Mainstay of English folk-rock scene embarks on instrumental endeavor of tying different strands of his stylistic palette into a tightrope to walk across memory lane.
He might be mostly known as a former, if longtime, member of STRAWBS and co-writer of such classics as “Taking A Chance” back in the ’80s, but this ensemble were but a single entry in Brian Willoughby’s five-decade-long career. The aforementioned connection landed the guitarist a prominent role in THE MONKS, laying down memorable lines on both of their LPs and moving back into the previous band soon after "Suspended Animation" had seen the light of day, and he was a session player on multiple platters, jingles and TV themes, yet Willoughby’s first noteworthy appearance took place when Brian began, on his 22nd birthday, working with Mary Hopkin. There would be stints with many other artists, including his namesake Connolly from SWEET and Nanci Griffith, yet it’s the fateful audition for the Welsh songstress that the title of the veteran’s third solo album refers to.
Demonstrating his skills to Hopkin and Tony Visconti, Willoughby performed a piece called “Twiddly Bit” – a term lead Strawb Dave Cousins, who sent his friend to Mary, coined to describe Brian’s six-string parts, which implies the virtuoso aspect of his delivery used to be downplayed in favor and in service of the song. This very side is so vulnerably exposed here yet it’s never sterile thanks to the variety of styles, moods and techniques on display. No wonder, then, that a couple of tunes on offer began their life – and were originally issued – as songs, but now “The Middle” and “Red Steel Tracks” have been distilled to their twangy, albeit nuanced, essence, where no words are required to drink from this source of melodic delight, with Willoughby’s wife, Cathryn Craig’s acoustic strum and Dennis Bryon’s steady groove keeping the drift down to earth.
However, while the short opener “Busterchops” exposes Brian’s joyful folk sensibilities and fingerpicking filigree, the infectiously fluid, if rough, riff-flaunting finale of “She Rang Our Bell” shows the shadows of his marvel at Hank B. Marvin and filters it through a countrified lense. Bookended by these seeming extremes is a stunning array of six-string cuts running the spectrum from the chamber, enchanting translucence of “Clara’s Theme” at the end of which Willoughby’s Telecaster adopts a whistle tone to enhance the electric tenderness, to the no less exquisite, elegiac, even bluesy “White Stratosphere” to the titular number which drenches the veteran’s guitars in delicate, faux-symphonic orchestra.
His hands make instruments sing in the spiritually uplifting “Aunt Gen In The Clouds” with its pseudo-woodwind backdrop, and enshroud “Buenos Sueños” that’s dedicated to his late friend Nanci in a shimmering lace, contrasting it with “Long Tall Kelly” – a robust Celtic dance and a perfect foil for the ethereal “Rosie’s Tale” whose cinematic romanticism feels simply irresistible. There are harmonic landscapes on the likes of “Dunavil Beach” and “The Borders” which spread melancholy over stereo panorama and let the mesmeric “Peace Pipe” anchor the sorrow, before “Uisce Beatha” brings forth a triumphant sonic wave. As a result, the record’s nineteen “bits” turn into a single, multicolored tapestry – ever-rippling to reveal more and more spellbinding details, rendering this a wondrous milestone on Brian Willoughby’s distinguished path.