Gipsy Kings, Cornbury Festival, Oxfordshire, UK – review

The demographic of Cornbury threw up some curious juxtapositions. Kacey Musgraves sang about Texan trailer parks to an audience more used to deer parks; a Witney-based ska band served up Kanye covers for the red-trousered throng. Saturday’s headliners, Simple Minds, delighted the tribes of Chipping Norton with laments for the industrial decline of Clydeside.

But what Simple Minds demonstrated brilliantly was that a warm summer evening comes alive with some memorable songs from the 1980s. To justify their place closing the festival the following night, that was the trick the Gipsy Kings needed to repeat. The gitano band are in the closing throes of their 25th anniversary tour, that anniversary dated to their 1988 album, built off the back of their inescapable 1987 hit “Bamboléo”. That album was successful in the UK, but their subsequent career, although Grammy-winning as recently as 2013, has been less apparent here.

As they opened with “Ati Ati”, it was easy to fear the worst. The sound was dominated by drums and bass, Nicolas Reyes’s every lyrical point underlined by a dramatic splash of cymbal. But faith was restored by “Rumba Tec”, the first of several instrumentals led by Tonino Baliardo, playing virtuoso lead guitar and here duelling with the congas.

Baliardo was the sole lead player in a frontline of six guitarists (where most bands have backing singers, the Gipsy Kings put their reliance on backing guitarists), and was more than equal to playing off the ferocious rhythms of his brothers and cousins. The same pattern was evident on “Cuba”, the song starting deceptively casually with the guitarists seeming to spin together a series of strums, and then coalescing into a rumba over which the piano rhythm morphed into Cuban bebop while Baliardo played stuttering squalls of high notes, hands almost touching on the soundboard.

A recent single, “Samba Samba” was attractive enough for the crowd to sing along: a close cousin to “Bamboléo”, it sounded suspiciously like a bid to soundtrack the World Cup.

There were longueurs: the lengthy, tremolo-laden ballad “Un Amor” made the siren lure of the A44 irresistible for some of the audience before the energy came back with the synthesised brass stings of a sprightly “Djobi Djoba”; the last instrumental, “Sabroso” turned out to be an extended jazz odyssey that included a slap-bass solo. And then, as the sun sank below the Cotswold horizon in a blaze of orange and purple, came the familiar driving beat and guitar chords of their greatest hit. Arms were waved in the air, thousands of voices joined the chorus, and the Kings reigned once more.

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