Live Review: Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker – The Sage, Gateshead

“That cover of Sandy Denny was good, but not as good as Sandy Denny.” Josienne Clarke introduces Fotheringay from past reviews, mid-set. It was one of a few covers on the night and looking back on the opening evening of this tour at The Sage, I say Josienne and Ben Walker should just leave out covers, although many appear on their albums, as the night saw their original material stand strong on their own.

Not many seats were left in the stunningly lit Northern Rock Foundation room of The Sage and as soon as the lights went down, an air of silence came over the audience. Thankfully we had Clarke take lead to relax us, even when she came on stage to introduce the support act herself, the delightful Samantha Whates, who is also in Josienne’s other group PicaPica. Whates opened with a song that she says is normally a closer in her sets, but what a great choice Three Miles Left Til Home was to open the night – a very warm and comforting song, as was the rest of her set. The way she delivered it and her engagement with the quiet yet attentive crowd, was delicate and charming.

Josienne and Ben took to the stage with a full band – keyboards, drums and double bass/bass guitar. Josienne immediately mentioned their last visit in support of Richard Thompson, which coincided with the very limited 12” pressing of The Birds EP, a track that then opened the set. Josienne, on stage at least, definitely took charge of the talking and in between every number it was almost like being at a comedy show. Her wit and banter definitely took out the ‘misery’ – a word she uses to describe a lot of their work – from the tracks.

Whates rejoined the stage and sang backing vocals beautifully to Josienne, for the ‘semi-upbeat’ Nine Times Around – you can definitely see why they have joined forces for aforementioned project PicaPica. And to hear them both sing on The Tangled Tree was something to be witnessed. Continuing the Overnight album, The Light Of His Lamp was performed, following a brief back-story of the album as being like a narrative of a day and this track being ‘midnight’. So to make sure the audience didn’t fall asleep, the band had to play it at least 90% of their best! If you have seen the video to their single Chicago then you can imagine what they wanted to avoid, but the problem with Josienne and Ben is that even if they played 5% of their best it would still be good enough. They are naturally engaging as musicians. Ben’s arrangements are great stood alone, but add Josienne’s vocals – classical, mesmerizing and choir like – they silence the noise around you.

There were jokes of Ed Sheeran’s loop pedals and a shout out to 1990s pop ‘sensation’ Chesney Hawkes, though not in song or musicality but more in the description of their latest offering Seedlings All, where many have questioned their placing in the folk genre. Thankfully these mentions were more regarding the introduction of Ben on the ‘drum machine’ and I guess the slight electro sounds and ‘jazzier’ drumming that appear. If anything though, it just shows how many different aspects can be given to folk and that Josienne and Ben are not afraid to take it on, which in turn will probably make folk ‘more accessible’ to the masses (or maybe struck off the folk list).

Seedlings All has been critically well received and when transferred live, it was almost like putting the record on in the comfort of your own room, with Josienne popping up now and then with a commentary. Ending the night was Bathing In Light, a song about stage fright and if you did not already know, this new album is Josienne’s most personal record – but the way she handled being the front woman of the whole night seemed contradicting! Then again, some artists that suffer stage fright have the most natural patter on stage and Josienne is just that.

It is no surprise that the non-stop clapping resulted in an encore and Josienne and Ben returned with a great cover of Nick Drake’s Time Has Told Me. So maybe I take back how I started this review – if covers can be done the Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker way then let it be! And a word to Chicago, it may not have been your fault that no one came to see them play and in hindsight it was maybe a good thing, as it gave us this album and one of the best Good Friday’s I have had in a while. Seriously, Chicago and anywhere else that happens to have Josienne and Ben play, make sure you cancel everything and go see them play!

Words & Image by Victoria Ling