June 2023: Downend Folk & Roots Review




“What a great space this is”, says Dave Harbottle. “It’s like the perfect combination of the old and the new.” He’s right too, Christ Church Downend is looking at its very best tonight. The sunset streams through the open doors, blue lights gently uplight the mullioned windows, the woodwork painted subtle shades. It’s an old place cast in a different light.

In Devon duo Harbottle & Jonas, the church has found a band with whom it might have a spiritual bond. They’re a combination of the old and the new too. Starting with Was It You, a Ewan Carruthers song about Scott of the Antarctic’s last moments, they are delightfully hushed, wonderfully gentle. The harmonies that they weave fall as lightly as spring rain. Freya Jonas has a voice of rare beauty, but it’s not flash; it very softly calls our names, an honest humility not a rafter raising roar.

Hall Sands is more upbeat. A song remembering a village washed away on the South Coast of Devon, it’s filled with the echoes of an old place but bounces along with the fondest of memories. Harbottle’s acoustic guitar captures the crash of waves while the harmonium (that Jonas plays with her leg!) bottles the voices drifting on the sea air.  Jonas wonders, at one stage, whether they’ve lived around Totnes for too long because so many of their songs are steeped in sea water. Hall Sands is certainly not the only one.

Mingulay Boat Song is instantly recognisable, a bit of Scottish trad arr, but here it is very, very lovely indeed. Harbottle plays cittern with a harp-like delicacy whilst keeping time with a simple kick drum. Jonas exhorts us to raise our voices – “where better place to do that than here?” – but none of us can get close to her. By the time these two break the song down to an acapella conclusion any hopes of singing along are in the past. Their harmonies are glorious.

In a move that’s, surely, guaranteed to bait their Devonian neighbours, Cornwall My Home is a sea shanty slowed to the pace of a spiritual. There’s no rabble rousing or beating on tables here, this is Americana-tinged and filled with yearning. Not so much a celebration, more a heartsick remembering. Many of the sea related songs come from an album made a few years ago and the title track, The Sea Is My Brother, is another where the waves threaten to pull you away, into another world. This one is Kerouac-ean and ocean deep.

Of the non-seafaring songs, perhaps, Whenever You See A Robin is the one that is most affecting. Taken from their last physical release, The Beacon, it’s another song stuffed with memories. Written in response to the death of the father of a friend, it’s unbearably tender, funny and honest. Just like all the best eulogies. Harbottle takes the lead and sings with all of the care that is needed, Jonas adds sweetness as well as harmonium and concertina. It’s the sort of song that you’d hope someone would sing for you, when you’re gone.

All that’s left are a couple of rousing shanties, a bit of down-home crude comedy, with Peggy Seeger’s It’s A Free World, and a hymn. Now The Green Blade Riseth, taken from their current digital-only release Saving The Good Stuff vol 1, is a song of resurrection. It takes the old and makes it new. As does the final song in the evening, a gorgeous, slowed version of Black Is The Colour. Harbottle & Jonas find the timeless and paint it with different colours.

The support act this evening has been to Downend before. Way back in 2015 Robert Lane supported the magnificent O’Hooley & Tidow. “It’s lovely to be back so soon,” he jokes. Lane mixes blues-y acoustic guitar, snatches of indie-folk and a wry sense of storytelling, poking at odd little corners just as all the best singer-songwriters do. Sick Of Me is gently self-effacing while Bill Frost’s Flying Machine is whimsical, telling of the first, proper, aeroplane built in Wales. On his last visit to Downend, Lane covered the Bee Gees in a folkified style, this time he has a tilt at disco folk with My Love’s In Deep. It’s neither particularly folk nor especially disco but it’s still a great tune.

This “great space” continues to give us the very best evenings. Long may it last.

Words: Gavin McNamara

Photos: Barry Savell