This night could have been a sad one. Leaving aside the queue addled, BBC stoked country-wide grief there are other reasons for sadness. Bellowhead stalwart and folk club friend Paul Sartin tragically died on Wednesday leaving a delightfully clever, oddly amusing, oboe-shaped hole in the world. This is also the last (for the time being, they say) Bristol gig for headliners ROAD NOT TAKEN. So, it could have been a sad one.
Instead, Road Not Taken and Bella Gaffney remind us how brilliant a sing-along feels, how important a community is, how healing a damn good song can be.
If Downend Folk & Roots has a house band then Road Not Taken is probably it. They played their very earliest gigs here, have launched albums here and founder Ant Miles plays guitar and sometimes sings with them too. They are welcomed as hometown heroes, playing to a home crowd, shooting in front of an open goal.
Not that there is the slightest chance of them missing. This show is deep in extra time of their final tour and you can tell. Songs have been polished and honed, onstage banter is that of four friends that get on famously and everything is just right.
Hares On The Mountain, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose and The Blacksmith are all cast-iron folk favourites, played by hundreds of folk bands in hundreds of folk clubs. In the hands of Road Not Taken you remember why those songs are so loved. Anita Dobson has a voice as pure and crystalline as blown Bristol glass, it's infused with melancholy and longing, a beautiful focal point around which the rest of the band easily swirl. Claire Hamlen gently agitates that swirl with her wonderfully understated fiddle playing, never taking centre stage but casting delicate garlands across the songs.
In Joe Hamlen and Ant Miles the band have twin multi-instrumental mischief makers. Banjo, harmonium, guitars, bass and a piano are passed around with glee, adding colour and splashes of oddness; spooky drones, high hammerings and muted sighs. It is when Ant takes his place at the church organ, literally pulling out all of the stops, and Joe unfurls a plaintive trumpet that you realise that Road Not Taken are way more than an ordinary folk club band. Harry Belafonte's Scarlet Ribbons becomes an enormous, pulsing, lush epic of a thing. They make a huge field of sound, both uplifting and unbearably sad.
Just like any band that finds a home in the folk world, Road Not Taken are absolute masters of tweaking the familiar. Plenty of trad-arr tunes are given their gentle, cobweb-y dusting but it's some of the contemporary songs that shine. James Keelaghan's Cold Missouri Waters is spine-tingling with its acapella outro, Suzanne Vega's The Queen and The Soldier is delightfully haunting and their own The White Gown is a modern folk song with traditional sensibilities.
BELLA GAFFNEY is a member of The Magpies, the Americana/Celtic-y/folkish three piece that played here not too long ago. Back then she supplied sunburnt vocals and sublime harmonies; today the stage is all hers. Stepping out on her own you can see the John Martyn and Richard Thompson influences just a little more clearly, especially in her guitar playing that’s full of tricks and cleverness. Martyn's Seven Black Roses starts proceedings and is sublime.
A self-effacing dry Yorkshire wit hides a gorgeous, earthy voice but each passing song forces it to the surface. By the time she shreds a Zepplin-esque Hangman (also known as Gallows Pole) there's no doubt that, with or without The Magpies, Gaffney is "alright". Her new single, Blood in the Earth, is a contemplative, sensitive, bluegrass-y meditation on climate change and Australian devastation. There's that lovely voice, a social conscience and a great song.
If there was sadness in the air this evening then both Bella Gaffney and Road Not Taken soften the edges and quietly remind us that things will always be OK. Those things lost will be remembered and gently celebrated.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell