Wookalilly Live in Yard 401

Folk and Tumble's Julie Williams-Nash gets down to Yard 401 to catch the wonderful Wookalily as they deliver an album that's a real treat for all the senses.

Yard 401 has been transformed into the Land of Wookalily for one night only.

It’s quirky, quaint – another string to the bow of this talented troupe that their creative skills stretch far beyond their music. The attention to detail and the desire to delight an audience is unmistakable – Wookalily has created a brand, crafted out of imagery from its album cover.

It’s as if Yard 401 is going to be home from home tonight, so Wookalily have made it their own. And we are the guests, invited round for the night. On each table, complete with scented candles, there are little banjo trees. Let me explain – the banjo tree is featured on the album cover – a tree dripping with banjos as some strange fruit. These table ‘trees’ have been created from twigs stuck into jars of sand, with little laminated banjos and guitars tied on with thread – I find such strange and unique things delightful – in fact I have one home with me (they told us to take them, so it’s ok).

There’s packets of customised “Banjo Tree Seeds” on each table too – they are apparently liquorice sweets but I’m not going to risk that in case I end up with banjo trees inside my tummy.

At the entrance is one of those old-fashioned wooden cut-out boards from the last century – a popular feature of fairs and seaside resorts – where you stick your head through the holes to get your picture taken, as a Wookalilyette. The stage is decorated in Wookalilly style too – a very unique style indeed. To one side, a large wooden banjo tree; to the other, hot air balloons dangle – another reference to the album cover. Across the back of the stage an old fashioned plane flies by with a long, large ‘Wookalilly’ banner trailing behind.

The mics are entwined with blue faerie lights, the pillars draped with white netting – even the Ladies loos have been decked out Wookalily style – with banjos and guitars stuck around the mirrors and post-it notes with, um, little messages (sorry lads, can’t vouch for the Gents, assume you got post-it notes too).

And I haven’t even got to the music yet.

On arrival, the sounds of Mana Ceol welcome guests in. They are playing in the bar area so once in the main room, they are out of ear’s reach. Warm-up act is Geoff Gatt, looking fresh from playing his part at the Who-ers tribute act at the John Hewitt a few days hence. He survived that – he can survive anything frankly. Unfortunately his wife Camel is unwell, so he will simply sing his own material on this occasion, entertaining us with songs about beards, Terry Thomas, house work, being kicked off the planet, itching and comb-overs. Totally unconnected obviously.

Time for Wookalily to take to the stage – kicking off the play through of the Kickstarter funded album entitled ‘Waiting All the While’. The Wookalilly sound blends an earthy musical dexterity with a feisty energy that blasts off with the opening track, Hands Pass in Time. Lyndsay Crothers is lead vocalist for this and most of the tracks, although ‘Waiting All The While’ is peppered with the talents of four other guest vocalists.

‘Hands Pass in Time’ swiftly steps up tempo with a swing that spins us dizzy – then, in an unexpected change of pace, slips in waltz-like interludes. Privileged to have a pre-listen to the 12 track album, sound engineered by Mojo Fury’s Michael Mormecha – it has more twists and turns than a saw-dust Southern dance floor. It’s fast, furious and fabulous. It’s sweet, melodic and curious. Although Wookalilly’s core status is as a female four piece, the group has brought in the talent and skill of up to 12 musicians to create a sound that goes beyond the pale.

‘Hands Pass in Time’ sets the scene. It’s rapid fire with a train track speed and whoosh of energy. The crew are clearly having a blast now as they start to relax and warm up. Time for a gentler pace and ‘See Me For You’ slows this galloping horse to a trot. Nina Armstrong is invited on stage to take lead vocals.

Introduced as a song about ‘men who can’t see past themselves’ ‘See Me For You’ saunters along, which is poetically just as the lyrics lilt to tell the tale a cad of a lad who seems to saunter into town and bring the poor women down, only to retaliate with lyrical acerbic wit. While he doesn’t float her boat no more, and she’s drowning in an endless sea of tears, can’t see the rainbows for the rain or the suffering for the pain, in the midst of the blur she can see right through the vain and shallow cad: “you were the apple of your own eye / ’til it got so big it blinded your own sight.

The feisty, tongue in cheek lyrics make this track – “so you got down off your horse so high / to eat that half baked humble pie”.

Only two songs in to the set and the song-writing talent of Adele Ingram shine through. ‘Don’t Speak of the Devil’ is a dark ballad with a twist, but it deserves special mention for its opening wow moment from Lyndsay Crothers, sung as a resounding lament that could pierce the sky. Goosebumps. “I can’t see the sun anymore / I can’t see the sky” she soars, but now we’re moving – sharp, edgy, see-saw raw sound, backed up by harmonies and roll along banjo.

“With the voice of an angel / he cast a spell. Don’t speak of the devil.” – It’s the classic tale of falling in love with the handsome devil, but be warned, don’t mess with these one’s for you’ll get your comeuppance. Fiery – these songs tell a story, but you got to listen very carefully.

A banjo instrumental – ‘a banjolina’ – let’s the talents of multi-instrumentalist Sharon Morgan shine. Through the set she switches from banjo, guitar, to mandolin and double bass. ‘Diamonds and Gold’ sees the female fire burn down to an ember. Adele sings this song written about her ex. It’s sweet, harmonic, and more gentle than the other tracks. She ain’t looking for a mansion on a hill, just a home in a heart, and herewith, another example of Adele Ingram’s song-writing talent.

My favourite is up next. ‘Memories of New Orleans’ invokes a dangerous and vibrant variety of imagery. The plucky intro works its magic for this voodoo theme. The voodoo queen goes off in search of the mojo, meets a man, looking for drama, asking for a light, looking for a fight. ‘Memories of New Orleans’ is sassy and swift as a witch doctor’s jinx. Jazz, blues, Cajun food fill the senses of smell and sound. Down at the French market, the souvenir is a sketch on her arm in a tattoo parlour, then a trip to the house of the rising sun. It is in some strange way a highly visual track – like a flicking through old holiday snaps, that only skim the surface of the whole story.

Staying with the spooky theme, ‘Black Magic Doll’ is even more unnerving. It’s a bit creepy, with chilly lyrics that go something like this: “There’s a doll on a wall and she’s looking at me / piercing eyes and long, long nose / thin blue lips / ain’t got no hips / and no back bone / she’s watching me.

Wookalilly is in complete control of the mood. It’s time to inject some humour and the next song is cleverly tongue in cheek. In fact, throughout, I get a sense of incisive humour and fun. Rowena Cairns is the lead vocalist on ‘Got Me On My Knee’. It’s as close as it gets to country, it somehow throws back to the nineteen thirties. The lyrics and sentiment are cheeky as she mockingly sings “now we’ve found each other / it’s home to meet my mother / and papa cowboy John / and big bad scary brother.”

A song called ‘Ghost’ which is not on the album makes an appearance next. It’s about a woman scorned. All these songs gloriously originate in the mysterious mind of Adele Ingram, with the exception of the excellent ‘Fire Below’, which was written by Tom Watson, the band’s ex-double bass player.

Now, for something completely different and I like it – with tongue firmly in cheek once again, we have ‘Johnny Kicked the Bucket’. It’s as if Wookalilly have side-stepped the Southern states for the Ukrainian Steppes. “Hey hey hey” is a quirky chorus for obvious audience participation – and has a taste of the Cossack about it. With bleak and brusque lyrics dressed up in drama and black humour, drowning sorrows in whisky and wine, you can almost feel poor Johnny make his final exit through swinging saloon doors with couldn’t give a damn abandon.

‘Broken In Two’ is melancholy and mellow, with another guest vocalist taking centre stage who brings in a new tone with her excellent voice. It’s a Dear John break up of a song lulling us into a sense of female solidarity before the finale is unleased – the scathing, sultry and rumbunctious ‘The Devil Is A Woman’. The devil is called Lucy, short for Lucifer I guess. Again it captures the essence of black, dark, cheeky humour – Lucy is not a woman scorned but to be scorned – Lucy is the devil in disguise and Wookalily don’t mince their words here – she’s going to hell, this worst nightmare, for the truth lies in your lies.

The pace heats up, the temperature rises to a chant – the devil is a woman – but she’s on her way out. And then, for finale – just to round off a stirring set, a little bit of Old Crow Medicine Show’s ‘Tell It to Me’. Excellent all round, great fun, but beautifully crafted.

The last word however must go the album cover. I understand it’s designed by the band – it features a colourful Utopian scene complete with floating hot air balloons; banjos form strange fruit hanging from trees; a double base doubles up as a horse; a dog floats up river in a guitar case – don’t forget to feast your eyes on their art as an added bonus to Wookalilly’s unbounded creative energy.