Sally in the Woods may be a relatively new name to non-Bristolians, but it seems they’re an important part of the ever-burgeoning Bristol folk scene. At the heart of the trio is singer and promoter, Sophie Bostock, known locally for the Outlandish Nights events that she runs at Boiling Wells Amphitheatre during more clement weather, a popular event to the North of the city that brings in the likes of Lisa O’Neil and Nick Hart.
Listening to the Sally in the Woods EP, I’m minded that cities so often have a tendency to permeate the sound of the scene they’ve engendered. Think of the Merseybeat sounds of the 60s, of the Coventry sound in the mid-to-late 70s; Berlin, New York – the list goes on. On the current folk scene, we’re seeing something of it in the way in which South London has thrown up collectives of indie musicians playing traditional music in vast, loose droves – ragged, jazz-tinged; something of a communal melting pot. Is it my imagination, or am I starting to hear something similar that might be the sound of young, folkie Bristol?
Take Sally in the Woods’ recording of ‘Outlandish Knight’ [Roud 21], the second track on this EP. It’s there in the choice of organic instrumentation (woodwind to the fore), in the lolloping rhythm. It shares an atmosphere and style previously heard on the most recent album by the aforementioned Hart, himself a longtime inhabitant of the city. It’s also a showcase for Bostock’s charming, idiosyncratic vocal style – a lilting, Scouse-flecked instrument that catches the listener’s attention from the off.
“The off”, in this case, is a version of ‘Female Drummer’ [Roud 226] that bounces the collection into existence to the percussive dance sounds of Bostock’s bandmate, Jess Collins. It’s somewhat rare to hear step dance used in a recorded setting such as this and it immediately catches the attention. It’s really well recorded and it sounds great – Collins is a consistent, lively percussionist whose footwork is clearly an important part of the trio’s appeal. It’s not flashy, it’s not over-produced, but it is alive. And it’s just there in front of you, as though you’ve stumbled into a room where a group of people are kicking off a friendly session and nobody much minds whether you stick around or not. Wonderfully talented folk doing lovely, unostentatious, traditional things. Again, I’m put in mind of other musicians, several of them stalwarts of the Bristol scene. Sally in the Woods share that earthy warmth I associate with Jimmy & Sid and with The Norfolk Broads.
Collins (quite literally) kicks off the third track, ‘Bonelace Weaver’, in similar style. This is the first track that offers a sense of the trio as you might catch them on stage. Bostock takes to the banjo, while Rhona Dalling joins in on fiddle. It’s a straightforward performance in which the song itself becomes the star, and it’s a style that is similarly deployed on the following track, ‘Charlie’, one of the highlights of the collection. The driving, dual fiddles catch the attention here, riding high on a rhythm section that consists of Collins’ feet and Bostock’s guitar. There’s something about this recording that puts me in mind of early recordings by the Ian Campbell Folk Group. It’s that loose, DIY session feel, I think. I can’t get enough of it.
The trio’s take on singaround classic, ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ [Roud 1506] is perhaps the most striking song in this collection. This isn’t the lairy, boisterous free-for-all of infinite past sessions. Set in a minor key, the instrumentation is similar to that of ‘Outlandish Knight’; a harmonium drone, mournful clarinet and fiddles, and the sharp instruction of a plucked banjo set the tone for what feels like a warning song. We hang on Bostock’s every word, wondering what sorrowful fate may await… well, all of us, really. It’s a standout performance.
‘Twiddles’, the last song on the EP, takes the old trope of the seaport woman left to mourn in so many traditional folk songs and flips it on its head. As the sailor men clamber into their vessels and head off over the horizon, the women head out on their own adventures. “Often times a man will think he’s left you in dismay,” the singer tells us with a wink, “but there’s other things to twiddle when your man has gone away.” It’s the kind of song that makes you want to drop everything and head down to the Star at Fishponds. Bring your dancing clogs and I’ll see you there.
The Sally in the Woods EP is available now from the trio’s Bandcamp page.