THE WILLOWS – Through The Wild (Elk Elk014)

Through The WildA sort of folk supergroup that sees singer Jade Rhiannon Ward and multi-instrumentalist husband Cliff joined by Ben Savage on Dobro, percussionist Evan Carson from Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys and, new to the line-up, Katriona Gilmore on fiddle and mandolin and double bass player John Parker, this belated follow-up to 2014’s Amidst Fiery Skies finds the Cambridge-based sextet ranging across genres that span English folk, Americana and bluegrass with a sound that, at times conjures an English Clanaad. That is not the case, however, with full-blooded folk rock album opener ‘Coda’, which, like all but one number, is penned by the band. A number that deals with mortality and loss, it’s echoed in the softer, more reflective and melancholic breathily-sung ‘Better Days’ where, mottled by banjo, grief gives way to hope.

The sole non-original comes with an clopping percussion arrangement of the traditional ‘True Lover’s Ferry’, a song of love on London’s waterways learned from the singing of Peter Bellamy. Gilmore and Carson provide the backbone with Ward’s banjo also prominent for ‘Perfect Crime/Ernest Durham’s’, another musically muscular number, which draws on the true story of Percy Cox, a soldier from the Fens in the First World War who, to get a higher age, stole the identity of Ernest Durham, an Australian soldier who lends his name to the second half instrumental.

A song about the healing power of love, the evocative fiddle and banjo coloured ‘Honest Man’ musically heads out to the Appalachians before they turn to Canada for ‘Pearl Hart, Savage taking on electric guitar and Carson laying down the skittering percussive bedrock on a song that recounts the true story of the 19th century Canadian who gave up robbing stagecoaches to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

War rears its head again with ‘Out Of Our Hands’, a rueful acoustic guitar accompanying Ward on a song which, briefly swelling towards the end, was inspired by her reading of A Memory of Solferino, Henry Dunant’s 1862 book about the battle of Solferino in 1859 between Napoleon’s forces and the Austrian army, the suffering of the soldiers and the lack of aid, and which led to the founding of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions.

The English landscape serves as inspiration for two numbers, the first being ‘False Light’, pizzicato mandolin and fiddle gradually building to a big production number about the lights people imaged they saw over the fenland marshes, luring them to their deaths. It’s followed by ‘Gog Magog’, a jazzy, airy, puttering percussive rhythm number that, inspired by the eponymous chalk hills of Cambridgeshire and the mythical pagan giants (also to be found in the Bible and Cornish legend) who walked them, again treats on loss through conflict.

It ends on a personal note with the spare six-minute traditional flavoured, fiddle-coloured slow waltz ballad ‘Dear Lilly’ being dedicated to Jade’s great aunt, her courtship, marriage, miscarriage and subsequent nursing of her dying husband , going on to live for over a century, a fitting uplifting conclusion to an album that welcomes the band back in magnificent style.

Mike Davies

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THE TEACUPS –Of Labour And Love (Haystack HAYCD008)

THE TEACUPS –Of Labour And LoveUsually associated with the older generation of traditional folk singers, unaccompanied singing is making something of a comeback, not just with the occasional a capella number on an album or in the live set, but rather as a full-fledged style of performance. The recent success of The Young’Uns in the BBC Folk Awards is cited as evidence of the revival’s gathering strength, but unaccompanied harmony singing is only part of the trio’s approach, with some material employing guitar and accordion. However, formed while studying for a BMus Folk & Traditional Music Degree at Newcastle University, this quartet, Kate Locksley, Rosie Calvert, Alex Cumming and Will Finn, are strictly no instruments, relying only on their voices, both independently and interwoven.

All but two of the songs are traditional, three of which will be very familiar in folk circles, ‘My Son John’, a tale of being made legless by a cannonball, ‘Ye Mariners All’ with its handclap percussion (it’s interesting to note how many unaccompanied ballads have nautical themes) and, Locksley singing the verses with the others adding harmony on the choruses, ‘The Drowned Lovers’, learned from Kathryn Roberts, but with an added extra verse found in the Bodleian. The number itself comes from Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould’s collection, Songs Of The West, as does the album opener, ‘The Bellringing’, the sprightly tale of a Devon bellringing contest (the men of North Looe emerge victorious), Cumming taking lead with the harmonies emulating the cadence of the bells.

Moving from the West Country to the North East, ‘The Rapper Set’ has nothing do to with hip hop but refers to a folk dance involving short swords and fast stepping in hard-soled shoes and comprises the introductory ‘Calling On Song’ and two traditional tunes, ‘Drummond Castle’ and ‘Seven Stars’, with Finn providing the stepping and Calvert, who also arranged, doing the exhausting heavy lifting on the scat sung ‘lyrics’.

The group travel even further afield for ‘Sugar In The Hold’, a New Orleans cargo loading worksong set aboard the J.M.White steamboat from Mississippi, complete with a hearty ‘huah’ grunt from the guys. Then it’s back home for the last two of the traditional tunes, first up being much reworked and well-travelled sombre murder ballad ‘Oxford City’, deep voiced Calvert initially singing solo before first Locksley joins in on harmony. This is followed by my personal favourite, ‘Labouring Man’ (on which their voices are augmented by those of Gavin Davenport, Roberts & Gilmore, Stu Hanna, and Cliff Ward and Jade Rhiannon from The Willows), a song in praise of the English working man taken from 1890’s ‘Wiltshire Folk Songs and Carols’ collected by Rev. G. Hills (though I suspect a couple of lines are from the version collected by Folk-Song Society founder Lucy Broadwood from a Mr Sparks of Dunfold in 1896), the verse “In former days, you all do know, a poor man cheerful used to go…and for his labours it was said, a fair day’s wages he was paid, but now to live he hardly can, may God protect the labouring man”, revealing that little has changed in Conservative government policies between then and now.

