FolkWorld #55 11/2014

CD & DVD Reviews

Shannon Vale Céilí Band "Shannon's Lovely Vale"
Own label, 2014

All Ireland Champions in 2011, this band was only revived in 2009 by box-player Danny O'Mahony. who's gathered an impressive crew of players with an emphasis on the music of North Kerry. So there's a grand spirited set of polkas here, as well as waltzes, barn dances, hornpipes and a fine competition march The Pleasures of Hope. Oh, and plenty of reels and jigs, about half the CD in fact. Two songs complete the package, from Ballyduff in North Kerry, and previously unrecorded as far as I can tell. Vocals are not The Shannon Vale's strongest suit, but both songs have plenty of local colour and an unusually strong rebel sentiment. On the instrumental side, this is as fine an album of céilií band music as you'll find, tight and rhythmic, full of lift and energy, with a good deal of variety and innovation, as well as the obvious virtuosity of the musicians.
Much of the repertoire here is well known: Molly Bawn, The New Mown Meadow, Beann a'Tigh, The Boyne Hunt, Scatter the Mud, The Legacy, Helvic Head and the magnificent reel Music in the Glen. Rarer pieces include Séan Ryan's charming jig The Nightingale, new to me, and Maurice Lennon's new hornpipe Shannon's Lovely Vale composed in honour of this band. I particularly enjoyed the barn dances and waltzes, ideally suited to the button box, especially Kevin Keegan's Accordion Waltz. The tune called Jack Doyle's here, by the way, is a slightly modified version of the Scottish waltz Ye Banks and Braes. The Shannon Vale cut loose in Simon Carroll's Polkas, a rousing set which sees box and banjo, flute and fiddle all excelling. The tune choices and changes throughout this recording are superb, adding that extra polish to a top class performance. The Shannon Vale's final medley of hornpipes and reel is a fitting finale, crisp and fresh, with fire in the belly and a degree of control which will delight both dancers and competition judges I'm sure.
© Alex Monaghan

Party of Three "First Course"
Own label , 2014

More than an EP, and longer than some full albums nowadays, this seven track CD from a young New York / New England contra band is a hugely enjoyable sampler of music for dancers and listeners. Briefly, for those new to New England contra, it's a North American dance form owing much to Celtic and French immigrants, with music to match. Party of Three combines the Pearlman siblings Neil and Lilly, from a Scottish musical background, with percussionist Joe De Paolo who does a bit of everything from African to Zydeco. First Course includes jigs and reels, slow airs, a hornpipe, and naturally a last waltz.
Fiddler Lilly takes most of the melody lines, and contributes four of her own compositions. The opening Kievelle is an American-accented jig paired with the hghland favourite Drummond Castle. Cape Breton stalwart The King's Reel slides into Double Digits, another Lilly tune, with Neil on tenor banjo. The air Bittersweet makes Ms Pearlman's hat trick, followed by the first of three tunes here by Neil, a mandolin-led hornpipe. Melodies by Brian Finnegan and Phil Cunningham feature prominently in the second half of this recording, along with probably my favourite track: two wonderful slow jigs by Mike Vass and Lilly Pearlman (her fourth), culminating in a relaxed take on the piping classic Turf Lodge.
Party of Three still have occasional wrinkles to iron out - fiddle squeaks and maybe a few piano riffs too many - but this debut release is generally pretty smooth. The drumming is spot on, the tunes are moving and motivating, and the standard of musicianship is well beyond your average dance band. The Wing Commander set is a bit of a showcase, drums and piano ripping into their solo breaks, before Phil's famous reel is released into the wild by Lilliy's fiddle. The final pair of waltzes shows quite a different aspect of this trio, sweet and mournful, beautiful tunes written by Neil and by Mr Pearlman senior. Whether you're dancing or just listening, First Course will whet your appetite for more from Party of Three.
© Alex Monaghan

Prego "Rewind"
Own label, 2014

Artist Video

This CD came without a box, so I fished the disc out of the envelope and stuck it in the car player on a recent trip up to Edinburgh. First impressions? Slightly ragged Central French dance music, dark tinged, with a youthful edge: there's a wide range of instrumentation, from pure traditional pipes and hurdy-gurdy, through melodeons and guitars, to rock'n'roll horn section. The emphasis is on passion rather than precision, plenty of punchy arrangements, quite muddy round the edges.
Then I read the CD cover. Turns out Prego is a bunch of middle-aged folkies from Derbyshire, and this is a compilation of their first two CDs Mocha Express and Avarela. Not many bands do a compilation after only two albums, but apparently Prego are planning great things, and they still have their powerhouse piper and push-pull boxplayer Ian Smith (who claims composing credits for almost all the material here) although they've lost the gurdyist. Smith's tunes sound very traditional to me - either they've been quickly absorbed into the tradition, or he sticks very close to older melodies. The titles are less than traditional: Galicious, Squirells and Polska Wolska are the most extreme examples here, with Adeles close behind if it refers to penguins - less so if it's just a couple of birds called Adele.
Along with hints of English music, there are some tracks which stray across the borders of France and into Spanish or Italian territory. Avarela is Galician in character, played on gaita and other typical instruments of Celtic Spain (where the humble gurdy is known as a zampona). Madame Nuds Tarantella belongs on the south-east side of the Alps, by the sound of it - fits with Rodney Miller's Italian gigues which I've been learning - and it also allows me to mention the blaring brass section borrowed from Edward II for a few numbers here. Fortunately or otherwise, Gregorian Twist and Jacob's Bladder didn't make it onto this compilation: you'll have to go back to the source if you wish to sample those delights. The traditional Galician jigs Na Lua and Muñeira de Cabanas are here though, as is the lovely French 3/4 bourrée Chasse à la Bécasse, two highlights for me. Worth a listen online.
© Alex Monaghan

