About half way through the first half this delicious festive feast, Hannah James tells a story. It's a story of carol singing on the outskirts of Sheffield. As she speaks the other four voices join her. Gently harmonising, softly humming. She tells us of the "old carols" and the pubs that they are sung in. She assures us that they may be religious but that they don't see too many churches anymore. She tells us of community and coming together. As you look around this beautifully modernised church you realise that this is what Christmas is about – songs, stories, community and new traditions. 

Is this the fifth Downend Folk Club Christmas? However many we've seen, this is our tradition. It marks the end of term, the start of festivities and the coming together of all of us who love this sort of thing. "Awake Arise" is the most perfect Folk Club Christmas line-up containing, as is does, two of Downend’s favourite acts.

These are hymns for Christians and heathens and are immaculately conceived; a perfect mix of the breath taking beauty of LADY MAISERY and the earthy folkishness of JIMMY ALDRIDGE & SID GOLDSMITH. The utter loveliness of the voices of Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans and Hazel Askew have never been in doubt, but festooned upon this are the wit and honesty of Jimmy and Sid's lovely deeper tones.  Songs sit next to tunes; reflective spoken word rests easy on glorious musicianship; a harp, accordion, banjos and percussive feet help float the whole thing heavenwards. The air almost smells of cinnamon and spice. 

It's fitting that this show is here on the Solstice. We might be in a church, and there are religious moments, but there's something far older, far deeper in these songs. These are songs celebrating nature, growth and rebirth. They carry weight and contemplation, joy and love. Chief amongst these is The Old Churchyard; an old song sung by Hazel Askew. If there is anything lovelier sung within these walls in the coming days it really will be a Christmas miracle. The voices soar together, creating a timeless festive treat. Askew singing is, truly, beautiful singing. 

If that one is all pagan and greenwood then the Sheffield Carols are Christian in all their honest glory. Hark Hark and While Shepherds Watched... are unaccompanied and use all five voices, although they are led by the peerless Hannah James, for some serious Christmas rejoicing. Each person brings character and a separate beauty to these a capella treasures that conjure Christmases of years gone by when singing with your neighbour was more important than the gifts that you received. Throughout this magical evening these five reminded us that there is more to life than Amazon delivery dates and Wham!

The evening started with an entirely different mood. Where "Awake Arise" was firmly "wintery" so DANNY PEDLER & ROSIE BUTLER-HALL were significantly more "summery".  As long, that is, as your summers include French holidays and gently hypnotic contemplation.  There are probably not too many times when a hurdy-gurdy has been employed in Christ Church but Danny Pedler’s Renaissance drones provided a pulse to Rosie Butler-Hall’s melodious, delightful voice.  A mixture of tunes and songs, English and French, old and new got a wonderful evening off to a lovely start.

"Awake Arise" gave us a sense of community, songs to sing, stories to tell and a whole evening of total joy.  How could anyone want anything more for Christmas?

Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Alan Cole