It'd been a good while since I last witnessed local folk act Hickory Signals on a stage, and the launch of their debut album 'Turn to Fray' on 18th November seemed like the perfect occasion to reconnect with the duo's haunting music. For this very special show, multi-instrumentalists Adam Ronchetti and Laura Ward were joined by a full band comprising of Debra Stacey on backing vocals,Tom Pryor on violin, Scott Smith on banjo and Phil Ward on bass, in a bid to offer a faithful live rendition of the record's delicate arrangements.
Released earlier this month, 'Turn to Fray' blends traditional folk, original songs and reinterpretations of stories and poems from various characters that have inspired the band on their musical journey. The result is a beautiful tapestry of deep, moving tunes, which was recently selected as Folk Album of the Month by The Guardian. Having listened to the album at home, I couldn't wait to hear it live, but also to discover opening act Jinnwoo, a solo musician who sometimes performs with Hickory Signals and violinist Tom Pryor as part of folk collective Bird In The Belly.
Being a close friend, neighbour, and muscial collaborator of Hickory Signals, Ben Webb (aka Jinnwoo) opened his set with words of kindness for the duo, and his gentle, genuine presence created the perfect atmosphere to welcome a packed and very snug audience into the seated, candle-lit Brunswick Pub venue. Jinnwoo started with a song addressed to a certain 'Elliott', which indeed reminded me of Elliott Smith, but with rawer vocals, reminiscent of Kurt Cobain's 'unplugged' singing style merged with a certain quirkiness not dissimilar to early Alt-J. Lyrically, the general vibe of Webb's music is sweet, melancholic and somber all at once, only to be lifted by his sense of humour in-between songs. One of my favourites was 'Woman', were the singer muses about reversing gender roles to try and understand each other better.
Alone on stage with just an acoustic guitar, Jinnwoo managed to create a varied sound by alternating percussive, finger-style and chorded songs throughout his set, before finishing on an acapella number, 'Garden Song', for which he invited the crowd to join him on the chorus, creating a lovely singalong with a Fleet Foxes-esque melody. This short introduction to his original music and warm persona left everyone delighted and eager for more, ready to welcome Hickory Signals on stage.
As they started playing, the band sounded a little bit nervous, which in a way really served the opening song, since it was a dark story with a heavy atmosphere throughout. “'Who Put The Blood' is a song about a man who killed his brother... over a gardening dispute!” announces lead singer Laura Ward in a playful tone, instantly relieving the tension on stage and in the room. The musicians followed with 'Rosemary', one of the album's singles, which pays tribute to mysterious English poet and author Rosemary Tonks and definitely made me want to learn more about her life and work. During the rest of the set, this feeling of curiosity remained, as Hickory Signals' highly evocative music is also a veritable treasure trove of little-known literary and historical references. The title song of the album, however, got a shorter introduction, being simply presented as a piece about 'unravelling'. Next, the band played a couple of songs inspired by the sea, my favourite being 'Noise of The Waters' with its poetic lyrics, enchanting flute solos and lilting vocals, somewhere between Alela Diane and Dolores O'Riordan.
The second half of the set didn't disappoint either, with an adaptation of 'Doors To My Mind' where the band briefly disappeared to leave Ward and Ronchetti perform as a percussion and vocal duo, simply accompanied by the faint drone of a shruti box. Written by 70s social worker Frankie Armstrong, the lyrics are dedicated to women going through hardship but finding strength and guidance in sisterhood, a theme very close to Ward's heart, as she works with women and families affected by substance abuse. The band gathered again for the next song and second single, 'Two Girls', a more light-hearted composition celebrating the innocence and authenticity of early childhood. Then came 'Kana', inspired by the life story of a Syrian refugee the lead singer met through her work as a volunteer, followed by a stunning acapella rendition of the traditional folk song 'Bushes and Briars' where the whole band sang harmonies together, leaving the room completely silent in awe.
The closing song, dedicated to American socialite, novelist, painter and wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald 'Zelda', was welcomed with a standing ovation, prompting the band to perform a Bob Dylan cover as an encore. 'Dink's Song', a tale about 'growing old gracefully', showed off Laura Ward's higher register beautifully, and offered Scott Smith and Tom Pryor a welcome opportunity to perform some lovely banjo and violin solos. The set ended on a joyful and uplifting note, and as the lights came back on, I noticed a big smile on everyone's face.
As always, the passion, dedication and generosity of Hickory Signals was undeniable tonight... and beautifully contagious!
'Turn To Fray' is available on CD and all major music platforms, including Spotify.
Photography by Andy Voakes