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Deborah Rose / Sonia Hammond Duo

Deborah Rose / Sonia Hammond Duo, Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Hay-on-Wye, 24/02/2024.

by Ian Mann

February 26, 2024


Rose and Hammond are two of the most distinctive musical presences in the Welsh Borders and it is to be hoped that they will continue to cultivate this highly fruitful musical partnership.

Deborah Rose / Sonia Hammond Duo, Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Hay-on-Wye, 24/02/2024.

Deborah Rose – guitars, vocals, Sonia Hammond – cello

The duo of singer songwriter Deborah Rose and cellist Sonia Hammond is a fairly new musical partnership, one which began in 2023. Tonight’s event was only the third public performance by the pair following a couple of informal gigs playing to diners at the Bill’s Kitchen venue in Rose’s home base of Ludlow.

The more formalised concert setting of the well appointed St. Mary’s Church suited the duo’s music well over the course of two sets featuring Rose’s deeply personal original songs, a couple of inspired covers, traditional folk songs and two classical interludes featuring Hammond’s playing of three pieces written for cello by J.S. Bach. The event had attracted a substantial audience that included many townspeople, but which also saw people travelling from much further afield. These are musicians with national reputations.

Both Rose and Hammond have featured regularly on the Jazzmann web pages, here are some biographical details about each;

Blessed with a stunningly pure voice and an innate musicality Rose’s love of words, song and singing has found her exploring the worlds of folk, jazz and Americana with a variety of collaborators, including local guitar wizard Remi Harris.

Following a number of self produced EPs Rose released her first full length album, “Song Be My Soul”, in early 2014, a charming collection of self penned songs combined with settings of the words of poets and authors such as Tennyson, Shakespeare, Dickens, Blake and Christina Rossetti. Review here;

The follow up, “Wilde Wood” (2015), was very different as Rose abandoned her literary leanings to explore the world of Celtic folk music in the company of locally based musicians from two different groups, The O’ Farrells Frolicks and Grey Wolf.  The album also features backing vocals on three numbers from a certain Robert Plant.

Rose’s latest full length album is “The Shining Pathway” (2020), which was released shortly before the first Covid lockdown. Largely comprised of new self penned songs, plus the occasional cover and collaboration it was variously recorded in Nashville, Tennessee and at home in Ludlow. The songs are inspired by travel, literature, personal experience and her Christian faith. My review of the album can be found here;

A musician with a social conscience Rose has championed women’s issues, worked on teaching and song-writing projects with prisoners, children and dementia patients, and travelled to Africa to work for the charity Planting for Hope in Uganda. She has also performed fund-raising gigs for the charity in the UK. Her work has also won the approval of the American Democrat politician and former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson.
Rose is a consistently excellent live performer and I have witnessed many of her local appearances over the years. No two shows have been exactly alike and I have seen her sing and play with a variety of accompanists. Her work has attracted the attention of many celebrity admirers including Plant, US singer / songwriters Mary Gauthier and Kenny White and American folk doyenne Judy Collins. 

Rose is also a great organiser and facilitator as well as being a significant musical talent.

 Classically trained cellist Sonia Hammond (nee Oakes) studied at Birmingham School of Music and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She is still involved with classical ensembles such as the Brecknock Sinfonia and the St. Woolos Sinfonia (acting as principal cellist for both) plus the Castalia String Quartet. In 2014 she released a live solo recording of compositions by J.S. Bach.

However Hammond has also worked extensively in other genres of music during an eclectic freelance career and has collaborated with solo artists such as Barb Jungr, Philip Kane and Chloe Goodchild and with the bands Babysnakes and Ennui.

More recent collaborations have included a duo with jazz/folk guitarist Adrian Crick resulting in the albums “Something Beginning With…” (2016) and “More (off the beaten) Tracks” (2017). Hammond has also been working with the high powered blues/rock guitarist/vocalist Troy Redfern, on the face of it an unlikely pairing. Having also covered Redfern’s music on this site I’d be highly intrigued to hear the results of this!

However I know Hammond’s playing best from a series of wholly improvised recordings made in conjunction with guitarist, pianist and vocalist Charlie Beresford, the pair having first played together as members of the Radnor Improvisers. Under the collective name Beresford Hammond the duo have released three excellent albums, “The Science of Snow” (2015), “Each Edge of the Field” (2017) and “Circle Inside the Folds” (2019). The series charts the development of the pair’s utterly distinctive approach to the art of free improvisation as they make a point of eschewing the confrontational approach of so much free improv, instead concentrating on atmosphere, colour and texture to create music that is often truly beautiful, even in its more sombre moments. As the album titles suggest the music is strongly influenced by the beautiful landscape of the Welsh Borders. All three albums are reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann web pages.

Also reviewed on this site is “The Lightning Bell” (2016, credited to Beresford Hammond Hume, which saw the Beresford Hammond duo augmented by pianist Carolyn Hume, Beresford’s bandmate from the improvising quartet Fourth Page. The album also included an unexpected, but surprisingly successful, guest contribution from vocalist Judie Tzuke, who lives in the same geographical area as Hume and who enjoyed some mainstream pop success in the late 70s and early 80s, particularly with the 1979 hit single “Stay With Me Till Dawn”.
“Lightning Bell” review here;

Beresford and Hammond have also recorded with Gerry Gold (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Rod Paton (french horn, piano, melodica, voice) as part of the collaborative What? Quartet, releasing the album “What?” in early 2020. Review here;

Hammond and Beresford have also collaborated with the Iraqi born oud player Ahmed Mukhtar and with pianist, trombonist and vocalist Camilla Cancantata as part of the quartet Borderless. This is a line up that has yet to record, but I did enjoy a live performance by the group at Leominster Community Centre in October 2018. Review here;
When speaking to Hammond after tonight’s show she informed me that Borderless is a project that is due to be re-activated later in 2024.

Deborah Rose has always harboured an affinity for the cello and back in the day (2010 – 14) she worked regularly with the Worcestershire based cellist Catherine Harper, who appeared on the “Song Be My Soul” album. Harper subsequently became less musically active after deciding to concentrate on raising a family.

I always enjoyed the combination of Rose and Harper, sometimes augmented by pianist Martin Riley,  so it’s good to see Rose eventually finding a new cello partner in the hugely talented Hammond. As Hammond herself observed the combination of Rose’s high, pure voice with the deeper sonorities of the cello is particularly effective.

This was something that the audience were to experience first hand over the course of two substantial sets with the musical performances punctuated by Rose’s informative, and sometimes humorous, anecdotes about the circumstances of the writing of each song.

Tonight’s performance began with the song “Anam Cara”, inspired by the writings of the late Irish poet John O’Donohue (1956-2008), the title being the Gaelic for “Soul Friend”. Rose’s song was written during the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow and was released in 2020 as a 7 inch vinyl single, backed by “The Rings of Saturn”, which we were to hear later. This evening’s version featured Rose’s characteristically pure vocals accompanied by her own guitar and Hammond’s bowed cello, with the latter’s playing coming to the fore during the course of a concise instrumental episode.

Joni Mitchell has been a huge source of inspiration for Rose and the song “Basket of Roses” was written after Rose had visited the cave at Matala on the island of Crete, where Mitchell wrote most of the material the material for her seminal “Blue” album.  The song appears on the “Shining Pathway” album and Rose has described it as  “an ode to the goddess within”   while the lyrics  make allusions to Mitchell’s work,  referencing Matala,  the Mermaid Café, Carey and “Blue”. Hammond’s succinct and atmospheric accompaniment featured a mix of plucked and bowed sounds as she responded astutely to Rose’s singing and playing.

From the same album “Willow of the Canyon” continued the Joni theme. Written during a visit to Laurel Canyon the song’s lyrics make reference to Mitchell,  Graham Nash and Stephen Stills. Presented here in a more pared down arrangement to the recorded version the sounds of Rose’s guitar were augmented by those of Hammond’s plucked cello accompaniment.

Jointly written with multi-instrumentalist and producer Ben Walsh, who makes a huge contribution to the “Shining Pathway” album, the song “Grace Go I”  was partly inspired by Rose’s work in UK and US prisons. It also references a long journey on a Greyhound bus and some of the characters she met along the way. A poetic and evocative lyric expresses empathy for the marginalised of society, whilst simultaneously giving thanks for her own good fortune and her Christian faith. 

Rose’s new single “I Lift My Eyes To The Hills” was inspired by and recorded at the remote chapel at Capel-y-ffin (Chapel of the Boundary) high in the Black Mountains above Hay-on-Wye. A celebration of both the Border landscape and Rose’s faith (“I Lift My Eyes To The Hills, Where All My Help Comes From”). Hammond appears on the recording and her playing here again embraced a mixture of plucked and bowed sounds.

Hammond addressed the audience for the first time to introduce her solo performance of “Prelude” from J.S Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1 in G major”, a piece that appears on her 2014 solo live recording. Although I prefer Hammond’s playing in other, more contemporary, contexts this was undeniably impressive and a timely reminder of Hammond’s classical credentials.

Perhaps the strangest song on the “Shining Pathway” album is “Nigel”, written about a gannet that apparently fell in love with a concrete decoy during some kind of scientific experiment. Rose chanced upon this true story in a copy of the Washington Post during a visit to the family of the late, great Eva Cassidy in the US. This song about “the world’s loneliest bird”   is an allegory about the power of love, even the unrequited kind. Despite the apparently absurd subject matter it’s a surprisingly beautiful and poignant song and one that actually reduced Rose’s sister to tears. Not that tonight’s performance was entirely without humour as adventurous improviser Hammond coaxed some appropriately bird like sounds from her cello.

