Gillian Boucher & Bob McNeill "Race for the Sun"
Own Label, 2019
A Cape Breton fiddler living in New Zealand for many years now, Gillian Boucher has a couple of impressive solo albums to her name and has teamed up here with Kiwi singer-guitarist Bob McNeill for a highly entertaining collection of music and song in a contemporary acoustic mood. Combining classics of Scots and Irish fiddle music with newer compositions, and four new songs, Race for the Sun is a very polished and professional production. The album was released before COVID hit, but distribution across tens of thousands of miles took a while and then magazine issues have been delayed, so I have been enjoying this music for almost a year before writing the review. Traditional albums don't really go stale, and in general this one is as fresh as it was in 2019, with one exception: Bob McNeill's ballad Steel and Silver was a modern tragedy conceived before we all experienced a whole year of tragedy which has perhaps reset expectations.
The rest of Bob's songs are more timeless: shipwrecks and prisons, immigrants and religious intolerance, death and destruction. His strong clear vocals are matched by deft guitar accompaniment, which extends to the instrumental tracks. Reels and jigs pace the songs track for track, with a couple of slower numbers, all tripping lightly from Boucher's expressive fiddle. The Trip to Durrow and Elizabeth Kelly's Delight are well known in Ireland. Pattern Day and Scotsman O'er the Border spring from the Cape Breton tradition. John Carty's recent jig Seanamhac Tube Station is popular at pan-Celtic sessions. The final Niel Gow air, Lamentation for James Moray of Abercairney, is a Scottish fiddle standard beautifully interpreted here, a suitable closing piece for a very fine recording with broad appeal.
© Alex Monaghan
Flairck "Back Alive"
Home Records, 2020
This Flemish band seems to have been around forever, but Back Alive is actually the first recording of a new generation of Flairck. I didn't know the band previously, their music was more classical than my taste, and indeed this CD is definitely a folk-classical cross-over. A quintet of fiddles, woodwind, guitar and double bass, there is no doubting their musical prowess, both as performers and as composers. Writing a mix of Latin and European folk, gypsy jazz and modern classical pieces, Flairck produce an impressive sound.
The opening Sick Muse (Ashes and Smoke) is quite experimental, almost filmic in its use of tone rather than melody. Its themes are picked up and reworked on two later tracks: Sick Muse (The Flower) mid-album, and the final Sick Muse (The Fire) which has definite elements of the Harry Potter soundtracks. Baroque counterpoint combines with twisting Balkan rhythms on Nepeta Cataria, and the next few tracks throw Flamenco and even The Pink Panther into the mix, before a pounding bass solo which is a definite highlight as long as your speakers can take it. The Stoned Wedding is as surreal as its title, hints of Prokofiev and Pierre Bensusan, sawing strings and fluttering flute. Peter's Weekend harks back to earlier Flairck line-ups, with panpipes and Andean guitar. This new departure will no doubt please Flairck fans, and may intrigue others interested in folk-classical fusions.
© Alex Monaghan
Trad Records, 2020
From the surprisingly rich musical fields of Flanders, Pascale Rubens and Ton Van Mierlo are the duo at the heart of this long-established group. They are joined by several guests, including two of their children, to play and sing a range of music inspired by the French and Dutch traditions, new pieces composed by Ton and Pascale but clearly rooted in the past. The album title comes from the present, the silence which swept across houses and venues with COVID-19, and which left artists to introspection which in this case produced fresh music.
Silentski divides quite evenly into songs and instrumentals, and the songs split into French and Flemish, three in each language, with Pascale leading the French and young Charlotte Van Mierlo providing a strong high tone on the Flemish words. Songs range from very traditional to quite modern, and are mostly quite gentle in both arrangement and subject matter, very soothing and positive. On the instrumental side, there are three pieces which draw on the French café accordeon tradition - the waltzes De 2 Kontjes and Schurkske, and the mazurka Little Thea. Other tracks are more Germanic, at least to my ear - a couple of gavottes, a schottische and a polska, all pleasant dance music and well played. Naragonia don't lean much towards the Celtic sound, and they certainly don't favour the wildness of some Flemish bands, but their music is very entertaining and strengthens the traditions of Flanders and Wallonia.
© Alex Monaghan
Sväng "In Trad We Trust"
Four harmonica players from Finland, nothing more, produce marvellously resonant music in a range of traditions from Scandinavian polskas to Russian kantele showpieces. Sväng have recorded in other genres, from contemporary to classical, tango to techno, but behind it all are their Finnish roots, stretching from the Swedish-speaking south to the Saami north, and from the Baltic states in the west almost to the Barents Sea in the Russian east. This CD contains the quintessence of that varied Finnish tradition, airs and dance music from every corner of Finland, sharing a common appeal to the Finnish psyche, that "feeling of deep sorrow ... followed by the glimpse of hope"! The excellent sleevenotes in Finnish and English explain how all this music fits together.
Opening with something more like gypsy jazz than Nordic folk, this group immediately shows the versatility of the humble tin sandwich. Thumping bass, rich accordion-like polyphonics, and high virtuosic violin lines combine to make a very satisfying arrangement of Vanha Jatsi. A cheery schottische is followed by an almost Asian-sounding selection from Karelia, and a couple of song melodies which conjure swaying Russian sailors. Minä Yksin Kuljen is a Roma song from the Finnish traveller community, a moving piece. The polkas which follow are happy dance music from southern Finland, very catchy tunes. Back to Karelia for some very old music, beautifully recreated based on archive recordings from almost a century ago. Two tracks from the Swedish-speaking region of Finland show both the similarities and the differences between the two sides of the Gulf of Bothnia. Sväng end with a very popular Finnish march, stunning in four octaves, and a lively long dance from the rich musical tradition of Kaustinen. Throughout this album, four harmonicas bring every piece to life. In Trad We Trust is full of variety, well worth a listen.
© Alex Monaghan
Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas "SYZYGY"
Culburnie Records, 2020
A sixth duo album from fiddle and cello royalty, this one is a bit different. First the title, an acknowledgement if one was needed that this is in so many ways a partnership of equals. Starting off as arguably master and pupil, the Fraser & Haas sound has become a balanced phenomenon, and while Alasdair has inspired fiddlers with his camps and concerts, Natalie is the role model for a whole generation of folk cellists. Their different backgrounds, tastes and talents have jointly shaped this music, hence SYZYGY: "the joining of any two entities without losing the individual characteristics of either one." Second, to the delight of fans no doubt, this album is entirely composed of compositions by these two composers, new and refreshing contributions to the acoustic folk canon. Fraser compositions have been to the fore previously, in this duo and in his band Skyedance as well as on solo albums, and while there has been the occasional new tune from Natalie recently we've had all too few opportunities to enjoy the creative juices and playful humour which gave us Pea in the F Hole on this pair's previous album Ports of Call. For the first time, SYZYGY shares the composing credits equally, with seven tracks from Natalie's pen covering Scandinavian, Scottish, contemporary swing, a showband medley, and even a new oldtime tune. Alasdair's pieces here range from an almost classical waltz to a gypsy reel, with his trademark tearful airs and storming strathspeys, plus a few surprises. The CD itself is visually stunning, a stark black behind colourful logos and apparel, subtly inscribed with mystic symbols, highly distinctive and attractive.
Followers of Fraser & Haas may have come across one or two of these pieces in videos or workshops recently. A Lien of Ålesund, Natalie's tribute to Norwegian fiddle icon Annbjørg Lien, is beautiful and uplifting in octaves - or even double octaves. Smooth fiddle and strong bowed cello swap the melody on Sweglish. Alasdair's graceful Tollhouse Tumble sounds almost baroque with percussive cello and plucked low notes over a melody which switches from Albinoni to Astor Piazzolla at will, while the cello takes the lead for a smooth swaggering passage. Haas is right up the fingerboard for the jaunty jig Moccasin Walk, and her own slow reel Emerson showcases the cello and fiddle duet possibilities on a dreamy melody. The dream continues with an air and a reel by Alasdair, deep dark cello notes under the wary tread of the fiddle creating a mood that's both magical and menacing: Jack stealng the giant's gold perhaps, or Bilbo escaping the goblins under the Misty Mountains. A gorgeous wedding march, a slow air or strathspey maybe, and a couple of fun Fraser compositions bring us to one of the bigger tracks here, a combination of strathspey and jig rhythms on Rest and be Thankful and Start Your Engines, inspired by the roads of Argyll. This is one of the few places on SYZYGY with noticeable chopping on the cello, whih may please or disappoint you, but tells me that the range of accompanying techniques employed by Natalie Haas is huge and highly successful. Alasdair's fiddling is equally flexible, totally traditional on the more Scottish Double Tonic but also jazzy enough for the Latin La Llegada de Los Trovadores. Then comes the big finish, a Broadway musical suite evoking The Virginian or Oklahoma, and finally a piece reminding us that the Scots and others contributed to today's Appalachian sound, the punchy backwoods Caledonian Carolina. It goes without saying that everything is perfectly executed, from the first trill to the final chortle, a triumph of duet playing - a SYZYGY in fact!
© Alex Monaghan
Full Tilt "Live"
Shoebox Recordings, 2020
The prodigious talents of Shetland fiddler Gemma Donald and Fife accordionist Alan Small may already be familiar from the Lomond Ceilidh Band and from their phenomenally popular online concerts - over 100 now since COVID kicked in. Add to that the renowned fiddler Manus McGuire from Sligo, and Shetland's own multi-talented maestro Brian Nicholson on guitars and vocals, and you have Full Tilt, a ceilidh and concert combo for every occasion. This debut recording was made on tour in 2019, shortly before I saw the band live at the Scots Fiddle Festival, but the release was delayed by the worldwide collapse of pretty much everything that matters and Full Tilt are only now starting to plan post-pandemic appearances, so look out for them when it's safe to leave the house again!
In the meantime, this album offers a huge range of music, all of it brilliantly arranged and played. The opening set of reels from Shetland and Wick is a stunner, followed by a delightful old country waltz by Manus and another by Ottawa Valley fiddler April Verch. There's a set of hornpipes at a suitable speed for the Canadian Barndance, a trio of McGuire reels, a set of classic ceilidh jigs, and a couple of swinging Irish barndances at a more Western Isles speed. In between, Full Tilt play a beautiful slow march by Nollaig Casey, Lios na Banríona, and Brian sings the Shetland swing song The Isles o' Gletness.
Brian's next song is more like the gruff sea-faring stuff you might expect from the Northern Isles: Farewell tae Yell, a sailor's adieu, a great chorus number. His third and final vocal contribution is another nod to the influence of American country music on Shetland musicians, and a hint at the humour hidden beneath the brooding Nordic character: Du Picked a Fine Time ta Faa-By Dastreen is a tragic tale of revelry, regret, and ribald doings not to be discussed in polite company. The band make up for this with more reels and jigs, a touch of Mancini, and a mix of tunes from Mayo, Leitrim, Tyneside, the Borders and beyond. As well as traditional tunes there's a cracking set of jigs by Gemma, and her moving air Walking with Angels, before the final Full Tilt Set finishing on Alan's reel Dalby Kirke. Whether you're listening or dancing, or singing and playing along with these superb musicians, Full Tilt's first album is a tonic in these times and a great introduction to a band I hope we can soon hear again live.
© Alex Monaghan
Hillary Klug "Howdy Y'All"
Own Label, 2020
A prodigious young talent from Tennessee, Hillary Klug made her name as a dancing fiddler, strutting her stuff in shorts and boots on a packing crate. A champion "buck dancer" in her teens - a step-dance tradition which seems more similar to Eastern European than Celtic styles and which probably owes much to the African American "boot dances" and "sand dances" too - she has toured widely and is one of only a few world-class step-dancing fiddlers. Sadly there are no dance steps on this CD: Klug (rhymes with Moog, not with jug) plays fiddle here, and has added lead vocals to her accomplishments. She's joined here by Jim Wood and Angela Wood on a range of accompanying instruments, giving a full bluegrass or string band sound throughout this recording. Production quality of both audio and packaging are of a professional Nashville standard, but not overdone.
Almost every track on Howdy Y'All is an old Appalachian song with a great fiddle tune, providing ample opportunity for instrumental breaks. Violence, unrequited love, hard travelling, and more violence are pretty much the themes of these familiar songs: Oh Susannah, Cotton-Eyed Joe, Pretty Molly, Liza Jane and Shady Grove act out well-known stories. Whistle Pig is a new one to me, honest gratuitous violence with a catchy tune. The fiddle is spot on throughout, and the vocals are surprisingly good: strong and tuneful, clear diction for the most part, just what you want for folk music. This is all great fun, feel-good sing-along music, foot-tapping and all the other clichés, but it's also authentic oldtime to my ears at least, with low grinding harmonies and strong rhythms for dancing. There are a couple of places where a bit more swing would be nice, and although there are two fine new instrumental compositions from Hillary these could be more numerous and more evenly spaced, but in general I really enjoyed this album and I'd say it's well worth a listen if you appreciate oldtime fiddle or oldtime songs. Hillary Klug is a name to watch out for.
© Alex Monaghan
Niamh Ní Charra "Donnelly's Arm"
Own Label, 2020
This album is even better than I expected! I've long had an affection for Niamh Ní Charra's music - it's warm, cheery, and traditional without being hide-bound. Multi-talented, adding vocals to her proven prowess on fiddle and concertina, Niamh is well able to present a varied hour of entertainment, and on this recording she's supported by guitarist Kevin Corbett and drummer Dominic Keogh as well as a few impressive guests. From a solid foundation in the music of Kerry, she kicks off with her own jig The Copper Mines of Killarney - an ancient seam which may explain the local red-heads - followed by Diarmaid Moynihan's effortless Covering Ground, and then the Canadian Métis classic Andy Dejarlis' Scotch Style Jig, a great fiddle piece. Switching to concertina, Niamh joins the old Glenbeigh Hornpipe to a pair of toe-tapping polkas, one old and one newly formed. Cad é Sin, the first of three songs, is a gentle song of the ceol and craic that follows from good cider, double-tracked for harmony vocals.
Fiddle and concertina sets, and another couple of songs, with strong backing throughout: that would be enough for most people, but Ní Charra adds a secret sauce of some great guests: Claire Sherry on banjo, Órlaith McAuliffe on flute and whistle, Kate Ellis on cello, and the bold Mikie Smyth on uilleann pipes. The title track gets a driving band arrangement to go with its powerful story of prize-fighting, grave-robbing and surgical chicanery - just what you'd expect of Dublin in the 1800s. Polkas and slides, waltzes and airs, a cheeky wee Basque dance, and of course reels and jigs keep things interesting from start to finish, with about a third of the material composed by Niamh and the rest from excellent traditional sources old and new. Ms Ní Charra has perfected the art of the medley, mixing and matching styles and rhythms in a single set, constantly adding little surprises. Donnelly's Arm ends with a great example, a set of four reels, one from prolific Manchester composer Tony Sullivan, one from the archives, one of Niamh's own, and the final Québécois favourite Reel du Forgeron, in praise of another strong right arm. One of the best albums of 2021 so far!
© Alex Monaghan
Various Artists "Rogha Raelach 1"
Raelach Music, 2020
Not your average compilation album: all these tracks are new, and while they may make their way onto future Raelach albums, they are released here as a way of keeping contact between musicians and audiences during the current pandemic. Raelach is a label by artists for artists, and has released some of the most refreshing Irish traditional music in recent years: this forward-looking "compilation" includes pieces by Martin Hayes, Noel Hill, Derek Hickey, Geraldine Cotter and Bobby Gardiner, as well as younger musicians Aoife Ní Bhriain, Pádraic Keane, Seán & Michael Gavin, and label founder himself Jack Talty. Hayes opens this collection with his quartet on a trademark laid-back performance of Frank Keane's Reel, glorious on two fiddles and sparse accompaniment. Hill and Hickey are a bit livelier, while Pádraic draws out a lovely set dance on the pipes, and Aoife's fiddles emphasise the hidden depths of The Drunken Sailor. Flute, concertina and piano provide more light and shade with excellent performances by Jack, Geraldine, and the Gavin brothers.
While I associate Raelach recordings with instrumental music, there are a number of fine singers here too. Nell Ní Chróinín sings the well-known Waterford song Eochaill in a clear straight style, an easy introduction to sean-nos vocals. Saileog Ní Cheannabháin combines a short song with a couple of reels on viola, piano and lilting, a rare delight. Síle Denvir sings An Cailín Fearúil Fionn, actually a man's love song, but she makes a beautiful job of it. Bobby Gardiner's melodeon provides a fitting climax to a great selection of music with the jig Humours of Glendart and the reel Mullingar Races, traditional favourites given a lively interpretation here by one of the masters of Irish music. I'm really looking forward to hearing full-length new albums from all these performers, and for once I thank COVID for creating the opportunity to put all this music together, a real silver lining to a horrible time for us all.
© Alex Monaghan
Own Label, 2020
A trio combining north German bagpipes, Klezmer fiddle, and jazz guitar: what could possibly go wrong? Surprisingly little, in fact! Silja have cleverly combined their talents, keeping these different traditions separate to a large extent, but bridging between them with some very eclectic guitar from Ben Aschenbach. There's a narrative here if one is required, the almost mediaeval sound of Kristina Künzel's pipes fitting with the early migrations of Jews westwards and the establishment of Yiddish as a language and culture across northern Europe: to my ear the dance music of Saxony is not unlike the Bessarabian forerunners of Klezmer. Like the Silk Road, we could imagine a musical journey from Old Jerusalem to Neustadt bei Coburg, for example.
Mark Kovnatskiy's violin is flexible enough to weep for centuries of woe in Shabbes Backwards March and to rejoice at an 18th century German polka. The Klezmer melodies are all bittersweet, even the wedding tunes have that edge of Weltschmerz, but many of the old Saxon dance tunes are simply exuberant. Pipes and fiddle together create an antique sound, but when the fiddle takes the melody Silja have a more modern shape with Künzel's drones providing almost a rock band bass line at times. Fun Tashlikh shows how pipes and fiddle can be combined on quite complex Klezmer melodies, but I think they work better on more Western pieces such as the song air Es geht eine dunkle Wolk herein or the distinctly French-sounding Ungarische Sonnengöttin. Kovnatskiy can lend a classical tone to these arrangements, with Aschenbach mimicking Flamenco guitar, Renaissance lute or even gypsy cymbalom. As a first recording, Tradfusion delivers some very enjoyable music and promises much more to come.
© Alex Monaghan
Summers & Silvola "The Smoky Smirr o' Rain"
Eighth Nerve, 2021
Fiddle and guitar virtuosi - that doesn't seem too strong a term for this couple who are based in Norway but celebrated across Europe and beyond. Like many Scottish fiddlers, Sarah-Jane's immersion in the highland music tradition was combined with a classical training, giving her arguably the best of both worlds. Juhani is a highly respected jazz guitarist with a deep awareness of his native Finnish tradition, and extends his fingers to the piano on this recording. Like the duo's two previous albums, The Smoky Smirr o' Rain is just two musicians doing what they do live, no guests, no double-tracking: this is what you would get on stage, and it's lovely.
I chose that word carefully. Not as punchy as their previous Widdershins release, this album has a calmness, a serenity almost, which picks you up and carries you along with complete confidence. There's no shortage of excitement - The Herring Reel from PEI is a rollicking dance, Summers' Borrowed Days has all the growl and grit of a good troll tune, and the set of 18th-century Finnish-Swedish polskas fairly bounces along. Older tunes are plentiful here: Summers & Silvola open with three tracks of music from the 1784 Patrick MacDonald collection, pieces which may be even more ancient. These Gaelic melodies are given a sympathetic modern arrangement, nothing startling, but really bringing out the character of each tune.
Juhani's composition Across the Firmament is quite different, almost cinematic, striking soundscapes from fiddle harmonics and delicate fingerpicked guitar. The title track is as wispy and elemental as its name suggests, a light lyrical jig. A couple more ancient Scottish melodies and Sarah-Jane's Finnish Kummitädin Valssi bring us to the final cheery highland air This Depression on my Soul - we Scots have always known how to enjoy ourselves, and that seems to have produced beautiful tunes! Great music, grand arrangements and gorgeous playing make The Smoky Smirr o' Rain another terrific album from this prodigious pair of musicians.
© Alex Monaghan
Trolska Polska "Eufori"
If you haven't come across these crazy Danish troll-inspired musicians, now would be a good time! This third album of enchanting new music is their most ambitious so far, built around a narrative describing the spring festival and all the supernatural creatures which attend each year. As well as a great story and adorable illustrations, Martin Seeberg's new compositions make this a really exceptional album suitable for all tastes and ages. The seven-strong band includes many of Denmark's top folk musicians, on fiddle, cello, bass, bagpipes, flutes and more. Trolska Polska conjure the atmosphere of the spring thaw, the preparations for a grand ball, the dancing and merrymaking, and even the secret magic practiced in misty glades away from the main event.
Slattenlangpat conveys the swinging, slightly sleazy dancing of the larger elf women, while Vigtigpråsen is a stately polka to track the progress of a giant snail. The troll youngsters liven up proceedings with a frantic hopsa, followed by a more moderate polka. Then come The Hylks, slower and heavier, jangling like an oriental caravan. In total contrast, Måneskinsmenuet is a delicate dance for the more graceful elves, light and airy on fiddle and mandolin above a solid ground of string bass and water drum. The title track is a glorious polska, a catchy melody arranged with rare skill swapped between fiddle and pipes, backed by a forest of strings and percussion, a fitting climax to the festival. As the trolls and elves and other creatures wander wearily home, a lone giant has the last laugh, watching the party from outside the walls and able to cast his huge eye over the whole scene before striding home to distant mountains still shrouded in winter. Trolska Polska's music is more than up to the task of bringing this story to life, and Eufori would be amazing as a stage show!
© Alex Monaghan
Music from perhaps the most exciting band in the Basque country, Koplariak includes everything I love about this wonderful but little-known tradition. Korrontzi are based around accordion wizard Agus Barandiaran who writes and plays swirling dance music on the Basque button box, and their stage shows feature dramatic and balletic dancers, not to be missed. This album focuses on songs, but the melodies are such fun that I really don't mind. I can't understand Basque, but that doesn't matter - the sentiments are clear, and if you want to know more the massive 40-page hardback book which accompanies the CD provides notes on every track in English, French, Spanish and of course Basque, plus numerous colour photos. There's one instrumental on Koplariak, but the songs are the thing.
Why would Korrontzi, essentially a dance band, record an album of songs? Well, because these aren't ordinary songs: they are koplak, short and often opaque rhymes set to dance tunes, sung for dancing, a sort of Basque mouth music, but here backed by a full band. The nine songs here were written by Xabier Amuriza, perhaps adapted from older material, and he sings them over an accompaniment on trikitixa (Basque button accordion), panderoa (Basque frame drum), guitar of course, and occasional txalaparta (look it up). Several other instruments play their part, but these are the main elements of the arrangements by Agus and friends, suited to waltzes and jigs, polkas and reels, the absorbing Basque dances which are also the subject of several koplak here. Why reach for the stars in the sky when we can dance down here? Life is short, for the sailor and for his wife. Enjoy the dance, because some day the tunes must end. The brutal reality of Basque life, previously and perhaps still today, is captured in catchy tunes and driving rhythms. We all know these words, but we can lose ourselves in the music.
© Alex Monaghan
Susana Seivane "Dende o Meu Balcón"
Another of those rare flashes of light during the long grey lockdown in 2020 and 2021, this album would probably never have been made without the demands of COVID - the need for alternative income, and the availability of time at home. Galician gaita doyenne Susana Seivane made the best use of this situation by recording as much traditional music as would fit on a CD, solo and duo pipes with the family band providing a backing track, to produce a CD with all the spirit of the Seivane dynasty and all the favourites from the old Galician repertoire. Dende o Meu Balcón is only available online - I ordered my copy by mail, still a very fair price - and it is set to be a classic of European piping, to sit alongside recordings by Portela, Blanchard, Ennis and other great names.
More than fifty tunes - marches, muiñeiras, foliadas, pasodobles and more - are brilliantly played, lively and emotional, a very natural sound. Seivane manages to play as if nobody is watching - and to be fair I've seen a few online performances from her in the past year where literally nobody was watching, empty theatres and even a deserted football stadium! The music is exquisite, and the tradition comes across so powerfully in pieces like Aires de Pontevedra, Muiñeira de la Cabana, the beautiful air Unha Noite no Santo Cristo, and the joyous celebration of A Camposa. There are several vocal numbers, old Galego songs, always with the pipes playing between verses and usually adding a tune on the end. Although this is a home-produced album, the production standards are top quality - and it's LOUD! Be prepared to turn the stereo down, or listen in the next room. I've played this album over and over, and it makes me smile every time - definitely one for the 2021 Top Ten shortlist.
© Alex Monaghan
Ship in the Clouds "Ship in the Clouds"
Own Label, 2020
Grand old tunes played too fast by energetic youngsters - nothing wrong with that, especially when those youngsters grow up to be the sort of mature and respectful traditional musicians we have here: fiddler Laura Feddersen and box-player Natasha Sheehy, bodhránista Anna Colliton and guitarist Nathan Gourley. Feddersen and Gourley have form - very good form - with several excellent recordings together and separately. Sheehy and Colliton are new names to me, although I have seen Natasha sit in at the Virtual Behan Session - but that's another story. From West Limerick, Natasha brings a smattering of that Sliabh Luachra swagger to the music, but most of this album is hard core Irish repertoire with a slight American accent. Anna hails from New York, and the group seems to have coalesced around Boston where Laura and Nathan reside.
Growing up with Irish music, these four are well versed in the tradition: they can tell you which Paddy O'Brien wrote The One that was Lost and Larkin's Beehives, where Finbarr Dwyer composed his trademark reel The Holly Bush, why The Drunken Gauger deserves our sympathy, and when Con Cassidy's Jig spread beyond his native Donegal. They can also play all these tunes with exceptional skill and sensitivity, delivering an outstanding hour of instrumental entertainment. They do come a little unstuck when they talk about Scottish tunes - the opening Periwig Reel is given a fascinating but false back story, fake news, arising from Ossian's encounter with St Columba. No matter: the delicate box and fiddle duet more than makes up for any misunderstanding. After that, everything clicks for this quartet: bright button box, growly fiddle drawing on Indiana roots, deep rounded drumming and a guitar style that betrays long familiarity with these melodies, it all adds up to a great sound. Polkas and marches, waltzes and slides slip between the jigs and reels, with not a hornpipe to be heard: the finest of Irish session music, and Ship in the Clouds are flying indeed!
© Alex Monaghan
Corner House "Caribou Party" [EP]
Own Label, 2021
A surprisingly meaty EP, almost half an hour of music, Caribou Party is the biggest release yet from the quartet of fiddler Louise Bichan, mandolinist Ethan Setiawan, cellist Casey Murray and guitarist Ethan Hawkins. A band formed in the last few years on the east coast of the USA, they combine Louise's Orcadian roots with New England contra from Casey and fiddle-contest talent from the fretted boys. Their music follows that vein of Americana which gave us Hawktail, the Dance Cards, Rankin & Wright, or even Crooked Still. Covering a cornucopia of styles between them, this foursome has two previous EPs on bandcamp - 2020 was supposed to be the year of the full album, but that didn't happen of course, so instead Corner House isolated in the backwoods and wrote a whole new EP of modern mountain music.
From the Scottish-tinged Woolwich with its multiple layers behind a simple jig melody, to the more oldtimey Snow on the Rooftop backed by grinding bass lines and gentle syncopation, Caribou Party is full of fresh twists and turns, but there's a soulful undercurrent, a poignancy which pervades the music. Grass & Peas is a plea for change, a warning and a call to action, disguised as a Georgia slow drag. The title track is front porch music banjo-led, dark and brooding, the sort of tune which ought to go with a ballad of backwoods murder and brutal lynching. The Hawk, The Hound & The Homers evokes hunting trips for me, a travelling tune, purposeful and determined, but it leads to a sad place: the weary song Easter Sunday which laments the lack of love and hope and positivity in the world, and gently suggests that we all need a good kick up the backside. This sadness is partly dispelled on the final foot-tapping reel The Fallen Squirrel, leaving the listener relieved but reflective, wondering what just happened. I'm really looking forward to a longer album from Corner House in the fullness of time! (That might be a good title ...)
© Alex Monaghan
Britt Pernille Frøholm "Fokhaugen"
Kviven Records, 2020
Norwegian fiddler Frøholm has spent years researching the music of Nordfjord and Hornindal in western Norway, and has previous recordings which are ancient, eerie and magical on Hardanger fiddle but which are also quite demanding of the listener. This album is more approachable, more familiar to non-Nordic audiences, but no less authentic. The music on Fokhaugen comes from the Kjellstad family, Hornindal tradition bearers in the 1800s, a time when Norwegian culture was defining itself but also exposed to influences from further south and east. This is not the hypnotic Hardanger music for long solo dances or competitions: here we have short pieces, springars mainly for local dances, as well as waltzes, wedding tunes and more. I found this a very enjoyable, and surprisingly soothing CD.
Britt Pernille has meticulously researched these tunes, and provides excellent notes on the musical and family history of the Kjellstad dynasty, in Norwegian but luckily also in English. These explain, for example, that the sprightly Springar etter Lars Brendefur was played by a fiddler from Napoleonic times who travelled as a soldier and brought back the waltz, introducing this shocking modern dance to Hornindal around the time that Bonaparte was on his return trip to Moscow. The cheerful reinlender Blombergen is a more recent composition, by Ola Kjelstad who died in 1944, leaving many tunes in manuscript. These pieces have quite a modern feel, but there are older ones too, from other Hornindal fiddlers: the spine-tingling Salmetone frå Nordfjord, the low grinding Springar etter Kroka-Lars, and the simpler Brureslått etter Jens Maurseth. For me though, the more melodic tunes are the highlight here: the insistent M�llarguten sin Halling, the charming Vals etter Ivar Kjelstad, and the repetitive Springar etter Ola Kjelstad which like several pieces here reminds me of the old Shetland tunes, the Greenland tunes as they were known, another musical connection we are now beginning to understand.
© Alex Monaghan
Glenfinnan Ceilidh Band "Road to Glenfinnan"
Old Laundry Productions, 2021
With half an eye on the return of the tourist industry, this third album from GCB presents a wide range of West Highland music. It really is all things to all men,and women of course, as long as you like accordion and fiddle music - and who doesn't? The opening is deceptive - a Hebridean approximation to a Munich march-past with optional yodelling morphs into a more Minchy march with a good Gaelic 6/8 snap. Straight jigs are the first of several nods even further west to the Irish tradition - The Garden Where the Praties Grow, The Commodore and a couple more pop up as the album progresses - but that's all part of the Gaelic tradition, with a musical crossover between Scotland and Ireland as far as Donegal at least.
This album is laid out very much like a ceilidh, with sets for dances such as Gay Gordons, Strip the Willow, Canadian Barn Dance and Boston Two-Step. The tempo is a tad below the wildness of many highland ceilidhs, but quick enough for most. In between the dances are the songs, three classics, sweetly sung by Iain MacMaster and Joe Gillies with backing from the full band: Come by the Hills, Buain a'Rainich Taobh Loch Èite, and of course Bonnie Glenfinnan which would have stormed the music charts if the Corran Ferry hadn't broken down! There are plenty of dance tune favourites too, lovingly played on MacMaster's accordion, Iain MacFarlane's fiddle, Ingrid Henderson's keyboards, and Colm O'Rua's banjo (remember him from Dàimh?): Old Woman's Dance, Put Me in the Big Chest, Lily Christie, Sam O'Neill of Forfar, The Muckin' o' Geordie's Byre carefully imported from the orient, and of course that stalwart of piping trivia quizzes, Brigadier General Sir George Ronald Hamilton Cheape of Tiroran, MC, DSO & Bar. A powerful distillation of the West Highland spirit: no Zoom ceilidh should be without one!
© Alex Monaghan
Duo Rivaud Lachouchie "Zo!"
A second helping of French melodeon and fiddle music from the Limousin region, beautifully played by Anne Rivaud and Alexandra Lacouchie. Their first album Ordich! was good, and four years on this young duo are even better. Zo! is also slightly longer, so improvements in both quality and quantity! The album titles are intriguing: it seems they do a lot of shouting around Limoges, but they also have great tunes. Many pieces here are also found in neighbouring regions - I find myself recalling the Berrichon versions of several bourrées, with the rhythms or timings subtly changed to suit local dances. Most of this music is new to me though, and has been carefully collected from field recordings, manuscripts and occasional commercial releases: the provenance of each piece is noted on the CD sleeve, as well as the huge range of instruments played by the source musicians.
Rivaud and Lacouchie stick to melodeons and fiddles respectively, and they generate a full sound with ringing strings and inventive bass lines. This recording is mainly dance music - lively polkas and bourrées, graceful mazurkas and jaunty schottisches, plus a few "spécialités de la région". I particularly enjoyed Sautière d'Émile Daurat, and the contrasted versions of the well-known Piere Labora and La Vilaine Bête. There is one slow air here, the dramatic Maridoun La Liseta, published in 1911, which deserves to be better known. The two ladies also sing on this CD, five tracks ranging from snatches of vocals to longer songs such as the familiar Là-Haut sur la Montagne - these tuneful vocal interludes are cleverly worked into the instrumentals, with skill and humour, ending with the rustic cautionary tale M'sieur l'Curé ne Veut Pas! This is a very entertaining CD, full of fine tunes and outstanding performances, a delight for anyone who enjoys French music.
© Alex Monaghan
Grégory Jolivet "Musique Traditionnelle du Berry"
Jean-Marc Delaunay "Musique Traditionnelle d'Auvergne"
More from the excellent AEPEM series of "one musician, one instrument, one style": Jolivet plays hurdy-gurdy in a very traditional virtuosic style here, and Delaunay captures the rare but beautiful fiddle repertoire of central France's most well-known tradition. Grégory Jolivet may be familiar from his many years with Anglo-French band Blowzabella. Here he plays pieces from the heart of Berry, bourrées and polkas and mazurkas and even a leisurely branle - but mainly bourrées to be honest - in 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4. They like their bourrées in Berry, and there are some fine ones here: the grinding Bourrée de Fontfrin, the swirling Bourrée de Barmont, and the catchily-named BT4-137. There's also a nice little selection of Pas d'Etés, an energetic dance involving kicks and sticks and occasional ricks. Jolivet has a superb touch on the manivelle - his right wrist must be ball-mounted I think! No modern pyrotechnics, no jazz modalities, but you'd be hard pressed to find traditional hurdy-gurdy played better.
You might struggle to find central French fiddlers at all! Jean-Marc Delaunay is one of a rare breed, and although there are now a number of young fiddlers playing music from Auvergne, the thread connecting them to early fiddle music is thin. Subtitled "Le Son de l'Artense", this recording presents a repertoire acquired over the last forty years, from fiddlers who had heard the old masters, and gives the music of Auvergne a character peculiar to the fiddle. The notes with this CD are almost as important as the music, and Jean-Marc provides links to online resources for those who wish to do their own research. In almost forty short pieces, mostly joined in twos and threes, Delaunay illustrates a rhythmic style of fiddling which uses double strings in a number of ways, and is also accompanied by foot tapping. La Catinon is a great example, a 3/4 bourrée with an attractive melody which is played with ringing strings and double-stopped harmonies, both to accentuate the rhythm and to vary or augment the sound of the fiddle, and with a constant beat tapped out almost like a clog dancer or a metronomic woodchopper. The notes say that this piece comes from a 1977 commercial recording of fiddler Léon Lemmet, born in 1909 just south of the central Auvergne plateau of Artense, and is unusual in that it is played in uneven phrases, presumably for a particular dance. This is just one of the gems to discover here, a very different approach to the music of Auvergne from the pipes, hurdy-gurdies and accordions we are used to.
© Alex Monaghan
Duo Meunier Buteau "Evidence"
Chromatic button accordion and hurdy-gurdy from the region between Nevers and Autun, the edge of France's rugby heartland but right in the middle of of some of the finest French traditional music: this young duo is fresh, flash and fearless, not afraid to experiment with anything from Paul Robeson to La Panthère Rose. Alongside traditional pieces from Morvan and further afield are a few compositions by viellist Benjamin Meunier and accordionist Bastien Buteau: the modern jazzy Ma Zurk Bankal played on arhythmic solo gurdy, a remarkably smooth performance, and a medley of 3/4 originals on crisp chromatic accordion.
At times this pair contrive to sound more like a fairground organ than a French folk duo. The Loriot schottisches are a good example, with trills and two-part harmonies from Meunier while Buteau fills melody and bass accompaniment. The final suite of bourrées have something of the summer fair about them too. Deliberate or not, this is a fascinating aspect of their music. The title waltz by Buteau is more pavement café accordion, urban contrasting with the rural Vieille Valse de Maurice Germain and Valse à Denis. Duo Meunier Buteau throw in a song - or at least a singer, the fine voice of Solène Charpentier who recounts the reality of "la vie en couple" in Mazurka des Maris. Mostly though, Evidence is about the brilliance of Buteau and Meunier: the modern virtuosity of Polka du Musico, the inventiveness of La Sansonnette, music which is both traditional and contemporary, and which will no doubt last and and improve with time.
© Alex Monaghan
Chris Flegg "Twenty's Plenty"
Mellowtone Records, 2020
A very clean album of solo acoustic guitar compositions by this experienced English musician, Twenty's Plenty is another of those silver linings from the massive grey cloud of COVID. Ranging from folk to jazz, passing through ragtime and stopping for lunch at easy listening, this album is smooth enough for background music yet smart enough to reward the more attentive fan. Flegg took advantage of enforced downtime to revisit pieces from his multiple previous recordings, rearranging ensemble tracks for solo guitar, reworking songs as instrumentals, creating or reimagining each number.
A score of tracks is quite a handful to review - four handfuls in fact - but there were clear favourites for me. Market Street Rag opens in impressive upbeat style, a catchy melody which could well have served as a TV theme tune in my day, a backhanded compliment perhaps but certainly an earworm. Chasing Cuckoos with its clever hooks reminds me of John James. The Day That We Planted the Apple Tree presents another great melody line, singable this time, as does the swing-time Don't Leave Until the Party's Over. Things get a bit Latin on I'm Going Home and Slow Train, touches of rumba and fado above the bossa nova rhythm. Cat House brings out the jazz in Chris' guitar, somewhere between Manouche and Mississippi delta blues. There are more easy-going tracks, and new compositions including the improbably named Beach Holiday 2020. We're firmly in 4/4 throughout, unlike most folk albums these days: Waltzing in the Rain is the only exception. The title track ends this tasteful collection, a finger-twisting showpiece stylishly played.
© Alex Monaghan
Gráinne Brady "Newcomer"
Own Label, 2020
Words and music, another powerful combination of her own tunes with Patrick MacGill's poetry: here Gráinne Brady tells the story of Norah, a young woman forced to travel from Donegal to Glasgow for work around 1900. Falling prey to seduction, then to street gangs, and finally to disease and poverty, she is the subject of MacGill's novel The Rat-Pit and inspires reels and jigs, airs and waltzes, and one song by Brady. Though the music is cheery at times, the words are grim: "The cry of the lost", "The painted women in terror", "The sins of our age ... fall on the bootless child", "the present's full of sorrow" and "dark drudgery". The brightness of rural Ireland, depicted by Somhairle MacDonald's colourful artwork on cover and notes, contrasts with the grey of city life.
Gráinne's arrangements bring the story to life, lightening the mood for the brief joys of Norah's existence, and underlining the misery of her most desperate moments. Brady's fiddle leads most tracks, but she switches to vocals for three numbers. Jack Houston reads verses over four of the instrumentals, moving the story forward in combination with sleevenotes and tune titles. The sound is rich and varied, with ten musicians contributing to this album: piano, strings, accordion, French horn, flute and percussion conjure country scenes, steamy dance halls, dark alleys and shafts of hopeful sunlight. Newcomer is a feast, bitter at times, hard to swallow, with the salt of real life crusted on it, but a banquet for the senses nonetheless.
© Alex Monaghan
Mec Lir "Livewire"
Big Mann Records, 2020
Without doubt this is one of the lushest, loudest and liveliest Celtic folk albums to struggle out of the 2020 cultural quicksand which has drowned many projects and clogged countless others. Somehow the Manx lads of Mec Lir found enough studio time and collaborators to make a massive (in the Ali G sense) recording which pushes all the buttons - the right ones for young funksters like myself who are down with the groove and tripping out to the beats and loops, and probably the wrong ones for folk purists who will think this is too fast, too bottom-heavy, or simply lacking the requisite amount of cow bell - sorry - respect for tradition!
