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Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker
A very cold Yorkshire night saw a sizeable crowd attend the Live Room to see double Folk Award nominees Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker make their first appearance in Saltaire. Josienne and Ben are nominated for BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2015 Best Duo and also for Best Album with NOTHING CAN BRING BACK THE HOUR. A special treat for the night was that they were not performing just as a duo. They had their own string section with the very talented Jo Silverston and Anna Jenkins on Cello and Viola. Jo and Anna having toured with amongst others,The Unthanks and more lately Emily Barker (as two thirds of The Red Clay Halo). Ron and Hilary, the promoters, saw Josienne and Ben at Bury's Homegrown Folk Festival in 2013 and have been trying to get them to The Live Room since. On Sunday's showing let's hope we don't wait another 18 months or so for a return visit to our area.
They performed two sets and started the show with Sandy Denny's An Old Fashioned Waltz. Some people might regard covers of Sandy Denny songs as tantamount to sacrilege but Josienne certainly did justice and much more to the song. She has a beautiful, pure, powerful wide ranging voice which can cut through the room and stop you in your tracks. Ben is a very accomplished mainly finger style guitarist who provides intricate and sometimes delicate backing to Josienne's voice. Both are classically trained as are Jo and Anna and it really showed. Jo and Anna's contributions throughout the night not only demonstrated how musically proficient they are as individual players but also what a good job Ben had done with the string arrangements. Virtually all communication with the audience was done by Josienne who left the audience in no doubt that most of her songs were miserable and sad and that was exactly what was intended. Self professed melancholy being the order of the night. They delighted in the unique decor of the Live Room wanting the curtains thrown back to display the "shiny sparkly stuff "urging the audience to take lots of photos. For me the low level lighting and inadequacies of my camera prevented this somewhat. Every song was well introduced and explained which is something I really like from a band whose material is relatively new to me.
The first set continued with a Burns song My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose before we got one of Josienne's own song which continued the floral theme It Would Not Be A Rose. The remainder of the set comprised covers, Trad songs and their own compositions . A new as yet unrecorded song Sweet The Sorrow which featured a beautiful string opening from Jo and Anna and the opening track from their first CD After Me. The songs varied from an almost Elizabethan production of Queen of Hearts with Josienne also playing a recorder introduction. This version with the guitar, voice and strings beautifully interweaving differs greatly from either Martin Carthy (1965 and 2014 with Eliza) or Unthanks (2011) versions. To close the set they veered away from Folk to the pop standard You Always Hurt The One You Love. Also sandwiched in there was an almost Chamber Music like cover of Gillian Welch's Dark Turn of Mind which Josienne described as being about her. Being a huge Gillian Welch fan I admire anyone who can perform Gillian Welch covers and actually add something to them. Before the interval which was described as a red wine and valium break Josienne did advise the audience that it was no use coming up to her and asking for cheerier songs, someone always does it but it just wasn't going to happen. I think most people went to the Merch desk to buy using Josienne's words the "bleak but impressive material".
The second set started with more of their original material starting with a song from FIRE AND FORTUNE Anyone But Me, a "psycho ballad" song about jealousy and paranoia to maintain the "happy theme". From the potential award winning NOTHING CAN BRING BACK THE HOUR came Mainland and The Tangled Tree, a eerily captivating song about the passing of time. They then changed mood and language by moving onto an Argentinean song La Cancion de las Simples Cosas with Ben playing flamenco style guitar and then into a magnificent version of Sandy Denny's song about Mary Queen of Scots, Fotheringay from what I regard as Fairport's best album 1969's WHAT WE DID ON OUR HOLIDAYS. No end to the culture as we then got Elgar's As Torrents in Summer beautifully sung by Josienne with Jo and Anna shining on Cello and Viola. Not content with covering Sandy Denny Josienne also covered June Tabor and Nina Simone songs. Throughout the show Josienne kept up a great humourous banter with the audience as well as chiding Jo for playing a semitone too high on a previous night and Ben who was blamed for "forgetting" a guitar strap. All obviously good natured and well received by the crowd who were very enthusiastic, attentive and receptive. The encore was a Nina Simone cover of For All We Know. If indeed the nature of the songs and music were, in Josiennes words "miserable and unhappy" then obviously the crowd like me were a crowd who appreciated miserable and unhappy songs when well performed by a great singer and very capable musicians- sounds like a definition of a good Folk audience.
Last years Best Duo winners Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin also appeared at The Live Room before winning their award and they also performed a Gillian Welch cover, fingers crossed it's a happy omen for Josienne and Ben at the awards ceremony at Cardiff in late April.