Looking at the track listing before getting hold of "Calling All Angels", it seemed as if it was a "Greatest hits" album. I am lucky enough to have been able to see Brian and Cathryn live quite a few times, so these tracks are like old friends. It's kind of strange to think that most of them haven't appeared on record before. If these songs are new to you, you are in for a treat.
I must confess that I might have been a little concerned that such familiarity with the tracks might make the album seem a bit dull. These songs are beautiful live, but listening to them on record might seem a bit like hearing a bootleg. Happy to report that this is not the case. The songs have all been carefully crafted by Brian and Cathryn, so no matter how many times you've heard them live, they still seem new and fresh.
The album is credited to Craig and Willoughby, but I think really it should have been Craig, Willoughby and Rynhart. Phil not only plays a variety of instruments on several tracks, he also recorded, engineered, produced and mastered the album, and he has done a masterful job. Under any other circumstances I'd say that the sheer quality of this album gives the music colour, but as Brian has a solo album called "Black and White" you might think that was just a cheap pun.
With the subtlest note from a violin or viola from Antonia Pagulatos, or a sudden explosion of drumming from Dennis Bryon, these songs really have been filled with depth and colour.
Music has always been a good medium for evoking emotions. Poets try to do it with metre, rhyme and aliteration; artists such as Dali invented a language of images such as melting clocks and weightless elephants to convey emotions; but music has always been better at stirring feelings. Happy songs can cheer you up; sad songs can depress you, but the songs on this album act as transport to faraway places and far off times.
"Alice's Song", for instance, has been given a music box feel, so it invokes memories of childhood. For those who may not be aware, "Alice's Song" was inspired by Brian's niece, who suffers from Asperger's syndrome. A version was released by the Strawbs for Autism awareness; Brian included it on "Black and White", and an instrumental version appears on "Fingers Crossed". I think the song has been given this childlike quality to highlight the fact that Alice is a child no more. She has grown up to be a beautiful woman, and is doing very well at college. Very definitely, this is my favourite version of this song so far.
"Two Hearts One Love" was included on Cathryn's solo album "Porch Songs", but unbelievably, this is the first time that a version by both Brian and Cathryn has appeared on record. Although there is no steel guitar on this album, the song has a similar plaintive feel, and from the opening notes you can feel the loneliness of driving back to Carolina with a broken heart. Although I've never been to Carolina, I'm sure that having heard this track I could do it blindfolded. For those that have heard this song live before, you'll know that Brian usually ends it by fading out on some glissando. Just at the point that this normally starts, there's a crash of drums from Dennis and Brian kicks in with a break on an electric guitar. Actually made me jump the first time I heard it.
The title track "Calling All Angels", was inspired by a news broadcast on a cable channel concerning the floods in New Orleans. With the recent tsunami fresh in her mind, Cathryn wondered how people had the strength to get up the next day after such tragedies and carry on with their lives.
"The Rejected Lover" is my favourite track on this album. Mary Hopkin joins Cathryn on vocals, and both have such wonderful rich voices. The resultant blend is magical. For Cathryn, though, this is far more than a song. It's a genetic spiral of DNA, linking her musical career back to the past. In 1918, Cecil Sharp recorded her great grandfather singing this song for his book "English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians".
When performed live, "Accanoe" always stuns the audience, particularly if played at a Folk Club, where the audience are more used to gentle ballads. Cathryn normally adds percussion to the song whilst also playing her guitar, by means of wrist-worn cymbals. On record, her percussion is enhanced by Dennis Bryon who beats out a thundering rhythm. Close your eyes and not only are you in Virginia, but you can feel the pain of the Chicahominy. A perfect reminder that Cathryn doesn't just write lyrics, she is a poet. Some marvellous alliteration, such as "through winter's blue black blizzards" and "our highest holy house"
"Genevieve" was inspired when Cathryn's aunt was critically ill with MRSA. The song is a celebration of her life, and also a celebration of the human spirit. Although suffering and possibly facing death, (fortunately she recovered), Genevieve wasn't feeling sorry for herself, but was dreaming of her days as a pioneer aviatrix. "Genevieve" fades directly into an instrumental called "Genevieve in Flight". This is the first track on the album that I haven't previously heard performed live before. A dreamy, gentle tune that takes you soaring above the clouds.
"Rumours of Rain" was original single written by Brian and Cathryn for a charity Folk for Peace. Apparently the song came to Cathryn in a dream, and Brian had the idea of assembling a group of artists to sing/ play it. The original single featured a variety of artists, such as Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk, Ric Sanders, Martin Carthy, Ralph McTell, Nanci Griffith, and a host of others. This version is an acoustic duo.
"These Dreams", previously known as "This Night, These Dreams and You", is supposedly a love song for the audience, showing Brian and Cathryn's appreciation for listening to them. Despite the deliberately over-sugared lyrics, this is still a beautiful song and demonstrates Cathryn's ability to hold a note.
