Darlingside are an American folk band starting to make quite a stir after a bumped higher up the bill appearance at last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival earnt them a lot of new fans this side of the pond. They’ve been back for some tour dates and brought along a friend – the woman described as their “Big Sister” – who provided the opening support set. Caitlin Canty is a Vermont girl gone Nashville, and sings modern folk songs tinged with a fairly generous helping of country. She’s enjoying being in the UK – commenting that if she lived here she’d be writing train songs instead of ones featuring cars as an escape. Get Up is her standout song, with its thrumming guitar line and insistent lyrics “Get up get up get up / no time to rest or run for cover / Get up get up get up / before the road pulls you under” which restlessly hints at a chaotic scramble away from an unbearable situation.
It’s the edgiest number in the set. Going off-mike is always a cool thing to do, and Caitlin Canty chose to do this with a Lefty Frizzel song – it might have been I Want To Be With You Always but it’s hard to be sure as even from the front row it was almost inaudible – the Union Chapel is a bigger space than it looks. A happier occurrence is Dotted Line, Canty’s widest exposed song to date – it appeared in House of Cards, very briefly. So briefly that the singer didn’t notice it herself on first viewing. Pity it wasn’t more prominent as it’s a gently jogging song painting a picture of a journey through American rural scenes, it’s touched with a soft melancholy which makes it particularly attractive.
After a typical Union Chapel interval which allows for merchandise to be sold and tea to be drunk from a seemingly endless supply of mugs, Darlingside took the stage five minutes ahead of schedule – catching a few on the hop. Darlingside are Auyon Mukharji, Harris Paseltiner, Don Mitchell and Dave Senft – a multi-talented four piece who all sing and between them contribute guitars (acoustic and electric), cello, electric bass, banjo, violin (not, you’ll note, fiddle!), and mandolin. From their clean-cut looks it goes without saying that they met at college – at times they seem almost like the college folk band version of the Monkees – and it’s no surprise that it was various singing groups which finally brought them all together. Clustered around a single microphone they produce an exquisite sound which is as redolent of the likes of The Kingston Trio as it is to the somewhat cooler Fleet Foxes. The other oft mentioned comparison is CSN and there’s certainly some classic Laurel Canyon vocals produced by Darlingside but they’re really closer to the style of The Milk Carton Kids or Great Lake Swimmers. What is undeniable is that when their voices blend the sound is just perfection. Starting with God Of Loss, from their latest release Birds Say, they manage to sound as if they are reshaping an ancient folk ballad, one shot full of weariness and unlooked for relocation. Auyon Mukharji’s violin is achingly sad, the band’s voices blend together in melancholic reflection. What a stunning opener, and it just gets better from here.
Clay and Cast Iron is a poignant love song, virtually an inverse “few of my favourite things” in that it lists a series of objects, smells, and everyday textures – simple attachments – that have been given away through a moment’s insensitivity and insincerity “Ice skating in Kansas City, Crown Center alight / I said I’d be there in a minute / I stayed on the ice / I gave you away”. It’s certainly not all doom and gloom with Darlingside though. Harrison Ford is a fast paced song which starts conventionally enough with lyrical echoes of The Beatles’ Day in a Life : “Dream of chutes and ladders sleep through two alarms / and when I stumble through the doorway / with my hands through the arms of the sweater / that the dry cleaner gave me back a size down” and then drifts into surrealistic imagery for describing everyday events. An interview with a man who looks like Harisson Ford is reconfigured as a sword fight – he “pulls out a sword / I match him blow for blow, counter parry and dodge / but as the battle wears on, we’re getting along / He knocks the sword from my hands, says: “Congratulations, you’ve got the job.” The instrumental interplay here is something to behold but it’s the blending of the voices and the wordless harmonies and counterpoint melodies that make for a wonderfully playful song. They bring that same playfulness to their inter-song banter, happily recounting minor accidents walking into glass doors and, in one particularly lengthy monologue, having their individual personalities described through the textures of the cheese they, according to Auyon, most resemble. This reflection was prompted by his discovery that Cheddar is a place. For the record Dave is Stilton, Harris is Lincolnshire, Don is Shropshire Blue whilst Auyon himself is Cheddar – the best selling cheese in the world “that’s a cold hard fact” he adds, that can be relied on.
Caitlin Canty joins the band for a cover of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers – the song that she had sung at Harris’ wedding, again taking the lead vocal. It’s interesting to hear Darlingside singing something which is so different from their own distinctive style – although they do soon make Wildflowers into a folk song. Dave Senft’s took the lead vocal on My Gal, My Guy, to close out the main set – it’s an impeccable song held aloft on those soaring vocals with sweeping imagery of a love as big as the “indigo sky”, it flies along on the mix of guitar and 5-string banjo beautifully exemplifying the mix of new songs and a style that harkens back to the Sixties and Seventies. It’s a truly beautiful thing – something which can be said for the whole evening. This may have been – as Harris Paseltiner commented – Darlingside’s biggest paying audience, ever, anywhere in the world, but it’s not going to be that for long. When Darlingside return expect even bigger audiences (or maybe a multi-night stand at somewhere like The Union Chapel). They have it all – musicianship, moving songs, the sweetest vocals and an easy and charming stage presence. Greatness doesn’t beckon, it has arrived.
God Of Loss
Blow the house down
Good for you
Clay & Cast Iron
My Gal, My Guy
Sweet & Low