DOWNEND FOLK & ROOTS REVIEW:
WARD KNÚTUR TOWNES + MADDIE MORRIS
FRIDAY 17 NOVEMBER 2023, CHRIST CHURCH DOWNEND.
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 unsettling, more old-fashioned Grimm’s fairytale than the sanitised Disney version. More Northern European darkness than English whimsy. With the help of a 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 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