Finding the music stage at The Cookie feels like gaining admission to a Prohibition-era speakeasy; after entering the bar you head down a set of wooden steps to be met by a door which upon opening reveals a dimly lit room with a low ceiling and a stage at the far end. We're entering the gloom here tonight to see those self-proclaimed purveyors of 'Forlorn English Balladry' Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker touring in support of their new album 'Seedlings All'.
First up is the bassy, melodious vocals and finger-picking of Belfast born Jimi Mack playing a set of tunes inspired by 60's folk and jazz. Next is a singer-songwriter who's provided backing vocals on 'Seedlings All' and is introduced by Josienne as “one of my favourites.... and soon to be yours” Samantha Whates. Samantha's new album is being recorded in a variety of locations all of which are waiting rooms, the songs reflect the expectations that those locales inspire. A lovely set of delicate tunes, 'Three Miles Left 'Til Home', 'Sailors', 'Granny's Home' sung with Lisa Hannigan like vocals in a style reminiscent of Joni Mitchell of which there surely can be no greater comparator.
Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker as ex-winners of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award Best Duo are tonight making a bold bid for the Best Group category by now performing live as a five piece. The duo are brilliantly supported by the “jazzers” (description courtesy J. Clarke), Kit Downes (piano), Ruth Goller (basses, both electric and double) and Dave Hamblett (drums) to enable them to recreate Ben's fuller, lush, chilled arrangements on the new album.
Tracks from 'Seedlings All' are heavily represented. The jazzy feel of the title track and 'Only Me Only' which features Ben multi-tracking the guitar parts “he's good but has his limitations” according to his musical partner, who also describes the lovely, chilled Sunday morning vibes of 'Sad Day' as slightly dodgy, pseudo Motown. A couple of tracks about the life of a touring musician, 'Bathed in Light ' describes the stage fright immediately prior to performance “...There's a doubt in my mind... That I'll write every day / But no one cares to hear what I say / That I'll stand and sing / But no one will be moved to join in” and the single 'Chicago' which describes the ego-deflating occasion in that city when an audience of zero saw their performance “It's not Chicago's fault/ That no one came to see my show.”. Chicago, surprisingly considering its fine musical pedigree, a city of musical philistines, or perhaps some inadequate tour promotion?
There are also tracks from the previous album 'Overnight'. 'The Light of his Lamp' is written about the time between consciousness and the first moments of sleep “...Dark from the deep/ As conscious narrows, sink soft into sleep.” and their 'hit' the beautiful 'Something Familiar' which has received over 5 million Spotify hits thanks to being included on a coffee house playlist and according to Josienne benefited from not being as bland as the other tracks.
Only the duo return for the encore of Gillian Welch's 'Dark Turn Of Mind' showing that the simplest of arrangements are capable of silencing a room when done this well.
If you've had the pleasure of seeing Josienne and Ben live before you'll already know that the star turn is Josienne's vocals which are still stunning due to the precision and control she delivers with every note. Ben's guitar playing is subtle and supportive to the vocal when required but also capable of delivering the melodies, the addition of the 'jazzers' and Samantha Whates on frequent backing vocals prove to be a perfect fit for the Jazz Club atmosphere of the room and the arrangements on the new album.
Call them folk, alt-folk, corduroy punk, or whatever, it doesn't matter. If you want a gorgeous evening in the company of great musicians please just go and see them play.