Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Exploring Landscape in Music: 3 Recordings to Discover

Landscapes frame out days, our journeys, our memories.

Those ideas are endless sources of inspiration for musicians, as well.

Eliza Gilkyson is a versatile and creative musician who based herself for a number of years in Austin, Texas. Many of her songs address, comment on, or include in some way social justice.

Gilkyson grew up in northern New Mexico. Recent years have found her drawn back more and more often to her home ground in the Taos area. Eventually she decided it was time to move back.

The Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico and their foothills and valleys have their own look; so too, the confluence of First Peoples, Hispanic, and western American ranch and cowboy lifeways and histories makes for a distinctive mix. This is all part of what Gillkyson enjoys about the place, and part of what turns up in her music in her album Songs from the River Wind.

In Songs from the River Wind Gilkyson draws on memories of people and places and stories from more than 40 years of her traveling the west sharing her music.

The recording includes original songs, thoughtfully chosen covers, and traditional songs from the west with touches of her own lyrics enhancing the tale> It is a love letter to the west, told through the singer’s own reflections and the words and stories of the characters and landscapes she introduces.

There’s the dancer of Bufflao Gals Redux, and the questioning cowboy of Farthest End, side by side with Gilkyson’s vivid and economical memories of place, time, and relationship in The Hill Behind the Town.

Landscape frames all these, as it does with the evocation of past times in Before the Great River Was Tamed. Bristlecone Pine and At the Foot of the Mountain offer stories in which northern New Mexico’s landscapes are present as clearly as the people in the stories told.

Gilkyson offer a reflective and thoughtful journey. She has always had a way with writing and singing unique love songs. That is part of the mix here. As ever, there are considerations of present day challenges in the songs too. Though songs such as Before the River Was Tamed and At the Foot of the Mountain present these in a more a gentle way than she’s done in other recordings, they are there if you listen, just as hope and love are in her more politically involved work.

The songs are also vividly grounded in landscapes of the west. Part of Gilkyson’s gift is that she does that while reaching beyond limits that idea might suggest. Her graceful voice carries and illuminates the stories

So does the work of musical friends who join in, among them Don Richmond on several instruments and he and his western group The Rifters on harmonies. Michael Hearne adds his voice as well, while Kym Warner plays mandolin and Warren Hood sits in on fiddle.

Landscape in another country informs and inspires the work of Rory Matheson and Graham Rorie on We Have Won The Land. In their case it is Rory’s native area. Assynt in the far north of Scotland.

Given time away from touring ( Rory is in the band Fara; Graham is in Gnoss, both top Scotland based ensembles) during the pandemic, the two friends collaborated on a project that had long been on Rory’s mind.

It comes from the not so distant history of Assynt in the northwest Highlands, when in 1993 local folk came together to form a trust which eventually was able to buy the land on which they lived and worked from an overseas land speculator.

It was an event that has inspired people in other communities to work out ways to take ownership of the land on which they live and work.

It was that, but not, you might think, a source of musical inspiration.

Rory and Graham have made it so, though, through ten mainly instrumental tracks that frame the stories of the local crofters’ journey to ownership (it wasn’t always a straight path) in music by turns lively and reflective.

Both men are grounded in traditional music, a natural fit for this history. Both are past finalists for BBC Scotland Young Musician of the year, and have worked as session musicians in Glasgow. Graham, who comes from Orkney, has set a part of his own region’s history in music in his album Orcadians of Hudson’s Bay.

“The crofters buyout means a lot to me because my family supported the campaign and were heavily involved in the process from the beginning,” Rory said. “It’s a really powerful story and a part of Highland history that I was very inspired by,”

Stating Intentions evokes energy, hope, and commitment at the start of such an project as the crofters faced. Several bids for the land are made and refused as the musical story goes forward.

Who Possesses This Land? invites reflection, as must have been the case for the crofters at this turn of events. This is followed by the thoughtful singing of James Graham on Currie Dubh nan Ròpa, a song and melody Rory well remembers from Assynt. Reflective itself, it works as a fine illumination to Who Possesses This Land and a graceful bridge to...

The Winning Bid, a lively tune of joy. That is not quite the end of the story, though, as reflection and celebration as well as determination and hope are brought into the story through the tunes This Is Ours and the We Have Won The Land set,

Rory’s instrument is keyboards. Graham plays fiddle, mandolin, and tenor guitar. In addition to James Graham on vocals they are joined by a number of top class players, among them Kristan Harvey on fiddle, Anna Massie on guitar, Charlie Stewart on bass and Fraser Stone on percussion.

Landscape plays a part on Jacqueline Schwab’s album I Lift My Lamp too. Many landscapes and yet all connected: she has chosen music of those who have come from other countries to the United States over the centuries.

This includes music that both celebrates tradition brought along and new communiites created, and in other cases looks back at what’s been left behind.

Her approach to the music celebrates her own traditions as well. Schwab is a storyteller through her piano. She began her life in music taking part in folk dances in Pittsburgh, where she grew up, and went on to play for folk and country dance ensembles and events, as she still does.

You may know Jacqueline’s work through her work on the soundtracks of many of Ken Burns films. The Civil War, Mark Twain, and Lewis and Clark are but three on which you may hear her work. She, in turn, credits the experience of working on these projects with developing her ideas of the telling of stories with her music.

That she does on I lift My Lamp, taking listeners through nineteen tracks and a bit more than an hour of pieces than range from Scotland to African America, from a Chilean melody to a Yiddish one, with many other sources explored along the way.

The music on I Lift my Lamp is connected by Schwab’s own sure and distinctive touch with her playing which now and then holds a hint of her playing for the dance added in. The music is also connected by the idea Schwab inlcuded for the subtitle of her album: Illuminations From Immigrant America.

Her sleeve notes, which are well worth the reading, tell a bit of Schwab’s own family background and how she came to look at this music as well as how perceptions of folk music might be changing. There are stories of the music and why she chose certain tune too.

Standout tracks include For Ireland I’ll Not Tell Her Name paired with the Blarney Pilgrim, Oyfn Pripetshik/On the Hearth, from a Yiddish song, and Take Me Out to the Ballgame as you’ve likely never heard it. Really though I Lift My Lamp well deserves to be listened to all the way through as the artists has designed it.

That is true of Songs from the River Wind and We Have Won the Land as well. Different artists, different visions different landscape, each will illuminate your own understanding of place and creativity.

You may also wish to see
A piece about Graham Rorie’s album Orcadians of Hudson’s Bay (and music from Karine Polwart and Dave Milligan too
Beautiful World, an earleir album from Eliaza Gilkyaon which includes among other songs The Great Correction, which has become a classic song of the times
jacqueline Schwab oftne lends her talents to recordings by other artists. Read about one such, Aoife Clancy’s Silvery Moon.

Photograph from Lochinver in Assynt by Ivor Bond from Pixabay Photograph of Carlingford Lough and the Mourne mountains in Ireland by Kerry Dexter

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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Manran and The McDades: moving tradition forward

The range of Cetic tradition and new dimensions for its present and future: all that is part of the work of the musicians of The McDades, based in Alberta in Canada and Maran, based in Glasgow, Scotland.

It’s always g balance to draw inspiration from music of a tradition, play song and tune handed on and handed down, while putting your own mark on it, at the same time staying true to this spirit of those who have handed it on.

Another way to do that, one that arises naturally from loving and being immersed in traditional styles, is creating new music which respects and draws on tradition, while placing one’s own voice within its story.

Manran and The McDades, in differing yet related ways, are really good at this. The tradition, in the case of both bands, is mainly music of Scotland, with touches of other influences of several places and sorts now and again.

Manran: Urar

Manran has been part of the Scottish traditional music scene for elven years at this writing. Known for high energy trad rock that has listeners up on their feet as often as not, the seven member group is also well skilled at interpreting and creating quieter, more reflective pieceso.

Both these aspects of the band’s music arepresented in their album Urar. That’s a word in Gaelic which means flourishing. That well suits the character of the music on offer.

The material is largely written or arranged by members of the band, with each artist contributing to the project. Founding member of Manran Gary Innes plays accordion. Ewen Henderson is on fiddle, Highland bagpipes, vocals, piano, and synths. Ross Sanders handles bass guitar and Moog. Ryan Murphy is on uillean pipes whistle, and flute. Mark Scobie adds in drums, Aidan Moodie brings in guitar and backing vocal, and Kim Carnie is on vocals.

Kim and Aidan are the most recent members of the band, having both joined in 2019. Urar is the first Manran recording on which both of them appear. They joined up to create the song Crow Flies, which they co-wrote over distance during lockdown. The substance of the song is about supporting one another during uncertain times and being willing to take risks.

Those are ideas which recur in varied ways across the music on Urar, in tune and in song and in Gaelic and in English. Each of the band members knows well how to create and to collaborate in telling stories through music.

There is Manran’s trademark high energy present as part of such storytelling.

While that may at first seem an unlikely way to treat a song of grieving those lost at sea, the song Ailean proves an excellent way to appreciate this aspect of the band’s creativity. The Black Tower set, comprising a tune written by Ewen paired with a piece based on ancient legend and geography written by Mischa MacPherson, offers another way to appreciate how well these artists use instrument and voice both tell story..

The tunes are equally engaging. In addition to that first tune in The Black Tower set, listen out especially for the reel Creamery Cross, named by Ryan for a place near his mother’s home in County Clare in Ireland, and for The Loop, a set of three tunes, one from Ryan, one from Gary, and another from piper Peter Morrison of the Peatbog Fairies.

There is a set of Puirt, a song in Gaelic about a ridiculous pair of trousers, a tune in tribute to a favourite surf beach, a Gaelic song from a poem by Ewen honoring the tradition fo planting saplings for those who are gone too young, a song in English celebrating connection across distance, and other musical adventures to explore..

To draw things to a close, the band chose Griogal Chride. This is lament dating to 1570. Again it shows the fine way Manran works as a band to honour music and story, briging together ideas they’ve been sharing across the music on the album, with excellent playing and a memorable lead vocal from KIm.

The McDades: The Empress

The McDades well know how to honour story through their music, too.

The heart of the band are brothers Jeremiah McDade, whose instruments are whistles, guitar, bansuri, saxophone, and and vocals, and Solon McDade who is on bass and vocals, and sister Shannon Johnson, whose instruments are fiddle and voice. Alongside the siblings are musical friends Andy Hillhouse on guitar and vocals and Eric Breton cajon, darbouka, and other percussion.

The McDades are known for being based in Celtic tradition and for drawing on other styles on genres for inspiration and exploration.

That’s true of what they offer on The Empress.

You will find, for example, a lively version of the traditional song Willie Reilly.. It finds Shannon telling the tale about star crossed lovers and a man’s day in court with her lead vocals, alongside creative and fast paced percussion and instrumental backing.

The energy continues and picks up pace a bit with the original tune The Oak, Ivy and Ash, which may well have you up and dancing, or at least, tapping your feet as you listen.

Sundown, written by fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot, is a classic of contemporary folk song. It stands up well to treatment by the McDades which both honours that aspect of the song and intersperses the verses with breaks which include jazz flavored saxophone lines.

Blues and jazz come into play as The McDades offer a haunting cover of Plain Gold Ring, which was written in the 1950s by Jack Hammer. They head back into Celtic direction at first with the title track The Empress, but if you want to name other genres The McDades include in their music, you will find several of those in the tune as well.

About that title, The Empress? There are reasons behind the choice.

The heart of the band is the collaboration among Jeremiah, Solon, and Shannon. In the tarot, The Empress is the third card, meant to represent power and productivity of the subconscious, and said to open doors for creative and artistic energy. The band points out in press material about the album that they were drawn to these ideas, to the symbolism of the number 3, and to connections to the ideas of creativity growth, and expression.

With both of these albums, you will find stories directly and indirectly drawn from earlier times. You will find instrumental creations and collaborations as complex as any you’ll find in classical or jazz. Engaging and expressive singing carries the stories and traditions forward as well.

Manran and The McDades each offer material for inspiration, reflection and celebration -- musical journeys well worth the taking.

You may also wish to see
Urar was produced by Calum MacCrimmon. You will know him as a member of Breabach
Ewen Henderson has a solo album out Steall/Torrent.
Kim Carnie is also lead singer withe the band Staran. Learn about Staran’s debut album Kim has a solo album out soon as well, bout which more to come.
An earlier album from The McDades, Bloom
Shannon Johnson has produced many of Maria Dunn’s albums, including the Juno winning Joyful Banner Blazing. Jeremiah and Solon play on this and other of Maria’s albums as well.

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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Scotland's music: Light is in the Horizon from Eddi Reader

Eddi Reader is a Scot through and through.

Her work in the songs of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, is some of the best you’ll hear.

Reader is also an artist sure in her own creativity, sure enough to explore and put her own stamp on music from whatever source draws her interest.

As her performing background has included the top charting rock hit Perfect (when she was with Fairground Attraction), busking many sorts of music on the streets of France as well as in her native Glasgow, performing with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and performing the songs of Burns with classical orchestral backing, yes, she has the skill and adventurous spirit to take on a wide range of music.

She also has the voice, and focus, to make her own contributions, as a songwriter and as an arranger of folk songs, as well as the insight to make interesting choices from known and lesser known music across many styles and eras.

Light is in the Horizon is a gathering of twelve tracks in which you will find all this.

There are songs you are sure to know. Fools Rush In is one of those.

There are others that you will know, or not, depending on your listening tastes and to some extent where you live or grew up. Mary Skeffington, written by Gerry Rafferty, is one of those.

There are songs from the 1940s -- Beneath the Lights of Home for example -- and recent music including a song from Reader’s longtime musical collaborator Boo Hewerdine, called I Thought It Was You.

Reader’s own songs stand well in such company. She shows a fine, thoughtful, and varied touch with both word and melody in songs including Auld House and Argyll. For the title track, Light is in the Horizon, she drew inspiration and adapted language from a short poem by Thomas Moore.

Reader has a clear way of making music her own, adding to the sprit of a piece whilst staying true to it.

If there’s a theme through the songs on Light is in the Horizon it is ideas of hope, and of connection.

A collection of fine songs, indeed. it is.

Eddi Reader’s voice, and her way of inhabiting character and story with it, are also throughlines in this collection, and indeed all of her music.

That there are such throughlines and connections is all the more interesting when you learn that these twelve songs were not thought of as a collection at first. They were out-takes, outliers if you will, from other projects.

Though they are not named with individual songs, you will find that Reader is backed by many musicians who've joined her in the past, among them John McCusker,Charlie Bessa-Reader, Ewen Vernal, John Douglas, Ian Carr, Alison Freegard, and Phil Cunningham.

Here is what Eddi writes about how Light is in the Horizon came to be:

“These songs were left behind from the recording sessions of my last two albums. While they didn’t find their way onto those collections, they have been insisting on being heard by you.

“Gathering them together has been a joy, and now I have the opportunity to share them with you.

”Hope and light is in the horizon always...”

You may also wish to see
Eddi Reader’s website
Eddi Reader’s album Cavalier
Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns
Uam from Julie Fowlis,, on which Eddi joins Julie for the song Wind and Rain, sung in both Gaelic and English

Photograph of Eddi Reader in performance at Celtic Connections in Glasgow by Kery Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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Saturday, April 09, 2022

Spell Songs II: Let the Light In

The drift of a leaf in autumn wind, the flutter of a moth's wings as evening fades to night. The half glimpsed movement of an animal just out of view, the call of a jay, the swirl of swifts against the sky -- these connections with nature frame our days.

Even if you have always lived in cities, you know and feel some of these things, don’t you?

Reflection on the varied connections between humankind and nature, and the ways those are changing, are part of what inspired the music of the album Spell Songs II: Let the Light In.

It is the second album from the group which has become known as the Spell Songs Singers: Jim Molyneux, Kris Drever, Beth Porter, Julie Fowlis, Rachel Newton, Seckou Keita, and Karine Polwart.

The musicians in turn drew inspiration from the art of Jackie Morris and the words of Robert Macfarlane. We’ll get to a bit of background on how that came about. First, though, consider what the musicians create on Spell Songs ii.

There are fifteen songs on the album, with each musician taking a turn or two at lead voice, and working in creative collaboration with harmony and instrument through the others.

They each play as well and sing -- Porter on cello, Molyneux on keyboards, Drever and Powart on guitar, Keita on kora, Newton on harp, Fowlis on whistles. Those are their main instruments, though each often takes out othersas well, Fowlis taking up the oboe, for instance, Newton moving over to fiddle, Polwat picking up bass.

That may begin to give you ideas of the musical complexity on offer; it is complexity in service of creativity, though. That comes through in the singing, and in the writing that formed the words and music.

Some songs come directly from Macfarlane’s poetry, others go in directions sparked by his words and Morris’s art onto different paths. Each of the artists is rooted in music which respects tradition, be that tradition of England, Scotland, or Senegal. Each of those traditions meet at points along the way in the music of Spell Songs II.

Polwart begins the journey taking lead on the slightly spooky Bramble. Nature is not always kind and often mysterious, an idea that continues as Fowlis follows with the haunting song Saint Kilda Wren, in Gaelic.

In Oak, Drever offers stories of the long lived tree, living its life for centuries as human cone and go, and connect with its wood for “the wheel that makes the seasons turn/the the beasts that shelter in the barn/the table that we sing around/ the casket we put in the ground,” and in many other ways. There is dimension from a verse from Keita’s sung in Mandinka, and from the other singers adding backing harmonies.

In each of these tracks and all others on the recording, the musician singing lead gives his or her own character to anchor the song. Spell Songs is very much a band project, though, in creation and in execution, as each musician’s work is supported and enhanced by contributions from the others.

That is true for each of the songs. One especially good place to hear it is in the song Swifts. Rachel Newton’s voice soars and swirls as do the named birds, while Drever adds second lead voice and each of the others contributes as well.

Seckou Keita brings a bluesy call and response idea to the presence of a familiar bird in Jay. Beth Porter’s lively take in the song Daisy readily evokes daisy chains and “tiny suns turned skyward,” while Jim Molyneux offers wistful, bittersweet melody and words to evoke the coming and going of swallows.

There are more such gems on the recording -- each of the songs is well worth repeated listening, in fact.

Plant life comes in for more musical discussion as Porter reflects on pushing one’s way through tangled gorse, and through challenges.

Fowlis takes lead on on the wintery, eerie Bird of the Blizzard, which evokes snow, ice, and change, and reminds that nature is facing change, some of it devastating.

Polwart gives another view of nature with the song Thrift, in which persistence of the seashore plant is a reminder to dig in and hang on as hardships arise.

That idea of nature dealing with change faces the fox, lead actor as Kris Drever sings Red Is Your Art. Working and living just as the margins of human life and the natural word change these days, the fox poses the question, when I am gone, when I am driven out, will you think it was worth it?

That is an idea that frames creativity here. As Fowlis sings in Bird of the Blizzard, there’s “a map made of wonder, that tracks what is fading” and “memory’s keeper is you.”

That is a idea that resonates with the fox’s query in Red Is Your Art, the persistence in Gorse and Thrift, the long lasting Oak.

It turns up as well as the thoughts Julie, Karine, and Seckou offer in Barn Owl, as they intertwine words in in Gaelic, Scots, and Mandinka on the themes of, as Karine sings it “Tak nae mair nor ye need (take no more than you need).” As indeed owls flying by night do in their travels.

In differing ways Moth, with Karine in lead, and Curlew from Rachel both honour and suggest change in nature and in our own lives, and in ways direct and indirect, the persistence of hope as well.

Fowlis takes lead on the closer, a song called Silver Birch, which draws together ideas from this recording and references a bit to the first Spell Songs album, as well.

Snow is falling, my silver-seeker;
soon the path will be lost to sight,
soon the day the day will give way

Fowlis sings. Later, though, she continues

The sun is rising, my silver-seeker

warms the pines, and breathes the larches
...Soon the blackbird will take her flight.

As promised, a bit more background to the Spell Songs projects and how they came to be:

Several years back, artist Jackie Morris learned that a number of words. most to do with nature, were to be dropped from a popular children’s dictionary where she lived in the UK. She decided to create a book of paintings that would honour these words and the nature they represented. She contacted nature writer Robert Macfarlane to see if he’d write an introduction for such a book. He came back withe idea, What if I wrote poems to go along with the paintings, spells to call words and nature back, so to speak?

The book the Lost Spells was born. Eventually presenters at the Folk by the Oak Festival in England had the idea to bring together artists they knew had an interest in nature to create music based on these ideas. The first Spell Songs album came to be. Later Morris and Macfarlane collaborated on a second book, called The Lost Spells. and so, a second album, Spell Songs II:Let the LIght In, came about. Morris, by the way, often joins the singers on stage, creating paintings live as they sing.

Photographs of the Spell Songs artists in performance at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall during Celtic Connections by Gaelle Beri, courtesy of Innes Campbell Communications.

You may also wish to see.
Learn about the first Spell Songs recording,
About the second book from Morris and Macfarlane, The Lost Spells
Laws of Motion from Karine Polwart
Alterum fromJulie Fowlis

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Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Scotland's Landscapes in Music, from Kenneth I. MacKenzie and Niteworks Band

Scotland’s landscapes and stories inspire many sorts of creativity. Consider two rather different aspects of that, in recordings from Kenneth I. MacKenzie and the band Niteworks.

MacKenzie’s background is in pipe bands, with which he has played in such varied locations as Hong Kong, Norway, Denmark, and the United States. Among other things, he played on one of the best selling pipe band albums of all time, Amazing Grace from the Toyota Pipes and Drums.

Kenny is also well known as a composer of tunes. That is well to the fore on his album Glendrian , where most of the tunes in the twelve set offering are original. In addition to Highland pipes, he brings in his other instruments: digital chanter, harmonica, and low whistle.

The tunes, which include reels, waltzes. slow airs, marches, hornpipes and lament, are thoughtfully sequenced and well presented. They draw on people, places, and circumstances from Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, and are in most cases named in ways to honour them... including a reel called Granny Bheag’s Pancakes.

There are dashes of humour in the playing, as well as reflective pieces.

There’s a 4/4 March in tribute to Gaelic singer Alasdair Gillies, and a slow air which Kenny composed for his wife on her first visit to his family home. You can almost see the dancers swirling across the floor to Rhona’s Waltz, or taking faster steps to Karen’s Jig.

There is that lament, the title track Gelndrian. That came from a a landscape with which Kenny has family connection. It is the named for a settlement in Ardnamurchan, in Lochaber. No one lives there now. Kenny wrote the music reflecting on lives lived there and what that may have been like.

“Music and a love of playing is at the heart of Glendrian, and it’s been a joy to play in my own style and to create and share new tunes that cherish a traditional feel,” Kenny says.

His first recording in almost twenty years, Glendrian is a collection of music by a composer and player who has a clear sighted view of what he wishes to say with his music, and how to say it best. His love of landscapes and people of the Highlands and Islands comes clear with no need for words.

MacKenzie’s vision centers the album, and he is well supported by Will Marshall on piano, accordion, and arrangement, Marie Fielding on fiddle, Donald Black on tremolo harmonica, Rory Grindlay on drums, and Tom Oakes on acoustic guitar and flute.

The men of the band Niteworks have been inspired and nutured by the dual and often contrasting landscapes and sounds of Skye, where they grew up, and the buzzing and busy city and club scne of Glasgow, to which they moved.

They have always worked to put these together in their music since they first formed the band almost fifteen years ago now.

For their third album, A’ Ghrian, they’ve really matured into their sound creatively and musically, finding the sometimes elusive balance of respecting tradition while moving it forward in connection with other styles.

Part of that has come through the years Alan MacDonald on pipes, bassist Christopher Nicholson, Innes Strachan on keys and synths, and dummer Ruairdih Graham have worked together, and part of it has come through musical challenges they’ve accepted along the way.

“With this album we’ve sought to create a more expansive sound that’s cinematic in nature,” Graham explains. They were commissioned to write music for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Farewell 2020 film. That was a project which required them to reflect and create musically on what that year had been like, a timer of hardship and unexpected change for many. “The nature of the project required broad expansive sounds, and that led to us going further in that direction in the writing and recording of this album,” Graham says.

That approach works. The music is well sequenced, too, with a mix of traditional and original adventurous tunes bracketing equally adventurous song. Niteworks have also invited along Laura Wilkie, Fiona MacAskill, and Aileen Reid of KInnaris Quintet along with Susan Applebee to add strings to the sound.

The men of Niteworks do not sing themselves, but rather invite a range of guests to contribute. They have included Gaelic singers on earlier albums, and some of the same singers return for this one. Further along the lines of expanding vision for their music, though, they have for the first time invited singers in English and Scots to join in.

The three women who make up the trio Sian return with their well honed Gaelic harmonies for a a track, while Alasdair Whyte brings strong and soulful presence to another song. Sian band member Ellen MacDonald does a solo turn joining on Gura Mise tha fo Eislein.

The men of Niteworks came across a recording of the English folk song John Riley by folk legend Joan Baez. They were taken with the melody and wanted to make it their own, inviting Beth Malcolm along to sing the song in English. It’s a song you may know, from the Joan Baez version or the many recordings and sessions in which it turns up. In the hands of Beth Malcom and Niteworks, it turns into a John Riley you’ve likely not heard before, true to the story and its tradition while taking these in new directions.

Hannah Rarity brings Scots to the mix with a graceful take on the song Gloomy Winter. There is a turn of season, so to speak, and a return to Gaelic as Kathleen MacInnes brings an equally thoughtful and graceful performance to the title track A’ Ghrian.

