Phil Beer & Paul Downes – 23rd February 2023

If a folk music version of the Mount Rushmore National Monument was ever to be carved out of the finest English granite, then the chances are that Phil Beer and Paul Downes would be two of the commemorated faces. Phil has performed at the Barn before, in September 2017, and also with Miranda Sykes over a decade ago, in January 2010 and January 2011.

Tonight Phil is with his longtime Devon friend Paul Downes with whom he has collaborated for nearly fifty years. So, time for a sit down. Not likely, Phil and Paul are having none of that. They’ve driven the 250 miles from Exeter and been caught up in one of those seemingly interminable A43 hold-ups. Such are the rigours and perils of life on the road.

Over the years many of us have seen Phil as a member of that folk band royalty Show of Hands as well as in many other manifestations. Tonight he is physically increasingly reminiscent of Francis Pryor, the well-known local archaeologist so it’s fitting that both Phil and Paul are themselves archaeologists, mining deep into their musical well and emerging with gems from such luminaries as James Taylor (Copperline), Jackson Browne (Call It A Loan) and later the classics Bobbie Gentry (Ode To Billie Joe) and Joan Baez (There But For Fortune). They also give us traditional English tunes and songs, most of which seem to include one or more Nancys!

The capacity audience is also treated to brief showcase solo performances from both Phil and Paul who not only love their music, they also love their instruments, (slide) guitars, fiddle and banjo and can also carry a tune with their lived-in vocals.

Both Phil and Paul have ‘been around the block’ and tell us tales as varied as a recent trip to Cambodia and encounters with members of the Grateful Dead. Phil tells us of his recent travails with a frozen arm that has inhibited his playing – thankfully that recovery is well in evidence this evening.

A highlight for me was the rendition of Steve Knightley’s anthemic Exile, a song of longing for, and the impossibilities of, returning home – a timely reminder, on the eve of the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine, that life for many is unbearably difficult.

The duo’s encore is a song they plan to sing at the upcoming wake to celebrate the life and work of Les Barker, that recently deceased humourist, perhaps a reminder to us all of our own mortality.

Phil and Paul clearly enjoy cool, classy American west coast writers and performers and tonight we were in the presence of our two very own English west coast legends, perhaps not so much lying on a beach in Malibu or Santa Monica – more gently cruising just off Devon’s Sidmouth or ‘cuddly’ Budleigh Salterton.

Incidentally, on the day that legendary football commentator John Motson died, Paul casually asked the audience why the local Baston football team is called the Goats. Nobody in the audience knew. Perhaps the answer is that ‘goats’ is as near to ‘goals’ as they’ll ever get! Then again …

Text and photos by Toby Wood