FolkWorld #72 07/2020

CD Reviews

Andreas Tophøj & Rune Barslund "Trails & Traces"
GO Danish Folk, 2020

www.andreasrune.dk

Two well-known Danish musicians are following up their 2014 EP with a full length album of mixed Danish and Irish tunes, pretty much all written by this pair so it's fair to say that the Irish jigs and polkas have a slight Danish accent. Rune plays accordion, low whistle and piano, while Andreas is a fiddler who also plays piano and adds backing vocals on the single song here. The Kerry Polska opens proceedings with a great example of Tophøj and Barslund's music, a 3/2 rhythm with a delightful melody taken at moderate pace, dance music indeed but played with such grace and skill that it's hard not to stop and listen. New Dawn is a gentle waltz, a simple melody beautifully performed. The first upbeat track combines an 18th century tune with Andreas' jaunty composition Thomsen's Sleighride which sounds like it should have blues harp behind it for a backwoods hoedown. The two jigs which follow are well worth adding to your session repertoire: Crossing the Atlantic in D, composed in Miltown Malbay, and The Big Catch in A which was written in Denmark but still has an Irish edge to it.
A lot of Danish music, for dancing or listening, is in what we would consider waltz time, and Trails & Traces follows that tendency. Dronningholmvejs Trippevals - the title says it all - is followed by the traditional song Rosen delivered at a slow waltz tempo by guest vocalist Sine Lahm Lauritsen. The highlight of this CD for me is Barslund's Vals til Mor og Far, a gorgeous melody which has already been recorded by several other musicians. Before the final Vilda Polska, another lovely 3/4 tune, Andreas and Rune squeeze in some faster compositions: two Kerry style polkas which don't seem to have been written before, and a reel whose originality is at least questionable. There's no suggestion of foul play, but The Haywire Compass falls into that group of tunes which bear an uncanny resemblance to Adam Sutherland's popular Road to Errogie. I came across another close relative of this melody in Manitoba a few weeks ago: maybe every fiddle tradition in the world has a version, like Soldier's Joy or Ginantonix. Be that as it may, there are fresh tunes, fine playing, and some fabulous moments here: enjoy!
© Alex Monaghan


Andy May Trio "Just a Second"
Own Label, 2020

www.andymaytrio.com

Who says all the good album names have been taken?! Release number 2 from the Andy May Trio far surpasses its self-deprecating title to bring us another helping of tangy North Sea music, from the sublime to the ridiculous. About half the material here is traditional, and the other half is mainly written by May (Northumbrian pipes and piano, not at the same time) and his partners in grime Sophy Ball (fiddle) and Ian Stephenson (everything else).
Take, for instance, The Lock Keeper Set, dedicated to concertinaman Chris Sherburn who is apparently a keeper: it opens with Andy's lyrical Forest Jig showing a rare sustained vibrato on the pipes, followed by the rushing Miss McLoud by Ian which froths up to become Sophy's syncopated closing reel. A few minutes later, the pair of traditional Tyneside tunes Steel's Jig and The Tipp Staff are given a similarly rousing treatment verging on the zany and madcap, not entirely inappropriate for the Vickers manuscript source despite its advanced age of 250 years and counting!
The Andy May Trio also does slow, graceful, delicate music. There's actually quite a lot of that on this recording, from the pastoral simplicity of Tweedside to the recherché elegance of Matt and Rachael. The flowing Ivy's Waltz and the delicate Nordic-tinged Compass are both inspired by the next generation, while the final Lark in the Clear Air harks back half a century. There are plenty of rants new and old too, a couple of 3/2 hornpipes, a lovely jaunty take on the Tom Anderson classic Robertson's Reel, and another Vickers tune whose title makes you wonder exactly what Northumbrian farmers got up to all those years ago. Be that as it may (sorry!), Just a Second is a great collection of music from a trio who like so many Northumbrian musicans before them are outstanding in their field.
© Alex Monaghan


Brown Boots "First Steps"
Own Label, 2020

Artist Video

bandcamp.com/...

Times are hard, particularly for musicians, so I bought this CD partly to help our brothers and sisters in their struggle against international skintness, and partly because of some impressive trailers on social media. A very neat little package arrived by post, environmentally friendly to the extent of saving ink by only writing half my address - although there was no stinting on sellotape! The sleeve and artwork are pleasingly minimalist, with enough information and tasteful use of line drawings, and just the one photo of fiddler Martin Clarke and melodeonist Will Allen. Although this duo could be characterised as hardcore English musicians, the music on First Steps ranges well beyond the fens and downs typically associated with that tradition: Scotland and Ireland are represented in almost half this material, and there are forays to Denmark and North America too.
The thing about Brown Boots is, they're infectious. Not in an N95 facemask way, but whatever your footwear you'll find your toes are tapping to this music. You'll want to join in, play along, dance, sing (resist that - First Steps is strictly instrumental!) from the driving notes of the Shetland reel Shaalds o' Foula to the gentle stateliness of Sussex Cotillion and its earthier French companion Schottische à Virmoux. Every track was recorded in a single take - there may have been some out-takes! - which gives this album a live, spontaneous feel, full of energy and passion. Allen and Clarke seem truly passionate about all this music, whether it's Jimmy Shand reels or James Hill hornpipes, Shropshire jigs or Restoration 3/2s. Box and fiddle provide duets and harmonies around each piece, with a low thumping left hand from Will to reinforce the beat and some soaring high notes from Martin. Barham Down is a nice example of their sparky take on English music, while La Contredanse shows off a more eclectic side of Brown Boots with some French Canadian reels. Take the plunge into this refreshing collection, get your feet wet! Oh wait ...
© Alex Monaghan


