On a shiny Bank Holiday Saturday, at umpteenth beer o'clock, 200 metres away from a long, sandy beach, what better pastime than to sit in a darkened auditorium and indulge in a power-hour of glower with self-styled 'lugubrious bastards', Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker? Musically, their take on folk is reverent and experimental in equal measures. Their take on life is largely irreverent, as demonstrated by Josienne's endearingly wry musings between songs. Undoubtedly the high point of the Bournemouth Spring Folk Festival, they emblazoned our afternoon with sweet sorrow.
Bathed in red light, giving the scene a slight air of Stephen King's "Carrie", Josienne annihilated the 'invisible fourth wall' in seconds flat. She pricked any suggestion of excess formality with a too-much-info cautionary tale about her exceptionally tight new tights and what to do if she passed out through lack of circulation, before she and shaggy, corduroy-punk, virtuoso guitarist, Ben led off with what Josienne ironically labelled, 'banging dancefloor fillers', "The Birds" and "Something Familiar". The latter, from their superb 2016 album, "Overnight", showcased Ben's delicate picking and Josienne's tumultuous vocal intensity. For most of the set, she sang whilst scrutinising the left-hand wall most sorrowfully, as if every square inch of plastering reminded her of abandoned kittens.
You can tar them with the misery brush all you like, yet their honest focus on how life can be complex and fraught should be rather reassuring and cathartic. We ought to embrace the dynamism and beauty in the uncertainty of existence, rather than seek the stasis and blandness of predictability. The lyric from "The Tangled Tree", 'Beautiful birds are not meant to be caged' carries the sense of how 'Eeyorish' observations like theirs should not be suppressed or confined, and possess as much noble elegance as expressions of joy. "Silverline" voices the wistful truth that 'For each pound of joy, there's an ounce of regret/ If the sun rises, you know it will set'. For each pound of intense contemplation within the songs, there were always several ounces of playful, sardonic wit from Josienne in between, as if Jo Brand or Josie Long had been helicoptered in for light relief.
We were treated to two splendid new compositions. "Chicago" was Josienne's note to herself to 'stop being a diva' after throwing a strop when no-one turned up to see them at a show on their US tour. Before "Only the Only", they mocked themselves for straying into 'Ed Sheeran territory' with Ben playing two guitar lines, using a loop station. Much as he can't actually play two guitars at once, he definitely optimises the sound he can make with one guitar with nimble, slickly flitting fingers.
In the finest folk tradition, they interpreted the songs of others deftly. As if the loop pedal wasn't enough to give any 'beards and tankards' die-hards hives, Ben got his drum machine going on Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow" (Josienne - 'It gets more controversial. We might have to hand in our folk membership cards'). "Reynardine" and "Fotheringay" covered their 'obligations' to Fairport Convention, giving rise to the now-mandatory Josienne/Sandy Denny vocal comparison. There may be some similarity in their voices, but the versatility shown in covering Gillian Welch's sinister bluegrass "Dark Turn of Mind" and their encore song, Nina Simone's plaintive, bluesy "For All We Know" confirmed that Josienne is considerably more than a soundalike. Considering how this duo's songwriting is preoccupied with the passage of time, Simone's lyric, 'we come and we go, like the ripples in a stream', was all too pertinent for how swiftly their beguiling set passed.
Did I just manage to review the whole show without using the word 'melancholy'?
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Have a spookily musical Halloween this year.
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