A sort of folk supergroup that sees singer Jade Rhiannon Ward and multi-instrumentalist husband Cliff joined by Ben Savage on Dobro, percussionist Evan Carson from Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys and, new to the line-up, Katriona Gilmore on fiddle and mandolin and double bass player John Parker, this belated follow-up to 2014’s Amidst Fiery Skies finds the Cambridge-based sextet ranging across genres that span English folk, Americana and bluegrass with a sound that, at times conjures an English Clanaad. That is not the case, however, with full-blooded folk rock album opener ‘Coda’, which, like all but one number, is penned by the band. A number that deals with mortality and loss, it’s echoed in the softer, more reflective and melancholic breathily-sung ‘Better Days’ where, mottled by banjo, grief gives way to hope.
The sole non-original comes with an clopping percussion arrangement of the traditional ‘True Lover’s Ferry’, a song of love on London’s waterways learned from the singing of Peter Bellamy. Gilmore and Carson provide the backbone with Ward’s banjo also prominent for ‘Perfect Crime/Ernest Durham’s’, another musically muscular number, which draws on the true story of Percy Cox, a soldier from the Fens in the First World War who, to get a higher age, stole the identity of Ernest Durham, an Australian soldier who lends his name to the second half instrumental.
A song about the healing power of love, the evocative fiddle and banjo coloured ‘Honest Man’ musically heads out to the Appalachians before they turn to Canada for ‘Pearl Hart, Savage taking on electric guitar and Carson laying down the skittering percussive bedrock on a song that recounts the true story of the 19th century Canadian who gave up robbing stagecoaches to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
War rears its head again with ‘Out Of Our Hands’, a rueful acoustic guitar accompanying Ward on a song which, briefly swelling towards the end, was inspired by her reading of A Memory of Solferino, Henry Dunant’s 1862 book about the battle of Solferino in 1859 between Napoleon’s forces and the Austrian army, the suffering of the soldiers and the lack of aid, and which led to the founding of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions.
The English landscape serves as inspiration for two numbers, the first being ‘False Light’, pizzicato mandolin and fiddle gradually building to a big production number about the lights people imaged they saw over the fenland marshes, luring them to their deaths. It’s followed by ‘Gog Magog’, a jazzy, airy, puttering percussive rhythm number that, inspired by the eponymous chalk hills of Cambridgeshire and the mythical pagan giants (also to be found in the Bible and Cornish legend) who walked them, again treats on loss through conflict.
It ends on a personal note with the spare six-minute traditional flavoured, fiddle-coloured slow waltz ballad ‘Dear Lilly’ being dedicated to Jade’s great aunt, her courtship, marriage, miscarriage and subsequent nursing of her dying husband , going on to live for over a century, a fitting uplifting conclusion to an album that welcomes the band back in magnificent style.
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Artists’ website: www.thewillowsband.co.uk
‘False Light’ – official video: