"I love it here", says extroda-vocalist Sian Chandler. "it combines two of my favourite things: playing at Downend and drinking alcohol in church". There's a chuckle and the tell-tale fsst of a can opening.
You might think that this makes THE BLACK FEATHERS a hard drinking, good time rock'n'roll band. They are not. They are one of the finest country duos in the UK, writers of gloriously sad ear-worms, and heavenly harmonisers with a telepathic understanding. One of them is teetotal too.
Sian Chandler and Ray Hughes last visited Downend in 2017, somewhere around the release of Soaked To The Bone, their classic debut album. This time they're here in support of Where We Are, the new album released this week. Between the two albums they've toured extensively in America, taking their brand of Americana to every nook and cranny and it shows. Hughes is talkative and polished, Chandler simmers with restrained power.
Crowded around one of those old fashioned, bluegrass microphones their voices combine as though they were born to do it. Hughes brings with him an air of classic '70s rock, a little bit James Taylor; Chandler could, very simply, stop traffic. When she sings, the world is a better place. When she really lets rip, wars could stop, the sun could shine, peace could reign.
Down By The River is one of those carefully constructed, subtle as a whisper ear-worms. Driven by Chandler's voice, it's equal parts southern soul and straight-up country, their harmonies shivering in the half-light, Hughes and his acoustic guitar fluid, shimmering, water-like. They hold each other up, voices and guitar creating the perfect life-raft.
Taken from Soaked To The Bone, Homesick is another favourite from shows gone by. It's now been polished to a dazzling shine yet still aches with that elusive feeling of country loss. There are moments when, as she sings on her own, Chandler betrays a heartbreaking vulnerability, the tiniest catch in her voice. It's then that Hughes, her partner as well as band-mate, extends a harmony for her to lean on. It's such a beautiful relationship.
The new songs, especially Perfect Storm and Another Day, stay pretty close to The Black Feathers template. The guitar playing is lovely and both songs use Chandler's voice as their ignition, the harmonies dropping slightly as she crests the chorus. There's melancholy here but it's the sort of sadness that we all need.
There are two moments when the template is skewed, when the sadness is swept away. Both moments are incredible cover versions. Portishead's Glory Box has never sounded like this, that's for sure. Sian Chandler might not be a world-weary chanteuse, like Beth Gibbons, but their version is closer to a proper country tune. It's assured and sassy and the meaning of the song is completely changed. Sung as a duet, the cracked desperation is lost, replaced by a lustful longing. Norman Greenbaum's (or Dr & The Medics, if you'd prefer) Spirit In The Sky is slowed down, stretched out. If Chandler is a spirit in the sky then she's taken a wrong turn. Her voice is full of devilry and lascivious wickedness. Winding it up with some Addams Family finger-clickery seems entirely appropriate.
Holy Water tells of being a recovering alcoholic and is hushed, tender and restrained. They support one another, once again, until Chandler's voice is flooded with emotion. On Goodbye Tomorrow that voice is sinuous, curling like smoke. It is a deliciously versatile thing and worth the price of admission all by itself.
A second, spontaneous encore of Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi is utterly celebratory. Stepping from the stage, Hughes and Chandler dispense with their fabulous microphone and, instead, become part of an enthusiastic choir. Voices are raised, the song and the singing become the only intoxicant that anyone needs.
Just as intoxicating was BARNEY KENNY, in support. Part stomp-y acoustic folk-punk, part pedal steel driven blues, his set was electrifying. She Moves and Twig & Turf flicked a dreadlock in the direction of The Levellers with a rabble-rousing thrash whilst a version of Chris Stapleton's Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore added a hint of Gospel and uncovered Kenny's powerful and expressive voice. Driving displayed some impressively fast pedal steel skills and a love of America's wide open spaces.
The Black Feathers and Barney Kenny were the greatest way to start off Downend Folk & Roots' new season. We love it here.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell