Joshua Burnell & Frances Sladen

Busk, York

19 October 2019

Busk is my new favourite concert venue. It's tiny—I think 40 people filled it to maximum capacity tonight—but perfect for a gig of this nature. The staff are probably the friendliest I've met at any venue, they bring your drinks to your seat, and there is cake! To be honest they had me at cake, everything else tonight was a bonus...

The prompt early start is also welcome, as even with a two-hour set (including a brief interval for more cake) the gig was over by 9.30, which is great for those of us who have a 90-minute drive back to Tyneside.

It's not the kind of venue you would want a rock band to squeeze into. There's no stage, no proper PA or mixing desk (Joshua Burnell is mixing himself, using the knobs on a tiny amp: "If you can't hear me, just heckle"), no proper lighting (just attractive fairy lights). But for two singers with a piano, guitar, and a set of warmly beautiful, folk-styled acoustic songs, in front of a small group of appreciative fans, it's perfect.

Tonight I'm seeing Joshua Burnell without his band for the first time (for me): just him playing piano and guitar, and him and Frances Sladen sharing the singing. It's also the first time (at least at gigs I've been to) that her name is with his on the ticket, but it's deserved; because although they are his songs she sings about half of them and shares the song introductions as an equal partner tonight, although she complains that she always gets the miserable songs to sing, and is only allowed to speak while he is tuning. And the best songs of the night, for me, is where they sing together. Their voices blend perfectly, in one of the most beautiful vocal partnerships I've ever heard. Run With Me (and I apologise in advance if I've got song titles all wrong, most of them are brand new) is an outstanding example, and one of my favourites of the night.

Apart from two traditional songs (Renardine and Lord Franklin's Lament), every other song tonight is new, as he says he's testing which to put on a new album based on our reaction tonight! The only problem is, the reaction seems to suggest he'll need at least a triple-album to fit in everybody's favourites.

Stand out songs for me include Run With Me as I've already mentioned, and Slow Burning Cigarette, a "21st century murder ballad".

But the absolute highlight of the night is the encore Roll Away Sue. Josh reveals an unexpected talent as a comedy writer and the entire audience (and the singer) is in stitches. It's my new favourite Joshua Burnell song. You have to hear it to believe it. Seriously.

And in addition to his considerable musical ability Joshua Burnell is a naturally charismatic front man. His patter between songs is a perfectly-judged mixture of song explanations and personal anecdotes, and his jokes all feel spontaneous and natural, not like the rehearsed-sounding banter of some performers. And in this setting he is helped by a natural rapport with Frances Sladen, plus most of the audience seeming to be his friends and happily supplying good-natured heckling.

It was just a really good fun, relaxed, friendly night. And, obviously, musically superb.

All the important ingredients of the best concert I have ever seen.