Wendy MacIsaac "Off the Floor"
Own label, 2014
Cape Breton is the homestead of Canada's vibrant Irish/Scottish music scene. Wendy MacIsaac started
stepdancing as a young kid, at the age of 12 she took up the fiddle tutored by the legendary
Stan Chapman. Since then much traffic has run down the Cèilidh Trail, as the local coast road is named.
Wendy recorded with The Chieftains
and toured with traditional group Beolach. Her collaboration with singer Mary Jane Lamond,
did win several Canadian folk music awards, her solo effort "Off the Floor" gained an
East Coast Music Award for Traditional Instrumental Recording of the Year.
"Off the Floor" is all about dancing. The first few tracks have already been recorded way back in 2005 in the studio.
The second half of the album has been recorded live at a cèilidh in West Mabou Hall in August 2014,
where the sound of the dancing feet on the floor can give you an even bigger lift in your playing.
There is something special about the leather sole on the dusty wood floor
that is a very big part of the sound of the Cape Breton style of music.
Accompanied by Tracey Dares MacNeil on piano and Patrick Gillis on guitar,
Wendy MacIsaac turns out to be a versatile and spirited fiddler. That night
must have been great fun. The tune list presents the full scope of traditional Cape Breton music,
featuring compositions of great unknown artists such as the "Musical Priest" and "St. Kilda Wedding" reels,
known authors include the likes of Nathaniel Gow and James Scott Skinner
as well as John Morris Rankin, Donald-Angus Beaton and, last but not least, Fintan McManus's "Guns of the Magnificent Seven".
© Walkin' T:-)M
Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman "Tomorrow Will Follow Today"
IScream Music, 2015
Husband and wife duo Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts had taken a break from playing music together publicly
for almost a decade - Sean touring with his brother Seth,
Kathryn raising the children -,
then their 2012 album "Hidden People"
has been released to critical acclaim and did win them a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Duo.
There are only two traditional songs, "Child Owlet," a Child ballad of incest and murder, and
"The Robber Bridegroom," is it related to the German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm?
Kathryn and Sean's heart and soul lies in their eight original compositions, covering the whole spectrum of
folkloric topics: "52 Hertz" is about a lonely whale singing in a lower key than his companions,
"Rusalka" is a tale of a Russian river-dwelling mermaid, and
"The Banishing Book" is their reworking of a song from Thomas D'Urfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy.
From start to finish, "Tomorrow Will Follow Today" is a remedy. Kathryn has a sturdy crystal-clear voice,
and she is highly skilled on piano, flute and clarinet. Sean's guitar is virtuos and varied to suit every mood.
© Walkin' T:-)M
The Poozies "Into the Well"
Own label, 2015
The Poozies started out 25 years ago when Scottish harpists Patsy Seddon and Mary
(Sileas) teamed up with English singer Sally Barker (see review below).
Ever changing and evolving this female folk super group went from strength to
Their eighth album features Sally Barker (guitar, vocals) and Mary Macmaster (electro-harp, metal-strung harp, vocals)
alongside Eilidh Shaw (fiddle) and Mairearad Green (piano accordion). Their overall sound is quite captivating.
A punchy guitar and a chopping (electro)harp form the base for sophisticated fiddle and accordion.
The tune selection is rather recent, taken from traditional-like composers such as
and former Poozie Karen Tweed,
or written by Eilidh and Mairearad themselves. The Poozies are grounded in the tradition, though never too traditional
but jazzy and grooving. This is most evident in their choice and delivery of songs.
Andy Griffiths's "Southern Cross" is about a German pirate ship in World War II, while "Chuirinn" is Gaelic mouth music,
"Ghost Girl" is an acoustic rocker penned and performed by Sally, "Three Chords and the Truth" is Lynn Miles's poking
fun on a typical country song. The vocalists do a great job, every one of them, but I get goose bumps
when the lead vocals are augmented by close harmonies. In my inner eye I can see the misty Scottish Highlands but also
a lone Appalachian valley and a smoke-filled jazz club.
© Walkin' T:-)M
Sally Barker "Maid in England"
I always hope an album lives up to its interesting backstory, when it has a good one. This time, it mostly does and the backstory is an interesting one. Sally Barker was a fine folk singer songwriter several decades back and was in an interesting folk group, the Poozies (see review above). She had many of the songs on this album released in 2003, but due to illness and death of her husband, the album disappeared quickly. In 2014, she appeared on Great Britain’s ‘The Voice’ television singing competition and did extremely well, thus bringing her back with this album with those old songs and recordings along with some newer material. And the good news is that there is a lot of interesting material here that I was enjoying before I even read the story behind the music. There is a bit too much steel guitar in a couple of the songs, which seem to emphasize the naïveté of the song. But the strong songs have great stories and solid folk arrangements; so classic folk fans can dig in as Sally Barker is not at all a hyped television creation.
© David Hintz
JigJam "Oh Boy!"
Own label, 2014
Celtgrass, which means mixing and fusing traditional Irish music and American old-time and bluegrass music,
is an idea which is probably two decades old. I recall some more and some less successful efforts,
most notably the "Buffalo in the Castle" project.
Recently, Galway's We Banjo 3 set a new standard in this obviously popular genre.
This young trio from Irish Co. Offaly is up to the level. In almost no time, they have developed
their own particular sound. Jamie McKeogh and Daithi Melia are fighting each other with their 4- and
5-string banjo, respectively. Cathal Guinan is pumping it out on the double bass. Their vocals
are excellent and their selection of songs leans to catchy and driving tunes.
JigJam are at home turf with some traditional Irish jigs and reels, but not alien at all to a
classic Bill Monroe tune such as "Big Sandy River" or the Old Crow Medicine Show's "Levi".
They eventually slow it down with Richard Thompson's "Beeswing" and Thom Moore's "Cedars of Lebanon",
before re-gaining strength and pace for a final fox hunt, a jaunty version of the English children's song "The Fox".
"Oh Boy!" is a promising debut album. I wonder where this threesome might take us next,
being already that stupendous and startling.
© Walkin' T:-)M
Gwen K Syndicat "Ce que je vois dans mon verre"
Own label, 2015
First of all, the band's name suggested a rap or hiphop group murdering traditional music to me,
but no, this is pure bal folk after all, albeit with some jazzy and funky overtones thrown in for good measure.
