Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby

Live Review | The Rock, Maltby | Review by Allan Wilkinson

There are I imagine, many reasons why you might want to attend a Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby gig.  The standard of musicianship would no doubt be one of them, then there’s the unmistakable tone of Cathryn’s voice, which would be equally relevant.  It may be just the fact that you’ve been lucky enough to have met these two musicians previously and know only too well how warm, friendly and totally approachable they are.  For me, it’s all these things and more.  Even if it’s only the chance to hear the duo perform “Accanoe” live once again, a song that has haunted me from the moment I first heard it; that in itself would make it well worth coming along to one of their gigs for.  Tonight I spoke to Cathryn and Brian backstage as their support for the evening, two multi-talented Doncaster based musicians, Mick Swinson and Stu Palmer, were on stage checking out their sound with club organiser and sound man Rob Shaw.  This duo have been playing together for many years in various combinations, bands and outfits around the Doncaster area, one or two of which I have also been lucky enough to have been involved in.  Tonight, playing a variety of acoustic instruments, some of which were beautifully crafted by Stu, a local luthier, the duo performed a selection of old songs from a repertoire stretching back over nearly four decades.  With songs ranging from “Farewell Lovely Nancy” and “Mountains of Mourne” to Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” (which Mick confessed summed up their career thus far!) and Woody Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”, better known as “Deportee”, Mick and Stu have returned to fine form, after many years of being hidden away from the public eye, playing together for the pure pleasure of playing.  Two friends and musicians doing what they know best.  The audience tonight recognised their intuitive playing and welcomed this revival of timeless songs and the chance of seeing them on stage once again.  One thing we can almost certainly depend on when you attend one of Cathryn and Brian’s gigs, is the regular starter “That Ol’ Guitar”, which is as familiar to their set now as snow is to Eskimos.  Even the slight technical glitch of losing Cathryn’s guitar momentarily couldn’t spoil their performance of this song, which showcases Brian’s familiarity with his fret board from the start.  Filling in with the old Janis Joplin unaccompanied song “Mercedes Benz”, whilst Brian and Rob sorted out the sound problem, the set was resumed with the beautiful “Alice’s Song”, written especially for Brian’s niece.  When once asked to appear in public to help publicise the song, Alice refused on the grounds that this young spirited girl would like to someday be famous for something, but certainly not for being Autistic.  So good is this song, that it has been recorded no less than three times; by Brian on his solo album Black and White, then by the Strawbs, complete with a Robert Kirby (Nick Drake) string arrangement and again now on Cathryn and Brian’s new album Calling All Angels.  Cathryn and Brian come from quite different musical backgrounds, Cathryn from the mountains of Virginia and Brian originally from Northern Ireland but for the most part growing up in and around London.  Brian spent much of his formative years around London’s burgeoning club scene, witnessing first hand some of the musicians who would subsequently go on to become household names.  “When I was a kid there was a club in Hounslow, West London, it was called the Zambezi Club and I saw Rod Stewart’s Steampacket with Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger; Jimi Hendrix, several versions of The Yardbirds, in fact one fantastic Yardbirds thing, and I consider myself really lucky to have seen this, Jimmy Page was playing bass and Jeff Beck was playing guitar and the usual guys, Jim McCarty and Paul Samwell-Smith.  It was an absolutely fantastic incarnation of the band”.  “But then I started going to the White Bear in Hounslow, which was run by the Strawberry Hill Boys, which was Dave Cousins, Tony Hooper and Ron Chesterman and every Thursday I used to get my homework done and then run up to the White Bear to watch people like Ralph McTell and Wizz Jones and David Bowie used to come to down”.  Brian spent twenty-six years with the Strawbs with whom he contributed to several albums and numerous live appearances around the world.  It was through his association with some of the members who eventually became Strawbs that he got his first start in the music business.  “I always loved the Strawberry Hill Boys music, songs like “Josephine for Better or for Worse”, that kind of era of song.  I went to Regent Street Polytechnic and I was on the entertainments committee there and there was a lady that I’d seen at the white Bear, Maureen Kennedy-Martin her name was and she had this American guitar player and I thought he was fantastic this bloke, everything I wanted to be.  So I booked her to come to Regent Street Polytechnic with this American guitar player and play and she turned up without him.  A friend of mine, Trevor Wallace his name is, he said “he plays guitar” poking me in the back and pushing me forward and Maureen said “oh really, would you like to play with me?” and that’s how I really started”.  Cathryn and Brian’s set is usually predominantly self-penned material with the odd traditional song thrown in. Cathryn’s version of “Dixie” conjures up the authentic feel of Civil War balladeering much more than Elvis could possibly have done as part of his famed “American Trilogy”.  As a Nashville session singer Cathryn was given the opportunity to blossom as a songwriter in her own right, despite early setbacks in confidence.  “The thing that working in Nashville did for me was that it made me terribly frightened to do my own songs because the quality and calibre of songs I was singing from these great hit songwriters was so exceptional.  