If you are brave enough to go to see One Direction at Wembley, or the X-Factor Finals, you're likely to spend your evening either straining your eyes to catch a glimpse of the 'musicians', or staring at a big screen to the side of the stage… you may as well have stayed at home and watched it on the telly.
But at Downend Folk Club, as well as many other venues across the thriving UK folk-scene, you have the chance to get up-close-and-personal with some superbly-talented people... and last Friday evening was the perfect example.
Kicking off the evening in superb style, Chipping Sodbury-based singer and guitarist Noey McElwee's resonant, sweet-as-honey voice weaved its way through well-known songs like Ralph McTell's 'First Song', appropriately her opening number, 'Feels Like Home' and 'The Birthday Song', as well as welcoming her friend Mary Williams on vocals and flute for 'Run' and the other three members of her quartet BS4 for a close-harmony rendition of 'Ebb Tide', before finishing off with a version of 'Pour Me A Drink' that had the audience humming happily along. A smashing start to the evening.
And then the main event. Chris Cleverley may not be the biggest household name that we've featured at the club, but he is without doubt amongst the most talented, and surely it's only a matter of time until his name is at the top of festival bills across the country.
Starting off in unashamed folky style with an unaccompanied rendition of the traditional 'Jolly Bold Robber', Chris showcased his pitch perfect-singing voice… soft and relaxed, at times almost whispered, but with a firm underlying confidence. Singing a capella is always a brave thing to do, even more so at the very start of a set, but every member of the audience was hooked straight away.
Then he picked up his guitar and we saw exactly what Chris Cleverley is all about. This guy is a serious talent. Fingers stretching to almost impossible positions on his fretboard, the notes filled the intimate space at Frenchay Village Hall, and imprinted themselves forever in the hearts and minds of every single member of the one-hundred-plus strong audience.
During two sets of impeccable quality, Chris treated to his version of 'O Shenandoah', as well as self-penned tracks from his soon-to-be-released debut album, 'Apparitions', including 'She Would Say A Lot Of Things', which drew the now customary sigh of satisfaction from the audience, and 'Missing Persons', during which Chris explores the sensation of feeling stifled in a place. He lives in Birmingham which, he claims, is a "land of rainbows and unicorns", but reveals that he often escapes to the West Country for some time to himself ("mostly drinking beer"). Indeed, Bristol has become an important place in the life of this affable West-Midlander… he scooped the Isambard Award at 2014's Bristol Folk Festival which, he tells us, really changed everything and transformed his musical career and persuaded him to keep going.
And were we glad it did, as Chris concluded the first-half by transporting us to America, first to the 1950s for 'Stables', before switching to the banjo (his second instrument, and played in a clawhammer-style) and taking us further back to the 1930s for 'I'm Not Long For This World'.
During the evening, Chris name-checks a number of guitarists that have influenced him to leave behind the classical guitar of his childhood and heavy metal phase of his teens and focus on the English folk tradition; names like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Nic Jones and Martin Simpson. Their influence is obvious, and whilst Chris himself would no doubt baulk at the suggestion, his playing is right up there with these folk icons. But Chris Cleverley is very much his own man. Blues-tinged guitar solos (no doubt influenced by his father, a well-known act on the Birmingham blues-scene), mingle effortlessly with the folk finger-guitar style, and Chris cleverly (ha!) uses excellent percussive strokes to punctuate his songs and keep the audience on their toes.
Chris treats us to a version of the bawdy 'Barrack Street' in homage to Nic Jones, before showing us just how good a song-writer and lyricist he is with 'The Dawn Before The Day', the stand-out track on the album and certainly one of the highlights of the evening. This is a song that deals with the end of a relationship, but Chris handles it with a lightness of touch that make it an absolute winner… if Simon Cowell got his hands on it, it would certainly be a hit record!
We finish as we started as, for a well-deserved encore, Chris puts down his guitar and sings a beautiful unaccompanied version of 'The Parting Glass'. It's a fitting end to a perfect evening.
So you haven't heard of Chris Cleverley? Oh, you will…
Words Ant Miles. Pic Chris Dobson
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