Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ireland's Music: Altan: The Widening Gyre

There’s mystery, legend, and magic in the landscapes of Donegal, in Ireland’s far northwest. There you’ll also find deep community, lively humor, and strong connections to the past. Each of these things makes its way into the music of the band Altan.

For their album The Widening Gyre they chose to explore and express another sort of connection, too, the one that reaches across the ocean to the music of Appalachia and the American south. With this in mind, they traveled to Nashville, to the studios of Compass Records, to record.

The result is a clear and sparkling set of song and tune that interweaves these connected yet distinct ways of sharing and thinking about of music. The members of Altan -- Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh on voice and fiddle, Ciaran Curran on bouzouki, Ciaran Tourish onfiddle, vocals, whistles and low whistle, Dáithí Sproule on guitar and voice, Mark Kelly on guitar and voice, and newest member Martin Tourish on accordion and keyboards -- explore these connections and travels of song in collaboration with longtime musical friends from the American folk scene, among them Bruce Molsky, Tim O’Brien, Garry West (who produced the recording), Natalie Haas, and Alison Brown. “We’ve made lifelong friends through music,” Mairéad says. “ The circle has expanded over the years, and our new album celebrates those relationships.”

The fourteen track disc opens with a set which sets the path for that, taking a journey through a lively tune from Scotland, a reel from the Irish tradition, and an original reel composed by Mairéad. Molsky and Ní Mhaonaigh turn Walt Aldrige’s old timey Americana song No Ash Will Burn into a vocal and instrumental collaboration that unlocks the Celtic nuances of the piece, and although it is a rather sad love song, also calls to mind the partings and stories of those who moved from one place to another in earlier times. Tune For Mairéad and Anna Ní Mhaonaigh is a slow air which was composed some years back by Dáithí Sproule for the birthdays of Mairéad and her sister Anna, and is done here in lovely spare fashion.

White Birds is a quiet piece too, one which evokes travels across land and sea in reality and imagination, with Mary Chapin Carpenter adding in her to voice to Mairéad’s for lyrics written by poet WB Yeats set to music by Fiona Black. Only right to have words by Yeats here; a different Yeats poem is the source the band turned to for the album’s title. “The title The Widening Gyre appeals to us and depicts the spiral of life, widening and embracing the new. It has an innate energy. We think that idea is reflected in the album’s music,” says Mairéad.

That energy is readily apparent in the Buffalo Gals/Leather Britches/Leslie’s Reel set, which evolved from the musicians siting around in the studio swapping tunes. It’s a fast paced event which holds the energy of Appalachian bluegrass along with fiery Donegal style music and creates its own place between. That also holds true of The Triple T, a tune which Ciaran Tourish wrote for his son Thomas and which invited in the talents of musical guests Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin, Darol Anger on fiddle, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Jim Higgins on bodhran, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Alison Brown on banjo -- an all star jam in deed, and all these fine talents in collaboration in service to the tune.

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s distinctive soprano is as much a hallmark of Altan’s music as are her fiery fiddling and thoughtful compositions. All are in fine evidence here. She sourced the song Má Théann Tú ‘un Aonaigh, which offers advice (in irish) to a young man setting out in the world, from a field recording from the Arranmore Islands in northwest Donegal, while Cuirt Robin Finley/Moladh Shliabh Maoineach has as its substance a love song to a mountain in Donegal. She trades voices and stories with bluegrass/Americana master Tim O’Brien on The House Carpenter/ Gypsy Davy and her slow reel Samhradh and Aniar Aduaidh Jig pair naturally in a set with Martin Tourish’s The Donegal Jig. Far Beyond Carrickfinn is a song composed by Ian Smith and Enda Cullen to help give Mairéad perspective after the death of her father Francie, a himself a fine musician. It is a lasting piece that’s beautifully sung and presented here by Mairéad and Scotland’s Eddi Reader and could indeed apply to journeys of many sorts. “Stars lead the way, as your journey begins...”

There is much more to explore and enjoy. The mountains of Ireland’s northwest and the Americna south, seacoasts and hollows, journeys through them and stories told across time: all these come into play in Altan’s The Widening Gyre.

...and while you are at it, note the fine cover artwork by Édaín O’Donnell.

photographs courtesy of the band, Compass Records, and Colin Park and Joseph Mischyshyn. thank you for respecting copyright

You may also wish to see
The Wild Atlantic Way: Music of Donegal and Derry part of a 4 part series I’ve done for Wandering Educators
Music of Donegal: Altan: The Poison Glen/Gleann Nimhe
Music for the first week in Advent: candle in the window
Alison Brown: The Company You Keep
Tim O'Brien: The Crossing

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Canada's Music: Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy: One

There’s a tune in the first set on One called So I’m Off with the Good Saint Nicolas. It’s a Scott Skinner tune, bringing in connection to Scotland that lives in the fiddle playing of Cape Breton and Ontario in Canada, and rightfully so, as Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy are two of the best to play this sort of music. It also invites a sense of humor and an idea of journey, two things which are borne out through all the music they have chosen for the recording.

It is the first album they have done together. When they married, twelve years ago now, that was an idea they had in mind, but they each had well booked solo careers and commitments, and then there was the matter of children coming along. They kept the idea, though, and began working how to do it. What has emerged is on the one hand not surprising to anyone who knows their musicianship, but on the other hand a creation of music that is an immediate joy and likely to prove a lasting one as well.

That comes from a conversation in music between two of the world’s top class fiddle players. Both grew up in families where music was a part of daily life. MacMaster comes from in a community on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia where music was part of day to day life in the surrounding area; Leahy, on the other hand, was raised on a family farm in rural Ontario, an area, he recalls, where the interest was more likely to run to sport that music. “The area we come from isn’t a musical area, so I grew up not hearing fiddlers that much and was able to develop my own style,” Donnell recalls. With parents who both played music and ten siblings to join in, it became a family adventure to create music, and eventually, a family band.

Over in Atlantic Canada, MacMaster's mother began teaching her daughter to step dance, and she started learning the chords of Cape Breton style piano playing too. It was the fiddle, though, that captured her heart. "I had a very unique childhood," she she says, "in that I was surrounded by a culture that was rich with fiddle tradition, and that is why I am a fiddler. That is why I do what I do. If you saw where I grew up, and the environment I grew up in... there was really no other instrument of that magnitude. The fiddle was, and is, the most popular instrument in Cape Breton. It was very natural for me to start playing.” When a relative sent a small size fiddle over for whoever of the kids in the extended family wanted it, Natalie was drawn to it. “I remember Dad taking me to see the fiddle and I just fell in love with it. I'm like -- can I have it?" she continues, her voice warming at the memory. "Nobody else wanted it, so I took it, and that night, I started playing." She was nine.

They each grew in music, MacMaster in the strongly Scottish based yet uniquely Atlantic Canada shaped style of Cape Breton music, Leahy in the mix of Scottish, French, Nordic, and Irish influences that make up the music of Ontario, with in Donnell’s case, a touch of the Maritimes, as his mother is from Cape Breton. Along the way, they each earned awards and award nominations including Junos and Grammys, and collaborated with artists ranging from Edgar Meyer to to Alison Krauss to Mark O’Connor to Shania Twain.

So, when they married a dozen years ago, they had in mind to do a recording together. Though it took a time to work it out. the result has clarity and grace that brings in their varied and similar understandings of music.

The Saint Nick’s set offers that connection to Scotland and the landscape of Cape Breton, and a sense of joy in the journey and a call to dance, ideas which continue through the music MacMaster and Leahy offer. Fiddles drive the journey and draw you in to The Chase, a tune they wrote together and one which seems to echo with a call to dance.

Through the music on One MacMaster and Leahy are supported by musicians who tour with them often as well as musical friends sitting in for these sessions. Among them are the Cape Breton fiddle contingent of Kinnon Beaton, Brenda Stubbert, and Dawn Beaton, Betty Beaton, Rachel Aucoin, and Mac Morin on piano, Tim Edey on guitar and accordion, and Kenneth MacKenzie on fiddle and Highland pipes. There are two other collaborators you might not expect, as well: producer Bob Ezrin and producer and recording engineer Justin Cortelyou, who have between them worked with musicians including Pink Floyd, Alan Jackson, and Taylor Swift, among others.

The producer connection came about after Natalie was invited to sit in as a guest on a track fellow Canadian artist Johnny Reid was recording in Nashville, produced by Ezrin. MacMaster got to talking with Reid about the duo album she and Leahy were planning. Reid asked if he could share the information with Ezrin, and “Five minutes after I got home from Nashville, Bob called to say he enjoyed working with me and that maybe we could do it again, “ MaMaster says. “After Donnell and I met Bob and, through him, Justin Cortelyou, we all very quickly realized this project was meant to be a collective effort, a passion shared by all."

Natalie and Donnell had already chosen the music for the project by the time Ezrin and Cortelyou came on board, but it was in fact Ezrin’s idea to record the project in Cape Breton. The respect and encouragement among musicians and producers came through in the recording process. "There is very little that is as exciting as working with people who are masters at their craft," Ezrin says. Donnell points out that in working with Ezrin “You feel challenged to give your best, and so “There is a real intense vibe and a live feeling on the record, with everyone just going for it."

That holds through out the music, including places where several of the tunes have unusual touches. On the Pastiche for Anne set, for example, there is a distinct piano presence, which is common in Cape Breton music -- but in this case, it was created by having two players working on one piano at the same time. Percussion is a part of Cape Breton style as well, often created by tapping feet or the beat of a bodhran. For the Joyous Waltz set -- which does include that waltz time tune and then moves into the faster beat of a polka -- the drum kit included paint cans and other recycled materials. There are touches of electric guitar on a track or two as well. Equally ideas suggested by the artists as by the producers, these flavors are all in service of the tradition from which the tunes arise; they just add a shading now and then.

None of which you have to know to appreciate the music, creativity, and connection Natalie and Donnell share through out the album. There is a set in tribute to Natalie’s uncle, late fiddle music great Buddy MacMaster, a Clog Medley set which brings in the flavors of Donnell’s Ontario background, and Wedding Day Jig, which the couple wrote together as a gift to give to guests at their wedding. After the spice and fast paced high energy of most of the sets, Ezrin suggested they end the album with a lullabye, and that Natalie sing it. At first reluctant as she doesn’t consider herself that much of a singer -- she’s been known to sing occasional harmony on stage but little more -- she got into the spirit of the idea. The result is the lovely traditional song Cagaran Gaolach, which Natalie sings in Scottish Gaelic.

...and that’s not quite the end, after all. There is a bonus track, The Balkan Hills set, which makes a lively and engaging full circle to the music of One and which begins with a bit of banter among the musicians, suggesting the idea of music shared, as is common in Cape Breton and in Ontario, at an informal party in the kitchen.

There is a joy, a connection to land, heritage, to family, and the spirit of sharing music that comes through clearly in these tracks. Several years back, I had the opportunity to ask Natalie to reflect on playing the music of Atlantic Canada.

"It's just in me strong, it's my favorite music. Nothing makes me feel the way I feel when I hear Cape Breton music, and I'm not talking about my own music, I'm talking about all those who have come before me and those who are my peers," Natalie MacMaster said. "When I go home and I hear a good fiddle tune, there is no music that makes me feel like that. It does many things at the same time. It makes me feel just wild, like I want to get up and dance, and at the same time it soothes me. It has a crazy effect on me. It just fills me with pure peace."

Flying notes, fast paced jigs and reels and polkas, paint can percussion and Gaelic lyrics, original music and tunes from Scotland, Ireland, the Maritimes, and elsewhere, piano, bagpipes, guitar, accordion, and of course fiddles: all those, in the hands and spirits of gifted musicians, will likely have a similar effect on the listeners of One.

Photographs courtesy of Cambridge Artist Management and Paquin Entertainment. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Sounds of Cape Breton: Mary Jane Lamond & Wendy MacIsaac
Celebrating Canada and Newfoundland: The Once
Coffee and the Mojo Hat: Neil Pearlman

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Monday, July 06, 2015

Road Trip Music: Americana from Alabama to Fur Peace

The winding roads of New England, the quiet places of the deep south, the welcoming towns of the midwest, the expanse of prairies north and south, the high desert, the coasts east, west, south and north -- it is a time for road trips and explorations. There is music to go along.

Amy Black lives in Boston these days, but her family roots go deep into northern Alabama. That is a musical connection she has been exploring of late. Her recording The Muscle Shoals Sessions finds her delving into the rootsy, southern, bluesy, old time aura that rises from north Alabam’, forging creative covers of music from Sam Cooke and Dan Penn among others, and adding her own songs to the mix. Black is well equipped to do this, with a voice that holds hints of Bonnie Raitt and Etta James yet remains uniquely her own, and with a creative imagination that recasts Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody and the Black Keys’ Tighten Up in ways that completely fit the roots infused story Black is telling. Those are standout tracks; so are Black’s own Please Don’t Give Up On Me and Cooke’s Bring It On Home. Really, though, each of the dozen tracks is a keeper.

Rock, blues, country, Zydeco, Cajun, and Creole -- Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys have been working on a musical mix of these genres for more than two decades now, with an accent on the Cajun southern Louisiana roots they come from, The title of their album Voyageurs is well chosen, as many of the songs settings and images have to do with travel, and the driving pulse of their style and of the music itself connects and suggests movement, travel, and dance along the way. Old friend and new band member Kevin Wimmer adds his fiddle to the band this time out, joining in with Riley’s accordion, Sam Broussard’s guitar, Brazos Huval’s bass, and Kevin Dugas’s percussion. The men trade leads and backing on instruments and voice through a range of original and traditional music that’ll have you traveling down to Cajun country in no time. There is music from the tradition, original songs and tunes from Riley and Wimmer, and covers of music from Canray Fontenot and Boozoo Chavis among others. Standout cuts include Au Revoir Grand Mamou, Plus Creux, La Danse de Mardi Gras, and Malcolm’s Reel, but once you begin to listen to Voyageurs chances are you’ll not stop.

Further West is the name Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson, who as a duo go by the name Hungrytown, chose for their third release. In part that’s because they have been doing quite a bit of traveling, taking their Americana based songs from their base in Vermont on tours through North America, Europe, and New Zealand. The title is also a nod to the fact that the songs, many with music written by the duo and lyrics by Hall, reference travels both physical and those which may not be measured by physical distance. The title song is just such a piece, one with references open to many understandings. Other cuts to note are the duo’s fine a capella take on Woody Guthrie’s Pastures of Plenty and the originals Hard Way to learn and Don’t Cross That Mountain.

Jorma Kaukonen has done more than a bit of traveling in his time, time which has included growing up in the Washington DC area and making his way west to California, where he became a founding member of Jefferson Airplane, and later, of Hot Tuna, with which he still tours. Along the way he received Grammy nominations and was named to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and founded the Fur Peace Ranch, a concert and workshop venue and art gallery in Ohio. All the while, in addition to touring with Hot Tuna and teaching at Fur Peace, he has continued to put out stellar solo albums as well. It seems no surprise, then, that his 2015 solo recording is called Ain't in No Hurry.

Blues and country, soul and a hint of jazz with a touch of rock lingering on, and flavors of musics from other parts of the world as well: more than fifty years into his musical adventure, Kaukonen knows well how to frame his musicianship as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist with a distinctive and unique sound and point of view. You will find that well presented in the eleven tracks of Ain't in No Hurry. There’s Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me, a piece derived from and unfinished song by Woody Guthrie which melds gospel, folk, and country; there’s the depression era song Brother Can You Spare a Dime?, a cover of A.P. Carter’s Sweet Fern, and Kaukonen’s own Seasons in the Field, a reflective look at time and change which closes the album. Those are standouts. It is an album, though, well worth your time to let unfold through all the tracks as Kaukonen has sequenced them. “At this point in time perhaps I should be in more of a hurry,” he writes in the liner notes, “but for me it’s more important that each piece fits in the right place at the right time. The songs you hear on this album cover a lot of ground for me. Some are very old, some quite new. From where I came from to where I am today...it is all here.”

Origins and travels, journeys of music, place, and imagination -- wherever your travels take you, these recordings will make good companions.

This is the first in a series of music of North American roads. In between stories of music and musicians of Ireland and Scotland and about creative practice, stay tuned for more such adventures in the coming months.

Photograph courtesy of James Wilkinson. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Tab Benoit’s take on Louisiana in music at a Traveler’s Library
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain
Road Trip Music in Alabama: bluegrass, faith, and architecture

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Monday, June 01, 2015

Scotland and New Zealand: Inge Thomson and Maisey Rika

Fair Isle, Scotland, is a small place, lying about half way between Orkney and Shetland to the far north of mainland Scotland. North Island, New Zealand, is quite a bit larger in area and ar distant from Fair Isle, lying as it does at the opposite end of the world in the southern hemisphere off the coast of Australia. Both places, though, are connected and bound to sea and weather and distance. Those things arise in and influence their music, as well.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons the music of Maisey Rika, who is of the Maori people indigenous to North Island, and Inge Thomson, who comes from Fair Isle, seemed to resonate one with the other on a winter evening in Glasgow.

The two artists did not perform together at their concert at The Tron, which was part of Celtic Connections. Yet there was resonance.

Rika began the evening with a song in Maori telling of the legends of the sea and how the Maori people came to be in New Zealand. Many of her songs through evening were in Maori -- she has won many awards for her work as a songwriter and a tradition keeper in that language -- and, recognizing that however international the audience at Celtic Connections concerts often is, not many would be fluent in Maori, she gave gracious and thoughtful and occasionally witty insights into the meaning of the words she sang. Sharing several songs she has recorded in English showed another side of her music, a more easy listening sort of sound. While listeners at The Tron enjoyed both aspects of Rika’s music, it was the music of her native language and the stories told with that music that clearly kept the audience engaged. Rika also often shared the spotlight with her supporting musicians, stepping aside as they took lead voice or instrument, and at times supporting them with harmonies as well. It was, however, Rika’s powerful voice and engaging storytelling through music which anchored the time -- and the audience enjoyed her inclusion of swirling the traditional poi, as well.

Rika’s most recent recording at this writing is Whitiora with all songs in the Maori (Te reo) language, which includes a song referencing the earthquake in Christchurch and that song telling of Maori legend with which she opened her Celtic Connections concert, called Tangaroa Whakamauta.

For her part of the evening, Inge Thomson focused on the music of her project Da Fishing Hands.

Inspired by consideration of the geography, natural environment, and stories of Fair Isle, the music she and her bandmates offered readily evoked wind, water, sea, northern travels, and the interconnection of these things. Thomson herself sang, in a light soprano, and played accordion as well as the occasional bit of electronic addition to the atmosphere, which fit in surprisingly well with acoustic instruments and human voices. The songs she offered, with lyrics of her own and also ones by her cousin poet Lise Sinclair, who passed away as they were working on the project together, included Wind and Weather/The Fishermen and The Sea, The Snowstorm, Dark Stacks, and Here We’ve Landed.

As Rika did in her set, Thomson also made the music a truly collaborative journey with her supporting musicians, who included Sarah Hayes on flute and vocals, Fraser Fifield on sax, pipes and other instruments, and Steven Polwart on guitar and vocals. Thomson, who was perhaps best known to most of the audience as member of songwriter Karine Polwart’s band, delivered music and stories creative, thoughtful, and unusual, and showed that she is well able to carry a concert in her own right.

Both Maisey Rika and Inge Thomson offered music that draws from their home lands and their knowledge and love for the stories told in word, music, landscape, weather, and change drawn from those lands. Stories of an island in the South Pacific and one the North Sea: differing one from the other, but connected by experience of water, weather, time, and music. Indeed, this concert offered just the sort of thoughtful and unexpected -- and not so likely to occur elsewhere -- connection and resonance that marks out Celtic Connections as one of Europe’s top music festivals.

At this writing, World Oceans Day is on the near horizon. Listening to the art of these two talented musicians would be a good way to celebrate.

“From a cultural point of view the sea has always been a life giver to the island, it is so important we look after our marine resources for future generations.” ~ Inge Thomson in an interview with Folk Radio UK.

Photographs are by Kerry Dexter and were made with permission of the artists, the festival, and the venue. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Julie Fowlis: Every Story
Celtic Connections 2014
Scotland's music: Capercaillie: At the Heart of It All

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Celtic Connections 2015: images

Celtic Connections is perhaps Europe’s best winter festival -- it is certainly one of the world’s best music festivals. Held in Glasgow, Scotland, in the latter part of January each year, the festival hosts concerts of music both traditional and not, from the many traditions of Scotland and the Celtic lands, from the Commonwealth countries, and from other traditions such as, in recent years, those of Malawi, Mali, and Mongolia.

Events are held in venues across the city center, ranging from the Royal Concert Hall to the repurposed church that is now Oran Mor, from the National Piping Centre to City Halls to the Old Fruitmarket to The Tron Theatre. There are exhibits of visual art, late night song and music sessions and an after hours festival club, as well as competitions for rising stars and live radio broadcasts.

Here is a bit of what some of the events looked like this winter past

... and there will be more to come.

Photographs are by Kerry Dexter and were made with permission of the artists, the festival, and the venues involved. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Celtic Connections: 20 Years of Extraordinary Music at Wandering Educators
Celtic Connections 2014: reflections, part one
Celtic Connections 2013: Images

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ireland's music: Danu: Buan

One of the hallmarks of the music of Ireland is connection, and another is conversation. Between musicians, with listeners, with the strands of irish tradition, with contemporary music which draws on tradition -- connection and conversation happen in al these ways. For twenty years, the musicians who join together as the band Danu have been working on this. Their album Buan clearly shows that they just keep getting better at these connections and conversations.

Across the years and through a few changes in membership, the band has retained the bright fire with which it began in Waterford those years ago and added the seasoning and maturity that twenty more years of living and playing music will bring. With musicians coming from Waterford, Dublin, Donegal, and Kerry they choose music which draws the range of Irish landscape into the conversation.

They invite listeners into the musical conversation of Buan with an opening set of slides and reels in which the traditions of Donegal meet those of Kerry. Bouzouki joins with flute, accordion takes its place as the tunes unfold and fiddle leads a lyrical dance on the closing tune as all the while bodhran speaks of the beat. Musical conversation continues with Nic Amhloaibh singing a song from Dingle in Irish. A lively set of jigs including two from McAuley’s pen flows into Nic Amlaoibh’s thoughtful rendition of Lord Gregory, a story of star crossed lovers which shows well not only Nic Amhloaibh’s fine voice but also the players’ ability and skill in supporting and illuminating a story told in song.

That skill is also evident in another and very different song. Donal Clancy’s choices in singing and phrasing work brilliantly to tell the story of Willie Crotty, an eighteenth century outlaw from the Waterford area whose colorful life is told in a song written by Clancy’s cousin Robbie O’Connell. The fast paced melody and upbeat playing only enhance Clancy’s storytelling flair.

The musical conversation in Buan continues in equally interesting fashion through a set of reels and a set of two lighthearted songs in Irish that the band dedicates to their children. The men of Ireland’s east and north were inspired by the west as well as a lovely set of a waltz composed by McAuley leads into a march composed by Clancy, both written after the band spent a week of rehearsal in West Kerry last spring.

The enigmatic, poetic, and image filled song Passage West by John Spillane of Cork provides a gorgeous showcase not only for Nic Amhlaioibh’s voice but for all the band members working together to create a vibrant story told as much through melody as through word -- and the words and singing themselves are powerful enough that they could stand alone.

Reels and hornpipes taken over from pipes music make up a set following Passage West, which makes a graceful bridge to The Willow Tree, a quiet song which weaves modern day love song with myth, legend, and landscape and which Nic Amhlaoibh learned from the singing of its composer, Padragian Ni Uallachain. That makes a fitting close to this conversation in music -- rather than a close an invitation to a quiet pause to reflect on the journey the conversation has taken, really -- a pause which will very likely lead to repeated listening.

Danu are: Éamon Doorley, guitar and bouzouki, Oisín McAuley, fiddle, Benny McCarthy, Accordion, Dónal Clancy, guitar, voice, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, voice, flute, and whistles.

Joining them on Buan are producer Donal Lunny on buzouki, zook, harmonium and bass bodhran as well as former band members Tom Doorley on flute and whistle and Donnachadh Gough on pipes and bodhran. For the concert at which the photographs were made, Oisin McAuley was delayed by weather from arriving in Glasgow, so former member Darragh Doyle stepped in. Phil Cunningham on accordion and Julie Fowlis on voice and whistles were also guests at the concert in Glasgow.

Photographs were made by Kerry Dexter at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, with permission of the artists, venue, and festival. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Ireland's Music: The Small Hours: Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Robbie, Aoife, and Donal: The Clancy Legacy
Julie Fowlis: Every Story

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ireland's music: Matt and Shannon Heaton: Tell You In Earnest

For their album Tell You in Earnest Matt and Shannon Heaton decided to choose songs framed in conversation between two people. The reason for that choice, Shannon says, was twofold. For one thing though Matt and Shannon both have been and continue to be involved in bands and side projects, for a good while now, “ and now maybe more than ever,” Shannon says -- the husband and wife have made their duo performances and recording their home base in music. The second reason, she explains, builds on that.

“It’s great to play with a whole band, it’s lovely,” she says, “ but there’s something just really intimate and spectacularly expressive about a conversation between two people. Maybe a third party wanders into the story in a song, maybe a cello wanders in, but ultimately it’s about the essence of two people and what they can say to each other and how they can listen to each other. So I think,” she continues, “ it was meant to be this overt demonstration, musically, of what a duo is, which is a bunch of different conversations in a bunch of different moods.”

Different moods and different sources, too.

To open the recording, there’s Cruel Salt Sea, a song which had its origins in the traditional ballad Outlandish Knight. Shannon describes the evolution of the song to the version on Tell Me in Earnest. “That song always grabbed me. I always thought it was the outlandish knight, like the craaazy knight! But he was from the northlands, the outlands,” Shannon says. From the traditional version she’s learned on a recording by Shirley Collins “I started changing the words around - of course -- first because I wanted to condense some of the verses. People aren’t going to listen to twenty five verses. So to condense, I have to rewrite a little bit, and then I always like to change any super weird vernacular stuff. But there were still a lot of verses, and so I felt like there had to be resting places, so I added the repeating lines, and then I added a bridge -- I really like the bridge -- and then before I knew it I’d taken away the words outlandish knight and added the words cruel salt sea. So I changed the title. Tinkering around, that’s what trad musicians do!”

Giving their own stamp and creativity to music from the tradition as well as creating their own music is indeed what the Heatons do. On Tell You in Earnest focusing on the idea of dialogue or conversation songs (“Each song is like a mini play,” Matt says), they also take on the Child ballad Gallant Hussar, following mostly traditional words and melody enhanced with original instrumental breaks. There’s Richard Thompson’s classic set of conversations between a guy and a girl about a bike -- and much more -- in Vincent Black Lightning 1952. There’s the dialogue between mother and son that creates a powerful anti war message, all the more powerful when you realize it was written some centuries back -- called Mrs. McGrath. There is a mostly traditional version of a song called The Demon Lover, framed in a conversation with the devil and its consequences, and on a happier note, an over the top Thai love song, Mon Rak Dawk Kam sung in Thai, blending the Heatons’ understanding of Irish traditional music with Shannon’s longtime connections with Thailand. That song, whose title translates as The Enchanted Flower of Kam Tai, proved to be a way into an aspect of this recording the Heatons had not expected. Shannon credits her time spent as an exchange student in Thailand with opening the door to her love of traditional music -- her own heritage tradition of Irish music -- by immersing her in another set of older traditions from another culture. In recent years, on occasion they have worked some of this in to their Irish music repertoire. “As we were thinking about conversation songs, Mon Rak Dawk Tam Kai is a beautiful conversation song, so we thought let’s try it. We were messing around with the idea of including a Thai song on the album and then it got a little deeper. We realized, you know what, that’s part of who I am. And Matt -- he loves electric guitar, he loves surf guitar, he’s played in rock bands since he was a kid.” Parts of that aspect of Matt’s music come out on his work on On Rak Dawk Tam Kai as well as his funny original Easy Come East Go and the well traveled traditional ballad Edwin of the Lowlands Low. In the past, they have included touches of these things here and there in their bedrock devotion to Irish traditional music. “But this time,” Shannon continues, having those touches in their music on this album “That’s really our authentic musical expression, that’s really who we are.”

Matt and Shannon Heaton met in Chicago, when flute player Shannon was called for a wedding gig and needed a guitar player to accompany her. Matt grew up in Pennsylvania, turing the pages for his father;s professional concerts before heading off into his own explorations of rock, surf, tango, and Irish guitar. Shannon’s parents took their kids with them as they lived in several different countries; it was as a young child in Nigeria that she first fund herself drawn to the flute. Later, she studied classical music and ethnomusicology in addition to spending that time in Thailand.

All that may not sound exactly like the background you would expect for two of the most highly regarded players, composers, singers, and teachers in contemporary Irish music. That is a the strong strand of their heritage, however, and they have spent time learning music in Ireland as well as immersed in the vibrant Irish music community of their home base in New England.

The characters in the songs on Tell You in Earnest come alive through the conversations in the lyrics, and through the conversations opened up through the Heatons’ lead and harmony singing, and through their thoughtful and well conceived melodies and intros and instrumental breaks as well. They offer a range of human experience, from the hauntingly poetic murder ballad Edwin of the Lowlands Low to Matt’s funny original song Easy Come Easy Go, in which he imagines what could happen if a bit of story often found in traditional songs went awry. There are grim conversations and supernatural elements, over the top love songs and funny ones, all told in conversations framed in the Heatons' always creative take on carrying tradition into the present.

Give a listen -- these are conversations you will want to return to again and again.

Photographs of Matt and Shannon Heaton (with guest Mike Block on cello in the top one) by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Lovers' Well: Matt and Shannon Heaton
Another Fine Winter's Night: Matt and Shannon Heaton
Listening to Ireland: Patrick season

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posted by Kerry Dexter at 4 Comments Links to this post