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Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker + Toby Hay

Venue: Kenilworth Arts Festival
Town: Kenilworth
Date: 27/09/18

Rebooted three years ago under the direction of Lewis Smith and Charlotte Thomas, Kenilworth Festival is gaining a reputation as one of the best and most thoughtfully curated arts festivals on the calendar, covering music, writing (both factual and fiction), spoken work, art, craft and food. Each genre is represented by a mix of new and emerging talent.

Authors Kit De Wall and Donal Ryan rubbed shoulders with pianist Zoe Rahman and oud virtuoso Rehab Azar. Lindsay Attwood's calligraphy workshop was followed by story walks with Lost Words. Talking Birds brought a whale. Poems were written down, made into boats and set on fire in the lake. Music and art filled the theatres, bookshops, parks, public spaces and church halls of this historic and beautiful town.

And on Thursday, Josienne and Ben made a triumphant return to a packed Kenilworth Castle, the pleasure palace of Elizabeth the first, and sang of Mary Queen of Scots, four hundred and thirty-one years after she was executed in Fotheringhay at her sister's command.

The show was opened by twelve string guitarist Toby Hay, with a suite of instrumental pieces, many carrying the narrative of a recent trip to the US, opening with 'Marvin the Mustang from Montana'. Hay has a gift of story-telling without words, and his work has a filmic breadth to it. He has an engaging manner with the crowd, and he presented a programme of five well-constructed and thoughtful works.

Josienne Clarke has grown in authority and confidence over the last few years of relentless hard work. The voice is still as awesome as ever, but now more distinct, and her style and delivery are close to being unique. The honesty of her writing is rawer, brutal almost, as she tackles her own pretentions and mocks her status as a proto-diva on numbers such as the standout 'Chicago', from the current album, 'Seedlings All'. Her wit is so dry it can be described as desiccated. And yet there is joy and hope there too.

She opens with a cover of Fairport's 'Reynardine', Walker's guitar sketching the chords, throbbing and building, the rock on which she stands. He switched to electric for 'The Birds', from last year's eponymous EP, a timely rendition on a chilly evening, heralding the onset of winter.

The cavernous and historic venue is made for Clarke's voice, the overtones and nuances that wattle and daub and ancient oak, stone floors worn by the feet of ages, combine with an intelligent use of p.a. by soundman Drew Coleman, provided a studio quality experience.

Her general manner is to sing with her head tilted up and to the left, eyes half closed, right hand, expressive and eloquent, poised over her heart. But on a request, 'Anyone but Me', from 2013's 'Fire and Fortune', she picked up a guitar and sang the psycho ballad directly at the unwise soul who had unwisely requested the number. Five years ago, it was a gently ironic song; live, in 2018, up close and personal, it was terrifying. All shall love her and despair.

Age has neither mellowed nor withered Josienne, but she has become more herself, a writer and performer of the highest calibre.

Laura Thomas

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