Tonight it is obvious that Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker are sick of being lumped in as ‘folk’. However, when you are winners of the Best Duo category at the BBC2 Radio Folk Awards of 2015, perhaps you should just suck it up? Perhaps you should know what side your butter is spread on?
First things first. Clarke and Walker are not folk. Not any more. Their recent album, Seedlings All, contains barely any folk at all. It’s 100% made up of original songs. It’s the final nail in the coffin for the folk tag that they previously only half embraced, and which they are actively shaking off. It’s a brave move that the label Rough Trade have championed, via this album and their previous Overnight album, and their in-between The Birds EP. In effect, Walker and Clarke have almost had to win fans afresh, as the nauseatingly purist folk brigade are leaving the duo in their droves.
Hence the bittersweet things Clarke tell us in-between songs. About leather tankards and Fairport Convention T-shirts, about the English Folk Dance and Song Society (“It was nice, but bye bye!”), and someone complaining about the lack of chairs at their gigs. Clearly exasperated, but liberated at the same time, Clarke says about their music nowadays, “That’s what folk music heresy sounds like. I quite like it.”
As do tonight’s audience, who seem to fully embrace and appreciate what the duo do now, a mix of arty pop balladry with a hint of jazz here and there. Live, the five-piece band add weight and substance to the studio recordings, helping to elevate Clarke’s simply beautiful (and skilful) voice. It’s a knowing voice, that drips with melancholy, as do most of her songs (she tends to write the lyrics and the melodies, Walker the arrangements and production), beginning with the elegant jazz-flavoured ‘Ghost Light’. “I like to start about a doomed relationship, so nobody gets the wrong idea,” she amusingly informs us afterwards.
With a set made up mostly of Seedlings All, along with a sprinkling of tracks from their previous releases and a couple of covers (Dolly Parton’s ‘Little Sparrow’ and Gillian Welch’s ‘Dark Turn of Mind’, which they encore, as a duo), Clarke and Walker have hit the veritable nail on the head with their musical partnership. With Walker’s sure-footed, and graceful work on guitar, as well as his handling of the odd bit of looping (sacrilege!!), they do remind of the aforementioned Gillian Welch, and her musical partner Dave Rawlings, two people who managed to elevate themselves above and beyond the old school, to win new audiences for what really is music as ancient as the hills. It’s a hard battle, though, as Clarke reminds us before ‘Chicago’, the lead track off Seedlings All, and which was written in response to a show where literally no one turned up. The experience, while no doubt deeply depressing, has earned centre stage; a reminder of the stoicism of the pair, and an unstated belief in their own talent.