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
Last year's Christmas concert will live long in the memory, and the our 2019 festive event will be no different as we welcome folk superstar JACKIE OATES and her band to South Gloucestershire for a special Christmas concert in the majestic surroundings of CHRIST CHURCH DOWNEND.
Jackie first performed at the club with Mike Cosgrave as long ago as July 2015, so when we heard that she was doing a Christmas Tour with a full band lineup, our minds were made up instantly! Jackie's is a name synonymous with the reinvigoration of English folk music, beguiling audiences with a delicate balance of tradition and reinvention.
Her mellifluous voice and imaginatively plaintive fiddle style has won her several BBC Folk Awards during a 10-year recording career that began as a member of the nascent Unthanks and has continued with six acclaimed solo albums. To quote the illustrious Mojo magazine, Jackie Oates enthrals. She will get everyone in the Christmas spirit by performing a selection of Christmas and winter carols and songs as well as songs from her new album The Joy of Living.
Opening the evening with some equally seasonal songs will be the acoustic bass-wielding THOM ASHWORTH, to add to the festive feel.
An acoustic bass guitar may not seem like an obvious choice as an accompaniment instrument, but Thom shows that this distinctive instrumental voice can find a home in folk music, and that four strings are enough to delve into the canon of British folk music. Equal parts interpreter of traditional song and insightful political songwriter, the press has repeatedly compared him to Martin Carthy, Chris Wood, and Billy Bragg. This selection of luminaries doesn't tell the whole story though as Thom's inventive musicality and powerful tenor voice shine through. Thom's debut album Head Canon was released in earlier this year.
Tickets for the event, which takes place at Christ Church Downend on Friday 20th December 2019, are available from MELANIE'S KITCHEN or online HERE. They are priced at £14 each in advance (£12 for members), or £16 on the door. There will be a full bar, stocking mulled wine (for this month only) as well as soft drinks, wine, hot drinks and locally-brewed real ale from Hambrook-based GREAT WESTERN BREWING CO., and also locally-made NAUGHTY BROWNIES. There will be a raffle with prizes including CDs, gift boxes of beer and sweet treats. You are encouraged to bring your own glass/mug/tankard/bucket, as well as reusable bottles for water, as part of the club’s drive to be more environmentally aware. There is now a 50p reduction on the bar prices for those that bring their own vessels.
Just watch his fingers. Just. Watch. His. Fingers. As long as the head banging and foot stomping doesn’t distract you first, just watch his fingers. They are a blur.
There is no way that anyone other than Mohsen Amini can play a concertina like that. He is TALISK's not-so-secret weapon. The greatest musician that has ever played on this stage; a raconteur, a rabble rouser, an electric, restless, pounding presence at the heart of a massive tune generating machine. He won Folk Musician of the Year in 2018 and, if there's any sense in the world, the BBC may as well retire the award and give it to him forever.
Just watch his fingers.
Way back when (let’s call it the 1990s) Pixies and Nirvana did that loud-quiet-loud thing for American indie. Talisk are doing something similar for folk music. It's some sort of slow-quicker-much quicker-really flippin' quick-slow thing. As a consequence there's dancing before the end of the first tune. Crazy legged step-dance, immodest bouncing, improvised swing-your-partner-about, stomping and wheeling. There's whooping. There's hollering. There’s absurd amounts of clapping. Not always in time. However fast the dancers dance or the clappers clap there is no way of keeping up. Talisk are way, way ahead of this packed room.
Tunes race by – no, really, they race, they zoom, they cascade – none of them have words, titles don't matter. Everyone is having too much fun. What do you mean, you need titles? Are you some sort of a folk nerd? Literally no one cares. Folk art, let's dance. And smile. And dance some more.
If Bellowhead were the high water mark of “amazing folk bands that you have to see live" then Talisk are your next favourite live folk band. There hasn't been anything as exciting as this lot for years and, unlike the Bellowhead juggernaut, there are only three of them. If you can drag yourself away from Mohsen’s fingers then the other two are equally amazing. Graeme Armstrong’s guitar has a propulsion all of its own, it’s almost percussive, and Hayley Keenan's fiddle keeps the tunes in check when the concertina is flying about all over the place. In lots of ways she is the star of this band. Without her sense of timing and musicianly discipline the wheels would be off when the stomping starts.
If you really need highlights and titles then The Hills starts with a slow, beautiful fiddle air before ramping through the gears and ending in absolute delirious, smile inducing mayhem. Crooked Water Valley does the same. And so does Dystopia. There's a bit more crazy legged dancing for that one, the fiddle intro is a bit shorter and the mayhem a bit more fevered. Both of their full length albums, Abyss and Beyond, are mined for treats and the pace is never allowed to drop below frenzied. It should all be a bit exhausting but it never is. This is music that is thrilling and so full of joy that it’s almost impossible not to move; it is properly heart-warming.
CALUM GILLIGAN must be very glad that support acts don't go on after the main act. His soft, warm Scots folk-pop was too gentle to stand up to a Talisk shaped battering. As it was he was a beautiful opening act. A lovely voice with a few gloriously pop-edged tunes. There was a hint of Kris Drever about him, and that's no bad thing.
Fingers flying, smiles beaming, couples whirling, a roof raised. Talisk felt like the most fun you can have on a November evening. Follow that!
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Chris Dobson
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