Billy Bragg returned to Cambridge Junction J1 for three sold-out and different shows; featuring his current set, only songs from his first three albums and for tonight songs from the next three: Workers Playtime (1988), Don’t Try This at Home (1991) and William Bloke (1996).
Opening with his most well-known track ‘Sexuality’ the long set (with no support) was punctuated with musings, reminiscences, and of course specific political campaigning given the proximity of the general election. The three featured LPs contain plenty of ballads of break-up, make-up, disappointment and contentment but always laced with dry wit and a smart turn of phrase.
Although this was the umpteenth time I have seen him live there had not been enough room in his sets for many of these songs – so definitely a treat to hear the wordplay of ‘The Short Answer’ (‘…between Marx and marzipan in the dictionary there was Mary….’), the resignation of ‘She’s Got A New Spell’ (‘….she’s gone to get the cat in The next thing I know she’s mumbling in Latin….’) and the gentle melody and sentiment of ‘Brickbat’ (‘…I steal a kiss from you in the supermarket I walk you down the aisle, you fill my basket…’).
‘Valentine’s Day’ and ‘The Space Race’ are both ‘over’ in two of his most affecting and thoughtful songs. The politico-folk of ‘Thatcherites’ and an unaccompanied ‘Tender Comrade’ make their message clear and you cannot fail to be uplifted by his performance of ‘There is Power in a Union’ and the topically adapted ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’.
After two emotionally-involving hours there was a real surprise bonus – the ultimate UK road-movie soundtrack and one of my favourites ‘A13, Trunk Road to the Sea’ was the final song…
The much-loved Half Man Half Biscuit returned to the Junction J1 for another sell-out show, once again supported by Cambridge stalwarts Model Village, whose early set time caught out many of the audience (including me!).
Half Man Half Biscuit arrived on stage to the Portsmouth Sinfonia’s dissonant version of the 2001 theme. When the band opened with anti-tribute ‘Bob Wilson – Anchorman’ quickly followed by new bat-themed audience favourite ‘Renfield’s Afoot’ and death-ode ‘When The Evening Sun Goes Down’ it was clear this could be a vintage show with leader Nigel Blackwell full of dry asides and an excellent sound mix at the Junction.
They have a huge back catalogue, virtually any of the tracks can make a surprise reappearance in their lengthy sets but tonight there were plenty from their newest LP, including the bittersweet poetry of ‘Terminus’ ‘…time creeps up unseen, and it puts me back at the front of the bus…. hands I once held no longer there….grey falls on the green..as I try and get used to ‘me’ and not ‘us’….’
As always the superfans in the audience know every word, but the band continues to draw in new converts to the cause as they play infrequent shows across the UK.
The surreal imagery of the lyrics is much documented and bizarre juxtapositions give life to the low-level celebrities and imaginary characters that populate the songs ‘….sour-faced she picked out the gherkins, saw Christ in Dorothy Perkins…’. The Cambridge audience is attentive to every nuance but let go for the sheer celebration of ‘Joy Division Oven Gloves’ and ‘The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Upcoming Train)’, as well as uplifting gems like ‘Swerving The Checktrade’.
The traditional cover version encore tonight was Pink Floyd’s ‘Bike’, given the closeness of the venue to composer Syd Barrett’s house. Another local reference and one of their best ‘For What Is Chatteris’ followed and finally the brooding semi-spoken ‘Every Time a Bell Rings’ was a strong finale.
The more you listen to this band the more the lyrics lodge in the consciousness and as many fans will say they begin to overlay your view of some of the obscurities and references of life and culture…
A fourth visit to Cambridge for the headliners, playing to a sold-out crowd. John Paul opened the show with a short set of sharp observational punk poetry, with backing recorded on his phone. ‘Glasshouse Street’ was a key track, describing the Nottingham thoroughfare in vivid detail over some twisted lounge music. He quickly drew the early arrivers at the venue into his world; getting an encore then leaping the stage barrier to meet the audience.
After being main support for 30 shows so far on this tour, LIINES have cemented their reputation as one of Manchester’s premier exports. This power trio were a revelation – with a sharp Rickenbacker bass sound to die for, spicy guitar, an abrasive but yearning voice and a drum style that minimised cymbals blurring the beat in favour of rock-solid pulses driving the point home. The finished sound is tight and tense and many of the tracks were taken from their impressive 2018 debut album ‘Stop-Start’. Hypnotic, dynamic and hugely impressive this was their first time in Cambridge, but after the mighty reception they received I am sure they will be back soon.
