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