If there's one bird that folklore is full of it's the Magpie. A bringer of good news in Korea, a symbol of happiness in China and the favoured transport for witches in Germany. They are supposed to have a drop of the devil's blood on their tongues and are steeped in magic and intelligence. Some even believe that they are messengers from a higher power.
After tonight you'd be pretty sure that THE MAGPIES are all of this. And plenty more.
The Magpies are Bella Gaffney on guitar, banjo, sunburnt vocals and dry Yorkshire wit (as if there’s any other kind), Kate Griffin on clawhammer banjo player and the owner of a serious voice and acclaimed fiddle-player and effortless tune-writer Holly Brandon. There's no thievery here, nothing to fear nor any hint of bad luck. Instead we get transatlantic folk of the very highest order.
Whilst it still all feels a little bit weird to be watching a live band again, The Magpies have, pretty obviously, been on tour for much of the last few weeks. They are assured, confident in their glorious musicianship and absolutely sure of songs that have a gilded pop edge. Dispensed with early in the first set the new single, I Will Never Marry, is a case in point. Kate Griffin's wonderful vocal drives a fantastic song that recalls the best of US Bluegrass superstars Nickel Creek. She pulls off the same trick a bit later with If Time Were Money. Her vocals are beautifully yearning, powerfully expressive and when all three voices harmonise, it's heavenly.
Those three voices come together over and over through the evening, lifting songs to a completely different level. The a capella harmonising at the end of No More Tears makes a good song great, makes a lovely vocal incredible. It's not just the harmonising that's perfect though. The set of tunes, Foss Island, is tremendous. It might be named after a retail park in York but it's still sea spray drizzled, a lighthouse of a tune.
In that parallel universe where some of us live, new song Galileo would be a staple of Radio 2. It would shove all that boring pseudo American folk to one side and demand to be hummed across the nation. As it was, a hundred people in a church in Downend loved it instead. Banjo driven stomper Now and Then would feel equally at home on the airwaves, inducing proper whoops and hollers.
The second set of the evening was peppered with old-timey American songs. They waltzed to a guitar and banjo accompaniment. Tunes fizzed and zoomed; banjo, fiddle and guitar whirling dizzy two steps. It reached a crescendo with a set of off-kilter dance tunes, virtually guaranteed to get your legs in a right old tangle.
Then, just as if it couldn't get any better, The Magpies encore with a storming version of The Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams. More harmonies, more fiddle, more banjo. Cue wild applause.
For the first time since all of this lockdown stuff ended Downend Folk Club welcomed back a support act too. MAAIKE SIEGERIST is a Dutch singer songwriter (via Bristol, of course) with a capital S and capital W. Literate, clever songs packed with imagery made up her five song set. She has a glorious voice, perfectly suited to a bit of quality indie folk.
The playground rhyme would have us believe that you need two Magpies for joy. This evening proved that three Magpies will do an even better job. Three are utterly joyous - we salute you.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Barry Savell