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.

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STARK: Blues with a banjo

Stark3Stark brings together three highly creative musicians – lead singer and guitarist Jamie Francis, drummer Evan Carson and bassist Josh Franklin. Together, they are pushing the boundaries and taking the blues somewhere very new.

Jamie grew up in Maryport, West Cumbria, and played his first ever gig on the Maryport Blues Festival Trail at the age of 12. As a teenager, he was lucky enough to see legends like Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins and David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards play the main stage at Maryport. Then, as he got older, he was blown away by The White Stripes – and found out that Jack White was influenced by blues greats like Son House and Robert Johnson. Somehow all roads led back to the blues…

Jamie paid his dues in several Cumbrian bands, including Feed Me, who made a name for themselves in the blues world – opening the main stage at Maryport in 2010, getting a track played by Paul Jones on Radio 2, performing in venues like Charlotte Street Blues, and receiving rave reviews for their CD ‘Blood on the Moon’ from ‘Blues in Britain’, ‘Blues Matters’ and ‘R2 Magazine’.

By the time he turned 19, Jamie had played over 200 gigs and had opened for famous blues artists including Sherman Robertson, Matt Schofield, Marcus Bonfanti, Ian Siegal and The Hoax.

He then headed down to the Brighton Institute of Modern Music (BIMM), which has produced some outstanding young blues musicians in recent years, including Dani Wilde and Ben Poole. There, Jamie gained a first-class music degree and became known as one of the best young guitarists on the Brighton scene, specialising in top-class slide and finger-picking. While studying at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music, he met drummer Evan Carson and bassist Josh Franklin, and Stark was born.

Evan is a gifted and versatile drummer who has studied with renowned percussionists, including Damian Manning, Pat Garvey, Cormac Byrne and Alex Reeves, and has toured Europe several times. His performing experience has encompassed everything from samba to prog rock, and he once had the great pleasure of playing with jazz legend Sir Johnny Dankworth.

Brought up in a musical family, Josh grew up playing an eclectic mix of Motown, funk, Beatles and hard rock. Starting on piano before moving onto bass, he built his musical knowledge on solid foundations. He is a brilliant bassist, who brings unique melodic flair and feel to the band.

Stark have come a long way in a short time. They have already started making waves on the British festival circuit, having appeared at Tenby Blues, Bowness Bay Blues, The Alternative Escape and the Brighton Festival Fringe. They have been featured as a Critic’s Choice in Time Out, and R2 magazine described their last CD as ‘an unexpected joy’.

StarkFor the last three years, they have been honing their songwriting and performance skills, recording, producing and releasing their own music – to huge critical acclaim. Their highly original blend of 1930s American blues and British prog rock, their infectious melodies, poetic lyrics and unique arrangements are winning Stark a dedicated and growing fan base. Their latest release, Stories From The Ground, will put them on the map as a force to be reckoned with.

‘… bursting with tight, driving melodicism’ – Time Out, Critic’s Choice

‘Fantastic technique and full of feeling’ – Tenby Blues Festival

‘Next up were the startlingly youthful looking but exceptionally talented Stark, with a harder powerful sound that took us out of 1950s rockabilly into a late 60s bluesy heavy rock vibe, akin to Led Zeppelin. All three members of Stark were incredibly impressive, and the sound whilst rocking was also soulful and full of great tunes.’ – Brighton Music Blog

‘full of intense, frantic, captivating instruments blended with rich vocals, and delightful harmonies. Stark has it all!’ – Fatea Magazine