Cantrip, Silver (Footstompin', 2003)
Duhks, Your Daughters & Your Sons (Self-released, 2002)
3Sticks, Crossing Currents (Self-released, 2003)
The roasting, the feasting and the hours of horseplay helped to create a special warmth on this cold, hard day. Then the fire was stoked and fed to make a warm place where there could be dancing until darkfall. Martin was very drunk. Rebecca danced alone, wide skirts swirling, hair flowing as the accordion wheezed out its jig, and feet stamped on the stone flags at the edge of the field, where the pit had been dug.
-- Robert Holdstock's Merlin's Wood
Some fragment of a memory has crept into me mind, and when I try to hold it there and grasp it, it stays elusive. I'm reasonably sure it has to do with the Neverending Session, the first fiddler named Jack here at Green Man, and a time when there was nothing that was called Celtic music. Oh, there was the music of the Irish kitchen session where many a fine fiddler could be heard on a cold winters night, and there was Scottish traditional dance music as heard in village halls across that country, and certainly the music played at the Fest Noz in Breton for more centuries than one can comfortably remember, but nothing the 'til recently was explicitly called Celtic music. So what is Celtic music? A marketing term perhaps? In part, yes, but I'll argue that there is something called Celtic music that is at the root of Irish, Scottish, Modern American Celtic, Welsh, Cornish, and so on. I'm not so mad as to say what that is, but all of the albums in this review will, in different ways, appeal to the lover of good Celtic music. So drink deep of your Dragon's Breath XXXX Stout and we'll set by the fire a while...
(Reynard chimes in from the Bar where he's polishing up some mugs to say that the entire concept of there being seven Celtic nations is a load of bull created by marketing folks. I can't agree with him, but it does seem that much of the present-day Celtic music market is driven more by marketing than by love of music.)
Footstompin' has been sending GMR music for well over a decade now, since back when they were still Tartan Tapes. (Yes, cassette tapes. Surely you remember them? Fragile buggers they were.) To say that they put out high-quality Scottish trad and not-so-trad music would be a bit of an understatement. Everything they do is superb, period. Cantrip's Silver is certainly in keeping with that standard of excellence. Over the decades, I've heard so much music of this genre that I've become very hard to impress. That Cantrip impressed me shouldn't be a surprise to me or you as the band consists of Dan Houghton (Highland and border pipes, flute, whistles), Ian Willis (percussion), Cammy Robson (guitars, bouzouki, banjo), Gavin Marwick (fiddles), and Jon Bews (fiddles). Any band that has Gavin Marwick -- who has been a member of Iron Horse and is a member of the Old Blind Dogs -- has got to be good, and it is! Gavin was brought up playing music in the family group known as, and I kid you not, the Amazing Spootiskerry Ceilidh Band. Did I mention that he was involved in the original Burach? Impressive credentials indeed!
Their Web site says Cantrip as a group 'encompasses a broad spectrum of European material and elegantly integrates compositions by band members and airs from Brittany, the Basque Country, Scandinavia and Rumania' with the Scottish not quite trad music that the members bring to Cantrip. If you need comparisons, think House Band or Old Blind Dogs. No, they don't sound quite like those Celtic groups, but they have the same sort of not really trad music. Cantrip's definitely a group that has played enough to be well jelled as they've played at the Edinburgh Fiddle Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, the Edinburgh Hogmany, the Edinburgh Festival, the Highland Festival, the Festival Interceltique de Lorient, and even the Orkney Folk Festival. Debut albums are often less than perfect, particularly with younger, less polished musicians, but these, though not grizzled by any means, are veteran musicians. That Cantrip had its birth as a collection of musicians who kept crossing paths at one or another of Edinburgh's sessions is no surprise as it has that feel of something that formed organically as opposed to being tossed quickly and not very well together in the studio.
(Here's an example of what I mean. As good as Moving Hearts is, I sense that it sometimes sounds like something that was cobbled together to record albums, not to exist as a band.)
One reviewer who I'm not sure even listened to the CD commented that he liked the odd names of the tunes played on Silver. Me, I think that mayhaps they are more than a bit silly by even the standards of contemporary Celtic music! As The Scots Magazine so wisely noted 'Whiskey, Garlic, Fried Rice' is not the most likely song title to trip off the tongue of a DJ', nor would I submit that 'Felix the Wrestler' is going to win awards as a tune name. There must be something in the whiskey that Scottish musicians drink as other groups there, notably the Peatbog Faeries and Shooglenifty, also indulge in, errrr, creative titles. Titles not withstanding, these are fun, lively tunes that you will enjoy over and over. My favourites include the previously mentioned 'Whiskey, Garlic, Fried Rice' (a set of 'Moladh An Ruis Air A Phraidheagh Le Cneamh's Uisge Beatha' / 'Tom's Incredible Table' / 'The Otter's Pocket') which you can hear here in Real Audio, and 'Hardanger Fjord' ('Hardanger Fjord' / 'Mrs Mary MacDonald') which can also be heard, courtesy of Footstompin', in Real Audio here.
Silver certainly is one of the best Celtic CDs I've heard in a very long time!
Up next is are the Duhks, a Canadian Celtic group hailing from Winnipeg Manitoba, which is located, as they note on their Web site 'where the wind stops at the east end of the Canadian Prairies.' Folks, they're not kidding -- I did a contradance tour there once in the dead of winter, and I really mean the dead of winter; the wind could strip the flesh off you! Lucky for me and me wife, the folks were welcoming, the dance halls warm, the beds comfy, the food tasty, the ale strong, like Your Daughters & Your Sons which is (I believe) the debut CD from this group. If you remember a review I did of an American Celtic group called The Sevens and their CD called Celtic Groove Brand, you will recall I said that 'I do hope that they get picked up by a major label as this is a great CD which deserves the full treatment that only a major label can afford.'
Unlike Cantrip, this is a young band with (I'd guess) the members all being in their 20s. Their Web site says that 'Tania Elizabeth is an amazingly skillful, fiery and entertaining fiddler', and I will not disagree. She's has an aggressive fiddling style that is common in fiddlers in North America that one could call 'fire in the belly', but I won't use that cliché as she's far too good to be treated that way. She has released two solo recordings which I will definitely need to find, and has served as Celtic instructor at Nashville legend Mark O'Connor's fiddle camp, an impressive gig indeed. Jordan McConnell is a great guitarist, a damn fine tenor banjo player. and perhaps most amazingly a great vocalist, which makes three fine vocalists in the Duhks as Jessica Havey is 'nother fine singer. (I am very fussy when it comes to vocalists as a bad vocalist can ruin an otherwise fine album.) Rounding out the band is Leonard Podolak brings his superb banjo playing to the group, and adds his considerable vocal skills to the group.
What they play is a sort of (in a good way) bastardized Celtic music that, like the Sevens and far too many other North American groups to mention here, is not Irish, not Scottish, but (GASP!) Celtic. (I'm still not going to try defining it, thank you.) I figure it's what you get when musicians who's Scottish granddads ended up in bed with an Irish colleen who traded her story of 'Run Sister Run' for that fiddle tune he called 'The Cat That Kittled in Jamie's Wig' that she heard him play much earlier in the evening at the session in the local Pub. So while they snuggled under the grannie's quilt in her room, they made, ahem, fine music together. Many generations later, their great, great grand children formed bands such as The Sevens, Red Clay Ramblers, Seven Nations, Childsplay, and, of course, the Duhks. Like the quilt their ancestors slept under, their music is a patchwork of many fabrics, some recognizable in their origins, some not.
What the Duhks play is, as their Web site says 'Hard driving bluegrass/celtic fusion'. (For a working definition of bluegrass, think Celtic music with more banjos than is prolly good for you at one time. Some say that's neither not Celtic music, nor is is it really Celtic music. Stephen Hunt offers two not incompatible definitions.) Just take the title track of 'Your Daughters and Your Sons/'Jean's Reel', which according to the liner notes is clearly a political song about oppression coupled with 'Jean's Reel' which according to the Irish Traditional Music Tune Index is composed by Bobby MacLeod and not considered part of the Irish tradition, but belongs rather to Scottish music tradition. (Don't ask how a tune gets 'accepted' into the tradition, or Reynard will give you his very long tale of how 'A Music for a Found Harmonium' got added to many an Irish Session even though Simon Jeffes of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra composed it.) Both the song and the reel are lovely together -- as if they were meant for each other with the wistful reel adding a nuance to the not so nuanced song which will remind you of the songs that Christy Moore has crafted over the years.
