So here it is, a Downend Folk Christmas, and everybody’s starting to have fun. In this very strange end to a(nother) very strange year Christ Church is hung with lanterns, lights twinkle on various trees and familiar faces gather to sing and smile, to exchange greetings and catch up with end-of-year chat and to listen to some of the most beautiful Winter-y music that 2021 could possibly offer.
If the Downend Folk Club Christmas show reminds us of anything it is the importance of community; of friends and neighbours, of those around us that have helped us through the whole of this tricky eighteen months. A WINTER UNION themselves gather for just a few weeks a year but they are well worth the wait.
Ranged across the stage are five familiar faces to those that love a bit of modern folk music. They are, as Ben Savage puts it early on, "... the office party of the folk music scene. Or the business meeting of the folk music scene. With cheese and wine." Aside from Ben we had his normal foil, Hannah Sanders (HANNAH SANDERS & BEN SAVAGE); Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts (of award hoovers GILMORE & ROBERTS); and Jade Rhiannon of country-folk heroes THE WILLOWS. The sum of these special parts is really very special indeed.
It was pretty clear where the evening was headed after the first song - a harmony-drenched rendition of Ding Dong Merrily On High that featured the fantastic fiddle playing of Katriona and the twin guitars of Ben and Jamie. This wasn’t the only traditional carol that we were treated to either. As the evening progressed so the church rang to the strains of I Saw Three Ships, In The Bleak Midwinter and a particularly spooky and off-kilter God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. There was something of the theme tune to weird Christmas-y TV show The Box Of Delights about some of these. Particularly when Hannah dusted down her dulcimer and it wound itself around Ben’s dobro. The perfect combination of folk and Christmas.
Don’t get the idea that this evening was all deep and crisp and even though. There was just as much West Coast of America as there was chilly English Holly boughs. Time and again the five voices felt as though they were straight out of Laurel Canyon circa 1968. Imagine if Crosby, Stills, Nash, The Mamas & The Papas and bits of The Lovin’ Spoonful had got together for a Christmas sing-along at the Whisky a Go Go - it would have sounded just like this. Lovely harmonies, a ragged companionship, incredible musicians. Winter songs by The Band and Townes Van Zandt only helped with that impression.
English folkishness kept on peeping through and much of it was thanks to the absolutely exquisite voice of Jade Rhiannon. Both The Holly and The Ivy and Elizabeth Woodcock were glorious but her harmonies on virtually every song were incredible. In Hannah, Katriona and Jade, A Winter Union has three voices that, quite frankly, you could listen to until August let alone for a couple of hours in December. Add the Fairport vibes of Our Wassail, a better-than-the-original cover of Jethro Tull’s Ring Out, Solstice Bells and Katriona Gilmore’s staggeringly beautiful Every Midnight Mile and you had a recipe for instant Christmas cheer.
Adding to the festivities was a short set from relative newcomer LIZZY HARDINGHAM. Two carols, as befits a Christmas show, and a handful of original songs were made extraordinary by an unbelievably powerful voice. Clearly honed in choirs she fitted perfectly into the vaulted space of the church. If every carol sounded like her version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen then every pew would be full every week. Equally impressive was the song for bees - Harvester of Gold - although she did apologise for it being a bit too summer-y. Her’s was yet another amazing voice to add to an evening of amazing voices.
2020 was a year without a Downend Folk Club Christmas in it. This year it was so lovely to be amongst friends once again. Happy Christmas.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Barry Savell