What can you expect from an artist that is introduced as a “genius” before a note has been struck? What can you expect from a multiple Folk Award winner? What can you expect from the Downend Folk Club Christmas show?
To start with it was in the slightly unexpected surrounding of Resound. A large, welcoming, delightfully festive place; after that JIM MORAY delivered exactly what was expected. Songs of sorrow and death, songs of aching hearts and longing, songs rooted in tradition but staring at the stars. There was not a bell jingled, not a shepherd watching flocks, not the merest hint, flicker or nod to the festive season. This, you feel, is exactly how Mr Moray wants it. His interests run a little deeper than some cheap tinsel and a Santa hat.
The evening was neatly divided into two. The first half a handful of new songs, or new versions of old songs, and then the wonderful Upcetera album after the interval.
Starting the opening set with some politics in the form of the weary and sarcastic It Couldn’t Happen Here set the tone. Moray's songs are wordy, intelligent and heartfelt and this anti-fascist thesis in bafflement sees him at his best. A new folk song that feels like it should be an old folk song.
And so the first half whizzed by. Still no tinsel, plenty of tears. There are new treatments of folk gold; Australia, Jack Tarr and the Child ballad Lord Gregory all given the distinctive Moray touch. Mainly just an acoustic guitar and a voice that spans decades, speaks of centuries.
Then there was the main event. Part two. His "mini Upcetera band" playing virtually the whole of Moray's most recent album. To say that it was extraordinary is doing it a huge disservice. From the first moments of Fair Margaret and Sweet William it was clear that here is a work of such loveliness, such undeniable beauty that the twinkling lights of Christmas could be safely forgotten. The band consists of keyboards, double bass, guitar, violin and a clarinet; hardly your average folk band but a slimmed down version of the jaw dropping bunch that debuted Upcetera at the Tobacco Factory last year. Each musician add magical layers but it’s Tom Moore's violin and Hannah McCabe’s clarinet that add depth and detail. The clarinet, in particular, lends a baroque air that's part 60s psych, part rococo salon.
One of the highlights of the album is The Straight Line and the Curve and so it is live. A song about the philosopher and alchemist John Dee and the angels that he spoke to. It's been a feature of Moray's sets for years now but is, very simply, one of the greatest modern folk songs of recent times. Add to this the slink and slither of Foggy Dew – sung with an intensity that Benjamin Britten surely never foresaw – and the elegiac Tennyson poem Crossing the Bar and you have an evening that is often heart-stopping.
Before all of this wonder DARIA KULESH provides wintery blasts of Russian folklore and camp drama. Starting her singing career in an Irish bar in Moscow, this ambitious culture clash makes for a captivating spectacle. Accompanied by Tristan Seume on intricate acoustic guitar she weaves snow covered tales from a drone box and her extraordinary voice.
So, what can you expect from a Downend Folk Club Christmas party? Death, sorrow, philosophy, poetry, angels, drama and one bona fide genius. Happy Christmas.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Chris Dobson