Sunday, November 29, 2015

First Week in Advent: music and quiet

As the month of November advances and as December comes in, news reports and essays start to appear about braving the holidays, overcoming the burdens, getting away from it all. In private conversations as well you begin to hear these ideas going around. But still...

Still. That’s a good word for it. In the Christian calendar, this begins the season of Advent, of preparation for Christmas. Certainly that sort of preparation can at times be as busy and as bothered and as burdensome as the sort things that seem to be expected in other areas of life.


In the midst of rush and hurry, burden and change and loneliness and misunderstanding that can seem to be magnified by this season that is meant to be wrapped around with goodness and light and joy, the goodness and the joy are there. Deep in the memory of carols played once to often, deep in the longings not yet met from the past, deep in the smiles of strangers, in in the snap of winter air, in the quiet of snowfall, in the turning and falling of leaves heavy with that snow, in stars flung across indigo sky, they are there. As advent begins, look for the stillness and the joy. Listen for the quiet, and the music.

It may seem a paradox to say listen for the quiet in the music. Silence, though, is the canvass on which music is painted. Music is often a doorway to two other things that are especially part of this season and which may at first seem at odds with each other: solitude and community.

Music to go along with these ideas:

Community is one of the highlights of life along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. The communities where people, the work they create, the roads that run along the west of Ireland coast, the remnants if those who lived there in the recent past and in time long gone, have been around themselves from time long before the idea of the Wild Atalantic Way came to be. It’s a designation that frames the place in all its diversity and commonalties, and one that draws people to it and helps them remember and explore things they might not have come to otherwise. You could say the same of the recording The Wild Atlantic Way. It is, as its subtitle promises, a journey in Irish music. In spare yet vivid language and instrument, Francie and Rory Conway’s title track tells a bit of of life along Ireland’s wil western edge and on its western waters. In the thirteen track which follow, some of Ireland’s best musicians call forth the fun and the dance and the humor, the wry wit, the sadness, the fellowship and the mystery of the Atlantic edge of Ireland. There are tunes from the tradition, for instance John McSherry’s Atlantic Drive and The Rolling Wave from Dervish, tradition and contemporary song and melody in Samhradh from Lumiere, top class singers including John Spillane, who brings his own song Along the Wild Atlantic Way, and Mairead NI Mhaonaigh and her bandmates in Altan, who offer the haunting song Far Beyond Carrickfin. From Donegal to Cork, in song in English and Irish, with tunes and melodies of the tradition and newly created, these artists bring to mind the friendship and the mystery that are also hallmarks of the way. It is a thoughtfully chosen and well sequenced collection (that part was done by Colm O’Siochain, whose work you have met before here along the music road) that will bear return listenings in any season.

Donald Shaw writes of a landscape no less wild and challenging in his series of instrumental pieces which make up Hebrides: Islands on the Edge. This music was composed originally as soundtrack for a BBC nature series of the same name. Individually and taken together they stand beautifully on their own, calling to mind wilderness and sea, history, and a Celtic sense of place. BBC nature shows aren’t always that peaceful, as nature itself isn’t. There is however a certain peace in the turn of day to night and spring to winter. These things, along with contemplation of the landscape itself and the fact that he comes fro Scotland’s west in Argyll perhaps help inform the sense of reflection, peace, and yes, quiet, in the music Shaw creates. He has many fine musicians along for the journey, too. In addition to his own top class accordion and piano skills, Michael McGoldrick adds flute and uillean pipes, Aidan O’Rourke and Patsy Reid are on fiddle, James Mackintosh and Signy Jacobsdottir are on percussion Catriona MacKay is on clarsach, and there a a number of other musicians as well. The music they have created is good for listening at any season. Its contemplative aspects make it an especially good companion as Advent begins.

You may also wish to see
Ireland's Music: Altan: The Widening Gyre
Music for the first week in Advent: candle in the window
Voices of the Wild Atlantic Way: Donegal and Derry at Wandering Educators
Ireland in Winter at Perceptive Travel
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain

Photographs by Kerry Dexter and by and courtesy of Joseph Mischyshyn and DJ McPherson

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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Winter's gifts: Music

Winter: it’s a time for reflection, for contemplation, for spending time in solitude and for seeking out good company. Music is a part of all this, and it also makes a fine gift. Here are ideas as you plan your holiday listening and giving. Some of these albums and artists you have met here before along the music road, and for others, there’s more to come. Either way, follow the links to learn more of the music.

If you’ve someone on your list or if you yourself love the music of Scotland, then Karen Matheson’s solo album Urram will fill a spot on your list. It is the first solo album Matheson has released in some time -- she’s often involved with her work as part of the band Capercaillie. She was working on an album of contemporary songs in English and Gaelic but found the deaths of her parents, and coming across family photographs from times past in the wake of that, turned her in another direction. The songs of Urram are in Gaelic, some Matheson would have known from her childhood, others that she searched out in song archives. Spare arrangements from longtime band mates as well as unexpected guests frame Matheson’s musical storytelling.

Jenna Moynihan draws on the music of Scotland as well, both music from the tradition and as source to frame her own compositions. Growing up in New York state, two years into studying violin at eight years of age Moynihan encountered the fiddle music of Scotland, and that set her on her musical path one she has followed thus far all the way up through a degree at Berklee College of Music and the release of her album Woven. It’s a fine collection, comprising music that shows both Moynihan’s lyrical touch as well as flashes of wit -- which you may also see in her descriptions of the tunes in her liner notes. It is a journey worth the taking al the way through the album as it’s been been sequenced by Moynihan and producer Maeve Gilchrist. For a hint of what’s in store, standout tracks include the Kendall Tavern set, Haven, and Dolina MacKay.

Oisin Mac Diarmada knows the fiddle, too. In his case the background is Ireland, and in his recording The Green Branch the music of the Sligo region. You’ll have met Mac Diarmada’s music though his work in the band Teada, in his duo recordings with Seamus Begley, and with his Irish Christmas in America projects. For The Green Branch his musical partner is Samantha Harvey, whose piano work proves a fine backing and at times rhythm section for the energy of Oisin’s fiddle as he makes his way through sets of jigs, reels, hornpipes, and flings, including Jacke Coleman’s paired with Mayor Harrison’s Fedora and Bright May Morning paired with Fowler on the Moor. Harvey’s first way into irish music (she is originally from America, now resident in Ireland) was through irish dance, and a particularly engaging set, Veronica McNamara’s/The Professor/Charlie Dolan’s, includes the sound of her dancing feet along with fiddle and piano.

Alison Brown’s instrument of choice is the banjo. In her mind and spirit and hands it’s an adventurous instrument, melodic more than percussive, part of an ensemble more often than claiming the sole spotlight. On her album Song of the Banjo her original pieces are most composed for an acoustic ensemble, with deft placing of the colors of instruments to tell the stories she has in mind. That’s true of the varied selection of covers as well including several in which she backs singers in re invented versions of songs from writers as varied as Michael Martin Murphey, Bacharach and David, and (on the deluxe edition of the album) Marvin Gaye. If you’ve heard Brown’s tone and an voice (so to speak) with the banjo you’ll recognize it through the tracks on Song of the Banjo; if you are new to her work, listen and follow it as the thread that pulls through.

There will be more to come on these recordings and artists here along the music road, but they are too good to have you miss out on them during this season of listening, sharing, and giving.

Season of giving, you say? What about some seasonal music? Of course...

With her Quartet, the aforementioned Alison Brown has a fine seasonal album called Evergreen. There’s a nice blending of Carol of the Bells with We Three Kings, and Two Santas comprises two Santa themed songs you’l recognize. There’s a livley reinvention of The Little Drummer Boy among the other gems.