I thought mine aren’t anything like that and it took me a while to get out of that mind set of Nashville songs and I still appreciate that three minute movie that they can do so well there, better than anywhere else I think.  But it never was me, artistically”.  The subject matter of some of Cathryn’s songs are specific to her native Virginia, written with a keen eye on the State’s historical heritage, tackling such subjects as slavery in “Mr Jefferson” and the plight of the Native American in the stunning “Accanoe”.  The Pocahontas story when told by a native Virginian comes over as quite different from the tale Walt Disney tells.  “Accanoe” is one of those exceptionally powerful songs that comes from a tradition of material detailing the true history of the Native American as opposed to the much more common romanticised version. Cathryn is one of those rare performers who can convey the spirit of this part of American history, and in this song, provides an authentic chant throughout the chorus.  “The “Accanoe” chant is something that just came to me in a dream”.  Sadly, even though the song was written as a heartfelt commentary of this period of American history, not everyone was keen on the language used in the song, particularly the descendents of the people at the heart of the story.  “I did talk at great length with many different members of the Chickahominy Nation but none of them liked the song” Cathryn explained.  “They didn’t like some of the words that I used; I used a quote from John Donne that said ‘a victory for righteousness the savage’s defeat and it’s such an insult they say, to use the word ‘savage’.  The other thing was ‘sharing the pipe of peace’, ‘never happened’ they said.  For me it was just an image basically to say there was friendship there and they lived in friendship together, I didn’t mean literally that they were passing the peace pipe around, it was too cold, they were inside under bear skins and so forth”.  “We tried to get some of the drum circle from the Chickahominy Nation right there where my daddy lives when they were here in London celebrating the 400 year anniversary of Jamestown, to come and play on “Accanoe”.  They honestly didn’t have the time but also until I was willing to change the word savage, they were not willing to do it”.   It’s a little disconcerting to imagine any song being changed due to the disapproval of the listener.  Wouldn’t it be like asking Monet to remove an offending water lily?  I asked Cathryn if she ever seriously considered changing the lyric at all?  “I tried, but it’s a quote, it’s not something I made up, I wish I had made up something so effective as victory for righteousness this savage’s defeat, but it’s an old old quote and I just thought it so typified exactly what was going on politically at that time.  It was in the hate filled era right after Guy Fawkes and people were really on this crusade to convert the world to Christianity, and some people have never stopped that, but the first target was the new world”.  The song still stands out as one of the most passionately performed songs in Cathryn and Brian’s set and despite the excellent version to be found on the new album, nothing captures the spirit of this well-intentioned song than a live performance of it, which was received by a silenced Rock audience tonight.  Brian opened the second set tonight with a couple of guitar pieces including the sublime “Fingers Crossed”, the title track from his instrumental album.  Such sensitive playing is a world away from Brian’s earlier work with a variety of bands that came along in the Punk era, which we discussed earlier backstage.  “Immediately before I joined Strawbs I was in a band called No Sweat, who were the first signed to Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie record label, we were on the pub circuit around London basically and we could hardly get arrested to be honest because the whole punk scene was there all encompassing.  There was a wonderful band called Meal Ticket who in a different era would’ve been like The Eagles to be honest, they were all fantastic musicians that they just got totally eclipsed by punk music, which killed everything stone dead.  Then of course in came the keyboard era, you know people writing songs with one finger stuck on the keyboard somewhere, so it was difficult times for guitarists”.  “At that time we had three bands running at the same time, Strawbs and then High Society, a sort of Thirties pastiche band.  All the songs were written by John Ford and Richard Hudson and Terry Cassidy, who was The Strawbs tour manager and sound engineer.  We used to dress up and slick our hair back, apart from Huddy who didn’t have any, erm, then concurrently we had The Monks and “Nice Legs, Shame about the Face”, which was a hit.  We made an album which went gold in Canada, a DJ in Toronto picked up on it and off we went, great fun”.  Now a sort of elder statesman of British guitarists, Brian demonstrates a much more delicate approach to guitar playing, which perfectly complements Cathryn’s strong vocal delivery.  The more delicate the song, the more emotionally engaging the performance.  Written especially for ‘wonderful audiences’, “These Dreams” has one of those dreamy melodies, rich in atmosphere and texture, which exemplifies this notion perfectly.  Other highlights of tonight’s set were the title song from the duos last album I Will, a handful of songs from their latest release including “Two Hearts, One Love”, the traditional “Rejected Lover” featuring the voice of Mary Hopkin, Brian’s erstwhile musical partner on the recorded version, as well as the title cut “Calling All Angels”.  Finishing off with a medley featuring “River Deep Mountain High”, “Cottonfields” and the old Bob Wills Western Swing classic “My Window Faces South”, with Brian’s impressive slack key guitar break, the duo performed a final encore of “Genevieve”, bringing a memorable evening to an end.