Sleaford Mods have their own genre, a unique combination of social comment, observation and bleak comedy set to infectious beats. Tonight they were on top form from the off, as the stealthy deep riff of ‘Into The Payzone’ filled the venue and Jason Williamson launched into his vocal salvo.
‘Flipside’ is an unrelenting lyrical tirade ‘….Graham Coxon looks like a left wing Boris Johnson….’ and the bizarre narrative of ‘Stick In A Five And Go’ is a bass-driven sing-along crowd favourite. ‘Kebab Spider’ has the killer hookline ‘…Who knew?…’, as does ‘T.C.R’ ‘…total control racing!…’ but it is ‘B.H.S’ which really hits home, linking personal disintegration to the demise of the much loved retail chain.
All of these words are underpinned by Andrew Fearn’s sparse and incisive instrumental tracks – he switches them on and stands back, no pretence at manipulating and enhancing the sounds – after all they are already perfect. Bobbing around with a bottle of beer and off-mic vocal backing he is a affable stage presence, reflecting and contrasting with Jason’s dance moves and compelling voice.
The surreal bitterness of ‘O.B.C.T’ (Oliver Bonas Chelsea Tractor?) was the doom-laden end to the main set but the duo returned for more including the familiar paranoia of ‘Tarantula Deadly Cargo’.
They have a vast back catalogue to draw on and we certainly got some of the best of it tonight, including many highlights of recent album ‘Eton Alive’. The minimalist stage presentation focusses attention on the music and makes the whole experience brilliantly unmissable!
FEET are a five-piece happy band formed in Coventry, with an addictive amalgam of up-tempo Blur, the bizarre unpredictability of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and the louche grooves of Fat White Family ( whose last single was called ‘Feet’??). Behatted lead singer Jeep has some neat dance moves and the two guitar, bass and drums bring alive such delights as the rant of ‘Petty Thieving’ and the gloriously funky new single ‘Ad Blue’, a sort of homage to water? with a spaghetti western video and surreal lyrics (‘….you left me solo at the empty silo….‘).
Final song ‘English Weather’ is an evocation of the horrors of a bad summer in the UK (‘…you’d better pack an umbrella…‘). Without analysing too much, we and they all had a good time and together look forward to their debut album in August, ‘What’s Inside Is More Than Just Ham’…
About to release their third LP the band have a shimmering collection of gems to draw on, from the opening blast of ‘Sea Hearts’, the wistful older track ‘Biro’ and one of the highlights of the set ‘The Third Degree’. This recent single is the Honeyblood sound distilled to its pure essence; a stark, sparse track with a killer hookline and a stunning performance of the biting lyric.
‘(‘I’d Rather Be) Anywhere But Here’ is a love song of sorts for Glasgow while ‘Super Rat’ makes the narrator’s negative feelings about a relationship very clear. ‘Killer Bangs’ is a punk blast dedicated to two young fans in the front row and then current single ‘She’s A Nightmare’ is a stealthy, dark treat (‘…I follow her down the darkest path, I’m a dormouse and she’s a cat…’).
ᙀᖺ (or ‘uh’) are an experimental electronic duo; Fionnuala Kennedy and Dominic Kennedy use a variety of synthesisers and treatments to create a sound that is at first challenging but soon pulls you into their world. With spoken lyrics, singing, a voice becoming a keyboard and intense manipulating of the sonic palette, each of the four performed tracks has its own character, but always propelled by a deep funky-ish bass. ‘Starchild’ features an inverted riff on electro-pop classic ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’, while new eight minute single ‘Seasick In Salts’ changes speed, rhythm, pitch and everything in between. Mesmerising and hypnotic, uh are immensely likeable, showing once again that Teleman can find excellent support acts.
Regular readers of this site will realise that Teleman are one of my favourites, this was the sixth time for us; fortunately they continue to develop their live show and have a recorded back catalogue that is now rich enough to overfill a set with gems. Tonight’s show featured only two songs from their second album as last year’s long-player ‘Family Of Aliens’ is now the source of most of the set. The title track and the mighty ‘Cactus’ were early highlights, with the unusual and distinctive ‘Submarine Life’ continuing to grow in stature.
The rewarding and dissonant 5/4 beat of ‘Repeater’ and the extended reworking of ‘Steam Train Girl’ interweaved perfectly with the rolling keyboards of new live addition ‘Sea Of Wine’ and the doomy splendour of ‘Fall In Time’. ‘Song For A Seagull’ has an ethereal splendour all of its own and as to be expected the irresistible march of ‘Strange Combinations’ and the relentless main set closer ‘Not In Control’ were electrifying crowd pleasers.
