Thursday 28th April saw folk fans pack into the beautiful and historic St Pancras Old Church for an evening of fine music from the legendary Cathryn Craig & Brian Willoughby. The crowds filed in thick and fast, armed with cups of wine ready for a trip down musical Memory Lane. Many will know Craig & Willoughby as the duo comprised of the Virginia born acclaimed singer-songwriter and former member of The Strawbs. Sorely underrated, their blend of blues and Americana could make the hardest of hearts break. Craig & Willoughby were joined by support acts Marina Florance and Ben Smith & Jimmy Brewer.
The evening started out with the unmistakable sound of Marina Florance, whose latest self-produced album, 'This, That & The Other', is unmistakably a fine example of a singer songwriter taking control of their craft. While that can be a bold move to make, I think Florance needed that independence to channel her creativity to pen the fantastic numbers she performed on the night.
She kicked off her set with a song entitled “I Told You My Troubles”, describing the measure of a friendship is having those and the ability to listen and without that, you’ve got a problem. It certainly provided some serious food for thought. The charm behind Marina Florance (and part of the reason she has received accolades from the likes of BBC 6 Music’s very own Tom Robinson for BBC Introducing) is the raw honesty behind her songs.
Her music truly is an eclectic mix of 'This, That & The Other' but it provides a wonderful reflection of what life throws at you. Florance’s is a catalogue of music perfect to reflect on the little moments, as well as the milestones that make a life well lived. There were plenty of songs that resonated with my experiences but strangely, “A Room of Your Own”, about a child flying the nest from the parental home, tugged at mine and many of the audience’s heartstrings.
Florance was swiftly followed by Folk & Blues singers, Ben Smith and Jimmy Brewer. The pair have extremely impressive CVs, boasting supporting spots with the legendary Joan Armatrading on her two recent tours. They have been performing together since July 2015 and with an Eponymous E.P. out now: there was a little pressure to live up to those credentials.
The stand-out performance was undoubtedly their opener, “Isabella”. Its strength rested on the seamless harmonies: they sounded instinctual and they were extremely impressive to watch. It was easy to get carried away by the melodies and those delicious harmonies, themselves. The song: about returning home and missing a loved one was just a pleasure to listen to. Combining elements of bluegrass, country, even with a slightly funky edge (even for an acoustic set) Smith and Brewer’s music was a treat for the ears but, it didn’t quite match the lyrical strength provided by Marina Florance.
As the evening grew darker, leaving the venue looking more eerily beautiful, the evening’s headliners took to the stage and delivered a truly endearing performance. Cathryn, acclaimed as “one of the finest performers and songwriters on the acoustic/roots circuit today” certainly lived up to every bit of that accolade. Her voice, with its sweet highs and effortless lows, highlights the duo’s melodies beautifully; she takes the listener on a journey with her, and drops them off at the end with a warm, friendly smile.
Brian, best known as The Strawbs guitarist, played perfect accompaniment, joining in with friendly banter and showing off exactly what he does best – turning to his much-loved resonator guitar to indulge us with his trademark solo piece. Willoughby’s gentle mastery in the aptly titled, “Fingers Crossed” had the audience completely transfixed.
This was certainly not a show that ever compromised its folk roots, and the storytelling element in Craig and Willoughby’s performances shine through. “A Soft Place to Fall”, was an extremely moving performance, addressing Craig’s grieving niece. It was gentle and truly depicted that helplessness you feel when unable to soothe your loved one’s pain: like the voice of a friend reaching out to offer a shoulder to cry on, or indeed a soft place to fall. It was a deeply comforting song, beautifully and sensitively crafted and one that resonated with the audience, reducing them to silence.
That silence transcended from track to track. It’s the nuanced empathy towards the thoughts and feelings of their loved ones that was the most emotionally engaging element of the evening’s performances. “Alice’s Song” springs to mind with this one: a really touching tribute to Willoughby’s niece with Asperger’s Syndrome and, from an outsider’s perspective, understanding that we can never truly understand what it would be like to enter “Alice’s World”. The song was originally recorded and released by the Acoustic Strawbs in aid of the National Autistic Society and the fine work the Society does to support Autism in all its guises.
Overall, the evening was an absolute joy to be a part of. A relative stranger to the majesty of St Pancras Old Church, I was overwhelmed at how such a simple setting, complete with a maximum of two guitars at one time could be so cosy and welcoming in such unseasonably cold weather. Laurel Canyon Music did well with this one.
Review - Niamh Hughes (Shoreditch Folk) - Bringing you the best in Folk, Acoustic and Roots Music every Thursday between 12-1PM (with catch-up on Mixcloud)www.shoreditchradio.co.uk
Pictures Tony Birch
Night courtesy of http://www.laurelcanyonuk.com/
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