Secondly, the mixed repertoire of Irish/Scottish and French/Breton music suggested a French-Canadian outfit to me,
but I got it wrong again, this Gwen K Syndicat is from the West of France.
"Ce que je vois dans mon verre," which means What I see in my glass, features both music from the
band member's native Brittany and their adopted homeland Ireland with occasional forays to Scotland and Canada.
The album kicks off with two Irish jigs followed by an Americana tune from the pen of Gwen K Syndicat.
There is more Irish music, both traditional, contemporary and original,
Breton hanter-dro and plinn and Canadian clog dance.
The final instrumental set leads all the way from Scotland and Ireland over the sea to Nova Scotia back to Poitiers.
Gwen K's original "Mazurka pour Ahmad" is dedicated to an Iranian friend expelled from France in 2012,
the traditional "Ce que je vois dans mon verre" is a song made up from two different ones, one from Brittany, the other from Quebec.
This mix naturally evolved from the single band member's musical biographies.
Gwenael Kivijer plays the chromatic accordion in a style typical for Central Brittany,
but has also looked out for connections with Irish and Scottish varieties.
Frédérik Bouley is a notable fiddler on the fest-noz circuit,
but is also well known for playing Irish style fiddle.
Loïc Blejean took up the uilleann pipes and created the Irish Rendez Vous festival,
which takes place every September in Tréméven on the North Coast of Brittany.
Tony Sauvion then played his guitar from jazz and rock to latin und funk and even African music,
whereas percussionist Abderrahim Fathi not only employs native Maroccan rhythms and styles,
but loves to look beyond his own nose and beyond Britanny.
After all, Gwen K 's second album is a delight from start to finish. The song selection is varicoloured,
the five musicians are on top of the game.
© Walkin' T:-)M
From 1999 to 2014, the Portuguese group Dazkarieh started out with the idea of playing native roots music
but covering some new sonic ground. They eventually arrived at a sound somewhere between neo-folk and alt-rock,
unmistakenly Portuguese but not easy to pigeonhole.
Now Dazkarieh have called it a day, a bit frustrated from realising that their musical journey has come to a natural end.
However, the musical adventure and extravaganza is not over.
Joana Negrão (vocals, bagpipes) and Vasco Ribeiro Casais (viola braguesa and cavaquinho guitars) stick together and revive Dazkarieh's initial idea
to forge a particular sound with traditional Portuguese songs and stories, the native language and indigenous musical instruments.
Joana and Vasco found a new companion in Rita Nóvoa who employs a variety of percussion instruments.
The Seiva soundscape is not that far removed from Dazkarieh's Œuvre (electronics are employed here and there),
but as far as possible from Fado music for which Portugal is so renowned.
However, fado is an urban art form from the first half of the 19th century, whereas
traditional music is virtually rural and much older in its origins. The chosen songs come mainly from
the oral tradition of Beira-Baixa in the east of Portugal, they are work songs and religious ballads.
The music is not sad and melancholic, but lush and exuberant. Joana Negrão is an awesome vocalist.
As far as I understand, seiva means something like life blood,
and this puts the group's music in a context of rootedness and vitality.
© Walkin' T:-)M
Jansberg "Terra Nova"
GO Danish Folk, 2015
A third album from this Danish band I'd never heard of before, named after its founder and the composer of all the material here, fiddler Henrik Jansberg. Interesting idea to use the band leader's surname - we could have groups called Knowles, Plant, MacDonald (subject to litigation), Crawford - but I digress. Jansberg is a perfectly good name for this superb young quintet adding guitar, keyboards, drums and bass to Henrik's fiddle.
And their music really is superb. From the almost rockabilly reel Kometens Hale to the lyrical sweetness, of Pigen, the fiddle weaves and drives, teases and bewitches, with perfect timing and great lift on every tune. Scandinavia boasts many fine fiddlers, and Henrik is up there with the best of them. His great tone and technique are matched by an ability to expose the soul of this music. The title track reminds me of Amazonian recordings, with a hint of Finnish jok. Stifinder is pure Nordic, grinding fiddle and raw harmonies, a dark tune from the long winter nights. Guest jaw harp on Korncirkler returns us to the American backwoods, while Aqua Vitae has the feel of French folk rock - there might even be a hurdy-gurdy in there. The Danish element is ever-present, though, whether in the formal dance rhythms or the Baltic melodies. Terra Nova ends with a thundering and well deserved tribute to the late Davie Henderson of Shetland, a grand tune with an edge of sadness while the music marches on.
This CD goes straight on my 2015 Top Ten list, and I'll be seeking out the previous two from Jansberg. It's always good to find a new band of such high quality, and even better when they play original instrumental music. Time to get the fiddle out and learn a couple of Jansberg's tunes.
© Alex Monaghan
The Revelers "Get Ready"
Own label, 2015
A very pleasant surprise, this album arrived out of the blue and kept my fingers tapping through a long car journey to Upton upon Severn. The Revelers hail from Lafayette in Louisiana, and play a mix of Zydeco, Cajun, Blues, and what they call Swamp Pop. With a wide range of instruments, this six-piece sounds authentic in most styles and adds a couple of guests here to pump up what is already a very full sound. Get Ready is all their own material, contemporary but classy, with some great songs and sticky lyrics: "I can see your town in my rear view mirror, baby" is a nice example of the humour here, while Single Jeans illustrates their refreshing bluntness.
Accordion, fiddles, guitars, piano, drums and sax underpin strong vocals from band members and from guest Megan Brown. Every track has vocals, but the instrumental breaks and the arrangements are what make this recording exceptional. The Revelers really can generate a party atmosphere - the energy and drive of their music is infectious, even when they're singing about lost love, failed relationships, and worst of all, no more whiskey in the bottle! Despite the subject matter, this is "bons temps" music, letting the good times roll. It's hard to categorize - there's a bit of everything, all of it tasty, a musical gumbo indeed. Short at only 38 minutes, but very sweet! The Revelers' website gives samples of Get Ready, and of two previous albums.
© Alex Monaghan
James Murray & Ollie Ross "The Powelsborough Lassies"
A fluter and fiddler from outside Tubbercurry in County Sligo, James Murray has recorded before on various compilations, and is widely recognised as one of the finest Sligo players of his generation. Murray (rhymes with hurray, not hurry) has now finally made a solo album - with pianist Ollie Ross accompanying several tracks. At almost an hour and a quarter, quantity certainly isn't an issue. The quality is better than you might expect from a home recording, but the acoustics must be particularly good in the Murray house, and the playing is certainly exceptional.
James Murray is no longer a young man, and he remembers a number of musicians who are sadly not with us any more. The sleeve notes recall many of these characters. He carries the tradition of a Sligo style which is hard to find these days, on both flute and fiddle, and everything on this CD is firmly traditional and true to that style. His flowing flute is rhythmic without being percussive, bright but never brazen. The Dublin Reel, The Duke of Leinster, Ah Surely, The Five Mile Chase and Touch Me If You Dare pour out in fine form. Fiddle tracks include Toss the Feathers, Lord Gordon's, The Hunter's Purse, Roaring Mary and The Templehouse. A lot of reels, grand old tunes all of them. There are a few jigs including the title track, some barndances and airs, and even three songs, but the reels are the high point. James includes two of his own - Murray's 1 & 2 - and his great version of The Bush in Bloom which Matt Molloy adopted as a flute showpiece in the early eighties.
None of these tracks is the polished, perfect product we are accustomed to on most CDs today: James Murray's music is very much as it comes, and as it came to him: what you might well hear on a soft night in hostelries around Tubbercurry. James puts it like this: "all I can say is that it is played from the heart and the tunes are played the way I learned them." They are certainly presented with care, from the delicate notes of The Graf Spee to the driving beat of the five-part jig The Geese in the Bog. If you're looking for authentic Irish traditional music, The Powelsborough Lassies is available locally in Sligo, and also through fellow fluter and artist Mike Lancaster: email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 01543 898772 in the UK.
© Alex Monaghan
Skenet "Allting Rullar"
Subliminal Sounds, 2015
I'm not much of an expert on contemporary Swedish folk rock, but if this fiddle-led album is anything to go by, it's definitely a genre worth investigating. Skenet are a young group fronted by fiddler Lena Jonsson and guitarist Staffan Jonsson, with bass and drums behind. Their music is lyrical and melodious, few sharp edges or jarring chords, a bit bluesy at times, and generally very pleasant. Mr D is an exception, with the troll side of Swedish music coming through in the lumpen rhythms and wild notes. Nå's Brudmarsch also has some of that Scandinavian darkness, a compelling tune with a note of foreboding: perhaps that's the story behind it. Gangar Style is more typical, nothing to do with Seoul nightlife, just a fairly simple fiddle tune repeated with variations over drums and guitars, with some electric effects. There are pure traditional melodies here, such as Polska efter August Nyholm, as well as very contemporary pieces like the funky Groundhog or the New Age mistiness of Vindöga. Skenet continue the thread of Nordic rock woven by Bo Hansson, Kebnekajse and others, producing a very enjoyable CD which spans many aspects of Swedish fiddling, fully integrated with a modern back line. Give it a go - you'll probably like it!
© Alex Monaghan
Caitlín Nic Gabhann & Ciarán Ó Maonaigh "Caitlín & Ciarán"
Own Label, 2015
This young duo have been touring extensively with their particular brand of traditional fiddle and concertina music, ably backed here by Seán Óg Graham, Ciarán Ó Fearghail and Jack Talty. Ciarán & Caitlín is an unusual album by Irish standards, in that it isn't mainly session tunes: there are several showpieces here, solos and duets, as well as material from outside the net of Irish music. The Shelf and The American Polka seem like Stateside creations, but the first was written by Ulsterman Charlie O'Neill, and the second by German American virtuoso John Kimmel. Robert the Bruce is a rarely-heard Scottish quickstep, and The Braes of Auchtertyre is a new one to me but I'm pretty sure it's well to the east of Donegal. I won't quibble over Mammy's Plaidie or The Fairy Reel.
What this album lacks is the spark of spontaneity which probably comes in live performances, or after the tour when these tracks are so familiar that they begin to take on a life of their own. At times it seems the musicians are concentrating too hard - first album as a duo, pressure to have a CD to sell, many big names have had the same issue. However, when the music does click, perhaps on more familiar sets, this pair are flying. Not too fast, not too high, but way above what most mere mortals can achieve. Midnight in Virginia and The Mountain Road is such a set, as is the pair of jigs The Nightingale and Paddy O'Rafferty. There are some powerful solos, and two great tracks of step-dancing to Ciarán's fiddle which would obviously be even better on video: you can find Caitlín on YouTube in fact, check out her dance floor moves! I must admit I was hoping for a more exceptional recording after Inion Nic Gabhann's solo album, but we'll have to make do with this merely very good CD for now! Roll on more music from these two.
© Alex Monaghan
Ladlane "Crossing the Liffey"
Own Label, 2015
Of the many Dublin pub band CDs I've heard recently, Ladlane's is probably the best. The reasons for that are the quality of their singing, the breadth of material, and the polished approach to recording. They took over a year to get this album right, and it was worth it. Seven lovely sets of tunes and four varied songs pass all too quickly - I listened through it three times in the car today, probably the fourth or fifth time I'd put it on, and it's still fresh now as it comes out of the PC speakers. The lads set a good pace, not too fast but no slouch either - and every instrumental track is upbeat and catchy.
Fiddle and box from Colm Keane and Ray Dempsey drive the tunes, with accompaniment from Eugene Quinn. I keep looking for the other names, unwilling to believe that all this music comes from a trio. It's tight, the sign of many long nights playing for the love of it, and the technique is almost flawless, but there's a spirit and passion behind the notes which blazes throughout Crossing the Liffey. The change from Lady Montgomery into Jim Coleman's, the sly skipped beat between An Choisir and Micho Russell's Slide, the big reels Broken Pledge and Jolly Tinker, and some great jigs from Ireland and Galicia all have that spark, that something extra which is lovely to hear in a relatively young band.
Four songs provide a bit of respite from the dance rhythms. All are well known, but from very different repertoires. John Spillane's Set You Free takes me back to a Nomos concert at the Harcourt Hotel around 1994, so it probably comes fresh to today's audiences. Brennan on the Moor is even older, out of Oisín by The Clancy Brothers, a tale of highway robbery two centuries ago. The ballads Slip Jigs & Reels and Shotover River tell slightly newer stories, dashed hopes of New World prosperity in the words of Steve Tilston and Paul Metsers, powerful songs the pair of them. With strong vocal delivery from Eugene and Colm, and tasteful arrangements, Ladlane are equally impressive on songs and tunes. Check out their previous recordings too: search Facebook or Google.
