Dimmed lights and low ceilings awaited as I walked into one of London’s tightest venues with a hundred of its hipster elite. We were assembled at Off Broadway, one of East London’s trendiest if best-known bars, to catch some of the city’s recent folk children: Josh Flowers and The Wild. It was the opening night of their tour with Leeds and Cardiff-fathered Dancing Years (formerly known as Joseph & David).
The venue was refreshingly old-fashioned: damp floors, minimal seating and an ambient air temperature just high enough to make onlookers uncomfortable and any performers sweat-drenched in seconds. A familiar and comfortable setting, then, which threatened to engender the same folk show that London gig-goers have been subjected to for the last five years.
Except, wonderfully, it didn’t.
London’s folk “scene” owes everything to its far more interesting, overseas forebears, but draws a lot from its close connections with the Notting Hill collective Communion. The fruit of Mumford and Sons’ keyboardist Ben Lovett and former Cherbourg’s bassist Kevin Jones (helped along the way at times by the guiding hands of Travis and The Fall producer Ian Grimble) helped propel many of the British metropolis’ most eminent plaid-clad names, including the inimitable Johnny Flynn, charming Laura Marling and, er, The Vaccines.
It has since, however, been slightly guilty of picking up and slightly polishing up a number of undeterminable acts, either directly or through encouraging the lazy, Made-In-Chelsea-ready pap that most affluent Londoners were prepared to listen to.
Though ultimately such a decision comes down to taste, artists doing the folky rounds have a tendency to sound like a slightly tweaked version of what came before. Noughties Brit-Folk is almost as inbred of a genre, it seems, as ’90s indie or, God forbid, dubstep.
Every pallid schoolboy from Shoreditch appeared to be under the impression that, if he grabbed a beaten up guitar, played a four-chord progression with a well-rehearsed bluegrass rhythm and strained out lyrics detailing that one fling with the Au Pair that actually turned out quite nastily, that he would be a success.
And he’d be right. But also wrong.
Music, particularly when under the heading of such a rigid genre as “folk,” can all-too-quickly get tied up with its own clichés. Talent comes not in perpetuating the stuff you heard Toby play last week in Hoxton, nor (even worse) imitating the crooning you heard the most recent “X Factor “contestant strangle out of themselves between sob-stories, but in articulating your own inarticulate thought in a form that can only be dealt with sonically.
This is what I, at least, had convinced myself I was faced with when jammed into London’s Most Well Insulated Basement.
I’m happy to admit I was a bit mistaken.
Josh Flowers sits amongst a largely unconventional four-piece ensemble. He strums a variety of guitars, his fellow frontman (the pleasingly named Squiff Wordsworth) wraps his legs around a cello, winged by a drummer and multi-functional bandsman who jumps from electric to banjo to slapping the ceiling. His songs, though they play heavy on well-trodden Appalachian themes, never stop charming or inciting.
Aforementioned cellist grabs the microphone as he might a ruffian–by the neck–to growl out backing vocals to “Poor Boy Blues,” a pained maelstrom of a song that never loses sight of its nuanced structure, underneath a familiar, heavily-struck guitar part. Much of the set drives impetus from drummer Bernie Gardner’s acute attention to his percussive presence, which is rarely overwrought. Utility man James Cox, too, adds an element of freshness to the tracks which mean that each sounds like a cohesive idea made flesh, paying homage to its roots but separately formed.
Dancing Years proves to be a different offering altogether. The band has recently settled upon a final lineup, and their songs have taken on a new sense of completion since adding guitarist Dan Fielding and violinist Dom Butler. Songs which always soared now careen about in the air, with whirling emotional peaks and troughs pulling the audience along for the ride. Fair comparisons to Damien Rice’s lyrical clout and Sigur Ros’ symphonic sound can be made, and even with the meagre headroom offered by Off Broadway, the Leeds six-piece makes the room feel like a cathedral.
Lead singer Dave Henshaw, the very image of a sea trawler’s employee of the month, delivers his considered lines with high-pitched restraint. It’s only when more expansive numbers, such as hit from their recent Rise Up the Sun EP “Falling Wood,” which unleash his voice, letting it glower and crackle in the face of his booming band. Guitars wail and shimmer, seemingly ripped from a post-rock band, a violin scrabbles, Joe Semple’s extraordinary harmonies (whether bass-picked or accordion-squeezed) support and pulsing drums help drive their frenetic arrangements along.
It’s only in the instrumental calm following the storm when you realize that Joe Lawrenson’s keyboards have been simmering underneath, picking out the ivory frequencies you didn’t even know you were hearing.
Both bands hold the same tenet in their musical hearts: to make art which is fundamentally honest and raw. As applauses wash through the crowd, and sweat across the Dancing Years boys, it’s clear that–for tonight at any rate–this tiny, stuffy bar in Hackney houses some of the truest faces in British music.