“How wonderful to be here. I can't think of a better place to ease myself back in to this. Thank you. It's going to be a feat of memory."
And, with that, SAM SWEENEY picks up his violin and plays as though the last fifteen months have been the blink of an eye, as though the last time we'd seen friends was a few days ago, as though the world really might get back to normal.
Let's face it, this could have been a strange night. The first Downend Folk Club for a long time, only 60 people in a pew-less church, no bar and still that familiar “keep your distance” feeling. It could have been strange but Sam Sweeney is the perfect host to banish the weirdness. He's on fine form. Telling stories and odd little anecdotes (the one about Fairport's Dave Swarbrick and dead skin cells will live long in the memory!), he's desperate for a chat and grinning all over his face. There’s a delirious, infectious happiness beaming from the stage. Is this what we've missed? A musician just beside themselves with joy to be playing again?
Early on Sam confesses that he's only really played properly solo three or four times in his life (away from Bellowhead, Leveret, Kerfuffle and countless others). He worries that just listening to solo fiddle is a bit “intense" over a whole gig. This isn't intense though, it's sublime. It's glorious. It's beautiful.
Tune after tune flit by. Some are familiar – a fabulous Bagpipers brings actual cheers from the 60 – some are different versions of old tunes and some are newly unearthed. Almost all of them end with an “oh, I love that one" and another huge grin. Sam is like the kid who’s been waiting for AGES to show you all of his best toys. At one point he says he's “brimming with new tunes" and, you know what, that's exactly it. He can't contain himself. He's just so excited.
For all that there's no Bellowhead-esque leaping around, no frantic sawing away whilst pogoing. This is a set of exquisite, gentle, sensitive wordless songs. It's hard to write about Sam Sweeney's playing without reaching for the bird metaphors but notes really do soar, his playing is feather like, delicate. Things take flight and glide, effortlessly, around this lovely room. The two tunes from his extraordinary Made in the Great War project are perfect – battlefield elegies played with grace – and only overshadowed by some sumptuous tunes from the new Unearth Repeat album, one he released just before lockdown so has never played them in front of a “real" audience before. You'd never know it, they're simply delightful. The Rising of the Lark, from The Unfinished Violin, is especially bright and cheery, just right for a damp May evening. Just right to coax us back to live music.
As the evening draws to a close Sam Sweeney bounces in his chair, grins, sticks a thumb in air and says “I can't express how much I love this".
He's not the only one. We all love it too. I've missed this...
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Chris Dobson