Almost exactly nine years ago Downend Folk & Roots peeked, slightly hesitantly, into the world. Back then it was Downend Folk Club but the first, proper, headline act was BELLA HARDY, fresh from winning The BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year award. She was astonishing that night and gave the folk club a glow of confidence that, to be honest, it's never lost. Tonight, Bella Hardy returned to Downend for a rapturously received set. She was, to put it simply, magnificent.
The first thing that you notice about Bella Hardy is that she is effortless. Everything that she does seems entirely natural, she makes the difficult look easy. Set opener, Summer Daylight Winter Darkness, is an instrumental tune, Hardy's fiddle in harmonious, excited conversation with Danny Wallington's keyboards. SAM CARTER's guitar joins just as the tune becomes Hares on the Mountain. They slide together beautifully, all three taking this very familiar song and reminding just why we all love it so. Her fiddle and Carter's guitar have a resonant depth, working as a perfect contrast to Hardy’s voice which is playful and full of winking charm.
Hardy is a masterful storyteller. On The Herring Girl she tells of strong women living tough lives but does so with an assurance and eloquence that few have. Violin and guitar, again, combining to help tell the story and the piano filling in the details. The Navigator's Bride is another female story, another important voice, another that looks at the male world with a sense of bewilderment. Hardy inhabits these people but, unlike so many folk songs, there's no sense of the victim here. There's a twinkle amongst the toughness as the trio build to a beautiful crescendo.
Her own songs have the same timelessness that any number of trad songs have. When she does dip into the canon, however, her interpretations have subtleties that lesser artists can't hope to match. Awake Awake (also known as Drowsy Sleeper or Silver Dagger) comes from her latest album, Love Songs, and is a showcase for her extraordinary voice. Freed of the violin she allows Carter to provide the pop-tinged stylings whilst Hardy coos soothingly. My Johnny was a Shoemaker is more upbeat, full of whoops, and has that quality that's impossible to put your finger on, you can just feel it in your heart. Loving Hannah is best known for the Mary Black version but Hardy's version does incredible justice to it, her voice just as good as the Irish superstar's. Carter, intricate and delicate once again.
An a capella take on Down to the River sees jaws dropping and hearts exploding. Echoes of Alison Krauss, of course, but Hardy, once again, proves that she is a match for any of the great female singers you could name. As befits an artist who is ten albums into her career and has made music influenced by Japan, America and the British Isles, her willingness to try anything proves that she is a graceful master of her art.
The set ends with Tequila Moon, a song that sways with a heat-haze shimmer. On this humid evening it seems the perfect fit, plucked violin creating a ukulele strum, piano and guitar setting up a porch-swing rhythm whilst Hardy sleepily, easily sends us off, humming into the night.
Before Hardy's triumphant return was HANNAH SCOTT, a singer of contemporary folk songs who easily held a capacity Downend in the palm of her hand. By the end of her short set, she had opened her heart and shown us the inner workings of her soul. Every song that hit the hardest uncovered something about the relationships that she has with those closest to her. My Dad & I was wonderfully sweet, her high voice never wavering. The Boy in the Frame is about her beloved grandmother and also carries huge emotion within the most delicate vessel. Just piano and voice, yearning and memory.
All of this emotion is dealt with with the lightest of touches. It is, however, with Skimming Stones that Scott's potential as future headliner can be seen, as clear as day. Taken from her lovely new EP, Ancient Lights, it is almost hymnlike, graceful and impossibly moving. If only the words "radio friendly" didn't carry nasty connotations then Skimming Stones is radio friendly. It's the sort of song that could easily connect with everyone.
Both Scott and Hardy have an easy charm and, I suspect, both will be welcomed back to Downend time and time again.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell