Gig Review: Ward Thomas at The Portland Arms, Cambridge – 13th October 201610/15/2016 Steve Add Comment
Even though they are one of my absolute favorites to watch live, this past Thursday was the first time I’ve seen Ward Thomas in just over 2 years, and that in itself is a tragedy, but one that was thankfully rectified. Back when I ran the 4000 Miles to Nashville blog I wrote about Ward Thomas numerous times, both album and gig reviews – take a look there to see my thoughts on their previous musical output. The Portland Arms in Cambridge is a short walk from the city centre, and is a pub which has a 200 person venue attached to it. A very intimate setting for a number 1 album selling act, but along with the location, was one of the main reasons I chose this leg of their Cartwheels Tour. Even just approaching the pub I could see how far things have come for the Sony Music signed Ward Thomas, with their tour bus parked outside!
The support was a young lady called Una Healy, whose name rung a bell, but I wasn’t sure from where. She came on stage and announced that she was about to sing these 6 songs for the very first time – we were her guinea pig audience, but that she used those words. It didn’t show, as she sang beautifully and played guitar with poise and skill. Back in August she announcer her signing as a solo artist with Decca, and described her new musical direction as acoustic pop rock folk, with hints of country – perfect description of what we heard that night. Of course, had I read that press release before the gig I’d have realised that Una’s previous work was with girl band The Saturdays.
She has an album coming out at some point in the future and all the songs were from that upcoming release. Based on that, I’ll certainly be buying it, as she showed a great range in such a short time, from heartfelt ballads to uptempo numbers that drew more on the pop rock side of things. The highlight for me was a song she wrote about her daughter, and how they both look to the moon when apart, knowing the other would be looking up too. I’m not familair with The Saturdays, though I’m sure I’d recognise some of their songs, but Una Healy has a night future as a solo artist ahead of her and has a strong strong and versatile voice that perfectly fits the new direction she’s going in.
With 4 band members as well as Catherine and Lizzy, this is the biggest set-up I’ve seen Ward Thomas play as, but their set started off as classy and haunting as ever. It’s at this point I want to tell you what sing they kicked things off with it but if I’m honest I can’t be certain. That’s not a knock on the music, but more on my memory of set lists and just being caught up in the excitement of seeing them play live again after so long. I think it was Good On You from their new Cartwheels album, but don’t quote me on that. Whatever the song, it was clear to me that their vocals were as gorgeous as ever, and those harmonies were every bit as good as I remember.
I can only guess that the Ward Thomas twins are a dream to work with in the studio because live they are faultless, and always do the almost impossible task of improving upon their recorded work when on stage. In the past 2 years they have gone from nudging the Radio 2 playlist to regulars, and even made it to Radio 1 just recently, something they amusingly alluded to as the one song that was deemed cool. It’s Guilty Flowers that Scott Mills liked if you are wondering. What hasn’t changed is their demeanour in front of a crowd which is warm, welcoming and fun, but in a heartbeat going from sisterly banter to unrivaled vocal magnificence. This is all with Lizzy having a cold, which you’d only know from her slightly red nose, not from her triumphant singing.
The set consisted primarily of songs from their latest album Cartwheels, which might leave me pining for songs such as From Where I Stand, but is completely understandable and nice to see these new songs performed live. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve seen Lizzy play keyboards as well as guitar, and along with Catherine’s increased use of guitars showcases how much they are growing as musicians. The endearing bond that only twin sisters have is also still present, with looks at each other whilst singing, which now and then leads to them singing at and with each other, often with smiles that as as a member of the audience looking on you feel compelled to mimic.
Cartwheels on CD seems a little more in the pop rock direction than From Where We Stand and on first hearing I likened some of the new songs to Fleetwood Mac. With the expanded band they certainly have a bigger sound with certain songs, like the aforementioned Guilty Flowers, but also gave us some incredibly tender moments with beautiful ballads such as Proof and Cartwheels. The latter I first heard when I saw them play at The Green Note in London back in 2014, an even smaller venue than this. While Catherine and Lizzy are the obvious focus, the band are not just backing musicians and play a big part in the sound, especially guitarist Dan Gordon who has been with the since the beginning.
Coming on for not an entirely surprising 2 song encore, they finished off the night with Cartwheels lead single Carry You Home. This is a song that manages to build from a soft piano accompanied vocal, very quickly into a full band anthem. I don’t use the word anthem lightly here – Carry You Home sounded that way when I first heard it on Spotify months ago, and live it’s every bit as rousing, with added live magic. The WOAOH (spelling might not be 100% correct) parts would fill an arena, and in that small venue, standing front row, had the hair standing up on the back of neck as much as the harmonies. While on the subject of those harmonies, I have always said and I stand by it, that Catherine and Lizzy sing together with telepathic perfection which is categorically unrivaled in any genre of music the world over. That might sound like hyperbole but I challenge you to see them live and deny that – go on.
In the past two years or so I’ve played Ward Thomas’ music an awful lot, both their debut masterpiece From Where We Stand and last month’s number 1 album Cartwheels, which the more I listen to the more it feels like an album of equal quality. That in itself is pretty much as big a compliment as I can dish out, when you consider how much I adore their debut offering. Live they are an absolute treat, combining superb vocals and musicianship with a vulnerable yet assured stage presence which feels almost like being invited into the home and lives of Ward Thomas.
I got to chat to them a little after the gig, in spite of the saving our voices t-shirts, and as always were so very charming and down to earth. Having a signed copy of the CD already I bought Cartweheels on vinyl, but as it was pre-signed I asked them to sign it again, and date it. Anyone who likes signed bits like I do will understand the need for the record sleeve to be signed live and in my presence.
If they quit tomorrow I’d be thankful for having seen them as many times as I have, but I’m hoping they won’t, and on the strength of their gig in Cambridge they remain one of the very best live acts around and one that I will make every effort to keep seeing perform for years to come.
Live Music, Music Una Healy, Ward Thomas