The music Gods have been kind this week. Very kind indeed.
9bach performed at the Bristol Folk House on 13th February. Before I write anymore I must confess that I have a rather huge soft spot for 9bach and this was my fifth time of seeing them in the last two and a half years. This particular gig however was a bullseye of a performance. Whilst I have enjoyed every occasion I have seen them, this seemed like a perfect meld of the right venue, the right audience and the band in impeccable form. We were treated to two sets that gave a great blend of music from their 2009 eponymous debut, the Radio 2 Folk Award winning Tincian and the most recent Anian.
If you haven't seen them perform, 9bach are a group who challenge easy labelling. While they are thematically rooted in folk traditions, they are deeply complex and intriguing musically. There are clear dub and trip hop elements that mesh into their music with superb percussion and bass from Ali Byworth and Dan Swain. At its most intense you are viscerally shaken by the driving undertones that they provide with Cyfaddefa and Lliwiau being perfect examples. its hard to imagine this coming from any other act nominally defined as folk. However, this thoroughly modern element is juxtaposed with the traditional harp playing of Esyllt Glyn Jones. Her playing is deft and evocative with great intensity on tracks like Pa Le? but subtlety where required. Martin Hoyland shifts between acoustic guitar and electric with ease driving the songs forward, with Wedi Torri being my personal standout. However impressive the playing is though, 9bach is utterly bound up in the vocals. Lisa Jên's singing is effortless and soars, drawing the audience into her story telling. She is supported on a number of songs by Esyllt and Mirain Haf Roberts. The interplay between the three of them is absorbing and beautiful, with songs like Plentyn and the a cappella Babi'r Eirlys being great examples.
One of the aspects of 9bach I particularly love is the social conscience that runs through their material. Topics include the shocking removal of Aboriginal children from their families in Australia (Plentyn), industrial action with the Great Strike at the Penrhyn Slate Quarry in 1900 (Ffarwél) and the abhorrent push of species into extinction through trophy hunting (Yr Olaf).
9bach are richly deserving nominees for 2017's Radio 2 Folk Awards Best Group. This may have been the fifth time I've seen them but it won't be the last.
If 9bach were a sublime way to start a week, then the perfect closer was February's Downend Folk Club. It is a huge testament to the work of the committee that Friday saw Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman (also Radio 2 Folk Award winners) come to town.
With the largest audience I've seen at the club filling the pews of Christchurch, we were warmed up with delightful melodeon playing from support act Ollie King. He talked about his origins being in classical music and this infused his playing with great technical musicality. He brought warmth but also some mournful moments, no where more so than on an elegant cover of Nic Jones' Ruins by the Shore. Many voices quietly joined in from the audience giving a sense of hushed communion. It was a truly wonderful moment.
Roberts and Lakeman burst to life with the a punchy and rousing rendition of Child Owlet. Two performers producing a full and rich sound had approximately 200 people enthralled from that moment on. Given that they are married it is not surprising to see, but the pair are so at ease and in synch with each other that the music transcends the ordinary. Striking vocals from Roberts were coupled with masterful guitar work from Lakeman; performances like this must be seen and heard live.
Kathryn Roberts covered similar themes to 9bach's Ffarwél in her performance of The Ballad of Andy Jacobs looking at the miner's strikes of the 1980s, which helped tie the two nights together for me. My highlights though were when they played more brooding material. Tomorrow Will Follow Today has an edge of menace and unrest and feels well suited to the politically uneasy times we live in. The penultimate song of the evening was perfection though. Rusalka is a tale of a malevolent river dwelling mermaid drawing her prey to her. The guitar and vocals wove a story that was hypnotic, dark and mesmerising. The sound drifted through the high-ceilinged space we shared and it felt like music at its best.
What a week...
So here we are, 12 months ago tonight I set off to try a cello lesson and a rollercoaster emerged from the evening! I used to play with a cellist many years ago and I started 2016 wanting to reinvigorate the musical part of my life. The cello teacher asked me to bring my guitar so she could get an idea of what my musical direction was and I set off thinking that I would soon be bowing and pizzicato-ing to my heart's content.
On arriving we had a chat and I had a try with the cello. Shortly after the teacher asked me to play something on the guitar. I started to play a piece of music that had been rolling around in my mind without being fully developed for many years. The teacher asked if she could play along on piano and that was the moment. A little drop of serendipity came along and Ember took its first breath.
The teacher, Hajnalka, went on to become a friend and musical partner-in-crime and the piece of music went on to become a new song called October. Live performances beckoned, with two sets at WILD MGMT's Acoustic Showcase and a superb experience supporting Road Not Taken at St Mary's Church in Almondsbury.
