If there are any certainties in life, one knows you will come away from the UK’s highest profile folk festival having discovered something new and exciting. Cambridge is consistently good at offering up a balanced view of the roots music world, such that legends tread the same boards as fresh-faced wanna-bes and those of all shades of success in-between.
At the tender end of that spectrum this year were The Lone Bellow, three multi-instrumentalists and singers who arrived on the back of some decent press and left having stolen the hearts of everyone who watched them. In the spirit of full disclosure, this writer had already heard and seen them, but still wasn’t prepared for their impact over two days in the English sunshine.
They played two sets; one on Saturday on Stage Two, from where the following review snippets stem, and again in the dreaded Stage One midday slot on Sunday, post-Archers omnibus, whilst the crowd are finding their blankets and lawn chairs, ready for another day. Their reaction to both sets is humble and wide-eyed. ‘It was wonderful,’ says Zach Williams, notional lead singer and guitarist, when we sit backstage to chew over their experience, ‘A moment happened yesterday. We started the set with some pretty heavy songs – the third was Marietta, topically heavy, pretty sad. We went into the first point when I encourage the crowd to clap and the whole crowd clapped back, and I thought ‘oh, this is so cool.’ Kanene Pipkin, the female third of the trio, concurs, ‘Yeah, it exceeded my expectations. We like the crowd to go where we go; we want them to be jubilant with us but we also like to go quiet and dark…’
A fan looking for an autograph momentarily interrupts us, though amusingly it turns out he’s after Passenger. Brian Elmquist, tall, blond, ferociously passionate guitarist and final third, recalls the energy passing between the stage and the audience, ‘Oh yeah, absolutely! I was feeling it, but I was wondering too – you know, ‘here comes an electric guitar..!’’ Kanene again, ‘A little boy and his mum were in the signing line last night and he was a fiddle player and she said ‘I think he might switch now’’. ‘He needs to play both,’ says Brian, ‘the fiddle’s where the money is – you can play with everyone else!’
The rat-a-tat-tat of their conversation is matched on stage. From the first song, Green Eyes And A Heart Of Gold, the bond between the three is palpable, each trading licks, harmonies and unspoken communication at rapid pace, adjusting their stance, their tone and their attack, always smiling, often visibly moved by the power of the moment. There’s a barely controlled fizz in their tight-knit semi-circle, but they can swoop down from on high at a moment’s notice to deliver sweet grace notes and sublime balladry. Witness Watch Over Us, heavy with gospel overtones and a slow-build, anguished vocal from Zach.
It’s rare to see any band hit their groove so immediately, or to be seen so clearly enjoying being on stage. Zach expands on this later, ‘We’ve got to this place where maybe we have a hard show but it never has anything to do with the audience – it’s usually inner band drama. It’s important for us; we free ourselves of any weight and we have to connect on stage. If we don’t, we start to question ourselves; why are we doing this, why are we away from our family, our community. So that’s what it’s about for us.’ Kanene, ‘We were all friends before starting the band. I’m not sure how many people realise how much time you spend together as a band. You become more than family. It’s a special kind of friendship that I feel very honoured to have and we take it really seriously. It’s almost like a family business. The hour on stage is my favourite hour – I love that hour on stage with these guys and they really entertain me.’
Each of them brings different strengths to the microphone. Brian’s tonality, Zach’s range and Kanene’s throaty, Southern lilt combine in unholy ways on songs like the aforementioned Marietta and the beautiful Call To War, a lead that Kanene smashed on both performances. Ultimately, though, it’s the upbeat songs that sting the audience into ever-increasing applause throughout.
It’s a focused, concentrated burst of energy that must take its toll; indeed, Cambridge is the last gig of their tour. ‘Yeah; we’ve been on the road for a long time’ says Kanene later, reminding us of Zach’s on-stage reference to his unwashed trousers being able to stand by themselves. Turns out that old US-UK translation nugget may have caught Zach unawares, however, as it dawns on Kanene he may have slipped up. ‘Oh, did you say pants?! It means underpants over here…’ Zach grins, ‘I don’t wear’ em’!’
I ask if the thought of home brings a sense of sadness or relief and Zach is back on point, ‘With a sense of joy. This whole tour has been so inspiring. I mean, we played Newport Folk Festival, we played Eaux Claires, Justin Vernon’s festival…’ Brian; ‘We sang with the Blind Boys of Alabama…’ and Zach again; ‘weeped with the Blind Boys of Alabama; sang with Leon Bridges…’ How was that? ‘He’s a sweet, kind soul,’ replies Kanene. ‘Yeah, he deserves it; he’s so grounded.’ Agrees Brian, before Kanene jumps in again, ‘He went from playing to 15 people to places like this festival within a year, in less than a year. He’s the real deal. He knows who he is.’ Zach later confirms that Bridges wants to collaborate with The Lone Bellow and Kanene admits her mum kissed him ‘..on the face at Newport; she has such a crush on him!’ Clearly, they’re still very much fans as well as artists.
Fans of a very diverse blend of music too. As they were setting up before their Stage One performance the day before, Brian cranked out a bar of AC/DC, ‘I actually did it ‘cos we’re at a folk festival! They were trying to get my guitar in the monitor but some guy in the crowd was ‘keep going!’. I suggest it would make a good cover, ‘Dude, we need to work on that, it would be amazing!’ he replies, laughing. They do cover songs in their set, though none as overtly risqué as Back In Black in Cherry Hinton. On Saturday it was a wonderful cover of The Everly Brothers When Will I Be Loved; ‘We’ve done it a few times, but not with the band – just acoustic, around the mic.’ Brian’s dander is up again and he spars with Kanene, ‘When we first started covering it, we sounded just like Linda Ronstadt…’, ‘Just like Linda’s version…’ ‘And it’s cool, but we sounded just like a covers band…’ Kanene laughs, ‘A wedding band!’ They reflect for a moment, ‘That song’s so beautiful,’ says Brian. For Sunday’s performance, we get Paul Simon’s Slip Sliding Away and the entire crowd underneath the Stage Two roof sing along. Kanene; ‘I love singing that song. It’s like a calypso, but he doesn’t have a super… I think he’s smart in the way he delivers things but the thing that’s fun about singing his songs is that it’s really easy to interpret it in your own way.’ I offer that there’s a lot of space in his songs, ‘Exactly! Because he’s one of those people who sings like he talks – there’s so much room for you to interpret. My mom is such a huge Paul Simon fan. It’s really good for festivals ‘cos you’re in this huge sea of humanity and we’re all travelling down this current…’ Indeed. At one point, buoyed by the response, it seemed likely Kanene would throw herself into the arms of the crowd and be carried, literally, away. She laughs, ‘NOT at a folk festival! But next time we play Cambridge, we’ll crowd surf and play AC/DC!’
My time with The Lone Bellow is almost up. Talk turns to what’s next. They’re planning to come back to the UK in the Spring, but Zach looks momentarily confused. Did you not know Zach? ‘I never know!’ More laughter, but the proposal is confirmed by Kanene and Brian, ‘That’s what we’re planning on,’ ‘Nothing certain. We’ve got some plans for London. We work with Communion very closely and they have an idea. I’d really like to come over here and tour for a month or so,’ a thought echoed by vigorous nods from his colleagues. I leave the last word to Kanene, ‘We’re fortunate. Every time we play, the grass-roots seems to pick up on us and we end up playing bigger venues.’
There is, of course, nothing fortunate about it. Their personalities on stage are, you may have gathered, not dissimilar to their approach when talking over bottles of water. Everything they do is with huge passion. Watching The Lone Bellow live is an experience, one not to be missed if you like your music without boundaries, beautifully executed and fun. They’re like Jerry Lee Lewis clones that, told not to take that last drink, pause for the briefest of moments, down two more and get back on it. It never affects their ability to address the emotion and subtlety of their music, however; music that deserves every moment it gets in the sun, whether that’s at Cambridge or anywhere else on the planet. All power to ‘em. Scour the press for those Spring gigs.
Review & Interview by: Paul Woodgate
More on Cambridge Folk Festival 2015 reviews and interviews coming very soon.