Monday, June 07, 2004

Strawberry Fair

For me, the festival season began in earnest last Saturday with Strawberry Fair, a large free festival and the highlight of the Cambridge musical calendar. It felt good to get out of London for the weekend, and it proved to be another remarkably successful event.As we did last year, we spent the entire day in the acoustic/beer tent, thus enjoying some excellent music. The line-up did not quite hit the heights of last year, with Alasdair Roberts and Canada's Royal City putting in an appearance, that was a truly special occasion. The focus this year was largely on local acts (or at least acts with a strong local following), and when there is such a strong pool of musical talent in Cambridge, it was difficult to object.

The highlight yet again (although they were not in the headline slot this time, appearing instead at 4.15 in the afternoon) were local heroes The Broken Family Band. Introduced by Pete Um (what a shame he wasn't performing himself) as 'the sexiest band in the world', they had a lot to live up to. Since last year's triumphant headlining set, they have released their debut album proper, the marvellous 'Cold Water Songs', and a very impressive mini album 'Jesus Songs'. Even with an expanding back catalogue to select from, they still offered some new material, including an hilarious song called 'Devil Woman' (key lyric 'your heart is black but your body drives me crazy'). Dependably, their performance was a sustained blast of energetic, inventive, comic fun. With their robust take on the country idiom, fusing it with indie charm, punk rock energy and stamina, and poetic wit, BFB manage to be intensely humorous, quirky, endearing and touching simultaneously. Steve Adams' vocals manage to switch from the snarly to the sensitive over just a couple of bars (prime example, the carefully controlled 'Perfect Gentleman'), and there were plenty of wisecracks between the songs. Together with some incongruous rock posturing and some solid rhythm section support and there are the makings of a great band. Highlights included a raucous take on 'Don't Leave That Woman Unattended', complete with beatbox vocals, a splendid 'Twelve Eyes of Evil' with some amusing lyric changes ('I was playing drums in a psychedelic band' became 'I was playing drums in Franz Ferdinand') and a spirited version of 'Walking Back to Jesus pt. 2'.

Also returning to the festival after a triumphant performance last year was Chris T-T. Last year, he played his first set with his new band at Strawberry Fair, but this time round it was another of his charming solo acoustic performances. Rather less ramshackle than usual, this was a very solid performance, largely free from mistakes, but one that resonated with T-T's observant wit and good humour. There was no brand new material in this set - but what was made clear was Chris T-T's consistency over the course of four albums. He may not be a technically great musician (he often stumbles over chords and often strums in a fairly rudimentary fashion), but his songs are rich, intelligent, charming and, increasingly, politically involved and astute. This set was entertaining and satisfying, a generous selection of songs from throughout his career, including the wonderful 'Dreaming of Injured Popstars', a song that might be considered an albatross around his neck. He resisted calls for 'The Tin Man', claiming it was too quiet for a festival audience, but still played quietly affecting versions of 'Tomorrow Morning' and 'The English Earth', two of his most reflective and considered songs. 'Cull' demonstrated his political bite, whilst 'Sellotape (Dawson's Creek)' cheerfully lambasted trash TV whilst accepting its inevitable appeal ('admit it, you all like Hollyoaks', he added at the end) and set-closing 'Drink Beer' provided a homage to more earthy considerations. Of his albums, 'The 253' and 'London is Sinking' are the most successful and well worth checking out. I managed to pick up a special live acoustic CD from the man himself - and am enjoying it as I write this!

The rest of the bill was perhaps less exciting - although the brief set from Atilla the Stockbroker and his special guests was remarkable for its gutsy, impassioned political conviction. It wasn't without intelligence either - I've moaned elsewhere on this site about Damien Dempsey's embarassing rhyming dictionary lyrics - Atilla the Stockbroker was equally sincere, but almost massively more articulate. He also brought with him two intriguing singer-songwriters. From Australia, the imposing figure of Rory Ellis, who clearly had plenty of compelling life experience, but whose voice sadly seemed to betray the influence of post-grunge drawlers such as Nickelback. That's a little unfair, given that his sings were by no means that bland - but I found it hard to get past his rather forced vocal sound. From the US came David Rovicks, a radical, anti-war singer with a careful, convincing mix of satire and sincerity. Unfortunately, I was so desparate to empty my bladder at this point that I missed the bulk of his set, but from what I did manage to hear, he had character and quality. As a whole, the group crafted a stylistically varied, but thematically consistent performance that entertained and challenged in equal measure.

Much of the rest of the line-up was merely satisfying. Headliners The Low Country featured excellent local guitarist Rob Jackson. He has a full, resonant, blues-tinged guitar sound reminiscent of Bill Frissell in its use of spacey echo effects and tremolo. The songs were certainly pleasant enough, and I was struck by the vocal qualities of their singer, who seemed to be controlling the melodies well, although with some timidity. Unfortunately, most of the songs were also overlong, extrapolating single ideas for what occasionally seemed like hours rather than minutes. They also frequently succumbed to a tendency to be blandly soporiphic - not without charm, but also somewhat unremarkable.

A similar charge could probably be laid against London-based singer Pauline Taylor. I certainly wasn't particularly inspired by her deliberately inconsequential lyrics. However, her voice was impressive - commanding where necessary, soft and restrained where appropriate, and she benefited greatly from some skilled musical support from an excellent band. To these ears, she fared better when leaning towards a more soulful, perhaps even funky sound. An entirely acoustic performance may not necessarily be the best context for her voice - which seemed worth more than merely lingering in the background. Much better than Dido obviously, although that may well be damning her with faint praise.

Loophole were on a completely different planet - one where little things such as playing in time, harmonising together and matching music and lyrics didn't seem to matter much at all. This was ponderous, pompous and, ultimately, entirely tedious music, crowned by some horribly mannered singing. It all seemed to represent a rather cliched attempt to be epic (they had clearly been listening to Muse), but the result was an ill-judged, sprawling and really quite unpleasant mess. No doubt they will be signed up to a major label on the cover of the NME quite soon - it's the Nu Prog Revolution.

Loophole's chaotic and charmless din shouldn't however take anything away from another highly enjoyable festival. The organisation and effort that goes into putting this event on - organisers and bands are all working on an entirely voluntary basis, is considerable. Timings were consistently efficient, and the sound balance was clear and crisp. A big thanks must go to all the organisers - the fair is a marvellous local tradition, and a great celebration of a diverse array of talent.

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