For much of this evening you'd swear that a river bubbled and burbled through Downend. A river over which fresh water drifted and pulsed, coursed and spun. A river where birds swooped, creatures slithered and folk tales were told. A river over which the sun shone.
Both KITTY MACFARLANE and DETTA KENZIE are from the West Country and both use their glorious, pure voices to hymn our part of the world, the rivers, hills and animals that we all know. It was, somehow, fitting that all of nature's wonders were praised in a church, fitting that we were reminded of fresh spring bursts just as the year swings around.
Downend Folk & Roots celebrates ten years of showcasing beautiful music in 2024 and it seems only right and proper that Bristol based Kitty Macfarlane should help kick off this momentous year. She's been here, very nearly, from the beginning, playing support slots, headlining, sitting in the audience, lending love and light. She doesn't play live all that often anymore so this one was always going to be a treat.
The West Country weaves through Macfarlane's songs, as vital and intrinsic as nature itself. She conjures the romanticism, the rolling, soft beauty as well as anyone. She is absolutely masterful at setting a scene, of painting the landscape that she clearly loves so much. She is, in many ways, the musical equivalent of an artist like the Cornish painter Hannah Woodman, another person who can create a vivid image with the flick of a wrist.
Morgan's Pantry, taken from the Namer of Clouds album, is sublime. As minimal as a clear winter's day, it is just Macfarlane's voice and some muted electronics. The sounds of the sea twine, gently, with a vocal rope of gold, her voice is as strong and tender as the ocean itself. She says that it is an old song that should be sung with caution, lest the sea spirits be summoned. By the end those spirits are crammed into every nook and cranny of this already packed space.
Bristol’s folklore is skilfully mined for Avona, a tale of the giants, Goram and Vincent, and the woman over whom they fight. Any Bristolian knows this story backwards yet, in Macfarlane’s hands, it becomes full of poetic love and yearning. It ebbs and flows like the tides, swelling and calming as the story unfolds. Should Bristol require a new folk song (that isn’t Goodnight Irene) then this one fits the bill.
As much as Macfarlane’s originals are captivating, it is the covers that show off her remarkable voice. The Snow it Melts the Soonest has the golden glow of an English field at sunrise. If The Detectorists is a televisual distillation of Englishness, so Macfarlane’s voice is the aural equivalent. She shows it again on the Anne Briggs song, Go Your Way, where her voice takes on a calmness that is utterly heartbreaking. On Tim Buckley's Song to The Siren, she strips the song back to a feather-like fragility, it is a rainbow cast in the mist of a waterfall. It is wonderful.
Macfarlane’s love of nature is no secret and there are two songs that show this better than any other. Glass Eel is all busy skies and racing oceans, it is the sound of ancient travels and massed migration. There’s rhythm and endless motion, a curious questing that makes the song glitter and shine. Sea Silk drifts in on a sampled voice, Italian, hardworking, honest. It is the story of silk weaving and feminine craft, of skills passed down through generations. An acoustic guitar carefully washes the words, the sun spun from salt water, a blinding dazzle seemingly produced from the air itself.
Detta Kenzie is a Devon based singer songwriter with the most extraordinary voice. Her control is staggering, whether executing the torch-y velvet-curtain swoosh of An English Selki or the swirling, spinning headrush of Surfer Boy, a pitch perfect poise ripples through her five-song set.
She starts with the folk standard He's Young but He's Growing. There are any number of versions of this but it is Cara Dillon's that springs immediately to mind. Kenzie shares with Dillon an ability to fully inhabit the song, to wring from it every last emotion. It is a stunning way to start the evening.
From there Kenzie shows us that she's a very fine song writer too. An English Selki takes a well-worn tale and infuses it with European charm. There's the merest hint of chanson, a smokey, Gallic flavour that is as deep as it is delicious. Whistman's Wood, taken from a forthcoming EP, has a hint of Willow's Song from The Wicker Man to it. It is stuffed with images from the natural world and is as warm, comforting and familiar as a moss-y blanket. She is a singer of siren songs with a voice likely to lure the unsuspecting onto the rocks.
On a January night, when it's easy to get lost in the darkness, Detta Kenzie and Kitty Macfarlane were able to remind us that we will see the sunshine again soon.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell