Now in its second year the City Roots Festival continues along a path already taken by its elder sibling the Cambridge Folk Festival in that it takes a fairly broad definition of what represents Roots. And music. On the opening weekend there had been a World Music opener – with Sona Jobarteh and then Chouk Bwa Libete and on the same night as Rich Hall the folk music fan would have been torn by the knowledge that McGoldrick, McCusker and Doyle had hot footed it from their recent touring with the Transatlantic Sessions and were playing just a little way down the road from the Corn Exchange. It’s a truism that if one didn’t have to pick then it wouldn’t be a really good festival line-up.
Anyone who has seen Rich Hall’s documentaries on BBC4 will know that he has a deep knowledge of the myths of the expansion into the Western states of America coupled with an abiding love of country music in its higher forms – Hank Williams, Asleep at the Wheel, Willy Nelson these are the artists who’d be found blaring from his car radio. If a radio station existed which concentrated on that music. It’s this latter obsession that is the underpinning of The Hoedown which is an evenly split show – before the interval it’s stand-up and after the interval it’s the music.
So the first half finds Rich Hall riffing on the differences between the USA and the UK – and now also on the similarities with us choosing Brexit and them picking Trump – and shows that there are still plenty of laughs to be had from gun control (or the lack of it), and a twitter obsessed paranoiac leader of the free world. Springsteen, Rich Hall recalls, was critical of Trump’s intelligence, now there’ll likely be an immigration investigation to see if The Boss really was born in the USA. What’s the real difference between the two nations though ? Choice. In America, says Hall, they need several aisles of breakfast cereals in a supermarket, in Britain it’s “porridge or fuck off”.
Family life and the emergencies it can lead to coupled with the short-lived joy of Obamacare are there to remind us to be grateful for the NHS – at least we don’t have to pay through the nose to find out what we already knew. A part of the stand-up routine is in the form of interaction with the front row – mining information for the second half’s improvised songs. A big laugh comes when there is what seems a moment of genuine exasperation at Cambridge revealing itself as the “retarded audience”, this after having discovered the front row consists of a car salesman and his wife – also in car sales, a retired househusband and his wife who is a teacher – who reveals that she teaches “children” – an insurance salesman (“do you work for the Meerkat ?”) and a recruitment consultant from Human Resources. The previous show in Arbroath had apparently offered up “helicopter pilots for fucks sake”. It’s all in good part though.
The second half had Hall returning to the stage in the company of guitarist Rob Childs and drummer Mark Hewitt, which is the cue for a funny drummer joke. The Hoedown section is declared as an attempt to persuade the audience that Country music isn’t “all shit”. Rich Hall’s definition of country includes Hank Williams – who is difficult to find on a modern jukebox when you want to schmooze your lady – and songs about trucking, with an Anglicised version of that sub-genre on display. The song section is a witty mixture of prop-gags, some audience participation and the very mildest forms of ritual humiliation that by tradition comes with occupying a front row seat. Whether Rich Hall persuades many to being country fans seems unlikely – but his end of set demolishing of Bob Dylan goes down well.
The tour of this show continues over the next couple of months, criss-crossing the country and going just about everywhere that has a reasonably sized theatre – including a 4 night stand in London in May.