Andreas Tophøj & Rune Barslund "The Danish Immigrant"
GO Danish Folk, 2014

Artist Video

Two young Danish musicians with five very varied tracks here. Barslund's accordion is familiar from the band Kasír, Danish Irish. Tophøj is the fiddler with Basco, a mix of Danish and American old-time. Combining all these influenes, The Danish Immigrant offers five new compositions by Barslund and Tophøj. The title track is a tune in the style of a Danish immigrant to the USA in the mid 19th century, with the cadences of Scandinavian music but the rhythm and roll of those backwoods front porch reels. Not so far from bluegrass. in fact: this has the makings of a great session tune. The Kerry Polska is completely different, pure Danish melody inspired by Ireland's most south-westerly kingdom, with all the richness of three part harmonies on fiddle, accordion and viola. Barslund's Waltz for Mum and Dad has a hint of Americana, a gorgeous country waltz to set beside tunes by Talroth, Lien, Praest and others. Alexander the Great twists and turns with typical Scandinavian unpredictability, a hypnotic piece, before the final pair of breakdowns, one Irish and one Danish. Vincent Brederick's classic barndance Around the Fairy Fort and Tophøj's Suzuki both lend themselves to some splendid fiddle harmonies, ringing strings and double stopping adding depth to these driving tunes. Why Suzuki? It's a long story, for which you'll have to read the CD notes, a sixth good reason to seek out this fine recording.
© Alex Monaghan

Jean-Luc Thomas & David Hopkins "Translations"
Hirustica, 2014

Breton fluter Thomas and drummer Hopkins are joined by a number of guests on this eclectic mix of music from Malin Head to Macedonia. They kick off with an Irish jig, lilted by Hopkins, and a New Age Breton air: the two extremes of this duo's music, straight traditional sliding into seriously weird. A set of pure Irish reels follows, fine fluting and solid beating on the auld frame drum, with the addition of Gabriel Faure on fiddle, a very pleasant and familiar sound. The multi-part hornpipe Johnny Cope is dramatic on slightly breathy flute, over an eccentric arrangement of percussion, bass and sax. An Eured slows proceedings right down, a spine-tingling flute air accompanied by high Asian drumming, which for me evokes the barren sweep of a windblown steppe, before changing into a Breton march. Back east to the Balkans for Gaidounitsa, a set of swirling dance tunes characterized by the mellow buzz of the Bulgarian bagpipes: Jean-Luc Le Moigne's piping takes me back to the 1990s recordings of Andy Irvine, Nikola Parov and Davey Spillane among others.
Half time sees Jean-Luc's flute trotting out a pair of lesser known Irish hornpipes, Paddy Fahy's and The Hills of Coor which is apparently one of Junior Crehan's. Then Faure's fiddle leads into Marrakesh Jig, a wild combination of North African sounds and Irish slip jigs. The final section of Translations is mainly Irish, a medley of barndance and reels, some slowed down reels with a touch of the Lúnasa magic, and then a couple more reels to finish, ending on Fintan McManus' fine composition Guns of the Magnificent Seven. In the middle of this Hibernian selection is the wackiest track here, Ozone, with everything from experimental jazz to the jungle beat of High Life music, an oddly intoxicating blend. Thomas and Hopkins are no spring chickens - Christmas turkeys would be a more apt description, and they have several previous recordings under their belts. This one is stuffed with tasty Celtic chestnuts and exotic spices, a little rich for some tastes but a festive favourite nonetheless.
© Alex Monaghan

The Old Swan Band "FORTYssimo"
Wild Goose, 2014

One of the archetypal English dance bands, The Old Swan celebrates four decades with an album which is reassuringly much the same as their five previous ones. Averaging one release every eight years, The Old Swan was always more interested in music than moolah, and although their appearances were rare for many years they never quite disappeared. Since 2004 they've enjoyed something of a revival, but the formula has not changed: English tunes, broadly English instrumentation, and none of that celtic nonsense. Certainly No Reels, as the band's debut LP proudly proclaimed. It's a formula shared by ensembles with names such as Umps & Dumps, Gas Mark 5, Flowers & Frolics, and Ram's Bottom, all sadly departed. Although transformed in minor ways, and lacking the melodeons of its early days, The Old Swan has preserved its seventies signature through the years and still sounds much as it did when these musicians were fresh faced and fancy free.
The character of FORTYssimo is immediately apparent: strong unadorned fiddling, dark low brass, recorder-like whistles and tinkly triangles, with tunes from right across the south of England from barn dance and morris traditions. At least that's the general impression, but if you listen carefully (or read the detailed notes) you'll find melodies from northern climes, as far as Scotland in fact, as well as several from former British colonies and even one or two from Erin's isle. Still no reels, though. In fact, even the jigs, country dances, marches and mazurkas with celtic associations are given a curiously English complexion here. Fraser, Burgess and Headford scrape tunefully on their fiddles, with Brinsford's harmonica the only nod to the The Old Swan's free reed heritage, but there is still a large dollop of accordion music here, from Jimmy Shand's Rose Tree and Whistling Rufus to Bob Liddle's composition Kelso Fiddle & Accordion Club.
The sound quality on FORTYssimo is rather inconsistent, perhaps deliberately so, giving the feel of a live dance recording rather than a studio album. At times the accompaniment from Gledhill, Adams and Hursley is loud and clear, at others it fades away. Brinsford's percussion, a large part of The Old Swan's character, is frequently up front and personal: skulls, snare, washboard, triangle of course, and what sounds like a wide range of tubs and buckets. For me, a vital part of this group's appeal has always been Jo Freya's playing on woodwind of various types, her solid sax and airy whistles lending light and shade to the whole affair. This thumping good selection of dance music ends with a tastily swung version of President Garfield's Hornpipe and a couple of swaggering marches featuring that bloody triangle again. Here's looking forward to some more from The Old Swan in another eight years - or maybe sooner if we're lucky.
© Alex Monaghan

Soig Siberil "Dek"
Own label, 2014

Breton guitarists have had a remarkable impact on celtic and other folk music since the 1980s: Dan Ar Braz, Jacques Pellen, more recently Nicolas Quemener and Gilles Le Bigot, and of course Soig Siberil. Soig has recorded with many of the most famous Breton folk bands, and the aptly named Dek is his tenth solo album, making him one of the most prolific of celtic guitarists. Dek, which of course means Ten in Breton, is a mixture of traditional tunes from the celtic countries and Siberil's own compositions from the more misty end of the folk guitar spectrum. Much of the music here is variations and improviations, intros and outros, pleasing soundscapes rather than catchy melodies. Some of that could be the Breton fondness for formless shifting tunes, but Dek is definitely less like the lute pieces of Renbourn and more like the musings of Ackermann. Goariva is a fine example, a piece inspired by a canal lock, built on a couple of fluid themes, gently flowing in no particular direction.
From time to time a melody cuts clearly through the blur of notes: The Galtee Rangers, Gordon Duncan's Sleeping Tune, or a classic Breton gavotte or ton doubl. Four reels are arranged into Le Set, a perfect opportunity to appreciate Soig's finger-picked melody style. I prefer his more free-form pieces: Ar-Majenn and Lokarn, two more Siberil originals, mixing Breton and gypsy guitar. He misses a trick by not including Ravel's Bolero: it would have fitted in nicely here. Most of Dek is pure acoustic solo guitar, richly resonant in open tuning, largely free of the squeaks affected by some guitarists. Different instruments or different environments produce a range of subtly different tones, from something approaching that John Dowland lute groove to a much more modern folk vibe. All these groovy vibrations are abruptly broken off at the end of Tamm-Ar-Tamm, almost as if the recording had run out of disk space - but Soig Siberil will surely be back with more music in short order.
© Alex Monaghan

Angelika Nielsen & Thomas Loefke "Norðan"
Tutl/Laika, 2014

Artist Video

A dozen or so new compositions by Faroese fiddler Nielsen and German harpist Loefke, plus a couple of traditional Faroese pieces, this album is released on two labels and subtitled North Atlantic Soundscapes to include influences from Shetland, Scotland and Ireland. It raises difficult questions about the boundary between classical and folk music, and the definition of a new composition in either genre. Nielsen's playing certainly has elements of classical technique and tone, not uncommon among Scandinavian folk fiddlers where the music is often taught in a very structured way. Many of the compositions here have a classical shape to them - At the River of Thor for instance, inspired by Thurso, and the final four tracks which form the Water Tunes suite. Other pieces are clearly folk music: the old-time waltz Tjørnarøkur, the pure Scandinavian Leynar Lighthouse, and Nielsen's beautiful Valsur til Lilju which will probably be on Aly Bain's next release. Yet others are somewhere in between, like the gypsy-style Sunnar and Máire Breatnach's Mykines Waltz. You may have noticed there are a lot of waltzes on Norðan.
Gone are the days when Neil Gow collected tunes from around Europe and passed them off as his own compositions - but it's still hard to draw the line between a new creation and an adaptation of existing material. Loefke's waltz Djupini here has clear links to the traditional Irish air My Bonny Light Horseman, and Nielsen's Døgg og Sproti seems to combine Kate Martin's Waltz by Blair Douglas with the older Margaret's Waltz by Pat Shaw. Does that matter? Perhaps only to reviewers and copyright lawyers. Both "new" pieces are pleasing and superbly played, with guitar, bass and keyboard accompaniment as well as the harp and fiddle. Most of Norðan is richly arranged and accompanied by Ian Melrose, Finnur Hansen and Mikael Blak, with extra fiddle and viola from Máire Breatnach. There are a few surprises here, gentle hints at the stark dark reality of North Atlantic winter, but basically this CD is easy listening folk with sunlight glinting off the strings as Nielsen and Loefke waltz over the waves. Enjoy.
© Alex Monaghan

Various Artists "Our Dear Dark Mountain with the Sky Over It"
Own label, 2014

Music from County Monaghan, and there's no bias on my part when I tell you this is a delightful collection. Eleven musicians, many of them not widely heard, have contributed to this recording. All but two are from County Monaghan. The McCague family of fiddler Dónal, guitarist Michael and banjoman Conor are as close to the core group as possible, playing on every track here. Other locals include Michael Rooney (swapping his familiar harp for a concertina here), piper Eamonn Curran, zoukist Seán McElwain, fiddler Laura Beagon, and the singers Monica Beagon-Treanor and Caitríona Sherlock. All these musicians are steeped in the music of Sliabh Beag, the Dear Dark Mountain of the CD title. McElwain has recently completed a doctorate in Dundalk, and his extensive research into the Sliabh Beag area and its music has spawned this recording. Interlopers Darren Breslin on button box and pianist Brian McGrath hail from over the border in Fermanagh, a county which touches on the Sliabh Beag region and whose music has been well documented and recorded. Much of the material on this CD is taken from the Bogue and Whiteside manuscripts, collections from Sliabh Beag musicians in the years around 1900, largely unpublished.
Thus we have many unfamiliar names but some well-known melodies here. The Humours of Auchnashalvey and The Emyvale Reel are new to me, but the third tune in this set is familiar under another name. The jigs Boys of Carrickroe and Knockatallon Cross are likewise newly unearthed, while The Setting Sun is widely played, having been recorded by Sean McAloon among others. The darkly beautiful Lullaby for the Irish Pipes may be a composition of James Whiteside himself, no mean piper by all accounts, eerily performed here by Dónal and Eamonn. Another important source of Monaghan material is fiddler Antón Mac Gabhann, a Cavan man and a former neighbour of mine who recorded local musicians in the 1970s. Mick Rooney's Hornpipe comes from that well, plucked by Conor in fine style, with back-up banjo by Brian. Reels, hornpipes and jigs flow from fiddles, banjos, buttons and pipes, before a final pair of flings sees McElwain pick up the banjo. In between are two fine songs, one each by teacher and pupil. There are hints of other melodies and traditions here, but Our Dear Dark Mountain with the Sky Over It seems to me to capture the spirit of a distinct tradition, and certainly presents new material which is only the tip of a musical iceberg still to emerge from Slaibh Beag.
© Alex Monaghan

Kevin MacLeod & Friends "Highland Strands"
Own label, 2014

German CD Review

Kevin's music is hardcore plinking and plucking: mandolins and guitars, bouzoukis and citterns, and very little else, as you will know if you heard his excellent duet recording Polbain To Oranmore with Alec Finn. This new album sees Alec back again, as well as mandolinists Luke Plumb and Tim Jones, fiddler John Martin, Phil Smillie on woodwind, and added extra guitar from young Matheu Watson. An impressive line-up, and there are some great tracks here. Highland Strands doesn't quite achieve the consistent quality of that duo venture, but it comes close at times. The Belltable Waltz set is beautifully shared by fiddle and mandolin, an old Stockton's Wing favourite, one of several blasts from the past on this release. There's a nod to De Danann's 1970s sound with The Fourt Courts Reel, and a fine pair of fiddle reels by the late lamented Ian Hardie, as well as a few other highlights.
The Scottish Horse Marches take me back to the bouzouki-led numbers of early Battlefield Band concerts, in the late seventies when everyone seemed to have magically found a bouzouki in their garden shed. I even bought one myself, from McCormacks on Bath Street. Kevin, Alec and Luke play three different zouks here, with a guitar or two for good measure, on three classic 6/8 marches. I should say that the notes to Highland Strands are exemplary, full of useful information, and I would not have been able to name all these tunes without their assistance. Many are Scottish and Irish classics, such as the Seaforth Set where Kevin has radically reshaped the Scottish piping idiom of march, strathspey and reel to produce a storming strathspey followed by a march and reel. Maybe this innovation will catch on. There are are also several compositions by accordionist Freeland Barbour, a handful by other modern composers, and one by Kevin himself: the old-time waltz Am Bata Uaine, one of several tunes on this CD which would fit a Donegal mazurka. Memories of Tucker, The Jacobite Queen and even Andy Statman's Waltz for Mom have that same swaying Shoe the Donkey rhythm. Plenty of good music, some lovely artwork, and even a pun in the title: can't be bad!
© Alex Monaghan

Threepenny Bit "Pantomime Cannon"
Own label, 2014

This group's name suggests an Irish pub band, but the album title hints at a quirkiness which is closer to the truth. Pantomime Cannon is their third release: the title is unexplained, as is that of their second album Cartography, but their debut obviously had to be called something - and so it was. This eight piece ensemble takes its name from the number of original members, founders of Southampton Uni Folk Soc back in the dark days of 2010, and the group has collected waifs and strays ever since, producing an instrumental melange which they describe as "genre-merging, tradition-bending" but I would call simply odd. Odd can be good, though, and most of this CD is very good indeed. There are a few places where the folk and the fusion get a little out of step - that violin doesn't seem comfortable with the fiddle syncopation on the essentially traditional Rochdale Coconut Dance, but it's saved by the husky flute and accordion. Elsewhere there are some Scots and Irish tunes which could have done with a slightly darker edge, but the lightness of the flute changes them to produce The Unfortunate Cup of Tea and a Speed the Plough medley which doesn't quite live up to its moody beginnings. Which is odd in itself, because these guys do a great dark version of Tam Lin later on, sultry sax and driving drums. Shetland fiddler Michael Ferrie's Farewell to Tchernobyl gets a good thumping here too, rousing stuff.
There are also some cracking arrangements of English music here. Arthur Muse's Jig is worthy of Hekety, and Mr Beveridge's Maggot is charmingly arranged. The band's own tunes are pretty good too, from the soft sweetness of Mirror Waltz to the grinding bleakness of Bitterne Distress. Why is there never a hurdy-gurdy when you need one? As with students everywhere, there's a bit of a food theme going on through the tune titles: coconuts, cups of tea, a Travelling Lemon, some Popcorn, and the surprise Cabbage which is a name I used to use for a tune which I've just learnt is called Joe Hutton's - but that's another story. Clarinet, low whistle, viola and guitars complete the instrumentation here, and with eight players Threepenny Bit come up with some inventive game plans. Cartography won them an award in 2013, and I can see Pantomime Cannon doing the same in the near future. Young, innovative, talented and under-employed, this group has all the hallmarks of a rising star in the folk fusion firmament. All they need is a good dark backdrop.
© Alex Monaghan

Polkaworks "Borrowed Shoes"
Own label, 2014

An almost all female band, melodeon based and with a melodeon-centric pun in the name, Polkaworks play that brand of English music which stops just short of oompah but makes one think of barn dances, stomps, village fetes, maypoles, and in extreme cases Morris dancing. Nothing wrong with any of that, of course - I'm partial to the occasional stomp myself - and Borrowed Shoes is a crisp, clean recording with a full sound and a good solid beat for dancing. The thump of Gareth Kiddier's piano underpins some tasty tinkling on hammered dulcimer and fiddles as well as the free reed front line of Katie Howson and Jeannie Harris. The promised sight of all six members in cocktail dresses and high heels must be quite an eyeful. One or two tracks here are rather ponderous - The First of August and perhaps Old Danish - but I assume that is due to the nature of the dance they are intended for, rather than any effect of pre-autumnal lassitude or stale Scandinavian pastry. On the whole, the music trots along very nicely indeed.
Polkaworks' repertoire is mainly standard English fare - Paddy Carey's, Bobby Shafto, Astley's Ride, Cuckoo's Nest and so forth - ranging from Norfolk to Northumberland with occasional borrowings such as Old Danish, Tekili and Kathleen Hehir's which is the most obvious of several Irish jig variants here. Jigs and polkas, hornpipes and waltzes, hop steps and marches are handled with a firm but gentle touch, nothing too riotous, and a good tight sound with just a hint of a rough edge. As a dance band you couldn't wish for much more, and the listening experience is also very pleasant. Tousle Your Kerchee has all the veiled menace of the best minor jigs, while The Holm Band Tune skips along like a carefree morning stroller. Sue Harris's dulcimer shines on the only waltz set, Howson switches to harmonica on The Villagers, and the fiddles of Fi Fraser and Nina Hansell enjoy various brief victories in their doomed fight against the overwhelming might of two melodeons. Joe Hutton's March was a special treat for me, a tune I've played as a polka since I learnt it from the band Hopscotch in Edinburgh, and which lacked a name until now, so thank you for that, Polkaworks!
© Alex Monaghan

The Fretless "The Fretless"
Own label, 2014

Fretless everything - fiddles, violas, cello - this Western Canadian band plays music from several great fiddle tradtiions on both sides of the Atlantic: Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and various partsof the USA. The Fretless are many things, but one thing they aren't is smokeless. This music burns and fizzes, from new compositiions Different Old Rubbish and Harry Caray to Irish classics The Rolling Waves and Sean Ryan's. There's no shortage of pyrothechnics. Phil Cunningham's Wing Commander Donald MacKenzie bursts into flame, reminding me of the 1990s Ashley MacIsaac version. The traditional Sheepskin and Beeswax couldn't really be any bouncier if The Fretless put live frogs on their bows: that horsehair is springing off the strings like a cat on a hot tin fiddle. Fiddler Ivonne Hernandez released an album many years ago called Playing with Fire, and she shares that talent with highly-strung Karrnell Sawitsky and Trent Freeman, and with low-slung cellist Eric Wright. Together they sound less like a string quartet and more like a backwoods fiddle army. Just don't mention Deliverance.
The Fretless can slow the pace too, as on Hewlett's which sees the Carolan favourite arranged for four bows in an almost Regency parlour style. Compositions by Freeman and Sawitsky have their slower moments, and there are also two songs here - by which I mean vocal numbers, with people singing, not these people but guests Ruth Moody and Oliver Swain who make a pretty good job of the traditional Lonesome Scene of Winter and the Thom Yorke fantasy Airbag. In between are tunes from Cape Breton, Virginia, Galway and elsewhere, fiddle music old and new, made beautiful and breathtaking by this band of talented tooners. Lulu Gal gives way to L'Acteur Rouge, a combination of Sawitsky and Chiasson compositions. Dan R MacDonald's brilliant reel Trip to Windsor is followed by the traditional Forked Deer and then the Brian Finnegan jig North Star in an inspired mix-and-match approach. This is the second CD from The Fretless, and although it curiously lacks a title, it has pretty much everything else going for it.
© Alex Monaghan

Duo Artense "Sur le Vif"
AEPEM, 2014

Artist Video

The first fifty seconds of this album are a very clever intro, boots trudging through the French rain, faint noises, a door opens, and we are launched into a live concert by this fiddle and accordion pair. Then it's full-on dance music for fifty-five minutes, complete with dancers and lively audience, as Duo Artense weave bourrées, polkas, waltzes, mazurkas and more. From the border between the rich Auvergne and Limousin traditions, this is central French music with a few touches of wider European influence. Fiddler Basile Brémaud and box-player Hervé Capel have a wonderfully rhythmic style, full of life and energy, which keeps the dancers whirling while the musicians' fingers fly through some complex melodies. Bourrée de Lachaud and Bourrée d'Alfred Mouret are good examples, two separate dances united in a single track here, with the briefest of pauses in between, both great tunes. This combination of different dances on a single track is new to me, and occurs several times on Sur le Vif.
There are a couple of guest appearances, Stefano Valla playing the Italian piffero on a magnificent mazurka and polka medley, and the gentler flute of Pierre Touret on a set of bourrées. Otherwise it's just fiddle and box, filling the hall with toe-tapping sound. Capel and Brémaud play in a very sensitive and controlled way for relative youngsters, they clearly have a deep feeling for the dance as well as a complete mastery of their instruments. The fiddle is unusually adaptable, playing low almost continuo parts as well as higher virtuosic melody lines. You'd expect an accordionist to provide his own accompaniment, but Capel's left hand is outstanding, producing bass runs and rhythmic variations in addition to the normal vamping chords. As for the tunes themselves, this material is almost all local to the Auvergne-Limousin region, and I only recognise one or two of the melodies. Most seem to have been collected locally in the 1970s, with several composed by noted players in the recent past. I don't think many of these pieces have been recorded before. I hope we will hear a lot more from Duo Artense and their store of dance music.
© Alex Monaghan

Various Artists "Mélodies en Sous Sol"
AEPEM, 2014

A monster 2 CD collection of music played on the biggest French bagpipes, with chanters as long as your arm. The title translates as Melodies in the Cellar, or maybe Basement Beats for our American readers. In Scotland we might say Hoots frae yer Boots. Whatever you call it, these pieces are played well below middle C level, in the dark and steamy depths inhabited by serpents and chalumeaux. The drones on these instruments are even lower, some of them rivalling organ pipes with their almost percussive resonances. The music here is from central France, often adapted for these massive musical beasts which do not have the attack or flexibility of their smaller cousins. A typical central French bagpipe might have an effective chanter length of 16 inches, whereas these instruments are typically around 24 inches, and sometimes over 30 inches long. All the details are in the CD booklet - in French only.
Most of Mélodies en Sous Sol is pure piping, one or more pipers with no other musicians. Some tracks also feature voice, violin and other instruments, but the pipes are always to the fore. With almost two and a half hours of music to choose from, I'm just going to mention some highlights. The Menuet played by Boris Riou and Raphael Jeannin is a delightful duet with complex harmonies on two 20-inch chanters with rich low drones. La Campagne de Jaquot is an air played on a monster 30-inch chanter with surprisingly gentle drones, as well as flute accompaniment. The two Auvergne bourrées Lo Bouissou fai Flouretto and Eh Garo lou Loup Pétchiotto are more up tempo, dance music played solo on a 26-inch chanter with a marvellous deep drone. Le 17 de Novembre is a spine-tingling duet by Rémy Villeneuve and Louis Jacques on a pair of 23-inch pipes, a truly ancient and visceral combination. The more modern sound of Rossignolet comes from Julien Barbances and Grégory Jolivet on hautbois and hurdy-gurdy, a Berrichon piece which could have been recorded at any contemporary bal folk. Solos and group harmonies, airs and dance music, all are of a very high standard. Mélodies en Sous Sol is a superb collection, and an excellent opportunity to hear these magnificent instruments.
© Alex Monaghan

Baltic Crossing "The Tune Machine"
Gofolk, 2014

German CD Review

A third album, and a much more eclectic approach, from these five fiery fellas: the line-up of Englishmen Andy May and Ian Stephenson on Northumbrian pipes and guitar respectively, Kristian Brugge from Denmark on fiddle, and Finland's Esko and Antti Järvelä on fiddle and double bass is unchanged, but where their last release Firetour stuck strictly to the confines of a pair of Danish islands, this CD ranges from Finland down through Sweden and Denmark, across to Scotland and Northumberland, and through England to Belgium, ending up as far south as Italy. And rightly so, as The Tune Machine celebrates ten years of Baltic Crossing by remembering many of the people and places the band has visited. On a less sentimental note, this album is also considerably longer than the pathetically truncated Firetour.
To be fair, sentimental is not something Baltic Crossing have much time for. Whirling Waltz, a tune by Kristian for his beloved wife-to-be, starts with a head-banging guitar intro that AC-DC would be proud of. And don't give me any of that stuff about heavy metal banda writing the best love songs - this waltz is more about aerobics than amore. The previous track starts with a Stephenson composition in the same vein, for Miss Emily Ball who later became Mrs Ian Stephenson: not a tender waltz this time, but a stomping 48-bar jig. About the most sentimental track on this CD is the pair of Danish tunes called New Fanø, beautiful old fiddle melodies which build to an intense finish with wordless vocal harmonies and an exultant howl, reminding me of a concert arrangement by the Finnish band Frigg.
Putting sentiment aside, most of The Tune Machine is powerful driving tunes with an almost irresistible joyous beat. It kicks off with a thrash folk polska, Scandinavian troll music, fiddles and pipes hitting the beat hard. Goodnight Salonkjlä has more of a reggae feel, recalling English iconoclasts Edward II. An Italian jig, coincidentally familiar to me from a Morpeth session and delicately piped here by Andy May, leads into a Belgian piece which owes more to Boris Karloff than it does to Brussels. A pair of stately marches from Sweden and the Northumbrian seaside town of Blyth inject a note of sweetness before the monster Menuet from Falster brings back the trolls, grinding and gyrating through Anntti's bowed bass notes. Things get lively again with a wonderfully funky Schottische, a real Anntti climax as the bass and fiddle are joined by third Finn Timo Alakotila on guest Steinway.
Two more Nordic tunes see us to the belting Regular Set, a bravura performance of the Northumbrian classic Reed House Rant and an Andy May composition which is almost eclipsed by the powerful backing on bass and guitar. This combination of depth on the low notes and brilliance on pipes and fiddles is really quite intoxicating. Then the mood turns all matrimonial with that jig and waltz. I must admit that the final track does show that Baltic Crossing have heart as well as soul: Stephenson's 6/4 air Wedding Guests is a charming tribute, and a gorgeous way to end what is an absolutely fabulous album. Oh, and as you might expect, the CD cover is completely bizarre.
© Alex Monaghan

The Four Star Trio "Magnetic South"
Craft, 2014

These three very fine Irish musicians have traditional music in their bones, at least from the waist up. We'll come to their lower limbs in due course. Building on the instant success of their 1997 Square Triangle debut, this second CD has been eagerly awaited for the past seventeen years. So well known has the Four Star Trio become meanwhile in their native Cork that there is no need for the album cover to list the members or their accomplishments, so I'll plug that hole straight away for this g;obal audience: Con "Fada" Ó Drisceoil on button box and vocals, Pat "Herring" Ahern on guitar and similar, and Johnny "Insert Name Here" McCarthy on fiddle, flutes and vocals.
The trio's music leans precariously into County Kerry via the magical region of Sliabh Luachra. Magnetic South offers slides and polkas learnt from Padraig O'Keeffe, Johnny O'Leary and Denis Murphy among others, and encompasses delightful jigs, hornpipes, barndances, airs and songs. Reels are in short supply, as is often the case in Munster music, with only two selections here: but the spark and spontaneity of the slides and polkas more than fill the energy gap. The Borlin, Thadelo's, The Glin Cottage, Lehane's, I'd Rather Be Married Than Left and many more great southern melodies are crammed onto this disc. Bill the Weaver's Jig and The Glenbeigh Hornpipe are old favourites too. The band's own compositions stand up well in this company: The Spaniard, The Scroll in the Stout and The Setting Sun among them.
Which brings us to reels, and songs, and those dodgy lower limbs. There are four songs here, about the right balance to my mind, two of them written and sung by Con Fada, and two sung by Johnny who wrote the tune for one of these. Johnny's rendition of Bruach na Carraige Báine is a beautiful bilingual version of this well known song, and his setting of the poem The Abbey of Kilcrea is a very pleasant example of those local elegies to pastoral scenery. Con's contributions are more comical in nature, the mock ironic Nuair a Bhuaileas and the positively blasphemous Pope's Toe which ranges much higher up the pontif's frame than the reel of the same name. Other reels featured on this recording are less obscurely named: The Quill, The Man of the House, and O'Keeffe's Woman of the House which refers of course to the old Sliabh Luachra filddlers' custom of keeping a live-in lover for those long winter evenings so essential to maintaining the oral tradition. All fifteen tracks here are carefully arranged, and played with exceptional skill as well as a touch of guest bodhrán. Magnetic South is a must for devotees of Munster music, and is sure to keep you satisfied for the decade or two until the Four Star Trio's next release.
© Alex Monaghan

Siobhán Kennedy "Séid"
Own label, 2014

A time-served fluter and fiddler from Dundalk, Siobhán has a céilí band background and was active on the Dublin session scene in the nineties before moving to the north coast of Germany for love and lucre. She now plays - and sings - with the eclectic Hansa-Hibernian outfit Iontach who have a few albums out. Siobhán herself recorded previously with Dundalk musicians Gerry O'Connor and Eithne Ní Uillacháin, but Séid is her first solo venture. Mainly a flute album, there's some whistle and a touch of fiddle here too, plus three vocal numbers. Accompaniment is provided by Siobhán's husband and musical partner Jens Kommnick on various strings and keyboards, and by Siobhán's dancing feet at one point. Modern technology permits duets and more, making this a very varied solo CD.
The material is almost all Irish, with the odd exception such as Nigel Eaton's Halsway Carol or the arguably Scottish Wonder Hornpipe. Airs, hornpipes, a set dance, and even a track of slip-jigs and reels specially for Steve Tilston, are all delivered with flair. Plenty of straight jigs and reels too, of course, and these include a blistering version of Master McDermott's on the whistle and a lovely set of flute jigs ending with one of my current favourites The Setting Sun. Ms Kennedy contributes three of her own compositions, two jigs and a reel, fine tunes all. I particularly like the cheeky jig You Know Rightly! - in keeping with many previous cryptic titles for Irish dance music. Songs in English and Irish, a precious scrap of archive tape, and a wide range of flat keys, all make this an interesting album, adding to some tasty playing by both soloist and accompanist on familiar tunes in concert D. Séid is certainly worth a listen, and there are plenty of samples on Siobhán's website.
© Alex Monaghan

