In these strange and difficult insular times, when division is de rigueur, when strangers are scorned, when immigrants attract infamy; There's a need for coming together, for joining for being as one, being all-inclusive and what better way than through music.
At the Turnpike, a performance space in Leigh, on the outskirts of Wigan the "Sold Out" signs greeted those revellers in search of Merry Hell, a folk-rock band that continues to grow in support as their music reaches even wider horizons.
From the opening notes of "Loving the Skin You're In" a paean to diversity "be yourself, no matter what… come just as you are tonight, Loving the skin you're in" the message is clear. We are unique and we should celebrate a festival of diversity.
And celebrate we do, the packed crowd almost word perfect in a lyric from the second of the bands four full sized releases.
The party mood continues with "Let's Not have a Morning After (until we've had a night before)" a subject that is almost universal in its appeal. This though is a seated gig, this is Merry Hell Lite or Acoustic if you prefer. A slimmed down version of the full fat band, if you consider six out of a possible eight is slimming.
Certainly, there's no loss of energy, of passion, of commitment. From the far left we have John Kettle bouncing along on guitar, singing his head off with pleasure despite no microphone. Vocalists Andrew and Virginia on centre stage, a double act as comfortable in each other's company as Morecombe & Wise and on far right (his left as you might expect) is Bob on mandolin, a complete family of front line Kettles.
Behind these four is Nick Davies on electric bass and Neil McCartney whose fiddle work is exceptional. Throw in Neil's foot on a stomp board and you have an incredibly full and satisfying sound.
Rattling through fans favourites such as "Drunken Serenade", "Bury me Naked" (a tale about leaving the world as you come in) and "Lean On Me Love", the band have the audience in their pocket.
Tracks from the new album are well received "We Need Each Other Now" particularly poignant as is "Come On, England" written by Bob Kettle, a clarion call to arms to evoke our tradition of fairness, to appeal to our sense of right and wrong. "So stand up - come on, England! Live up to your history! Your heart can't be held in a flag or a crown. Raise your teacups and glasses, you bold lads and lasses. And drink to the spirit that will never lie down".
In between those two songs, Bloodlines, the title track of the current release is a real curiosity is an opus of a song. It's condensed into three minutes and four seconds. It's song writing of the highest calibre from the pen of Virginia Kettle, the arrangement by the band simply stunning it never fails to stop you in your tracks. You have to listen.
As indeed to have to as the band huddle round the microphones for "The Coming Home Song" an accapella delight.
Strong views or common sense? "Stand Down" is another rally for fairness, informing 'they', those that represent us, that we elect "them" to do our bidding, "when you are seated at the feast, do you serve yourself first, leave your people in drought, just to quench your own thirst?" It's a question that isn't restricted to any political party but rather a rebel against greed and avarice.
The mood is lightened with tales of contrast "The Butcher & The Vegan", opposites can attract and join together, a similar message in "The Bakers Daughter" only this time the man is a slacker and the woman hard working. "This time I can see you say". And unlike most folk tales this story has a happy conclusion.
All too soon the set is over as the band close with "The War Between Ourselves" and "One More Day" which includes arguably the best ever descriptive line in " I miss you like a world cup penalty / The disappointed crowd staring back at me".
Back for an encore, Merry Hell conclude with "Blink" from the first album, "Fear Of Falling", a song recorded originally by their earlier incarnation then Tansads before closing with "Let the Music Speak for Itself" an all-inclusive anthem that rips up divides and encourages everyone to dance.
A cracking night out and one that emphasizes that if justice truly prevailed then these guys would be on a major label and headliners in festival season.
And as a seasoned gig goer it's easy to become switched off by the support artists, to politely applaud and wish their set away, an unavoidable extra you could say.
That is not a label you could ever apply to "Vision Thing" a five-piece hailing from the North West who produce the most incredibly harmonious and beautiful music, simultaneously lowering the heartbeat yet stimulating lyrically.
From the opening "Sunday Morning" a softly strumming acoustic guitar, Pete Cunliffe vocals that evoke that slightly hungover feeling of melancholy and in the background David Windsor adds accompaniments on his 100 year old violin that have a tone and texture to die for.
By the second track "Lights" you could be listening to a mellow "String Driven Thing", Cherlene Walmsley adds a yearning vocal to counterpoint and harmonize with Pete.
A more up-tempo and currently socially valid "Global State Of mind" allows Paul Cunliffe on bass and Jon Ormrod on percussion to shine.
And as we take a shine to Vision Thing, the band attempt to commit suicide, they tackle Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes".
To compare yourself with Ms Denny is an incredible ask.
"Doomed, doomed, we're doomed" as Private Fraser from Dad's Army was fond of saying.
Except they are not.
Violin restrained, percussion muted as then Cherlene sings, the most wonderful voice, perfect pitch, expressive, beautiful. But's it's not over, in Vison Thing's hand the song grows in statue, Ms Walmsley vocals build in power and take the song to a level few singers and bands can manage including Fairport.
Vision Thing are certainly a band to check out and if you can't find them locally then there is always their debut cd "Lights".
Two fantastic bands, different styles yet both highly recommended.
There are only so many hours in a day and only so many gigs we can get to. We'd really like to expand our national coverage of the live scene as it remains the life blood of music.
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