The sub-title of HANNAH SANDERS & BEN SAVAGE's latest album, Ink of the Rosy Morning, is "a sampling of folk songs from Britain and North America" and this, together with songs from their previous two albums, provided the large gathering at Downend Folk & Roots with an evening of sublime, heart-warming music.
Facing each other over a single old-style microphone, and back at Downend for the first time in five years as a duo, their warmth immediately draws us all in towards them. They begin with their version of Tim Hardin’s If I were a Carpenter. The purity of Hannah’s voice, Ben’s intricate guitar playing and harmonies get us off to a wonderful start to the evening. "We’re only three shows into the run," says Ben, "we’re still excited. We played Tim Hardin at the start to make sure we didn’t do anything stupid!”
The more bluesy, Polly O Polly is followed by some more good ol' blues, A Winter’s Night. Hannah tells us this was one was one of their avant-garde videos, set in front of a log fire! The mellow version of Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key (via Woody Guthrie/Billy Bragg), sets the bar high and includes the line "ain’t nobody can sing like me”. It certainly feels like it tonight!
Ben takes the lead on vocals with their working of the Cape Breton ballad, When I First Came to Caledonia... he tells us he has steadily fallen out of favour with the male protagonist, but the song does promote the delights of tea! An American version of the love song, I Gave My Love a Cherry, with Ben playing dobro, and then a version of Ribbons and Bows by US old-time banjo player, Richie Stearns, brings the first half to a close.
The English folk ballad Earl Richard starts the second half, and contains on of Hannah’s favourite lines from a female protagonist: "I have a dead man in my bower. I wish he were a way". Two moving love songs follow; The Fall, featuring Hannah’ plaintive vocals, and Ben leading on What’s it Tonight My Love. After Fairport Convention’s Reynardine (a cautionary tale to women), we are treated to A Life A Lie, a song that Hannah wrote for those left behind after others have left, and we are invited to sing along to Ben's song of hope, A Thousand New Moons, with the words "for love, for love" .
The soulful blues of John Martyn’s Hurt in Your Heart, leads us to the 'last' song, River Don’t Run, a romance played out against a demolished area of London in 1886. But, of course, it’s not the last song! Ben & Hannah return for two more. Leadbelly’s sing-a-long blues I Will Be So Glad When I Get Home, and another bluesy song of hope, Trouble in Mind.
Opening the evening was LAUREN SOUTH, who gave us another stunning vocal performance as she accompanied her songs with a variety of instruments. She opened with The Mermaid and the Swimming Lad whilst playing a shruti box. Lauren tells us that her daughters were disappointed at the fate of the Swimming Lad! The title track of her album Tiny Boat, is a lyrical ballad backed by deft guitar playing. Next were two tunes, Glenfarg Waltz and Time Wasters, including lilting violin via a hands-free kit! In the thoughtful The Blue, Lauren asks “where the sky meets the sea, where does the blue end and begin?”. Jessica finished the set, a song about not looking back.
But the evening rightly belonged to Hannah & Ben, whose latest album came from songs that were not originally meant to be recorded or played in public. Tonight we were treated to the very best in harmonious vocals and intricate guitar playing. We are so glad they did!
Words: Paul Duckett
Photos: Alan Cole