Setting aside their fine songmanship, the Duhks do lovely instrumentals, as heard on 'The Green Fields of Glentown'/'Le Reel des Nouveaux Maries'/Flash Away The Pressing Gang' which you can hear thisaway in MP3 format. Like many modern Celtic bands, they've taken a true shining to the Breton music and their playing of 'Le Reel des Nouveaux Maries' (also known in the States as 'The Newlywed Reel' or 'The Newlyweds Reel') is masterfully rendered here. It's the equal of the version done by the Boys of the Lough on their Philo album, Good Friends - Good Music. I've listened to this album at least a dozen times over the course of a few weeks. Every time I'm impressed by how good it is. Go buy it -- you won't be disappointed!
English fiddler Jenny Newman is the woman behind 3Sticks and their first CD, Crossing Currents. I said of an earlier effort that 'Jenny Newman's Toms Fiddle is a sheer delight from an artist that deserves to be as well-known as Michael McGoldrick even if she currently isn't'. I said that CD was a 'lively instrumental album based mostly around Jenny's very skillful fiddle playing which belies her age as it seems like that of a much more experienced player! One suspects a bit of the sidhe blood in here as she plays like a fairy fiddler performing for the Lady and Her Court at Midsummers Eve!' So I was a bit disappointed when none of the musicians from that group save one (English piper Jon Swayne of the legendary Blowzabella, Andy Glass on guitar, Mark Maguire on bodhran, Chris Walshaw on French pipes and Kathleen Newman on cello) were here. Her compatriots here are Andy Glass (from that group but now listed as playing guitar, bouzouki, and bass pedals) and Pete Hemseley (drums and percussion) which means a much sparser sound. Sigh... Well perhaps, just perhaps, I was wrong.
More Dragons Breath XXXX Stout? Or perhaps Young's Double Chocolate Stout this round?
3Sticks is a more restrained, but eminently listenable band in the same way that Vasen without percussion is quieter, more subtle. And that, me dear friends, is not a bad thing 'tall. Jenny says on her Web site that 'in 2002 Jenny has joined forces with two outstanding musicians from the world of contemporary music, Andy Glass and Pete Hemsley, to create 3Sticks - a refreshingly new dynamic outfit who are sure to take the traditional music scene and festival circuit by storm.' I've not heard them live yet, but, again using Vasen from the Nordic music scene as a band to compare them to, 3Sticks certainly would make a band that I'd book if I was running a festival or a ceilidh. They are very, very good. Just check out their Breton tunes, both bourees, 'Montagnade/Bouree d'Aumont' for a fine demonstration of their strength as a Celtic band. So indeed an English group (as Roger the Badger claims they are) can be a Celtic band!
Fiddle On Magazine said of 3Sticks that there is ''Some truly beautiful fiddle playing with a class line in support from Andy and Pete, I'd say this draws on a broader sphere of influence which might make it accessible to a wider audience' and I cannot disagree. Jenny's a fine fiddler who handles being in a band well and has a deft touch at putting together a recording. I am in awe of her. We should all be as good a fiddler as she is!
Now I'm off to do some busking in the area called the Old Quarter here. I'm itching to try out some of these tunes that me ears have been treated to!
From Master Hunt comes these definitions of bluegrass:
#1. Rough definition... Acoustic, string-based ensemble music originating in Kentucky in the late 1930's. While drawing heavily from Scottish, Irish, Blues and Old-Time music (among others,)Bluegrass owes it's distinctive qualities to formalised vocal harmonies and an emphasis on individual instrumental technique that borders on the competitive. Bill Monroe is Bluegrass' founding father.
#2. Dirty definition... A load of fierce old tunes and songs drawn from Kentucky's immigrant communities, slicked-up by Bill Monroe into a homogenised, all- American virtuoso style acceptable to the God-fearing record-buying public....
An English fiddler doing Celtic music? Why not? Go listen to 'The Ewe With The Crooked Horn'/'Mickey Doherty's'/John Doherty's' on Tom's Fiddle, or 'The Cat That Kittled in Jamie's Wig' on this album, and you dare tell me that she can't play Celtic music.