Saturday, September 23, 2017

Scotland meets Americana: Elias Alexander & The Bywater Band

Oregon, Scotland, Vermont, New Orleans, Boston: each of these places plays a part in the geography of Elias Alexander’s music, and of Bywater, the band he formed with musical friend Eamon Sefton, Kathleen Parks, and Patrick Bowling.

Alexander grew up in Oregon. On a family visit to Scotland as a teenager he fell in love with the sounds of Scotland’s music. Beginning with whistles (which he still plays), he went on to learn Highland and border pipes, and fiddle. Back in Scotland one day, on a break from work planting trees, he sat by a stream. He had his whistles with him -- good thing, too, as jigs and reels and all sorts of songs and tunes came pouring out. That was when, he says “I knew that traditional music was going to become... something I was wholly dedicated to.”

It wasn’t quite a straight forward path always, though, and for a time he felt he’d lost direction. Dropping out of university in Vermont, he ended up in New Orleans. Busking on the street, he found ways back to the music, leading him to return to Vermont to finish his university studies at Middlebury College. Then he moved to Boston to join the thriving Celtic music scene there. It was tin Boston, too, that he met up with the three friends who’d become the Bywater Band.

The album Bywater, Alexander and the band’s debut recording project, shows how he and they have taken ideas from Celtic traditions along paths which respect that yet create something new. The Reclamation, for instance, begins as a march which leads into bluesy solo turns from pipes and from fiddle. It was written, Alexander says, “in support of those taking back their culture and their land.” The set Murray’s comprises a Gaelic song learned from Gillebride MacMillan (whose music you’ve met here along the music road),a tune from Alexander first pipe teacher, a piece written by the band to honor the place where Eamon Sefton grew up, and a tune called the best session ever, which, Alexander writes “happened in Boston after Hanneke Cassel and Mike Block’s wedding.” You’ve met both Mike’s and Hanneke’s music here before too.

Sunset run is, as its title might suggest, a quieter, more reflective set, which the band handles equally well. The name Bywater is meant to honor both Alexander’s experiences in the New Orleans district and his time by the stream in Scotland, and their connections in Alexander’s life. That thread of connection to water plays out also in the song Earth and Stone, as Alexander sings of his family’s story of emigration, a thoughtful piece that asks good questions as well as tells good stories.

The tunes and songs on the album range across tempo and idea, though they remain grounded in the music of Scotland. Each of the four band members is well accomplished at both taking lead and supporting the other three, and in creating arrangements which allow their talents together and individually to shine. Bywater is an engaging debut> Each of the band members works on other projects, and it will interesting to see what path they take when next they join up.

You may also wish to see
Hanneke Cassel: For Reasons Unseen
A story about the album Mary Ann Kennedy and Na Seoid, with information about Gaelic singer Gillebride MacMillan -- you will have seen him as the bard in Outlander, too
Katie McNally: The Boston States
A bit about bagpipes --mainly Highland pipes -- at Percpetive Travel
Web site of Elias Alexander

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Monday, July 24, 2017

Scotland's music: Emily Smith: Echoes

A meeting with an old friend that might go wrong but in the end goes right, reflections on a seafaring life and a ship put at anchor, a disagreement between two sisters with an unexpected ending, a refection on seed time and harvest, and another on journeys: these are but several of the stories Emily Smith tells through the songs in her recording Echoes.

Many are told in songs arising from traditions of Scotland, framed in arrangements by Smith. A gifted songwriter herself, she well knows how to arrange music in service of story, and how to connect with tradition while keeping music and story fresh. Those are gifts which come through in her clear and expressive singing as well.

That tale of a meeting that seemed to go wrong and then right is one such song from tradition. It is called Reres Hill. Smith also turns to the tradition of Scotland for The Hawk and The Crow. In rather different ways each song holds a touch of wry humour, which Smith conveys with a light touch.

King Orfeo taps the mystical aspect of tradition and legend with several threads of good story in it. Smith tells this tale from Shetland with clarity and good energy that well suits the tale, it path, and its outcome. That’s also true with her take on the gentle, bittersweet classic My Darling Boy.

