“Sit down, Downend Folk Club. It's your own time you're wasting.” In search of a bigger venue, Downend Folk Club are on the road again. This time they pitch up at Downend School in the company of the truly wonderful RACHAEL MCSHANE & THE CATROGRAPHERS.
It's been a while since the sad demise of Bellowhead. In that multi-headed folk juggernaut, Rachael McShane was the only girl in a noisy gang of boys. Most nights she’d bounce and clown with the best of them, swapping between cello and fiddle, attacking folk stompers with unabashed relish. Tonight there's no need to show off. Instead she proves that those years of big tunes and bigger stages have wrought the perfect performer. She has a strong voice and plays viola and violin with such ease that it seems effortless. Her band map out traditional folk journeys with her and, although they are only a three piece, every delightful nook and cranny is explored. Julian Sutton on the melodeon is brilliant at adding textures, while Matthew Ord plays guitar with gentle and assured finesse. It's clear that if you are used to playing with the greatest folk band ever you accept nothing but the very best. When these three play tunes they are English with a capital E. Steeped in Northumbria and the North East they are pastoral and beautiful.
As well as being one of the finest folk musicians in the country it’s no real surprise to learn that she’s a teacher too. You can put money on it that she’s one of those cool ones; one of those that never seem to shout but hold a class in the palm of her hand; one of those that you want to listen to; one of those that you’ll always remember. Those teachers are pretty rare, I guess, but then so are musicians like Rachael McShane.
They say that truly brilliant teaching looks easy and so, tonight, every song seems to come naturally. Whether telling tales about a female highwayman (highwayperson?) in Sylvie or singing “the greatest of all incest ballads" everything is balanced just so. But like all the best educators many of these stories have a point. Songs skewer foolish men time and again; women are strong, wise, warm and almost always victorious. Trousers are stolen from drunkards, bad behaviour avenged and pleasures taken on their own terms. There's no lecturing though, just truth. The new album that’s due in August will be utterly essential on this showing, especially for those that love Kate Rusby and Kathryn Tickell.
If Downend Folk Club have a house band then support act ROAD NOT TAKEN are probably it. Self-deprecating club chairman Ant Miles plays guitar, Anita Dobson adds her spectral, beautiful voice and Joe and Claire Hamlen provide the delicious musical counter-points. Tonight they are a revelation; having seen them on several occasions at the club, they are maturing beautifully. Songs are delicately arranged and a brooding spookiness pervades the whole of their short set. Mainly drawn from the traditional canon, these songs are given enough of a twist to make them something new. It feels as though they’ve been draped in glittering cobwebs and that is a very fine thing indeed. Fittingly the stand out, I’ll Weave My Love A Garland, even teaches us something.
Tonight we learned two things: that Road Not Taken have become the best folk band in Bristol and that former members of Bellowhead continue to make the loveliest, most interesting music that you’re ever likely to hear. A*.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Chris Dobson
Once upon a time there was a little band called Bellowhead. They did a quite a few gigs and made a big noise. Perhaps you remember them?
RACHAEL McSHANE, who headlines Downend Folk Club’s June concert, was part of that eleven-strong line-up from start to finish, and as well as being the only female member, she was also hugely important in shaping the Bellowhead “sound”.
A singer, cellist, fiddle and viola player based in the North East of England, Rachael toured internationally with Bellowhead as well as making several TV appearances. Bellowhead recorded five studio albums, and won a total of eight BBC Folk Awards in their twelve years together. More recently, Rachael has been singing the role of Susannah Holmes in The Transports alongside The Young’uns, Faustus, Nancy Kerr, Greg Russell and Matthew Crampton.
She is now working on a new solo project of traditional songs and is playing with a brand new band, THE CARTOGRAPHERS, featuring guitarist Matthew Ord (Assembly Lane) and melodeon player Julian Sutton (Kathryn Tickell, Sting), and it’s this band that she brings to South Gloucestershire this month.
The concert also sees us venturing to a new venue for the first time. With sales expected to sky-rocket, the club’s usual home of Frenchay Village Hall is too small, while our other, larger venue at Christ Church Downend is closed for renovation. So this month’s concert will be held at DOWNEND SCHOOL.
Opening the evening’s entertainment will be local four-piece ROAD NOT TAKEN, featuring the our very own Ant Miles on guitar, alongside vocalist Anita Dobson, fiddle-player Claire Hamlen and multi-instrumentalist Joe Hamlen.
The band, whose first ever gig was at Downend Folk Club, have gone on to build their profile both locally and nationally, playing their own brand of melancholy and menace. Highlights have included appearances at Oxford Folk Weekend and Priston Festival, and a debut album is due for release next year.
Tickets for the event, which takes place at Downend School on Friday 15th June 2018, are available from MELANIE'S KITCHEN or online HERE. They are priced at £12 each in advance (£10 for members), or £14 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 the now-famous Stealth Raffle with prizes including CDs, gift boxes of beer and sweet treats. You are encouraged to bring your own glass/mug/tankard/bucket as part of our drive to be more environmentally aware.
At the end of his first set, bazouki wielding Irish singer DAOIRI FARRELL tried selling some CDs; "I don't call them CDs, I call them a life time of happiness". After this incredible night at Downend Folk Club, he's not going to be the only one.
Nominated for countless folk awards and winner of plenty, Daori (pronounced Derry) Farrell is everything, literally everything, that you would want an Irish folk singer to be. An extraordinary singer with a thousand stories; a glorious musician who makes even the most complicated playing look effortless; an instantly likeable presence steeped in his home country. If there was a single person in this room who didn't want to accompany him straight back to Dublin then those people have no soul. From Biddy Mulligan to Pat Rainey there was a stream of characters that tumbled and strutted from the songs, filling the room and telling their tales.
There were times when Farrell played to the stereotype with just a little too much enthusiasm, although maybe if you call your new album True Born Irishman that can't be too much of a surprise. Still, there was the charmingly befuddled persona, the bar-room jokes and, most telling, the belief that "those in power write the history; those that suffer write the songs". These songs are dripping in that most Irish of things; things might be rubbish but we’ll sings and dance like demons anyway. And so he did. Fingers flying across bazouki strings while his strong voice caroused around. Where some songs lacked a chorus they never lacked a heart; long, winding tales wrapped deliciously around fantastic tunes. Many were traditional but the cheeky, unaccompanied tale of a baby-saving rugby player, Fergie McCormick ("I’m 67 percent sure that it’s true") was pure folk-club joy.
As much as Farrell conjured a peat-fugged bar off of St Stephen's Green, it was with his most incredible songs you'd swear blind you'd found yourself in a pew. The church-like reverence that greeted both Blue Tar Road and Via Extasia was enough to prove that even without an instrument Farrell could hold every one of us in raptures. Both were written by Liam Weldon, a genius songwriter and subject of Farrell’s BA thesis. One a song of protest the other a love song of the deepest kind. Both were exquisite.
Before this Irish charmer we were treated to ROSIE HOOD. On any other night she should have been the headliner. A pure, strong voice and someone in complete control of stage and song. Her short set was made up of both traditional and self-penned songs and every one was an absolute gem. She grew up around Malmesbury and many of her songs were either collected in Wiltshire or based there. A Furlong of Flight, about a flying monk from 1010, was a highlight. After just five songs she was gone although her lovely album, The Beautiful and the Actual, is well worth a listen.
So, does folk singing bring a life time of happiness? Who knows, but we certainly had a whole evening’s worth.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: David Betteridge
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