“We’ve been trying to get him to Downend Folk Club since we started in 2014”, the MC tells the jam-packed main room at Frenchay Village Hall… and the very moment BLAIR DUNLOP starts playing, it’s easy to see why the club have pursued him for almost four years.

Immediately, one is struck by the dexterity displayed in his guitar playing. He plays the same guitar all night, not needing to resort to a banjo or a ukulele for variety. His slender fingers fly effortlessly over the fretboard and stretch to reach chords that make them look twice as long as they are. This is a musician who has learned and honed his skill to a remarkably high standard. It remains a pleasure that we get to see such talent on our own South Gloucestershire doorstep.

And yet, his talent on the guitar may not be the thing that people go home talking about, because Blair Dunlop is a songwriter. I mean, a real songwriter. A storyteller capable engaging the audience to the point that they feel personally-invested.

Whether a tale of a spark of friendship formed in an Italian castle (Castello), dreams of owning a Porsche (356… “I’d hoped that someone from Porsche would be listening and take pity on me but it hasn’t happened”) or clever analogies about food and life (Spices), Blair skilfully weaves his tales. Clad in skinny jeans, a floral shirt, oversized glasses and hair piled in an untidy mess on top of his head, he cuts a slight figure, even on the small stage at Frenchay Village Hall. But his songs pack a punch the size of a mountain. 

It’s packed in the room, and warm. The gig sold out well over a week in advance, and even then one suspects that Downend Folk Club squeezed in every single person that they could. We’re told that there was also a waiting list and that plenty of people that wanted tickets didn’t get them. It doesn’t come as a surprise; Blair Dunlop is made for the big stage.

But there’s still room for a couple of surprises on this tiny stage. First of all, Blair is joined by the renowned Australian singer-songwriter JACK CARTY for an acoustic cover of the Radiohead classic Let Down, while support act KITTY MACFARLANE also snuck back on for a joint encore with Blair, a version of her song Wrecking Days

Speaking of Kitty, she opened the evening with a beautiful set of five songs which displayed her increasing maturity as a songwriter and her ever-breathtaking voice. Her closing song, Avona and the Giant, is perhaps her best yet. Surely it’s only a matter of time before she headlines an evening in her own right. 

But this evening rightly belongs to Blair Dunlop. Four years in the making… but this gig was absolutely worth the wait. 

Our 2018 programme kicks off with the visit of BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winner BLAIR DUNLOP.

The award-winning British singer, songwriter and guitarist, has now released three albums, two EPs and toured widely around the globe. All of this in a short four-year career is astounding alone but what sets Blair apart from his peers is the lyrical and musical maturity with which he writes.

His third album Gilded was released in May 2016 and was widely-acclaimed, gaining BBC Radio 2 playlist status for the two single releases, The Egoist and 356.

Prior to this, Blair released his acclaimed album House of Jacks in mid-2014 which lived up to the promise of his 2012 debut Blight and Blossom; the quality of which contributed to his winning the BBC Radio 2 Horizon Award. Blair has now cemented his place as one of Britain’s most exciting talents to come from the folk scene.

Opening the evening’s entertainment will be KITTY MACFARLANE.

Kitty is a Somerset-based singer and songwriter. Her lyrics combine honest snapshots of everyday humanity with the bigger questions that have connected minds and voices for centuries, driven by her own fingerpicked guitar. As well as the release of her debut EP Tide & Time, gaining her first national airplay on the BBC Radio 2 Folk Show with Mark Radcliffe, and Tom Robinson's show on BBC 6Music, 2016 saw Kitty complete an extensive national support tour with award-winning duo Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman. 

Other highlights range from appearing as a theme-tune on Radio 4 to making the semi-final of the BBC Young Folk Award in 2015. Kitty has also recently been awarded a creative bursary from the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) for a songwriting project of her own devising. 

Tickets for the event, which takes place at Frenchay Village Hall on Friday 19th January 2018, are available from MELANIE'S KITCHEN or online HERE. They are priced at £12 each in advance (£10 for members), but will cost £14 on the door so please do book in advance. 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 also locally-made NAUGHTY BROWNIES. There will be a raffle with prizes including CDs, gift boxes of beer and sweet treats. You are encouraged to bring your own glass/mug/tankard/bucket as part of the club’s drive to be more ecologicaly aware.

For further information, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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