Published on September 24th, 2014 | by Mike Ainscoe1
The Willows – Amidst Fiery Skies
Billed as a rekindling of the flames of their Stu Hanna produced debut album, ‘Beneath Our Humble Soil’, expectancy for new The Willows album is high. With testimonials from big hitters Bob Harris and Mike Harding plus ‘Best Album’ nominations from Spiral Earth and support slots with the likes of Lau, Richard Thompson and Seth Lakeman, you can see why.
This time around they’ve bagged another named producer in Sean Lakeman, whose production ears and skills seem to be ever more in demand these days. The band are joined by fellow Lakeman acolyte, Ben Nicholls, who takes on double bass duties to add to the impressive instrumental skill of the band fronted by the unique – edging on raw – vocal of Jade Rhiannon. It’s an impressive line up based again around the banjos, guitars and dobros of Ben Savage and Cliff Ward and also includes the latest addition of Evan Carson on percussion instruments.
There’s a name check for the EFDSS’s Full English digital archive with their interpretation of ‘The Faithful Sailor Boy’ collected by Francis Collinson, retitled ‘Outward Bound’, and with a melody reflecting their understanding of the heartache of the lyric. One of the standard folk topics, which is explored also on the rest of the album, are the narratives that plunder the themes of family struggle, tragedy, travel and the land. It’s the gentle shuffle and percussive resonance of ‘Red Sands’ which opens the album with a thread weaving through memories of childhood holidays and into the forced migration of Welsh great grandparents. It builds to an intensity which sets the scene for a trip through a mixture of soundscapes and storytelling, both traditional and self penned.
Both the gentle harmonies of ‘Roseville Fair’ and the darker tale of ‘Johnny Robson’ show The Willows picking up a more uptempo groove whilst ‘Maid Of Culmore’ is perhaps the pick of the traditional material. The nineteenth century Irish ballad is beautifully sung against a restrained guitar accompaniment echoing the subject matter of the search for a maid in the wilds of New England, followed by another nod to the early Irish immigrants and their struggle with ‘Shores’, with the dobro and banjo giving the song a typically bluegrass/Americana feel about it. Despite the subject matter being rooted in the uncertainty of a family and their future, there’s hope and a light and airy fiddle plays over the top of Cliff Ward’s lead vocal.
The intriguing true story of the rescue of the crew of the ship The Visitor is told in the eponymous song. It does feel very much in the same vein as Seth Lakeman’s ‘Solomon Browne’ which has a similar theme. A personal favourite from the album, despite the toil and labour, it’s an uplifting song of the never say die spirit with a similarly strong and determined backing. Given a potent story, it’s the finest example of what The Willows can conjure up in original compositions.
Ranging from songs which are poignant and packed with sentiment, to the inspiring and energetic, with ‘Amidst Fiery Skies’ The Willows have confidently fanned the flames of their debut.