Wychwood Festival, Cheltenham Racecourse, Cheltenham

Duffy shows her Sixties sparkle
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The Independent Culture

Thanks to the canny booking of Welsh soulstress Duffy before her first chart entry, the Wychwood Festival attracted its biggest crowd since it began four years ago. Not that Britain's current chart favourite is quite ready for the outdoors yet.

Sure, she sang up a storm on "Rockferry", "Warwick Avenue" and "Mercy" but the moves she learnt from videos of old Sixties pop shows were not as compelling as her voice. Still, she brought a more mainstream audience to what remains the most family-friendly three-day event in the land. And if some discovered a taste for the folk, world or indie acts on a broad church of a bill, all the better.

Officially the brainiest group ever, Oxford post-graduates Stornoway's take on the big music of The Waterboys worked a treat, especially during "On The Rocks". The Bolton trio Islands Lost At Sea used samples to create a dubby, floaty sound, bringing to mind The Police with overtones of John Martyn.

Yet to get the mainstream recognition the big hooks of "White Lady" and "Miracles" deserve, Palladium were the rockiest group on the Independent stage. Their sunny, joyful pop matched the weather and the crowd's disposition. Following "Happy Hour" with "I Can't Wait For The Summer", they vowed the teenagers and the mums, too.

Under the Big Top, School Of Language's daring set proved a case of indie talent over-reaching itself but laudable all the same. Orchestre Baobab followed Duffy and kept the audience dancing to their infectious blend of Cuban and African rhythms.

Saturday's headliners The Divine Comedy also added more than a soupcon of français to a greatest hits set that demonstrated what a fine chronicler of human foibles Neil Hannon is. "Something For The Weekend" and "Becoming More Like Alfie" came with a Leslie Phillips wink and a nod to Noël Coward but it was his sublime version of the Françoise Hardy hit "Je Changerais D'Avis" which sent shivers down the spine.

On Sunday lunchtime, The Young Republic, all the way from Nashville, proved just the thing to soothe sore heads. As I was thinking their yearning harmonies and the pairing of Kristin Weber's viola and Nate Underkuffler's violin on "Alchemist" sounded like Bob Dylan in his Desire period, they covered "Isis" from that very album.

Frontman Julian Saporiti acted out every word in a most-unZimmerman way, but he's no slouch as a lyricist himself. They ended their well-received set with the epic "Modern Plays", and shades of The Replacements and Tom Petty, proving that The Hold Steady are not the only current US band steeped in rock's rich heritage.

The embarrassment of riches on offer at Wychwood became obvious when the time slots of three acts I wanted to catch on Sunday overlapped. On the Wickwar Stage, Edinburgh seven-piece We See Lights put a folky spin on the incantative approach of Arcade Fire and sang "Try" in a broad Scots nearly worthy of Friday night's headliners The Proclaimers.

But I drifted off to watch Emma Pollock make a convincing leap from the Delgados to solo act on the main stage. On "Adrenaline"and B-side "I Have A Double", she came across like Juliana Hatfield. Still, despite Pollock's thud drifting under the Big Top where they were performing, Rachel Unthank & The Winterset emerged the winners of this three-way contest. Their blissful harmonies charmed and delighted a sizeable crowd, and they got everyone to sing along to "Blues Gan Oot O The Fashion".

Wychwood prides itself on bringing together many strands from Senegalese kora player Jali Fily Cissokho to Karen David's unusual blend of Indian influences and crafted songs via the winsome Kate Rusby.

The Imagined Village, the English folk project put together by Simon Emmerson of Afro Celt Sound System, tied everything up neatly. Filling in the dots between traditional material like "Scarborough Fair" and Billy Bragg's "England, Half English", their compelling set also incorporated turns by Martin and Eliza Carthy.

Wychwood hit all the right spots once more. Roll on 2009!

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