Ghost Owl – guitar and violin duets inspired by, and written for, the Barn Owl
Release Date: 3rd September 2021
Label: Red Guitar Blue Music
Ghost Owl is a thoroughly delightful album and one with a fascinating genesis. It all started when wildlife conservationist and filmmaker/photographer Simon Hurwitz asked his friend and relative, guitarist/composer/singer Brooks Williams to record a couple of guitar tunes to accompany some of his short films. For Williams, the project sparked an awareness and interest in the life and habitat of the barn owl (also colloquially known as the hoolet, Billy Wix or the ghost owl – all titles of pieces in this wonderful collection) and the ‘couple of tunes’ that Brooks had been asked to come with quickly turned into an album’s worth of music.
The tunes were crying out for the mellow voice of a well-played violin and Brooks decided to invite his admired acquaintance Aaron Catlow to play on the album. The pair had met a couple of years previously on a tour of The Netherlands and had already worked together on Williams’s 30th Anniversary album, Work My Claim, released in early 2020.
Brooks Williams probably needs little introduction to At the Barrier regulars. Hailing originally from Statesboro, Georgia and now based in Cambridge, UK, his musical style combines strands of jazz, ragtime, blues, classical and folk and he has released over 20 albums during his extensive career. He first came to the attention of this particular writer when he appeared at the 2013 Cropredy Festival and wowed the crowd with a set that included copious extracts from his contemporaneous album New Everything and he’s worked with a good number of high-profile collaborators – amongst them, Boo Hewerdine, Jim Henry and Steve Tilston.
Aaron Catlow is a member of Bristol-based duo Hawes and Catlow, alongside guitarist/singer Kit Hawes and he’s also worked with Sheelanagig, Yola, Mad Dog Mcree and Afro Celt Sound System.
What Aaron and Brooks have in common is a telepathic relationship with their respective instruments and an ability to translate that relationship into music played with a skill and passion that touches the heart and feeds the mind. On Ghost Owl, they’re both given the space to show what they can do with a variety of styles that encompass trans-Atlantic and trans-Mediterranean influences; they complement each other perfectly with Brooks’s predominantly percussive fingerpicking guitar style providing the perfect accompaniment to Aaron’s flowing – often gypsy-flavoured – violin. Aspiring guitarists and fiddlers need to listen closely to and learn from this album.
The album comprises ten beautiful tunes – each one played with a passion, skill and intensity that takes your breath away. It’s not really credible to give a track-by-track commentary to an album like this and the best recommendation that I can give the listener is to sit back and dream; the tunes are so evocative that the graphic images of each tune’s subject will come to you – I can guarantee it!
There are tunes that portray the nocturnal ramblings of the barn owl – Night Shift, Billy Wix and Weary of the Moon are three such examples; tunes that depict the landscape and ambience of the owl’s habitat (the delightful Rene’s Garden and Fenland Flyer) and tunes that provide the setting for what’s going on around all this strigine activity (the raga-ish Hoolet and First Dark – a tune that mixes a classic waltz with sprinklings of 20s jazz). Ragtime, jazz, pastoral English and Scottish traditional influences and classical touches all combine with Mediterranean and East European flavours to make this an album to savour. There’s never a dull moment.
The guys sign off with a remake of Brooks’s 2008 tune, Johnny’s Farewell. An intro that mixes blues guitar licks with a Scottish lament, morphs into a jolly slice of classic Brooks Williams ragtime to provide a happy ending to this engaging portrayal of the life and times of the barn owl. Absolutely wonderful – and the cover artwork isn’t bad either!
Watch Brooks and Aaron performing Night Shift, the album’s opening track, here: