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Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker

The Basement Bar, York
Wednesday 19 April 2017

It seems quite a while ago since I last attended a gig at the Basement Bar in York, in fact it probably is. The bar, situated beneath one of the city's most popular cinema theatres, has a cavernous feel about it, with its blacked-out decor and basic and sparse layout. The strips of yellow/black hazard warning tape have now disappeared from the stage area giving it a much less dangerous feel. By the time I arrived, taking a slurp of coffee in the upstairs bar before descending the staircase, Flora the support act was at least one song into her set.

Having seen Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker on numerous occasions and in varying types of venue, it's difficult to ascertain precisely what an ideal space is for this duo to play. Outdoor festivals, indoor church halls, Cecil Sharp House or a Bedouin tent in Cambridge, each seem to be suitable in their own way. The basement of a York cinema is as good a place as any as long as there's a sound tech with a good ear for acoustic music and an audience prepared to be quiet through each song. This was pretty much the score tonight, marred only by the clumsy bar staff who clattered away as if in a primary school canteen.

Starting with The Birds, one of the duo's regular openers from an earlier period in the duo's career, Josienne's confident vocal together with Ben's empathetic guitar playing immediately set the mood for the next couple of hours. Once the opener was out of the way, the duo were quick to start on the material from their current album OVERNIGHT, with Something Familiar, a gentle and reflective song, which also accompanies a beautifully shot promo video now available online. One of the most notable aspects of the duo's stage craft is that Ben remains quiet throughout, whilst Josienne handles all the introductions in her own sardonic manner, with touches of humour and the occasional confrontational expletive, just in case there are any old guard folkies in the audience, who prefer pretty floral dresses and their girls to behave themselves. Josienne is not likely to conform to any of that any time soon.

Josienne's humour plays a big part in the duo's performances yet despite this, the singer claims that the humour is based around just one joke, and that one joke is based on how miserable these songs are. This is clearly untrue as her quick witted ad libs and jokey asides testify, for instance when the guy in an American football shirt got up to go to the bar after she announced that Ben was about to introduce a drum machine. "Oh the drum machine's a step too far? Okay, fair enough... I assumed it would be somebody older than you... he likes his music acoustic, he likes his sport hard..!" Priceless.

Gillian Welch's Dark Turn of Mind demonstrates perfectly the borders Josienne and Ben's music crosses. Whether it's contemporary Americana or traditional English ballads, or for that matter the classical music of Elgar, the duo take fair command of each style and make it their own. Banks of the Sweet Primroses could not be more beautifully rendered, a song chosen by the duo when they appeared before thousands at the BBC FOLK AWARDS in Cardiff a couple of years ago.

Other highlights of tonight's show included Josienne's Silverline and The Tangled Tree, both of which rub shoulders well with Sandy Denny's Fotheringay and Nick Drake's Time Has Told Me. I suppose the most surprising moment of the set came towards the end when Ben sat an electric bass over his knee, switched on the aforementioned drum machine, whilst Josienne struck a striking Sonny Rollins pose and played tenor sax. If I'd strayed into this basement unaware of what was happening, I swear it would have been one of those David Lynch dream sequence moments, and should a little man come dancing by talking backwards, I wouldn't have batted an eyelid.  

Concluding the set with Jackson C Frank's tender Milk and Honey, the duo were persuaded by much applause to return for one final encore, which on this occasion just happened to be Nina Simone's beautiful 1959 jazz ballad For All We Know. A fine way to end a fine night indeed.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky