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 Carroe Newcomer

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Monday, March 13, 2017

Songs of Hope 4

Friendship. In these times when the political and social world seems to be tilting in ways unexpected, keeping the light of friendship and encouragement burning with people you know and trust is a subject upon which to reflect, and reflect again.

Kathy Mattea has said that she likes to find songs which keep teaching her lessons, and that she has found that this one does. Not the most cheerful way to suggest that you think about friendship, perhaps, but it is a place to begin. Mattea has recorded the song on her album Lonesome Standard Time. Bill Cooley, who plays with Mattea in this video, has a n excellent album of guitar music out called In Search of Home.

Carrie Newcomer says that she was thinking about all the times someone has encouraged her when she was in a hard place when she wrote the song You Can Do This Hard Thing. As she often does when writing songs, poems, or essays, Newcomer draws on her personal experiences to make her points. From them she creates ideas and images that become universal. Newcomer has recorded the song on her album The Beautiful Not Yet.

As she makes her life as a professional musician, Cathie Ryan well knows about leave taking, and about trusting that you will see friends again and you will keep in touch with each other though time and distance may separate you. She often chooses this song, So Here’s to You, to bring her live performances to a close -- well, almost.

As she does in this clip from a show at the Great Lakes Folk Festival, she often pairs it with the witty song Johnny Be Fair and a set of reels and jigs to send her listeners home in a light hearted manner. That’s also an act of friendship shared from performer to audience. Ryan has recorded So Here’s to You on her album Somewhere Along the Road. You’ll find Johnny Be Fair and the tune set on her recording Through Wind and Rain.

You’ll enjoy other music from these artists as well. Here are stories I’ve written about some of that
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain
Kathy Mattea: Calling Me Home
Music & Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer Continues
This story is part of a series on music for these times. Here's another in the series Songs of Hope 3

Fire photograph by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Songs of Hope 3

As we make our way through public and private conversation about immigration, environmental stewardship, and political change, there’s is music. Music to help with mulling these things over, to hearing these concerns as other generations have wrestled with them, to hear them as poets and musicians work with them. Continuing the series I’ve begun of songs of hope, here is a song that speaks to the troubles of race, one that considers, albeit a bit obliquely, environmental change, another that reframes the idea of refugees, and one that offers connection and friendship over the long haul struggle.

Give a listen to these; take your time with them. Go look up the albums on which they are recorded, too, and other work by these thoughtful artists, each of whom I’ve written about here at Music Road and elsewhere in my work. To borrow a line from one of Carrie Newcomer’s lyrics -- she is another artist whose work you should know -- “Light every candle that you can, we need some light to see...”

In her song Detroit Was Burning, Cathie Ryan moves from a child’s eye view to an adult’s reflection and remembrance of the riots in that Michigan city after mart Luther KIng was shot. She has recorded it on her album called Cathie Ryan.

Eddi Reader took a fragment of a Robert Burns song and made it into a story that is both a love song and a lament. Listen to that line about “they’re turning out all of the stars...” and others... This performance of the song Leezie Lindsay was recorded at the Celtic Connections Festival several years ago, and Emily Smith joins in on harmonies. The song is most readily available on the recent retrospective album Best of Eddi Reader.

Though you could call it a Christmas song -- Gretchen Peters has recorded on her Christmas album Northern Lights, after all -- the song Waitin’ on Mary has thought provoking words and images to offer about refugees. These resonate across seasons.

In this time of almost unending news that is awful, or at least difficult and challenging, it is wise to remember that it is a long road and many of us are walking it together. Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem offer a bit of hope and connection and wise words for the road with their song Shine On. It is recorded on their album Big Old Life.

You may also wish to see
Eddi Reader sings more of the songs of Robert Burns
Some Bright Morning from Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem
Songs of Hope continued
Winter meditation

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Late Winter, Christmas, and Music

Late winter, leading up to Christmas, is a time that calls to flurries of activity and travel, preparation and celebration, even as it calls equally to reflection and quiet. Music, specifically of the season and otherwise, is always a good companion and a fine gateway to all these things. For a moment in the midst of hurry or for a longer time in the silence of night and morning, let the work of these musicians be you companion and guide.

Allow this music to renew your hope and peace and joy...

Wintersong, from New England based quartet Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem offers joy, sadness, reflection, exuberance, and good questions. All of this is framed in great harmony, fine lead singing, and top class playing on fiddle, bass, guitar, and percussion. There’s a lively treatment of Jesse Winchester’s Let’s Make a Baby King, a gospel infused spiritual from the African American tradition with Children Go Where I Send Thee. Christmas Bells finds guitarist Anand Nayak setting Longfellow’s words to a new, reflective melody. The four (Arbo on fiddle, Scott Kessel on percussion, Andrew Kinsey on bass, and Nayak on guitar; they all sing) interweave voices on a song Kinsey grew up with called Julian of Norwich. Arbo’s haunting lead well suits her original music framing words by Alfred Lord Tennyson in Ring Out Wild Bells. There’s a lifting of hope in the closing song, Singing in the Land. That’s just a hint of the music, which will make a fine companion for winter’s celebrations and questions.

The title of Heidi Talbot’s newest recording, Here We Go 1,2,3 suggests change. That is an idea that pulls through the songs, the ones she writes, and the ones she chooses from contemporary writers and from traditional sources. Talbot is Irish, living now in Scotland and married to fiddle player and composer John McCusker, who worked with her to produce this project. They’ve created a musical journey that references tradition and yet is contemporary. A clear eyed facing of shifting ground and a thread of resilience to learn from whatever comes are threads that pull through as well. These are stories, too, that leave any certain conclusion open to the hearer’s reflections. Talbot’s fine soprano and thoughtful phrasing illuminate these ideas in songs including the title track, Chelsea Piers, Song for Rose (will you remember me), and The Year That I Was Born.

...and if you happen to be looking for Christmas music, Talbot worked for some years with the band Cherish the Ladies. She is the voice on their fine seasonal album called On Christmas Night on songs including Silent NIght, The Holly and the Berry (all the women trade verses on this one), and The Castle of Dromore.

For her album Songs for Christmas, Emily Smith has chosen traditional and contemporary songs along with carols that have become favorites over the years as she done festive season concerts in her home region of Dumfries and Galloway in the southwest of Scotland. This year she’s expanded her holiday tour across Scotland, sharing such favorite carols as God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and Silent Night along with the gentle contemporary piece Santa Will Find You, the American spiritual Heard from Heaven Today and the Scots song Christ Has My Hairt Aye. Her clear voice and thoughtful phrasing imbue the songs with holiday grace and make the collection work well together. Smith’s own songwriting shines too on Find Hope and on Winter Song.

This is Cara Dillon’s first year to offer a Christmas album. Her choices for the album, which is called Upon a Winter’s Night, are in keeping with the path she’s been following in her non seasonal work, With husband and musical partner Sam Lakeman, Dillon has created a seasonal outing that shares several original songs from the couple, a piece in Irish, a reach back in time to the twelfth century for the Wexford Carol and even further back for the Advent hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Dillon, who grew up in Northern Ireland, infuses the songs with a haunting grace and touches of Celtic connection along the way.

Carrie Newcomer’s recording The Beautiful Not Yet is not filled with carols -- it is not a seasonal album -- but the ideas of connection, of questions, of thoughtful reflection, and of staying in touch across time and miles work well with the holiday season. New comer has a gorgeous alto voice on which to tell the stories in this collection of original songs, too. It is an album that works well across the seasons -- as indeed all the recordings here do. During the winter holidays you might find Lean in Toward the Light, The Season Of Mercy, Sanctuary, and The Slender Thread especially worth hearing.

Bringing us back to Advent and Christmas, Matt and Shannon Heaton offer Fine Winter’s Night, which moves from contemplating how the cold dark skies of winter connect to warmth inside our homes and lives, to lively jigs and reels, both original and from Irish tradition. There’s a vignette of a Christmas love story set in Victorian era winter, and a story about a cat and Christmas, too, along with thoughtful presentations of carols including O Little Own of Bethlehem and It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. Shannon plays the flute, Matt plays the guitar, and they both sing, trading leads, joining in duets, and adding graceful harmonies as festive songs mix in with seasonal tunes.

Photograph at top by Jude Beck, other photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Music for a Winter’s Day at Wandering Educators
Scotland, Christmas, and Music at Journey to Scotland
Music for the Heart of Winter: Cathie Ryan here at Music Road
Cherish the Ladies: storytellers in song: Christmas here at Music Road

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Music for the heart of winter: Cathie Ryan

Christmas, and season of Advent which comes before it, are times that invite both celebration and reflection. These cold days of winter when dark comes early invite quiet solitude and well as gathering and sharing in community. Winter and its holidays and holy days have inspired musicians to explore all these things in many ways: through classic songs of the season which have been handed down, through their own ways of interpreting familiar songs, and through creation of their own seasonal stories.

Cathie Ryan is one such musician. The award winning Irish American singer and songwriter tours internationally through the year and has been a guest on winter season programs of other top artists. This is the first year, though, that she will be offering a series of holiday concerts of her own design. It is to be called The Winter’s Heart.

“I love Christmas! The sharing of meals, of gifts, of song, of together time is a blessing,” Ryan says. “We all slow down to be with our family, our community. No matter how stressed we are, Christmas seems to take the edge off, people are more patient and kind. I wanted to bring the band together to make some beautiful Christmas music that we could all share. And to sing to those who may not have anyone to celebrate the holiday with - to ameliorate the loneliness. Music does that. One of my most favorite things about Christmas,” she adds, “is that we celebrate the holiday with song.”

That recognition of connection and community goes deep for Ryan. She grew up in Michigan, the child of parents who had emigrated from Ireland. They’d spend time in summer with family back in Kerry and in Tipperary. In Detroit, her parents loved not only Irish music but country singers such as Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, and Ryan also heard music of Motown and of Appalachia. As an adult Ryan has spent time living in both the US and in Ireland. All of this has had influence on how she understands music. She’s chosen the subtitle of the Winter’s Heart series to be An Irish American Christmas.

That duality was one of the things which guided Ryan’s choices of music for the shows. “I love Christmas songs and the impulse was to do lots of songs we all know already, but I’d like to highlight our Irish American traditions through song so that will mean new songs!” she says. “There are some beloved songs that are musts, like Silent Night, and we will be singing those. My guitarist, Patsy O’Brien, and I have written a song called The Winter’s Heart that we’ll do. There are also some lovely Christmas songs sung in Ireland in Irish and in English that aren’t so well known in America, and I look forward to sharing those.”

The spiritual aspects of the season also go deep for Ryan. “The way we open our hearts at Christmas inspired the show’s title. The Winter’s Heart seems to encapsulate everything I believe Christmas is about, including Christ being born at Christmas and all of the heart centered teachings of Christianity. It is beautiful that in this time of cold and barrenness, a time when most of us go inside, we open our hearts, our homes, to new hope, new life and to each other. It raises us up.

“We have a big, beautiful shared songbook, we all join in the music,” Cathie Ryan says. “It is a reminder that we are all connected at the core. I love that.”

Tour dates for The Winter’s Heart: An Irish American Christmas

On this tour, Ryan will be accompanied by Patsy O’Brien from Cork on guitar and vocals, Patrick Mangan from New York on fiddle, and Kieran O’Hare from Chicago on uillean pipes, Irish flute, and tin whistle. Among them the three men have appeared with a roster of top artists including Eileen Ivers, Don Henley, and the Milwaukee Symphony, and have appeared on stages with shows from from Riverdance to Broadway theater.

Tour graphic courtesy of Cathie Ryan; photos of Ireland in winter and Cathie Ryan with bodhran by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Cathie Ryan’s most recent recording Through Wind and Rain.
Cherish the Ladies: storytellers in song
Listening to Christmas
First week in Advent: candle in the window

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Saturday, November 05, 2016

Cathie Ryan: The Winter's Heart Tour

Dark comes early in winter in Ireland, and sunrise comes late. It’s a time for turning inward, for reflection, for seeking grace, for seeking home. It’s a time as well for celebration of home and hearth, of winter’s beauty in the landscape, in the gifts of friendship and family, and music.

Musician Cathie Ryan knows these things well. First generation Irish American, she has lived out these traditions growing up in the United States and as an adult, living in both the US and Ireland.

Candles in the window to light loved ones home, hunting the wren on Saint Stephen’s Day, telling and retelling of well loved stories and singing of well loved songs, and honoring the winter solstice and the turning of the seasons as well as the time of Advent and Christmas: these are a few of the traditions of Ireland Ryan has received from and shared in her own family. This season, she’s decided to create a series of concerts to bring these things to her audiences. On 30 November Ryan will begin a run of concerts in the US to be called The Winter’s Heart: An Irish American Christmas.

Though she has at times appeared as a guest on holiday concerts with other Irish artists, this will be the first time Ryan is creating a winter themed run of performances of her own. Known for her compelling voice, inspired songwriting, and thoughtful selection of songs from the tradition and from contemporary writers, Ryan is also loved by her audiences for her lively storytelling and fine wit. All of these will be in play for The Winter’s Heart.

Joining Ryan for the tour will be award winning guitarist Patsy O’Brien. He has brought his soulful playing to work with Eileen Ivers and Paddy Keenan, among others. Patrick Mangan will handle fiddle playing for the tour, as he’s well qualified to do, having twice won All-Ireland fiddle championships and recently toured as a featured soloist with Riverdance. Keiran O’Hare will bring his pipes, flute, and tin whistle into the mix. He’s an internationally renown performer who has appeared with Mick Moloney, Liz Carroll, Josh Groban and Don Henley.

