“Are we living in a zombie nation?” laments a burned-out, dreadlocked stoner, barely able to see straight, but clearly anxious about the lack of dancing part-way through tonight’s gig. “Well, you’re not exactly doing much yourself, are you?” guitarist, vocalist and Smoke Fairy Jessica Davies retorts. “Maybe you can show us your best moves in this next one.” Tragically, we never get to see the results as, after refusing to cut his prattling, our hero is asked to take his fear of the living dead elsewhere. It’s a sad end to his evening, but on the up-side, he’s probably forgotten that it ever happened.
Still, you wonder if he’s got a point. Writing in his landmark study of English pastoral in popular music and folk in particular, Rob Young likened the genre’s 21st century state to that of an overgrown secret garden, in which multiple styles have taken root and it’s no longer possible to discern one from the other. Remove the specificity of Englishness, as the Smoke Fairies do, and the undergrowth thickens into an amorphous entanglement of folk, blues and Americana. The danger is that what’s left might feel too impersonal – a processing of purer forms which we witness, zombie-like and blank-eyed, in the hope of catching a stray whisper of the real thing.
Perhaps that’s why so much discussion of the Smoke Fairies has dwelt on explaining their sound as the result of a past spread between their native England and the United States. The more complex truth is that they are the inheritors of multiple acts of transatlantic cross-fertilisation. There are traces here of Maddy Prior; Sandy Denny; a Fleetwood Mac in thrall to Stevie Nicks; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; the deep, half-obscure mysteries of the Mississippi Delta.
Davies and her partner in Fairydom, Katherine Blamire, rarely focus on one point of inspiration in a performance characterised by grace, intimacy and skill. It’s unexpectedly feisty, too. Flanked by a pair of slightly ridiculous moustachioed backing musicians who look like 118 and his weirder blond cousin, 119, their music is richer and harder-wearing than their deeply personal, but rarely up-close early work allowed. This power and confidence, hinted at on their second album, is evident in new stuff like ‘Let Me Know’. But it’s the makeover of older tracks, like ‘Erie Lackawanna’, that results in many of the night’s best moments, turning such squally confessions into something even more untamed, almost as if they were a soundtrack written for the bleak landscape of the fens a few miles up the road. It enhances the deepest and least explicable aspects of the Fairies’ sound - seductive, tightly entwined harmonies and the slow unfurling of dauntless guitar licks by Blamire.
They conclude with a cover of ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ that courageously removes the central riff and replaces it with a swooning, viola-led reinvention. “Thanks for coming out,” enthuses Blamire. “You’re not all zombies,” Davies adds. “I knew it!” some bloke shouts triumphantly. And it’s an odd breed, this Anglo-Americana; a sad aggregation of echoes stretching back deep into the undergrowth. But if the Smoke Fairies sometimes relish the unfathomable nature of what they find there, their music is no less lovely for it.
Words by Tom Kirk