Sometimes the best Christmas presents are the unexpected ones. They’re not the ones that you asked for. Not the ones that you dropped heavy hints for. Not the ones that you carefully write on a note on the fridge. They are the delightfully dizzying ones. The ones that show how much someone cares.
Tonight the unexpected present, delivered by the utterly charming JACKIE OATES, were two staggeringly beautiful songs by indie cult hero Sufjan Stevens. In this set of wintry wonder these songs lit the candles and provided a festive glow. Christmas In The Room did exactly that; brought some proper Christmas magic to this lovely church. Sister Winter did the same. It was gloriously, stunningly lovely. Neither were exactly what you'd call folk and both were deliciously surprising because of it.
Jackie Oates is a multiple Radio 2 Folk Award winner, described as having "the sweetest voice of her generations of English folkies" and has a full band with her on this Solstice evening. This one-off Christmas show is a joyful bundle of carols, new songs and covers and marks her last show of the year. It is never anything other than a proper festive treat. It is the quiet corner that you need in a time of frenzied shopping.
Two carols feature in the first half; The Trees Are All Bare and The Halsway Carol. Both out-shimmer the huge Christmas tree that sits at the back of the altar and both give us a hint of a Winter festival that pre-dates the birth of a Nazarene. The same can be said for the mesmeric The Contest Of The Ivy And The Holly. Who knew that holly traditionally represented men and ivy women? Incredibly this features some top quality recorder augmentation and is another song of simple, earthy loveliness.
Aside from some fine violin playing from Oates herself the band are made up of Mike Cosgrave on keyboards, guitar and recorder and John Parker on double bass. There was also an array of melodeons. There are eight of them and they all belonged to John Spiers, formerly of Bellowhead. Anyone aware of the collective noun for melodeons? A wheeze? Whatever it is he added something sprightly to the tunes and a glorious drone to the wintry songs.
In an evening of wondrous highlights one song stood out. A magnificent version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel was everything that a Christmas carol should be; surely even the Heathens amongst the congregation were moved as a church full of voices were lifted toward the altar. Up until this point the best version of this old favourite was by Jim Moray who is, of course, the brother of Jackie Oates. What a family they are.
If the carols and the wintery songs were the main course of this Christmas feast then the covers were the crackers. John Lennon, Tom Waits and, most moving of all, Ewan MacColl all stopped by for a mince pie. The MacColl song was one of his last – The Joy Of Living - and in the hands of Oates and her band it was just the loveliest thing imaginable. If you need to be reminded that the world is a decent place you should look no further.
As we prepared to troop out in the December night Jackie Oates was afforded a huge ovation. But she wasn't the only one. The evening had started with THOM ASHWORTH, a singer songwriter with a difference. No plaintive fiddler or acoustic guitar strummer, Ashworth plays acoustic bass. And sings. And that's it. His short set was a masterclass in folk interpretations. There was a bit of festive stuff, a Richard Thompson cover, some clever bass loops, songs about drinking and politics and an acapella, unamplified finale. He was the perfect appetizer to the main course of unexpected Christmas gifts that was to come later.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Alan Cole