Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage – ‘Awake’ reviewed

❉ Songs of dust and loveless lights with the passion and dignity of Americana at its most exquisitely potent.

Describing their critically lauded debut album Before the Sun to Folk Radio, folk singer/potion maker Hannah Sanders explained “We’re both tiny detail junkies. There will be a moment where the guitars will hit one note in a particular place together…these are the things we obsess over.”

She’s not wrong, the music Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage (best known for his work with The Willows) put together is brimmed with beautifully nuanced harmonies, again produced by Grammy-nominated Canadian producer David Travers-Smith (Madison Violet, The Wailin’ Jennys). The duo count Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Crosby, Stills & Nash and John Martyn amongst their influences, paying tribute to each of them through their own artistry.

Here, with the release of their second project, Awake continues the folk direction, Savage’s delicate dobro playing beautifully of Sanders delicate, angelic harmony line on the album’s masterpiece A Thousand New Moons. Savage sings of dust and loveless lights swept by wind with the passion and dignity of Americana at its most exquisitely potent. “We used tarot throughout the recording process to help us think and feel more deeply about the music.” Sanders describes her shared art – and there is a sense of the mystical heard throughout, continuing the Pete Seeger tradition at a time when few are familiar with Seeger.

Selkie Song (a Sanders/Savage original) is a lively opener, a riotous reel for ceilidhs to carry.  This is an easeful acoustic album, the gently strummed Every Night When The Sun Goes In is a pleasant instrumental not dissimilar to Mark Knopfler’s Celtic works for Local Hero and Cal. But this is primarily a song album, Sanders sings with ethereal command on 7 and One Grain of Sand, performing with the power of Judy Collins and the folk fantasy of Sandy Denny. Savage can hold a tune admirably too, his lower blues infused baritone on Awake brings listeners away from the medieval to stadium rock, a strong mix of vocals interwoven.

This is an outfit that veers away from studio embellishment, boasting with justifiable pride that their act is one reliant on “Dulcimer, dobro, guitars and voices in duet. One microphone”. Santa Fe Trail works as a dusty recording, a travelling ballad with the spiralling appeal of a Woody Guthrie track. The same courtesy cannot be attributed to Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key, too soft for most headphones to seek out the vocal nuances, the track most in need of a re-edit on the record.

But it’s the power of the performers that sells this record, Sanders singing wistfully and hauntingly as the album closes over Sanders’ succulent guitar parts. A tidy closer, this is an outfit that merits watching in concert, as upcoming spots at the Todmorden Folk Festival and Ireby Festival prove. This is a two piece who pay justice to the commonly used expression “less is more” with much stately power and pride. There’s a dynamism and electricity to this album- not bad for a record that primarily puts musical focus on acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies, eh?

  Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage ‘Awake’ to be released May 11 on Sungrazing Records, distributed by Proper Distribution. Pre-order now!

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