DOWNEND FOLK & ROOTS REVIEW:
THE WILDERNESS YET + HEARTWOOD CHORUS
FRIDAY 15 DECEMBER 2023, CHRIST CHURCH DOWNEND.
Christmas traditions just don’t come better than this. Once the schools have broken up and Downend Folk & Roots have thrown their festive party, you just know that Christmas is around the corner. You can feel free to crack the seal on the Baileys, sit back and enjoy it all.
So, the festivities begin with what must, surely, be a new Downend tradition. If ever there was a group of people designed to play this lovely church just before Christmas, then Heartwood Chorus are those people. A folk choir, twenty-odd strong, making the most glorious music imaginable is everything that you could want. The John Tams song, Snow Falls, is simply tremendous. Festive harmonies ring through the very rafters, an irresistible richness as the voices layer and twine. In The Bleak Midwinter is also beautiful. Part religious exhortation, part Box of Delights snowdrift. Heartwood are heart stopping, welcoming and wonderfully festive.
If Heartwood Chorus gets things off to a warm and fuzzy fireside start then The Wilderness Yet remind us that it’s a bit chilly outside. This brilliant folk trio are perfecting the art of winter-y three-part harmonies and secular versions of old carols. Theirs is a festive season that is, determinedly, filled with halls hung with nature’s green rather than tinsel, theirs is a winter of wrens and snowdrops rather than reindeer and Santa.
The Beauties of Autumn, taken from their debut album, eases us into winter, as sunshine still pierces the darkness. Rosie Hodgson’s voice soaring above everything, the golden glow of a setting sun, as Rowan Pigott, on fiddle, and Philippe Barnes, on guitar, stretch the canvas and paint it with Autumnal hues.
As much as The Wilderness Yet are wonderful musicians, they have a secret weapon. They are singers of the most exquisite three-part harmonies that you have ever heard. On every single song when they put the instruments down a crackle goes through Christ Church. A thrum of pleasure. A glow of satisfaction. An ancient version of The Holly and The Ivy is lush, dripping with chlorophyll, Hodgson’s voice finding the sweet spot between worldly and other-worldly. Corpus Christi Carol takes Jeff Buckley’s arrangement and makes it even more spectral. Stripped of instruments, there’s something completely timeless in the contrasts between Hodgson’s skips and trills and the bass grounding of Barnes.
Turn the Year Round is their own, non-traditional, stab at a festive song. It deserves to find its way into the winter-y canon and is a delightfully warm celebration of the new year. Hodgson describes it as a song that is all chorus because “that’s what people really want” and it is majestic. Taken from the album of the same, this is The Wilderness Yet at their best. It’s music for lighting the fires to, for pulling the curtains closed to, for curling up with those you love to.
If you’re after something like a “proper” Christmas then The Wilderness Yet don’t let you down there either. Deck the Halls might have a slightly odd time signature but that doesn’t stop a massed choral singalong. We Wish You a Merry Christmas is slowed and heartfelt, a meditative, thoughtful celebration. It feels as though they really do wish us a merry Christmas.
As ever, the spirit of Christmas lives long at Downend. With the help of Heartwood Chorus and The Wilderness Yet we will be able to carry it in our hearts for the rest of the year.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell