If there's something lovely about the early summer sun, then there's something incredibly lovely about Bluegrass played in a church as that early summer sun washes across four amazing musicians. Without wishing to get all biblical, it seems like a blessing.

CUP O'JOE aren't your porch dwelling, grizzled old Bluegrass players huddled around a single microphone, plucking out the Deliverance tune. There's no nameless sense of menace, no clichéd straw chewing. Instead, there are glorious harmonies delivered by siblings who clearly know exactly how the others tick. There's a lightness of touch perfectly suited to this late-ish May evening and there's a sense of musicianship that sort of transcends anything you might expect from a bunch of stringed-things, strummed and picked.

Banjo player Tabitha Benedict has been here before, as part of the incomparable Midnight Skyracer. Where they whip up a moonshine drenched party, watching her in Cup O'Joe feels a bit like eavesdropping on the greatest campfire sing-along. When you realise that Benjamin Agnew on double bass and Reuben on guitar are her brothers, that feeling isn't exactly dispelled. The fact that the mandolin player, David Benedict, is her husband (and only American in a Northern Irish band) leads you to suspect that this lot must have the finest family gatherings ever.

You can imagine that those family gatherings over in Co. Armagh are long and languorous, relaxed and free-flowing. Certainly, that's how the two sets of this evening unfurl. Brand new songs tumble into almost new songs, traditional Irish songs gently bump against proper Bluegrass tunes, obscure covers and timeless originals wrap their arms around one another and gaze up at the sky. 

On an inspired cover of John Hartford's Mississippi Valley, all four of them get to show off their remarkable skills. As happens time and again through the evening, the banjo and mandolin explore to the very edges of the tune while Benjamin's elastic bass tethers the whole thing and Reuben's guitar burns white hot. The musicianship is extraordinary. This is progressive Bluegrass; instruments played with speed but with love and care and warmth. 

When the banjo is put to one side, Tabitha picks up an acoustic guitar and sings. As much as her brothers have lovely voices, it is hers that carries this band. Sounding not a million miles from Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, she crosses genres as well as continents. Navigator is a new song with an old title but is a delight, sung beautifully and crackles with poppy Skyracer vibes. She pulls off something similar on a cover of Gillian Welch's Wichita too. Those are big boots to fill but she fills them. 

The tune of the night, though, is I Just Can't Sleep Without Caffeine. A Western swing number complete with video animation on the screens above the altar. It is witty and jazzy, effortlessly brilliant with a great tune and allows four incredible musicians and three gorgeous harmonies free rein. This is the sort of song that should be on every lazy summer playlist.

Also blessed by the early summer sun was the opening set by CHARLIE LIMM. Unashamedly in thrall to ‘70s singer songwriters, there are echoes of Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt in her five songs. Silence Of The Girls is literary, wordy and complex, a showcase for her versatile voice, while a cover of Tom Petty's Wildflowers rocks very gently indeed. The beautiful country folk of Falling Every Time bodes well for a soon-to-be-released EP. 

By the end of the evening the sun has faded, maybe the campfire has burned down, but that feeling of being blessed remains.

Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Barry Savell

We are thrilled to welcome one of the most exciting cross-genre bands to emerge in recent years to headline our May concert.

CUP O'JOE is a progressive bluegrass and folk band founded and based in Northern Ireland by three siblings, Tabitha, Benjamin and Reuben Agnew, and later joined by Tabitha’s husband David Benedict. Their unique mix of original compositions and re-imagined traditional songs paired with their lively performances has given them a growing presence in the acoustic music scene surrounding Ireland, The United Kingdom, Mainland Europe, and beyond.

Their quartet lineup features tight sibling harmonies, tasteful arrangements, compelling originals and virtuosic solos. Tabitha Benedict brings her unique style of banjo playing and delicate vocals to the group, which were both recognised by the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association). She holds the 2020 Momentum Instrumentalist of the Year Award. Her sensitive and tasteful touch on both banjo and lead vocals blends effortlessly with her bandmates. Reuben Agnew’s frenetic guitar breaks, rhythmic drive, and unwavering vocals make him another pillar of this group’s sound. Both Tabitha and Reuben are songwriters with a rare understanding of their own creations and what they want the listener to hear. David Benedict, the newest addition to the group, is a mandolin player of the first order. His leading style of playing is described as "thoughtful, elegant and tastefully complex". Winner of the IBMA Momentum Award for Mandolin in 2018, his mandolin playing is intricately sophisticated, while also being well established in the deep understanding of the instrument's heritage and early sounds. He plays like he has been with the group since the very start, slotting in on the backbeat effortlessly. Benjamin Agnew beats out the all-important bass tones and lead vocals--oftentimes giving the impression he wandered on to stage by accident, but flawlessly holding the backbone of the music. 

In January 2020 they released In The Parting which features nine original songs and one reimagined traditional song from their native Ulster. This new album embodies their fresh new original sounds of progressive bluegrass and Irish folk roots. For several tracks they are joined on fiddle by Niall Murphy (Breaking Trad, Cara Dillon, Nathan Carter) as well as Josh Clark, Dave Molloy and Eilidh Patterson. Most recently they have released their first collection of Christmas songs, in their five-track EP, Christmas Kin. This short but sweet collection displays a refreshing take on several holiday favourites including In The Bleak Midwinter and Holly Jolly Christmas, as well as the traditional carols Sussex Carol and The Holly Bears a Berry.

