Fern Maddie review – tender and powerful performance of ballads old and new
‘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.
Related: Fern Maddie: Ghost Story review – an unnerving, arresting folk debut
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.