Calan "Kistvaen"
Sienco, 2020

Artist Video

www.calan-band.com

A strong, passionate album from a Welsh folk band which flirts with rock and pop, Kistvaen reminds me of Blackbeard's Tea Party, or perhaps later incarnations of Moving Hearts. Calan's energy and excitement have a tendency to boil over into unconstrained spontaneity, which occasionally kicks over the traces of musical discipline despite the obvious instrumental brilliance of this still youthful quintet.
Jêl Caerdydd gets the party started with dramatic vocals and big band backing on the tale of a tearway night gone wrong, ending up in Cardiff Jail I'm guessing. Like most of this recording, there are elements of Welsh traditional music, a mix of new and old lyrics, and some inspired arrangements. Much of the material here was unearthed in the National Library of Wales, dusted off, analysed with reverence, then as often as not hacked about and retro-fitted to Calan's modern folk feel. Which is all fine, and produces superb results on Cofi Contd and The Song of Evan, as well as the slightly surreal "dubbly dubbly" song and the storming pan-celtic finale Bailey's.
There are also several original compositions by band members here, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous: the 35 seconds of swamp jazz funk that is Take it Away Simon, delicate harp and fiddle on 'Dolig Abertawe, thumping folk-rock thrills and chills on As the Night Closes In, plus a final brief filler from Rimes and Humphreys with Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect £200. All five band members sing, so it's hard to tell who leads what despite the chatty notes in Welsh and English, but every vocal part is powerful and impressive. Accordion, whistles, Welsh pipes, keyboards, guitars and percussion provide great instrumental variety throughout a highly entertaining and engaging CD.
© Alex Monaghan


Sarah MacNeil "Northbay"
Own Label, 2020

www.sarahmacneil.com

A Scottish harpist with Hebridean connections, Sarah MacNeil has composed six pieces inspired by the southern end of the Outer Isles - Barra and its linked neighbour Vatersay. She plays them with deft gentle fingering, over string arrangements delivered by Patsy Reid. The title track is more decorative than danceable, written for perhaps the most picturesque village at the end of an airport runway. Kisimul, inspired by the fortress that gives Castlebay its name, is a funkier affair altogether, the stuff of beach parties and Barra ceilidhs, showing off the percussive aspects of modern clarsach technique.
The beautiful Siar does indeed evoke that westward view from the Hebrides, unbroken blue-green ocean stretching to the horizon, deceptively peaceful. The Cockle Strand starts as a rippling stravaig and becomes a joyous romp through unexpected treasures. Heaval is a more serious piece, whether for the climb or the view from this island peak,and the final mournful Catalina probably reflects on the 1944 seaplane crash which still marks the island of Vatersay. Between an EP and a full album, Northbay introduces an impressive new talent whose debut is already polished and powerful, and whose catalogue is poised for over a thousand future albums.
© Alex Monaghan


Nick Wyke & Becki Driscoll "Cold Light"
Own Label, 2019

Artist Video

www.englishfiddle.com

If you want to hear what's good about English fiddling, this duo is a good place to start. Playing a traditional repertoire from around North Devon, with the odd glance overseas, Wyke and Driscoll also add several of their own compositions here, including five songs which stretches my tolerance for vocal content - but at least they are all properly miserable! Addiction, abuse, war, death and despair are set to fine melodies bravely sung, and one of those old English riddle songs gets a new tune courtesy of Nick and Becki.
The opening Knitting Reel seems quite idyllic in light of later themes. The twin fiddles are augmented by bass and percussion, and this duo adds several other guests through Cold Light, bringing accordion, bagpipes and brass to join their strings and piano. A few of the tunes here are also known in the Irish and Scottish traditions - Petticoats Loose and one of William Andrew's Hornpipes for instance - but many are strictly local. A Cornish version of The Triumph, William Andrew's take on Harvest Home, and the final rumbustious Boscastle Breakdown are all neatly turned and highly enjoyable. There's a bit of classical, a bit of salsa, and a beautiful Swedish polska. Wyke and Driscoll's own pieces include the swirling Three Bridges in an entrancing arrangement, and the chill title track which has its own simple beauty. This duo's previous album A Handful of Sky was a great find, and Cold Light is at the same level.
© Alex Monaghan


David Grubb "Nano"
Own Label, 2020

www.davidgrubb.co.uk

A follow-up to a remarkable 2015 debut CD from this young Scottish violinist and fiddler, Nano is on the small side as you might expect, but it's powerful. After a gentle introduction, the thumping distortion of Bliss is Ignorance gives way to smooth fiddle and rock rhythms, becoming almost oldtime folk rock. SOS begins to make Grubb's message plain, its insistent cry for help interrupting the folky 11/8 melody: this is music with a social meaning, underscoring the breakdown of our world, crying out for the economic and environmental change we need. So say the notes with this album, and it's a message that fits the mood of Nano.
The Space In Between is more contemplative, mainly a piano piece, the fiddle late to the party but adding its calming influence to this pause for thought. The final Super is more optimistic, layering up to six instruments to make a rainbow of hopeful sound, striving for something better, achieving release from the mire of modern life. With all new compositions and a mix of rock and classical instruments, this contemporary music still has close ties to folk and traditional sounds and should appeal to anyone who likes fine fiddling. Nano is currently a digital-only release, but that may change. Check out David's website for details.
© Alex Monaghan


Kevin Meehan "Spanish Point"
Own Label, 2020

Artist Video

bandcamp.com/...

Just into his twenties, this young North Dublin whistle-player has blown up quite a storm at festivals and concerts over the past few years. He takes the humble tin whistle to new highs - and lows - in a wide-ranging debut album. Well over a dozen excellent guests build a sound which spans the gentle County Clare lyricism of the title track, the eclectic folk-rock of the final Nusa, and everything in between. There's a strong Scottish influence in the choice of material here - several pieces by pipers Allan MacDonald and Calum MacCrimmon, old Gaelic tunes, and the air Borve Castle as well as Rory Campbell's great final piece - but Meehan puts his own stamp on the album with a style that recalls Vinnie Kilduff or the whistle masters of Lúnasa: sweet, unhurried, assured.
The jig Brennan Mac Finn is a perfect example of Irish whistle, smoothly played with just enough ornamentation and an infectious lift which soon has fingers tapping and feet stamping. The low whistle on Kevin's own Rockabill Island slips into the modern groove cut by Moving Hearts and Deiseal and Flook. His two-part Living Bridge is more of the moment, a distinctly post-Riverdance waltz with a demanding bass line, switching to a seriously funky reel which would suit Moxie or Elephant Sessions or several other current bands. The old mouth-music Ruidhle Mo Nighean Donn leads into a pair of new reels which get a full band treatment, allowing Meehan's whistle space to soar. Padraig Rynne's Inches from Dublin is another opportunity for virtuosity, before the final big finish on a track which pulls out all the stops but still leaves Kevin Meehan calling the tune. And Spanish Point is only the beginning!
© Alex Monaghan


Hidrae "Hydraulic"
Appel Rekords, 2020

Artist Video

www.hidrae.be

All new material from this seven-piece Belgian band, but the music of Hidrae is clearly an extension of the Flemish and French traditions of both "bal folk" and "spectacle" music. They claim to combine high-energy dance music with a blissful listening experience, and they pretty much deliver on that promise. Although Hydraulic is a debut recording, this group has been on the Flanders scene for several years: a recent name change and a refreshed core line-up has built on their established repertoire to create a formidable instrumental band and an impressive recording. Their bilingual (English-Dutch, no French) website has samples and details aplenty, and presents Hidrae as a quintet: for this CD they have added Annaleen Brabants on viola and percussionist Gielis Gautaers.
The music is powerful, from the pulsing Irish-tinged jig Aran to the smooth waltz Schelvis whose title seems to pay tribute either to the great Memphis crooner or to the IKEA furniture beloved of Leuven students. Hidrae has a full sound, not surprisingly - melodeon, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, fiddle and bass guitar provide the foundation, with additional cello, guitar, and electronic effects. The melodies and masterly arrangements are immediately identifiable as part of the "bal" scene that stretches from Assen to Arcachon, loosely based on central French traditions. Hidrae have learnt from names such as Milleret, Chabenat, Jolivet, Coudroy, Pignol, and Belgian gurdyist Lode Bucsan who wrote two of the pieces here. Hydraulic adds Celtic, Nordic and Latin touches, and gentle vocals on two tracks: the sultry ending of Pescado Diabolo and the dreamy buzzing of Fléo. A fine album, richly arranged and strongly played, Hydraulic ends with another great dance track, the fairy-food frolic of Tagliatella.
© Alex Monaghan


Quintet Bumbac "Miroirs"
Own Label, 2020

Artist Video

www.quintetbumbac.com

This French-based group really does hold up a mirror to the music of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Bulgarian, Kurdish, Jewish and Romanian pieces, together with some original compositions, make up almost an hour of string quintet arrangements, richly layered like Balkan pastries. Miroirs comes four years after their debut album, and follows its focus on slower contemplative pieces rather than the florid fiddling of the gypsy bands and wedding dances. There are some more lively pieces - the opening Joc de Început and the penultimate Fantaisie Bulgare - but in between we are afforded only glimpses of frenzied dance rhythms, whirling dervishes and Roma campfire revels. For the most part the mood is more sombre, painting a picture of restraint, of sadness even, in Kürdi Taksim, Lueurs du Levant, and the final Du Crépuscule à l'Aube. Some tracks build to a boisterous conclusion, and one or two step outside traditional music to deliver a sound closer to modern jazz or classical compositions, but these diversions are rare, and at the end of an hour of superb playing I found myself wanting a change of timbre or tempo. Maybe take this CD in small bites.
© Alex Monaghan


Jake Blount "Spider Tales"
Free Dirt Records, 2020

Artist Video

Artist Video

www.jakeblount.com

This CD popped unexpectedly through the door, and I had no idea what it was, so I read the blurb. Ah, a singer-songwriter, probably not for me, but also a banjo-player - a black banjo player, growing up in Appalachia as a gay activist - just a minute! Life is so tough even among the pale-skinned poor in Appalachia that they think banjos are fun: I cannot imagine what it's like to be black and gay in that environment. So I put the CD on. Whatever the difficulties of his childhood, Jake Blount has certainly brought some good out of it in his music, making old songs and dance music his own.
The material here is a mix of black American oldtime and blues, Irish songs, the rebellious Spider Tales brought by African slaves from their native culture with Anansi the spider as a Loki-like trickster, and native American music, all stitched together by Blount with material of his own. The considerable talents of fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves and dancer Nic Gareiss, plus Rachel Eddy on guitar and Haselden Ciaccio on bass, make this a highly entertaining and varied collection, as well as a fascinating insight into a culture which is still under-represented, neglected and poorly understood. Leadbelly's aching Where Did You Sleep Last Night, the equally poignant Brown Skin Baby, some great fiddle and banjo tunes from early recordings of black American musicians, and the classic Boll Weevil are spread out by newer pieces led by Blount's banjo. Grey Eagle, Rocky Road to Dublin, Done Gone and more: this album was such a pleasant surprise to me, I'm sure you'll like it too.
© Alex Monaghan

CoroNews

Jake Blount just released a powerful essay on coping with coronavirus cancellations: »As we cancel our engagements, stockpile supplies, and adopt social distancing, the pandemic’s impact can bleed into our personal lives. Traveling musicians sometimes find that we lack strong community in our hometowns because we’re gone so often. Many of us are introverts who spend our limited time at home in solitary convalescence, which compounds the issue. After today, I can say with surety: Sitting alone in an apartment watching your anticipated monthly income evaporate is a profoundly unsettling experience. As more and more people batten down the hatches and isolate themselves, we must be intentional about reaching out to one another and offering support. Musicians struggle with mental illness at a far higher rate than the general population. It’s not just about musicians; COVID-19 has destabilized our nation’s service and entertainment industries at every level, and has impacted other sectors just as severely. Musicians are, however, some of the population’s most important mouthpieces. We are privileged to be able to speak on behalf of others, and to have our voices heard more widely than most. This disease caught our population and our government flat-footed. It’s critically important that we use our platforms to advocate for effective solutions to this crisis, and to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are being properly cared for... In this digital age, we do not need a physical stage to make ourselves heard. I hope that my colleagues who are planning to stream concerts or produce online content during this downtime will use the opportunity to speak to both the large-scale economic impact this will have and the need for affordable and accessible health care.« Read at No Depression!

Black Lives Matter

Jake Blount put out a statement about the current protests rocking the nation. He ties some of these ideas to the song Mad Mama's Blues. Recorded in 1924 by blues singer Josie Miles, the song is a haunting, rage-filled desire to burn everything to the ground. »The purpose of Spider Tales is to chronicle the fury, the resentment and the desperation for justice that have simmered beneath the surface of this nation since time immemorial, and that have been encoded into the traditions passed down to me. It seems only fitting that the record should be released minutes after protesters in Minneapolis breached and burned a police precinct, exacting an incomplete vengeance for the public lynching of George Floyd and ensuring the arrest of his killer. It may be that the past several years' unrest has been the first, scattered sparks of a conflagration for which generations of my ancestors have prayed. I am honored to carry those prayers forward in song -- for my forebears' sake, for my own, and for all of us who want to set the world on fire. The reckoning to come may be grim for us all, but it is overdue. I stand with my people as we struggle for our freedom. Please stand with us and with Minneapolis by donating to the Minnesota Freedom Fund


J-C Guichen "Braz Live"
Own Label, 2020

Artist Video

www.jcguichen.com

With his trademark top hat, Jean-Charles Guichen has become something of an icon on the Fest Noz scene. And rightly so: this is a man who can hold a Breton ceilidh single-handed, armed only with a guitar, and keep a festival audience on its toes all night. Known to his growing fan base as J-C, he came to prominence with ace '90s band Ar Re Yaouank and has recorded well over a dozen albums since then, with his box-playing brother Fred, with various line-ups, and a handful of solo releases. Braz Live is taken from a performance at the 2019 Lorient festival, and there is considerable background noise from the enthusiastic dancers on this recording, but that doesn't detract from the music.
Yes, the music. While J-C's live show seems to generate an atmosphere of excitement and joyous energy that is certainly a very attractive aspect of this CD, the music on Braz Live is impressive too. Seven tracks of Breton dance music - a Scottish, an Andro, a whole Plinn suite, and a couple of circle dances - are all composed by this man, and played with polyphonic showmanship: bass lines, chords, and melodies all picked out perfectly with great rhythm for the dancers and a melodic groove to those long repetitive Breton tunes. The pièce de résistance is a ten-minute rond de St Vincent, reprising the riff from 4 Men and a Dog's 1995 hit Last Night. Guichen signs off with a song from fiddler and vocalist Claire Mocquard, the rousing Breton anthem Bro Gozh Ma Zadoù - perhaps better known as the national anthem of Wales Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. A passionate end to a powerful and impressive album.
© Alex Monaghan


Nooli "Kesä Ei Lopu Koskaan"
Eclipse Music, 2019

www.noolimusic.com

From Finland, fiddler Jonna Lankinen and harmonium-player Oona Harju have a distinctive and at times quite beautiful sound. This debut album of their own compositions is not the finger-twisting Finnish polskas we are used to, or the simpler dance music of more northern regions: Nooli (pronounced like "gnarly" in a Brummy accent) play a more relaxed style, almost church music. There is one polska, but it's taken slow, the gorgeous Kaarina's Polska. The penultimate driving Bratislava, which could be construed as a polska, is a much faster piece - about as close as this duo get to a Celtic reel. The combination of fiddle and pump organ creates a surprising range of tones, from the harmonium's basso continuo on the opening Salamiakki while the fiddle feigns nickelharpa resonances, to the rock-band bass riffs and fiery bowing of Femkanten.
There's a lot more depth here than the sweet things on the cover would have you believe. Rallarsvingen rolls along like a prairie cart, oldtime fiddle and rhythmic harmonium. Häävalssi and June Waltz are gentler, graceful melodies on both instruments, more Nordic in character. While the fiddle generally takes the lead on this album, it's the harmonium that sets the tone: soft and sweet or low and growling, smooth harmonies or rapid rhythms, adding everything the fiddle needs to turn this into a compelling CD. The final title track, meaning Summer Never Ends, is hypnotic, more of a trance tune than a trad form, dragging that pump organ out of the chapel and down to the night club. Nooli are a class act creating unique and absorbing music.
© Alex Monaghan


Ralsgård & Tullberg "Kvartett"
Kap Syd, 2019

Artist Video

www.ralsgardtullberg.com

Andreas Ralsgård and Markus Tullberg have joined forces with cellist Alexandra Nilsson and well-known nyckelharpist Andreas Roswall to produce a relatively relaxed album of Swedish music featuring their two wooden flutes. The higher tone of the woodwind struggles to overcome the bass notes of cello and keyed fiddle - I had to adjust the bass and treble controls on one or two of the systems I tried this CD on - but when you get the balance right Kvartett has all the richness of a Baroque ensemble. This foursome plays mainly traditional material - the occasional dance tune, but mostly slower melodies - plus a few of Ralsgård and Tullberg's own compositions.
Kvartett gives the impression of a suite of pieces, with quite similar arrangements providing a common sound throughout the album. The pace does pick up occasionally, on the traditional Lagerfeldt and Rusken for instance, but this music is generally more contemplative than catchy. Ralsgård's Pipor is a good example, the cello melody line overlaid with improvisations on flutes and nyckelharpa. Bast is almost medieval in its earthy simplicity, a slow march to the gallows perhaps, while the 18th century Reventlow manuscript provides a gentle swagger. Tullberg's final Luftsträng is another heavyweight, layering flute lines onto Nilsson and Roswall's ground, rich and resonant, music for calm relaxation, perhaps with a favourite drink to hand.
© Alex Monaghan


Vicki Swan & Jonny Dyer "Sleep Deprivation"
Own Label, 2020

www.swan-dyer.co.uk

This eclectic English duo is well known for concert performances, but their contra dance career is perhaps familiar only to a select few. Sleep Deprivation shares the secret - an entire album (almost) of instrumental music for dancing, at contra tempo, all composed by the versatile Mr Dyer. I say "almost" because there is one song thrown in, a sort of stripped-down version of Tom Paine's Bones which was so memorably arranged by The Shee: Swan & Dyer call their version Jiggle the Old Bones. With nyckelharpa and flute from Vicki (no pipes until the final track), plus a plethora of stringed instruments from Johnny, the arrangements are varied and entertaining. The beat is the thing for the dancers, of course, and it is metronomic on double bass, percussion and rhythm guitar.
As Sleep Deprivation was inspired by the long drives between gigs, the tune titles reflect this with grim humour: The Dark Side, Lightening the Load, Diversion Ahead, and the truly terrifying St Albans. Jigs and reels alternate with the occasional waltz, all at a brisk pace. The style varies from New England breakdowns (what Celtic musicians might call polkas or quicksteps) to finger-twisting reels, country waltzes and Nordic schottisches, and the climactic chapelloise which has something of a Cape Breton feel on Swedish pipes and piano. There are plenty of catchy melodies here, and a good danceband lift, so whether you're jiggling your bones or just tapping your fingers Swan & Dyer provide a very pleasant hour of music on their umpteenth recording.
© Alex Monaghan


Alex Kusturok "Phoenix"
Own Label, 2020

Artist Video

www.alexkusturok.com

Alex Kusturok is a young (twentysomething probably) fiddler from Winnipeg, known for his virtuosic and powerful performances of the earthy Métis dance music of central Canada, but his eclectic fiddling background and his recent move out west have spawned a fourth album with a wide range of styles. The opening set of reels sits in that sweet spot between Irish and Scottish heritage, with the Canadian driven bow backed by Alex's chosen band: Tim Turrett on guitar and bass, Robbie Fraser on piano, and Devon Benoit on drums. The second set of reels adds a Canadian French influence with La Belle Chasse before a pair of Cape Breton classics and a final blast of Gordon Duncan's Break Yer Bass Drone. Close your eyes and this could be Natalie MacMaster or Howie MacDonald behind the bow, low growling notes close to the floor, soaring sprightly humour on the high strings.
This has been a hard road for Alex, and he's up front about his battle with mental health and adiction, but he's not looking for sympathy. He's here to play fiddle, and my goodness can he do that. A set of bouncy jigs is polished off in style, with a hint of those long Newfoundland dances in the accompaniment. Kusturok offers a solo on La Grondeuse, an old crooked Quebec fiddle tune with only spartan bass accompaniment, before the lyrical French Canadian showpiece Guilmette's Waltz Clog with soaring fiddle and sweeping piano. A reel-time version of Chùir i Glùin Air A’ Bhodaich hitches into a Philippe Bruneau reel, and the traditional Irish reel Julia Delaney is paired with Ti-Blanc Richard's rousing Reel du 35e - a lot of reels.
Jigs in a jaunty Canadian style next, as Alex injects lift into Golden Rod from Nova Scotia and the tune we know as Andy Dejarlis' Jig from Manitoba. The strathspey Bog an Lochan is taken at dance speed, swinging into Fermoy Lasses and The Poppy Leaf. All this is backed by Cape Breton piano and thumping rhythm section. The last track is a bravura performance of Music for a Found Harmonium, duetting with the prodigious Jeremy Rusu's piano cameo, but before that virtual encore comes a finale with the core band: a relaxed take on the Scots reel Petronella, another Cape Breton classic, then a rock riff announcing Alex's own moody reel Champion Kai, topped off with the party piece Cotton Woods. It's hot, it's tasty, and I hope it's only a start from this uniquely talented fiddler.
© Alex Monaghan


Hauler "Hauler"
Own Label, 2020

Artist Video

www.haulermusic.com

This trio combines the talents of fiddler Colin Grant,[44] guitarist Steven MacDougall, and bassist Mike Lelievre, with MacDougall and Lelievre also providing vocals reminiscent of their band Slowcoaster. As the name suggests, Hauler is a tad more rustic, harking back to the traditions of Nova Scotia. Opening with Robert Joyce's Irish ballad Wind that Shakes the Barley, a raw folk rock arrangement is rounded off with a Scottish reel. Mayday sandwiches Andy Dejarlis' well-known jig between two of Colin's, surprisingly sweet and lyrical fiddling for Cape Breton but still with that dancers' lift. (Does anyone else hear banjo?) Long Way Home edges towards country with Lelievre's Deliverance tones - and now I definitely hear banjo! Finders Keepers starts low and threatening, stalking through the woods, a spine-tingling fiddle tune, something howling through the trees, sparse percussion and guitars - I hope they're guitars! Keep paddling.
The Widow's Vow is no less macabre, dark storms and darker passions in a Misery murder ballad. Starfish lightens the mood, a 5/4 march with a reggae feel, warmer islands infusing the Cape Breton chill. Slap guitar and insistent bass lines run through a set of eclectic jigs, the modern Little Sara's moving into a neatly-turned music hall classic before the Perthshire fiddle standard Miss Sophia Campbell. The poignant plea in Love of Lost Sake has nothing to do with rice wine, and is set to the aching air Archibald MacDonald of Keppoch. Another fiddle set follows, a Cape Breton strathspey and reel split by the fine hornpipe Duncan Johnstone with rhythmic guitar and authentic stomping, driving tunes. Hauler ends on a surprisingly gentle note, a country waltz with soothing words - until you realise this is a song about weary separation. Cheery stuff altogether. Great playing though, and emotive singing, a highly enjoyable album. Just watch out for those banjos.
© Alex Monaghan


Jason Lepine "Métis Flair"
Own Label, 2020

An appropriately named album, this is fantastic fiddling from the heart of Canada. Jason Lepine inherited the Métis tradition, the music and dance of the crossover between the indigenous peoples of Canada and the immigrants from Celtic and Scandinavian countries amongst others, from his fiddling father the great Garry Lepine. Métis Flair, Jason's second album I believe, carries that tradition to a wider audience. With fiddle tunes from across Canada and beyond, Jason's music is perfect for dancing: you won't find it easy to sit still through this recording.
What is Métis fiddling? Well it's a bit of a melting pot, by definition, but basically it's dance music, with an emphasis on the rhythm and lift, and also the need for the music to cut through in the days where a single unamplified fiddler was playing for the whole community. Jason Lepine obviously has the benefit of amplification, and the assistance here of exceptional accompanist Jeremy Rusu on a dozen different instruments - everything from accordion to oboe - but those earlier characteristics are still preserved in the Métis style. Most of the tracks here are for square dances or jigging - another Métis tradition - with a number of country waltzes and oldtime two-steps. The fiddle plays with a strong swing rhythm, hitting the offbeat as often as not, accenting the melodies with double-stops and ringing strings, and there's an important element of showmanship. Foot percussion is almost obligatory on the quicker pieces, and Lepine's repertoire is based around the more flamboyant side of oldtime fiddle as well as the compositions of the Métis fiddle icon Andy Dejarlis.
The Sleeping Giant Two-Step, The Red Headed Fiddler's Waltz and Rooster on the Fence are typical of Dejarlis' Manitoba dance music, toe-tapping favourites every one, and there are similarly irresistible compositions by Patti Kusturok, Reg Bouvette, and both Lepine fiddlers. Moving across Canada, we have tunes by John Arcand, Calvin Vollrath, and of course Ward Allen's Maple Sugar. Traditional pieces such as Ragtime Annie, Whiskey Before Breakfast, Durang's Hornpipe and Old Man and Old Woman are played throughout North America, but here they get a distinct Manitoba twist. As if this wasn't enough, the talented Mr Rusu provides frequent solos on piano, electric guitar, banjo and flat-picked acoustic guitar, in addition to lively intros and rock-solid accompaniment. There isn't a dull moment in almost an hour of music, but be warned: this album could easily get you hooked on Métis fiddle, and there's a lot more to explore! Google Jason Lepine, or find him on Facebook.
© Alex Monaghan


Majorstuen "Jubel"
Own Label, 2020

www.majorstuen.biz

In its twenty-year history, this Norwegian group has gone through some changes. I came across them on their 2017 album Skrible,[67] and since then they have grown slightly closer to a classical string quintet. With fiddles, violas, cello and double bass, Majorstuen present mostly their own compositions here, in a style somewhere between Grieg and Garmarna. This is not the ethereal music of Hardanger fiddles or the ancient rhythms of village dances: Jubel certainly has a Norwegian character, as on the starkly eerie Sirkling, but most pieces here are related to contemporary Scandinavian music - although that is itself often based on centuries-old manuscripts.
The beautiful Væls tell Slutt, the sprightly Kaffikokaren, and the joyous Länge Leve bracket Majorstuen's music. There are more contemplative tracks - Kleiveland and Koral for instance - but the overall mood is one of elation, celebration, jubilation: Jubel indeed. The title track Jubelpolka is actually quite restrained, but this is more than made up for elsewhere, particularly on the wonderful ragtime Op med Humøret. The standard of musicianship is impeccable throughout, as you'd expect from academy-trained Scandinavian musicians, but Majorstuen can still have fun with their music, and this quintet puts life into every melody. Album number eight is noticeably shorter than previous recordings - this seems to be a trend with the rise of digital downloads, no need to fill a physical disc - but Jubel packs a lot into its 35 minutes.
© Alex Monaghan


Kristine Heebøll "Pernambuk"
GO Danish Folk, 2020

Artist Video

www.kristineheeboll.dk

Danish folk music can stray close to classical music, for complex historical reasons, and this CD gets closer than most. Fiddle (or violin) and piano perform new music written on a voyage of discovery, the interplay between Kristine's exotic wood bow and Timo Alakotila's ivory keys. Timo is from Finland, and is used to bridging classical and folk music: to quote the press release for Pernambuk, he certainly puts a "great finish" on these eleven pieces.
The album title, of course, comes from the Brazilian redwood found in the Pernambuco region by Portuguese explorers and much prized by European bowmakers for centuries. Heebøll and Alakotila's explorations are not quite so wide-ranging - they stick to Northern European folk forms, waltzes, polskas and wedding marches - but they do stretch the envelope of fiddle sounds, with harmonics and glissando and other effects, as well as improvisation on both strings and keys.
This most attractive and musical album is further enhanced by guest trio Vesselil who bring their fiddle and cello bows to bear on Bryllupsmarch til Mille og Ande and the story-song Nu. I also particularly enjoyed the delicate Marcipanvals and its minor twin Molmarcipanvals - the icing on this cake. The lively Alvins Ottemandsdans is another highpoint, leaning towards contemporary Shetland music. Timo and Kristine end with a traditional wedding medley, Bryllupsmarcher fra Himmerland, sweetly played, a gentle last note to a well-written tale.
© Alex Monaghan


Ambäck "Chreiselheuer"
Own Label, 2019

Artist Video

www.ambaeck.ch

Music with holes in, on triangular instruments, and lots of other jokes - but this is serious music from a trio who base their sound on old musicians from the remote Muotathal in the high pastures of deepest Switzerland. Fiddle, melodeon and double bass combine to produce a very Alpine sound, and then take this music off-piste for more modern and exploratory adventures.
Fiddler Andreas Gabriel's Verändler opens proceedings with an obvious play on words, a fresh look at an old Austrian dance form, tearing down the mountain. Gabriel and box-player Markus Flückiger toss compositions back and forth until the final Ball Adé, breaking into 4/4 for the playful polka Double before falling back into their triple-time groove. There's just one piece here by bassist Pirmin Huber, the soothing Balladenwalzer, not quite the slowest piece on Chreiselheuer: it offers an opportunity for all three musicians to show their mastery of tone and sensitivity. The title track is more typical of Ambäck, discordant and disjointed opening lines resolving into Kerwa-style dance music, then drifting apart again in carefully-constructed quasi-chaos.
A bit of fun with a Loop pedal, a rustic little Stöpsel with a jazzy edge to it, and another unsolicited pun bring us to the final farewell: weeping melodeon chords, high sweeping fiddle, and stirring bass notes dance gracefully together on what is the longest but perhaps the least dramatic track here. This last waltz again underlines Ambäck's mastery of deep Swiss tradition, as well as their ability to draw emotion out of their music, with superb technical skill and real passion.
© Alex Monaghan