© Alex Monaghan
Arnaud Bibonne & Camille Raibaud "En Cadència"
Fiddle and pipes from Gascony, glorious earthy music, powerful duets and a few guests: this is a real rough diamond, played with great skill and style but keeping that raw renaissance edge that raises the hairs on your neck. Deep bass strings on the fiddle combine with the low pipe drone to create a rich dark resonance behind these dance tunes and airs. The sound is helped by the low tuning of the violin here, to match old players of the region, and by the low pitch of the boha - Gascon bagpipe - which was effectively recreated in the 1980s. Bibonne and Raibaud claim that this is the first modern recording of the boha, and the first to represent the music of their region, Landes de Gascogne.
There are certainly some unusual pieces here, starting with the beautiful Valse d'apres Marcel Lagardère, a melody well worth learning. There are also some cousins or loans of music far from Gascony: Polka d'après Julien Déjean is very similar to the well known Tyneside song The Lass Doon on the Quay, for instance, and the first tune in the Suite de Rondeaux also collected from Marcel Lagardère is basically a simple version of the Anglo-American fiddle showpiece The Four Poster Bed. A few familiar central French themes pop up, but most of this material seems to be unique to the Gascon repertoire: rondeaux, mazurkas, scottishes and more. The harmonies and cadences are truly wonderful, making even the simplest tune a treat. This is a delightful CD, one every fan of fiddle and pipes should hear.
© Alex Monaghan
Various Artists "Cornemuse Picarde"
The bagpipes of Picardy, in northern France, are relatively unknown. Some instruments have survived in museums, but it's only quite recently that faithful copies have been made. Old recordings are also very rare, although a few do still exist. This double CD presents a concert by some of the leading makers and players of the very recent revival, and features a great deal of spoken commentary and explanation in French. There's also a 150-page book, in French with lots of photos: in continental style the table of contents is at the back. I haven't read the whole book, but it covers the history, style and manufacture of these mouth-blown pipes which have now been reproduced in various pitches.
The sound of the Picardy pipes is sweet and pleasant, similar to Flemish or central French pipes, generally spanning an octave or so. There are quite a lot of gracenotes in the playing here, but the ornamentation is kept fairly simple compared with Scottish and Irish styles. The regional repertoire is fascinating: a mixture of tunes I haven't heard before, some melodies which are widely played in France or Belgium, and also local versions which have been adapted or edited over the years. With more than sixty melodies on the two discs, there's plenty of material to get your hands around. Airs and marches, bourrées and estampies abound, plus a number of "chansons pour danser", rhythmic song melodies a bit like Scottish mouth music.
The first disc was recorded at a regional festival, live concert performances by seven different solo players, with one duet track. The most obvious characteristic of this music is that it is all unaccompanied, and although these instruments have two or more drones the drone notes are so quiet or so far from the microphone that they are barely audible on most tracks. What we hear is the pipe chanter, very nicely played for both simple and complex melodies. The second disc is an interview with a player, maker and collector who talks and plays in equal measure. Intriguing music, and fascinating stories too!
© Alex Monaghan
La Societe Fraternelle des Cornemuses du Centre
"La Belle si nous Partons"
A pipe band from central France? First time I've heard of such a thing, but this CD is the proof. Forget La Chavannée, forget the massed concerts at St Chartiers: this group is an actual organised band, with over forty pipers playing parts and harmonies, plus drummers and other accompaniment. The big difference between "La Frat", as they are known, and bands from Scotland or Brittany or even Galicia, is the number of different types of bagpipe in this Central French line-up, Everything from the Auvergne cabrette to the big Bourbon pipes comes into play, giving a range of pitches and dynamics. More information on the Société Fraternelle des Cornemuses du Centre is online at www.lafrat.com - maybe this band is the start of a whole new tradition!
So what do they play? A bit of everything: marches, bourrées, mazurkas, a set of Flemish polkas, more bourrées, an air or two, scottishes, and waltzes of course. A lot of this material comes from the Berry region, my old stamping-ground round Vierzon, Bourges and Châteauroux. There are also tunes from the Limousin, Nivernais, Bourbonnais, Auvergne and Morvan regions. Every track is carefully arranged, with some very striking effects and imaginative variations, similar to the Breton bagad tradition. Everything on La Belle si nous Partons is also extremely well rehearsed, not like French pipers at all! Even with such a large number of players, the sound is crisp and clear, and the recording quality is excellent. AEPEM has brought out some unusual CDs this year, but this is probably the most surprising, and the most dramatic. Play it loud!
© Alex Monaghan
Rura "Despite the Dark"
Own Label, 2015
A second album from this now well established top-flight Scottish band is welcome indeed - Despite the Dark! Because make no mistake, chinks of light are rare on this release. From the powerful arrangement of Fraser Fifield's Dark Reel to the chill notes of Brendan Ring's The Lasher, Rura's five instrumental tracks are flint-edged and hard as granite. Pipes, fiddle and whistle fit together like machined steel cogs, grinding out the rapid-fire notes and subtle harmonies of jigs and reels. Ali Hutton's Opheillià lightens the mood somewhat, but drummer/fluter David Foley's tune The Glorious 45 quickly douses that flame. The air Lowground, another Foley original, is a bittersweet melody beautifully executed on fiddle and whistle.
Adam Holmes is almost a household name now in Scotland - admittedly he had a flying start. His familiar low miserable tones suit the range of songs here, three of his own and one by Burns, with piper Steven Blake providing a melody line. Songs of love and longing, drugs and despair, revolution and redemption are delivered with dour and doom-laden warnings of darker days approaching. Winter is coming, after all - no point in enjoying this brief summer. One or two of these tracks seem a bit short on content - there's only so many times you can repeat "We could build a fire" or "Weary days" before the words lose their impact. Rura's arrangements do a lot to keep things interesting, with great musicianship on every track. I'm looking forward to hearing some of this material live, seeing how the colour of a concert or festival atmosphere affects these folky shades of grey.
