Fern Maddie review – tender and powerful performance of ballads old and new

Cafe #9, Sheffield
The folk musician strips her music back to the bones, amplifying the emotional intensity in a cosy firelit space

‘This place is magical,” says Fern Maddie. She’s explaining that she just randomly met an audience member, who was about 50 and went to the same “weird hippy college” as her in her home state of Vermont. Maddie only recently took a break from living in the woods and tending goats there to play her first tour – only to bump into someone with mutual friends more than 3,000 miles away.

You suspect the occasion was ordained by the folk musician’s acclaimed 2022 album Ghost Story, which she self-released, but found widespread acclaim beyond Vermont. Touring in support of the record, Maddie plays a mix of old and new songs, and opens with a run of traditionals: Cumberland Gap and Don’t You Go a Rushing. Beginning on guitar, her playing is understated, but as she switches to banjo it becomes more expressive and detailed, striking a deft balance between technical proficiency and eloquent fluidity. Her voice has the ability to soar but is contained and never bombastic; it occasionally recalls the delivery of Joanna Newsom, but with less of a sharp edge. Most often, it sounds tender and powerful at once. Despite a profound love of traditional ballads, Maddie’s own compositions, such as Northlands and the stirring Dorothy May, are often the most arresting.

That being said, some of the songs from Ghost Story lack the texture and depth found on the record when performed live. This spareness, though, shifts the focus to nuances of Maddie’s voice. By stripping things to the bare bones, there is an amplified emotional intensity in the room. The intimate environment – a cosy cafe in residential Sheffield with a log burner – makes the show feel like a living room performance, with every string plucked and word sung heightened in intensity.

No more so than on the final track, Ca’ the Yowes, a traditional song that, on her album, Maddie tweaked and mutated, incorporating drum machines and idiosyncratic time signatures. Here, she simply sings it a cappella: it’s a truly beautiful delivery that leaves the room in such a state of silence that the only other thing audible is the final embers of fire slowly burning out.


Daniel Dylan Wray

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Fern Maddie: Ghost Story review – an unnerving, arresting folk debut
Maddie’s young, welcoming voice belies a darkly evocative lyricism creating an album that is both unsettling and thrilling

Jude Rogers

01, Jul, 2022 @7:30 AM

Article image
The Young'uns review – a Teesside-tinged triumph of ballads and banter
Greeted like superstars, the folk sensations delivered big-hearted tales of fascism-fighters and homesick trawlermen – rounded off with a spot of George Formby

Robin Denselow

13, Oct, 2017 @2:05 PM

Article image
Jesca Hoop review – ballads and belly laughs from a shape-shifting virtuoso
Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
The Californian singer-songwriter proves a supreme all-round entertainer with a show that is funny, moving and wholly unpredictable

Dave Simpson

29, Mar, 2017 @10:48 AM

Article image
Jim Moray: Upcetera review – bold, brassy folk ballads

Robin Denselow

29, Sep, 2016 @5:00 PM

Article image
Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino: Canzoniere review – easy ballads and full-tilt pizzica

Robin Denselow

02, Nov, 2017 @6:15 PM

Article image
Rhiannon Giddens: Freedom Highway review – powerful and timely

Robin Denselow

23, Feb, 2017 @6:00 PM

Article image
David Crosby and Friends review – the old Byrd is on fire and roaring
The counterculture veteran purrs as richly as his twentysomething self and rages about today’s police shootings in a revelatory concert

Dave Simpson

16, Sep, 2018 @11:59 AM

Article image
Folk review – a beautifully brooding tale of song and sisterhood
The songs that unite two grieving sisters are collected and ‘tidied up’ by Cecil Sharp in this historical drama

Arifa Akbar

05, Jan, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
Bob Dylan: Murder Most Foul review – a dark, dense ballad for the end times
Dylan’s first new song in eight years is a fascinating portrait of his obsession with JFK’s assassination, rich with pop cultural detail and apocalyptic dread

Alexis Petridis

27, Mar, 2020 @1:20 PM

Article image
Amira Medunjanin: Damar review – powerful and passionate Bosnian folk

Robin Denselow

17, Nov, 2016 @6:00 PM