“The fun’s over. Strap yourself in, it’s gonna be a miserable ride”.
After upbeat sets from opening acts Tom Hyatt and Sweeney Astray, Josienne Clarke suggested a change of mood was on the cards at this happening River Ribble watering hole on Friday night.
But this golden vocal talent Josienne and treasured guitarist Ben Walker play it just the right side of maudlin, and what followed was a compelling set, one fully showcasing their acclaimed output these past few years.
I barely caught a couple of songs of London live circuit regular Tom, first on, but he proved a hit, as did alt. indie-folk outfit Sweeney Astray, vocals/guitar pairing Mike Kneafsey and Katie Ritson plus Anna Ashworth (drums) complemented for the first time by Atomic Rooster’s Shug Millidge (bass) and Jamie Brewer (electric guitar).
We had more of a folk crowd than the usual Tuff Life Boogie clientele, and when Jamie unleashed a little feedback at one stage there were more winces than knowing rock’n’roll nods. But this was no cable jumper, finger-in-ear collective, Mike’s approach suggesting King Creosote at times, the band at their best in more indie-folk territory for these ears.
Beguiling opener The Birds was just the first highlight from the main act, London-based Josienne’s subtly-powerful vocals captivating the room while piercing hearts and minds.
Something Familiar has become a favourite for this scribbler of late, and unconscious memories were duly pricked by a Proustian approach in a Prestonian setting.
This was already something of a greatest hits section, Dark Turn of Mind perfectly interpreted by Josienne – who reckoned Gillian Welch’s song was written for this self-styled ‘lugubrious bastard’ – in more bluesy territory, her partner’s six-string touches the perfect accompaniment.
I won’t get technical about Brighton-based Ben’s part in all this, save to say he did all his talking with superior picking and bridgework, switching between Les Paul and two acoustic guitars, seemingly effortless in his intricate attention to detail and virtuosity.
It may say ‘folk’ on the tin, but this pair readily branch out from there. They’d struggle to drop the next cover from their set though, Banks of the Sweet Primroses having gone down a storm at the Royal Albert Hall when they picked up the best duo award at the BBC 2 Folk Awards. Two years on, they recalled risking six years’ work in one sub-three minute live slot, but clearly needn’t have worried, great things following.
The title track of most recent album, Overnight, their first for Rough Trade, followed, one of many songs seemingly crafted in the wee small hours, with next offering The Light of His Lamp also by turns charming and thrilling.
Josienne went on to explain how she struggles to write anything ‘light and euphoric’, those sentiments voiced on Silverline, while new song Seedlings All briefly took us away from ‘songs about the passing of time’, trying to make sense of a Mad World also remarked upon in Sweeney Astray’s earlier surprisingly-rootsy treatment of Tears for Fears.
A tongue-in-cheek attempt at dividing the audience followed, Josienne gauging reaction with comment about the worth of Fairport Convention, post-Sandy Denny. Yet thanks to a spine-tingling run through Reynardine – one few could pull off so well – she was off the hook.
A song about teenage woes followed, The Tangled Tree something Josienne says she wrote ’10 years ago, when I was nine’. Yeah, right.
She returned to Sandy lane for Fotheringay, these graduates from the ‘Conservatoire of Life’ then tackling a little ‘pretentious rubbish’ – Josienne’s description, not mine – in an interpretation of late Victorian classical chart-bound sound As Torrents in Summer. And where do you go from Edward Elgar? Chesney Hawkes, of course. Well, sort of, Josienne wryly name-checking his 1991 No.1 before launching into new song Only Me Only.
Our queen of self-deprecating humour also compared Ben’s loop-pedal work with a certain Ed Sheeran, although insisting her co-worker’s version was more ostinato really. Gotta love musical snobbery, eh.
Any such celebration of the more melancholic was bound inevitably to lead to the door of Nick Drake, and their take on Time Has Told Me was another highlight. Unfortunately though, an intermission followed, with genuine concern after an audience member took ill. Thankfully word eventually came back that he was on the road to recovery, a relieved Josienne and Ben given the green light to resume.
A touch of late-night poignancy followed, the pair giving us Jackson C. Frank and Sandy Denny married with a little jazz-soaked Autumn Leaves bar-room blues on Milk and Honey, Josienne expertly alternating between voice and saxophone, just when I thought the later was only there as a prop, Tommy Cooper style. And while she reckons she’s ‘more Ron than John Coltrane’, it was a love supreme for this punter.
There was still time for a fresh, heartfelt spin on Nina Simone’s For All We Know, and with the main exit still blocked courtesy of our earlier medical situation, we were afforded instead a bonus, recent set addition Chicago a quality end to a supposed ‘barrage of misery’ which still somehow left us with springs in the step.
For details of their releases so far, and to keep in touch with Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, try these Facebook and Twitter links.
For more information about Sweeney Astray, including details of their new single, Flow, head here, and for the lowdown on Tom Hyatt try here.
Meanwhile, to see what else Tuff Life Boogie have in store over the coming months, try here.