Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker

Venue: Downend Folk Club
Town: Frenchay
Date: 18/12/15
Website: http://josienneclarke.co.uk/

What a year it's been for the Folk Club. It was only last December when we were all sitting in these very pews proclaiming the genius of Jim Moray and now we have to do the same for this year's Christmas guests. In between we have been royally entertained by troubadours and story tellers, fiddlers and guitarists. Each and every one a testament to the ideals and ideas of an amazing folk club.

So this year the Christmas entertainments start with Emi McDade, a friend of the club and the possessor of a fine folk-pop voice. From wild sweeps of Kate Bush-style drama to big, swoony All About Eve moments McDade proves herself to be a fantastic support artist. Armed with little more than a keyboard and a high, sweet voice she wins over the packed church and, with a set of only four songs, leave them desperate for more.

The "more", though, comes in the form of the current BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winning Folk Duo of the Year. Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker arrive with a reputation and live up to every plaudit, every cheer and every scrap of applause.

With a set culled from two of the loveliest folk albums of recent years, "Fire and Fortune" and "Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour", and a veritable sleigh full of Christmas favourites they were simply magnificent.

With an arch line in understatement and laconic wit Josienne Clarke proclaims that they are "a bit melancholic". Somehow this tiny morsel of self reviewing is utterly redundant as the pair gently sway through a first half of heartbreak and despair. Clarke's classic folk voice (think Sandy Denny or, at times, a smooth edged Grace Slick) and Walker's beautiful guitar playing waltz and twirl amongst the faithful, wrapping us all in a wintery gauze; a snowy haze. From the opening, and devastatingly beautiful, "Silverline" to a glorious cover of Gillian Welsh's "Dark Turn of Mind" there was not a single mis-step, not a single false move. Not even an admission that Clarke hasn't been well and an apology that she had "dislodged a massive piece of phlegm" could dispel the feeling that we were in the presence of something heavenly.

The second half was hung with Christmas baubles. Their version of "In the Bleak Midwinter" must be the most beautiful rendition of this carol that this building has ever witnessed. "God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen" had a Django Reinhardt swing to it; glamorous and restrained, oozing Christmas sultriness. There were medieval carols sung with reverence and vocal gymnastics - "I'd like to see Mariah Carey do that one" - and a delicious version of Joni Mitchell's "River". Add a few not-so-festive covers courtesy of Jackson C Frank, Nina Simone and Sandy Denny and you have the perfect Folky Christmas. Topped off with the swingeing psycho ballad "Anyone But Me" and the brand new "Overnight", this was anything but the "ham-fisted approach to Christmas" that Clarke apologised for.

Ben Walker uttered not a solitary word, Josienne Walker sipped endlessly from a mug of Lemsip and yet the entire audience adored every moment.

Truly this was the best way to end a wonderful year at the Folk Club. May there be many, many more.

Review - Gavin McNamara, photo Julian Cox

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