"Glenarm" is another instrumental, and again new to me.. On stage, you only get one Brian, but in the studio, with over dubbing, Brian can accompany himself. A real treat. Very reminiscent sound to the Strawbs around the time they made the DVD "Acoustic Strawbs Live at Hugh's Room, in Toronto", with Brian's use of the E-bow. Glenarm is the place where Brian was born. Listening to the song I get the image of rocky hills, looking somehow proud, wise, and yet mournful.
"Glenarm" fades directly into "The Green Glens of Antrim", a traditional song newly arranged by Brian and Cathryn. Not a song they perform live very often - only previously heard it once before, so quite possibly will be new to many. The song was played at Brian's parents' wedding, and features his father, Walter, on accordion. In photographic terms, the first half of the song has been coloured with a sepia filter. They've made it sound like it's played on an old phonograph. Suddenly, Brian's guitar cuts through the mists of time, and brings the song to the present.
If you like this album, which I am sure you will, why not complete your collection with the charity single of "Rumours of Rain"?
Sitting down to write this review, after listening over to Brian's new album, mainly early in the morning, in the car en route to work, I realised that I have very few instrumental albums in my collection - Rick Wakeman's Six Wives of Henry VIII and three Bo Hansson keyboard-oriented albums including "Music Inspired By Lord Of The Rings". Just something about the lack of words, vocals and harmonies that usually makes me lukewarm. Brian's album however is a real showcase for his undoubted guitar talents in a bewildering range of styles, and there's plenty in each track to grab the ear.
"Cry No More", a melody familiar to Strawbs fans (the song appeared on Cousins/Willoughby: The Bridge and re-appears on Strawbs: Blue Angel) starts with sirens created by e-Bow on a Resonator guitar - as Brian comments in the highly informative sleeve notes, it evokes 1940s wartime scenes for him.
"Honeylick" is a gentle laid back melody, a nice bluesy pick with a resonator lead.
"This Night These Dreams Of You" an instrumental version of a Craig/Willoughby song - another gentle pick, with a strong lead. Very expressive melody.
"Spanish Fly" - slight country feeling, intricate underlying picking with a perky lead.
"The Bonas Track" built around a recurring sliding bassline, with a blues feel, played on the Resonator guitar loaned to him by Phil Bonas (hi Phil!).
"Wedding Vows (Forevermore)" the Takamine nylon guitar gets a work out on this Craig/Willoughby rework - a strong melodic lead over gentle picking.
"Sweet Insanity" co-written with Michael Snow for his album "The Rats and the Rosary", which apparently feaured Dennis Locorriere (Dr. Hook) and Clive Gregson on backing vocals (you can check this out on Michael's website http://www.skellysongs.com/). Opens with descending lead over simple picking; lead then picks up the tune. One of my favourites.
"George's Tune" in honour of BW's main influence George Harrison. A percussive little number, with some interesting acoustic guitar squeals and harmonic effects. One of the more varied tracks on the album, spotlighting Brian's astonishing talent as acoustic lead guitarist.
"Cailin Dall" another Willoughby/Snow number, nice celtic tinged melody, nice harmonics.
"Ramblin Road/Pride of America" - some DADGAD strumming (not often heard from BW), alternating with the tune being picked out in bewilderingly swift finger picking.
"JJ's Blues" a driving blues played on a Resonator, in honour of Johnny Joyce, 12-string guiraist extraordinaire (and former member along with Hud and John in the Velvet Opera). I hadn't known that he used to look after Brian's guitars before he died last year.
"Goodbye Old Friend" - another Willoughby/Craig number, brings out the poignant melody.
"Acklen Avenue" nice little melody, simple, clean and tasteful.
"Broken Hearts In Nashville" - A Willoughby/Snow collaboration - here given an almost ragtime treatment - it went on to be a country song, recorded by Suzi Martell as the title track of one of her albums. Another one I really liked.
"She Lies" - Telecaster picking on a tune which saw light of day on Brian's first solo album Black & White.
"The Harmonic Suite" is a collection of short pieces featuring the use (no surprises here) of harmonics. Opening with "Alice's Song" - after a fairly faithful rendering, this version's lead guitar takes the Alice melody down a few different places, maybe what we'd have heard if the lead instrument in the Acoustic Strawbs version hadn't been the banjo, but Brian's guitar. Some more harmonics then "Origine de la Source" - a brief snapshot of the intrumental intro to "Face Down In The Well" played here on Stratocaster. "Fingers Crossed" which was the home demo which Dave Cousins gave to Mary Hopkin back in 1971 when she was looking for a guitarist. BW was offered the job on his 22nd birthday. This is its first recording in a studio. Opens with harmonics reminiscent of "Oh How She Changed".
The album closes with "She Rang My Bell" - opening with keening electric guitars, then a percussion track (by Dennis Bryon ex-Amen Corner and Bee Gees drummer) with e-Bow melody on electric guitar; segueing into a riffing sequence. Electric solos, power chords, this has pretty much got it all. BW plays synth and bass too. Not just an acoustic guitarist by any means - a man of many parts and most of them working!
All in all a very accomplished solo album, which Brian should be very proud of. It'll be a regular feature of my car CD changer for some time to come. Which is more than you can say about Bo Hansson .....
Some excellent reviews in the music press for this album:
"Album of assorted acoustica from an ex-Strawb."
"Strawbs' finest hour was undoubtedly their acoustic incarnation with Brian Willoughby. On this impeccably crafted album, Willoughby moves seamlessly through just about the whole gamut of acoustic styles…. its lavishly-documented guitar and tuning details will delight many a picker."
"…it's as a superlatively skilled guitarist that Brian's probably best regarded by his many fans…the playing is always, always absolutely top-notch…a real master of many styles, too, from evocative mood pieces to intricately picked mini-extravaganzas to jaunty raggy Resonator work to Fahey-style delta bottleneck to the prog-country full-on electric phase-soaked onslaught 'She Rang My Bell' that ends the CD. Not only does Brian display a formidable grasp of technique throughout, but unlike some "guitar technicians" we could mention, he uses this gift to play beautifully."
"…a quiet, peaceful album…Brian's technique is never in doubt. His masterful touch and versatility are in evidence all over the album. It's definitely a gentle affair and makes for a restorative nightime listening experience."
"…undoubtedly one of the finest guitarists from the heyday of the folk rock boom still plying his trade…he has pulled together a clatter of guitar melodies which range from the introspective to the, er, introspective…it's all tastefully done, as you would imagine from a maestro of this calibre…if it's the sort of thing that turns your crank, you'll find plenty of it here."
"…if polls were a true thermometer of talent, Brian would be regularly at the top of any guitarist chart."
"On this recording he demonstrates a deft touch and highlights the subtleties in tone change for those who enjoy listening intently to the qualities inherent in this album…it's like a mellow wine that will accompany a good night sitting in front of a glowing fire… the overall performance is clean and uncluttered without overdubs and all the more enjoyable for it."
"'Fingers Crossed' comprises 19 tracks that showcase Brian's versatility on a wide range of acoustic and electric guitars."
"'Fingers Crossed' is a pleasant, understated album…reveals a wide range of influences…not surprising to find some strong slide playing…"
"A well-trained ear will recognise that his playing is impeccable…this is one for the guitarists out there to file alongside their Bert Weedon books."
"All of the tunes were written or co-written by Willoughby who uses a wide range of guitars to create his magic…"
"The expectations of 'Fingers Crossed' are high and it doesn't disappoint. A little bit of blues, a little bit of country are woven around the folk roots. For the layman the talking point is surely 'She Rang My Bell'. On it, Willoughby broadens his horizons and includes all manner of goodies."
Whilst Cathryn featured heavily on Brian's solo album a few years back, this is the first duo album the two have put together, having honed their double act across what seems like most of the folk clubs of the UK. And it's a stylish album too, with Cathryn's lightly strummed guitar matched by the well-known "fiddly bits" which are Mr. Willoughby's trademark - tastefully applied mind you, more restrained and spartan than his duo playing with Dave Cousins.
Cathryn's voice soars over a range of heavily country tinged ballads, including "That Ol' Guitar" which comments on the way blokes take more notice of their guitars than their women - now we know Brian's a guitar nut, but surely that can't be the case. Others include "Mysterious Ways" and "Rod Stewart" (nothing to do with old "spiky cut" from the Faces). The title track has a riff that is almost Cousins-esque (think "Beside The Rio Grande") and motors along, before the old favourite "Amazing Grace" gets (first off) the Cathryn accapella treatment - she really does have a powerful voice - then Brian joins in and plays the melody on slide over a gentle rhythm, and finally voice and guitar carry on in perfect balance.
She's also convincing on the more bluesy numbers (such as Oscar Brown Jr.'s "The Snake" and the excellent "Mr. Jefferson" - the latter all about U.S. President Jefferson's secret habits, and giving Brian a chance for some outrageous fretwork in the instrumentals. This is one I particularly enjoyed when I caught them live a few months back, and it's just as effective (and seemingly effortless, curse him) on record.
Other highlights for me are the opening track "All The Way To Denver", the moving "Goodbye Old Friend" and the Cousins/Airey "There Will Come A Day", just recently recorded by Acoustic Strawbs on Baroque & Roll, and here with a soulful, partly double-tracked vocal from Cathryn over a guitar figure which sounds strikingly similar to another Cousins number "Down By The Sea" - a nice tribute to Brian's other duo partner. Nice solo, too.
It's definitely an Americana album and if your taste doesn't run to that style, it probably won't be for you. But it's a polished collection, representing well the strength of their live act. Recorded, like Baroque & Roll at Kenny Denton's studio in West London, it benefits from a near live feel. For the record, Cathryn's guitar is a Takamine. Brian on the other hand sports a number of instruments: Gibson J45, Gibson J185SEC, Martin D18, Yamaha APX7, Guild 12-string, Regal Resonator and a Fender Stratocaster (whew!)