Red June "Ancient Dreams"
Organic Records, 2014

Artist Video

Red June is a three piece band from Asheville, North Carolina, featuring the beautiful voices of Natalya Weinstein on fiddle, John Cloyd Miller on guitar and mandolin and Will Straughan on guitar, resonator guitar and mandolin. Tim Surrett produced their new 11 original tracks album and also gives a guest performance on upright bass.
Straughan wrote the lovely title song, an uplifting Americana for three voices accompanied by guitar, fiddle and mandolin, Miller sings his melancholic ballad “Saddle up, my son” to the sound of dobro, fiddle and guitar and Weinstein’s “I am free” is a breath-taking a Capella gospel brought forward by the three brilliant singers. All three are fine musicians as well and Straughan’s instrumental Celtic tune “Gabriel’s storm” is a perfect showcase for them, fiddle and mandolin take the lead driven by bass and guitar. Then Natalya sings Miller’s hauntingly beautiful bluegrass ballad “I still wait” accompanied by Dobro, guitar and bass. Another highlight is Miller’s Country song ”Where we started”, beautiful harmonies, Dobro, guitar and fiddle, and Weinstein wrote the up-beat instrumental “31” giving them another platform for their virtuoso playing together.
The third album of Red June is a stunning performance of acoustic American music, they are fantastic singers, songwriters and musicians, listen to some samples.
© Adolf „gorhand“ Goriup

Planet Full of Blues "Hard Landing"
Own label, 2014

Virginia based three piece Electric Blues band Planet Full of Blues features Johnny Ray Light (guitars, vocals), Brock Howe (drums, vocals) and Ron Dameron (bass, backing vocals). Jim Gaines produced the 11 original songs, recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, for their second album.
Johnny sings lead vocals on his 8 self-crafted songs, “So special” is a perfect showcase for his brilliant Blues singing, driven by the funky groove of guitar, bass and drums. Brock sings his story of the “Busboy”, an intoxicating Blues-rock including a stunning guitar solo, with back-up vocals by Johnny and Ron. Then Johnny tells us “I had a dream”, a hauntingly beautiful slow Blues with fine guitar work. Two back-up voices accompany another song crafted and sung by Brock, “Big bright light”. Johnny’s “Snake Lady” presents great up-Beat Blues-rock and the “Shugrue Shuffle” finishes up with fast paced instrumental Rock’n’Roll.
Planet Full of Blues are great musicians, singers and songwriters, check them out!
© Adolf „gorhand“ Goriup

Little Mike and The Tornadoes "All the right moves"
ELROB Records, 2014

Original New York’s Chicago Blues quartet Little Mike and The Tornadoes, featuring Michael Markowitz on harmonica and vocals, Tony O. Melio on guitar, Brad Vickers on bass and Robert Piazza on drums, are joined by Blues pianist Jim McKaba to record 13 new original tracks.
They start off hailing “Hard hard way” (A.Melio/W.Smith), a stomping Chicago Blues with great solos by harmonica and guitar. “Since my mother been III” is a fantastic slow Blues with breath-taking guitar sounds and soulful singing and the only instrumental track, “Sam’s Stomp”, is a perfect showcase for the brilliant musicians to prove their virtuosity. On the title track bass, piano and drums keep the intoxicating rhythm steady while harmonica and guitar play together, then the piano steps forward with stunning solos, awesome. Other highlights are the hypnotic pace of “Blues is killing me”, the up-beat Rock’n’Roll “I won’t be your fool” by Vickers and the desperate slow Blues “Stuck out on this highway”.
A remarkable album, if you like Chicago Blues check them out, their inspired playing is amazing.
© Adolf „gorhand“ Goriup

Ben & Ellen Harper "Childhood Home"
Prestige Folklore, 2014

Californian raised musician and composer Ben Harper (Weissenborn slide guitar, guitar, autoharp, dulcimer, vocals) remembers his Childhood home, joined by his mother Ellen (guitar, banjo, vocals), Jason Mozersky (guitar), Jesse Ingalls (upright bass, keyboards) and Jimmy Paxon (drums) he recorded 10 original songs, 4 of them by Ellen.
Ben sings his mid-tempo Country song “a house is a home”, Ellen sings the harmony voice, the band plays a two-step and the Weissenborn joins in with some fine slides. Ellen follows up with “city of dreams”, a self-penned melancholic Americana with a bluesy touch, and “born to love you” is a romantic ballad featuring a beautiful duet by Ben and Ellen, selective keyboard sounds and a subtle guitar solo. My favourite song is “farmer’s daughter”, a mid-tempo Bluegrass written by Ellen, banjo, bass and drums create an intoxicating but smooth pace, Ellen’s lead vocals are hauntingly beautiful and Ben showcases some brilliant Weissenborn sounds and a great harmony voice. Ellen’s melancholic Country waltz “altar of love” and Ben’s mid-tempo song “learn it all again tomorrow” complete the acoustic program.
This album reveals another rather unfamiliar side of Harper’s musical talent, the songs are simply but beautifully arranged, and the great musicians back a little off and leave the room for Ben and Ellen.
© Adolf „gorhand“ Goriup

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen "Cold Spell"
Compass Records, 2014

