Monday, April 12, 2021

Tradition with edge: music from Leahy, Karan Casey, and Project Smok

Tradition and heritage: sources of ideas, inspiration, and challenges for musicians. There are as many ways to respond to tradition as there are artists who draw on it in their work. In albums from Canadian musicians Leahy, Irish singer Karan Casey, and the trio Project Smok from Scotland, there are varied ways of working within, without, and at the edges of tradition to explore.

Leahy is a family band from Lakefield in Ontario. They’ve roots in the traditions of Ireland and Cape Breton as well as the varied musics that make up the sounds of Ontario. There are performing roots, too: the eleven siblings of the Leahy family grew up playing music at home, and performing across Canada and winning Juno awards in the process. Members of the band have come and gone and returned since they first became nationally known in the 1990s; for the album Good Water seven family members join in.

Join in they do, and add new dimensions to Leahy’s music as they do. Though you will hear influences of Celtic and folk in the music they offer on their album Good Water, you will also find rock, pop, and progressive influences . It’s a well and thoughtfully done collection of original music; the songs have lyrics of substance and the two instrumentals offer thought provoking ideas, too. The members of Leahy can play and sing, each often taking more than one role. For their main presences on Good Water, Denise and Julie Frances often take the lead vocalist spot; Siobheann on bass and Frank on drums hold down the steady beat of rhythm; Maria brings in guitar and mandolin; Xavier adds accordion; Erin brings in keyboards and fiddle. Guest artists add edge with electric instruments, strings, and horns.

There is edge, certainly, but edge that serves to define the strong musical, lyrical, and creative foundation of the recording. You just might hear echoes of the energy and creative risk taking that infused Call to Dance, the music which first brought Leahy to topping the charts and touring with Shania Twain in the 1990s. You may hear them going in directions you’d not expect from Leahy, perhaps, but directions full of quality and imagination nonetheless. Listen out especially for the uplifting message and fine harmonies and playing on the title track, Good Water; heartfelt singing from Julie Frances on Friend; and class playing from Erin and Xavier on the instrumental Little Moon.

Karan Casey knows about differing ways of looking at tradition and influence in her music, too. She’s been doing that since her days as a founding member of the groundbreaking Irish American band Solas and for more than two decades of solo and collaborative recording projects. In her album Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale Casey continues to expand her vision and her choices. There are songs by Americana and folk tunesmiths including Eliza Gilkyson, Janis Ian (from whose lyrics the title of the album comes), Bob Dylan, and Patti Griffin, along with a pair of traditional songs and from Casey’s own writing a song about a little known aspect of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising.

Casey has a lovely voice and knows well how to use it; great musical intelligence is one of the hallmarks of her singing as well as her song choice and her songwriting. From from the low key beginning of Hollis Brown to its intense ending, she illuminates the emotions of the hard told story. That she follows it with the quiet intensity of Down in the Glen, that song about the Rising, serves to make the latter that much more powerful. Sixteen Come Next Sunday is Casey’s take on music and lyrics from the tradition, respecting each of those in her own ways.

“I don’t get into the whole ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ question,” Casey told Sean Smith of the Boston Irish Reporter. “For me, the criteria is, ‘Is it a good song?’ We’re always looking for stories that are sung well and delivered with meaning, and that’s what’s most important. It really has always been about the song, and the story...Your creative center has to be genuine. You have to really want to sing that song.”

Every song on Hieroglyphs is a keeper. It is a well sequenced project too. Donald Shaw produced it. Casey is also supported by long time musical collaborators Sean Óg Graham and Niamh Dunne, Kate Ellis, and Niall Vallely, as well as guest artists including Karen Matheson and Maura O’Connell.

The three men who make up Scotland’s trio Project Smok -- Pablo Lafuente on guitars, Ewan Baird on bodhran, and Ali Levack on whistles and pipes -- are mixing tradition and invention in their work as well. On their debut recording Bayview and at their high energy live gigs (including a memorable one at Celtic Connections 2021 online) it’s clear that these three know how to play, and how to play together.

They had the opportunity to record in Helmsdale in Scotland’s northeast, at the studio of well known punk rock musician and producer Edwyn Collins. That’s a studio equipped with vintage microphones and a classic Neve mixing desk. The band knew this would fit with their plan to record an album which respected tradition while being forward looking.

“Experimenting with vintage and analogue equipment, using the best instruments available, gave us an even greater opportunity to fuse contemporary and traditional sounds to produce something really authentic, which sounds close to the source,” said Levack.

Close to the source indeed: all the tunes on Bayview have some connection with place, including Clashnarrow, which is named after the studio in which they recored, Woodlands Drive, from the place where Levack lives in Glasgow, Viewbank from Pablo’s studio in Airdrie, and Airsaig, a west coast place important to all three band members. It’s a sparkling collection of music, which does well fit the band’s intentions of being connected to tradition while adding in new strands.

Bayview is a mostly instrumental album, but a stripped back version of A Girl Like You, the 19190s hit from Collins, finds him joining in as the band play back up on the classic. A meditative track, Ceitidh’s, finds John Mulhearn, Rona Lightfoot, and Megan Henderson adding a touch of voices to the track. Charlie Stewart on bass and James D Mackenzie on flutes also add to that track, while MIke Vass, Moshen Amiini, and Greg Barry are among those who also sit it. The focus is on the sound the trio, though, and a lively and well thought out debut it is, co-produced by the trio along with MIke Vass.

Leahy with Good Water. Karan Casey with Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale, and the men of Project Smok with Bayview: all the musicians have clear eyed and creative approaches to ways to take sound and spirit of traditional music forward. Give listen for what discoveries await.

You may also wish to see
One, duo album from Donnell Leahy and Natalie MacMaster
Leahy Live in Gatineau dvd, an earlier version of the Leahy ensemble, some the same as on Good Water, and some different. Step dancing too.
Ships in the Forest from Karan Casey
Meet more musicians from Scotland in my story at Perceptive Travel 7 Ways to Explore Scotland through Music

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Photographs of Leahy and Project Smok courtesy of the artists; photograph of Karan Casey at Celtic Connections by Kerry Dexter, made with permission.

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