Virtuoso guitar/violin duo, Brooks Williams and Aaron Catlow, dig into their American songbook.
Release Date: 24th June 2022
Label: Red Guitar Blue Music
Formats: CD / Digital
Back in September 2021, we were charmed by an album of soundtrack pieces, recorded to accompany a series of short films depicting the life and habitat of the barn owl. The album in question was Ghost Owl, the work of sometime duo Brooks Williams and Aaron Catlow. Ghost Owl was shortlisted for the Fatea Magazine 2021 Instrumental Album of the Year Award, as well as featuring as one of At The Barrier’s Albums of 2021. And now, Brooks Williams and Aaron Catlow are back, with another delightful album – Ready For The Times – a collection of the duo’s favourites from the extensive catalogue of 20th century American folk song.
Ready For The Times is the result of a short sojourn into Saltwell Studio in Cambridge last October, as Brooks and Aaron were readying themselves to restart their post COVID gig diaries. Recorded live-in-the-studio, with no overdubs, Ready For The Times presents this virtuosic duo at their absolute best, delivering songs and tunes that they clearly love with all the respect and mastery that we’ve come to expect from them.
The choice of music is inspired. Brooks and Aaron have raided the portfolios of some of America’s most iconic songwriters – Ola Bella Reed, Cheryl Wheeler, Jean Ritchie and Pink Anderson are all covered, as is the work of pianist/actor Oscar Levant. Scottish singer/songwriter Rab Noakes, one of Brooks’s many occasional collaborators gets a look-in, and to round off a splendid collection, there’s a few selections from Brooks’s own catalogue. Within the resulting mix, there’s bluegrass, blues, ragtime, folk, Gypsy Jazz and music hall to pick out and enjoy. Ready for the Times has something for everyone.
At The Barrier regulars will, by now, be pretty familiar with Brooks Williams and Aaron Catlow. Hailing originally from Statesbro, Georgia and now based in Cambridge, UK, Brooks is recognized as one of the best acoustic guitarists around. He’s released over 20 albums during his extensive career and is an enthusiastic collaborator with the likes of Boo Hewerdine, Sloan Wainwright and Steve Tilston, as well as with the aforementioned Rab Noaks. Aaron Catlow is known as a master violinist and as a member of the Bristol-based duo Hawes and Catlow. He’s also worked with Sheelanagig, Yola, Mad Dog Mcree and Afro Celt Sound System.
Brooks Williams and Aaron Catlow are already attracting comparisons with Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy and even Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, and I wouldn’t challenge such comparisons. In a previous review, I ventured the opinion that aspiring guitarists and fiddlers should listen closely to and learn from the music they play, and I stand by that view, but Brooks and Catlow aren’t just about virtuosity – it’s the end result that counts, and on Ready For The Times, the couple mesh together like a precision two-piece jigsaw puzzle. Brooks Williams and Aaron Catlow is a pairing made in heaven.
The Swarbrick/Carthy comparison is evident from the outset with Brooks’s percussive guitar and Aaron’s push-the-boundary style of folk violin on the duo’s version of Ole Belle Reed’s I’ve Endured. It’s a great choice of opener that sets the scene for the delights to come. Allen Reynolds’ Ready for the Times to Get Better is an inspired choice of material, given the album’s post-COVID genesis, and, again, the duo do the song full justice. Brooks’s vocal is intimate and factual – almost world-weary; Brooks plays some wonderful finger-picked guitar lines and Aaron fills in the gaps with his trademark bluesy, Gypsy-flavoured violin.
Rab Noaks’s Jackson Greyhound is next, an on-the-road song par excellence that celebrates the ending of racial segregation on American busses post Rosa Parks. Brooks plays a wonderful bluesy intro and there’s some amazing plucked violin from Aaron, before the couple get down to business. The duo demonstrate their sensitivity in their reading of Cheryl Wheeler’s Summer Fly; Brooks plays a restrained guitar part and Aaron’s violin is simply beautiful before Brooks airs one of his own compositions for the first time – love Too Soon is a light love song, elevated to a bluegrass extravaganza by Aaron’s flying fiddle.
The leisurely drift of West Virginia’s Elk River is perfectly evoked in Elk River Blues, a tune by Virginian fiddler Ernie Carpenter. Brooks picks his guitar softly and Aaron’s sweeter-than-syrup violin picks up presence and momentum as the tune progresses. Oscar Levant’s music hall rag, If You Want The Rainbow, is given a coating of Gypsy Jazz, particularly when Aaron cuts loose in the song’s middle section, and Oscar’s lyrics contain heaps of sound advice that retain relevance, even today.
Brooks revisits his State Of The Union collaboration with Boo Hewerdine – another At The Barrier regular – with Snake Oil, the title track of …Union’s 2013 album. The Ready for the Times version is excellent, with Aaron’s slithery violin accentuating the song’s fairground setting. Brooks and Aaron mesh together particularly well on Church Street Blues, a pleasant country rag borrowed from Norman Blake. Aaron’s fills and solos weave around Brooks’s deft guitar lines. And I love the lyrical reference to Black Diamond guitar strings – as featured in the photograph in the CD’s centre spread!
Most listeners will be familiar with Jean Ritchie’s The L&N, whether from Jean herself, or from versions by Johnny Cash, Billy Bragg or Michelle Shocked. On Ready For The Times, Brooks and Aaron do full justice to this old favourite, with Brooks supplying reliable guitar and a restrained yet respectful vocal and Aaron chipping in with some delicious violin parts that range from choppy and dramatic to slippery and dreamy. The Railroad theme is continued with CC&O Blues, Pink Anderson’s ode to the superior hobo accommodation on the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railroad. It’s a lovely slice of ragtime/blues – perhaps the stuff that Brooks does best – with Aaron laying down his best Stéphane Grappelli licks over Brooks’s meticulous guitar lines.
Last, but not least, Brooks and Aaron revisit their Ghost Owl triumph with a reprise of the evocative Night Shift, a standout tune from their last album that captures the barn owl’s nocturnal ramblings perfectly. Ready for the Times is a delight. There’s plenty of virtuosity for those who love to be astounded, but it’s never for virtuosity’s sake. Ready For The Times is an album that shows just what can be achieved with just a violin and an acoustic guitar. Magnificent!
Watch Brooks Williams and Aaron Catlow perform If You Want The Rainbow, a track from the album, here: