The joke, you see, is that Kip Winter and Dave Wilson recorded Live & Unconventional on the road with Fairport Convention during their 2018 winter tour. In fact, the first voice we hear is that of Ric Sanders doing compere duty and the rest of the chaps appear later. There are several things that struck me immediately. The first is that you have to be good to be a Fairport support on a long tour and the audience certainly got behind them. (I’ll ignore that story that I believe I got from a Fairporter that the best way to record a live album is to do it in the studio and then dub on the applause from a Deep Purple gig. There isn’t a word of truth in it!) The other thing that stands out is the quality of the recording. Two voices and a selection of two instruments from guitar, banjo and piano accordion make a big sound and Winter Wilson squeeze fifteen long tracks onto the album with just enough chat to keep us in the loop.
They open quietly with the title track of their most recent studio album. ‘Far Off On The Horizon’ was inspired by a sleepless night and is an example of Dave’s ability to take almost nothing and turn it into a superb song. The crowd-pleaser, ‘Tried And Tested’, turns up the volume but then we get to the meat of the set. History and literature are absolutely on trend for a Fairport audience and Dave and Kip run through the Falklands war, Jack London, John Steinbeck and emigration to Canada. Politics come in to the equation, firstly with ‘Ghost’, which I still think is one of Dave’s absolute best songs – but I also think that about ‘I Wish I Could Turn Back Time’ which follows it.
Fairport Convention take the stage to accompany them on ‘Still Life In The Old Dog Yet’ – Kip couldn’t understand why they chose to play on that one – and Sandy Denny’s ‘It’ll Take A Long Time’. In real life Winter Wilson’s set ended here, but they give us two more tracks to go home with. ‘This Day Is Mine’ is an idler’s charter but ‘Common Form’ returns to war and history and we remember that they really do have something to say.
From the first notes Kip and Dave exude confidence and I realised how well the songs I’ve only heard as studio recordings have developed in the live set. If Live & Unconventional doesn’t promote Winter Wilson up to the next division there is no justice.
If you go to a Winter Wilson gig you can expect great songs well-played, but also humour in their introductions. I saw them play at a small festival last summer and they stopped their set for five minutes so we could watch the Spitfire fly past. This is a duo good enough to break the rules. They launched their new album, Far Off On The Horizon at Sleaford Playhouse Theatre on May 11th.
The evening opened with the two walking on stage, relaxed, joking and self-deprecating before moving into the title song of the new album. If you’ve never heard them, then their style is, at heart, a combination of Dave Wilson’s clean picking and the two voices – strong separately but gloriously harmonized for both gentle or up tempo songs to give greater impact to the lyrics and the tune. This opening song is about being awake in the middle of the night, alone after a break up. The scene begins as one of everyday experience but then, as Dave Wilson’s songs do so often, there are lines to stun you into admiration at both the insight and the ability to weave the words seamlessly into song lyric, “Treachery comes with a smile/ And deceit the warmest handshake.”
How do you move from this to a song, ‘Merciful Father’, about killing in the name of your faith? For most people this would be the cue to start a considered discussion; for Winter Wilson, it’s an opportunity for Kip Winter to pick up the guitar while Wilson swaps to the banjo. The song is introduced with banjo jokes that have the audience in laughter – but as soon as they start playing, the mood changes to thoughtful listening, and for the acapella finish you could hear a pin drop.
And so the concert moves on – high class singing and playing are interspersed with insight and self-deprecating humour between the songs. ‘Ashes And Dust’, the title song of the previous album, came next followed by a couple more new songs – first a shift of style into blues with ‘Tried And Tested’ and then ‘When First I Met Amanda’ , a girl Wilson met a primary school and how the years have treated her (which is unkindly). There is something simultaneously specific and general about Wilson’s best songs and this is one of them. The lyrics move beyond a simple tale of the fall of someone you once knew into a reflection on humanity “Some never get to say I love you;/Some whisper ’neath their breath./Some spend their lives saying they’re sorry,/While others can’t forgive.” And then it moves back into individual humanity with Wilson reversing the first verse of primary school love and praying that “she felt a little better/when she looked into my eyes” .
