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Live Review: Cambridge City Roots 3rd-11th February

With the acoustic guitar upright like a cello, Paolo Angelli plays his solo instrument like nothing you’ve ever witnessed before. It’s not often you can say that at a gig these days.

He’s seated, surrounded by effect knobs and devices, whilst pushing foot pedals in order to play the low-end groove lines via a mechanical hand on a heavily adapted axe. All the while, the top end melodies and textures are supplied by his overworked hands picking and strumming at the instrument and occasionally swiping or rhythmically slashing it with a violin bow. He structures his set in Cambridge’s Junctions J2 with a nod to the free Jazz styles that mix into his sound. Starting with an improvisation that unfolds without interruption for an hour, taking into its journey sounds that recall European Folk, Electronica, Avant-Garde and Rock. This is a head spinning aural trip and I have to say I was shocked to not notice the time that had passed in tonight’s only (save a five minute spontaneous finale) piece of music.

Earlier in the evening, Angelli had been supported by South African Derek Gripper. His nylon stringed guitar pieces have the mode of a traditional classical recital but his playing is no less innovative in its own way as he takes in Malian works and Cape Town folk styles. He also plays a little music of Salif Keita, who it emerges, has had to cancel his appearance on the last night of this week-long, citywide Folk & Roots Festival. Tonight’s incredible performance is part of that festival and it means the organisers are not getting the closing finale they’d planned, but they will surely look back on everything else that’s arrived this week as an emphatic success.

The City Roots Festival is taking place at venues all over Cambridge for one week in February. It’s mission being to embrace the spirit of the summer’s annual Cambridge Folk Festival. Set aside the fact that you can’t buy a ticket for the entire programme (the varying capacities of the venues render this logistically impossible) and ignore the absence of camping and shuttle busses and I’d say this is a promising stab at a complimentary winter time variant on the main event. It does indeed capture some of that spirit.

One of the greatest elements of the summer weekend is the little folk sessions that crop up all the time on the festival grounds, in the beer tent and at the campsite. This is all given a place within this schedule, with the Folk Club Buskers playing citywide and The Union Bar hosting folk clubs, crafts and workshops. The three main Cambridge live music venues are each of different sizes and as such, they are perfectly in symmetry with the trio of stages at the Folk Festival itself. The Portland Arms could be said to represent the Club Tent stage, an arena where Cambridge’s own Broken Family Band used to triumph a few years ago. Today their singer has an ongoing solo project which opened the festivities at the Portland with a fine Folk Rock set under the name Steven Adams & The French Drops.

He’s lost none of his capacity for a biting pop hook and a mocking, world-weary lyric. An initially subdued Adams warms up as the set unfolds. The laughter that used to be such a feature of his old bands’ gigs soon returns and the singer apologises for his initially unenthused demeanour, saying he’d been thinking about “all the Daily Mail and Brexity people” just before he came out on stage. For an encore the band members are done and dusted so Steven does away with the amplification too, instead walking into the crowd with an acoustic guitar for a couple of tunes that include a brilliant cover of John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’. It concludes a sublime, boozy Friday launch night in the pub.

To extend the parallels a touch, if the Portland Arms is the Club Tent then the Cambridge Junction must be the equivalent of the second stage. They’ve got a superb selection of World and Roots acts playing across the week which, in addition to the guitar innovations mentioned at the top of this piece, also included Amy Wadge (who has recently collaborated with Ed Sheeran) and the winner of the ‘best young emerging talent’ at the Radio 2 Folk Awards, Luke Jackson. Other nights include the mashup of Folk, Pop and Gypsy Jazz with British band Mad Dog McCrea and a set by the singer/multi-instrumentalist Jim Moray.

This means that the Corn Exchange is effectively the main stage of the week and it has to be said, if this event does become a regular fixture then the opening headliners have already set the bar high. Mary Chapin Carpenter is a US Country singer whose body of work and song-writing really touches on everything the City Roots is all about. Her band are Folk Rock par excellence and they all possess the musical dexterity to reference the Blues, Country and Rock ‘n’ Roll in a set that’s the very essence of great songwriting. Mary’s not an ostentatious character, though, so typically she gives her most heartfelt performance on Lucinda Williams ‘Passionate Kisses’ then concludes with a monologue in praise of the tune’s author. Mind you, like Steven Adams before her, she’s clearly got the state of the world on her mind as she makes Trump remarks and refers to “the freak show that’s going on back home”.

Maybe this new world order will inspire a return to the political and protest folk styles that were booming in Folk fifty years ago. Even at the Transatlantic Sessions night on the same Corn Exchange stage two nights later, Jim Lauderdale says he’s sweating “like Nigel Farage at a Billy Bragg concert”. It’s at this show where everything I love about the Folk Festival itself is captured in one magical night. The thrill of seeing music legends in action is here in spades with a Sessions collective that include luminaries such as Phil Cunningham, Aly Bain and Danny Thompson. Then there’s the joy of witnessing more heavy duty players on the modern day circuit like the incredible John McCusker and John Doyle. The revolving procession of singers who shine a light on the endlessly fascinating world of song, old and new, enrich both sets. Eddi Reader uncovers a gem from the latter day Willie Nelson songbook called ‘Back To Earth’. John Paul White steps out of the shadows of the defunct Civil Wars to prove himself one of the best of the new breed of Country writers, while Jim Lauderdale is consummate in his craft, especially in the superb sing-a-long ‘Heading For The Hills’. Tift Merritt is simply a pocket dynamo of Western charm who, some eleven years after bursting onto the UK scene via a couple of explosive sets at the 2006 festival, has amassed an amazing arsenal of albums and songs that surely mark her out as a roots music legend in waiting. She mixed tracks from her new record with a glowing rendition of early track ‘Good Hearted Man’ from the grand piano. And whoever they’re accompanying, the Sessions Band are simply “the greatest band on earth”. Tonight that might well be true. So other than a bit of sun and the open air, this has been a mouth-watering taster of everything we come to enjoy from the main event; more of the same next year please!

Review by: Danny Neill

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