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A Winter Union - St. John On Bethnal Green, London (14/12/17)

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  • Line-up: A Winter Union (Katriona Gilmore, Jade Rhiannon, Jamie Roberts, Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage
  • Location: St. John On Bethnal Green, London
  • Date: 14th December, 2017
  • Review By: Gary Smith (LCM)
  • Live photos and video: Keith Bache

One of the musical highlights of the pre-Christmas period is the annual UK mini tour from folk super-group 'A Winter Union'. It brings together five of the leading lights of the current British roots scene, who have joined forces to create a festive folk band like no other. Their repertoire includes brand new, specially written songs, fresh arrangements of traditional carols both well-loved and little-known and seasonal classics from both sides of the Atlantic. High class musicianship and songwriting plus wonderful close soaring harmonies are the hallmarks of the night. This gig was made extra special as it was hosted at St. John's, a grand but rather cold early 19th-century 'Sir John Sloane' designed church, just a stone's throw from Bethnal Green Station.

'A Winter Union' was originally formed in 2015 for a one-off Yuletide concert. They returned in 2016 for more shows including one of the home's of UK folk music Cecil Sharp House in London and a live session on BBC Radio 3. This year brings the band’s first line-up change with BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winning Kat Gilmore & Jaime Roberts replacing another multi award winning duo Stu and Debbie Hanna from Megson.

The evening started in true seasonal fashion with the traditional and popular carol 'Ding Song Merrily on High' with Hannah and Jade sharing the lead vocal. This was followed by an original song called 'Every Midnight Mile', a tender and thoughtful charity single released in 2015 to raise money for 'Shelter' as part of the Song Ark project. This Americana Folk flavoured song reflected on 'being grateful for what we have' and was written by Kat. The original recording also included UK folk favourites Lucy Ward and Sam Kelly.

Secrets were revealed next as Ben confessed that his hobby away from music is cider making. The rowdy and rousing song 'Our Wassail' followed with Ben taking the lead vocals and featured very strong and lively fiddle playing from Kat. Wassailing refers to a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking to the health of trees on Twelfth Night in the hopes that they might better thrive. The purpose of wassailing is to awaken the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn.

'Elizabeth' is a homage to Elizabeth Woodcock from Cambridge who after visiting a local inn and getting quite merry fell off her horse in the wintertime and was allegedly entombed in an ice cave in a snow drift for 8 days. She survived so the story goes on nuts and brandy. I loved the acoustic guitar solo from Jamie in this one.

It's always great to have a traditional song about yuletide kindness to peasants and 'Good King Wenceslas' fitted the bill perfectly. This popular Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen. The song featured Kat on tambourine (borrowed from Jade's daughter), Ben on Dobro and some fantastic three part harmonies from the group.

We were treated to an 'almost' world exclusive live premiere (2nd play) of an excellent new song written by Kat called 'Fox In The Wintertime' which geatured Kat on lead vocals and Jade on BV's. To close out the first half 'The King' featured 'the king of birds' the wren. The ancient annual hunting and killing of the little wren symbolized of the death of winter. The song is also a new charity single to support missing people. This segued nicely into a few choruses of 'Good Rest You Merry Gentleman' with it's heartly 'good tiding of comfort and joy' refrain

The second half opened with the group singing unaccompanied the rousing ancient and traditional carol 'The Boar's Head' (first published in 1521). Starting at the back of the church, they walked down the aisle through an enthralled audience, finishing the song the front of the stage. The church acoustics working marvelously. I also loved the instrumental version that followed of another traditional carol 'In The Bleak Midwinter'. The song is based on a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti written in 1872 and was first set to music in The English Hymnal in 1906 by Gustav Holst. This version saw Hannah on dulcimer, Kat on fiddle, Ben on Dobro, and Jamie on acoustic guitar. A third very popular traditional carol followed with a wonderful version of the 'The Holly & The Ivy' featuring Jade on lead vocals.

The 'Mistletoe Bough' is based on a horror story, which has been associated with many mansions and stately homes in England. Surprising it was a very popular Christmas song in the mid 1800's, even forming the basis of a later Alfred Hitchcock movie. It features a new bride, playing a game of hide-and-seek during her wedding breakfast, who hides in a chest in an attic and is unable to escape. She is not discovered by her family and friends and unfortunately dies. The body is found many years later in the locked chest, as a skeleton in a wedding dress.

The 'First Light Of Day' is a song written by Jade's husband Cliff who was on baby sitting duty on the night. Ben joking said that for a few years they never took much notice of what the song was called, they just nicknamed it 'Cliff's Christmas'. Jamie took the lead standing in for the absent Cliff.

It was very fitting that for the very famous carol 'We Three Kings', that they were joined on stage by one of the resident church statue 'Melchior'. When I say resident, the statue has been taken on a bit of a journey recently including the Parliament buildings, The National Theater and various London Football Clubs. The history of the statue and its journey was then told by Father Allen. Interestingly and quite uncannily the statue bore a striking resemblance to Richard Thompson, unfortunately this time without his trademark guitar. After the end of the song Father Allen come back to retrieve the statue.......so in true Elvis Presley tradition..........'The King has left the building!' 

Christmas hat time followed with the group donning various Christmas novelty hats for a cover of a Christmas Country number one from The Band called  'Christmas Must Be Tonight'. Ben joked that because it was a Country song and the first one the band had written, they included a lot of Country song references including trucks.

For the well deserved encore the group returned to the front of the stage. A sang around a retro bi-directional condensor mic that Hannah and Ben often use in their duo set. 'Raise A Candle' was a tender and heartfelt post Christmas song reflecting about the New Year. 

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To end a wonderful evening of music they chose a rousing and uplifting American-American spiritual counting song called 'Children Go Where I Send Thee'.

It was an excellent concert from a group of very talented folk musicians and friends. I hope that the 'A Winter Union' tour becomes a permanent and regular fixture for many years to come. It's a early Christmas treat and a perfect seasonal musical present.

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Jade Rhiannon (The Willows) – Vocals
Katriona Gilmore (Gilmore & Roberts, The Willows) – Vocals, Mandolin, Fiddle
Jamie Roberts (Gilmore & Roberts, The Dovetail Trio) – Vocals, Guitar
Hannah Sanders (Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage) – Vocals, Guitar, Dulcimer, Autoharp
Ben Savage (Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage, The Willows) – Vocals, Dobro, Guitar

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