It is Ryan’s voice and vision which will center each evening’s performance, however. She has been at the forefront of Irish and Irish American music for more than two decades, bringing clarity of voice and the creativity of imagination to creating music which draws on legend and history as well as present day, which intertwines worlds of nature and myth, and which holds elements of both sides of her heritage. All this, Christmas, and flashes of humor as well -- these are bound to be evenings to remember.

Tour schedule and information for The Winter’s Heart

Photograph of Cathie Ryan in Santa hat by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain
An Evening in Belfast
Cathie Ryan: teaching tradition
Cathie Ryan: The Farthest Wave
Narada Presents the Best of Celtic Christmas, a two disc set for which Ryan sings the opening track, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. Other artists on the recording include Dordan, Frankie Gavin, Natalie MacMaster, Kathy Mattea, and Altan.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Katie McNally Trio: The Boston States

Across history, travelers and emigrants have carried fiddles with them. It’s one of the most portable and versatile of instruments. That is one of the reasons that people coming form Scotland to Atlantic Canada brought their fiddles and their music across the ocean. People from Nova Scotia and other parts of the Maritimes, heading south to New England in search for work, brought heir tunes and songs and dance steps and their fiddles along too.

It’s that legacy and connection across landscapes and communities in New England, Atlantic Canada, and Scotland that Katie McNally has chosen to honor in her album The Boston States. In Boston, McNally learned the fiddle with renown Scottish style fiddle player Hanneke Cassel, studied at Tufts University, and listened and played at sessions and dance halls where the musics of these landscapes met and mingled.

With her trio members Neil Pearlman on piano and Shanucey Ali on viola, McNally went to Cape Breton make the album, and enlisted top class Cape Breton fiddle player Wendy MacIsaac to produce the project.

The trio kicks things off with music from contemporary Cape Breton composers Dan R. MacDonald and John Morris Rankin. The tunes Colin McIntosh and Black Horse offer a lively introduction to McNally’s fiddle playing which proves to be at once strong and graceful,. The set also showcases the fine way Pearlman’s fast paced piano and Ali’s low notes on the viola combine with McNally’s lead to create a set that evokes fast flying dance steps while showing the musicianship is in good hands with all three members of the trio.

Each musician has varied strengths and musical backgrounds, which work well together across the ten tracks on the disc. Pearlman’s understanding of Cape Breton piano and the way that interacts with fiddle music is bone deep -- yet he also brings in subtle touches of his other interests and projects in Latin msuic and in jazz. Shauncey Ali studied classical music and moved into playing bluegrass. McNally, in addition to learning fiddle in Boston, studied ancient and modern Scottish Literature and Scottish traditional music at Glasgow University and The National Piping Centre in Glasgow.

The three musicians are thus well prepared to take on traditional music of Scotland -- although, as McNally points out in her notes, they often favor versions which came their way through the playing of Cape Breton musicians including Joe Cormier and Troy McGillivray. The trio’s gifts for bringing these ideas together are apparent in the set pairing the jig Scotty Fitzgerald from Cape Breton fiddler Sandy MacIntyre with the traditional tune The Hills of Glen Orchy.

Another good place to hear that at work is the track which joins Scottish composer Niel Gow’s strathspey The Fir Tree with a fast paced piece of McNally’s own composition, Batmoreel, which, does, yes, have a Batman connection which can learn of it the liner notes.

There are five more tunes by McNally herself on the album and one by Pearlman, which stand in good company with the tunes which they have chosen from the tradition. Many of the sets are lively music, but the trio does well with slower pieces also: listen out especially for the traditional tune Down the Burn Davie Lad.

Katie McNally’s family roots go back into Atlantic Canada and to Quebec, and her experiences encompass neighborhood dancehalls in Boston where Cape Breton and Scottish tunes ring out, as well as studying and teaching at fiddle camps across the United States, in Scotland, and elsewhere. As a player and as a composer she understands and respects how these strands come together. On The Boston States, McNally and musical partners Neil Pearlman and Shauncey Ali have created a collection of tunes that will set your feet dancing, and your spirit dancing as well.

You may also wish to see
Katie McNally: Flourish McNally’s debut album
Scotland's Music: Hanneke Cassel,The Paul McKenna Band, Alba's Edge
Hanneke Cassel: For Reasons Unseen
Sounds of Cape Breton: Wendy MacIsaac and Mary Jane Lamond
Katie McNally’s web site
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