Storytelling by song is not an easy craft. Storytelling by word is hard enough and although yes, you might be able to spin a good yarn or anecdote now and then, to then put it to tune and captivate an audience for nigh on two hours is beyond all but the best of us. But that’s what makes Jess Morgan so special – there’s very few of her like around. She played 18 songs at the Cambridge Folk Club on Friday night and for each and every one of those just a quick glance around the room was enough to see the warming effect of what skilfully written and beautifully sung folk songs can do to an audience. It was spellbinding.
Not that the warming effect was required, however. By the time support act The Ashby Jones Band had toe tapped their way through a few country and western numbers, the temperature upstairs at The Golden Hind was positively balmy. With every door and window stood agape, Jess Morgan took to the stage and proceeded to do battle with the sirens, motorbikes and pub garden chatter from below, and it turned out to be a battle well won. Whether it be by way of her soulful voice or through the jovial chatter between songs, you could have had a marching band playing outside and still the limelight would have been hers.
The songs spanned generations; narratives of her own personal experiences in ‘The Missionary’ and ‘Eels’ mixed effortlessly in with tales of bygone eras, of Norfolk’s Herring trade and of West London workhouses. Her ability to find a subject and turn it into something familiar is quite something – it can’t be easy to think up the notion of two boats having a conversation and make it interesting and even emotional, but ‘Stour and Spey’ did just that. It was here that Morgan really moved up a gear – leading the crowd into a stirring sing along before ‘The Thompson Family Singers and I’, taken from her album ‘Aye Me’, and then a breathtaking cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’ – the audience once again joining her in chorus. She emanates confidence on stage, bobbing and swaying in time to the chopping percussion of her guitar, and as a broad smile widens across her face mid song it’s difficult not to like her, even more so when she battles frustratingly with her banjo mid-set. Despite a delicacy in her songs she manages to punch with her voice at times, forcing home a line with anguish, before soaring off again into softer realms.
As Morgan took the stage for an encore she told of her delight at having played the open mic nights and been support at the Folk Club before, to making the step up to headliner. In all honestly she did it with ease, and gone are the days when she has to write scribbled notes to the organisers asking to ‘Please give me a gig!’, as revealed by the resident Folk Club emcee. Jess Morgan has a busy year ahead of her it seems, including an appearance in the The Den at our very own Cambridge Folk Festival, and it’ll be interesting to see where she goes from here. With a growing reputation and a wealth of natural talent, I’d say the next chapter of her story certainly looks promising.