Rising 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: www.thewillowsband.co.uk