Folk music lovers from Downend and far beyond gathered as usual last Friday for the monthly concert, but this was an evening with a difference as the gathered crowd paid tribute to a genuine one-off.
Cliff Woolley was a passionate music lover, and could most often be found, with his wife Gaynor, at many concerts around Bristol and beyond, and at loads of festivals. And if he wasn't singing, dancing or listening to music, he was usually talking about it (or about his other passion, Aston Villa FC). His musical tastes were very diverse; from Jethro Tull and Neil Young through to Jackie Oates and Martin Carthy. He was very involved in Downend Folk & Roots (then Downend Folk Club) from early on, as a member of the organising team, membership secretary, barman and chief-rambling-anecdote-teller at planning meetings! He sadly passed away in the Summer of 2021, so this evening has been in the planning for many months... and when it finally arrived, it didn't disappoint.
Cliff was a member of BRISTOL MORRIS MEN, and so it was appropriate that they got the entertainment underway with six dances to start the evening. When CHRIST CHURCH DOWNEND was refurbished a few years ago, they were keen to see the building used by more community groups, but surely even they couldn't have imagined that it would include this! The team really set the tone of the evening, surrounded by smiling faces and tapping feet as they worked their way through dances with hankies and clashing sticks. Superb.
CHRIS ELLIOTT & CAITLIN JONES headlined the night as winners of The Cliff Woolley Memorial Award, joined by Mike Seal on double bass. Their set was an absolute delight from start to finish and showed exactly why the Downend faithful had chosen them as their favourite support act of the previous year.
The West Midlands-based pair demonstrated glorious two-part harmony singing throughout the set, with Caitlin playing a variety of whistles and flutes as well as the odd bit of harmonium, while Chris is more adept with the string-ed instruments, playing bouzouki, guitar and fiddle over the course of the evening. Mike's bass really lifted the sound and added a new dimension since they were last here.
Both Chris & Caitlin work as teachers in their day jobs, and once or twice taught a few lines for the audience to sing along to. I'm sure I wasn't the only person who thought, "Cliff would have loved this". Maggie Manson, Game of Halves (the title-track of their soon-to-be-released second album) and Carry Me Home (the title track of their first) are highlights, while Go Along to Kinver is great fun... Cliff would have loved that too! For their encore, they head into the audience to perform, unplugged, their version of The Parting Glass. It's a poignant moment.
People are talking about Chris Elliott & Caitlin Jones, and it's easy to see why. I reckon more awards and more recognition is headed their way.
Another group of which Cliff was a dedicated member is THE MAGNIFICENT AKs, an all-male folk choir from over the border in Wiltshire, and it was they who rounded off the evening with a handful of glorious numbers.
They're "blokes" and they're proud of it. Many have beards and are happy to proclaim their own magnificence on more than one occasion. It's easy to see how Cliff would have fitted in perfectly with these "folk-blokes". Marshalled superbly by Chris Samuel, The AKs treat us to a varied, and frankly, hilarious set. There's a song about the Stroud-based inventor of the lawnmower and the adjustable spanner, Edwin Budding (whose middle name was, apparently, 'Beard' ... very fitting!), while they come even closer to home with their a cappella take on a 'traditional' Bristol folk song: Blackbird, I'll 'ave 'ee by... erm... The Wurzels.
And the evening ends in perfection. It turns out that they, too, had chosen The Parting Glass as their encore, and they almost didn't do it. Thankfully, they were persuaded to and what a good job they did. It was very different to the earlier offering from Chris, Caitlin and Mike but no less poignant. Glorious.
Cliff's wife Gaynor was thrilled with the event. "We may be biased but we always regarded Cliff as something special. His energy and enthusiasm for life was catching and we miss him every day," she said. "We'd like to say a big thanks to everyone. Not just those people who performed, but the team who organised it and friends who turned up. There were several people I hadn't seen for quite a while. The evening was just what Cliff would have loved. Music, folk dancing; relaxed and filled with like minded people who know how to enjoy all this. Thank you all again from us all."
Gaynor's not wrong. He would have loved it. A fitting tribute indeed.
Words: Ant Miles
Photos: Barry Savell