Artist Video

Frank Solivan (mandolin, violin, guitar, vocals) has left the cold climate of Alaska and settled in Washington DC where he teamed up with Mike Munford (banjo), Chris Luquette (guitar) and Dan Booth (upright bass) to enrich the local Bluegrass circuit. For their second album they recorded mostly original tracks by the band members, hosting some of the finest musicians of the scene as special guests.
Frank’s Nashville based cousin Megan McCormick wrote the hauntingly beautiful opener “Say it isn’t so”, a Bluegrass ballad with a romantic touch; Frank’s soulful singing and the stunning musicianship of the band is awesome. The title song by Frank is another masterpiece of song writing, melancholic harmonies accompanied by virtuoso improvisations. Munford’s up-beat instrumental “Yeah man” is the perfect showcase for this breath-taking jam ensemble and their cover of Pure Prairie League’s “Country song” is spiced with a spectacular jazzy interlude where they play gorgeous solos by turns. Another highlight is the instrumental “Chief Taghkanic”, co-written by the band, again the guys let their instruments sing, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, bass and guitar create an incredible sound. John Cruz, another cousin of Frank, penned the love song “Missing you” and Frank invited Sam Bush to play the mandolin part, Luquette changed to octave mandolin and Rob Ickes adds the Weissenborn guitar, a brilliant transformation.
The new album of Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen is a fantastic showcase of one of the best Bluegrass ensembles in the scene, recorded in the studio it sounds like a live performance.
© Adolf „gorhand“ Goriup

Molasses Creek "Something worth having"
Soundside Records, 2014

Molasses Creek is a five piece ensemble from Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, featuring Gary Mitchell (guitar, vocals), Fiddler Dave Tweedie (fiddle, vocals), Lou Castro (Dobro, bass, vocals), Gerald Hampton (mandolin, upright bass) and Marcy Brenner (mandolin, banjolin, bass, vocals, percussion). For their second national release they recorded 5 original tracks, 7 cover versions and an inspired set of tunes.
The title track, a mid-tempo Country song written by their friend Phil Kelly, starts off with two mandolins, fiddle, Dobro, guitar, bass and wonderful singing by Gary, Dave and Marcy. They accelerate the pace with “Choo Choo Yazoo”, an intoxicating medley including the Louis Jordan jump-blues and Fats Waller’s Old Yazoo, Lou sings the Choo Choo part and Dave Waller’s Yazoo. Hampton’s “Ehringhaus Blues” is a perfect showcase for the brilliant musicians, Hampton leads the tune on mandola, fiddle, Dobro, mandolin, rhythm guitar, bass and percussion join in and create an electrifying groove. Mitchell wrote and sings the soulful ballad “The waterman” for the people of Ocracoke Island, struggling for life on that remote island and Brenner sings the hauntingly beautiful love song “Five minutes” (Brenner/Castro) to the cool Latin groove of classical guitar, upright bass, fiddle and mandolin. My favourite is Tweedie’s dark and dramatic folk song “Death my friend”, he sings about a man waiting for the final kiss and lets the fiddle sound, accompanied by mandolin, dobro, guitar, upright bass and guest musician Jubal Creech on percussion and didgeridoo. And finally Marcy’s breath-taking singing on Ian Sinclair’s Celtic ballad “The King’s shilling” puts the cherry on the cake.
The new album of Molasses Creek is an excellent collection of songs and tunes, recorded by exceptional musicians and singers. Hopefully they will find their way over the big water.
© Adolf „gorhand“ Goriup

Lowell Levinger "Down to the roots"
Grandpa Racoon Records, 2014

Lowell Levinger, founding member of the Youngbloods, is Banana (vocals, guitars, banjo, piano, siren). Together with Sam Page on acoustic bass, Ethan Turner on drums and a bunch of brilliant guest musicians he recorded 15 tracks for his fifth solo album.
Ry Cooder plays the slide guitar on “Married to the Blues”, a mid-tempo song by Banana’s friend Joe New, Barry Melton (Country Joe and the Fish) takes the slide on “Love is a five letter word” (G. Barge) and plays a great duet with Banana on guitar and David Grisman on mandolin and Chad Manning on fiddle create a hot swing on the up-tempo “Blues my naughty sweetie gives to me” (McCarren/Morgan/Swanstone). Levinger wrote a single original song for the album, “Just can’t quit the Blues”, soulful singing, funky saxophone by Roger Volz and fine lead guitar by Michael Barclay. British Blues musician Thomas Ford plays the harmonica on Michael Hurley’s trucker song “Blue driver” and Terry Haggerty takes over the lead guitar on the traditional “Corinna Corinna”. Bobby Vega on bass and Steve Kimock on lead guitar join in for the acoustic groove of John Hiatt’s “Riding with the king” and as a bonus track Levinger sings Toto Cutugno’s “L’Italiano”. David Thom on mandolin and Paul Knight on bass joined Banana in his living room to record this laid back version of the 80ies hit.
Lowell Levinger started in the sixties with the Youngbloods, disbanded in 1973, and still he is busy making brilliant music; his experience and his multi-instrumental prowess is supported by first class musicians.
© Adolf „gorhand“ Goriup

The Nighthawks "444"
Eller Soul Records, 2014

Washington DC based legendary roots music band The Nighthawks released a new album with a stunning mix of 13 original and covered songs. Mark Wenner (harmonica, vocals), Paul Bell (guitar, vocals), Johnny Castle (bass, vocals), Mark Stutso (drums, vocals) and special guest Akira Otsuka (mandolin) recorded their self-produced CD in Richmond, Virginia.
The title track is an up-beat Rock’n’Roll with virtuoso soli by guitar and harmonica and a great rhythm section. Elvis Presley sang “Crawfish” and the Nighthawks version is a fantastic performance with an intoxicating Soul groove, breath-taking singing and a great harmonica solo. On the Everly Brothers hit “Price of love” the guys rock, guitar and harmonica playing together, brilliant drive by drums and bass and again excellent singing. Other highlights are the beautiful Blues ballad “High snakes”, an acoustic version of the Muddy Waters song “Louisiana Blues” making you feel the Louisiana heat and the melancholic Country ballad “Roadside cross” accompanied only by guitar, mandolin, harmonica and some fine bass/drums pace.
With more than 40 years’ experience, first class musicians and singers The Nighthawks recorded a brilliant album, no matter what kind of roots music, their performance is inspired.
© Adolf „gorhand“ Goriup

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