Winter Union Bring December Tour Tidings of Comfort & Joy

Winter Union

Well they say Christmas is a special time of year for a Winter Union, when magical things happen, and this year’s Great British Folk Festival is no exception.

There was Darren and I merrily covering this year’s Skegness outing and we happened across Winter Union, a wonderful, hugely talented ‘folk super group’ and all round lovely bunch of chums from the folk scene, who treated us to a fantastic opening afternoon festive set on ‘REDS stage’ yesterday.

Winter Union comprises of Ben Savage, Katriona Gilmore, Jade Rhiannon, Hannah Saunders and Jamie Roberts, who are now in their 4th year as a festive get together.

This was the first date of their 2018 December tour. They played a stunning festive set, mixing traditional Christmas songs with an added blue grass lilt. Darren and I could not let this amazing sleigh ride pass us by without hopping on for an after gig chat in the bar. We also explored Ben Savage’s (or babe as I called him in a text typo) tale of ‘Christmas Ball Balls’.

Paul Johnson

This is what they had to say…..

Artist Website:

HANNAH SANDERS & BEN SAVAGE – Before The Sun (Sungrazing Records SGR002)

Before The SunHannah Sanders first solo album, Charms Against Sorrow, was produced by Willows guitarist Ben Savage who also played on the record and shared in the arrangements. With Before The Sun their partnership has been formalised but little else has changed except that the duo went to Toronto to record with David Travers-Smith.

To the mix of traditional songs and covers is now added some originals and the first ‘The Fall (Hang)’ opens the set. I’m still puzzling over this track – it could be a reinterpretation of a murder ballad or a macabre accident like Bob Pegg’s ‘The Hanged Man’. I think I lean towards the former. Next is the first traditional song, ‘Come All Ye Fair & Tender Maids’, a mid-Atlantic version finished with a playground round. ‘What’s It Tonight My Love?’, another original, sees Ben take the first lead vocal. Its description of night in the city puts me in mind of ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ even though there is no resemblance between the two songs, other than the feeling that it leaves you with.

Next come three traditional songs. The first is ‘Lady Margaret’, an English song with variants in the United States. ‘Clayton Boone’ is definitely American and gives Ben another lead vocal and the chance to play Dobro. It is, of course, a variant of ‘Gypsy Davy’. Finally in this section we have the haunting ‘Deep Blue Sea’, a version that doesn’t quite match any set of lyrics that I can find. Hannah and Ben’s version is rather more gentle than the standard text and rather lovely.

Hannah and Ben play guitars, dulcimer and autoharp and are joined by Kevin Breit and Katriona Gilmore on melody instruments with Evan Carson and Jon Thorne on percussion and double bass. For the most part they are used sparingly but they do get to have a blow on Richie Stearns’ ‘Ribbons And Bows’. Joining them on vocals are Jim Causley, Robin Gillan and Jade Rhiannon.

The final track is ‘Boots Of Spanish Leather’ sung as a duet as it is written. They slow it down a bit and the singing is sad and wistful where Dylan managed a blend of bitterness and resignation. He knew the back-story, of course, and it all happened fifty years ago but I’d advise anyone tackling the song to read the relevant section of a biography. It’s beautifully performed, as is the whole of the album, but to an old curmudgeon like me it misses something.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘Come All Ye Fair And Tender Maids’ – official video:

THE TEACUPS –Of Labour And Love (Haystack HAYCD008)

THE TEACUPS –Of Labour And LoveUsually associated with the older generation of traditional folk singers, unaccompanied singing is making something of a comeback, not just with the occasional a capella number on an album or in the live set, but rather as a full-fledged style of performance. The recent success of The Young’Uns in the BBC Folk Awards is cited as evidence of the revival’s gathering strength, but unaccompanied harmony singing is only part of the trio’s approach, with some material employing guitar and accordion. However, formed while studying for a BMus Folk & Traditional Music Degree at Newcastle University, this quartet, Kate Locksley, Rosie Calvert, Alex Cumming and Will Finn, are strictly no instruments, relying only on their voices, both independently and interwoven.

All but two of the songs are traditional, three of which will be very familiar in folk circles, ‘My Son John’, a tale of being made legless by a cannonball, ‘Ye Mariners All’ with its handclap percussion (it’s interesting to note how many unaccompanied ballads have nautical themes) and, Locksley singing the verses with the others adding harmony on the choruses, ‘The Drowned Lovers’, learned from Kathryn Roberts, but with an added extra verse found in the Bodleian. The number itself comes from Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould’s collection, Songs Of The West, as does the album opener, ‘The Bellringing’, the sprightly tale of a Devon bellringing contest (the men of North Looe emerge victorious), Cumming taking lead with the harmonies emulating the cadence of the bells.