Me? I love it. Fully fronted by the fiddle of Tomàs Callister, a phenomenal talent who spreads himself across several great bands these days, Mec Lir fills every inch of the acoustic space with Greg Barry's drums, Adam Rhodes' fretted strings, and David Kilgallon's magic keyboards. On this second album, they've taken advantage of lockdown to collar some mighty musicians who were just sitting around at home twiddling their tuners: piper Calum Stewart who makes a lasting impression with his own tune Schottishe Kerlou, Ciaran Ryan whose banjo plucks the Swedish Garageschottis out of obscurity, Sarah Markey on flute and Rachel Hair on harp for some slightly calmer moments of traditional Irish reels and polkas, and the irrepressible box, bodhrán and electric guitar of Paddy Callaghan, Adam Brown and Davie Dunsmuir.
The second half of Livewire is mainly Callister compositions, with a great Quebec reel and a couple of pieces by Tomàs' buddy Mohsen Amini in Ímar and the ubiquitous fiddler David Lombardi. The familar heat of Firebird, the rash of polkas on The Ram (also available as a single), the more lyrical jig Lewis & Molly's, and the typewriter techno of Palm Bay build to an inevitable crazy climax, more Iron Maiden than Irish Trad, definitely with cow bell. In the middle of the CD is a fascinating archive recording of Manx Gaelic from 1948, a rare example of this language from a native speaker before the recent revival, set over a dramatic musical arrangement which is about the only slow piece here. This is an album which more than lives up to its name, and for musicality as much as iconoclasm may well give us some classic tracks in years to come.
© Alex Monaghan
Roberto Cassani "Ansema (We Stand)"
Own Label, 2021
One of this year's big surprises, Roberto Cassani has released a debut album of powerful songs and instrumentals, rich arrangements and touching lyrics, supported by six of the best Scottish session musicians. With Greg Lawson on violin, Hamish Napier on piano, Ross Ainslie on pipes, percussion from Stevie Fivey, a plethora of strings from Anna BIC Massie, and accordion from John Somerville whose sure touch with Anna on the arrangements adds a vital spark, Ansema has more than a touch of Scottish folk in its favour. Even so, if you'd told me that I'd be enjoying a collection of songs by an Italian double-bass player living in Perthshire, I'd have asked if you were overdoing the grappa. But there's a reason why I find this recording irresistible.
Yes, the ska-like beat of Evviva is catchier than the Brazilian variant of Corona. Granted, the funky bass line on Camion Militari hits the sweet spot between Cuban rumba and Romanian gypsy jazz. I admit that the world music percussion and Latin guitar go perfectly with the Scottish smallpipes melody on Eroi in Corsia, and the air to 'Mpestada Quarantena is worthy of a Mark Kopfler filmscore. But that's not why this recording grabs me. It's the language - the fact that Roberto Cassani's songs are written in his Rivoltano dialect, a branch of the rare East Lombard language (or possibly South Lombard language, depending on how you slice the Cremona region) which is only spoken by a few thousand people and has perhaps never been commercially recorded before. For an endangered language, Rivoltano is surprisingly easy to follow - the notes are written in Rivoltano and English, so you can see for yourself.
So it's not the cheeky cockney reggae of La Santissima with Somerville channelling Blair Douglas, or Roberto's smooth vocals on love songs for his home place and his long-suffering grandmother Delina. It's not even the imaginative translation of Burns' beautiful Ae Fond Kiss into the expressive syllables of Cassani's Lombardy mother tongue. My favourite thing about this exquisite Scottish-Italian collaboration, finely honed and attractively presented, is its representation of one of Europe's most enduring linguistic curiosities: the isolated dialects of the Italian alpine valleys, an ancient and fascinating phenomenon which has been preserved for centuries by local culture - which is, after all, where our richest treasures are to be found.
© Alex Monaghan
Various Artists "Between Islands"
An Lanntair Records, 2020
This double CD offers a huge range of music from Scotland's remote island musicians, traditional and contemporary, pretty much all acoustic folk. You'll recognise some names - I was immediately struck by Saltfishforty, Maggie Adamson, Julie Fowlis, Kris Drever, Louise Bichan and Kathleen MacInnes, but you might be more familiar with Willie Campbell, Jenny Napier Keldie, Neil Johnstone, Linda MacLeod, Jane Hepburn Macmillan or Arthur Nicholson. Springing from three Creative Scotland projects, some of this music was recorded before lockdown but much of it had to be managed remotely. A silver lining perhaps - the basis of a follow-up is already there for when wind and wave can be braved to play music together again.
A strand of song was the first to bind the three island groups of Shetland, Orkney, and Eilean Siar or the Outer Hebrides. CD 1 starts with three new songs, one from the Western Isles, one from Shetland, and one from Orkney. Lewis and Harris musicians then perform with Orcadians for a dark and stormy set of Saltfishforty-style swamp reels and jigs, followed by an old waulking song sung by several Linda MacLeods and accompanied by a band of Kris Drevers. Fiddler Louise Bichan and cellist Neil Johnstone play a delightful delicate medley of tunes spanning from Orkney to Lewis and back again, putting a new gloss on the grand old duets of the Gow era. Songs new and old, and a wrenching lament for young Barra piper Eilidh MacLeod, bring us to a bevvy of ballads by Campbell, Drever and Nicholson - a sort of Scottish Atlantic boy band, Peat & Diesel meets Peerie Willie, catchy close harmonies, lyrics grim and glorious.
CD 2 starts with seven tracks of excellent fiddle music from Adamson, Bichan and Macmillan, old melodies from the islands, and new tunes from the younger generation, with one or two in between. This was all recorded live in Lewis, with the best of accompaniment shipped in. The final feast of eight pieces features players from all three traditions, songs and tunes recorded in Lewis and at the Orkney Folk Festival, some well-known treasures and a few new gems: Millbrae, Uibhist mo Gràidh, a powerful song by Keldie and a pumping hornpipe by Douglas Montgomery to finish. Look up Between Islands on YouTube, and check out all the background on the website. There's much more to come, I'm sure: if there was a musical iceberg joining all these islands, this album would only be the tip of it.
© Alex Monaghan