“This is the first gig we've done in ages”, says Hannah Martin. “Please be kind”. Martin (of Edgelarks) and Miranda Sykes (of Show of Hands) have been away for ages. There was Covid, having children, illness, all of which conspired against touring. Tonight, though, is the start of a new tour in support of a brilliant new album, Unquenching Fire. All in all, kindness was never going to be a problem.
The joy of SYKESMARTIN, the reason for the kindness, is the glorious interplay between the two voices. Martin's is deep, and rich, Sykes has a voice that is sweeter, smoother, the perfect voice for telling tales. When the two harmonise, the traditional songs sparkle into life.
Little Margaret has its roots in a seventeenth century ballad but SykesMartin reach towards the Appalachian Mountains for their version. The ghostly fragility that shimmers around the two of them doesn’t leave them all evening. Old songs of love, loss and longing are plucked from their dusty libraries and shone until they glisten.
The SykesMartin stage is a very full one. There may just be the two of them but there's a double bass, several guitars, a banjo, a fiddle and a shruti box. All of this might suggest busy, tangled arrangements but that couldn't be further from the truth. As Sykes sings If I Was a Blackbird to Martin's swooping fiddle accompaniment, she adds the occasional double bass thrum and a whole seascape opens up. Sykes sings Blow the Candle Out too and her bass gives a silken slink to the story of secret love. She sings with such an honesty that it becomes easy to picture a forbidden tryst.
Much of the set is made up of traditional songs but Hannah Martin has always been a wonderful songwriter and her own songs slip easily in amongst the older ones. They give her Sorrows Before Dawn a world premier and it is exquisite. Reflecting on the 4am horrors, when all of your worries hover around your bed, it is reflective and slow, tender and gentle. Martin's velvet voice perfectly suited to the pre-dawn darkness. On the title track of the new album, Martin has taken a fragment of an old song and made it her own, adding new verses. It is epic, Sykes adding heartbeat-bass to a gorgeous song that is the very essence of romantic folk. 
If their version of Anne Briggs’ Go Your Way belies Miranda Sykes’ folk-rock roots then it is an acapella The Parting Glass that perfectly shows how amazing this duo is. Unamplified yet utterly captivating, two distinct voices becoming one incredible thing.
Another wonderful interpreter of the folk canon was support act HOLLY CLARKE. Having driven all the way from Newcastle for her short set she made sure to leave an impression on this corner of South Gloucestershire. 
She gave the likes of Young Collins and John Barleycorn tremendous new arrangements, neither fussy nor laden with tricks but both allowing the stories to be told. Her voice wonderfully strong, refreshingly honest and, set against some dexterous guitar playing, she's the epitome of a great storyteller. She is also a brilliant contextualiser of the songs that she sang, adding details and open-hearted asides. Especially wonderful was her version of Chris Wood's Bleary Winter. Winding folk horror dread around left-wing politics, it was gloriously resonant. 
SykesMartin may have been away for a while but, by the end of this beautiful evening, they were engulfed in great waves of kindness.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell