Live Reviews

Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage – Pavilion Theatre, Worthing: Live Review

An evening of lovely tunes from two lovely people – and the setting wasn’t a bad one, either!

You’ve probably gathered that here, at At The Barrier, we’re big fans of Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage. We raved over the duo’s 2022 album, Ink of the Rosy Morning, and we drooled over their support slot on Fairport’s Winter Tour earlier this year. We couldn’t wait for another helping of Hannah and Ben’s special magic and, when their Spring UK Tour dates were announced, we dropped what we were doing and started a queue.

The tour (and, as I write, it’s still underway…) isn’t a long one, but, by thunder, Hannah and Ben aren’t half putting the miles in. So far, places as widely spread as Alnwick and Plymouth, Ayr and Great Torrington and Stratford Upon Avon and Yeovil have all had the pleasure of the Sanders/Savage Spring Experience, whilst Stowmarket, Maidenhead and Cambridge continue to shake in anticipatory suspense. This time, we chose Worthing as our favoured venue; after all, it’s by the seaside and the Pavilion Theatre is actually on the pier! Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage AND ice cream…? That’s surely too good a cocktail to miss – and we didn’t.

In his review of Ink Of The Rosy Morning, Mike Ainscoe, my esteemed colleague, wrote: “There can’t be many finer sights than Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage huddled in close proximity around a microphone delicately playing through Ribbons and Bows, smiling knowingly at one another in the knowledge that they’re creating something magical.” Mike does, indeed, have a way with words and, in that short sentence, he captured the very essence of Wednesday’s show – a magical couple of hours in the presence of a pair of magical musicians.

For the Worthing show, Hannah and Ben were assigned The Atrium, the smaller of the two auditoria at The Pavilion. Contrary to the image its name may conjure, The Atrium isn’t an impersonal space or an area on the way to somewhere more important – not at all; it’s an intimate space with a cosy, club-like ambience with a tables-and-chairs layout (my favourite!) – in short, it’s the perfect venue in which to enjoy that special intimacy of a Sanders and Savage performance, so eloquently described by Mike.

The duo appeared without fanfare, Hannah resplendent in a layered Laura Ashley pattern dress, Ben in a more earthy Steptoe-themed garb, and sporting his well-used Gibson acoustic, to open the show with Come All Ye Fair And Tender Maids, a favourite song from their excellent 2016 album, Before The Sun. Right from the off, I was struck by three things – the sheer beauty of Hannah’s voice (something that you just HAVE to keep hearing to be reminded just how glorious it really is), the excellence of Ben’s guitar playing (and he makes it look so EASY!) and how effective that single suspension mic is in capturing that voice, that guitar and those delicious harmonies that are such a wonderful feature of Hannah and Ben’s music.

I’ve always been enthralled by the contrast between Hannah’s sweet-as-heaven vocals and Ben’s grittier, more mysterious tones and that contrast is particularly apparent in A Thousand New Moons, a song from the 2018 Awake album. As a way of engaging the Worthing audience in a simple chorus, it worked a treat, as we all obliged with our “For love, for love” contribution to the evening’s proceedings. I Gave My Love A Cherry seems to be a staple of the duo’s live set. It’s a track from Hannah’s 2016 solo album, Charms Against Sorrow, and it certainly was a popular element of their performance on the Fairport tour. Ben accompanied Hannah on his dobro and, from my ringside seat, I was able to observe at the closest possible quarters just how good he is on that instrument! And, when the song was over, Hannah had a confession to make – “It’s all about sex!” she shyly admitted…

According to Ben’s anecdote, The Ink Of The Rosy Morning had its genesis under rather unexpected circumstances. Like every other group of musicians, lockdown was a difficult period for Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage. As gigs and festival bookings were cancelled on an ongoing basis, the duo retreated to the studio to try to produce some product to compensate, at least in some measure, for their lost performance income. In fact, they recorded two albums, The Posh, a collection of original tunes of which they held great expectation, and a second set of mainly well-known American and British folk tunes which they originally tagged as “The Tat” album. Perversely, it was “The Tat” that was more attractive to Topic Records and it was that collection that was released, under its more complementary title, Ink Of The Rosy Morning – an album that has become a firm favourite of Hannah and Ben’s growing legion of followers and which continues to attract new members of that legion with every show they perform.

By the way – The Posh is still in the can. watch this space…

Ink Of The Rosy Morning had its first airing of the night with the magnificent A Winter’s Night, the album’s opening track. Learned from the one-and-only Doc Watson, it is, by Ben’s admission, a song that the pair originally sang “at” their friends, rather than “for” them; no matter, with the confidence, comfort and feeling that Hannah and Ben add, it’s now a song “for” everyone. We stayed with Ink… for the glorious Polly O Polly, another song that’s become a live show highlight. Hannah gets to exercise and amaze with the full range of her vocal chords, whilst Ben is equally astounding as he accompanies on his Gibson.

