Joshua Burnell

Cumberland Arms, Newcastle

30 March 2019

This is the third time I've seen Joshua Burnell (and his band) live, and I'm not sure why I've never written a review before because this is a superb live band. There have been a couple of line-up changes since I last saw them, including the addition of a violin player — this being the last element needed to cement the band's place as the future of English folk rock. All folk rock bands should have a violin!

Joshua Burnell's approach to traditional songs is that they can usually be improved by adding heaps of Hammond organ — and he's absolutely right, it's a glorious sound that fits right in with the guitar and fiddle to give the band effectively three lead instruments. So the bands starts with an instrumental (that I ought to know the name of, but I am momentarily blank), and it makes you wish the gig wasn't in a seated venue, because it rocks too much to sit down for. It's followed with an a capella version of Past Times With Good Company, segueing into a rocking arrangement of The Berkshire Tragedy (one of the many variants of The Two Sisters, but one I've never heard anybody else sing).

The set is mostly high-energy in this vein, mixing instrumental dance tunes and rocked-up ballads, and traditional songs with Joshua Burnell's own songs. There's a breather in the middle, though, when the band leaves the stage and Josh sings A Begging I Will Go accompanied only by his piano. It's a beautiful, sensitive arrangement, and I'd go as far as saying it's the best of the several versions I've heard — and yes I'm including Martin Carthy in that. He then switches to guitar and is joined by Frances Sladen for a duet on the beautiful ballad The Skylark and the Oak, which I think is the best thing he's ever written. Their voices blend perfectly, not just on this but on the rocking songs too. One of the very best vocal partnerships I've heard; they're individually great singers, but they arrange the vocal lines to make the result even greater than the sum of the parts.

They finish with The Blackleg Miner — a brave choice for this region; when Maddy Prior did it here a few years ago she apologised first! But nobody seems to mind, and the rocking arrangement (in fact, I think it's a direct copy of the Steeleye Span arrangement) carries the song.

So, a triumphant first(?) visit to Newcastle; the (smallish) crowd seemed to love all of it. I hope he keeps coming back to ever-bigger crowds. Because he deserves the success. Not just a great musician, singer, and songwriter, he's also a dynamic and engaging live performer. And I'm sorry I haven't really mentioned his band, but every one of them is more than equal to the task of being in the world's best new folk rock band.

Best concert I've ever seen.