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Venue: St Lawrence's Church
Town: Biddulph
Date: 09/09/17

Four years in the waiting and finally the day has arrived. The launch day gig of the release of "All Change" the debut album from Wilcox:Hulse.

Not that they should need any introduction, the pair were well known as two thirds of the excellent but now defunct folk trio The Queensbury Rules, a group whose songs literally put Staffordshire on the folk map of Britain.

We kick off with a Gary Wilcox song "Be The Change" with Gary picking up his ukulele and climbing on the proverbial soapbox to share his thoughts about how we can all make the world better. Don't worry, they're words of wisdom given in good faith and I suspect we'd agree with most of them, certainly I would.

Phil Hulse is the other half, adding acoustic guitar and a voice that has a beautiful purity of sound. He's also a cracking song writer, "Gallows Humour" looks at adversity in a positive way "So we giggle, we chuckle, if we didn't would we buckle under hard times, hard times". The inspiration for "Gallows" comes from Phil's day job where he deals with people in difficult circumstances who are struggling to cope yet still have the humanity to retain a sense of humour. And to be fair it is also a song that lends itself easily to being a staple head swayer after yet another defeat following your beloved football team up and down the country on a Saturday afternoon. It's a song that resonates well having first appeared on his second solo release "Barely Sure".

Together though the pair shine, two voices whose harmonies are so incredibly good they actually sound like one. As in "Upon", a reminder than the town of Stoke Upon Trent has its own identity and roots not to be swallowed into the city of Stoke On Trent. Six fiercely individual towns, two football teams, one city. "Upon" is also fleshed out with the sympathetic and poignant viola of Matt Plant.

A fuller sound even still as Jack Tasker joins the mix on electric bass and the now four-piece band whisk us through the rest of the whole album.

We have songs about ecology and making our footprint small ("Stand Softly"), about how we should remember our past, our history and, if not learn then at least not forget and allow it to happen again ("When The Young Went To War").

It's heady stuff. A cover adds to the feel. It's "Beds are Burning" a one hit (in this country) wonder from 1987 by Midnight Oil, a protest song committed specifically to the then issues facing the indigenous peoples of Australia. Oil's lead singer, Peter Garratt became an M.P. and helped oversee the handing back of lands stolen in the past.

Past becomes present as the band take a sideways look at how our most powerful leaders in World Politics are egotists with a desire to be praised coupled with an inability to accept criticism. "The Man with the Thin Skin" from the pen of Hulse sums up a certain President to a tee. It's catchy, comic and we can only hope it's not tragic and we don't ask the wrong question. Tenterhooks for us all.

Hulse's finger is on the pulse too in "The Scene" extolling us to "get out" and support local music. It is where the heart and soul is, less about money, image or fame. And if it's preaching to the converted, to those at the beautiful St Lawrence's Church with wonderful acoustics, then so be it. Give me Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys, State of the Union, Heidi Tabot Kathyn Roberts, Sean Lakeman and all (and that's just what's coming up in Biddulph), over the sanitized Saturday night pap on TV.

There's no pap here as Gary launches into "Shepherds of the Sea" inspired by the "boat people" a phrase I hate that normalises the abhorrent abnormal circumstances of a world in which we live. No such fear though in Wilcox's hands, the song heralds a heartfelt belief that their journeys from misery aren't always in vain as it implores us to "Never underestimate your ability for good".

All too soon, the evening is over, even after the inclusion of tracks such as "Year of 42" (about the Chartist movement in the 1800's) and "Victoria Avenue" (a homage to the revisiting your earlier life and stomping grounds) from their earlier E.P.'s "First Born" & "Second Chance".

Two encores conclude the set, the first being "This Kind Of Work" a social history song about the closure of the last deep face coal mine in the UK written so that we might remember. Then amazingly we are returned back to 1987.

Ambitious. Foolhardy. Bonkers. Three words. Three more, "Looking For Love". It's a brave thing to tackle such a standard by Fleetwood Mac. The risk of falling short immense. Could the guys pull it off?

They absolutely nailed it, to raucous applause!

Support on the night came from local pairing Dawson Dean who have their own CD launch at Biddulph Town Hall on Saturday October 7th. Graham Dawson and Chris Dean both vocal and guitar set the scene perfectly with well-crafted songs from their individual back catalogues. Switching from Dawson's dark, deep and delicious "Water In The Creek" to Dean's lovingly light "It's all about life" which is good as anything The Sutherland Brothers put out in their heyday. Throughout though the close harmonies work exceedingly well and the duo finished with the title track off the new album. "Good Times" is an up-tempo, foot tapping, feel good folk song and if the rest of the expectant release is anywhere near as good we are in for a right treat.

Ian Cripps

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