Dan Ar Braz "Dan Ar Dañs"
Paker Prod, 2020

Artist Video

www.danarbraz.com

To describe the music of Dan Ar Braz as folk rock is to miss the point, I think. Yes, this is an album of electric guitar (an acoustic record is coming soon) but it is also an album of traditional Breton music. The electric guitar has been added to pretty much every Western tradition over the last fifty years, just as the acoustic guitar was added in the previous hundred. Dan Ar Dañs assembles all the elements of Breton music - bombarde, organ, bagpipes, accordion, a bit of song, a lot of dance, and that Breton big band sound introduced by Bagad Kemper and continued through Dan Ar Braz shows such as "L'Héritage des Celtes".
As well as plenty of traditional dance melodies in Pop Plinn, Ton Bale Pourled, Dañs Fisel and Bal à Dañs Plinn, with arrangements acknowledging Alan Stivell, Dan Ar Braz offers some of his own great compositions here: the hypnotic Belong, the rousing Call to the Dance, the indescribable Orgies Nocturnes, and the final homage Evit ar Barzh. There are gentler pieces too, As Far as I can Dream and La Trace du Souvenir. Dan Ar Braz's guitar does not always dominate - sometimes it skulks moodily in the shadows or backs up a group of pipers. When it comes to the fore though, as on the anthem Menez Du, there is no doubting the talent and power of this musician as he celebrates sixty years playing Breton guitar.
© Alex Monaghan


Coastline "Blue Fiddle"
Own Label, 2020

Artist Video

Artist Video

www.coastlinefiddle.com

To describe this band as a youth project would be to miss half the point. Coastline is an ensemble of well over a dozen 14 to 21 year old musicians from the Canadian Pacific province of British Columbia, and its standard is remarkably high: the aim is to introduce young players to the traditional music of Canada in the widest sense, so there's everything from old Cape Breton strathspeys to contemporary jazz. Led by ace BC fiddler Ivonne Hernandez, Coastline is mainly fiddles with a smattering of cello, guitar and piano - but in the nature of youth ensembles the line-up changes, and although this is their third album many of those who recorded the first one in 2015 have probably moved on. They learn, tour, and record - not just to pass the time, but to produce the next generation of award-winning traditional musicians.
So what's Blue Fiddle like? Well, if Scottish fiddle orchestras played jazz waltzes and Brian Pickell tunes, it would be like that. Or if Dónal Lunny arranged his Irish compositions for a really good school orchestra, it could be like that. There's no easy comparison, but it does remind me of a collection of all the best Fiddle Camp finale shows. Irish polkas and slides, Canadian oldtime by Vollrath and Stobbe, the challenging Fantomen by Swedish fiddler Eric Ost, and the dreamy Return from Helsinki by Northumbrian multi-instrumentalist Ian Stephenson are all grist to the mill here, and the result is a fine flowering from these young players. With a handful of great guests to top off their home-grown talent, Coastline do full justice to a wide range of music: One Track Zach from Ontario, Gravel Walks from the original Donegal, the funky Californian Flying Squirrel, and of course Steve Cooney's slip-polka The Blue Fiddle like a slow Quebec brandy. There are plenty of tunes to enjoy, and names to watch out for in future!
© Alex Monaghan


Hawktail "Formations"
Padiddle Records, 2020

Artist Video

www.hawktailmusic.com

A second album from this quartet coming out of the eclectic Boston scene, Formations combines oldtime, Irish, bluegrass, Scandinavian, and contemporary fiddle music. This shortish CD presents only seven tracks, but each one is a distillation of different ideas. Annbjørg is suitably Nordic on fiddle, Last One On The Line comes back with bluegrass mandolin, the gentle Dandelion has a modern bass groove, and the excitement of The Tobogganist expresses itself as a barnstorming breakdown.
The line-up is unchanged from their eponymous sort-of-debut album: Brittany Haas, Dominick Leslie, Jordan Tice and Paul Kowert have written, arranged, and jazzed up the pieces here, with the exception of the final One Hour in Hungary which was composed by two Swedes - presumably in Hungary, but nothing is certain. Haas' fiddle slides effortlessly through Eddie's Attic, a piece that makes me think they played oldtime in Bladerunner, as bass and fretted strings stir eerily into life. Tice's guitar finally stamps its six-string authority on Padiddle, a flamboyant country "song" with sassy rhythms but no words. And then it's over, except for those Swedes sauntering unsteadily into the sunset. Formations is fun, funky, full-bodied, and fabulously well played.
© Alex Monaghan


Kevin Henderson & Neil Pearlman "Burden Lake"
Own label, 2020

German CD Review

Artist Video

www.kevinandneil.com

A mix of old and new music - mostly new - on fiddle and keyboards, this album combines Kevin Henderson's Shetland roots with Neil Pearlman's New England and jazz influences. Shetland musicians have had a taste for jazz accompaniment ever since Peerie Willie Johnson's 1950s swing guitar, so this is a good fit. Henderson brings a few traditional Shetland tunes to the party, but Burden Lake is mostly new compositions - four from Neil and seven from Kevin. The first three tracks set the tone: driving complex rhythms over downright funky chords on Sjovald with an extended piano break, glassy smooth fiddling for the gentle Liam's, fiddle and keys trading punches on the catchy melodies of Lukas.
The traditional air Da Trowie Burn is beautifully rendered by this duo before a cheeky set of Reels introduced brilliantly by Pearlman. The connection between Scotland and New England is clear in Neil's crooked strathspey and jig medley: his other compostions here were inspired by trips to San Simon near Vigo, and to Newcastle Upon Tyne, obvious bedfellows really, except 47 Hours was written before Neil had even arrived on Tyneside. In between these two Pearlman tracks is the slow waltz Bonfrost, chill enough to turn a fiddle blue. Burden Lake finishes with its title track, another cool Henderson air, swapped between fiddle and piano for a lounge jazz finale. A bit of mandolin from Pearlman, a bit of bass from Neil Harland, and this CD is cold-pressed perfection.
© Alex Monaghan