As much as their approaches differ, Kenneth I. MacKenzie and Niteworks share love of the landscapes and sounds of Scotland past and present, and express that through their music.

You may also wish to see
Three from Scotland, which includes Marie Fielding’s album The Spectrum Project
At Wandering Educators Music for a Month of Transitions, in which you can find a video of the title track of Glendrian
Solo from Sarah-Jane Summers, who offers another creative way to take tradition forward
Song in English and Irish as well as tunes Thar Toin/Seabourne, from Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh

Photographs by Paul Edney from Pixabay, by Andrew Murray from Pixabay, and by Kerry Dexter

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Saturday, March 05, 2022

Ireland's music: Day Is Come from The Alt

Stories told through song: that is one thing the three musician who are the trio The Alt love and have in common.

They are great at telling stories through tunes -- music with no words-- as well.

As well they should be, as each of the three musicians -- John Doyle, Nuala Kennedy, and Eamon O’Leary -- have flourishing careers with other music projects. They also like the music and sound the create when they have the chance to get together. Hence, The Alt.

Day Is Come is their second recording together. On it, you will find a lively journey of song in both English and Irish, along with class tunes, some original and some drawn from traditional sources.

All three sing, and well know how to handle lead voice as well as support others. O’Leary plays bouzouki and harmonium on the recording, Doyle adds his own touch on bouzouki as well as playing guitar, mandola, keyboards, and bodhran, and Kennedy plays whistles and flutes. Guest fiddlers Marius Pibaret and Kevin Burke sit on several tracks.

Each of the ten tracks on the album is well worth repeated listening, as is the story as the artists have sequenced it. That said, several to listen out for especially include

Ta Na La/Day Is Come is an Irish language song, a cheerful drinking song at that. The trio offer it in a version known in Oriel, the ancient medieval area on the east coast of Ireland of which Nuala’s home town of Dundalk is part. As is fitting for that, Nuala’s light and lively voice leads the vocals after a short intro on the flute. The men join in on the choruses and their strings add sparkle to the vocals and join the flute for instrumental breaks framing the verses.

For the The Willow Tree, O’Leary takes lead voice. It’s a song in English by the scholar, singer, and songwriter Padraigin Ni Uallachain, whose music you have met here along the Music Road several times. It’s a reflective love song grounded in Irish landscape, which sounds as though it could have come from centuries back rather than being a contemporary piece. Harmonium and guitar weave a journey around O’Leary’s warm baritone and the graceful backing of Doyle’s tenor and Kennedy’s soprano. Kevin Burke joins on fiddle.

The Connaught Rangers has lyrics from a poem by Winifred M. Letts, set to music composed by John Doyle. The three musicians sing unaccompanied, with John’s strong tenor taking lead on lyrics which are a lament for those from Ireland who served in World War I. It is a fine way to hear just how good their harmonies are, and how well the three musicians work together.

You’ll do well to listen to each of the other tracks as well, which include a lively song in Irish which Nuala often sings to her young children, fine harmonies from Nuala and John backing Eamon’s lead on Paddy’s Land along with great playing from all three, two sets of tunes which mix originals from Kennedy and Doyle with tunes from the tradition, and a great version of the Child ballad Flower of Northumberland with Nuala on lead.

Day Is Come has no shortage of lively music, but through all that there’s a reflective, feeing, somewhat quieter in feeling than their first album. That John Doyle, Eamon O’Leary, and Nuala Kennedy created this outstanding collaboration during constraints on travel and connection is testament to their resilience and creativity as well as their musicianship.

Day Is Come is lasting music, with music to tap your feet or step along to,, to sing with, to enjoy quietly. Stories of Ireland well told in music indeed

You may also wish to see
Songs of the Scribe from Padraigin Ni Uallachain
The Path of Stones from John Doyle
The Alt, the trio’s first album, self titled
A bit about Nuala Kennedy’s album Behave the Bravest along with three other albums you may enjoy...

-->Music Road is reader supported . Your support for Music Road is welcome and needed. If you are able to chip in, here is a way to do that, through PayPal. Note that you do not have to have a PayPal account to do this. Thank you.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Scotland's Music: Bruce MacGregor: The Road to Tyranny

Highland landscape, history, story, family, friendship -- those are things on which Bruce MacGregor draws for the tunes he has composed for his album The Road to Tyranny. A touch of politics, too, as the title would suggest.

