“We’re an instrumental band,” explains the man holding a trumpet (yes, a TRUMPET!). “We don’t sing, we don’t use words; we use music to paint pictures”.

THREE CANE WHALE weren’t even supposed to be here tonight. We were supposed to be listening to Peter Knight & John Spiers, but nasty covid got its tentacles into that plan, and Downend Folk Club heroically found a replacement with just a day or two’s notice. Of course, we wish John a rapid recovery and hope we’ll see them at Downend in the future.

But the last-minute replacements did not disappoint... far, far from it. This trio of men in flower-patterned shirts sit on their chairs, surrounded by a dazzling array of instruments both familiar and considerably less so. There’s the aforementioned trumpet, a guitar (albeit a right-handed one being played upside down by the left-handed player) and a mandolin. That’s fine, we know what they are. Indian harmoniums are pretty familiar to the regulars here too, but it’s probably the first time we’ve seen a flugelhorn, a bowed psaltery, a zither and a mandocello. And the first time I’ve seen a glockenspiel since school, I think.

As soon as this trio launch into their first number, Brazen Head, it’s clear they’re a little bit different to most of the artists featured at the club since its inception back in 2014. We’ve got used to the trad numbers, the fiddle and guitar duos, the singer-songwriters and a sprinkling of blues and bluegrass. This doesn’t fit into any of those boxes. In fact, it doesn’t really fit into any conventional genre box at all… and it’s all the better for it.

This is hypnotic, it’s beautiful, it’s fascinating and no words are needed. Pete Judge (mostly trumpet but sometimes flugelhorn, glockenspiel and harmonium) sits in the centre of the three and most often, but not always, carries the melody. On one side of him sits Alex Vann (mostly mandolin but sometimes mandocello and, most interestingly zither and bowed psaltery), and on the other side sits Paul Bradley (always the upside down left-handed acoustic guitar, but making it sound like an orchestra all on its own).

The three parts weave around one another and intertwine, creating sounds that are unique and fascinating. And they really do paint a picture. Pete introduces set of tunes and tells the transfixed audience what inspired it, very often being landscapes, but even those words are hardly needed. The highlight comes in the second half as a set of tunes from their latest album 303 takes us on a journey around Cadbury Castle in South Somerset. Pete describes how the tunes take us off the A303 and down dark lanes and by the landmark itself… but close your eyes and you’re there anyway, meandering along. There are no words that can describe just how enchanting the music of Three Cane Whale is.

Before all this, there’s a set of huge promise from EVE APPLETON, who’s brought her fellow third-year songwriting student Ben Parfitt with her. Together, the pair treat us to a five-song set that showcase their talents, and Eve’s voice in particular… there are shades of Suzanne Vega at times, and that is some compliment indeed. The Railroad Blues is a particular highlight. Written by Eve, it’s the tale of someone travelling the vast land to be with their love, but facing difficulties along the way: alcoholism and hard weather to name a couple. Whether Eve and Ben continue as a duo or forge their own paths as solo artists, you can be sure that there’s plenty more to come from both of them. 

But it’s to Three Cane Whale that this evening belongs, and the rapturous applause and demands for an encore show just what a hit they’ve been with the Downend faithful. A departure from what we’re used to? Yes, perhaps, but hopefully this is a sign of things to come as there just aren’t the words to describe this wonderful evening. More please.

Words: Bea Furlong
Photo: Barry Savell