The duo have been playing as Winter Wilson since the 90’s, mostly in the folk tradition. As well as the serous aspects you can see above, their songs are also just good fun to sing. They moved next to 2007’s ‘Metagama’ and encouraged the audience to sing. Another blues-based song ‘The Freo Doctor’, about the cooling Western Australian afternoon breeze is airily introduced, with a schoolboy smirk, as ‘a song about wind’. The first half ended with three songs of great humanity: a solo from Kip Winter of a Burl Ives song her father used to sing; ‘Ghost’ – a classic Wilson song about a Big Issue seller and the impact of changes in the benefits system, a catchy chorus and the stunning image in final line of the chorus, “Well the government said it was self inflicted, / So I don’t show up on their statistics./With the click of a mouse I disappeared;/ From a girl to a ghost at eighteen years”; and a song with lyrics found after the death of a young local musician “I can’t take any credit for it, I just knocked a few edges off”.
By half time we’ve had a classic Winter Wilson concert: humour, self-deprecation, humanity – and some great songs. You have to be good to be able to take an audience from the laughing humour of the introduction to silent thoughtfulness in the first four bars of the following song and in recent years Winter Wilson have honed their talent and travelled a long way: they spent this winter opening around the country for Fairport Convention, and in the recent past they have toured Australia and New Zealand, Germany and Holland, Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well as all corners of England; they’ve played to small folk clubs and large festivals; they’ve written, sung and played some of the best songs currently on the folk and acoustic scene. John Tams, who knows a thing or two, has said, “It’s a rare gift you have – cherish it mightily.” Sleaford is Winter Wilson’s home town and the gig was a sell out. While there were local Sleafordians in the audience, there were also many who traveled for the concert.
The second half was made of the same stuff. It opened with a joke about a Welshman on a desert island and then moved into ‘Someone else’s Bed’ an early song about an enduring human pain, gripping to listen to, “knowing that you’re lying in someone else’s arms and someone else’s bed” – Dave Wilson’s driving strum on the bass strings forcing us to listen to the tale. The story grows, the higher strings chipping in, occasionally at first and then bursting in to the chorus, Kip Winter’s voice adding volume and fullness to a great tune in this song about something in life that hurts both male and female equally.
Then they took us from humour to empathy again – the humour in the bizarreness of knowing the German word, Schwangerschaftstest, for pregnancy testing kit – the empathy in this tale of ‘Doreen and Joe’ in their tenement, yearning for a baby. It has a happy ending, but it takes you through the agony of failed tests before the joy of the ending.
‘The Ship It Rocked’ is another new song with a lyric to stop you in your tracks, “They say you can’t trade human flesh,/No man can own another./But when the devil calls you’ll sell your soul,/You’ll turn upon your brother.” ‘Grateful For The Rain’ is a song of emigration to Canada with an introduction about the social history of lone female emigrants.
Having played most of the new album they treated us to a request for ‘This Day Is Mine’, another song that got the audience singing, and then to other favourites. It’s generally impossible to know the impact of songs that you write and sing, but for the song that followed, ‘Is It True That His Eyes Are Like Mine’, the duo have had two people come up to them (one after crying through the whole song) and let them know that they too have had babies taken away at an early age, the adults turning up years later to find their mothers – one ‘child’ aged 30, one aged 55.
The blues ‘Find Myself A Lover’, from 2001, came next – still powerful and a great showcase for Kip Winter’s vocal talent – and then ‘We Still Get Along’ from 2013. They finished with ‘Still Life In The Old Dog Yet’, the song they played jointly with Fairport on the recent tour. They couldn’t not do an encore after the ovation they received and finished with ‘Common Form’, based on the story of Rudyard Kipling bending rules so that his son could fight in World War One – then and losing him at the Battle of Loos only weeks after his arrival in France. It includes another magnificent line, “Testosterone and bullshit it’s a heady potent brew” but is much too nuanced to be described as an anti-war song (though it is). As ever with Wilson’s songs, it’s about humanity at a personal level (a father and his son) first, but also allowing you to draw out a wider understanding of humanity as a whole.
And there we had it – a typical Winter Wilson concert, but even more of one because it was both a homecoming and a launch of the new album. Twenty-five years since I first saw them perform they have eight albums to their name and international success. Have a listen to ‘Ghost’ in the video link below and you’ll get a feel for the songs, the clarity of the playing and the strength of their voices both separately and together. And if you like musicians who can move you from humour to compassion in about ten seconds, go and see them live.
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Winter Wilson’s eighth album, Far Off On The Horizon, does not do showy or flashy. It just calmly and confidently insinuates its way into the “it’s a keeper!” section of the CD collection, song by well-crafted song.
And each song is most artfully put together with thoughtful lyrics and fully-formed melodies, gently reinforced by sympathetic vocal and instrumental arrangements. It’s a real credit to Winter Wilson, especially songwriter Dave Wilson, that there’s an established, familiar, even lived-in feel to the tracks, a feeling that some of them could be centuries old already.
Yet, with tracks also dealing with topics such as Australian weather, migration and homelessness, the subject matter is often bang up to date. Avoiding straying into preachiness, the result is an album of very naturalistic yet utterly contemporary folk laid over a solid spine of social conscience.
Rather cannily, the album was written, recorded, produced and released to coincide with the duo’s tour with the legendary Fairport Convention (on now, don’t forget your tickets). Given such tight time pressure, it’s all the more remarkable that the result is a genuinely solid album without flab or filler.
Opening – and title – track ‘Far Off On The Horizon’ sets a melancholy mood, with some gorgeous harmonies underscored by Marion Fleetwood’s delicate strings. On ‘The Ship It Rocked’, Fleetwood lends a far more angular counterpoint to a fretful sailor’s tale.
Migration comes in different guises, from a sorrowful family parting in banjo-led ‘Grateful For The Rain (Billy Boy)’, to the poignant and highly topical ‘I Cannot Remain’. Despite its traditional feel, it’s as currently relevant as can be (reducing this listener to furious tears). ‘Ghost’, a moving observation on homelessness and the ease of slipping between society’s cracks, is another openly political/socially aware track.
But what really stands out throughout all these songs is the deep vein of empathy. From ‘The Old Man Was A Sea Dog’, Wilson’s touching tribute to a difficult relationship with his father, to the tragic loneliness of ‘St Peter’s Gate’, the anti-materialism of ‘What Can I Do To Make You Happy?’ and the lingering, regretful ‘When I First Met Amanda’, even the tartest observations are made with a kindly eye.
Kip Winter’s strong and characterful voice slips easily into blues and country-tinged tracks like ‘The Freo Doctor’ and ‘Tried And Tested’ and final track, the striving, uptempo ‘Hard Walkin’’. Having worked hard at turning a mid-life redundancy into an opportunity, it’s perhaps it’s not surprising that Winter Wilson choose to sign off with such a philosophy of optimism after leading us over some tough emotional ground,
Far Off On The Horizon is Winter Wilson’s third album as full-time musicians and can surely only cement their rightful position as songwriters and performers at the forefront of contemporary traditional music.
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Winter Wilson are preparing to hit the road with the legendary Fairport Convention right now – but they could very easily be on the dole. This is the story of a couple who turned the nightmare of redundancy into a dream of playing music for a living…
“We gave ourselves a year to see how things would turn out,” says singer Kip Winter. “Five years later we’re still getting away with it! It’s not easy, but playing music professionally beats working for a living.”
Kip and partner Dave Wilson were popular part timers on the folk scene and released Winter Wilson albums at their own leisure. But, following the banking crash and global crisis of 2012, things changed for the couple and music became the priority. Since then, critical acclaim has followed their every move and they even made one of the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Top Ten Folk Albums’ of Summer 2014 with the redundancy-inspired Cutting Free.
Now, to coincide with the Fairport Convention tour, the pair release their eighth studio album, Far Off On The Horizon, another fine collection of self-penned songs on subjects as diverse as migration, old age, young love and Australian weather!
The music they make is as sharp in sound as it is observational in message and they always pay strict attention to harmony and tunes. Dave Wilson’s songs pull no punches and are as comfortable in a contemporary box, as they are at home on the floor of a folk club. Indeed, his songs have found their way into the repertoire of many a seasoned floor singer, as well as several other recording artistes.
Now the duo have been hand picked to support musical legends Fairport Convention on the band’s winter tour and are ready to delight new audiences around the country. After all, great songs born in a cottage industry fit very well with the emotional geography of the roads they’re now travelling. “We never did the gap year thing as students, and we knew we had enough money from our redundancy pay-outs to buy a van and get by for a little while, so I’m glad we said ‘sod the daily grind’ and got out there,” says Dave.
“Getting out there” has included releasing more albums, like 2016’s critically-acclaimed Ashes & Dust, and touring them around the world.
So what’s next for Winter Wilson? “Well, there’s twenty eight dates with Fairport Convention,” replied Dave, “then we kick off our own Far Off On The Horizon tour of the UK and Ireland. After that, who knows?”
Judging by the determination of these two moving musicians, we won’t have to wait long to see and hear more.