© Alex Monaghan
Mec Lir "Not An EP"
Own Label, 2014
A youngish band with Manx roots, Mec Lir are a perfect example of musical marmite. Either you'll love them because they play fast with a strong modern beat thumping away non stop, or you'll hate them for exactly the same reason. Whichever way you jump, this slightly short CD gives you ample time to make that decision. Its seven tracks largely showcase the phenomenal fiddling skills of Tomàs Collister, with drums and guitars and keyboards and stuff going on behind, and some quite clever arrangements. The material is mainly traditional Irish favourites - Lark in the Morning, Silver Spear, Humours of Tulla, Banish Misfortune and similar - with a handful of more modern classics such as Brendan Ring's Lisnagun Jig and two of Collister's own tunes. I wouldn't class this as a folk rock album, it's more progressive than rock in my view, but Flitter Dance is certainly in the folk rock style, close to Wolfstone or Tamlin for example.
The pace and pounding percussion are pretty unrelenting until we come to Point of Air, a slow piece by Collister which has all the misty musing of a film score, before it launches into the jig set Three Little Boats. We are treated to vocals for the first time on the final track We're Going to be Friends, a White Stripes cover more spoken than sung by drummer Greg Barry, with delicate fiddle countermelody and some surprisingly gentle percussion. It's an unusual ending to a hard-driving non-EP, and I would have changed the order of tracks if it had been my project, but I understand the band wanted something "out there" as soon as possible. Their next album will be longer and more thoughtful, and I'm sure it will be welcomed by the growing number of Mec Lir fans who enjoyed this first release. You can get a taste on the band's website, and decide whether Mec Lir's marmite is for you.
© Alex Monaghan
Maja & David "CPH - Café - YUL"
GO Danish Folk Music, 2015
A Danish fiddler and a Quebec fiddler, both of whom also sing, and it goes without saying that the Canadian taps his feet in a rhythmic and obvious way: that's quite a lot of acoustic possibilities from this duo, now on their second album, who split their time between Copenhagen and Montreal airports. Hence the CD title, you see. So what have all these intercontinental coffees produced?
Well, every track here features superb fiddling, in the Quebec or Jutland style, or both. Four tracks also include singing in Danish or French - never both - two from Maja Kjaer Jacobsen and two from David Boulanger. There's some Danish jokking, some excruciating Quebec rhymes (Quel triste sort / C'est d'être soldat), and snippets of tasty tin sandwich from David. It sounds a simple formula, and indeed it is - simply beautiful, in fact. The two fiddles fuse and twine perfectly on the slower numbers. The addition of free reeds and foot percussion kick-starts the faster reels and other rhythms. A point to note on the feet thing: when David does it it's called podorhythmie, but when Maja does it it's called foot stomping ...
Maja is also responsible for composing a lot of the tunes on this album. David wrote Ceux Qui S'Envolent and Matin Scandinave, and his songs are both from Quebec, but the rest is either Maja's or traditional Danish, so there is slightly more Scandinavian than Canadian music here. Foxy Frank is a pair of powerful North European waltzes, Varm Kaffé Tak swirls somewhere between a waltz and jig, Østen for Jylland is a bold strutting reel, and Efter Festen is a delightfully stark Nordic air. These fiddlers use various tunings, and as a nice touch they are given in the notes for every track. Gorgeous fiddle tone, great harmonies and plenty of good tunes: what more do you want?
© Alex Monaghan
Sous Le Pont "Et Là C'est Quoi?"
Own Label, 2015
This music is hard to describe or categorize. Perhaps that explains the CD title. Trombone and xylophone is an unusual combination, and the addition of accordion and guitar gives Sous Le Pont an air of gypsy or circus music. The material on Et Là C'est Quoi? is mostly gentle, slightly jazzy, surprising without jarring, and loosely related to the French tradition. I would say this is closer to Paris café orchestras than rustic Perigord artisans, but there is enough of a folk feel to keep me happy.
Each piece here is a mélange of musical styles. Spiky modern melodies, middle-eastern modes, percussive rhythms and smooth jazz compete with each other to define the overall character. Little is resolved, and Sous Le Pont keep us guessing as to what is coming next. Slow floaty airs alternate with brass band boldness. melody lines move round each other like dancers in a cramped disco, or clowns trying to catch their teetering comrades. The only constant is the hypnotic repetition of simple melodies, often short themes which are layered into a larger piece. The low growl of the trombone and the high tinkling of the xylophone work very well at both ends of the sound spectrum, giving a wide range of textures across this album. Et Là C'est Quoi? somehow reminds me of the dolls in Barbarella - sharp, attractive in a brittle way, varied yet uniform, and strangely persistent. Try the online samples.
© Alex Monaghan
Spontus "An Huneour"
Klam Records, 2014
I reviewed a previous outing from this Breton band a few years back - very good indeed, very innovative, and very hard to describe beyond that. An Huneour is more of the same, some tracks pretty much straight Breton dance music, others positively warped. Les Vacances de Mr Jo is a prime example: in two parts separated by a firmly traditional melody, this work weaves what I can only describe as weirdness into Breton jigs and polkas. On the other hand you have tracks such J'avais Pas Dix Ans and J'ai Dix Beaux Petits Moutons Noirs, as pastoral as could be on fiddle and accordion.
For fans of Breton music, the irreverence of Reloudeac or Avec Son Violon will raise a smile or perhaps a grimace. If you're not familiar with the Breton tradition, don't take An Huneour as a typical example: just enjoy the obvious skill and experience of these lads. The baroque sophistication of the mazurka Une Carrière Bien Remplie, the stark melody of Tonton Jéjé, and the dissonances of Les Pyjamas de Cowboy all have their own appeal. Electric guitar and cymbals, drums and bass augment the box and fiddle front line: the Spontus sound is pretty consistent throughout this CD, and apparently you can even dance to most of the tracks here in an emergency.
© Alex Monaghan
Áine Heslin "The Tunes Foundry"
Own Label , 2014
This fluter from County Clare has found a flair for writing tunes, close to the traditional Irish idiom but with the occasional modern twist. I won't say there are no familiar phrases in Ms Heslin's compositions - it's hard to write within the tradition without evoking old melodies, and my ear detected an echo of old friends in a few places here. Not that that's a bad thing necessarily - For Vanessa, The Chcken Wrap and The EIRE Sign are all great tunes in their own right, with or without their passing resemblance to other reels and jigs.
