It’s the 16th of December. The kids (and teachers) have broken up. Advent services have been sung. Shepherds in tea towels have been seen cantering across this very altar.  And yet ...and yet... it still doesn’t feel really Christmassy. Maybe it’s because it’s warm and wet, not cold and crisp. Maybe it’s because this year has been so full of disappointment that we are all expecting another one around every corner. Maybe it’s because there seems to be little Christian kindness around just now. Or maybe it’s because we all just need something to put us in the right frame of mind.

Fortunately Downend Folk Club are riding to our rescue, in a big, tinsel strewn sleigh, cheap supermarket lights twinkling and driven by two men who are feeling, quite frankly, a little bit silly. 

Photo: Julian Cox

BELSHAZZAR'S FEAST are Pauls Sartin and Hutchinson. Stalwarts of the folk scene (Sartin used to be found bouncing furiously in Bellowhead and is still in the magnificent Faustus) who have regularly lugged their Christmas sack full of ancient carols and folk loveliness around the country at this time of year. And we are so glad to see them.  They start with their version of the 'Sans Day Carol' and immediately have the audience gently harmonising from the pews. Although just as we were thinking this was going to be a gentle sweep through beautiful, obscure Christmas tunes something happens. The accordion and violin duo start throwing snatches of other songs in. Better known carols, TV themes, radio favourites, staples and classical music. Songs shift and slide with deftness and wit. There are laughs - proper laughs - as the audience recognise something.  Slowly that "Bah Humbug" feeling is gently ushered away and replaced with chuckling.

There is simply no way that two men in faded denim jeans should be this entertaining.  

Don’t go thinking that this is some sort of dreadful "comedy-folk" nightmare from 70s Christmases past though (Jasper Carrot, I’m looking at you). Paul Sartin and Paul Hutchinson are amazing musicians and nowhere is this proved more certainly than when they smash together Mozart and Vivaldi at break neck speed. This also featured a tiny bit of ritual humiliation for the Club’s Chairman, Ant Miles, including a triangle, far too many beats to the bar and an impossible time signature.   

All of this light heartedness is undoubtedly Christmassy; the carols, the old folk songs, the warm wit, dreadful punning and good natured teasing conjuring nothing less than Christmas afternoon, after a few too many glasses of sherry when you favourite uncles set to story-telling, bickering and laughing. These are Christmas songs to be loved the whole year ‘round. 

Just as good-natured and heart warming were the support band for the evening. THE NINETREE STUMBLERS are Bristol-based but their heads and hearts are somewhere near Kentucky in about 1932. Describing themselves as 'old-fangled string band music' they are utterly charming. Obscure American folk songs dredged from crackly old 78s are gently persuasive and have feet tapping in no time. Strange drunken waltzes rub shoulders with Hawaiian instrumentals, hushed spirituals with raucous fiddle tunes; they create a delicious time warp with an enthusiasm that is infectious. There’s even a Christmas number, “Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over” that is only Christmassy if you happen to be in a far flung corner of the American deep South wrestling an alligator.  Or something.

If we weren’t feeling that Christmas spirit at the start of the evening we certainly were by the end. It was due to two men in denim and three Bristol folk with a string band obsession. As Tiny Tim might say "God bless ‘em, every one".

 - Gavin McNamara

It will be festive japes and tunes a-plenty at our December event as BELSHAZZAR'S FEAST's annual Christmas tour rolls into town!

In 1995 Paul Hutchinson (accordion) and Paul Sartin (oboe, violin and vocals) shared a musical passion borne out of the desire to earn sufficient money to support their extravagant lifestyles. Their amazing musicianship coupled with wry humour stunned audiences around Europe and the States.

As a singer, oboist, violinist, composer and arranger Paul Sartin is a former member of the sadly-missed BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Winners and Nominees Bellowhead and Faustus. He edits publications of music manuscripts, delivers workshops, and is Consultant and Director of the Andover Museum Loft Singers. Having gained an Honours Degree and Choral Scholarship at Oxford, he gained a First for his Masters in Traditional Music, and in 2007 recieved a 75th Anniversary Award from the English Folk Dance and Song Society. His recent composition, ‘The Hartlepool Monkey’, for Streetwise Opera, was nominated for a BASCA award.

Paul Hutchinson is well known from his work with Hoover the Dog, Karen Tweed and the Playford Liberation Front. He is a superlative accordion player with a unique style inspired by church organ music, violins & concertinas! Paul is an experienced workshop leader tutoring at Cecil Sharp House on a regular basis, Hands On weekends, Folkworks Summer Schools and Halsway Manor. His favourite colour is no longer pink.

Opening the evening’s entertainment will be local old-time string band THE NINETREE STUMBLERS.

Born a hundred years late and 4000 miles too far East, The Ninetree Stumblers dredge up nuggets of the Old Weird America from the crackly grooves of 78RPM shellac. Three multi-instrumentalists - Liam Kirby, Dan Weltman and Ruth Gordon - from right here in Bristol, the band trade guitars, banjos, fiddles and more, clambering from song to song through shows that set Moonshine-fuelled hoedowns against sombre Baptist hymns, cockeyed ragtime and sweetheart waltzes.

The concert will be held on Friday 16th December at CHRIST CHURCH DOWNEND. Doors open at 7.30pm for an 8.00pm start, and there will be a full bar, serving Hambrook-based GREAT WESTERN BREWING CO. real ales, Severn Cider, a selection of wines, soft drinks and tea and coffee. You are encouraged to bring your own glass/tankard/mug as part of the club’s drive to cut down on waste. There will also be a raffle featuring some great prizes including CDs, beer and more.

Tickets are available from MELANIE'S KITCHEN in Downend, BRISTOL TICKET SHOP and online HERE. They are priced at £14 each, but if you buy before Friday 9th December they’ll cost you just £12 as part of the ‘Early Bird’ scheme. Members tickets are a bargain £10 each and are available direct from Ant Miles or from the Members Only area of this website.

Once upon a time in the distant past (yes, I know!!) there was a programme on the telly called 'Take Three Girls'. Not being old enough to know about, nor indeed particularly interested in, the goings-on in Swinging London back at the end of the sixties, I never actually got to watch it. But in recent years it’s come to mind again and I can imagine the conversation that might have occurred in the shared flat one evening: 

"‘Ere Victoria, you play the cello and Avril’s an art student. Why don’t the three of us form a band and hit the big time?"

Fast forward some forty years, take three very different girls, form a band and... LADY MAISERY might just fit the bill. This is definitely not your Supremes or Bananarama.  For a start they play instruments. And sing harmonies.

And boy, do they sing harmonies.

'Katy Cruel', the opening song of the second set, just seemed to throw out one unexpected chord after another; three instruments and three voices wafting over the heads of the audience and, yes, up into the crowded balcony as well. For this was quite possibly Downend Folk Club’s biggest attendance in the thirty or so months since it started.

Photo: Julian Cox

In a band featuring three songwriters there’s little elbow room for others to get a look in, although the evening included songs from such diverse folkies as Richard Farina and Sidney Carter with a touch of Todd Rundgren for good measure. Not surprisingly, Hannah James’ vocal on 'The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood' was pretty far removed from Farina’s Greenwich Village background.

At this point the rarely-seen ‘bansitar’ - a combination of banjo and sitar - made its appearance adding to the vast array of instruments. Playing fiddle, harp, accordion, concertina, banjo, various percussion items and several clogs, sometimes too much talent is concentrated in too few people. Insert imaginary collective sigh from audience!

But 'songs’ doesn’t really do the evening justice. This was more an impressionist painting giving a hint of this or that, enticing us into a wilderness of sound, and particularly true of the seasonal snippets - three short pieces illustrating different times of the year in sound and word. Hannah’s accordion making pure wind sounds rather than standard notes. Several 'diddling' tunes, sung rather than played. Hazel Askew’s beautiful harp constantly in the background.

Songs there were though. Opening with the superb 'Sing for the Morning', the first track on their new album 'Cycle', and according to Rowan Rheingans "a song that I wrote on a long bicycle ride". Continuing with the unaccompanied 'Diggers Song' and the horticultural security influenced 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' (yes, I had to check the spelling too) before finishing the first half with a heart-warming tale of Aunt Sheila and more diddling.

Just a few short minutes then to re-fill the glasses, chat to your mates, buy the raffle tickets and see if anyone can mend the heating system, before more of the same including a personal favourite in Carter’s 'Crow on the Cradle' with the revelation that Sidney Carter’s son is now based in Bristol. He really should have been present to appreciate what his dad gave to the world.

At the end of the evening Hazel summed it up: "Downend Folk Club - cold in temperature but warm in heart." Wearing at times an array of mittens, shawl and baggy jumper, the same could have been said of Lady Maisery.

No DFC night would be complete without the support act. "I wanted something to do with my voice" said Kathryn Marsh who, together with guitarist David Sutherland make up the midlands-based ASHLAND. Playing several songs written by Kathryn’s dad, another making its debut in their set and a smooth bluesy number this really was a case of Old, New, Borrowed and Blue and was the perfect warm-up. Literally.

- Cliff Woolley