Sally Ironmonger and Brian Carter

Spring saw a number of our folk clubs blessed by a rare northern visit from Sally Ironmonger and Brian Carter. Northwich Folk Club were happy to host their last night before they returned to their native Chatham in Kent. At one point they feigned concern that some of their choruses might come up against a language barrier of flat and long As, but in truth the connection was made from the start. Instantly, they had us singing along to ‘It’s Just a Song’, their reality check on first world problems.

It’s a well-tried formula. A couple both on and off the stage, Sally and Brian allow the personal to blend into the performance, bouncing off each other with knowing glances (‘Murder on my Mind’). Sally’s face is so very expressive, which brings life to all their songs, most self-penned, drawn from their four albums, every one of which your reviewer would recommend. The songs are top quality too, with Kent taking centre stage; local stories of the lost industries that lined the Medway and the Chatham dockyards and those that worked there, as well as reminiscences and ruminations on Brian and Sally’s own lives. This is real music of the folk.

Sally’s clarity and delivery allows you to savour all the thought behind the songs, but there’s something else extra special going on, and that’s Brian’s guitar playing; plenty of finger-picking, lots of flourishes which bring a smile to your face, and with so many styles to hand to give the right complement to each song. Now where could the inspiration have come from for the next song on the setlist? ‘Catalogue Guitar Tango’ puts in verse the ‘n+1’ theory of instrument ownership in a household where surely six strings are never out of sight or out of mind.

‘The Ballad of Flying Isaac’ takes us back to those … ahem … ‘trades’ plied in a dockyard town, which Sally relates brilliantly; you can hear the brazen attitude and the red faces of the characters in the song. ‘Metalwork’ is altogether more sobering and poignant, a tender portrait of a man engrossed in his craft and how he finds way to express his love through his skills. It’s no surprise that this won awards for them. Sally and Brian then bring it all together with a song about their rootedness in the people of their hometown – ‘The Company I Keep’. There’s a social consciousness that’s never far away either, in celebrating the ordinary, but now it comes to the fore in ‘Not Enough Emilys’, prompted by Emily Thornberry MP’s observation of how it had taken a century for Emily Pankhurst’s activism to bring an Emily to parliament.

The duo know their folk roots too, and they know their trad. Their songwriting is informed by the music they have lived and breathed. They open the second half with a rousing ‘Oak Ash Thorn’. They also nod to those songs that ‘we wish we’d written’, with Steve o’Donoghue’s ‘Accident of Birth’. But surely there will be those who wish they’d written some of Sally and Brian’s too. ‘Foodbanks and Ferraris’ brings us hard up against that social conscience again, and there’s no mistaking the message, written ten years ago, but even more relevant. Things get more subtle in ‘My Backyard’ as Sally ponders on nature reflecting mankind as every living thing tries to make its own way in life, eking out a space to be, ebbing and flowing across geography. ‘Threadneedle Street’, on the other hand, doesn’t pull its punches, giving us pirates – those folk song staples – transplanted to the City of London, with a great singalong chorus. But there’s a favourite for the closer, as Sally takes us on a typical Kentish family day out to Margate for a ‘Raspberry Ripple Day’, swirling with memories of a universal family, recognisable to all of us.

A quick mention of the venue is due, as Northwich Folk Club has moved home since the last time a club review has been posted. The Royal British Legion in Davenham, just a couple of miles out of the town, has been hosting us since late 2021 with a dedicated room, complete with licenced bar. For those still cautious post-Covid, the room is kept well ventilated and level access will be appreciated by many, not least musicians who will be glad that they will no longer be lugging instruments up stairs. Above all, it has quickly felt like home, generating the sense of togetherness for artist and audience, as well as for regular singers’ nights.

Mike and Jane Griffith Ward had given us a great support, carefully choosing songs to complement the main act and naturally avoiding the Sally and Brian songs they have brought to the club’s singers nights! So Sally and Brian came with a few fans in the audience, but I’m sure that they had far more by the end of the evening, which they closed with an encore of ‘Let’s Do It’, Sally giving a nicely saucy rendition to match Victoria Wood’s humour. Let’s hope it’s not too long before we can persuade them back up the M6 for another visit.

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