Rock 'n' Ry

Cambridge Folk Festival

New Musical Express - August 4th 1979

Aah, the pleasant English Festival, bringer of glad tidings, balmly breezes, togetherness and dodgy hamburgers.

From every corner of the island, large bearded folk clutching beer mugs descend on Cambridge's sleepy Cherry Hinton suburb to frolic in the open air, compare jumpers, jig with Celtic abandon and marvel at the munificence of the local County Council - a symbol of everything that is British; it's a walking contradiction.

Consider, this body takes a sadistic delight in gathering all the nation's hillbillies under one sky, provides them with non-stop liquid refreshment, camping facilities, Maddy Prior and a one in a hundred chance of rounding up their eight quid weekend ticket to a cool three month stretch, courtesy of the nefarious and blatantly backward activities of Cambridge's infamous "B" division.

If you like your Tolly Cobbold, laced with Dave Cousins, Dan Ar Bras, The Tannahill Weavers and Alex Campbell, then Cherry Hinton is nirvana; it's cool for kids and tourists and travelling bands. Some of the best entertainment is impromptu, jam sessions in the woods, just bring a banjo.

If, on the other hand, a near unassuaged diet of men singing through their noses and plucking unpronounceable "ethnic" instruments sends you screaming for cover then the CFF might only be a pig in a poke and a weekend in a cell.

The police presence at Cambridge is now so legendary it's almost laughable. Men in blue enact their public duties at the instigation of the festival organisers, nobody else asks them to attend. At night, sinister figures wander through the homely hordes flashing torches, looking for what ? For trouble ?

The stage comperes and some of the bands took to making feeble jokes about this lawful presence, they weren't the ones who had to worry.

The less quaint aspects of the festival were provided by the American contingent, Rockin' Dopsie's loose zydeco stomp, The Woodstock Mountain Revue's bluegrass and porch pickin', The Traum Bros' guitar seminars inside the second tent, Doc Watson's flattop and the two solo showcases - Loudon Wainwright III and Ryland P.Cooder.

Catching Wainwright at an acceptable distance involved a labour of love that was beyond me. I watched from afar as Loudon ambled through his customary, shambolic, boozy routine, songs about waitresses' bottoms, hockey, drinking, boxing, TV, wet-eyed social comment, drinking, unrequited love and drinking. So-so stuff that works better in a club. Loudon relies on his lowest common denominator raps for these occasions and they pay the bill, but half an hour is plenty. Like the man said "My musical horizons haven't changed since I was fifteen". Cue ironic guffaws.

Even Ry Cooder fell victim to the atmosphere of drunken inertia. His first, afternoon, set was a drowsy affair, bedevilled by crackling sound and a steady stream of people who had to get to the front by the time the last of them had secured their vantage point Ry was finished.

He divided his material up for the occasions. The preliminary set was light blues, a mixture of intricate slide, driving mandolin and sweetly roughened schack favourites. The brunt of Ry's excursion into America's Southern musical lore came from "Paradise and Lunch" - "Ditty Wa Ditty", "Tamp 'em up solid", "Fool for a cigarette", a singalong "Jesus on the Mainline". Songs about sex and religion and the working man's lament, delivered in a gravel drawl with an understanding of the black and blues so profound in breadth and technique that Cooder defies pigmentation.

His evening show inside the smaller tent was an altogether more involving affair, the material was barbed, chock full of the man's emphathy with the unsung heroes of blues history, Sleepy John Estes in particular. The songs he sung at night were measured by the dignity of the black rural cause, the grace that saves repressed people from despair.

Cooder doesn't make any big deal out of his status, doesn't need to temper his act to suit the occasion, never mentioned his magnificent new album for the rock market, "Bop Till You Drop". Instead he gets on with it, chronicling the adventures of the outlaws, "Billy The Kid", the echoes of the "Vigilante Man" and the surprise guest, "Police Dog Blues".

His catalogue of laments is not marred by hatred or melodrama either. He puts across the message of wry protest in the original tongue. These songs are slices of folk history, "FDR in Trinidad", the emotionally supercharged "Goin' to Brownsville" the sad, black spontanneous "Blind Man Messed Up In Teargas" (a blow by blow account of the Washington DC debacle where the late, blind octaganerian was arrested for inciting a riot before the gates of Nixon's White House).

Cooder's style of steely bottleneck, matter of fact vocal ease, his love of the country blues mark him as a true upholder of tradition and a keeper of the keys. Ry Cooder is equal parts innovator, historian and master musician. It's a privilege to see him play and a moving experience at that.

The pity of it was that the festival programme only allowed for short sets. There was certainly no excusing the shoddy amplification. How can they mess up one man and a guitar ? Next time I hope to see Mr.Cooder somewhere befitting his stature. He finished with "The Bourgeois Blues"; maybe even Cooder didn't know how funny that was in the circumstances. It's the meanest blues of all that leaves you hanging on for more.

Another triumph for integrity but a very frustrating lack of occasion.

Max Bell


Information supplied by List member Conny Bergh