What do you do on a Friday night? Fish & Chips? A glass of wine? Rubbish telly? If you spend it propped in front of music documentaries coughed up by BBC4 you might be inclined to believe certain things. You might believe that British Country Music starts and ends with The Shires or Ward Thomas. You might believe that British Country yearns for Nashville Grey Skies, that everything is shiny and freshly Radio 2 minted. You would never have heard of UK Americana pioneers The Arlenes, The Rockingbirds or Grand Drive. You would certainly never heard of THE BLACK FEATHERS; an English Americana duo from Gloucestershire. And, if you did spend those precious Friday nights drooling in front of your idiot lantern, you certainly missed them at Downend Folk Club. Believe me, you missed so much.
See, The Black Feathers have played at the club before and went down a storm. On that night their emotional Americana sat slightly at odds when supporting the very folk-y Maz O’Connor. They are back by popular demand. “No pressure then”, singer Sian Chandler wryly mutters.
It turned out that there was no need to feel any pressure. In the opening seconds of the first song the husband and wife duo prove that they are delightfully in tune with one another. An acapella intro gives way to a proper country beauty. Sure, there’s a chorus that Steve Wright could hum along to but there’s space too. And confidence honed by playing together all of the time.
Any other band would treat ‘Homesick’ as a precious jewel to be held back until the end. We are treated to it by song three. It’s so slick, so perfect and sums up a longing for home and the need to return to those open spaces. Her voice magical and swooping, his classy and high in 70s-James-Taylor style.
By the fourth song it’s becoming obvious that The Black Feathers deal in English Spirituals and the audience accept every blessing with a pin-drop reverence. ‘Holy Water’ might be about recovering from addiction but it’s all redemption and restraint. To follow it with a slowed and stretched version of ‘Spirit in the Sky’ only confirms that these two really do have a friend in Jesus. If we didn’t believe in them before, we believe now.
It’s the restraint that holds the breath of the audience. Sian’s voice is sometimes too polite as though she understands that fully unleashing it could topple mountains. For all the fancy guitar contraptions that Ray Hughes has for his guitar it’s a thing of simplicity too. No loops or silly fills just great tunes deftly played.
So, it’s not folk. The Black Feathers are definitely country. They almost apologise a couple of times but there’s surely no need. Certainly not when songs of such unalterable beauty, such magnificent pop class, as ‘All For You’ or ‘Goodbye Tomorrow’ roll by. And then there are the covers; there’s the ubiquitous folk-ish Dylan one, of course (‘Make You Feel My Love’, just so as you know) but the one that teaches this Folk audience something new is the magnificent ‘New South Wales’, a song by Jason Isbell. His original is a wonderful thing, this one its equal. Add to that a joyous, fully acoustic version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, complete with enthusiastic audience sing-along, and you have a country band utterly stealing folk-y hearts.
Before this breath of fresh country air was a support slot from SASKIA. She is a much more recognisable proposition with names like Baez and Mitchell bandied about before her five song set. Add a Dylan cover and ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ and we’re on pretty safe ground. It was all rather lovely though and set the evening up beautifully.
Downend Folk Club turned three years old with this show. If you haven’t found a place for it in your Friday ritual yet you simply must. Become a believer.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Ant Miles
You know when you get to a gig and let out an audible sigh because there’s a support act?
You’ve gone because you want to see the big name that’s headlining the evening, and you’re disappointed to discover that you have to sit through half-an-hour of someone that you may or may not have heard of before you get to hear your heroes play?
And you know that time when the support act is REALLY, REALLY GOOD and you can’t wait to hear more?
In February 2015, Maz O'Connor brought her beautiful show to Downend Folk Club. The opening act that evening was THE BLACK FEATHERS, a duo from just up the road in Gloucestershire.
The Black Feathers were REALLY, REALLY GOOD!
So much so that, ever since that evening, the Downend Folk Club faithful have requested - no, demanded - a headline slot for this talented pair. This month, two years on from that stunning night, those demands are met… and the Downend Folk Club committee are thrilled about it. Chairman Ant Miles told Downend Voice: “We’ve had some great support acts over the three years since we started the club, but none has ever had a reaction like The Black Feathers. Getting them back for a headline slot was a no-brainer as far as we were concerned, and I’m as excited as our regulars about hearing more from them!”
The Black Feathers, made up of Ray Hughes and Sian Chandler, first became aware of the magic between them while collaborating on several musical projects, becoming The Black Feathers and life partners in 2012.
Americana, folk, and acoustic indie-rock sensibilities coexist comfortably in their musical world, with Hughes’ guitar work buoying the kind of harmonies often only heard in family bands.
2016 was an incredible year for the The Black Feathers. Their debut album was met with critical acclaim and broke into the Top 10 in the iTunes Country chart and the Official UK Americana Chart.
Support on the evening will come from singer-songwriter SASKIA GRIFFITHS-MOORE, who tours the British folk and acoustic scene all year round and has a second album planned for release later this year.
Tickets for the event, which takes place at Frenchay Village Hall on Friday 21st April 2017, are available from MELANIE'S KITCHEN or online HERE. The club anticipates a sell-out, so do book quickly! There will be a full bar, stocking Severn Cider, soft drinks, wine, hot drinks and locally-brewed real ale from Hambrook-based GREAT WESTERN BREWING CO., and locally-made NAUGHTY BROWNIES. There will also be a raffle, featuring some great prizes including CDs, beer, chocolates and more. You are encouraged to bring your own glass/mug/tankard/bucket as part of the club’s drive to be more ecologically aware.
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 & EMILY SANDERS, with support from NIAMH BOADLE.
Sherburn, Bartley and Sanders are a joy to watch. Immediately on taking the stage they display 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!
Words: Mike Richards
Photo: Chris Dobson