Folk festivals in pubs have come a long way from the hands-on-ear, Vin Garbutt and Martin Carthy folk clubs of the 1970s. These days you’d hardly even recognise it as folk. The London Folkfest is a series of nights of essentially unplugged music, taking in a range of styles from earthy blues, through introspective singer-songwritery, to raggle-taggle violin-infested nu-folk.
With this in mind, the first act on tonight’s roster was Joe Corbin. Normally he is the lead man of rock trio Jackdaw, and this was pretty clear from his style, with gritty vocals and plenty of bluesy licks and solos. It’s often difficult for a solo artist to convert full-band songs into a one-man arrangement, but he did an admirable job. Though at times, the technical wizardy edged towards self-indulgent without a backbeat nailing it down. However, I was suitably impressed with his take on Tony Joe White’s blues classic As The Crow Flies.
Next up were Emily and the Woods. Interest declared here, as it was my fifth experience of this band, and they never fail to deliver. There are a number of factors that make for a winning combination. Emily herself is very engaging, and always makes you feel as if she’s playing to a group of friends. She likes to punctuate the set with humorous tales and asides, such as being given a pint of G+T to drink at a recent festival, and going to an S+M cafe (sausage + mash, folks). There is always an unexpected aspect regarding how many of the band will be playing – tonight the drummer was absent. Each time I’ve seen them, a different combination of personnel has brought a different dynamic and tonight it was mostly laid back and restrained. Most of all, however, is Emily’s voice, which at first always sounds frail and cracked, but as you listen you realise there’s a latent power there that emerges at all the right moments. There’s also a minimalist fragility to her playing style that means you never know when songs will collapse into ending, and you sense the band are kept on their toes, which keeps the songs alive. Throwing in a new arrangement or two (“I hope nobody’s heard that song before”, she said after a heavily altered More Like Me) kept things interesting too. Another beguiling performance.
Third on were Brother and Bones. Having caught the tail end of a support set by them a month or so ago, and being highly impressed by the brief blast of bluesy Americana witnessed, I was looking forward to what turned out to be a stripped-down affair, three out of the five members being present. As with Joe Corbin, the lead vocalist has a gritty, bluesy style with more than a touch of Veddery grunge, and with a look to match. With a rhythm section comprised of double bass and bongo/djembe percussion, the band ran through an impressive set combining light and shade, with tender, plaintive moments interspersed with foot-stomping acoustic rock. Back To Shore was a particular stand-out and I look forward to seeing a full set by the full band in the not too distant future.
The limitations imposed by last trains home precluded seeing much of the final act, Common Tongues. However, I’m not sure I would have missed too much. First impressions were of a nu-folk-by-numbers act, dressed for the part with waistcoats and cravats, and with artificial flowers tied to the mic stands. The dreaded M-word comparisons beg to be unleashed, but I will resist them. I may not have been able to give them a fair hearing, but the songs I did hear didn’t particularly grab me – it’s a crowded market out there for emerging raggle-taggle acoustic bands, and there wasn’t a USP jumping out at me.
Overall though, a very enjoyable evening. The London Folkfest is an admirable venture, with not only gig nights but also workshops on songwriting and music production. I would encourage those within reach of Balham to check it out when it returns next year.