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Read reviews of Rusby, Simpson, Seasick Steve, Earle, Waterboys and more

Our welly-clad team members Mel Legard and Jon Lewis wrote us a couple of reviews of some of their personal highlights of the festival.

Kate Rusby

Anyone who's so far missed the diminutive Barnsley lass with the captivating voice and penchant for 'castle-knocking-down songs' must have been on another planet. Apart from being the darling of the folk scene for around a decade now, she's been a Mercury Music Prize nominee, hit the singles chart with pop star Ronan Keating, recorded with Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble and featured weekly on TV with the theme tune of hit BBC series Jam and Jerusalem.

She's back at Cambridge to launch her new album and the set reflects lots of the new material. It's called 'Awkward Annie' and she sings the title track after confessing that she's the titular perverse person. "Hot frock, Annie!" calls out a (male) voice from the crowd, referring to the layered white number she's wearing. "Can you be hot if you're five foot tall?" she muses, going on to perform 'Planets', a song of sad uncertainty underpinned by soft rolling banjo.

Kate's own songs share equal billing with her traditional material nowadays. Often they're poignant and reflective, inhabiting the darker valleys of the emotional landscape. 'Bitter Boy' is another such, a heart-rending song of loss with just two guitars and sonorous bass generating a sound of sadness personified.

After years of playing together, Kate's own 'boys' - double-bass and banjoist Andy Seward, John McCusker on low whistle, bouzouki and guitar as well as fiddle, accordion hero Andy Cutting and maverick guitarist Ian Carr - fit like family. Brass accompaniment has become a favourite Rusby feature over the years and today's no exception - but not until the newer treat of a string quartet, who slide swathes of lush harmonies over a potted version of Child Ballad 'Andrew Lammie' ("If I sang the whole thing we'd be taking your breakfast orders") and 'Bring Me A Boat' - Kate's words written for a tune given to her by Scottish accordion wizard Phil Cunningham one Hogmanay. When the brass chaps - five of them - do appear, it's to add gorgeous chordal thickening to another Rusby original, 'High On A Hill' ("but without a Lonely Goatherd!"). As ever, the Barnsley homilies and quirky patter run between the songs like a thread of Yorkshire gold.

The finale's a highlight: strings, brass and boys create a fat, swelling soundscape for the much-loved old chorus song 'Wild Mountain Thyme' (aka 'Blooming Heather'). It's a crowd-pleaser, and the crowd is already chuffed to bits.

Martin Simpson

He's already played on Stage 2 and held a guitar workshop for some lucky punters, but it's the Sunday mainstage set that Martin Simpson himself has been anticipating for ages. It's a rare chance to work with a couple of his favourite musicians, and as the ubiquitous Andy Cutting and the legendary Danny Thompson walk onto the stage it's clear the audience shares his view. Such is Cutting's demand as a versatile accordion accompanist that he's already played in two headlining acts this weekend, and Thompson's five-decade double bass career keeps him constantly busy with the likes of Eric Bibb and Richard Thompson.

A short bout of Simpson's trademark finger-plaiting warm-up runs and he's off into 'Lakes Of Champlain', a rolling New England version of an Irish ballad that sets the scene for three-quarters of an hour of total enjoyment all round. His new album 'Prodigal Son' has a Cambridge launch this weekend (seems to be a trend this year) and the new material is astonishing. There's 'Bachelor's Hall' with Kellie While called up to provide beautiful harmonies; a punchy, rocking, slide guitar-fuelled 'Lakes Of Pontchartrain'; 'Duncan And Brady', an American ballad about New Orleans corruption. "I was gonna write this one," he quips, tongue-in-cheek, of the Richard Thompson classic 'Strange Affair'.

Simpson's lifelong Afro-American blues obsession and one-time New Orleans residency informs his repertoire and feeds the between-song crack, which is illuminating and funny and occasionally gently political: there's a chorus amendment to Randy Newman's 'Louisiana 1927' to mark the tragic effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. Sadly no Jackson Browne on backing vocals as on the album, but it's fabulously emotional. Thompson's playing - uniquely recognisable - is incredibly melodic and intuitive; perfect notes feeding into Simpson's crisp, lightning-fast picking, alongside Cutting's quietly brilliant and sympathetic accompaniment.

For the finale, enter Kate Rusby to sing like a bird on the set's only Simpson original, 'Never Any Good'. Once heard, totally brain-embedded, this song about his father is a sure contender for Best Original Song at next year's Folk Awards. It's a brilliant finisher and showcases the effortless intensity that characterises his singing these days. Forty-five minutes just wasn't enough.

Under One Sky

The commission: a piece of music to celebrate two great festivals - one Scottish, one English. The brief: to explore the diversities and connections between both countries and beyond. The composer? No contest. Step forward John McCusker, multi-instrumentalist, producer and composer extraordinaire, whose CV these days is overflowing with film and TV credits and five-star-rated gigs.

Debuting in February at Glasgow's Celtic Connections (the Scottish festival) and now on its second outing at Cambridge (you guessed it), this hour-long suite of songs and instrumentals from twelve cross-border musicians is a winner. Bursting with virtuoso musicianship, vibrant dynamics, killer melodies and a rhythm section so rich it should have a cholesterol warning, it raises the roof - and that's only the opening medley.

It's so high-octane that ace double-bassist Ewan Vernal breaks a string. While a replacement is sought, the unfazed McCusker directs an interlude: John Tams - multi-award-winning singer, songwriter, actor, musical director - sings his anthemic 'Only Remembered', accompanied by cast members who'd been part of his Radio Ballads Live production earlier in the year. Folk Award winner Julie Fowlis follows with a beautiful Gaelic song, unaccompanied until McCusker quietly eases in a haunting fiddle accompaniment.

A bass is borrowed and the show goes on. A soulful song by young Devon singer and accordionist Jim Causley segues into a dreamy waltz-time lullaby with Tams on lead vocal and gorgeous ensemble chorus. Longtime McCusker mates and collaborators Graham Coxon (ex-Blur) and Idlewild's Roddy Woomble appear onstage to take individual vocal leads and shift the vibe into a sort of 'Ray Davies school of English songwriting with Celtic roots' territory. It's a great example of the current barrier breakdown between folk and mainstream music as musicians, particularly of this thirty-something generation, discover mutual interests and inspirations.

The stellar cast is handpicked for excellence: guitar maverick Ian Carr, master accordionist Andy Cutting, Shooglenifty drum hero James Mackintosh, Anglo-Swedish fiddler Emma Reid and ex-Battlefield Band piper Iain MacDonald bring swathes of beauty, subtlety and drama to the composition as it ebbs and flows.

All comes full circle with some Gaelic mouth music, all congas and danciness, then the cast blast into a final fiddle and pipes reel which raises the roof and not a few heart rates. Under One Sky is strongly rooted and blazingly contemporary, it's polished brilliance and an evolving work-in-progress. When the album that's in the offing is produced it'll be different again; those of us lucky enough to hear this live Cambridge performance got a rare treat.

Steve Earle

Who better to take Friday night's Main Stage proceedings into the nighttime than progressive country icon Steve Earle? The Texan troubadour could teach us all a thing or two about the darker side of life, having lived through drug addiction, a jail sentence and a divorce for each string on his guitar.

He's a compelling figure; with his long, patchy hair and thick greying beard, Earle looks more than ever like a man with a story to tell. His eyes glaze over behind his wire-rimmed glasses as he pulls away into his set like a freight train - steady, heavy and not something you'd want to get in the way of.

That said, he is as warm with the tightly-packed crowd as they are with him, and his nicely judged set touches on all the work that has marked him out over the years as one of the great American songwriters. From the tearjerking 'Goodbye' to rousing bar-room favourites like 'Devil's Right Hand', via protests against the conflict in Iraq ('Rich Man's War').

Even when he's raging against governments, the sweet break in his voice stops him coming across as a cold radical; another softener is a duet with wife Alison Moorer, who joins her husband for a version of 'Comin' Around'. Closing with a triumphant run through country rock anthem 'Copperhead Road', Earle holds his guitar aloft as the audience raise the roof.

Seasick Steve

"It's all good!" cries the guy with the bird's nest beard and beat-up guitar on his knee as he stomps his way through a song about riding the rails and sends another wave of feelgood factor through the grinning audience. It's Seasick Steve's catchphrase and he's not wrong. A life on the road sleeping rough, eating in the missions and playing on street corners might not be easy but it sure helps a natural-born American bluesman hone his craft.

A dirty riff and a knowing grin, and he's off into songs about biting Mississippi chigger bugs and spells in jail. Blasts of feedback and a great line in tempo-ratching from mesmerising rocking beats to doublefast tight chugs. Swampy deep South holler. A bottle of Jack by his feet. A half-standing little bow and "'Preciate it." after each song. It's low-down hobo blues and it's the real deal.

"Okay girls," (removing check workshirt to reveal vest and braces). "You're never quite too old, you just have to play guitar a bit." He's in his sixties but he's lean and full of beans. He's an ace communicator, telling the tale of how he came by his red 'three string trance' guitar, full of gaffer tape and unbelievably satisfying, growling sound. Billy Gibbons hangs out with Canned Heat round at John Lee Hooker's house. Just all in one guy.

He's played with Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins and survived a heart attack but makes no big deal of any of it. He's just glad to be out playing. There's a whole bunch of life in those eyes. Don't let anyone tell you the real bluesmen are all gone.

Sharon Shannon

She's a triple-platinum seller in Ireland and acclaimed worldwide but onstage the ever-smiling accordion and fiddle player from County Clare is as self-effacing and generous a musician as you could wish to meet. An extraordinary collaborator throughout her 20-year career, she sits centre stage but loves to share the limelight with a genre-crossing panoply of the music industry's top artists.

This Friday afternoon mainstage session is a treat - an early preview of some brand new material with a bundle of virtuoso players based around old cohorts Michael McGoldrick (flute), Dezi Donnelly (fiddle) and Jim Murray (guitar). It's stuff from her latest album, 'Renegade' (remember the name, it's likely to stick to the band), due out in October. From loping, laid-back jigs to flying reels via the odd hypnotic old-time waltz, it's back to a more home-rooted sound than some of Shannon's boundary-busting cocktails of global influences - from Caribbean to Cajun, reggae to American roots - that never sound forced, just natural and joyous. A set of thickly-woven soundscapes of accordion, flute, fiddle, guitar, keyboard, trumpet, bass and drums has the audience transfixed and transported. It's a class example of that symbiotic relationship between ace musicians that makes a stage full of people into a single unit, even with the last-minute incorporation of brass man Neil Yates to stand in for saxophonist Richie Buckley, sadly ill in hospital.

When singer/guitarist Mundy steps up for a guest song spot, the ambience morphs into post-punk rock and then into a full-on stomp session as Steve Earle steps up to join in on his own 'Galway Girl'. Big-bearded and fresh from duetting with wife Allison Moorer in her own spot, it's a whooping, hollering crowd-stirrer. A final soaring set led by the magical McGoldrick leaves the crowd wanting more. Good job she's on again in Brian McNeil's Stage 2 mega-session tomorrow - you can't have too much of a good thing!

The Waterboys

The main stage crowd at Cherry Hinton is simmering with anticipation as we prepare for the evening's main event: The Waterboys' return to Cambridge. Mike Scott's ever-changing line-up of master musicians are currently enjoying quite a purple patch, with new album Book of Lightning receiving rave reviews.

Scott takes the stage to a bit of a heroes' welcome, and opens with a solo acoustic rendition of traditional song 'Barbara Allen', squeezing maximum drama out of the murder ballad with his distinctive brogue and theatrical delivery - like a jet black Jackanory.

Then, with the full band of Steve Wickham (fiddle), Richard Naiff (keyboards), Mark Smith (bass) and Damon Wilson (drums) in place, they explode into 'Everybody Takes A Tumble' and hardly let up until the end of the set. It's a treat for hardcore fans and passing acquaintances alike, featuring big hitters like a euphoric 'Whole of the Moon' and 'Fisherman's Blues', yet remarkably little of their new material.

Like a folk-rock marionette made flesh, Scott is his typically entertaining self, twitching and jerking throughout, all elbows, knees and high-kicks. On the riot that is 'Medicine Bow', Wickham and Naiff don masks and indulge in a little pyrotechnic soloing.

The set closes with an encore of Woody Guthrie's 'This Land Is Your Land', which sees the 'Boys joined by Steve Earle (possibly his third guest appearance of the day), plus master musicians Michael McGoldrick on flute, John McCusker on fiddle and former bandmate Sharon Shannon on accordion - cue rapturous applause!



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