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CATHRYN CRAIG AND BRIAN WILLOUGHBY - Stirling Folk Club - 18 April 2016

A regular club night at the Stirling County Rugby Club saw the gathering of about 40 held pretty much universally spellbound by a couple of seasoned performers, who have matured into one of the most popular acts of their genre. A sizeable contingent had travelled from Falkirk, as this act had given such a polished performance last November that they wanted a second helping.

Brian Willoughby is an extraordinary guitarist with a rock solid finger style and finely honed solos that perfectly compliment Cathryn Craig’s vocals. Willoughby, of Irish origin, has an impressive musical CV, having been a member of Strawbs for 26 years, and other musical forays too numerous to mention. Craig is an American singer songwriter in the Emmylou Harris mould, with the soggy end of 50 years’ stage experience.

Their first set opened with Shel Silverstein’s That ‘Ol Guitar, which set the stage for some brilliant banter between the singer/guitarist Craig and Willoughby, whose guitar accompaniments were dazzling throughout. Some material was lifted from their latest album, including the title song, In America, which is another reading of the Irish diaspora told with great conviction. Another new song, If These Old Stone Walls Could Sing, allowed Willoughby to introduce us to the E-Bow, a brilliant guitar accessory that can transform a plucked guitar into a bowed output – it sounded great but looked like it requires a particular skill to master. I was especially moved by the co-written Alice’s Song, written about Brian’s autistic niece, which I can relate to as my son has Aspergers Syndrome.

Set two opened with a solo guitar spot from Brian Willoughby, where he gave us an insight into the tune that launched his career, through his mate Dave Cousins passing a tape of it to Tony Visconti, Mary Hopkin’s husband and producer. The tune, Fingers Crossed, is a lesson in control and flamboyance, and on this occasion led to all of the guitarists in the audience nodding in unspoken resignation that we’re all out of his league.

The two revisited songs from the birth of their careers – Craig giving us You Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, harking back to her first job backing the Righteous Brothers, including an absolutely stunning solo from Willoughby, and Those Were The Days, revisiting Willoughby’s early break with Mary Hopkin, both of which being audience favourites. Easily the most poignant part of the evening was their rendition of a song relating the fight for justice for the families of the Hillsborough disaster victims – Time Has Proved You Right. Another late highlight was their take on River Deep, Mountain High. A polished one hour second set rounded off with Bob Wills’ My Window Faces The South. The inevitable encore, These Dreams And You, sent everybody home happy.

Credit to Harry Wilson for hosting the night and to Ian Ludbrook who played a great opening spot despite having to play guitar with a hand injury. But in the end, the evening belonged to Craig and Willoughby, their innate chemistry and professionalism, and astute choice of finely honed material.

Grem Devlin