Before the show began, the queue wound its way through the graveyard of Christ Church Downend. A decent amount of people still masked and keeping a polite distance. One woman turned to another and asked "have you read Where the Crawdads Sing yet?". The utterly delightful CARRIVICK SISTERS hadn't so much as plucked a string yet here were all of themes you needed. Right there: lost America, a love of the natural world, a bit of heartbreak, the merest smattering of death, delivered in the most perfect English stylings you're likely to see.
And so it proved. Twins Laura and Charlotte Carrivick have been playing their folk inflected bluegrass for over ten years. Six albums in, and they are insanely brilliant, full of love and longing. Just about as lovely as anything that Downend Folk Club has ever seen.
In proper bluegrass style, the sisters stand around a grand, single microphone, stepping forward when required, then falling back to harmonise and join seamlessly together. Banjo and fiddle or mandolin or guitar perfectly compliment Laura's voice as she tenderly relays old-timey standards and is-this-an-old-one new ones. Her voice is timeless; pure and simple, heartfelt and road-weary. When she sings, suburban Bristol falls away and vast American vistas can be seen in its place. Dusty highways and dustier saloon bars replace the pews and craft beer; she takes us somewhere else entirely.
All the more remarkable really because her sister, Charlotte, is practically out of action, a cold reducing her normal voice to a husky, backing vocal croak. She makes do by throwing extravagant rock star shapes whilst thrashing her mandolin instead. Or constructing clever, lightning fast guitar runs. The sisters laugh, re-start songs, swap instruments, talk over one another, tell rambling stories about over-wintering hedgehogs, laugh again and, pretty obviously, have the best of times.
With Charlotte's voice betraying her, the set is carefully curated to allow Laura to sing everything instead. Songs from their other bands - Midnight Skyracer and Cardboard Fox - are dusted off, old tunes are played with joyful abandon and a selection of covers show just how superb these two are.
If you're going to play bluegrass two of the touchstones are Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. In their first set of the evening, The Carrivick Sisters play Emmylou's One of These Days and both Annabelle and Dear Someone by Welch. All three are perfect. Add a dash of Buck Owens, some glorious fiddle playing, and there's no doubt that, even with one vocalist, The Carrivick Sisters are as authentic a bluegrass band as any from Devon could possibly be.
In a set of highlights, the cowboy swing of I Love You Honey zips along, bouncing jauntily, whilst If You Asked Me is a love song for those that don't want mushy romance. Breathtaking tunes Crate 223 and Making Horses have toes tapping, and a Dobro-drenched version of Midnight Skyracer's Virginia Rose is all virtuosity, good-natured humour and an abundance of brilliance.
Before that, THE LAST INKLINGS play a short, five song set. As befits a band who made up, in part, the fantastic Kadia, they intricately weave a spectral atmosphere with a cello and mandolin. Beautiful harmonies tell complicated folk tales of car crashes, hauntings and the last lullaby. Leonardo Mackenzie's cello is utterly lush; not "Bristol lush" but properly lush; deep and pastoral. Why don't more folk bands use it? In a twinkling they disappear, leaving only the ghost of their delicate songs.
If the woman in the graveyard ever does read Where the Crawdads Sing, she’ll find a story of beautiful Americana where adversity is overcome and the whole thing ends in pure delight. Quite similar to this evening really.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Barry Savell