Lockdown did funny things to the music communities. It stopped live music, drove insular people to singing with strangers on Zoom, created unusual alliances.
One such was Global Music Match - musicians from around the globe were thrown together to make something new. Derby's Lucy Ward, Canada's Adyn Townes and Svavar Knútur from Northern Iceland met via computer screen and wrote an extraordinary album, Unanswered, together over those two desolate years (Ward describes WARD KNÚTUR TOWNES as a “self-help group”). Now the virtual has become real. In fact, it’s so real that, sometimes, it’s almost overpowering.
All three are incredible songwriters in their own right, all three are huge personalities and all three sing like gods.
Lucy Ward is an explosion of positivity, radiating excitement to everyone in her blast area. She smiles constantly, living every song, every line, every harmony. An unsung, powerful woman in the folk community, her four solo albums are wonderful and tonight, even with a frog in her throat, she is peerless. On Aurora, from Unanswered, she is a folk goddess rising from the sea, it swells and beats against twin acoustic guitars. The three harmonies lifting the song from the waves. Ward's voice is an object lesson in restrained power.
On Bigger Than That she is joined by Maddie Morris (who provided a brilliant support slot this evening) for a fiercely political song. It's the sort of thing that folk does so well; intensely angry, railing against unfairness, set to a beautiful tune. These two stunning voices, almost literally, stop the show. As the final notes of their harmonies fill this church they ring off of the rafters. When the audience joins in, Ward chides us “not like you're in a church, this is a rallying cry”. And so it is, a rallying cry to change the world for all of those “like, and unlike” us.
If Lucy Ward is the excitable harmony generator of this incredible band, Adyn Townes seems to be the one in charge. A respected songwriter in his native Canada he brings a little bit of Indie-tinged Americana, his voice high, ragged and wind-blown. There are traces of Lambchop or Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, hints of darkness at the edge of town. Churchill tells the story of his grandmother, of love and of changing plans. It is desperately beautiful, folk in its widest sense, it is a story about people. Ward and Knútur adding harmonies, evoking longing and joy, as Townes sketches out an alt-country postcard. On Work it Out, Townes strums his acoustic guitar for all he's worth, a bouncy, upbeat alt-pop gem unexpectedly emerging from the “gentle, romantic melancholia” that surrounds it. Those harmonies are still there though, three voices from different countries joined for love.
It is love that is expressed, wonderfully, on Seasons. Another Townes song, this one is about Johnny Cash and his love for his wife, June. It is heavenly and especially affecting when Ward twines her voice with his. If there is one song that could be lifted from this set and held up to the light, then it's this one. A classic.
The last of the trio is Svavar Knútur and he is an absolute riot. Self-deprecating, his wry observations on cultural differences are effortlessly funny and most seem to involve fish. At one stage he says that the people of Iceland are “not romantic, more pragmatic”, he then sings the loveliest love song that you can imagine. While the World Burns is a perfect sliver of indie-folk, it is full of tender yearning and heartfelt emotion.
Isn’t It Funny takes the old folk trope of Merfolk and splashes it with a layer of brine and indie grime. It’s strangely unsettling, more old-fashioned Grimm’s fairytale than the sanitised Disney version. More Northern European darkness than gentle English whimsy. With the help of yet another Ward harmony it soars, the strangeness delightfully undercut.
There was never a doubt as to how special this evening was going to be but if you add the support act in it was remarkable.
MADDIE MORRIS was voted BBC Young Folk Musician of the year in 2019 and she is fantastic. Inclusive, angry, nostalgic, wide eyed, full of love. Morris is all of these and about a hundred more.
It's just her, an incredible voice and an acoustic guitar but the world she creates is all consuming. Easily Bruised is shot through with giddy adolescence - “I can't pretend that I don't miss the 17-year-old girl” - whilst Without Shame gives voice to the voiceless. The influences of Ani DeFranco, Anais Mitchell and Laura Marling hover in the wings but Morris is, unequivocally, her own person and getting more so with every passing performance. Her debut album is out in February and it's going to be a great thing.
Lucy Ward, Svavar Knútur and Adyn Townes may have come together in the darkest of days but they have created something that is truly breathtaking. A tiny, unexpected delight that feels strangely important. Unanswered feels like an album that should be listened to forever. This evening was a gig that will be remembered for just as long.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell
This month’s headliners found their sound when the world fell silent. In 2020, these three singer-songwriters were selected to take part in a virtual global music sharing experiment called Global Music Match. Teamed up together, they spent several lockdowns turning their stories into soft harmonies and intricate melodies.
This year, WARD KNÚTUR TOWNES cashed in their stagnant travel points and started recording new material in Iceland.
Lucy Ward, from Derbyshire, is an acclaimed singer-songwriter and powerhouse performer with a unique ability to inhabit the heart of each song she sings. A BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winner, her songs are a mixture of evocative imagery, quiet beauty, passion, protest and tradition all rolled into one.
Iceland’s Svavar Knútur is a gentle but coarse, decadent troubadour. He summons his inner demons and outer storms to reflect upon the existential crises and frolicking joys of modern day rustic fjord dwelling folk. Recipient of the Anna Pálína Árnadóttir memorial award for folk music excellence in Iceland, Knútur is a humorous storyteller and avid diver into the murky waters of the human condition; a fitting mixture of art and entertainment.
Adyn Townes, who hails from New Brunswick in Canada, is an award-winning alternative folk artist who uses self-deprecating banter and heartfelt lyrics to disarm any audience. A five times International Songwriting Competition finalist, Townes’ unique voice and honest songwriting set the stage for a show that is high energy yet intimate, beautiful yet clever.
With more than a dozen albums between them, Ward Knútur Townes are touring their highly-anticipated debut album, Unanswered.
Opening the evening will be BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner MADDIE MORRIS, who is an artist who strives to make a difference in the world. Bold, insightful and refreshingly unique, she takes traditional song in new directions to shine a light on contemporary issues.
Folk songs have always told stories, but how Maddie makes her mark is by turning this storytelling into action. Described by our Patron Jim Moray as “leading the next generation of socially conscious songwriters”, she uses her work to highlight inequality, challenge viewpoints and provide an inclusive space for shared experiences.
Whether she’s turning a centuries-old ballad on its head or writing something new, Maddie places her focus on drawing out true meaning rather than being true to tradition. Her first studio release, Upstream, a beautifully crafted collection of songs which amplifies the stories of those often marginalised by society. Passionately political, yet gently understated, this is music that deftly treads the path between art and activism.
Tickets for the concert, which takes place at CHRIST CHURCH DOWNEND on Friday 17 November 2023, are available online at downendfolkandroots.com and from MELANIE'S KITCHEN in Downend (cash only). They are priced at £14 each in advance or £16 on the door. Doors open at 7.30pm and the entertainment starts around 7.45pm.
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
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