As an encore Tom Sanders returned to the stage for a solo version of rare and haunting ballad ‘Nights On Earth’ before the essential finale of the fabulous driving pop of ‘Dusseldorf’.
A sell-out Cambridge crowd arrived early for the appearance at the Junction of two rising stars of UK Alt-Country music. Opening the show were The Wandering Hearts, with the central trio augmented by extra guitar and upright bass. First song ‘Fire And Water’ had the immediacy of many of their tracks, with a tight, rhythmic verse turning into a huge chorus. The combination of two female and one male voice gives their spot-on harmonies the lustre and depth of classic period Fleetwood Mac, shown off especially in the airy, ethereal ‘Burning Bridges’. There is a harder edge to ‘Rattle’ and finale ‘Devil’ is a pacey, pounding crowd-pleaser with a redemptive hookline. An excellent start to the show and the Junction’s sound system has never sounded better?!
Ward Thomas are riding high on the impact and chart placing of their third album ‘Restless Minds’ and tonight they featured all but one of its tracks. Twin sisters Cathy and Lizzy play acoustic guitars and blend their voices in harmony to mesmerising effect, as well as trading solo lines and responses. Combined with a band that can switch from subtle acoustic backing to a big part-electronic contemporary sound Ward Thomas have structured an immaculate show.
Some of the songs on the new LP are reflections of modern mores and impacts on the individual; the nurturing of social media self-appearance on opener ‘Lie Like Me’ and a longing for the removal of these new conventions on ‘No Filter’ and ‘Same Love’. These ideas make for bold pop songs, delivered with power, but for me the emotional core of the show is the resigned melancholy of the ballads spread through the set. From the betrayal symbolised by ‘Guilty Flowers’ to the beautiful melody and despair of ‘Hopeless’ (a song I saw them perform during their ’15 cities in 3 days’ in-stores promotional tour!), they sing from the heart.
‘Little Girl Sorrow’ is a waltz with an undercurrent of optimism and best of all is the gospel chords and big chorus of ‘One More Goodbye’. They introduced this as one of their favourite songs; I’m not surprised, it is one of mine too, it is brilliant.
It is not all wrenching at the heart and mind; ‘It’s Not Just Me’ is an up tempo acceptance of the world set to a warm and positive instrumental backing and ‘I Believe In You’ is a celebratory and glorious three minutes. Lots more highlights too including their debut LP being represented by a medley of faster songs which shows how their sound has developed over their three albums.
An encore of the pensive, thoughtful ‘This Too Will Pass’ was followed by a grand finale, with The Wandering Hearts back on stage to add to the vocals on a scorching performance of signature anthem ‘Carry You Home’…..still resonating with me now as is the rest of this memorable show.
When support act Seán McGowan took to the stage, the great majority of the sold-out Junction audience had already arrived and he seemed pleasantly overwhelmed but confidently rose to the occasion. His fast and furious protest songs feature the everyday but essential; minimum wage and insecure employment, petty crime and poor decisions. There is a slower, considered emotional undercurrent in the longer ‘Millbrook Road’ (a thoroughfare in his home town of Southampton). ‘No Show’ and ‘Costa Del Solution’ from his new mini-LP (with wage-packet sleeve) went down well. It was a blistering performance and by the end the audience in J1 were totally won over. As he and Billy might say, ‘..the boy done good..’.
I have seen Billy Bragg many times over the years as solo, duo and with a band; tonight he was accompanied on some songs by multi-talented CJ Hillman, ‘UK Americana instrumental musician of the year’ and making sterling contributions on pedal steel and second guitar, including stepping-up with some Johnny Marr jangle on ‘Sexuality’, the opening song of the evening. Billy can pace a set as well as anybody and he has so much material to draw on, in nearly two hours there was time for early classics ‘Milkman Of Human Kindness’, ‘Man In the Iron Mask’, ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and many more, played on his distinctive green Burns guitar.
Interspersed with the familiar was the new EP reflecting the current affairs of the day. The optimistic ‘Saffiyah Smiles’, environmental ‘King Tide And The Sunny Day Flood’ and the poignant ‘Full English Brexit’ were put into context by Billy’s introductions and he also reflected how many of his early song themes had come around again. ‘There Is Power In A Union’ and ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’ are always going to ignite his loyal audience and we never tire of ‘A New England’, the perfect ending to this brilliant show.
It is good to know that a bit of searching finds that the folk and roots scene in Cambridge extends far beyond the annual folk festival and includes events such as this triple showcase hosted in the intimate surroundings of J3, set out cabaret style with candle-lit tables creating a very friendly and supportive ambience.
Having established themselves in other bands, Yve, Clare and Lu are still deciding on a name but in the meantime play guitar and violin and on a night where harmony vocals featured strongly they did justice to some timeless songs, including a subtle version of the Bee Gees ‘To Love Somebody’. Original compositions too are promised in the future.
Trio Luna Falls instantly create a captivating sound; three acoustic guitars and vocals that gel with each other perfectly and reflect many years of sisters singing together. They play tracks from their EP and also cover versions including a spirited rendition of ‘The Irish Rover’. I think their own material is very strong; the haunting waltz ‘Gentle Lies’, the multi-layered tones of ‘Breakthrough’ and of course the impressive, award-winning ‘Falling To Pieces’, a favourite of mine from a recently reviewed compilation.
From acoustic folk the evening then went into pure country rock with SJ Mortimer & The Flying Pigs. SJ has a great voice and her original songs reflect more of the up-side of the genre; travelling on (‘Hit The Road’), celebration of love (‘Heart Beats Faster’) and with ‘American Dream’ the desire to make music in Nashville (where SJ actually recorded her album!). The combination of violin, guitars, banjo and beefed-up cajón with extra bass drum effect gave plenty of depth to the sound with SJ’s voice soaring effortlessly through it all.
There was a cover of the late Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin” and a rowdy ‘Fireball’ which is the title track to her new EP and a good excuse for a drinking game. With guest backing vocalists on the contemplative ‘Smokey Mountains’ we were treated to some emotional six part harmonies. The final encore was the glorious ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, (which always seems to make it sound a fine place to be?!), a fitting conclusion to a really good show.
Back to Cambridge for Teleman; this time playing to a much larger audience in Junction One.
Support act were Cambridge five-piece Lunacre, confidently rising to the occasion on the big stage. With keyboards, guitars and intermittent saxophone they have a varied palette of sonic textures to choose from and the songs show restraint and subtlety as the instrumentation drifts in and out to create a relaxed, hypnotic sound.
The title track from their new EP ‘Schtum’ is a highlight as are the sax and vocal layers on ‘Occam’s Razor’. ‘(Re)Cycle’ had the insouciance of a song by the fast rising band Glass Animals. Best of all was ‘Engine’, including driving drum pattern and full-on bass punch, showing off the wide range of the band.
Teleman have a spring in their step, with an appearance on BBC music showcase ‘Later…with Jools Holland’ last week, many sold out dates on their current tour and two albums of quality material to perform. I saw them in April and since then they have expanded and refined many of the live versions of the songs to fill the larger stage (also including a frenetic lightshow and columns of steam for ‘Steam Train Girl’!).
They benefitted from the recently improved sound quality in the Junction, especially for some of the raucous edgy guitar parts and some foreboding keyboard moments. The drumming of Hiro Amamiya was spot-on and adds so much to the glorious ‘Dusseldorf’ and the celebration of ‘Skeleton Dance’.
My favourites tonight were the double keyboard electronica of ‘Brilliant Sanity’, the quiet desperation in the vocals of ‘Drop Out’ and the triumphant final song ‘Glory Hallelujah’ where the chord progression just seems to be different from anything you have heard before.
Hopefully now they will get the recognition they deserve (but I will miss them playing smaller shows in the Portland Arms!)
…and it was just as good this time around. Perhaps there was more of an emphasis on the rockier songs, but many of my favourites songs were still in place; the locally lovelorn lyric of ‘For What Is Chatteris’, the musings of mortality of ‘When The Evening Sun Goes Down’ and their tour de force of music and words, ‘The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train)’.
Songs assuring the extended cultural longevity of B-List celebrities were also featured; ‘Bob Wilson – Anchorman’, ‘The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman’, ‘Dickie Davies Eyes’, the nightmarish ‘Gubba Look-a-Likes’ and the sad moments of ‘Tommy Walsh’s Eco House’.
A blasting cover of The Damned song ‘New Rose’ was part of their encore, a super example of how good their band sound actually is, underpinning their unique lyrics…
All together now,
‘I said “Would you like to go the zoo?”, she said “Yeah, but not with you”
Twenty-seven yards of dental floss, but she still won’t give me a smile…‘