The Tunes Foundry includes twenty-three Heslin creations, almost all jigs and reels. Better still, the sleevenotes give background to each piece, and explain some of the obscure names - Orla's Intent, Skip out of School, or The Wait! - and there are even dots for five of the tunes. The acid test for a composer, of course, as for a musician, is the Irish slow air: Áine offers a very creditable one between the jigs and the reels, Seabed, conveying both the loss of life among fishermen and the hope that the sea will care for these lost souls in its bosom. Áine plays this air beautifully on whistle, and mixes whistle and flute elsewhere, along with a few friends to round out the sound. The whole album is enjoyable and impressive, whether or not you are looking for fresh tunes. There are some samples online too.
© Alex Monaghan
Finbar Furey "The Slender Promise"
Banshee Music, 2015
Apparently it's more than forty years since Finbar Furey recorded an instrumental album. An icon of Irish traveller music, and of piping and low whistle in particular, Finbar is well known for many recordings and is now an elder statesman of the music rather than a young firebrand. The Slender Promise reflects this maturity: subtitled Inspirational music on the flute & uilleann pipes, it is mainly slow pieces with the occasional reel or jig. Six of Finbar's own tunes, mostly in the same vein as his Lonesome Boatman, are interspersed with traditional melodies and with the modern cinematic air Castaway. Several other musicians are credited on flute, keyboards, percussion, fiddle and vocals - this is not a purely instrumental release - and I think I detect guitar and bass played by unknown hands.
Big airs such as She Moved Through the Fair and The Rocks of Bawn, along with traditional dance tunes The Blarney Pilgrim and Miss McLeod's, are deftly handled on the pipes, providing a very fine example of the wild open Irish style from an acknowledged master. Around and under and through Finbar's playing are layers of sound somewhere between a folk band and a film score, with the mysticism and the nomadic roots of the travelling people clearly evoked on many tracks. The final arrangement of Roisín Dubh is a full-on contemporary production, an impressive climax to a memorable album.
© Alex Monaghan
Red Hot Chilli Pipers "Live at the Lake 2014" [DVD Video]
REL Records, 2015
Recorded live at the Milwaukee Irish Festival in 2014, this DVD contains almost two hours of concert footage and twenty minutes of "extras" - interviews, rehearsals, setting up the stage, and candid shots of the band off duty. The concert is the big draw, of course - visually spectacular, musically superb, with impressive showmanship from this bunch of piping pioneers. The Chilli Pipers are a class act - which is not surprising, considering the amount of experience and the huge number of world titles they have accumulated as individuals. I was slightly disappointed to see only three pipers on stage, but that doesn't affect the overall sound: this is in-your-face bagpipe music, as intense and powerful as it gets. I had heard the CD version of this concert before, and I never noticed any lack of firepower on that format either.
The audio content here is every bit as good as the CD. RHCP perform most of their well known numbers, plus a few specials. Thunderstruck, The Silver Spear, Hellbound Train, Chasing Cars, The Little Cascade, We Will Rock You and Everybody Dance Now are augmented by a mini piping competition, a couple of songs from Deirdre Brennan, and a four-way drum solo which I'll explain later. The visuals were the real eye-opener for me, quite literally. The black and red theme of RHCP is dramatic enough, and the stage had been set with a fantastic flaming version of their bagpipe motif. Every piece is choreographed, to the point where the pipers' hand movements are at times slightly too Strictly for this least camp of musical forms. A far more credible soft feminine touch is provided by the two Chilli Dancers, performing styles from Highland to Hip-Hop, with more costume changes than a Scottish hillwalker and a range of kilt lengths from daring to disappearing altogether. There's a full set of camera angles too, showing the entire stage or just the fingerwork, panning and zooming, plus lighting effects in keeping with a full-blown rock concert.
The Chillies are not just pipers, of course. This line-up included bass and lead guitars, a horn trio, keyboards, and four percussionists. World champion snare drummer Grant Cassidy is joined by a drum kit, a general percussionist, and a chap on those bizarre modern marching band tenor quads. If you haven't seen this instrument before, imagine a pipe band tenor drummer simultaneously tossing pancakes on four rings. It doesn't sound like much, but it's exhausting to watch. The four way drum fanfare features each of these drummers taking a turn in the limelight: rock drumming, cajon, quads, and finally the marching snare played with phenomenal speed and dexterity. Add to that the bagpipe limbo, the lead guitar antics, the smoke and confetti, and of course the audience participation from four thousand culture-thirsty rednecks, and you have one hell of a feast for the eyes. Between the music and the visuals, there isn't a dull moment in this entire DVD.
© Alex Monaghan
Lena Jonsson & Brittany Haas "L&B"
Own label, 2015
Twin fiddling from two ladies brought up in very different - but surprisingly complementary - traditions: this duo have been touring for a while now, and L&B is their first recording. It's tasty and long lasting, with all the necessary E-numbers: exciting, evocative, enchanting, energetic, exquisite, and technically excellent. A little over half the material comes from traditional sources, in Lena's Swedish home or Brittany's adopted American backwoods, and rather less than half are Jonsson and Haas compositions. It's not always possible to tell the difference: the pair are capable of composing in a range of styles, and their take on traditional tunes is sometimes surprising. In short, nothing is sacred, but everything is played with respect and understanding. Keys shift, rhythms change, harmonies take you to unexpected places, and every new twist is a delight.
From the fiery Devil in the Strawstack to the gently flowing Sandy River Belle, this CD perfectly combines the beauty and bounce of Nordic and North American fiddle music. Lena's polskas wind and jump between the two instruments, with minor cadences and deep resonances balanced by high soaring flights of fancy. The traditional Girl Down the Road introduces a Southern ragtime touch, while Erlandson is all about the dark Swedish pine woods. Brännvinspolskan is a deliberate cross-over between the States and Scandinavia, showing the similarities as well as the differences between these two great fiddle traditions. Haas and Jonsson's own tunes mix and match influences, from the more American raw lyricism and steep runs of Breakneck Hill to the almost classical European charm of Novembervals. You never know where these girls will go next: will it be Fort Smith, or Saltoluokta, or even Kilkenny? If it happens to be somewhere near you, make sure you catch them live as well as on CD.