Opening the evening’s entertainment will be CHARLIE LIMM. Charlie is a musician, composer and actor currently based in Bristol. She brings haunting vocals, guitar and flute to the mix infused with classic 70's folk vibes. "A high delicate voice with a talent for storytelling, Charlie charms everyone in the place," says our review from last time she was here.


Following the release of Charlie's first EP Heart to Shore back in 2019, Charlie has supported the likes of Kim Lowings, Midnight Skyracer, The Magpies and Kirsty Merryn, and has performed at various festivals and venues around the country including local festivals such as Tangled Roots, Bristol Harbour Festival and The Bristol Folk House. She is currently self-releasing her second EP titled Falling Every Time that was recorded in Greenmount Studios in Leeds, and she may even have some sneaky preview copies available at the gig!

Tickets for the event, which takes place at CHRIST CHURCH DOWNEND on Friday 20th May 2022, are available online at HERE and from MELANIE'S KITCHEN in Downend (cash only). They are priced at £14 each in advance or £16 on the door. Don't forget you can buy in advance with absolute confidence; if you are unable to make the concert because you test positive for Covid-19, you can transfer your ticket to any future concert at Downend Folk Club (terms & conditions apply, see ticket page). You can also buy a 'Season Ticket', which includes the concerts in May, June and July and costs a little less.

There will be a bar, stocking cider, soft drinks, wine, hot drinks and locally-brewed real ale from the Hambrook-based HOP UNION BREWERY (formerly GWB). Audience members are encouraged to bring their own glass/mug/tankard/bucket, as well as reusable bottles for water, as part of our drive to be more environmentally aware. There is a 50p discount for those bringing their own receptacles. There will also be sweet treats available at the bar courtesy of the Radstock-based GREAT CAKE COMPANY, as well as the 'stealth raffle' which helps to fund the emerging artists that open each concert, like Charlie (above).

For further information or if you have any queries at all, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Mairearad Green, she tells us, lives in Ullapool. For those that don't know where Ullapool is, it's pretty near the top of Scotland. Not John O'Groats north, but not too far off. Her duo partner, Anna Massie, is based in Glasgow. Both are a good way from Bristol, where MAIREARAD AND ANNA started their five-date tour of the UK as they graced the stage at Downend for a second time.

The first was back in April 2016, so they tell us. Six years ago, almost to the day... far too long to wait to wait to welcome back two of Scotland's finest multi-instrumentalists (although this was originally scheduled for 2020 until you-know-what got in the way).

But as soon as the pair launched into their first tune-set (Retreats, a pair of marches; Anna's own Ellie's March and Ian MacCrimmon's MacRae's Delight) it's clear that it's been worth the wait... and, far be it from me to speak for them, but the journey too, as the crowd hit the whooping and hollering stage in record time.

Anna plays the guitar, and if there's a better player of her type on the folk scene at the moment, then I've not seen them. Her style is punchy and percussive, but with a beautiful lightness of touch at times. Her fingers fly up and down the fretboard with seeming ease. Mairearad Green plays the accordion with equally fast fingers, and repeatedly shows why all the best box players in the UK and beyond cite her as an influence and an inspiration. Together, the two instruments create a thrilling wall of sound as the pair treat us to a series of tune sets. Dagger Gordon's Campbell's Roup is a particular highlight, whilst the duo's take on Mo Chailin Dileas Donn is breathtaking. It was originally a song, when Ullapool's own Duncan MacKenzie wrote it, and a happy song at that... there's a sailor, he goes off to sea but no-one dies and there's no heartbreak. Mairearad and Anna have reimagined it as a tune... "It's in Gaelic," Anna explains, "and we'd just butcher the beautfful language."

Not that they don't sing. The tune sets are punctuated perfectly with a smattering of songs. Rick Taylor's Anything From You sets the tone in fine style, but it's She Loves Me (When I Try), originally by Dougie MacLean, that brings the lyrical highlight of the evening. The duo's voices complement each other perfectly... both possess a softness in their singing that is the perfect foil for the tune sets. And the magic is added to by their sharp wit... Anna, in particular, knows how to tell a story, including one about driving Dougie slightly mad by singing his own songs softly when in his presence.

There's even time for Mairearad to break out the bagpipes, for which Anna switches to fiddle. The first-half is brought to a rousing close as the pair treat us to the Coigach Reels, with Mairearad on the highland bagpipes, while the second; half gets off to a gentler start as Mairearad switches to the Scottish small pipes for the La Rachoudine set.

Downend Folk Club often feature some fantastic up-and-coming artists to open the evening's entertainment, and the standard always amazes me, but CHRIS ELLIOTT & CAITLIN JONES must surely be right up there with the very best we've seen. Hailing from Lichfield in Staffordshire, they kick us off with an engaging five-song selection. Chris is a particularly adept player of bouzouki and guitar, while Caitlin plays whistles as well as anyone we've heard. The pair both sing, too, and their close harmonies are goosebump inducing stuff.

Their set is a mixture of their own arrangements of traditional numbers and self-penned songs, with their take on Silver Dagger and their closing number Carry Me Home particular highlights. But the 25 minutes whiz by and the audience could certainly have listened to more from them; I've no doubt we'll see Chris & Caitlin again.

But the final word must go to Mairearad and Anna. Hopefully it won't be another six years!

Words: Bea Furlong
Photo: Barry Savell