The duo dipped into the traditional folk repertoire for a delightful version of “Scarborough Fair”, a song variously revived by Martin Carthy and by Simon and Garfunkel. The purity of Rose’s wistful vocals was complemented by the deeper warmth of Hammond’s bowed cello sonorities, a perfect blend of instruments and voice.

The first set concluded with Rose solo and a stunning acapella version of her “Sing A New Song”, a piece inspired by her work in prisons and with lyrics representing a re-writing of a Biblical psalm.

The interval saw the musicians mingling happily with members of the audience before returning to the stage to begin the second set with Rose’s song “Wrestling With Angels”, the opening track from “The Shining Pathway”. Written at a songwriting retreat in Aberdeen, the poetic and evocative lyrics inspired by a visit to Crathie Kirk, near Balmoral, at a time when the late Queen was in residence. The sentiments of the words were complemented by the melancholic sounds of bowed cello, with Hammond briefly taking the lead during a short instrumental section.

Rose remained musically active during lockdown, a period she prefers to refer to as “The Quiet Time”, a phrase with less negative or political implications. Dating from this time is “Living Waters”, a song inspired the River Teme, upon which Ludlow stands. It’s a song that embraces both Rose’s love of nature and her love of literature, with the words of A.E Houseman incorporated into the lyrics.

“Heroes”, not to be confused with the David Bowie song of the same name, was another product of “the quiet time”, a song that acknowledges the role of the NHS while also making lyrical references to musical heroes as diverse as Pete Seeger, John Lennon and U2. Rose also expressed her pride at having been able to incorporate the word “unprecedented” into a song lyric.

Written on Good Friday, 2022 “Bright Field” was another of Rose’s ‘love of nature’ songs, this time imbued with a William Blake like vision of spirituality within the natural world,  this expressed in the recurring phrase “extraordinary, ordinary moments”. This was another piece to feature a mix of plucked and bowed cello sounds.

Hammond then performed the second of her solo cello features, a segue of the major and minor bourrées from Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 3 in C major.

The duo then performed a cover version of a song that I had never heard before, “All I Need is Everything” by the band Over the Rhine, from Cincinnati, Ohio. Rose had discovered their music during one of her excursions to the US, but I have to confess to have never having heard of them. Fronted by the husband and wife team of Linford Detweiler (keyboards, bass, guitar) and Karin Bergquist (vocals, guitar) the band has been active since 1989 and recorded over thirty albums. Rose has added Bergquist to her list of vocal heroines and on the evidence of this song, and the duo’s excellent performance of it, Over the Rhine (named for a neighbourhood in their native Cincinnati) is an act that I really should be checking out for myself.

By way of contrast the next cover saw the duo exploring a song that will be familiar to millions, “Songbird”, written for Fleetwood Mac by the late, great Christine McVie. Rose dedicated tonight’s performance to the memories of McVie and Eva Cassidy, whose own recording of the song is loved by many. The duo more than did it justice with Rose’s angelic vocals accompanied by her own guitar and a mix of plucked and bowed cello.

“Rings of Saturn” was originally written in Nashville and was inspired both by the planet and by Rose’s meeting with the son of Johnny Cash, these diffuse sources of inspiration both finding their way into a lyric with the chorus “Rings of Saturn, Rings of Fire”. The words also reference things that are ‘impossible to count’ (such as the Rings of Saturn), cleverly leading to the pay off line “but I can count on you”. Rose’s singing and guitar playing was augmented by Hammond’s sensitive bowed accompaniment.

The duo encouraged a little audience participation during their rendition of the traditional Scottish / Irish folk tune “Wild Mountain Thyme”, with the ‘congregation’ responding enthusiastically and impressively.

The performance then concluded with Rose solo and a beautiful and emotive acapella rendition of “Amazing Grace” bringing an excellent evening of music making to a close.

Although I’ve billed this event as featuring the Deborah Rose / Sonia Hammond Duo it’s arguable that Deborah Rose with Sonia Hammond may have been more accurate. With the exception of the Bach pieces the songs were either written by Rose or (presumably) chosen by her. Also apart from the two acapella pieces Rose also played guitar throughout, a timely reminder of her capabilities as an instrumentalist.

Nevertheless this is a musical alliance that is set to continue, with the duo looking to explore even more ways in which to integrate the cello into the music. For make no mistake Hammond played a significant role in the success of tonight’s event, skilfully combining bowed and plucked sounds to enhance the music, adding colour, texture and variety to the music. Rose and Hammond are two of the most distinctive musical presences in the Welsh Borders and it is to be hoped that they will continue to cultivate this highly fruitful musical partnership.

My thanks to Deborah Rose for inviting my wife and I to this hugely successful and enjoyable event and to both musicians for speaking with me afterwards. It’s going to be interesting to see what they do next.






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