I have to declare an interest here. I really like a capella singing. Often looked upon as the poor relations on the folk scene - they don't have to learn an instrument, see - there's a lot more complexity than you'd expect.
Tonight's guests, the Young'Uns, are current holders of the Radio 2 Best Group award so this was always going to be a bit spectacular. You don't get to beat the likes of Bellowhead et al by sticking a finger in your ear and wearing a chunky sweater. But not content with leaving it to the headline act, the organisers went out and booked a second set of singers to get the audience warmed up. And we certainly needed that on the coldest evening of the year.
Evolving out of a pub singaround somewhere in Clifton, the Roaring Trowmen have built up quite a following singing tales of the salty deep. So ignoring the nautical heritage they opened with a song about beer, and you immediately knew this was going to be different from the usual folk nights. After a quick trawl (geddit?) through a few standards and a couple of self-penned songs, we met Brian, the Optimistic Pilot - not your average sea-dog but blending in perfectly with both the repertoire and the general tone of the evening.
A discreet time check revealed that we were now over-running by significantly more than a minute or two, but you just sensed that it wasn't going to matter on this occasion. Before long a different Brian appeared on stage. Not a pilot but probably optimistic, he gave a short talk about the RNLI, tonight's raffle beneficiaries. It wasn't the last we'd see of him.
The Young'Uns opened with Billy Bragg's Between the Wars, as unlike the original as you could imagine. Benefits Street followed, an everyday story of the proud folk of Stockton who refused to take part in the Channel 4 series - 'I may be down but I'm not beat'. Curiously it was a bit like being back in school - Sean the laid-back English teacher, Michael the headmaster trying (and failing) to keep David the unruly pupil under control. This is the sort of easy-going rapport you get when you've spent half a lifetime in each other's company. Sean Cooney is such a great songwriter, real songs about real people like Private Hughes and his message in a bottle. The Streets of Lahore felt almost out of place amongst the general Englishness of the set, and the audience was totally silent as the song ended with the words 'there's no honour in killing'. Sadly appropriate in today's climate.
Overall, though, the general feeling was that everyone was having lots of fun. Not just the punters but also the Young'Uns themselves and the Roaring Trowmen standing at the back trading one-liners. A comment about the latter's t-shirts for sale was met with 'We haven't sold out'. Take that as you will. We all knew, and they knew we knew, that most of David's ad-libs were probably well-rehearsed, but the majority of us had never heard them before.
Proving that their set was not all about social commentary they introduced a medley of sea-shanties, saying they don't normally do requests followed immediately by Michael's opinion 'Oh no, not that one'. He might have been smiling. As the evening drew towards its conclusion it was time to bring the Trowmen up on stage again for a pretty solid 'Rolling Down the River'. If only the England rugby team had tried this in the World Cup they might have competed with the All Blacks' Haka.
Just time for a quick encore then. But wait, folk club artists don't normally get standing ovations so maybe it wasn't time to go home just yet. Returning to the stage the lads sought out the aforementioned Brian and 'invited' him to help them out with the old Watersons' standard 'I went to market'. Far too sophisticated for mere farmyard animals, the Downend audience suggested buying guinea pig, eagle and goldfish to really test Brian's impressionist skills. The man could go far.
And finally it really was time to stop, This may have been the first occurrence of a second encore since the club started 18 months ago. As if unable to reach the stage, the trio ignored the microphones and remained in the centre aisle while we all joined in with 'Sing John Ball'.
The lady in the row behind said it was the best evening we've had at Downend Folk Club, and not many of the audience were in the mood to disagree. That's live music for you.
Words Cliff Woolley & Pictures Julian Cox
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