You may know MacGregor as founder and driving force of the top band Blazin’ Fiddles, as presenter of BBC Scotland’s Travelling Folk, as book author, as partner in MacGregor’s Bar in Inverness, as co-host of the ongoing online sessions Live at Five, and from other projects.

All that goes to explain why it has taken a while for MacGregor to get around to making his second solo album. Twenty years, in fact.

That may also explain why the first track on The Road to Tyranny is anchored in family. The tunes are called Josh’s 2 Secs/ Jo De Sylva --a force of nature/ Short and Simple/Roddy MacGregor. It’s a lively set which references MacGregor’s son Josh, his wife Jo, a joking comment from a friend about the fiddler himself, and his son Roddy’s football career.

The lively tunes allow MacGregor to show off his skill and love for the fast paced aspects of fiddle music, and to bring in equally lively contributions from musical friends who will join in elsewhere on the album as well. Anna Massie and Angus Lyon, who are also part of Blazin’ Fiddles, bring in guitar and keyboards, respectively. Duncan Lyall and Ian Sandilands hold down the rhythm section with double bass and percussion, and Ali Levack adds his whistle to the mix.

As much as MacGregor can write blazing and engaging fast pieces, he well knows how to create moving airs and waltzes as well. One such piece of music is called Essich. It is inspired, MacGregor says, by the beauty fo the area in the Highlands near Inverness where he was brought up. Another Blazin’ Fiddler, Jenna Reid, wrote the string parts, which she performs along with renown cellist Su-a Lee, with Lyon, Sandilands, and Lyall returning for the piece as well.

There’s a fine variation between faster and slower pieces through the recording. Co-producers Massie and Lyon no doubt had a hand in that sequencing.

Annie’s Waltz, written to help a fan mark her 80th birthday, is also on the album. MacGregor along with Anna Massie and Jenna Reid, play the tune at Celtic Connections. On The Road to Tyranny, Tim Edy takes the guitar part.

“The tunes have been inspired by the people, the places, and the adventures I’ve been lucky enough to experience over the years,” MacGregor says. “There’s airs, jigs, strathspeys, reels, and marches as you’d expect, but then there’s other tunes...which don’t really fit into any of the usual categories -- they’re just catchy tunes.”

That ability to hear, understand, compose, and play catchy tunes of many sorts was honed as MacGregor was growing up by study with the late Highland fiddle master player and maker Donald Riddell. MacGrgegor’s time touring, travelling, and teaching across the world with Blazin’ Fiddles and researching the varied music he presents on radio have likely played a part in those abilities as well.

On the fourteen track album one of those catchy tunes is Doddie’s Dream. It is dedicated to former Scottish rugby champion Doddie Weir, who is living with motor neurone disease, for which there is as yet no cure. The tune was recorded by Blazin’ Fiddles along with Aly Bain, Nicola Benedetti, Phil Cunningham, Sharon Shannon, and Julie Fowlis joining in for a track that was released to raise money for MND research. It raised thousands of pounds while rising to number nine rank in the UK charts. On this recording, It appears as a paired back version with just fiddle and piano, a quiet piece that evokes the beauty of the Highlands.

There are other gems to enjoy on the fourteen track album. as MacGregor and his musical companions lead what one might think of as a journey through those Highlands, from fast paced ceilidh to quiet star filled night, from jig to strathspey to waltz to air. Tom Gibbs adds clarinet on two tracks. Tim Edey brings in both box and guitar in several places, and the players named above each return to add their gifts to more tunes along the way.

It is Bruce McGregor’s presence and creativity as composer and as player which anchor the recording. As both of those, and as collaborator with gifted musical friends , he has created a project to remember and to enjoy with repeated listenings.

Photograph of moor;and above Essich by Jennifer Jones; photography of Bruce MacGregor courtey of the artist; photograph of Blazin' Fiddles at Celtic Connections by Kerry Dexter, made with permission

You may also wish to see
Bruce MacGregor website
Blazin’ Fiddles website
Learn about an album from another Scottish fiddle player and composer who also studied with Donald Riddell Solo from Sarah-Jane Summers
More fiddle music to explore: Now More Than Ever from the Katie McNally Trio,

-->Your support for Music Road is welcome and needed. If you are able to chip in, here is a way to do that, through PayPal. Note that you do not have to have a PayPal account to do this. Thank you.

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posted by Kerry Dexter at 0 Comments