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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posted by Kerry Dexter at


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