The Sower’s Song has words by poet Thomas Carlyle set to music composed by Smith and her musical partner and husband Jamie McClennan. Carlyle, a 19th century writer, came from Dumfries and Galloway, which is also Smith’s native place It is a reflective story of the turns of time as framed in seed time and harvest.

Now hands to seed sheet boys
We step and we cast, old Time’s on wing
Partake of harvest joys
The seed we sow in spring

Smith has chosen work from contemporary songwriters for Echoes as well. Among these are reflections on change told through a seaman’s work inThe Final Trawl, written by acclaimed Scottish songwriter Archie Fisher. The Open Door by Americana songwriter Darrell Scott has to do with change too: in the space of three short verses he creates a lasting story which Smith conveys with thoughtful understatement.

It is indeed an interesting, creative and thoughtful journey Smith leads through the music she’s chosen for Echoes. In this she’s well supported by frequent collaborators McClennan, who produced the project and joins in on fiddle guitar, and backing vocals, Mattheu Watson on guitars, Signy Jakobsdottir on percussion, and Ross Hamilton on bass. Special guests sit in as well from time to time, including Jerry Douglas, Tim Edey, Aoife O’Donovan, Rory Butler, Natalie Haas, and Kris Drever.

Following on the idea of journeys and echoes which thread through the music, Smith and McClennan have chosen the song John O’Dreams to draw things together for a quiet close.

Echoes is an album which offers enjoyment, inspiration, and invitation to repeated listening. Every track is a keeper.

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

You may also wish to see

Music for Late Winter, a story here at Music Road which includes Emily’s fine holiday recording, Songs for Christmas.

Songs of Hope, part two of a continuing series here at Music Raod, which includes The Sower’s Song

Emily Smith, Jamie McClennan, and Robert Burns

Scotland in Six, a story I’ve done at Perceptive Travel with six Scottish musicians you should know, among them Emily Smith, Eddi Reader, and John McCusker.

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Canada's music: Catherine MacLellan

Prince Edward Island, just north of Nova Scotia in the maritime provinces of Canada, has an understated beauty and a depth of story which draws people in.

The same could be said of the music made by songwriter Catherine MacLellan, who comes from Summerside on PEI.

She is an excellent musician in her own right, with a Juno award along with East Coast Music awards and Canadian Folk Music awards in her resume. She is also, as she points out in the notes for her most recent album, a songwriter’s daughter.

That album is called If It’s Alright with You: The Songs of Gene MacLellan. On it are thirteen tracks written by Gene MacLellan. There are country, pop, gospel, folk, and Americana songs songs in the choices, fittingly enough, as his music has been covered by artists from all those genres. What pulls through is the thread of story. What also pulls through is the thread of poetry. Those are elements Catherine understands in her own work, and which she brings to her interpretation of he father’s music.

The songs range from lesser known to well known, enigmatic to straightforward, reflective to forthright. Catherine MacLellan honours her father’s work, while gracefully and graciously putting her own stamp on them.

It took her a while to get to making this album. As she established herself with her own work, she knew it was important to step outside the shadow of her dad’s career. Gradually, she had begun including some of Gene’s music into her live shows. It was the recognition of her music with the Juno award for her album The Raven’s Sun that pointed her toward this recording. "The Juno made me feel as though people know me and appreciated my music,” Catherine says.”Now I want to share my dad's music. It's also an opportunity for me to get to know him better. The more I get to know his songs, the closer I feel to him." Gene MacLellan died when Catherine was a teenager.

The blockbuster hit for Gene, and for Anne Murray, whose signature song it became, was Snowbird. As with any good song, it stands up to differing interpretations. As Murray sang it, the focus -- and the arrangement -- was on the brighter side of things. Catherine, who had added the song to her live shows several years back, decided to slow things down and take a more somber, reflective approach when she sang it. For this album, she was thinking about how to do it in an original way. The result is a thoughtful, quiet version of a song which has become a classic in several genres. “Snowbird was the first song of my dad's that I started performing regularly, and I had already recorded an album and a live version,” Catherine says. “I wanted to do it again, but differently. I got out the Wurlitzer and played it as simply as I think this song needs to be. It's very honest. I also was able to finally record the extra verse that only my dad ever recorded.”

While researching her father’s music, Catherine followed up on something else she’d heard about Snowbird. She kept hearing that it was the second song he ever wrote. What, she wondered, was the first? “Turns out, it was Pages of Time, a real country heartbreak song and we produced it in a throwback sort of way. I always wanted to be a country singer!” Catherine says. She and producer Chris Gauthier decided to make Pages of Time the first track on the album.

Of the title track of If It’s Alright with You, Catherine says “For me, this sums up my dad's songwriting and his personality. He always wanted to make sure everyone was ok, and put others first.” She adds that the song also reflects Gene’s searching for peace. That’s a journey which led him to prefer writing songs to performing them.

Gene MacLellan’s gift for creating memorable stories in just a few words comes through in his most covered songs, as well as his less widely known work. There’s the stone country with a twist drinking song in Face in the Mirror, the poetry of landscape and wandering in Lonesome River and Thorn in My Shoe, and another sort of search, a spiritual one, in Won’t Talk About Love.

Another aspect of that spiritual side comes through in what has proved to be Gene MacLellan’s most recorded song, Put Your Hand in the Hand. That so many had recorded it, artists ranging for Elvis Presley to Ocean to Loretta Lynn to Anne Murray gave Catherine pause when she was considering how to do it for this album. Insight came in collaboration with two musical friends. “When I was on tour this spring with Dave Gunning and JP Cormier, we played it as an encore and it was so fun, just two guitars and three voices,” she says. “We took an afternoon [on the road] in Calgary and recorded our version in three hours and I think it is perfect. I'm very happy with what we captured.”

Among other tracks are Bidin’ My Time, The Call (with guest vocals from John Connolly), and Shilo Song. The production is spare when it needs to be and more complex when that serves a song’s idea. Through it all, Catherine MacLellan’s understanding and respect for her father’s work and the stories told come through.

What would Gene MacLellan think about this recording? "He would be happy to know his songs continue on, being remembered and given a new spark," Catherine says. "It’s a testament to what a young guy from very humble beginnings can do."

You may also wish to see
Catherine MacLellan and Chris Gauthier with a song she’s written, Frost in the Hollows. She has recorded it on her album The Raven’s Sun

also
Scotland’s music: Karen Matheson: Gaelic, story, and family
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain
Music in Times of Change: Songs of Hope 4
Celebrating Cape Breton’s Heritage, Music, and Connections Catherine will be part of a Songs from Scratch concert at the Celtic Colours Festival on Cape Breton this coming October. That concert will be in Sydney River.
Discover Prince Edward Island

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Celebrating Cape Breton's heritage and connections through music: Celtic Colours Live volume 4

Cape Breton lies in the far north of Nova Scotia, in Atlantic Canada. There are parts of the island which do not look lot like Scotland, and places where it looks very like. Places where it sounds like Scotland, too: Cape Breton is almost alone as a place outside Scotland where Scottish Gaelic is spoken. Spoken and sung, that is. When immigrants -- some seeking a better life, some fleeing political and economic strife, some driven from their homes-- came over from Scotland, they often brought with them few material goods. They did, however, bring their songs, their tunes, their dances, and their stories.

They found First Peoples tribes on Cape Breton, and across the years, as more people from Scotland came, so too came folk from Ireland, from the United States, from central Europe, from Scandinavia, from other parts of Canada. The heart of Scotland’s culture beat strongly through all this, sharing influences and being influenced by landscape, weather, and life on an island as well as crossing paths with people from these other backgrounds. So a unique culture emerged, connected to Scotland but different, one that could -- and still does -- celebrate the distinctions as much as the connections.

Every year in autumn the people of Cape Breton invite the world home to experience this. For nine days in October each year beginning just before Thanksgiving in Canada, concerts and cultural events are staged all across the island in communities large and small, in purpose built concert halls, churches of many faiths, school houses, fire halls, pubs, historic sites from one end of the island to the other. This is the Celtic Colours International Festival.

The music is both focused and diverse, There are tradition bearers from Cape Breton, and rising stars. There’s always good representation from the other provinces of Atlantic Canada, from Ireland, from the United States, from across the rest of Canada, and naturally from many parts of Scotland. Both tradition bearers and rising stars are part of these strands of music as well.

You may be reading this in summer and thinking: Why am I hearing about this now since it happens in October?

One reason is the recording Celtic Colours Live volume four. Through thirteen tracks recorded live as they happened in venues across the twentieth anniversary season of the festival in 2016, you will get a fine feeling for what the music of Celtic Colours is like.

In a concert from the Acadian part of the island in Belle Cote, Le Vent du Nord kicks things off with rousing Quebecois style. Fiddle tunes from Andrea Beaton and Liz Carroll hold a lively dialogue among Cape Breton, US, and Irish strands, from an event recorded at the Dangerous Duos concert in Mabou.

That Dangerous Duos concert, by the way, is a good taste of what Celtic Colours does so well -- not only do old friends get to meet up and play music together, but people who don’t usually play together join up. Scheduled or not, the results are always well worth the hearing. There are several other collaborations from the Dangerous Duos evening on Celtic Colours Live volume four.

Speaking of collaborations: the whole of The Unusual Suspects band could be seen as that. In Scotland, musicians Corrina Hewat and Dave Milligan had the idea of creating a folk orchestra, with players from the varied regions and traditions of the country. Not an easy task to pull off -- but they did it, and have kept it going for some time. They’ve brought it to Celtic Colours before, too, where they become The Unusual Suspects of Celtic Colours by adding top Canadian musicians to the mix, folk such as, in 2016, Wendy MacIsaac, Lisa MacNeil, and Daniel Lapp. Scottish and CB tunes made up the band’s Finale Set, which is what appears on record for this album. Not quite as high energy as being there, but almost.

There is plenty of high energy music on the recording, and at the festival itself. There are quieter times too, though, and these are well represented. Top Scottish storyteller in song Archie Fisher joins up with CB guitarist Cyril MacPhee for the Buddy MacDonald song We Remember You Well. Newfoundland trio The Once. who are Geraldine Hollett, Phil Churchill, and Andrew Dale, bring their original song Gonna Get Good. Scotland’s Dougie MacLean joins up with Canada by way of Scotland guitarist Tony MacManus for the song Talking With My Father -- listen out for that guitar on this track.

There’s more -- Gaelic song from students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Irish fiddle from Liz Doherty, Americana and Canada meeting up in the work of April Verch and Joe Newberry, and of course Cape Breton music and artists through it all.

It is no easy task to make a live recording work. This one does on all counts, with the music, the hints of audience sound, the occasional tapping or step dancing feet, and the sense of presence in the venues. Congratulations to Jamie Foulds, who recorded, mixed, and mastered the tracks, and Declan O’ Doherty, who produced.

If you happen to be reading this in summer, you’ll want to know that the Celtic Colours Festival will be announcing the artist line ups near the end of June, and tickets will go on sale in mid July for the festival, which will take place in 2017 from 6 to 14 October. In addition to half a dozen or so concerts each evening of the festival, there are talks, workshops, art exhibits, farmers and craft markets, community meals, storytelling times, music sessions, ceilidhs, events for children... keep your eye out on the festival web site celtic-colours.com for information about all these things.

One other thing: For every ticket sold for the 2017 festival, there will be a maple tree planted on Cape Breton Island.

You may also wish to see
Scotland’s Music a Different Way: The Unusual Suspects.
Sounds of Cape Breton
Cape Breton Music: Remembering Raylene Rankin
Celebrating Canada and Newfoundland: The Once
Canada’s music: Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy
Tony McManus: The Maker’s Mark

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Songs of Hope: Let the Light In

As the lines of history unfold, there are days when it seems -- and is-- very dark. Music however can be a way to uplift, to connect, to let the light in, to help each other along the way. Two such songs are

Love Is on Our Side, seen here in a vintage clip from the television show Texas Connection. Tish Hinojosa continues to write and sing eloquently of many things. This song, which you may find on her album Homeland, speaks to timeless ideas of connection, hope, and struggle.

https://youtu.be/15cfLzYo4LM

Carrie Newcomer is always looking, she says, “to find the sacred in the ordinary, the everyday.” That comes through in this song, which is is called A Shovel Is A Prayer. In it she uses familiar images and ideas to speak of reflection, gratitude, and hope. It is recorded on her album The Beautiful Not Yet.

In both of these songs, there’s full recognition that following the ways of hope, trust, and connection is often neither easy nor obvious. It takes courage; it requires reflection. Music such as Tish Hinojosa and Carrie Newcomer have created her, and continue to create, makes a thoughful companion for the journey.

You may also wish to see
Songs of Hope, Gracias a la Vida part of a series here at Music Road
Music of Resilience, part of series I am writing at Wandering Educators
Tish Hinojosa: Our Little Planet
Music and Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer continues

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Songs of Hope, Gracias a La Vida

At times silence and reflection are ways to consider deep change -- although I agree that things have been a bit too silent here at Music Road of late. I hope you have been enjoying perusing the ten years of archives, though -- I have been pointing some of those stories out to you over on Twitter. I am there as @kerrydexter if you care to follow.

Music is a good companion for such times. Not so much in the sense of protest songs -- though they have their place, anger only gets you so far, and it's not sustaining for good choices in the long run, either. Compassion, friendship, reflection, good questions, faith, community -- thos things help with hard times and sustaining hope and focus.

There will be much more music to come here along the music road. I invite you to stay tuned, and in the meantime take a listen to Tish Hinojosa and Joan Baez singing Gracias a la Vida -- Thanks to Life.

Baez has recorded the song on her album Gracias a La Vida

An album from Hinojosa you may like is

You may also wish to see a few other things I have been writing on related subjects
at Wandering Educators Music of Resilience
at Perceptive Travel Crossing Borders in Music
at Wandering Educators Songs of Friendship
here at Music Road Songs of Hope part one

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Monday, April 17, 2017

Music in times of change

In the midst of change and uncertainty, it’s often a good idea to take time for contemplation and reflection, time to find interior silence -- even when there may not be much in exterior circumstances to encourage that.

Music is a good gateway to silence. That can seem a paradox, but recall that creating music is as much about the notes as the space between them. It has been said that a painter paints on canvas, and a musician paints on silence.

With those ideas in mind, take a listen to these four pieces of music.

At times music without words -- tunes, in the Celtic music world -- invite this sort of reflection. Fiddle player and composer Hanneke Cassel draws on the traditions of Scotland and Cape Breton with hints of bluegrass, Americana, and occasional inflections to other places her travels have taken her. Take a listen to the Gretl in the Garden set, which you may find recorded on her album Trip to Walden Pond.

Songwriter Carrie Newcomer often looks to intersections of faith and the everyday to frame her stories. Hers is a clear eyed faith and a clear hearted look at living both in the moment and seeing threads of connection, grace, and spirit that pull through, now and then laced with humor too. In this song, Newcomer reminds that in times of uncertainty it is often wise to, as she says in the title of her song, Lean In Toward the Light. The song is recorded on her album The Beautiful Not Yet.

Music can be a gift of hope, whatever the circumstance. Cara Dillon knows this. Dillon comes from Northern Ireland and loves to perform and record music from the folk traditions of Ireland and Scotland. She recognizes ideas that connect across time and oceans, too. This song, Bright Morning Stars Arising, has engaged Dillon’s audiences from Ireland to Scotland to China. You may find it on her album A Thousand Hearts.

The members of the band Capercaillie have taken their music to Africa, the middle east, North America, and other points across the globe. Their base, and the heart of their music, is in their home in Scotland, however. You will hear references to Scotland in this song -- the poetry of Sorely Maclean, for instance. It is a piece that invites more than one listen for both melody and words, though, and connects with ideas of contemplation, reflection, and trust whatever place you may call home. Karen Matheson sings lead. The song and the album where you will find it are both called At the Heart of It All.

You may also wish to see
Gaelic, family, story: Karen Matheson
more about Cara Dillon’s album A Thousand Hearts
Music, silence, and spiritual journey
Music and mystery: conversation with Carrie Newcomer

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