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.
‘Ghost’ – live: