Not all Christmas concerts have tinsel and fairy lights, not all have you rockin' around a Christmas tree or wishin' it could be Christmas every day. Not all are polished to a high sheen or come gift wrapped. Some Christmas concerts are dark and frosty, they are full of shadows and the glimmer of a lone candle.
JACKIE OATES & JOHN SPIERS and, in support, COOPER & TOLLER, very definitely left the gaudy, commercialised crassness at home and, instead, brought forth the spirits of an entirely different festive season.
Both Jackie (multiple BBC Folk Award winner) and John (just finished the amazing Bellowhead tour) have graced the Downend stage at Christmas time before. This time things are a little bit different though. Firstly, they are here because of the tragic loss of Paul Sartin (his duo Belshazzar's Feast were originally booked to play this one) so the lack of twinkly festive thrills is hardly surprising. Secondly this show was beamed live into living rooms (thanks to a link-up with LIVE TO YOUR LIVING ROOM), meaning that, along with a packed Christ Church Downend, folks were tuning in from Colorado, New Mexico, Hamburg and other far flung (and much warmer) places. It might have been different but this was still a very sophisticated present, wrapped in the blackest of paper.
Essentially their set broke down into two pieces. One was a carefully curated set of Winter-y songs - heavy on the symbolism, light on the Nativity story - and one was a selection of instrumental tunes that were plucked from all around the world and, with just Jackie's fiddle and John's melodeon, brought forth images of circle dances and carousing from long ago.
Of the Winter-y ones, The Trees They're All Bare glistened like frost on a field, the two voices ringing out in perfect harmony as the song ended. Sofuou Unga Astin Min, an Icelandic lullaby, was utterly heartbreaking and sharp as ice. It shivered with a darkness, hardly surprising as it's a song sung by a mother before throwing her baby into a river. It was as Winter-y as they come.
The Worthy Wood Carol was another that reminded us that Christmas is not all fun and games but had the Spiers melodeon doing extraordinary things. How does he make it sound like that? Equally remarkable was Jackie Oates' voice, always on the verge of cracking but imbuing everything with an honesty that others can only wish for. Her own Robin Tells of Winter featured a whole flock of birds and the sweetest trill of her viola. It was lovely.
In a set sprinkled with high points O Come, O Come Emmanuel was glorious. Sung (and hummed) back to the altar by the faithful, it was the perfect encapsulation of this shadowy evening. Even the heathens in the audience couldn't help but be moved.
The sets of tunes set a slightly different tone. John reminded us that many of these tunes had their feet firmly in Christmas, and January, traditions and were for dancing, for squeezing a little celebration and fun from a hard-working life. There was a Welsh waltz, a French set, a celebration of the Straw Bear, lace making tunes, quirky English things and a miner's hornpipe. All played with a virtuoso's hand, all designed to chase the shadows away. Or embrace them.
COOPER & TOLLER are stalwarts of many a West Country folk club. They start with two stark and lovely carols from Gloucestershire including an acapella version of I Saw Three Ships (featuring just Two Ships). Vicky Cooper's voice is a delightfully traditionally folk-y one and Richard Toller adds intricate garlands on mandolin and guitar. Their version (by way of a Chris Wood arrangement) of While Shepherds Watched is perfect for this cold and crisp December evening.
The Jackie Oates & John Spiers Christmas certainly cares just as much about the darkness as the light. Just as much about the shadows as the fairy lights. Just as much for the workers as the party-heads. Theirs is a Christmas for all.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Barry Savell