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  • Writer's pictureCHRIS FARLIE

Ward Thomas, Tom Speight & Sofia! - St John The Evangelical Church Oxford

With the temperatures starting to drop considerably - our prayers were certainly answered when the doors opened early to allow patrons in from the cold. As church venues go this this was most certainly well above average, with the seating being on chairs as opposed to pews, and with a modest bar this was definitely more like a regular gig.

The evening would open with a short set from Sofia ( should you wish to check her out on tiktok) along with her guitarist Tim. A slightly unusual choice in that her background was obviously more in blues and jazz than Americana however she soon had #TEAMw21 won over with an endearing personality, a cracking voice and a batch of high quality songs. Her 20 minute set would start with a song called "Donny Hathaway" after the soul jazz legend, with Sofia announcing that it was one of her favourite musical artists, which was strangely reassuring to hear, given that Donny died in 1979, it immediately marked her out as being different. Tim would lay down a jazzy backing while Sofia would sing with one hand clasped to the microphone while the other would be expressive with a number of gestures. The main line of the song "My love is better off without me" saw Sofia's voice make full use of the acoustics. As the song developed Sofia's vocals would rise and there was definitely almost a Portishead vibe being generated - she most certainly had our attention.

Sofia had a great stage presence, her introduction to "Don't Leave Me Behind For Her" managed to be both sad and funny. At times it would see Sofia adopt a wagging finger - like she was giving someone a severe reprimand. There was more jazzy guitar while Sofia continued to impress with a vocal that was both richer and stronger than you'd imagine.

Catering for her new found country admirers she would throw out a more familiar morsel with her version of the John Prine classic "Angel From Montgomery" which she had come to via Bonnie Raitt's version. This would prove to be most powerful and enjoyable version - her final notes reverberating around the church as if we were in a revivalist meeting.

Her next song would see her jazz stylings welded to a soulful pop chorus, "Feel The Music In You". Although she did not know it, "Edge Of A Dream" about falling in love with somebody would prove to be her final tune, A big smile would come across her face as she entered each chorus and it looked like she enjoyed singing as much as we had listening.

Tom Speight took to the stage with Lydia Clowes who would provide backing vocals as well as contributions, on bass, piano and various bits of percussion. There was no mistaking Tom as he had a bright neon sign announcing that it was him on stage. Opening with "Little Love", Tom would lead from the front on his acoustic guitar, confidently going for and getting an early bit of audience participation as he revealed the unlikely yet true fact that this song had hit number one in Brazil. For "Collide" there would be more of a duet from Tom and Lydia, it would see Tom take to playing one handed with his left hand while waving his right hand around.

An obvious tie in on the evening was "Wonderful Wonder", the current Radio 2 playlisted single, on which Ward Thomas duet. It was probably outshone on the night by the following song, "Willow Tree", with it's recurring picked out guitar notes, and overlapping harmonies on the line "You are the one I need the most". There was a serviceable version of "Stand By Me", it wasn't bad, it was just the least inspired song of the otherwise fine set. Things were soon back on track with an hilarious introduction to "Trick Of The Night" which encouraged more audience participation eliciting an "Hallelujah" from Tom, who would positively bounce up and down as he did the guitar intro. The mixture of guitar, tambourine and audience singalong made for a heady concoction. Finishing upbeat with another cracker in "Everything Is Waiting For You", which saw Tom and Lydia duetting again, with Lydia also picking out a prominent piano line on the chorus,

For Ward Thomas this was a chance to build on their recent excellent C2C and Barbican shows although this would be a different concept entirely. Essentially a stripped down show with only one additional musician Billy Adamson on electric and acoustic guitars with occasional backing vocals. With a new EP "From Our Back Pocket" to plug it would prove to be a mix of songs being heard live for the first time, with more familiar ones, not exactly reinvented, more just played a little quieter! The one unusual feature of the evening was that both band and audience would remain firmly seated for the whole performance which made for a polite sedate affair.

The show would commence with "Don't Be A Stranger", Lizzie taking the opening verse, with all three vocals coming together for the chorus, followed by one of their bigger hits "Guilty Flowers", which arrived in a stummy Billy Bragg format, with Lizzie adding keyboards. Some of the bigger production songs lended themselves better to this new format than others, and while "Guilty Flowers" lacked a little oomph, the following song "It's Not Just Me" with it's prominent piano line positively shone from losing some of its studio trickery.

With any initial nerves well and truly gone - things really got started, Catherine would lead off on "Someday", the chorus with both sisters at full blast was a reminder of what a formidable force they can be on their day.. Catherine would don her guitar for the first of the new EP songs "Patience", which again really highlighted what could be achieved in this simple format. Things were to simplify even further with Billy leaving the stage leaving just the siblings for their take on "Landslide" - the results were naturally sublime receiving an extended round of applause.

Since C2C 2023 "Cartwheels" has returned to it's basic origins and sounds much the better for it. Billy would return on guitar, and there would be the dramatic piano intro to "One More Goodbye", where both volume and drama were achieved in a way that "Guilty Flowers" had failed to achieve earlier.

There would then follow s string of songs from the new EP which was now sounding a quite cohesive EP rather than a rag bag of leftovers. The second song from it was "Miles Don't Matter", which again worked really well with Billy adding in a nice little guitar solo, while "Come Back Baby" had a nice uptempo feel to it - where the harmonies naturally worked supremely well. There was a definite country twang attached to "Quarter Life Crisis", with the twins adopting almost American perosnas as they sang.

Once again Billy would depart leaving us with one of the most truly moving parts of the evening, as Lizzie would sing a song reflecting her views on Catherine. Originally intended to be played at Catherine's wedding but unable to due to being so emotional, "I Do" encompasses everything about Ward Thomas at their best - when they write about things personal and opinions close to their heart as opposed to more abstract ideas. With Lizzie boldly playing the piano, her vocals swirling around the church, with Catherine adding harmonies - this was magical. It was followed by a spirited "Love Does" but I think many of us were stil taking in the previous song to notice.

#TEAMw21 have have followed Ward Thomas for nearly 10 years now, so it was nice to go way back when and hear something from the early days, Billy returned to the stage for a rockabilly electric lead guitar intro into "Push For The Stride". With the audience in a singalong mood, the natural progression was into "I Believe In You" mercifully relieved of its audience splitting section. It would lead into another song from the EP "This Is Gonna Hurt",

The home straight would see 2 visits to "Music In The Madness", album firstly for the title track, where the 2 voices managed to generate the intensity of a full band sound despite there being only an acoustic guitar joining them. There would be a slow vocal and piano intro into "Call Me". The main set would close with "Next To You".

Just Catherine and Lizzie would return for the first encore of "Loved By You", excellently performed as a simple piano ballad. The final song would see "Deepest You" from "Restless Minds" deliveverd in a most moving version. It was a hugely enjoyable evening that offered definite pointers as to where Ward Thomas should go next - concentrating on their strengths and having the faith that it will bring the audience to them.




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