To review a festival like Cornbury is almost impossible. Back by popular demand after calling it a day last year, organiser Hugh Phillimore had enlisted headliners UB40, Alanis Morissette and the superb Squeeze. Like any festival it’s always going to be the tale of music that I saw, the tale of my personal journey from stage to stage, the tale of what made the weekend special for me.
I’ve decided not to go into much detail about the headline acts as to add to the endless information and review of these established names seemed fruitless and I’d rather try to entreat you to check out the headline acts of the future (oh, and an Italian rock god and a US legend). And so I decided that for such a blockbuster I’d treat it in a cinematic way and start with a glimpse of the end before I told the story of how I got there.
It’s not often that I feel a tear in my eye when I’m watching music but this year at the Cornbury Festival was one such occasion. It was the closing stages of the last day and I was standing watching Marc Cohn close his set with the classic song ‘Walking in Memphis‘. Now this alone would be a die happy moment for me; the song and album are firmly embedded in my love of music, but it was the way it was delivered that made the experience feel almost spiritual. To the opening notes on the piano Marc explained that the song told the story of how his music started and also of how the song is for him a reflection on the regenerative power of music. He thanked the assembled congregation of music lovers, for that’s what it felt like, for their support of him, their support of all the artists that had played, indeed their support of live music in general. And, as I stood at the altar of live music, listening to a song I’d loved forever, I blinked away a tear. It was an incredible shared moment that will stay with me and I’m sure everyone there for always.
What brought me to that moment was three days of musical experiences and discoveries that will live long in the memory and longer in my musical collection. I’ll try my best to recount these for you and hope that they encourage you to seek out the artists and maybe visit this festival, or indeed any live music event whenever you can.
My weekend started with Lukas Nelson on the Friday. I’d first seen Lukas play at the Country2Country festival in March at the O2 and had been blown away by a virtuoso performance in front of the country faithful who hold his father in high esteem but had loved Lucas’s sometime rockier delivery. Seeing Lukas play a full set with his band Promise of the Real was an opportunity not to be missed.
His hour-long set showcased his incredible range and also his fine guitar skills, wether playing by hand or teeth, and together with a very tight band, started the weekend at such a high standard that the pilgrimage to Cornbury already felt like a huge success. I have to say his rendition of ‘Forget about Georgia ‘ more than lived up to its 8 minute album version and was met with huge enthusiasm from the packed audience. Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real are a band to follow!
For me one of the highlights of the whole weekend, possibly this year, was getting the chance to see the incomparable Zucchero perform in England again. The Italian superstar came at the end of a huge world tour and performed an outstanding set of songs old and new. The only possible criticism of his set was that it was too short; indeed at the end of his set there was a mini opera off stage as the stage manager tried everything to tell the rock legend his time was up, from written notes to arm waving, only to watch Zucchero continue to bang out his music. Il Maestro had the crowd in the palm of his hand and wasn’t going to cut short his set for anyone, he looked like he could have played all night. The highlight for me was ‘Baila Morena’ which is one of my favourite Zucchero songs and the line “the night is on fire” summed up his performance.
Returning to a Country theme, the first band I saw on Saturday was a completely new discovery for me. The Adelaides are a really exciting live act mixing self written originals with some great covers. They came to Cornbury with plenty of live experience and it really shone through. The trio are Paris Georgia, Alicia Alba and Abi Phillips and it’s evident that they are vastly talented as individuals so it’s no surprise that they make such a formidable team. I can’t believe we won’t be seeing lots more of the girls in the near future as they help to light up the super healthy UK Country music scene. Their live act is not only polished but hugely enjoyable!
The Kolars are another new act for me but one that I can’t recommend highly enough. They were simply mesmerising. Rob Kolar and his wife Lauren Brown play a heady mix of glam rock, Country and hillbilly styles to create something they call Glamabilly.
It’s great to find new bands to listen to but rare to find what could almost be a new music genre. Singer Rob, grandson of famous actor Robert Shaw but resembling Steve Strange, sings and plays guitar while his hypnotic wife is on percussion. To create her very individual rhythm, Lauren uses her feet as a replacement for the hi-hat, while simultaneously playing the snare drum, tom drum and bass drum with her arms. Physically there are shades of a young Kate Bush and it’s almost impossible not to stare. Away from the visual, their music is excellent and I’d recommend checking them out.
Next it was off to the main stage to see Grainne Duffy. I’d not listened to this artist before checking her out on Spotify before coming to the festival. Her music is a combination of blues, soul and I guess Country which when combined with her outstanding song writing skills made her a must see for me. Listening to Grainne’s powerful, soulful husky voice on record in no way prepared me for the tour de force of her live performance. With an excellent and talented band, Grainne played guitar and sang to give a spine tingling hour which sent me scurrying to the merch tent to buy as much of her music as possible. I really would implore you to listen to her music, but if you get a chance to see her live grab it with both hands: you’ll not be disappointed.
I’ve followed Nina Nesbitt ever since seeing her play Barn On The Farm festival a few years ago. So it came as a huge bonus that before her full performance she was going to play a couple of songs at Jack FM’s intimate stage acoustically. The stage is very small and offers fans the chance to see artists in a stripped back way at very close quarters. Nina played ‘Somebody Special’ and, ‘The Best You Had’, two new songs which perfectly show case her perfect blend of lyricism and tempo. It was a highlight to see Nina play acoustic versions of two songs she would sing later on one of the main stages.
Following on from Nina, on this ladies day at Cornbury, was Megan McKenna who continues to forge a new career in the UK country music scene. Singing a mix of covers and original songs including her hit ‘High Heeled Shoes’, she was watched by boyfriend Mike Thalassitis who could be seen filming her joyous performance. If she continues to wow audiences like this, she will very soon lose the constant tag of “ex-Towie star” and just be called Country music star.
Having seen Nina Nesbitt earlier I made my way to see her play one of the main stages. Taking up an early place at the front of an already gathering crowd, I watched from behind a throng of press photographers. Nina took to the stage looking as much like a model as one of our brightest singers and performed her first three songs from behind her keyboard and retro sunglasses. It was interesting that as the photographer frenzy departed, she visibly relaxed. She took off the sunglasses and almost immediately jumped from the stage into the photographer area and sang a song from the safety barrier. Moving along the crowd singing, it was a joy to see the rapport she had with the audience. Nina was, as usual, brilliant and is a singer who goes from strength to strength.
Sunday was a day that ended up being dedicated to a young band that I really can’t praise highly enough. If attention to the music makes superstars then they should prepare for the big time. Ferris & Sylvester are Archie Sylvester and Issy Ferris and their music is on the folk/country/pop side of things mixing Simon & Garfunkel like harmonies with blues.
Archie’s bluesy husky vocals mix perfectly with Issy’s soft folkish tone and create something wonderful. It is a sound made in Streatham but it took Cornbury by storm. An assured appearance on one of the main stages was followed by a delightful set on the intimate Jack FM stage and then to complete three wonderful sets the duo hit the Cafe Nero stage. They collected fans like a pair of pied pipers and I can’t wait to see them perform again. With such a busy schedule, it was a joy to see their smiles and obvious enjoyment in bringing their music to new ears on all three sets.
Sandwiched between following Ferris & Sylvester around was a great performance by Catherine McGrath, a country singer from Northern Ireland, who had the main stage crowd enthralled with her beautiful voice. She certainly has something of the young Taylor Swift about her and even nailed a TS cover slotted in amongst some excellent songs from her forthcoming debut album. I’m sure I’ll be seeing her at C2C very soon!
And so as night fell I wandered over to see the incredible Marc Cohn and joined the congregation in front of a man whose songs were full of his experiences of life and filled the heart with emotion. I stood and listened and loved and a tear formed in the corner of my eye…what a weekend! See you in 2019!