© Alex Monaghan
Brendan Keenan "Brendan Keenan"
Gael-Linn are gradually making their entire back catalogue available on CD, and they'll probably complete this project just in time to see CDs become obsolete, but for now each re-release is a piece of good news for traditional Irish music, and this 1984 instrumental album is particularly welcome. From the renowned piping Keenan family, Brendan was better known as a whistle-player. His first solo album features flute and pipes as well as many tracks on low and high whistles. Accompanist and producer Donal Lunny must take some credit for making Brendan's music available to a wide audience, as well as for the quality and tone of this recording. There is a large amount of variation in volume levels between tracks, and some breathiness from the flute and low whistle, but otherwise the music is clear and bright. I had a cassette copy of this release once, long since lost, so it's great to hear Brendan Keenan's playing on CD now.
Jenny's Chickens, The Oak Tree, Saddle the Pony, Bobby Casey's - there are plenty of classic reels and jigs here, as well as three of Brendan's own compositions and a few well known slower pieces. The Scandinavian finger-twister Horlgarlaten is followed by an expressive whistle version of My Lagan Love. Of the hornpipes and the like in this selection, I particularly enjoyed Flight of the Butterfly and The Hunt, a simple but charming melody which ends the album. I haven't been able to find out much about what happened to Brendan after 1984. Gael-Linn refers to this LP as "his first album", and there are signs that Brendan was planning a second solo recording around 2000: but as the man said we've all passed a lot of water since then. Brendan's Jig has been absorbed into the Irish session repertoire, but the man himself seems to have faded into obscurity. There are a couple of YouTube clips of him, but not much else on the internet, so this appropriately named album is the most complete record of Brendan Keeenan's music which is generally available.
© Alex Monaghan
SES "Tronzar os Valos"
Fol Música/BOA, 2015
We know SES (María-Xosé Silvar) from her 2011 CD ‘Co Xenio Destrozado’, where she displayed her talent on the development of a fusion of rhythm&blues, rock&roll, country and traditional rhythms from South America. Now in 2015, SES comes back with this second album ‘Tronzar os Valos’ (Bring Down the Walls), twelve new songs with strong character and implicit humanistic & socio-political messages. SES voice is again supported by the trio: Tito Calviño (acoustic & electric guitars), Fran Sanz (bass guitar) and Marcos Pazo (drum set). The traditional percussions (mostly South-American: bombo legüero, bongo, tumbadoras,…) are played by Xavier Ferreiro. Other guest musicians are: José Reyes-Bechford (bass), Nicolás Vieites (electric & classical guitar), Xabier Cedrón (fiddle), Fran Borrego (electric guitar), Francisco Rosa (Cuban tres), Benjamín ‘Chicho’ Cordero (quinto), Anxo Seco (Hammond organ), and singers such as: Alexander Rodríguez, Ely Morales, Fernando Brocos, and the three Lucias (Souto, Cela & Insua). SES is the singer & song writer of all the tunes. Together with her band they prove to be artists with fertile creativity, and adaptability to play blues, rock & country tunes such as ‘Sentir sen pensar’, ‘Novas ganas de soñar’, ‘Baixo o cemento’, ‘Opio barato’, ‘Iconoclasta’ or ‘Un xeito de borrarte’, and then ready to switch to sonorities of Cuban inspiration such as: ‘Como eu canto’, ‘Tronzar os valos’, and ‘Humanamente’. And then there are also slow ballads of hunting beauty and the simplicity provided by the acoustic guitars, the violin and SES’s voice (‘Máis que quimera’). These are all musicians that live & perform in Galicia, although so far they have chosen to leave aside their traditional sounds from Spain’s northwest corner.
© Pío Fernández
Pablo Milanés y José María Vitier "Canción de Otoño"
Altafonte Music Distribution / Fol Música, 2015
Pablo Milanés is one of the Cuban singer-song writers that became legendary in the 1970s, with their new style called ‘Nueva Trova Cubana’. That modern kind of Cuban folk music transcended the traditional sonorities into a more lyrical manner to convey the poetry and the socio-political messages, into the kind of fashion that was taking place at the time in places such as France or Argentina. The mid and late 1970s were years when the tough fascist dictatorships in South American countries (Chile, Argentina,…) or even in Spain, had shifted the political ideologies of great part of the younger generations towards socialist & Marxist positions. Singers such Pablo Milanés or Silvio Rodriguez, who started their career in 1960s Fidel Castro’s new Cuba, became a refreshing inspiration with their poems & melodies of incredible beauty, strongly inspired by the local tradition, which was mostly a fusion of the music brought to the island by the Spanish colonists and the African slaves (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_of_Cuba). José María Vitier is a Cuban pianist who also started his career in the 1970s, writing & playing music for theatre plays, films & documentaries. This CD ‘Canción de Otoño’ (‘Autumn’s Song) was a more than twenty years old project that finally came to completion in December 2013, when Pablo and José-María met and put together these fourteen songs, all of them composed & played by Vitier. Some of the lyrics are also written by Jose María Vitier, but others are poems that belong to acknowledged authors such as: Ruben Darío (Nicaragua, 1867-1916), Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1889-1957), Federico García Lorca (Spain, 1898-1936), Salvador Díaz Mirón (Mexico, 1853-1928), José Martí (Cuba, 1853-1895), Fina García-Marruz (Cuba, 1923), Silvia Rodríguez Rivero (Cuba), Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaragua, 1925), San Juan de la Cruz (Spain, 1542-1591), and Cintio Vitier (USA-Cuba, 1921-2009). Pablo Milanés’s charismatic voice and the pianistic talent of José María Vitier meet to forge a colourful album crammed with emotion, harmony, nostalgia, virtuosity,… ‘Canción de Otoño’ is a true Cuban piece of art. We are not talking about folklore sensu stricto, but Cuban classical music probably in the style of Ernesto Lecuona (1896-1963).
