Virtuosos Williams and Walsh get their heads together – and the sparks fly!
Release Date: Out now
Label: Self release
Prolific. That’s the word that comes to mind whenever the work of Brooks Williams, Statesbro-via-Cambridge guitar virtuoso, songwriter and collaborator extraordinaire is the subject of the conversation. It’s only a few weeks ago that we enthused wildly, within these pages, over Brooks’s last collaboration with violin supremo Aaron Catlow, their pick of favourites from the 20th Century American folk songbook, Ready For The Times. And now he’s back again, with a different partner and a new source of inspiration!
This time, Brooks’s collaborator-of-choice is banjoist of great repute, Dan Walsh – previously best known for his work in his duo with harmonica player Will Pound and, since 2014, as a member of The Urban Folk Quartet. He’s also an admired solo performer – his 2017 album Verging On The Perpendicular received widespread plaudits and he’s a former BBC Folk Awards Best Musician nominee.
Brooks and Dan first got together back in the depths of lockdown in 2020 when they released a video, performing the Jimmie Davis/ Eva Sargent number, Columbus Stockade Blues (the song is included on this album) and the response to the video was so encouraging that the decision to take things further was a no-brainer. Fortune By Design is the result of that endeavour.
In a way, it’s maybe strange that this particular pairing didn’t happen a lot sooner. Both Brooks and Dan are masters of their specific craft, both operate in the same folky environs, both are serial collaborators and their respective instruments weave together so wonderfully. Indeed, Fairport’s Simon Nicol was moved to make a similar observation after seeing the duo perform live, saying that “…everyone at the concert also wondered why this pair had never teamed up before. An excellent uplifting and cheering experience!” Well – Simon has a knack of choosing the right words to summarise a situation and ‘uplifting and cheering’ are words that perfectly describe Fortune By Design. It’s a joyful album.
Since that first tentative get-together, Brooks and Dan have built up a solid live repertoire, taking songs and tunes from the likes of The Blind Boys of Alabama, Norman Blake, Bessie Smith and Nanci Griffith and adding a smattering of their own compositions to deliver a set that has been described as “An extraordinary combination of British and American roots music.” Fortune By Design is a thoroughly enjoyable condensation of that live experience.
The duo’s version of Norman Blake’s Church Street Blues gets things underway and it’s clear, right from the start, that Dan’s banjo and Brooks’s guitar are a pretty potent combination, and the vocals aren’t bad either, particularly when the guys harmonise on the song’s “Sit down in my easy chair…” chorus. Columbus Stockade Blues, the song that started it all for Brooks and Dan, is next. It’s a nice, easy-going blues song with more of that intricate guitar/banjo basketwork and more tasty harmonies. The enjoyment that the chaps derive from performing these songs is clearly evident and I love the way that both Brooks and Dan switch effortlessly and seamlessly between their roles as lead and backing musicians to complement one another.
The duo do full justice to Sonny Lamaire’s Just Listen before moving on to demonstrate exactly what they’re about with the trad instrumental Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine/ Lockdown Hoedown. The tune starts slowly and gently before working into a real lather as Brooks and Dan go head-to-head with their solos and the sparks fly.
Billy Mayhew’s most famous song, It’s A Sin to Tell A Lie, is delivered as a fast, furious rag, illuminated by a wonderful guitar solo from Brooks and passionate, enthusiastic vocals, before Dan takes the wheel for a run through Well Well Well, the song that most readers will recognize from Bonnie Raitt’s 2006 “…And Friends” album.
The pair’s irresistible version of The O’Kanes song, Imagine That, is a true album highlight. Brooks and Dan manage some wonderfully tight stop/ start guitar and banjo and the vocal harmonies might just be the best on the album, and it’s followed by another gem, the happy, easy-going Stays the Same. Stays The Same is the only Williams/Walsh original on the album and it’s tempting to imagine that there’s more in the pipeline from whence this one came… And Brooks’s slide guitar is delicious!
Both Dan and Brooks push the boat out for Paper Jam, Dan’s mind-boggling guitar duet. Both players are at the top of their game, doing what they do best, and the result is, quite simply, breathtaking. It’s always a good idea to save the very best until last and Brooks and Dan have done just that by choosing Brooks’s Tornado Smith to close this engaging album. It’s a slice of classic Brooks Williams; a plaintive, pleading vocal, a final taste of that guitar/ banjo spaghetti and a tune that won’t leave your head – it’s the album’s earworm!
Fortune By Design is the debut album for the Brooks Williams/Dan Walsh collaboration. You can bet your bagpipes that it won’t be the last!
Watch Brooks and Dan perform Tornado Smith, a track from the album, here: