A quiet revolution is underway in Kent. Long recognised as a cradle of folk, and in the North West corner, home to the garage noise of the Medway Delta bands, a number of small, reputable venues are attempting to bring internationally acclaimed acoustic and contemporary musicians to the county.
Spearheading the movement is Revelation St Mary’s in Ashford, and tucking in alongside is the Folkestone Quarterhouse – the only venue I know of from which you can slide down the hill from the car park to the auditorium via a proper, 1970s-style whooshing slide: the thrills start before you’re through the door.
It’s a lovely space. Intimate, like a comfortably well-off comprehensive’s school hall. The stalls seat 80, and a handful of tables scattered at the front of house can seat another 20 people. It’s curating a programme of music which punches above the weight of a small seaside town. Upcoming acts include The Divine Comedy, Kristin Hersh and The Handsome Family. And these are listeners’ gigs – the hallmark being pin-drop quiet appreciation, from people who want to listen, properly, to music. If you want to chatter, the bar’s upstairs and outside.
Tonight, we are here for Michele Stodart, known to most for being a quarter of The Magic Numbers, the mid-noughties Mercury Prize-nominated band. But she’s also been carving out a niche for herself with a less poppy bent. 2012 saw the release of her debut solo album, ‘Wide-Eyed Crossing’, and she’s just released ‘Pieces’ – a mature slice of love-lorn Americana.
Local band Arcelia kick things off – three voices, a guitar and brushed cajon sounding much more than the sum of their parts, such is their mastery of harmony. To call them easy listening seems disparaging given the quality of their songcraft, with many of the songs rooted in day to day observations made universal and beautiful, harmonies coiling round, warm, familiar and lovely as a favourite blanket on a crisp autumn day. These are songs to stick in your mind and heart.
Next up is Raevennan Husbandes, who has been touring the country with Michele, as part of her band, as well as providing the support: a virtuoso folk guitarist, with jazz-tinged vocals. She has one of the sweetest, most assured and most mature voices I’ve heard in a long, long time, which comes as a shock after the light, witty, breezy, chipper, and frankly, youthful nature of her introductory banter. There is a completeness and roundness to her voice, here light, here deep, with a confident, rich vibrato. Hints of Cleo Laine and Cassandra Wilson. Her songs remind me of Nick Drake, The Sundays, a hint of PJ Harvey at her most tuneful. There is such an emotional sincerity to them, despite the metaphysical, folkloric images that make up their lyrical bones. Not for the first time at a gig of this size and intimacy, I find myself in tears and goosebumps at the beauty of her songwriting. That’s never a given with songs written about Lowestoft, as ‘To The Sea’ is – a gentle, salt-flecked gospel affirmation to her lover. There is a technical brilliance to her guitar playing that most boys with an acoustic and pick up can only dream of, and moreover, so much soul. A rare sparkle, ease and virtuosity infuses everything she does. She’s a revelation. And she backs up Michele Stodart on lap steel guitar and Fender.
But not to begin with. To begin with, the stage is solely Michele’s. There is a relaxed loveliness to how she owns her stage, and she starts off with a new song – so new it doesn’t have a name yet. The pulse of country and Americana is strong, her breathy vocals not exhaled as a mark of sexuality, as is the wont of so many female singer-songwriters, but as a gentle pleading to a lover, one of many throughout her set who has done her wrong.
One of her greatest strengths is her complete confidence and ability to draw an audience in to her, as intimates, while maintaining an infectious lightness and laughter. But, as she warns us, most of her songs are bitter and angry, with only one with a ray of hope in it. All raw, done wrong heartache. Throat open as her heart, words pouring out and wrapping round her as she wraps herself around her guitar. She plays with an earnest, gutsy physicality which is utterly beguiling and adds conviction to everything she sings. A girl this good at Americana shouldn’t come from Hanwell.
Gradually joined, song by song, by her band, they chip in with Fender, lap steel and Gretsch, a xylophone and shaker creating a makeshift rhythm section. The guitars layer to create musical warmth, despite the coldness of the hearts of those about whom she sings, as she works through material from both solo albums.
There is such a likeability to her – a warmth, a confidence and a joy, and these shine brightest in the final four songs. The first of these ‘Will You Wait’ is about growing older with someone. It’s a loving, luscious track, in contrast with the hand on hip anger and swagger of many of the others. The middle two are duets with Raevennan, the first, 50s tinged and happy; the second, written in a convent on a writers’ retreat, and aptly named ‘Dirty Habit’. It has hints of Don Henley and Richard Marx, and Raevennan proves her versatility yet again as she trills round on her Fender like Santana, as Michele strums with force and panache, the two women’s voices melding beautifully as they sing of ‘aching bones covered in fear and hope’. It’s rare to see two women play together like this – especially women as good at playing guitar as this. It’s refreshing, although it shouldn’t be. The final song has strut, as Michele stomps her foot and demands: ‘I hope you’ve learned a thing or two’.
We have darlin’, oh we definitely have.