Moving from the West Country to the North East, ‘The Rapper Set’ has nothing do to with hip hop but refers to a folk dance involving short swords and fast stepping in hard-soled shoes and comprises the introductory ‘Calling On Song’ and two traditional tunes, ‘Drummond Castle’ and ‘Seven Stars’, with Finn providing the stepping and Calvert, who also arranged, doing the exhausting heavy lifting on the scat sung ‘lyrics’.

The group travel even further afield for ‘Sugar In The Hold’, a New Orleans cargo loading worksong set aboard the J.M.White steamboat from Mississippi, complete with a hearty ‘huah’ grunt from the guys. Then it’s back home for the last two of the traditional tunes, first up being much reworked and well-travelled sombre murder ballad ‘Oxford City’, deep voiced Calvert initially singing solo before first Locksley joins in on harmony. This is followed by my personal favourite, ‘Labouring Man’ (on which their voices are augmented by those of Gavin Davenport, Roberts & Gilmore, Stu Hanna, and Cliff Ward and Jade Rhiannon from The Willows), a song in praise of the English working man taken from 1890’s ‘Wiltshire Folk Songs and Carols’ collected by Rev. G. Hills (though I suspect a couple of lines are from the version collected by Folk-Song Society founder Lucy Broadwood from a Mr Sparks of Dunfold in 1896), the verse “In former days, you all do know, a poor man cheerful used to go…and for his labours it was said, a fair day’s wages he was paid, but now to live he hardly can, may God protect the labouring man”, revealing that little has changed in Conservative government policies between then and now.

The final two numbers are more contemporary, though Locksley’s ‘The Antiguan Graveyard’ could easily pass for traditional, the tune inspired by the jig ‘Coleraine’ and the stark lyrics by a documentary about a graveyard of British sailors forced to travel to the island to protect the sugar plantations during the 18th century. The album closes, appropriately enough, with the elegiac parting glass themed ‘Journey’s End’, a glorious four part harmony reading of a poem by Judy B. Goodenough set to music by Tommy Makem.

They say in the sleeve notes that they chose it partly “to symbolise the closing of an important chapter of our lives, individually and collectively, and the beginning of a new one.” On the evidence here, you’d be a mug not to part of it.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

‘Sugar In The Hold’ live:

HANNAH SANDERS – Charms Against Sorrow (Sungrazing Records SGR001)

CharmsAgainstSorrowHailing from Norwich, Sanders came to folk early, singing with her a capella family group, The Dunns, as a teenager before briefly putting music to one side to travel to America and develop a career as a cultural anthropologist, the album title bearing witness to her study of contemporary witchcraft. Returning to the UK in 2013, she’s resumed her relationship with folk music, releasing an EP last year and now following on with this full-length debut. Accompanied by musicians that include Ben Savage, Evan Carson and Jade Rhiannon from The Willows, bassist Jon Thorne and Anna Scott on cello, not surprisingly, it reflects both British and American influences in what is a predominantly traditional and simply arranged affair recorded in ‘grass roots’ settings that range from an old mill to a Lake District kitchen in order, capturing the intimate atmosphere, not to mention the sounds of fires crackling and birds singing

Sanders has a clear, pure vocal, a slight breathy husk alternating with soaring high notes and, listening to ‘Joshuay’, a sprightly variation on the song variously known as ‘The Prickly Bush’ and ‘Gallows Pole’, it’s hard not to sometimes find yourself thinking of the early Joni Mitchell. She certainly favours Mitchell jazz-folk stylings, both on that and on the ensuing versions of Michael Hurley’s psych-folk number ‘The Werewolf ‘(where her voice also suggests Janis Ian) and Annie Briggs’ ‘Go Your Way’. Elsewhere, the clear air of the Appalachians can be felt on ‘I Gave My Love A Cherry’ and in the Dobro colours of the otherwise softly sung English pastoral ‘I’ll Weave My Love A Garland’ while, in arrangements and vocal, both ‘Bonnie Bunch Of Roses’ (which segues into intricate guitar instrumental ‘Mayflower Stranger’) and ‘Lord Franklin’ are haunted by the ghost of Sandy Denny.

Harking back to her family heritage, there’s an unaccompanied reading of ‘A Sailor’s Life’ (aka ‘Sweet William’) and, her native accent heard in the pronunciations, a wearied, melancholic, cello-hued take on ‘Geordie’. Joined by sister Ruth on backing vocals, she’s slightly sprightlier on folk evergreen ‘Pleasant And Delightful’ (also known as ‘Dawning Of The Day’), though more restrained and tender than the rousing approach usually to be found in folk clubs while the album’s remaining track draws on the inspiration of Nic Jones (and, again, Scott’s cello) for a jazzy blues inflected interpretation of broadside ballad ‘Miles Weatherhill And Sarah Bell’.

It’s early days yet, but, with an extensive tour coming up to promote the album, Sanders could soon find herself numbered among the ranks of today’s contemporary masters of traditional folk.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: h

Hannah sings ‘Lord Franklin’:

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.

Artist’s website: