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Hannah Sanders & Ben SavageHannah Sanders & Ben Savage
Album: Before The Sun
Label: Sungrazing
Tracks: 10

Back in June, I had the pleasure of attending a performance by Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage at the Bothy Folk Song Club in Southport. They put on a wonderful show, which you can read all about in this very magazine

During the show, Ben and Hannah mentioned that they had been to Toronto, Canada, to record their debut album as a duo, with producer David Travers-Smith. The resultant album, "Before The Sun" is to be released in September and, having listened to it, I can tell you that it is an absolute belter.

As was amply demonstrated by their live show, Hannah and Ben are ideally suited to play together, with Hannah's breathtakingly beautiful voice [like a young Joni Mitchell] and Ben's superb musicianship [on guitar and dobro].

Although Ben produced Hannah's debut album, "Charms Against Sorrow", this is their first album as a duo. Helping out are some highly talented guests, in the form of Jon Thorne [from Lamb, on double bass], Kevin Breit [on guitar and mandola] and Kat Gilmore [from Gilmore and Roberts, on mandolin,fiddle and vocals].

Jim Causley and Jade Rhiannon [from Ben's "other band", The Willows] add their vocal talents to the mix.

The album features a mixture of songs by Hannah and Ben, traditional ballads and covers of songs by Bill Miller, Richie Stearns and Bob Dylan.

The first song is "The Fall[Hang]", which was written by Hannah and Ben and vividly describes a hanging from a tree["Neck tied and knees knocking as I fall"]. The sheer beauty of the song belies its dark nature ["the ground beneath my feet, where the worms are busy, in which you will lay me"]. Indeed, as we shall see, several of the songs on the album have death as a theme but as Kenny Everett would say, "It's all done in the best possible taste".

The other song by Ben and Hannah is "What's It Tonight My Love ?",which describes a visit to a town "Where people only pretend". The visit takes on a surreal air, as the visitors are "Chasing the strands of dreams" and "The wine tastes sharp 'cos we know the night holds the truth". Sounds like a good night !

One of the highlights of Hannah and Ben's live show, for me, was their beautiful version of Native American songwriter Bill Miller's "Sun Is Gonna Rise", a spiritual song of hope and peace. The album version is every bit as good as the live one, with Hannah's gorgeous voice soaring over Ben's lower register vocals and crystal-clear guitar. Definitely a glass half-full song that's bound to make you feel good.

Hannah and Ben are superb interpreters of traditional material as their marvellous versions of "Come All Ye Fair And Tender Maids", "Lady Margaret" and "Unquiet Grave" all demonstrate.

I particularly enjoyed their dramatic, spine-tingling rendition of the eerie, macabre "Lady Margaret", with its images of "a bride bed full of blood". Hannah's vocals are outstanding and are underpinned by Jon Thorne's growling double bass. As I noted when I saw it played live, this is wonderful stuff.

Ben is one heck of a dobro player, as demonstrated on the atmospheric "Clayton Boone", which is a version of "Gypsy Davey", set in the Wild West of America.

As I mentioned before, several of the songs are death-related,including "Ribbons and Bows" by Richie Stearns, master banjo player and member of the Horseflies. The premise of this deceptively jolly and upbeat song is choosing the way in which you wish to die. In this case, the chosen method is "falling through the hot summer sky with ribbons and bows tied to my hands and feet". Well, each to his own.

Continuing the theme of death is the traditional "Unquiet Grave", in which a lover exceeds the required mourning period of a year and a day, which prevents the deceased from having eternal sleep.Again, it features superb duet singing from Hannah and Ben and some appropriately mournful dobro from Ben.

The album closes with Bob Dylan's classic dialogue ballad "Boots Of Spanish Leather",in which Hannah and Ben trade verses back and forth, as the story unfolds. This is a fine way to end a wonderful album.

Even though we are only two-thirds the way through the year,I have no doubt that this gorgeous album will be on my [very] short list for "The Best of 2016". Highly recommended !

Peter Cowley