Roy Smith describes his first visit to Maidstone’s The Bowerhouse to hear The Devil’s Interval and meet the venue’s founders
We found The Bowerhouse nestled behind The Bower Inn, just off Tonbridge Road; best reached by foot, this homely venue is a 15 minute walk from Maidstone West Station. We almost missed the unassuming entrance, but were fortunately drawn in by a string of bunting hanging over the fence. The converted barn is a wonderful jumble of furniture, fairy lights, instruments and homemade decorations that create an informal welcome. Despite arriving ridiculously early, we were warmly greeted by Sandy Farrell, who runs the venue with his wife May and folk-singer daughter Lucy; I was especially pleased to find Goacher’s Best Dark Ale on tap.
Travelling from Rochester to Maidstone to watch a folk act, during the Sweeps Festival, seemed a little odd at first, but ‘The Devil’s Interval’ proved well worth the trip. Named after the Tritone, a musical interval made up of three adjacent whole tones, banned or avoided in medieval music, depending on what you read, due to its dissonance or association with sex and the devil, the trio delighted the audience with delicate harmonies and songs of love, life and death. Returning after a seven year hiatus, they reformed last year to support Eliza Carthy’s ‘Arms Wide Orchestra’, part of her ‘Arms wide, head back, look forward’ project, where she brought together singers ‘completely in the moment’, working with people who explored traditional music without being ‘imprisoned by notions of the past’. This idea rang a bell for Sandy, who felt this echoed the mission of all good modern folk venues.
Portman, Causley and McCormick performed an impressive array of mostly accapella tunes, dealing with the seasons, nature, murder – and moorland farts in Causley’s ‘Pride of the Moor’, where he impressively fits cassiterite (tin ore) and dragon breath into his celebration of Devonshire mining villages. Despite a good deal of darkness, humour is never far away, with the three clearly enjoying each other’s company in the intimacy of the Bowerhouse. Whether joking about using an iPad app to decide who should turn the lights off at night before launching into the hilarious tale of squabbling pensioners in their version of ‘Get Up and Bar the Door’; or teasing Causley for keeping a photo of folk song collector, Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould in a glittery frame whilst at University; the group’s sense of fun shines through and infects the audience. Alternating between group and solo songs, at one point Emily Portman was joined by the Bowerhouse’s own Lucy Farrell for a spellbinding duet.
The polyphonic delicacy and engaging storytelling of ‘The Devil’s Interval’ were a real treat, enhanced by great acoustics and the warmth of the Bowerhouse: this was a truly memorable performance. Sadly, the venue is suffering from all too common problems with licensing and red-tape. Despite featuring mainly unplugged and acoustic acts, planning concerns around parking continue to dog the venue, which is currently limited to 12 temporary event notices a year. Ironically, both the pub and working men’s club next door host regular live music. Sandy told of one near disaster when Martin Carthy was booked to play without a PA and he noticed the Bower Inn had a heavy metal tribute band. Fortunately, the ragstone walls blocked all of the sound from outside, leaving the audience to enjoy the somewhat quieter entertainment. To get round some of the restrictions, Lucy is planning a series of ‘Bowerhouse presents…’ events, starting with The Unthanks on 29 October at Margate’s Theatre Royal. The team are organising a coach to take people from Maidstone to the gig: keep an eye on their website for details.
Alongside regular events, The Bowerhouse hosts The Three Ravens Folk Club on the fourth Tuesday of every month; a community choir on the second and fourth Wednesday and life drawing sessions every Thursday from 7-9pm.
Find out about upcoming gigs and more at: www.thebowerhouse.info
Photographs by Nikki Price.