Katie Doherty / Rachel Newton

Lumpy Hill Adventure Playground, Islington

17 May 2019

I know I said I was going to fewer concerts this year. And not travelling all round the country for them. So first, some context for why I'm here. About 12 years ago I heard Katie Doherty sing at a free event put on by The Sage in Gateshead and was immediately impressed by her voice and her songs. I learned that she had studied on a Folk and Traditional music degree at Newcastle University—the first time I had ever heard of such a thing—and investigating further I found that you could go along to The Sage and listen to their students' final degree recitals. So I went, and among many amazing young musicians I found one who sang and played the harp unlike anyone I had ever heard before. (That was Rachel Newton, in case you're not keeping up.) Who knew young people were still playing folk music? I'd always listened to folk, it was in my consciousness even before I started listening to rock music, but from these new starting points, a whole new world of modern folk music unfolded, to the point where, after three decades as a committed old-school rock fan, half the gigs I'm going to these days are from young folk musicians.

So, I go to a lot of gigs, but there still aren't many musicians who I would make a special trip to London to see. But Katie Doherty and Rachel Newton on the same bill? I was clicking "buy tickets" before I had even thought about the logistics.

The gig is promoted by something called The Nest Collective, which apparently puts on a series of outdoor acoustic gigs in improvised venues around London. How cool is that idea? If you lived in London you'd go to all of them, wouldn't you? This particular gig is outdoors in a place with the unlikely name of "Lumpy Hill Adventure Playground", which frankly didn't fill me with confidence even before the rain clouds started gathering on the train journey down south. And I got there to find that Lumpy Hill is... exactly what it says on the tin. A small space off a main road in Islington, with climbing frames and a sandpit, and random benches and mats scattered around for you to sit round what was evidently supposed to be a campfire. And it was pouring with rain. I don't mind rain, all my best days have been in the rain, but it didn't seem like it would be a good idea for musical instruments out in the open. There's an indoor space we could move into, but everybody seemed to be dithering over what to do and the organisers obviously thought it would still be a good idea to light the camp fire... until it seemed that the musicians took charge, moved the football table, laid some plastic chairs out, and started setting up their instruments indoors.

And so, in a big shed that squeezed in an audience of maybe 60 people, under harsh strip lighting, surrounded by toys and children's drawings, Katie Doherty and the Navigators played...

Just the most perfect set of songs anyone has ever written. Although she's still moving in folk circles, she doesn't (these days) play traditional music at all. It's "folk" in the instrumentation, and in the way that she writes about real life and real people, but her songs are all her own. Have I ever mentioned how much I love Katie's song writing? Nobody writes songs this beautiful. The combination of simple, memorable melodies and heartfelt lyrics that really mean something... nobody else writes songs this beautiful. Nobody. Ever.

It's supposed to be an acoustic gig, but she uses an electric piano and a microphone. I think Shona Mooney also has a pickup on her fiddle, but I don't notice her sound coming from the speaker, it all seems to be coming directly from the fiddle. And Dave Grey's melodeon doesn't seem to be amplified at all—which doesn't stop him completely drowning out the other two at times. They play for close to 45 minutes and about eight songs in total, all drawn from the new album (so I'm still left hoping for more from Bridges, or some of the new songs I remember from 10 years ago which don't seem to have made it to the new album). And it was all beautiful. More than worth a trip to London.

Did I mention how much I love Katie Doherty's songs?

It's getting dark outside now, and we're told the rain has stopped (it hasn't) so Rachel Newton will play outside. I remain sceptical. But we all troop out and arrange ourselves around the camp fire while Rachel tunes her harp in the rain. The setting is almost surreal. It's raining but not unpleasantly so, the only light is provided by the fire and a few fairy lights, the backdrop is trees and children's climbing frames, the accompaniment is birdsong. Somebody in the audience lends a giant umbrella and the event organiser holds it over Rachel for the whole gig. There is road noise to remind you you're in the middle of London, but it's rarely intrusive and any annoyance is offset by the magic of the setting.

She plays unamplified—and she's been leaning mostly on her electric harp recently (I guess it's lighter and more damage resistant when carrying around on tour), so it makes a nice change to go back to the acoustic. It's how she played in that first gig I saw 12 years ago: acoustic harp and pure, unamplified voice filling Hall 2 of The Sage exactly as she's perfectly filling the space here. She plays for around 90 minutes and only stops when she runs over the curfew—I get the impression she would have kept going all night if she was allowed to. She doesn't have a set list, she just plays whatever she thinks of, drawing from all her solo albums plus I was very happy to hear a couple of things from the Rachel & Lillias album. (I was at the launch gig for that. There were strawberries!).

And maybe it's the setting, but the gig feels very informal and intimate. She asks us to excuse any bad notes because she's playing with gloves on. Somebody has requested a song that she makes a stab at but forgets the words and makes up her own, and we don't care. She plays a wrong chord and has to restart a song and we don't care. There's a funny interlude when she thinks something is crawling up her harp (it was probably a blade of grass). She has to stop when a circling police helicopter takes a sudden interest in us, and it's funny rather than annoying. And the umbrella malfunction doesn't phase her and gives us all another laugh. And the rain is fine. It's all perfect. And, best harpist I've ever seen. And, beautiful singer. And, best concert I've ever been to.

During Katie's set I wished the bill was the other way round and she was the headline act. Then during Rachel's I was glad it was this way round. But whichever way round, simply putting them together on the same bill was a perfect idea. Both so completely different but both so good at what they do. I wouldn't want to choose between the two of them.