About half way through the first half this delicious festive feast, Hannah James tells a story. It's a story of carol singing on the outskirts of Sheffield. As she speaks the other four voices join her. Gently harmonising, softly humming. She tells us of the "old carols" and the pubs that they are sung in. She assures us that they may be religious but that they don't see too many churches anymore. She tells us of community and coming together. As you look around this beautifully modernised church you realise that this is what Christmas is about – songs, stories, community and new traditions. 

Is this the fifth Downend Folk Club Christmas? However many we've seen, this is our tradition. It marks the end of term, the start of festivities and the coming together of all of us who love this sort of thing. "Awake Arise" is the most perfect Folk Club Christmas line-up containing, as is does, two of Downend’s favourite acts.

These are hymns for Christians and heathens and are immaculately conceived; a perfect mix of the breath taking beauty of LADY MAISERY and the earthy folkishness of JIMMY ALDRIDGE & SID GOLDSMITH. The utter loveliness of the voices of Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans and Hazel Askew have never been in doubt, but festooned upon this are the wit and honesty of Jimmy and Sid's lovely deeper tones.  Songs sit next to tunes; reflective spoken word rests easy on glorious musicianship; a harp, accordion, banjos and percussive feet help float the whole thing heavenwards. The air almost smells of cinnamon and spice. 

It's fitting that this show is here on the Solstice. We might be in a church, and there are religious moments, but there's something far older, far deeper in these songs. These are songs celebrating nature, growth and rebirth. They carry weight and contemplation, joy and love. Chief amongst these is The Old Churchyard; an old song sung by Hazel Askew. If there is anything lovelier sung within these walls in the coming days it really will be a Christmas miracle. The voices soar together, creating a timeless festive treat. Askew singing is, truly, beautiful singing. 

If that one is all pagan and greenwood then the Sheffield Carols are Christian in all their honest glory. Hark Hark and While Shepherds Watched... are unaccompanied and use all five voices, although they are led by the peerless Hannah James, for some serious Christmas rejoicing. Each person brings character and a separate beauty to these a capella treasures that conjure Christmases of years gone by when singing with your neighbour was more important than the gifts that you received. Throughout this magical evening these five reminded us that there is more to life than Amazon delivery dates and Wham!

The evening started with an entirely different mood. Where "Awake Arise" was firmly "wintery" so DANNY PEDLER & ROSIE BUTLER-HALL were significantly more "summery".  As long, that is, as your summers include French holidays and gently hypnotic contemplation.  There are probably not too many times when a hurdy-gurdy has been employed in Christ Church but Danny Pedler’s Renaissance drones provided a pulse to Rosie Butler-Hall’s melodious, delightful voice.  A mixture of tunes and songs, English and French, old and new got a wonderful evening off to a lovely start.

"Awake Arise" gave us a sense of community, songs to sing, stories to tell and a whole evening of total joy.  How could anyone want anything more for Christmas?

Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Alan Cole

Downend Folk Club’s Christmas Concert has become a fixture in the diaries of local music-lovers after a series of spectacular events... but this year’s has the potential to be the very best yet!

Both LADY MAISERY and JIMMY ALDRIDGE & SID GOLDSMITH have graced our various stages and played to packed houses in the past, but now they have teamed up for “Awake Arise - A Christmas Show For Our Times”, celebrating the riches of our varied winter traditions and reflecting upon the hope and resilience in music and song that can bring joy to us all in the darkest season.

Award winning trio Lady Maisery (Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans and Hazel Askew) have for nearly a decade produced “some of the most exquisite, thrilling vocal harmony work in the English folk scene" (The Guardian).

The beguiling musical partnership of Jimmy Aldridge & Sid Goldsmith complete the powerful line- up, bringing the outstanding vocals, sensitive instrumentation and powerful social conscience that has won them widespread critical acclaim. "Rousing stuff" (The Observer).

And tickets for the event, at the newly-refurbished Christ Church Downend, are already flying out, with over 200 sold a month in advance of the event... so we thoroughly recommend booking in advance.

Opening the evening’s entertainment will be DANNY PEDLER & ROSIE BUTLER-HALL, a folk duo with roots based in both English and French tradition. Danny plays hurdy-gurdy and accordion and Rosie plays five-string fiddle and sings. Their music is characterised by flowing melodies, intricate harmonies and strong rhythms while keeping the flavour of the traditional style.

The pair were finalists of the New Roots competition in 2012 and won the open mic competition at Shrewsbury Festival in 2013; since then they have played at folk clubs and festivals all over the country.

Tickets for the event, which takes place at CHRIST CHURCH DOWNEND on Friday 21st December 2018, are available from MELANIE'S KITCHEN or online HERE. They are priced at £15 each in advance (£13 for members), or £17 on the door. There will be a full bar, stocking Severn Cider, 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.

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It’s a dark and cold November night with whispers of winter in the air. We needed something to warm the cockles, and with a local ale and brownie at the ready, it was time to see if Downend Folk Club could step up to the challenge!

Many years ago I found myself at an impromptu party where a couple played guitar and sang songs together, holding the attention of a room effortlessly. MEGSON conjured up the same feeling for me tonight, albeit on a much grander scale! There is an authenticity that courses through their modern story telling, and it is utterly absorbing. They make the audience genuinely laugh aloud during some of their witty songs such as Generation Rent and The Barrington Judo Club. However, this is juxtaposed with points of delicate intimacy on songs like Patterns, a tale of the impact of redundancy and the death of the steel industry in the North East, and A Prayer For Hope.

The song writing and playing are superb, but it is the interplay of their voices which captures me the most tonight. The harmonies speak of a couple who musically inhabit the same space. Nowhere is this more apparent than on In A Box, a beautiful song about memory, what we value, and why. On this song the harmonies are present but also a wonderful interplay of vocal and counter vocal. I had been wanting to see Megson for a long time, and they entirely matched my expectations.

Tonight’s support comes from KIRSTY MERRYN. Again, Kirsty is an act I’ve wanted to catch live for a considerable time. She didn’t disappoint, weaving tales of famous women from history in The Fair Tea Maker Of Edgware Road and the haunting Forfarshire. She plays the piano with arresting ease accompanying the kind of singing that can take your breath away. Whether performing her arrangements of traditional tunes or self penned songs, there is a fluidity that is spell-binding and completely immersive. She is engaging and assured with the audience, and I look forward to seeing a longer set in the future.

With acts of Kirsty’s quality providing support and performances like Megson’s as headliners, Downend Folk Club clearly has the means to warm us during the colder months ahead. Bring on December!

Words: Mike Richards
Photo: Chris Dobson