Marie Fielding "The Spectrum Project"
Rumford Records, 2020

German CD Review

www.mariefieldingmusic.com

Somehow this Scottish fiddler contrives to make new music sound old, to turn her quite contemporary compositions into something akin to Skinner's Caledonian Companion or the Simon Fraser collection. This is Scottish music by and large, although Ms Fielding's Irish connections come through in a number of places. Mayo 2 Manchester, Aran Islands and Connemara Reel all lean westwards, as does the cover painting which showcases another Fielding talent. This CD's arrangements owe much to the box and fiddle clubs of the Scottish dance music scene, with Tom Orr providing piano and harmonium, but the sound is broadened by guitarists Luc McNally and Donogh Hennessy, allowing its character to range from Take the Floor to I'll Take Manhattan. Most of the pieces in The Spectrum Project are included in Marie's third tunebook, and I would strongly recommend anyone who has that book to get this album and hear how the music is intended to be played.
The title track is a masterpiece of tone and texture, dark shading to light in a Gaelic air. Slipjigs and slow reels with a more Hibernian cadence bring us to the first interloper, Brattfors i Brunt by Eva Deivert from Värmland in rural Sweden, a sweet and delicate piece full of fields and sunshine. The delicacy continues through a set of reels reminiscent of Martin Hayes, but these minor melodies sound a note of foreboding. The beautiful winding waltz Gracie's Lullaby brings back the light, and leads to two tracks of spirited Scottish dance music, technically challenging, crisp and tasty. To top it all off, Fielding's fiddle and Orr's piano pay homage to the golden age of Scottish fiddle with a pair of tunes from the 18th century: Niel Gow's Compliments Returned to Mr Marshall which links two of Scotland's finest composers, and Daniel Dow's Captain MacDuff which inclines more to the Gaelic and piping traditions. A short reprise of the opening theme brings us full circle in this rich and rounded CD, Marie Fielding's fourth under her own name.
© Alex Monaghan


Hailee LeFort "It's Happenin'"
Own Label, 2018

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Hailee serves up her music like a Michelin starred chef: fresh, tasty, and inventive. From an Acadian background at the north end of Cape Breton Island, she now resides on Prince Edward Island - but her music here is pure Cape Breton fiddle to my ears, strathspeys and reels, lively jigs, and Scottish tunes old and new. Some Cape Breton fiddlers seem to struggle with jigs - maybe there's a clash between Scottish and Irish rhythms - but Hailee nails them every time on this debut album. There's a strong piping swing to Pattern Day and Teviot Brig which carries over to an exuberant inverted version of The Stool of Repentance. Same applies to the Irish favourite Old Joe's, leading into the Cape Breton classic Trip to Toronto and Hailee's own Ailean Iain an Dannsair.
It's Happenin' offers a full handful of those big Cape Breton reel sets too, including classics such as Còta Mòr Ealasaid, Cuir 'sa Chiste Mhòir mi, The Night we had the Goats, Hull's Reel and Jenny Dang the Weaver. Irish elements like The Silver Spear, Dillon Brown's and The Primrose Lass provide seasoning, but the bones are definitely Scottish, articulating with strathspeys such as Munlochy Bridge, Cawdor Fair, The Warlocks and Bog an Lochan. There's great lift in all these pieces, assisted by Brent Chaisson on guitar and Ward MacDonald on piano. Ward also wrote the air A Happy Home, one of three lovely slow pieces here: the others are Nathaniel Gow's neglected Coilsfield House and the poignant Lament for John Morris Rankin. Ms LeFort finishes on another heavyweight medley, recorded live: strathspeys ending with the popular MacKinnon's Brook, and reels wrapping up with Sandy Mathers' punchy Repeal the Poll Tax. Look for Hailee on Facebook - Ms LeFort is now Mrs MacDonald, but there aren't too many Hailee MacDonalds!
© Alex Monaghan


Skerryvore "Live Across Scotland"
Tyree Records, 2020

Artist Video

www.skerryvore.com

Cramming as much music as they can onto this turbocharged tour recording, Skerryvore flit from venue to venue bringing audiences to their feet up and down the country. This was back in the days when bands could play big live concerts - 2019 and early 2020. From Inverness to Selkirk, Darvel to Aberdeen, with eight musicians on stage, Skerryvore celebrated their fifteenth year of high-quality Hebridean folk rock.
There's poignancy in many of the track names here. Let's hope that The Last Time - Live in Stirling is not prophetic: its message of disillusion with the political establishment has remained sadly topical for a decade or more. Many a Borderer will identify with the sentiment of Waiting On The Sun - Live in Selkirk, and indeed the crowd sing along with feeling. I can't comment on the accuracy of At The End Of The Line - Live in Forfar, but the surging melody is a great Gaelic waltz and the audience seem to enjoy it. Perhaps the most contentious title here is The Rut - Live in Inverness: surely it can't be that bad, as the Inverness gig produced four of the fifteen tracks here!
Alongside Skerryvore's trademark Tiree rock anthems, Live Across Scotland contains some stirring instrumental sets. Scottish, Irish, and even English jigs on accordions, whistles, pipes and fiddle are complemented by a stunning medley on double pipes by Martin Gillespie and Scott Wood The Showman. There's a powerful pipes slow air from the Fort William concert, and a huge set of reels before the final Path to Home. While Skerryvore may lack the vocal depth of Runrig or Capercaillie, their added instrumental firepower puts them right up there with the best Skye bands and proves you don't need Cuillins to be cool.
© Alex Monaghan



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