© Pío Fernández
Mosquera Celtic Band "Outlander"
Severalia/Several Records, 2015
Fernando Mosquera is the Galician bagpiper that became noteworthy with his 2011 CD ‘Peregrinatio’. Mosquera and his band have published now in 2015 the album ‘Outlander’, again an honest & inspired fusion on Celtic music, a blend of flavours from Galicia, Scotland, Ireland, French Brittany,… What is peculiar about this musician is the fact that despite his Galician family roots, he lives & works in no place close to Spain’s northern green coasts. Mosquera develops his Celtic music quite far inland, in one of Spain’s driest regions: Castilla – La Mancha. Besides his job as a bagpiper in the local top folk-rock band Akelarre AgroCelta, Fernando Mosquera has developed a prolific career in bagpiping, for instance creating the only gaita bagpipes band in Castilla-La Mancha (Rías Seicas), which is a member of the Galician Federation of Gaita Bands. He is also a member of the Na Píobairí Uilleann, the Irish national association of pipers. In fact, Fernando has become proficient in playing many other kinds of woodwinds : Scottish GHB (Great Highland Bagpipes) and Small Pipes, Bulgarian gaïda, tin & low whistles, recorders, Romanian nay, Medieval chalumeau, Italian ocarina,… , in addition to other instruments such as hurdy-gurdy, or frame drums of all origins: Irish bodhran, Arabian bendhir & tar, Egiptian riq,… The album ‘Outlander’ is an ambitious project, not only on the utilization of all the above mentioned musical resources, but also on the extensive list of guest artists that play together with Fernando, such as: the Asturian duo of José-Ángel Hevia (gaita) and his sister María-José (percussions), the Basque accordionist Kepa Junquera, Pancho Álvarez (Carlos Nuñez’s band), the uilleann piper John McSherry (Lúnasa), the singer Jesús Cifuentes (Celtas Cortos), Rosa Cedrón (Luar na Lubre), the accordionist Cuco Pérez, the Sudanese oud player Wafir Sheikeldin Gibril, the Irish singer Ciara McCrickard, the Israeli musician Ido Segal, and the Basque band Sorginak. The outcome of this whole production is this set of thirteen songs, many of them written by Fernando Mosquera, with titles such as: ‘El Viaje del Celta / Journey of the Celt’, ‘Inis Mór Girl’ (Irish traditional), ‘A Faraway Place’ (written by James Horner), ‘Abre los Ojos / Open your Ayes’ (based on the Irish song ‘The Green Glens of Gweedore’), ‘Noite de Mayo’, ‘Entzun, zazu’,… showing a clear connection with Ireland & Scottland. And there are others brilliantly played according to the Galician tradition : ‘Xotas de Poio’ & ‘Xota de Marreco’, or ‘Creando Camiños / Opening Ways’ with Rosa Cedrón and Pancho Álvarez . But besides all these north-Atlantic sonorities, Fernando Mosquera also enriches his musical universe towards the Mid & Far East, for instance in ‘Journey of the Celt’ with the support of Wafir Sheikeldin Gibril (playing oud, d’rbuka & qarqebs), and Ido Segal (tanpura & hansa veena from India), both of them members of Fernando’s medieval music ensemble Veneranda Dies. It would take long to describe all the instrumental details, and the contributions from all the artists participating in ‘Outlander’. Just get access to this album as soon as you can, and experience its beauty in tunes such as: ‘A Catedral de Pedra’, ‘Angrois’, ‘Intentar Sobrevivir/Trying to Survive’,… Fenando Mosquera’s band members are: Sara Calatrava (voice), Manuel Briega (electric fiddle), Javier García (electric & acoustic guitars), Óscar Hernández (bass guitar, synthesizer, programs), Manuel Agudo (bodhrán, pandeireta, shaker), and José Alberto Ortiz (drums).
© Pío Fernández
Aira da Pedra "¡a la calle!"
Severalia/Several Records, 2015
Like in many other places in Europe, there are regions in Spain which are located in between two Communities with strong and distinctive identities, and they share languages and traditions from both of them. You can think for example in Navarra, where they share some cultural traits from both the Basque Country and Aragón. We already spoke about the folk band from Navarra Mielotxin, which is a perfect example of this cultural duality . Looking towards Spain’s northwest lands, you find the province of León (part of the Castilla y León community), which has the traditional region of El Bierzo, that keeps many cultural connections with its western neighbour, Galicia. Language and folk music are just two of the aspects that keeps El Bierzo closely related to Galicia’s eastern borders. Aira da Pedra is a band from El Bierzo and their music again exemplifies this will to develop an identity that merges diverse traditional influences to define their own personality. They have songs in both languages: Castilian (Spanish) and Galician, and their music combines sonorities that probably resemble what we have heard in other bands coming from Asturias (Tejedor, Felpeyu, Llan de Cubel), Basque Country (Kepa Junkera), Galicia (Berrogüetto), ... There is even one tune, ‘Androié’ which although being based on a traditional song from El Bierzo, it has been translated into a style that (even in the song’s title) clearly seeks a connection with Breizh (French Brittany). Such connection probably appears again in the song ‘Bretoné’ written by Borja Fernández. Six out of the songs in the album are labelled as ‘Tradicional del Bierzo’. Others are written by several band members. So all in all we can listen to twelve tunes brilliantly performed, full of energy and eclectic north Spanish Celtic moods. The musicians in Aira da Pedra are: Luis Nicolás Carrete (guitar & lyrics), Borja Fernández Farpón (violin, bouzouki & lyrics), Carlos de la Torre Castellano (traverse flute & lyrics), Marcos Mendo Lolo (accordion, bouzouki & lyrics), José Manuel Pérez Castro (bagpipes, whistle, clarinet & lyrics).
© Pío Fernández
Gaua Records, 2015
Kherau is the band from Euskadi (Spain’s Basque Country) that we have known since their 2010 CD : Munduan Ortozik. That album already presented a set of songs with significant influences from the Irish music tradition, blended with sounds and lyrics of clear Basque signature. In this latest work from Kherau titled ‘Aukhera’, the dominance of the Basque traditional sonorities are recognizable from the start, with the trikitixa (diatonic accordion), the alboka (hornpipe), the txistu & the txirula (three-holed flutes) . The galloping dance rhythms and percussions provide an energetic foundation for the development of powerful melodies and lyrics. Unfortunately their written translations in English, French & Spanish, probably lack most of their meaningfulness from their original version in Basque language. Traditional & folk music are deeply rooted in most of the songs such as ‘Transilv-Arin’, ‘Arin in Dantza (tarantella)’, ‘Nevada’, ‘Sorginak eta Euskaldunak’, ‘Zaska’, ‘Orreaga’ or ‘Ondarroako Itsasertzeko’. But other tunes are performed on modern styles closer to pop, rock, ska or even rap : ‘Amama’, ‘Txakolin Barri’, ‘Laumilgarrenetik’, ‘Salbatzaile’ . There are also truly beautiful ballads such as : ‘Isiltasun Ituna’ and ‘Badakit Zagozana’ . The band members are : Ibon Ordóñez, Iker Lope de Bergara, Alex García, Aitor Esteban Etxebarría and Gaizka Andollo .
© Pío Fernández