Before the bands start, a girl on the back row is reading a book by Ursula le Guin. The science fiction writer. This tells you something about Downend Folk Club; it's a place to escape the everyday, a place to explore somewhere different and a place where the extraordinary happens.
Make no mistake, THE RHEINGANS SISTERS are extraordinary. There's a stack of Folk Awards to their names, a multitude of plaudits showered upon them and really, truly it's not hard to see why. Even in this wonderful club we have seen perfectly good musicians drag and scrape a tune from fiddles. Not these two sisters. Rowan (who we’ve seen before with Folk Goddesses Lady Maisery) and Anna transform two violins into open throated song birds. They are harmonious and complimentary, clear and bright. There are concert halls, "proper" Radio 3 endorsed concert halls, up and down the country that would kill for two musicians this good. And these two are here, in a crowded, warm village hall.
Much of this evening’s set is taken from the new album, Bright Field. It's a bit different from their preceding albums. There are not so many trads, covers and re-imaginings; instead we are treated to new compositions. And "compositions" seems the right word. These are tunes that have a classical quality. No mere jigs or reels, these are beautifully put together. Rowan's fiddle is ghostly, melancholic, casting filigree lines while Anna's playfully dances around, kicking up its heels. Her love of, and grounding in, traditional French folk keeps toes tapping even when the music gets a little wintery. The set of tunes Dark Nights/Swinghorn shows this off to perfection. The first tune is Rowan's, dark and brooding; the second Anna's, joyous and infectious. They fit together beautifully.
The loveliest song of the first half is the album’s title track. Bright Field is the term that the sisters use to describe that special place that you go to make yourself feel "fuller”, to recharge your batteries. Their place must be a one of quite spectacular beauty where the pace of life is slowed to a languid flutter. It must also be Welsh as the song ends with a lovely R.S Thomas poem; Rowan’s strong, honest voice further reinforcing the songs message and beauty.
The second set takes us dancing around Europe. From complicated French dance tunes to Ancient English tunes of incredible dexterity. From cowsheds to fields. Some are traditional and old but some have been written by Anna. It’s hard to tell them apart such is her skill as a tunesmith. Unbelievably they talk of her knocking out a couple of tunes like this every week. Finally they take us to the lonely expanses of North Norway. To a remote festival and seas teeming with fish. Mackerel is a gorgeous song, a deserved award winner and the finest way to end an evening where two incredible musicians take us to so many different places.
Before all of this IAN A ANDERSON opened up with a short set that conjured moments from Frenchay’s folk past. Anderson is a Bristol folk legend; a true survivor from the 60s, a record producer, a label owner (the brilliant 70s label The Village Thing) and a magazine editor as well as a charming and engaging presence. Playing the bluesy-country-pschy-folk beloved of Bert Jansch, Wizz Jones and the like, Anderson gave us a glimpse of what folk clubs must have looked like forty-odd years ago. And a welcome sight it was. There were murder ballads, digs at Methodist ministers, true, tall tales and even a bit of Country and Western. Simple and simply marvellous.
So, as Downend Folk Club celebrates its fourth birthday, The Rheingans Sisters ensure that it was, as ever, out of this world.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Chris Dobson