A WINTER UNION – Sooner After Solstice: A Transatlantic Folk Christmas (Sungrazing Records SGR201)

Sooner After SolsticeTheir first album in seven years, Katriona Gilmore, Jamie Roberts, Hannah Sanders, Ben Savage and Jade Rhiannon from The Willows (of which Gilmore and Savage are also members) reunite, with the added contributions from Ben Nicholls and Dan Day on double bass and drums, to bring Sooner After Solstice, a seasonal celebration of folk traditions from both Great Britain and America with a mix of both contemporary and well-aged numbers.

They open proceedings with mandolin and dobro in full flow for a choppy arrangement of Jethro Tull’s 1977 Christmas hit ‘Ring Out, Solstice Bells’, Hannah’s vocals appropriately pealing on the title refrain. That’s followed by a co-write across time by Jade and William Wordsworth with a pizzicato plucked and forceful drum setting of his poem ‘Minstrels’ paying respect to those musicians out and about bringing festive cheer in the freezing air, Katriona’s fiddle raising a glass midway and she and Hannah taking vocals for the second verse.

From the Lake District thing shift to New Mexico as Ben takes husky lead on a lovely lilting treatment of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Snowin’ On Raton’that beautifully conjures the weariness at its heart. Arranged and sung by Hannah, despite the booklet credits, ‘All Bells In Paradise’ isn’t itself traditional, rather it was inspired by the fifteenth century ‘Corpus Christi Carol’, first noted down by an apprentice grocer named Richard Hill between 1504 and 1536, the adaptation written by John Rutter as a commission from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and first performed at the 2012 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Believed by some to be about the Holy Grail, it’s steeped in mystical and mythic imagery, the arrangement here, with its feel of icicles melting, superbly capturing that sacred aura. The first of the originals and from whence the album title comes is, sung by Jade, Ben’s jaunty Americana-flavoured ‘White Christmas Somewhere’ with its mandolin and dobro and lyrics about a young boy getting his snowy Christmas wish.

Arranged by Jamie and recorded live in the studio with Jade and Hannah on lead for the first verse and Jamie replacing Hannah for the second, ‘Rise Up Shepherd’ (strictly ‘Rise Up Shepherd, and Follow’) is a traditional American spiritual likely dating from the Reconstruction Era and first printed in 1891 as part of a short story titled ‘Christmas-Gifts’ about slaves participating in a plantation’s celebrations, the band’s arrangement with its bass, drums and wailing vocals is steeped in gospel and blues. Interestingly for the curious, Nick Lowe recorded a bluegrassy treatment on his 2013 Christmas album ‘Quality Box’.

Featuring an intro of shruti box drone behind Jamie’s otherwise unaccompanied vocal before the other instruments and voices join, the longest track is his six-minute restyling of ‘Snows Of Winter’ (aka ‘When The Snows Of Winter Fall’) written by Teessider Graeme Miles about a farmer pondering the coming season, his animals safely penned and he and the wife snuggling together awaiting the spring. Then, taking the tempo up, sung by Hannah ‘The Trees Of Old England’ with its swayalong refrain is a new wassail from Ben as its revelers go out howling through the town.

Originally released back in 2020, set between reflecting on the passing of the old year and pondering the arrival of the new, the slow waltzing ‘Raise A Candle’ is Katriona’s song for those who, for whatever, find the festive season difficult, speaking of finding things to be grateful for.

Returning to seasonal evergreens, featuring her on Appalachian dulcimer, subsequently joined by fiddle, dobro and guitar, is Hannah’s arrangement of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ with the tune by Gustav Holst and performed here as an intimate live in the studio instrumental.

While there’s hundreds of songs about Christmas, there’s relatively few about Boxing Day, one such, however, being that of the same name by Robb Johnson about the fencing in of common land which appeared on a 1990 artists for animals album and was first encountered by Jamie, who sings it here, on a 1994s recording by Roy Bailey as part of The Band Of Hope, the band giving it brisk, romping, leg-slapping fiddle-driven treatment that should rapidly clear away any hangovers.

Sooner After Solstice ends with one final traditional incursion, arranged and sung by Jade, for an atypically sober and sparse brooding arrangement of ‘I Saw Three Ships’ heralded by the sound of waves and storm winds with Katriona weaving in her original instrumental bounce ‘The Finchingfield Festive Rabbit’, the track gathering to an a capella close.

The winter solstice is the longest night of the year, but this fine collection will ensure it’s anything but a bleak midwinter.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.awinterunion.co.uk

‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ – live: