Relatively Easy
- I’m Your Mutineer
The sun, out in force all day, is beginning to slope towards the horizon as I make my way back to The Den. The crowds are no smaller than the day before and despite the festival winding up to a close, no-one’s going home. Three young lads make a beeline for me with a bucket, handing out CDs. They’re local (Colchester), budding songwriters Oliver Daldry and Doug Panton, requesting a donation to cover the recording of their music. I wonder why, with their One Direction looks, they’re at a folk festival and they tell me it’s their music of choice, reeling off several names including Seth Lakeman and Newton Faulkner. Oliver played The Den earlier and you can tell the adrenalin is still pumping. In another example of the festival’s ability to suspend reality, my wife takes one look at the CDs when I return home and tells me she taught Oliver in her English class. I’m going to call it the CFF-Effect.
In The Den Elliott Morris is ripping into Something’s Got To Give, a Dan Arborise-style exercise in finger gymnastics. It’s very good and the audience tells him so, but I’ve got a date with another artist due to play The Den in the evening and make my way to the duck pond to say hi to Lucy Ward.
No stranger to accolades early in her musical career, including a BBC Radio 2 Horizon award in 2012, Lucy Ward continues to tour her latest album, Single Flame, around the country. It’s been out a year, ‘Where’s the time gone!’ she exclaims as we sit down in the sylvan surroundings of the Hall grounds. It’s an album defined by its time, ‘There’s some dark material. It had a natural gestation due to the events going on in the big bad world.’ Some of that material is replayed later, not least The Last Pirouette, Shellback and For The Dead Men, but equally tracks like I Cannot Say I Will Not Speak and The Consequence speak of a mind troubled and in need of outward expression to relieve the woe. All of which is fine, but Lucy’s infectious and bubbly character is somewhat incongruous set against her studio output.
As with The Young’uns, Single Flame was produced by Stu Hanna of Megson, of which Lucy says ‘working with Stu was amazing; he’s a visionary in the studio. ..Flame came together quite slowly and it really felt like a collaboration over those nine months.’ And now she gets to play some at Cambridge, ‘It’s my third visit here. The first was in the Club Tent, which was cool ‘cos it was standing room only.’ What does Lucy think of the festival then? ‘Well, it’s rightly recognised as the premium folk event, isn’t it, probably in Europe? It’s important too. I really believe in the power of this festival, and its place amongst the other regional events across the Summer – they maintain the genre for all of us.’ And The Den? ‘It’s cosy, isn’t it? The intimacy suits me. I can play a mix of stuff, it’s going to be great.’
The Rails’ Kami Thompson and James Walbourne had watched Jason Isbell wow the main stage crowd, but as I arrive at stage 2 after my interview with Lucy, they are creating some of their own magic, tearing it apart chord by chord, riff by riff. They were excellent in Hoxton earlier this year (live review here), but given a bigger stage and a larger crowd, they take their folk-rock model and blow the notion of the festival being largely acoustic all the way to the Norfolk coast. I only catch four songs, but The Rails rock Cambridge and Cambridge loves it.
Walbourne plays every note as if wanting to pin it to the back of the tent; at one point his solo is so intense it was a wonder the strings don’t start to act like a grater. Where Walbourne looks like he’s permanently on the edge of a controlled spontaneous combustion, Kami Thompson strides the stage with an assured, almost aloof air, wielding her acoustic as if she was born with it (entirely possible, given her familial lineage). Her already distinctive Thompson pipes are a perfect foil to the gritty baritone of her partner and they blend well on Fair Warning. If that song is a chance to catch breath, its slow, insistent melody worming its way into the memory, Borstal picks up the baton of Panic Attack Blues and smelts whatever’s left of the audience. If The Rails keep writing like this, they have a huge future.
Lucy Ward bounds onto the Den stage to a full crowd. There’s real stagecraft and a theatrical ethic to Lucy’s set, which begins in fine form with the lovely The Last Pirouette and a great new song, a delicate love song called, I think, Summers That We Made; encouragingly, her best song of the set. Her ebullience and engaging personality rushes off the stage and washes over the audience like an El Nino wind, carrying all before it – you can’t help but get swept up in her force-of-nature dialogue. The traditional ‘The Blacksmith’ is vamped up to the nth degree, with regular interruptions from Lucy to criticize all those who have blatantly, in her opinion, ignored the erotic undertow of the lyric. Shellback is gorgeous, moody and dark.
She’s not just passionate in deed though, her thoughts mirror her restlessness, talking at length about the Lights Out campaign and the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1. For The Dead Men is an excuse to profile the UK’s recent economic and cultural woes – her passion is something to see. The song unfolds in slow waves of picked and strummed guitar that become a clarion call; ‘Stand up, and take to the streets / They can’t ignore us if we all choose to speak.’ Folk has a new idealist with no qualms about wearing her heart on her sleeve, and she’s great at it.
- The Last Pirouette
- Summers That We Made
- The Blacksmith (erotic mix)
- For The Dead Men
- Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian
Cambridge favours those of us lucky enough to be enjoying the festival’s last day with a beautiful sunset and the sort of balmy evening we long for through England’s grey Winter. Splashes of bruised orange and purple watercolour the sky, pints are sunk, friends made, contact numbers exchanged and new favourites noted. Across the site thousands make their last decisions – who to see, who to miss? I can argue for several, but it’s not often you’re offered entry to a guest area for a true character of the modern music pantheon, so it’s off to stage 1 for the main attraction.
Of all the artists that played over the weekend, Van Morrison is perhaps the least ‘folk’ but appears to be the most revered. Stage 1 is full, the guest area heaves with journalists, photographers and artists, all edging around chairs and searching for their own square foot of real estate that affords a view of the stage. There’s a real sense of expectation; aside from other performances around the site, everyone else is crammed beneath the tent or parked on the grass outside.
From where I stand, behind some large PA cabinets and the backstage curtain, it could be anyone who wanders slowly on to the stage at 8:30 to a hearty welcome from the faithful. Van Morrison’s entrance follows a good ten minute instrumental from his crack band, no doubt allowing the man a last gargle and pre-gig ablutions in the no doubt deserted toilets. Of course, it is Van Morrison, proof of which is in the rich timbre of his voice, a voice we don’t hear speak until six songs in when he briefly acknowledges that a folk festival deserves a folk song. Irony aside, he has a point; until then, the set has been almost exclusively jazz-related and to these ears reminiscent of a rat-pack performance, all dicky-bows and careful orchestration – I could be in Las Vegas watching Sinatra roll back the years. There’s little bite, but the quality is undeniable, is, in fact, tremendous; tight and assured, rehearsed and ragged if such a thing exists.
For all my reservations, the crowd at the front is in ecstasy, grooving in the warm Cambridge evening to songs considered so classic they’re almost parodies. This band though, and this singer, ensure they are delivered with the right amount of class to render that situation impossible. Hit after hit, classic after classic are delivered in note perfect representation of the studio versions. I have to remind myself that Van Morrison is only thirty feet away so odd is it to see a genuine musical legend in the flesh. It’s another fine example of Cambridge doing what it does best; opening its arms to the widest possible diaspora and saying come on in, the water’s warm.
- Extended instrumental
- Little Village
- Whenever God Shines His Light
- Someone Like You
- Queen Of The Slipstream
- Baby Please Don’t Go
- Dead Or Alive
- Days Like This
- Brown Eyed Girl
Some can stay for Lunasa but my dance is done. As I make my last notes and collect my things I find myself genuinely sad to be leaving, then surprised by how quickly the festival got its teeth into me. There are lots of festivals throughout the UK Summer these days, all desperately selling themselves as unique; child-friendly, laid back, organic (seriously). Cambridge doesn’t need to do that, it’s the Ronseal of the festival world, with enough chutzpah to partially reinvent itself as and when necessary, folding in new technologies, mixing up artists, introducing extra-curricular activities. It has so many layers; hippy ethic, commercially slick, brilliantly organised but wearing the cloak of late 60s entrepreneurial chic. It’s heartfelt, personal and universal. It’s reached 50 at a canter, here’s to the next 50.
Review by: Paul Woodgate