Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Listening to Christmas: new winter focused albums

Winter holidays are a time for savoring the familiar and enjoying the new. That holds just a true with music as it does for travel, or flavors of Christmas cookies. Treats are in store this season, with new winter focused recordings from artists whose backgrounds range from bluegrass family band in the heartland of North America to sean nos from the Gaeltacht of Connemara in the west of Ireland. There’s a gathering of a half dozen of Scotland’s top musicians who bring their well loved Christmas concerts to record, and a recording that features the artist alone with her guitar. There’s a reunited trio of musical friends, a top Scots singer and songwriter, and one of the most well loved bands in Ireland and Irish America. All these artists have their own ideas of winter and music to share. Listen on...

Rhonda Vincent is the artist who claims bluegrass as her heritage, growing up in Missouri playing in her family’s band. She’s had success in country music too, always bringing along her strong connection to her heartland roots. That’s something she carried through in Christmas Time, her third album of holiday songs. She offers carols and secular holiday songs along with several she’s written herself. For Twelve Days of Christmas she invites in musical friends including Dolly Parton,Charlie Daniels, and Pam Tillis. Of her originals, Christmas Time at Home is the strongest, and there’s a nice medley of several familiar songs she hasn’t gotten to in full to close out the disc.

Róisín Elsafty comes from a family background in music, too, but of a different style: hers is the sean nos singing of the west of Ireland. She’s joined up with Ronan Browne on pipes and Tony Maher on piano to offer a thoughtful and interesting collection of Amhráin Na Nollag: Favourite Christmas Songs In Irish. There are melodies you’ll recognize even if Irish isn’t one of your languages, and there are several finely done instrumentals to give breadth to the sound. Singers of sean nos must learn ways to give emotion and story in song through word alone, and though Elsafty brings instruments to accompany her voice here, her mastery of that is evident, especially in some of the quieter pieces. Elsafty, Browne, and Maher have a a bit of fun with things too. In addition to thoughtful and reverent takes on such well loved songs Don Oíche Úd I Mbeithil (One Night in Bethlehem) and Oíche Chiúin (Silent Night) they also take on An Drumadóirín (The Little Drummer Boy) and then, well, there’s Rudolph Na Sróine Deirge...

Eddi Reader, Karen Matheson, Kris Drever, John McCusker, Ian Carr, and Kevin McGuire -- you could call that a dream team line up of Scotland’s musical talent, and when you consider the Christmas concerts they appear on each winter are put together by Phill Cunningham you understand why both the audiences and the artists have a really good time. Over the years and the songs, what’s known as Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook has grown from a one night gig in Edinburgh to a five night run that takes in different towns and cities in Scotland. This year, it has also made it to a recording also called Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook, which is filled with with generous helpings of holiday songs serious, winsome, and funny in the mix, among them The Holly and the Ivy, In the Bleak Midwinter, and Santa Will Find You.

Lindsay Straw has no backing musicians for her gig -- it’s just the woman and her guitar on her download only release The Winter EP. The Winter EP. Just a few songs, too, but they serve to show the strength and gentleness of the Boston based musician’s way with voice and instrument, and with how well she puts the two together. In her non seasonal work Straw often draws on the music of Ireland, Scotland and Appalachia, and that informs her take on It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, The Christ Child Lullaby, and the other pieces she offers.

The three women who comprise the Scotland based trio Shine decided on a winter themed EP for this season as well. Alyth McCormack, Mary MacMaster, and Corrina Hewat recorded an album together some years back but each has a full slate of musical projects in their separate careers. When they began talking about working together again, one of the things they’d like to do, they decided, was a Christmas tour in Scotland. Fire & Frost is the recording that came out of that idea. The three have terrific harmony skills, which makes whatever they choose to sing well worth hearing more than once. Hewat and MacMaster are fine harpists, as well, and they all know how to weave notes in and around the line of a song. Added to that, they’ve some things you may not have heard before, such as the Christ Child’s Lullabye with lyrics in Scots ans well as Gaelic and English.

Emily Smith usually does Christmas shows too, mostly taking a break from her international touring and keeping things close to home in her native Dumfries and Galloway in the southwest of Scotland at the holiday season. It was time, she decided, to put some of her favorite songs from those shows, songs first gathered near to home and some which caught her ear on her travels, on record. On Songs for Christmas there are carols and songs of hope and faith ranging from Silent Night to Christ Has My Hairt Ay to Smith’s own graceful meditation on the challenges and changes of winter called Winter Song.

The members of Cherish the Ladies took things home for Christmas in a way, too -- the top Irish American band, which often includes musicians from Ireland as well as Irish Americans, went to County Clare to record the band’s third Christmas album and they decided to call it Christmas in Ireland. It’s a fine collection comprising song and tune and a bit of spoken word, new material and well handed down pieces, material from Irish tradition and material created drawing from it. To the core group of Joanie Madden on flute and whistles, Kathleen Boyle on piano, Mary Coogan on guitar and Mirella Murray on accordion, top Irish musician Nollaig Casey added her talents on fiddle and Hannah Rarity from Scotland and Don Stiffe from County Galway stepped in as singers. It’s a well paced and beautifully performed collection, with every track a keeper worth repeated listening. Especially to take note of though are All the Valley Down, the O Christmas Tree set, The Christmas Letter, and Errigal Beauty.

Photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

you may also wish to see
Listening to Christmas: Shannon Heaton, Cathie Ryan, Mary Black, Hanneke Cassel
Cherish the Ladies: storytellers in music
Old stories, old songs: Roisin Dubh by Elsafty, Armstrong, Browne

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


Blogger Jane Louise Boursaw said...

I love listening to music in the winter - probably because I'm inside more and snuggled into our log cabin while the winds howl outside. Thanks for some new winter-music ideas, Kerry.

4:11 PM  

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