In support of their sophomore album Cartwheels, twin sisters Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas brought their brand of Hampshire based Anglo-Nashville country music to the multiple-tiered beauty of the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire on Wednesday night. The new record, which holds the distinction of being the first country release to make number one in the UK Top Forty album chart, is a move away from some of the twangy Americana found on the debut, From Where We Stand. An altogether smoother, more pop-oriented sound envelops the new record.
The most obvious comparison is that of Taylor Swift. Depending on your sensitivities, this is either a very good or very bad move – but one thing’s for sure: it certainly is a populist one, as evidenced by a close to sell-out at this not inconsiderable venue.
The support tonight came from Exeter three-piece Wildwood Kin. Another family affair, the band comprise of two sisters, Beth and Emillie Key and their collective cousin Meghann Loney. In delicious three-part harmony, they played the sweetest of acoustic folk – representing tracks from their 2015 EP Salt Of The Earth, plus newer material such as Warrior Daughter. I particularly liked this latter tune; its tribal drumming carrying it along at a pace. Loney fronts the band, and she had a delightfully relaxed vibe with the crowd. “We like it to be in tune because we care”, she said of a truculent bouzouki that took an age to fall into line.
During the break, I took time to sample the front row. It was an eclectic mix. Ok, so there weren’t any Muse tour shirts on display and London’s industrial Grindcore fan base were probably elsewhere this evening, but most other demographics seemed well catered for. Ward Thomas started with the sisters off stage, singing the a cappella intro to new song Material – their classy harmony vocals ringing true right out of the gate.
After eight bars (don’t worry, we got all of it later), the band segued into Dirt And Gold, another from Cartwheels. Catherine and Lizzy came onto the stage accompanied by alternate pitch darkness and blinding strobes. Had London’s industrial Grindcore fan base actually been here, they’d probably have approved. Fortunately for the rest of us, the lighting then calmed down.
A very broad spectrum from the new album was played tonight and there was a nice contrast between the up-tempo songs (Boomerang, Lose Me, Carry You Home), the anthemic builders (Guilty Flowers, Almost Easy) and the out and out ballads (Good On You, Proof, Who I’m Not).
Only two tracks from Cartwheels (Where The Sky Is and Safe) failed to get an airing this evening. Whilst obviously, the whole point of the tour is to promote the new record, this only left space for Town Called Ugley and (encore) Push For The Stride from the debut album, which I thought was a shame. Town called Ugley is a brilliant little slice of Americana detailing a disastrous road trip to a tiny Essex hamlet of the same name – a fact that no doubt reassures the residents of Basingstoke – and Push For The Stride is a great piece of rock ‘n’ roll and an earworm that was still rattling around my head long after I’d got home. Personally, I take Albert Lee country-rock spit ‘n’ sawdust over Kenny Chesney country-pop polished marble, but that’s just me.
There were also two new songs played tonight and both offered highlights. Breathe In was a beautiful ballad featuring solo vocals and the sparsest of sparse piano. I Believe In You conversely was a fast-paced folk-rocker during which Catherine and Lizzy engaged in an audience left/right splitting harmony vocals sing-off. Based on our efforts, I’d say the sisters need not worry.
The Ward Thomas Cartwheels tour closes on 30 May in Cambridge at Cambridge Junction. The twins are also performing at a number of festivals throughout the summer.
Review & Photography by Simon Reed. Ward Thomas at The O2 Shepherds Bush Empire on 10th May 2017.
Simon has his own music photography site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk