Review: St Agnes Fountain @ Lichfield Guildhall

Fifteen years into their career, St Agnes Fountain are now on their 15th festive tour with a number of sold out shows, including this one in Lichfield.

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The quartet – David Hughes on vocals, guitar and ukulele, Fairport Convention’s Chris Leslie on vocals, violin, mandolin, American Indian flute, oud and ukulele, singer Chris While on percussion, bodhran and percussion, and Julie Matthews on vocals, piano, guitar and accordion – played a set of well known songs with new twists, their own material, and spoken word elements that ranged from the evocative words of the poet John Claire, to their own work looking at the current refugee crisis.

One of the dangers of Christmas shows is that they can often appear as a twee, clichéd, comforting look at the platonic Dickensian vision of what Christmas is, but the quartet managed to avoid many of the traps with well chosen material offered in vastly different forms to what the audience may have been expecting.

Little Town of Bethlehem was delivered to the tune of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, opener In Dulci Jublio used the jovial tune to underline a more mournful vocal melody, and the original He’s Got His Lights Up fused a techno beat, with David Hughes singing in character as the first person in the street to get the decorations out, and the three others singing a haunting version of God Bless You Merry Gentleman.

Other pieces looked at generosity, such as the story told in Forty Dozen Penny Loaves, about a Yorkshire baker giving bread to the poor at Christmas time, or the festive instrumental showcase of Snow on Snow, which showed Chris Leslie’s fiddle prowess to fine effect.

A number of other festive favourites featured throughout the set, from In the Bleak Midwinter to a reggae version of Away in a Manager.

The closing Sleigh Ride was another showcase for Chris Leslie’s musicianship, this time on mandolin, while the vocal highlight of the evening was Chris While’s solo vocal version of Stile Nacht.

As well as their musical skills, the quartet are also known for their fine harmony singing, which was displayed in the well received encore of All Through the Night.

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