The final two numbers are more contemporary, though Locksley’s ‘The Antiguan Graveyard’ could easily pass for traditional, the tune inspired by the jig ‘Coleraine’ and the stark lyrics by a documentary about a graveyard of British sailors forced to travel to the island to protect the sugar plantations during the 18th century. The album closes, appropriately enough, with the elegiac parting glass themed ‘Journey’s End’, a glorious four part harmony reading of a poem by Judy B. Goodenough set to music by Tommy Makem.

They say in the sleeve notes that they chose it partly “to symbolise the closing of an important chapter of our lives, individually and collectively, and the beginning of a new one.” On the evidence here, you’d be a mug not to part of it.

Mike Davies

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The Willows’ new album, Amidst Fiery Skies, released October 6, 2014

AFS CoverRising Cambridge five piece’s striking second album sets alight Anglo-American melting pot

Outstanding young Cambridge band The Willows will release a striking follow up to their debut album this autumn, further enhancing their growing reputation as inspired musicians and innovative songwriters.

Amidst Fiery Skies, due out on October 6, rekindles the flame sparked by their acclaimed first album Beneath this Humble Soil and reveals a mellifluous melding of influences -11 tracks infused with Americana, bluegrass, country and English folk, from foot stompers to ballads.

The Willows are adept at juxtaposing fiery and fragile, tough and tender, lush and light, in an emotive rollercoaster mix, perhaps no more so than on this new release. With shades of Alison Krauss and Union Station, The Waifs, Gillian Welch and Be Good Tanyas, theirs is life affirming, affecting, energised and evocative music.

There is alchemy at work in this smart, sassy line-up with familial links. The band is fronted by Jade Rhiannon with her distinctively husky but tender vocal, aided and abetted by talented multi-instrumental husband Cliff Ward on banjo, guitar, violin and vocals and sister-in-law Prue Ward, a superb, sensitive fiddler. Ben Savage, apparently “found” in the Gumtree free ads, is a dynamic dobro and guitar player while “new kid on the block” is versatile Evan Carson on bodhran, drums and percussion.

Skilfully produced by Sean Lakeman who has masterminded albums for brother Seth Lakeman, The Levellers, Carus Thompson and Rev Hammer as well as his own duo with Kathryn Roberts, this release brings together poetic songs of land and sea from both sides of the Atlantic, mixing original, traditional and covers songs in one beguiling and enigmatic collection.

Feted for their “absolutely gorgeous sound” by Bob Harris and championed by the likes of Mike Harding, The Willows formed four years ago, making waves with their 2013 debut album produced by Stu Hanna, which was nominated for Best Debut Album in the Spiral Awards, run by popular music website Spiral Earth. They clinched the Pride of Cambridge prize in the New Music Generator Awards hosted by radio station Cambridge 105 and along the way have supported the likes of Lau, Seth Lakeman, Peatbog Faeries and Rory McLeod.

“Engaging and sensitive newgrass musicianship – The Willows come across like an English take on Union Station” – fRoots Magazine

“A unit that ply their brio and accomplishment – The Willows know what they are about”Songlines Magazine

The vibrant new album, which also features guest double bassist Ben Nicholls (Seth Lakeman Band/The Full English) delivers vivid narrative songs. The compelling banjo-driven ‘Johnny Robson’ tells of a man who throws himself into the fire after seeing an apparition of his dead wife while ‘The Visitor’ is a fine original inspired by the band’s trip to Robin Hood’s Bay, telling the true epic story of one of the most significant lifeboat rescues in British history.

“Absolutely gorgeous sound” – Bob Harris, BBC Radio 2

“They straddle the worlds between Americana and English roots music in a very deft way; for such a young band they don’t take any prisoners. Fabulous music”- Mike Harding

The CD opens with the winsome ‘Red Sands’ interweaving several story threads – from tales of Welsh great grandparents to those forced to move from the land they love and cherished memories of childhood holidays in Norfolk. There’s an infectiously catchy reading of Bill Staines’ sublime ‘Roseville Fair’ – a song Ben was drawn to after hearing Chris Wood and Andy Cutting’s interpretation while Jade brings her warm honeyed vocal to the poignant Irish ballad ‘Maid of Culmore’ and America’s early Irish immigrants working on the Central Pacific Railroad are the focus of ‘Shores’ on which Cliff takes lead vocal.

The self-penned ‘Our Road’ is mellow and mournful with the fluid fiddle of Prue to the fore while ‘Daughter’ is punchy, pacy and free flowing as it looks through the eyes of a young girl and her evolving relationship with her family as she grows from a cautious child into a wise mother.

Utah Phillips’ ‘Goodnight Loving Trail’, learned from the singing of Sara Grey, tells of an old cowboy who became the cook of the 2000 mile cattle trail from Texas to Wyoming while the achingly tender ‘Outward Bound’ is the result of delving into the treasure trove that is The Full English Digital Archive and alighting upon a manuscript collected by Francis Collinson in Kent. Based on ‘The Faithful Sailor Boy’ it tells of a ship’s safe return to land minus the maiden’s lover and is set to a fresh new melody by the band.

The lush full sound of album closer Wave washes over this classy collection, again featuring soaring violin and reversing a common song theme of yearning to return home to civilisation with a desire to stay away and linger a little longer in isolation.

Amidst Fiery Skies is released on the Elk Records label and distributed by Proper Music.

Artist’s website: