NANCY KERR & JAMES FAGAN have been doing this for a while. Next year will be their 30th anniversary as both a musical and personal partnership and, over that time, they have become, probably, the best folk duo in the country. This evening, they are extraordinary.
 
As late evening sunlight floods through the church windows and the gentle buzz of a full folk club revels in a pleasant June warmth, Kerr wonders, "Did you all just get together one day and decide that, if there was a perfect folk club, it would be this one?". The two of them beam and then make this space sing.
 
Fol The Day-O was originally written for The Full English project and it is a celebration of everything that is good and pastoral. It is the rural world blowing down city streets and, in Kerr's hands, it is as deep and green and lush as an English meadow. Her voice is glorious, high but shot through with passionate inflections, it has the natural rhythms of the finest of storytellers. As Fagan lends guitar and then vocal harmonies, their connection is instinctive, indestructible.
 
 
There are not too many voices that you could listen to forever, but Kerr’s is one of them. Barbara Allen is about as trad as things come (Samuel Pepys mentioned it in his diaries) but Kerr lovingly breathes new life into it. You can imagine her voice drifting up past the gas lamps in 19th century London, strong and defiant, a voice that can sing for its supper and break your heart. Her version is rooted in the Romany tradition but calls to travellers of all kinds, spanning continents, spanning years. 
 
Towards the end of the first half of the evening Kerr shows that she is a brilliant songwriter as well as a fantastic singer. There are three songs, all of which she has written, that are amongst the best that this folk club has ever heard. I Am The Fox is sung by Fagan and thrums with the pulse of nature, it freewheels like an excitable fox-cub on a dew-dappled summer's morning. Fiddle and guitar cavorting about, unabashed. 
 
For Broadside it is Kerr that sings her own song. The tale of the meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and the pirate Grace O'Malley was originally written for The Elizabethan Sessions, and is a feminist sea shanty. It is one of those songs that could have been written centuries ago, everything is spot on. It's no exercise in facsimile though; it hums with vitality, Kerr relishing the strong female characters that she unleashes.
 
It is Gingerbread, taken from 2016's Instar album, that is entirely tear-duct-bothering though. As Kerr and Fagan meet on the chorus there is a gentle warmth, a delicious sense of the personal that threatens to overwhelm. Fiddle and guitar helping to swell hearts and comfort souls. Once again, getting lost in Kerr's voice is the easiest thing.
 
 
As much as it is sometimes impossible to wrench your attention away from Kerr, Fagan is just as brilliant. His Australian heritage is mined for The Diamantina Drover and The Outside Track. Both are sung with a poet’s grace, his eight-stringed bouzouki glistening as stories of leaving and returning, love and loss tumble from him. There is a barely restrained fury on The Herald of Free Enterprise, Robb Johnson’s contemporary tale of tragedy, as Fagan sides with the people (of course) and rails against greed. All the while Kerr's violin broods behind him.
 
The combination of fiddle and guitar is most striking on the sets of tunes that they play. Australian Waltzes capture the haphazard totter of a gin-laced tea dance; elegant one minute, ferocious the next. Kitchen Dance is sandwiched between tunes from Croatia and Macedonia and is full of Eastern European dash. Fagan's bouzouki absolutely flying, a dizzy joy. Kerr's fiddle swoops over Fagan's folk-rock strum on Nancy Taylor's/The Pearl Wedding and is little more than a wonderful celebration. Thirty years of playing together has made these two indescribably tight.
 
The final highlight of an evening packed with them is Dark Honey, a song about urban bees making honey from cola. Kerr describes her songs like this: "The first two listens you think 'ooh, nature', the third is 'ooh, Marxism'" and, somehow, Dark Honey sums that up. Her voice is the sweetness that soothes the stings.

 
Support for the evening comes from DAVID MITCHELL, a virtuoso on the classical guitar. A short set of purely instrumental tunes showed off an incredible talent. Folk legend, Ralph McTell, has been heard to wish that he could play like Mitchell and it's easy to see why. Supremely technical and wonderfully fluid, he plays traditional folk tunes and classical pieces with equal ease. Beautiful stuff.
 
If Downend has the perfect folk club then Kerr and Fagan are the perfect band for it. Simply one of the finest gigs that this place has seen.


- Words: Gavin McNamara

- Photos: Barry Savell

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