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Review: The Willows –

Pride of Cambridge

Shire Folk caught up with Cambridge-based band The Willows at a gig on a foggy March night in a lovely Cotswold pub called the White Horse in Stonesfield near Woodstock. The pub has a pleasant outbuilding with a bar, where double BAFTA winning composer and fine guitar player Nick Hooper runs a monthly folk club. Over a pint of well-kept Ringwood Best Bitter before the gig I found out more about the band.

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The Willows – Pride of Cambridge

Formed just four years ago, and already winners of the Pride of Cambridge prize in the New Music Generator Awards organised by community radio station Cambridge 105, the band is made up of brother and sister Cliff Ward (guitar and banjo) and Prue Ward (violin), who originally played as a duo. To keep it in the family Jade Ward (vocals) is married to Cliff and then the rest of the band are Ben Savage (guitar and slide guitar) and Evan Carson (percussion). Evan has only recently joined the band, as Steve McLachlan left when he became a father to baby Noah (good solid folk name!).

The band all have day jobs and Prue said picking up the kids, then going on to practice, recording and gigs really means you have to have an organised life. She did admit to missing the odd sound check. She was moving house the day after this gig, so she must be some kind of superwoman!

Their debut album, Beneath our Humble Earth, came out in February 2013 and was nominated by Spiral Earth for ‘Debut Album of the Year’. It’s a very impressive start and showcases their country/folk/Americana style. As Ben explained, ‘we take influences from both sides of the Atlantic, from the works of Steve Earle to traditional English music. When I joined [he answered the band’s advert on Gumtree!] I brought a slightly different record collection to the band, but that helped us all develop’.

All their material is collectively written, and I asked if this caused any problems. Jade said, ‘you have to be honest with yourself – when you submit something to the group you are laying your heart on the line as the lyrics can be very personal to you. However, we have had no major problems and everyone comments, and improves each song’.

The album is produced by Stu Hanna (one half of Megson), who has produced albums for the likes of Show of Hands and Lucy Ward. Ben explained, ‘we met Stu as he was linked to our record label and it helped that he now lives near Cambridge. We found it odd at first that someone else was taking charge of our songs. But he came to our sessions and played with us and showed us different ways of playing certain notes and parts of the song. So we were very pleased with the results’.

My personal favourite track on the album is ‘Worker’s War’, which Jade explained is about her father. He was a loyal employee of a company who had employed him for 38 years. He was then deemed to be unfairly dismissed and an industrial tribunal gave him a pay-out which enabled him to retire early. Hold on, this can’t be right – a folk song with a happy ending!

They played an excellent live set at the White Horse, and it would be difficult to pick out highlights, such was the all-round quality. Having enjoyed the track ‘The Outlaw’ on the album, featuring some haunting fiddle playing by Prue as well as the husky voice of Jade, I particularly enjoyed hearing it performed live.

The band are playing festivals throughout the summer and have an autumn tour planned to support their second album (no date yet), but which I can reveal is to be produce by Sean Lakeman. They do know how to find their producers!

It was great to meet The Willows and to know that the future of the music we all listen too is in the hands of such talented and lovely people.

Graham Hobbs

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