The acoustic stage at any given festival is often used by attendees as a place of respite from the commotion and mayhem of the main events; a haven of unplugged ballads that are pleasing on the ear, for a brief moment of repose to disrupt the interminable hustle and bustle of the bigger stages. At least, this may be what draws many festival-goers to the acoustic stage in the first place, but more often than not, they will find enough reason to stay longer than was initially planned. Many will agree that some of the fondest memories of festival experiences are made by the pleasant surprises tucked away in the smaller tents for which no meticulously-crafted day planner could have accounted. Having made a name for himself sweating under the heat of the main stage lights as part of UK blues rock powerhouse The Mustangs, Adam Norsworthy, having now been recording professionally in a solo capacity for the past few years, found himself working to capture the minds of a quieter and more attentive crowd this year on Cambridge Rock Festival’s Acoustic Stage on Sunday the 6th of August. Removed from the context of his position as The Mustangs’ frontman, Norsworthy delivers a pastoral blend of traditional English folk music and hearty Americana and country. With two solo studio albums stowed in his arsenal, the songsmith certainly has the material at his disposal to afford a set of entirely original songs, but Norsworthy chooses to pick from across both his solo work and his ongoing career as part of The Mustangs, whilst throwing in the odd cover for good measure. As such, despite the simple acoustic set-up, the singer’s nine-song set list branches out over a considerable amount of territory under the folk, country and blues umbrella. Then again, Norsworthy isn’t alone, with violinist Tom Norris substituting the symphonic swells of the London Symphony Orchestra for a rustic Americana twang as he supports the singer in his journey across the cavernous landscape of British and American folk music. The expanse of their travels together covers the guitarist’s Bert Jansch-like acoustic latticework and bucolic lyricism about a violin-maker on ‘The Stradivarius Tree’ to his recreations of Thom Yorke’s frail vibrato during his cover of Radiohead’s art rock classic ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’, during which Norris’ eerie violin incidentals bolster the sense of impending tragedy evoked by Norsworthy’s belting vocal climaxes. In a rather different fashion, the duo’s rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Something’ sees the songwriter set aside his guitar in favour of a ukulele, which he explains to be an homage to the known uke-loving George Harrison, an active member of the Ukulele Society of Great Britain during his lifetime. More different still, however, is the dainty, duelling violin tapestry of Tom and his wife, Ellie, as they embellish Norsworthy’s entirely acoustic and instrumental version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Rain Song’. From the gentle, familial balladry of ‘Shores of Heaven’ to the snowballing momentum of his acoustic rendition of The Mustangs’ ‘I’ll Meet You Anytime’, which is driven by some of Norris’ nimblest finger-work of the entire set, Norsworthy’s Sunday set gifted all in attendance with a nugget of the charm of the acoustic stage.
Following his set, I was fortunate enough to take Adam to one side and ask him some questions about his history in the music world and his recent pursuits as a solo artist.
Given that you’re well-established in the music world as a member of The Mustangs, what drove your decision to devote a branch of your creative capacities to a solo outlet?
Well, I’ve always done solo stuff, even before The Mustangs, so I’ve always written songs that were maybe a bit less bluesy and a bit more folky and were not quite appropriate for The Mustangs’ albums. Of course, you want an outlet for that sort of thing, so I took a load of demos to my record company with the thought that maybe they’d want to release them as part of a solo record, and they really liked it, so they did, and we’re now about to do our third album. So my solo career developed alongside The Mustangs to an extent.
So, when you’re performing at festivals such as Cambridge Rock Festival on acoustic stages, how do you find that in comparison to your live work with The Mustangs? Do you have a preference, or is it a matter of appreciating them both for wildly different reasons?
It’s certainly not a matter of preference, largely because you get such a different buzz doing both things. When you do something in an acoustic setting, you can be really quiet and sensitive and people can really listen. With The Mustangs’ shows, it’s about playing tight and hard and getting people moving and everything, so it’s just a very different dynamic and I really like both of them.
I was interested as to how you got into contact with Tom from the London Symphony Orchestra for today. Could you tell me a little bit about how that came about?
Well, violins featured quite heavily on my last solo record and Tom, believe or not, moved in two doors down from my girlfriend and it just so happened that he was from the London Symphony Orchestra and we hit it off straight away. So I played him some songs and he said, “this is fantastic”, so I said, “well, why don’t you come and play some violin with me?” and he was all for it, so here we are.
I was quite impressed by the mixed bag of songs you brought to your set list today, having played songs from you solo material, as well as The Mustangs and then covers of Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, Lowell Fulson and The Beatles. What’s your criteria for when you’re compiling a set list and thinking about covers and incorporating material from The Mustangs and such?
Well, for covers, the first thing you’ve got to bear in mind is your voice and whether or not your voice is suitable for it, because if you try to sing a song that your voice is just totally inappropriate for, you’re not going to enjoy it. Other than that, it just has to be a song you love and a song you think you can do justice to. So, for me, ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’ was an obvious choice because Thom Yorke’s voice is roughly the right tone and key for me, and also you have this fantastic opportunity for this beautiful violin solo in the middle. When it comes to The Beatles, I mean, everyone wants to play a Beatles song, but for me, it was nice to do the ukulele thing and put a twist on it. The Zep thing is just something I’ve always wanted to do, so with Tom on board, he could support me instrumentally and I didn’t have to sing or scream like Robert Plant.
One last thing I wanted to ask you about relates to the fact that you’ve got some folk in your family and I was hoping you could talk about that a bit, particularly what drove you, from a familial perspective, to go down the folk, blues and Americana route.
Well, my mother was a folk singer and she was heavily into traditional English folk music. She used to play guitar at dinner parties. We’d have people round and the guitar would always come out and I’d sit there watching her. So it was really natural for me to pick up on the folk songs she would sing, whether it was early Fairport Convention songs or things like that. Plus, I’m half American, with my father being from the Deep South, so there’s the bluesy roots from him, and my music is a combination of the two cultural origins that I try and connect. I’m very much a mixture of my mum and my dad musically, having my dad for the blues and my mum for the folk music, so it all fits together naturally.