It is a complete pleasure to think about how playing music has become such a full part of my life again, in a way it hasn't been for years. It's been more than that though. Ember has been the catalyst that led me to immerse myself back into seeing and hearing live music. This has largely been through the wonderful community that is Downend Folk Club and has led to so many musical highlights. In my mind I can hear Mairearad Green's "The Island" so clearly with it's rich imagery. Steve Pledger's "Matches In The Wind" was played with passion and empathy in the week Jo Cox lost her life. Leveret's beautiful rendition of "Bagpipers" was sublime and felt like being transported into an almost tangible pastoral paradise. Lady Maisery brought exquisite harmonies together, nowhere more so than on the gorgeously textured "Order and Chaos". Kitty MacFarlane's arrangement of "Song To The Siren" was subtle and utterly charming. "By The Tides" by Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater was the most powerful song I heard all year, beautiful but crushingly sad.
2016 was a strange and sometimes bleak year, in so many ways. However, for me the return of music has been a wonderful thing and I'm loving every moment. Happy Birthday Ember, you've brought a huge amount into my life and I'm damn glad you're here!
(still can't play the cello, mind...)
For me St Patrick’s Day conjures memories of raucous nights with friends, filled with laughter. This month’s Downend Folk Club fell on a blustery cold 17th March and we were treated to Chris Sherburn, Denny Bartley and Emily Sanders with support from Niamh Boadle.
Sherburn, Bartley and Sanders are a joy to watch. Immediately on taking the stage there is an ease that comes from musicians who have a rich past and know each other well. They display a tangible sense of enjoyment in hearing each other play that pulls the audience into their skilfully woven world. Sherburn’s Yorkshire humour acts as the bridge between tunes and he interacts with the audience with the assured ease of a seasoned stand up comedian.
The heart of the songs comes from Bartley’s dexterous guitar playing and his singing, which is rich with personality and humanity. Accompanying the guitar is consummate concertina playing from Sherburn and beautiful, soaring violin from Sanders with additional vocal harmonies. The music is spell-binding and they get lost in the moment of playing together. A number of times Sherburn murmurs his appreciation of Bartley’s guitar and the audience was in full agreement. This is what music is meant to be about.
Their set was exquisite and transported me to a place of nostalgia. Niamh Boadle, the support act, helped this process by bringing deft guitar playing, clean vocals and a talent for both writing original songs and interpreting traditional tunes. For an individual playing solo, she brings great variation with guitar being the mainstay but with an a capella rendition of Banks Of The Lee and bodhrán playing on Creggan White Hare in the set too. Once again the Folk Club has introduced me to a new artist to look out for.
St Patrick’s Day should be about warmth, fun and companionship. We had all of this in abundance. Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Duit! Happy St Patrick’s Day!
"We've been looking forward to this gig for the whole tour, we've heard so much about this place". With this Rowan Rheingans introduces the opening song while the violin, accordion and harp are already weaving something quite special into the air around us. If there is anticipation from Lady Maisery, it is nothing compared to the tangible sense of excitement about something special about to happen within the audience. As is so often the case at Downend Folk Club, there is a reverent, respectful and fully attentive crowd ready to absorb what is about to come. What follows is mesmerising and perfect for a dark Autumnal evening.
I was delighted to receive Lady Maisery's new album earlier in the year after supporting their Kickstarter campaign. It is an absolute gem and a real musical highlight of the year. It is remarkable to see the album being performed live though. The skill in the trio is stunning. "Sing For The Morning" is a bright, uplifting and optimistic opener which immediately sets the tone of three musicians at the top of their individual games, but also in absolute harmony with one another. It puts me in mind of seeing Leveret here at the same venue two months ago, and indeed there is a line between the two as both acts performed "Bagpipers". While their respective styles are different, with Lady Maisery bringing vocal interplay into the piece, there is something deeply satisfying about seeing such impressive talents working in unison, and both Leveret and Lady Maisery must surely be amongst the best.
There were so many beautiful songs that it is hard to pick a highlight, but for me I found "A Father's Lullaby", a story of a father having to leave his baby in the care of others after the death of the child's mother, deeply moving. I cannot wait to hear more of their deep, richly textured music in the future.
Lady Maisery were ably supported by Ashland, a Midlands based duo. With sensitive and thoughtful guitar playing coupled with strong yet understated vocals. I thoroughly enjoyed their short set and love singer Kathryn Marsh's description of how she came to music in her childhood singing harmonies to her father's self penned songs. This shows the importance of music through our lives and it gives Ashland a warmth that is thoroughly appealing.
There is something magical about this folk club. The acts, audience and venues frequently come together to make deeply memorable moments. Lady Maisery supported by Ashland at Christchurch was one such moment and I am grateful to have been there.
We'll be writing to let you know when we're up to new things but also to share our thoughts on other music we've listened to, thoughts about relevant things plus general ramblings! It could be any of us who write but we'll sign off with our specific names.
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