Time for relief, refreshment and retail opportunity was rapidly approaching, but, before the break there was still time to enjoy more of those marvelous harmonies in the beautiful Saved My Life and, even more spectacularly, in the Woody Guthrie/Billy Bragg showpiece, Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key, a stunning mix of baffling guitar and heavenly vocals in which Hannah and Ben showed an almost psychic understanding of each other. We were taken to The News with more of Ben’s outstanding fingerpicked guitar, before Hannah brought down the (metaphorical) interval curtain with a few lines from the Magpie rhyme. A brilliant first half – could they keep it up??

Stupid question – this is Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage we’re talking about. Of course they could “keep it up,” and, as if as a signal of intent, they upped the ante straight away as they opened the second set with their version of Richie Stearns’ Ribbons and Bows. Hannah played her dulcimer for the first time of the evening whilst Ben took the lead vocal. The Appalachian origins of the song came over loud and clear, particularly when Hannah added an enlivening “Whoop” to round it off.

After remarking on the creakiness of the stage, Hannah resumed lead vocals for the precise, fantastic, Earl Richard. The Cape Breton ballad, When First I Came to Caledonia is, perhaps, my favourite track on Ink Of The Rosy Morning. Learned from Chris Wood and Andy Cutting, it’s a song that Ben always seems to thoroughly inhabit, particularly when he reaches the part of the narrative that praises the tea-making skills of landlord Donald Norman’s daughter! And, it’s the song that, of course, includes the album’s cryptic title.

Whenever bands like Hannah and Ben play a string of summer festivals, the opportunities for jamming and generally messing around always seem to produce something special that the bands can take back to their tours and club performances. This time, it’s Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark that benefitted from those late-night experiments and the version that Hannah and Ben have brought along to their Spring Tour is a revelation. It’s intimate and joyous – at the same time – and they even manage to fit in a short twirly dance during the instrumental break. Not to be missed!

As we’ve already seen, Ink Of The Rosy Morning is, almost, a collection of interpretations of traditional or favourite songs from other writers. The single exception on the album is the beautiful A Life A Lie, written by Hannah. It is, without doubt, the album’s most intimate song; it goes without saying that Hannah sings beautifully, whilst Ben fills in every gap that there is to fill with a guitar part that is alternately strummed and precision-picked.

Leadbelly’s I’ll Be So Glad When I Get Home was dedicated to “anyone having an awful night.” Needless to say, there were no takers for that – we were all having the time of our lives – but we did oblige by joining in with the not-too-difficult-to-pick-up lyrics, whilst marveling once again at just what Hannah can do with that voice of hers.

The end of a great show was approaching fast, but the treats kept coming. Hannah returned to her dulcimer to accompany Ben on a smoldering Lie To Die, before the pair prepared for the big finish. I’m not the first writer to comment on Hannah’s ability to sound like a sultry Joni Mitchell and, for closing song , a take on Joni’s Case Of You, she almost seemed to be living in Joni’s skin, particularly as she hit the high notes. As she said as she introduced the song – “Ben really likes Joni Mitchell… And I really like wine,” and the time to relax and enjoy a glass of that beverage was almost upon us…

…Almost, but not quite – there was still time to squeeze in another of the highlights of Ink Of The Rosy Morning. River Don’t Run, the album’s closing track, is the newest song in the collection and it’s brilliant. Written by the elusive R.Guard and A.Crockatt, Ben learned the song from Bristol singer Nick Hart, but, probably as much as any other song in the Sanders/ Savage repertoire, he’s surely made it his own. The lyrics tell the sad tale of the demise of Agar Town (land now occupied by St.Pancras Station) and the diverted Fleet River and Ben manages to infuse the song with a world-weariness and wistfulness that can almost be touched. There was also one last chance to savour those divine harmonies as Hannah added her unique sweetening to the song, before the duo took their final bow.

For two hours, we were held spellbound; absorbed totally into the world of Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage. If you haven’t managed to catch them on this Spring Tour, there’s still just about time, if you happen to be around Cambridge, Maidenhead or Stowmarket. If you can’t make it this time, then I can’t recommend strongly enough – get yourself along to a Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage show the next time you possibly can. It might just change your life.

Back in the 80s and 90s, I had a genuine fear that good quality acoustic music was approaching the end of its viable life. A new generation, with Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage at the helm, has given me all the reassurance I need that such fears were so ridiculously unfounded.

Watch the official video to Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key, one of the songs performed at the Worthing show, here:

Ben and Hannah online: Website / Twitter / Facebook / Instagram / Youtube

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