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Cool as Folk
Artist: Various
Label: GottDiscs 
Length: 36 tracks (2 hours, 35 mins) 
 
The Cambridge Folk Festival must be one of the most consistently appealing festivals in Britain. It attracts world class artists, such as Joan Baez (recorded here) and Emmylou Harris, yet it manages to remain true to its local roots (appropriately), being run by the City council.
 
This compilation of its recent sets has a festival feel, with music far more suited to swilling your tankard than to laying by a haystack. Given the number of tracks that are clearly end of set highlights or encores (such as the Indigo Girls singing “Closer to Fine” with their fans), you can tell that you are getting crowd-pleasers here. 
 
(These discs also reflects the event's international appeal, including songs by John Prine, Guy Clark , Eric Bibb and – showing its eclectic side – Dr John.)
 
Content veers erratically from old folk tunes, both entertaining and poignant, to newer tracks that document life. Martin Carthy's “The Devil and the Feathery Wife” tells the story of a woman rolling in chicken droppings and feathers to save her husband from being carried off by the devil, while Mary Gautier's “I Drink” reveals her troubled life.
 
The range includes several genres that do not instantly come to mind when thinking of Cambridge and some interesting mixes of instrumentation. The Duhks blend blues into their Irish fiddle version of the Gospel piece “Death Came a Knockin'”; Afro-Cuban All-Stars play what their name suggests; Michael McGoldrick Band fuse Celtic fiddles with tablas to fine effect; Asleep at the Wheel boogie with “Route 66,” and The Poozies feature harp and accordion, and are fronted by Kate Rusby for this song.
 
With so many tracks, there are bound to be some that disappoint, but remarkably few here lower the standard. John Tams and Karine Polwart have a few vocally off-key moments, and Joe Strummer's performance doesn't quite live up to his reputation. Billy Bragg goes all over the place vocally, but that is more than made up for by his wit, drive, observation and humour as he sings “Half English.”
 
More positively, on top of the generally high standard that you expect from artists like The Proclaimers and Josh Ritter, there are some wonderful cuts. Altan's invigorating reels kick off the disc and Eddi Reader soon follows with a brilliant, emotional version of Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah”. It seems that every female singer has to cover that live at the moment, but Reader could do it several times without boring anyone. Cara Dillon is another singer who produces work that either shines jewel-like with the clear beauty of her voice, or – as her duet here – grips the heart as well.
 
Eliza Carthy keeps her place in the royal family of English folk with “Adieu Adieu,” a piece that rattles along in 5/4 time like a freight train gathering momentum, riding on  a pulsing rhythm of fiddles; while John McCusker and Phil Cunningham team up , joined by their regular sessions buddies, for a fine, gentle reel. 
 
Despite its (literally) unforgiving nature, Martin Simpson's ferocious broadside on the “Masters of War” is at least heartfelt and thoroughly engaging.
 
As with many compilations, there are unexpected new artists to follow up. One such here is the Quebec act La Bottine Souriante, whose mixture of fiddles and horns echo Bellowhead's rambunctious contribution. Australian band The Waifs play an accomplished country/folk piece, while Hayseed Dixie entertain with their typical Appalachian Bluegrass treatment of classic rock songs (Queen's “Fat-Bottomed Girls” in this case).
 
The packaging is superb – appealing and cleanly styled, well laid out, with minimal plastic – as are the discs. There is plenty to enjoy here and roots enthusiasts should love it.
 
Derek Walker

 
 


 

 
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