“Sit down, Downend Folk Club. It's your own time you're wasting.” In search of a bigger venue, Downend Folk Club are on the road again. This time they pitch up at Downend School in the company of the truly wonderful RACHAEL MCSHANE & THE CATROGRAPHERS.

It's been a while since the sad demise of Bellowhead. In that multi-headed folk juggernaut, Rachael McShane was the only girl in a noisy gang of boys. Most nights she’d bounce and clown with the best of them, swapping between cello and fiddle, attacking folk stompers with unabashed relish. Tonight there's no need to show off. Instead she proves that those years of big tunes and bigger stages have wrought the perfect performer. She has a strong voice and plays viola and violin with such ease that it seems effortless. Her band map out traditional folk journeys with her and, although they are only a three piece, every delightful nook and cranny is explored. Julian Sutton on the melodeon is brilliant at adding textures, while Matthew Ord plays guitar with gentle and assured finesse. It's clear that if you are used to playing with the greatest folk band ever you accept nothing but the very best. When these three play tunes they are English with a capital E. Steeped in Northumbria and the North East they are pastoral and beautiful.

As well as being one of the finest folk musicians in the country it’s no real surprise to learn that she’s a teacher too. You can put money on it that she’s one of those cool ones; one of those that never seem to shout but hold a class in the palm of her hand; one of those that you want to listen to; one of those that you’ll always remember. Those teachers are pretty rare, I guess, but then so are musicians like Rachael McShane.

They say that truly brilliant teaching looks easy and so, tonight, every song seems to come naturally. Whether telling tales about a female highwayman (highwayperson?) in Sylvie or singing “the greatest of all incest ballads" everything is balanced just so. But like all the best educators many of these stories have a point. Songs skewer foolish men time and again; women are strong, wise, warm and almost always victorious. Trousers are stolen from drunkards, bad behaviour avenged and pleasures taken on their own terms. There's no lecturing though, just truth. The new album that’s due in August will be utterly essential on this showing, especially for those that love Kate Rusby and Kathryn Tickell.

If Downend Folk Club have a house band then support act ROAD NOT TAKEN are probably it. Self-deprecating club chairman Ant Miles plays guitar, Anita Dobson adds her spectral, beautiful voice and Joe and Claire Hamlen provide the delicious musical counter-points. Tonight they are a revelation; having seen them on several occasions at the club, they are maturing beautifully. Songs are delicately arranged and a brooding spookiness pervades the whole of their short set. Mainly drawn from the traditional canon, these songs are given enough of a twist to make them something new. It feels as though they’ve been draped in glittering cobwebs and that is a very fine thing indeed. Fittingly the stand out, I’ll Weave My Love A Garland, even teaches us something.

Tonight we learned two things: that Road Not Taken have become the best folk band in Bristol and that former members of Bellowhead continue to make the loveliest, most interesting music that you’re ever likely to hear.  A*.

Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Chris Dobson