For On Christmas Night from Cherish the Ladies Heidi Talbot handles lead singing for The Castle of Dromore, a song that always evokes winter for me. Talbot makes the often done over the top O Holy Night sound as welcoming as if it were done around the fireside. too. Excellent instrumentals led by Joanie Madden’s flute, among them the title track, Old Apples in Winter, and the Kerry Reel, weave in stories and sound of Ireland with the carols and songs of the season

Speaking of the will hear some fine flute playing from Shannon Heaton on the album Fine Winter's Night which she’s done with her husband, guitar player Matt Heaton. They each sing, too, and they each have original songs of the season, tunes and carols and contemporary pieces. Listen out especially for Matt’s original First Snow Fall of December, Shannon’s title song, and their takes on the Wexford Carol and It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.

You may also wish to see
Another Fine Winter's Night: Matt & Shannon Heaton
6 of the best Christmas Songs
Music for the first week in Advent: candle in the window

and... if you are one of Music Road's readers who shops (or would like to) through Amazon UK, check out this promotion for a prize draw entry when you try out Amazon Prime -- and you'd be supporting Music Road too, as this is an affiliate link.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Scotland's Music: Hanneke Cassel,The Paul McKenna Band, Alba's Edge

Hanneke Cassel is a fiddle player and composer whose base in the music of Scotland also encompasses her love for bluegrass and what she’s learning from her travels to share her music in places as diverse as China, India, Kenya, her home state of Oregon and her longtime home base in New England. The Paul McKenna Band fuse the energy of their own explorations of Scotland’s traditions with their own travels to North America and beyond and their love for stories of journey told in word and melody. Alba’s Edge combines elements of the music of Cape Breton and Scotland with flavors of the vibrant New England jazz scene in a debut album that proves engaging and thought provoking. Listen to their differing takes on creating new music and interpreting older pieces that grow out of their shared love for the sounds and stories of Scotland, and where those stories have traveled.

Hanneke Cassel’s recording Dot the Dragons Eyes takes its title, and the inspiration for its title tune, from time she has spent in China.There she learned the idea that when an artist puts the last bits of color in the eyes of a dragon it brings the art work to life. As a woman of faith and imagination, Cassel saw the parallel with with the Biblical story of God bringing man to life from an image in clay -- and she went to create lively and uplifting tune that works just fine whether you know or believe anything about either of those ideas. It makes a fine introduction to a set of tunes, almost all of Cassel’s own composition, that range from waltz to jig and take inspiration from family members, friends, the Boston Marathon, and the students at One Home Many Hopes in Kenya, where Cassel has often traveled to share her music. Cassel has been a US National champion in Scottish style fiddle playing, studied with Alasdair Fraser and the late Buddy MacMaster, and worked with musicians from Irish American singer and songwriter Cathie Ryan to early music group Ensemble Galillie. Through all that and with all that, she has a distinctive tone in her playing as well as a gift for composition that is rooted in and respectful of the varied elements of Scottish tradition, while speaking entorely in her own voice on her instrument. Really you should listen to the whole of Dot the Dragons Eyes as it is sequenced -- every track is a keeper. If you are just wanting a taste, though, listen out for The Captain, Lissa and Corey/The Sunrise, and Jig for Christina.

The Paul McKenna Band is a high energy bunch, anchored by McKenna’s voice and often driving guitar. With bandmates Davis McNee on bouzouki, Sean Grey on flutes and whistles, and Ewan Baird on percussion including bodhran (they each sing too) and aided by guests including Mike Vass on fiddle and banjo and Jarlath Henderson, on Elements they offer songs and tunes from the tradition, from their own writing, and several maybe not so expected covers, creating a fine mix that proves engaging from first to last. One of those covers is of Canadian writer James Keelghan’s Cold Missouri Waters, which the band makes entirely their own with fine lead and harmony. Fast paced Mickey Dam, a song from the tradition, shows off their ability with songs from the past, while the Flying Through Flanders set, comprising tunes from Vass and Grey, proves their taste and prowess with instrumental pieces. The band can handle slower songs with finesse as well, evidence of which is offered on the returning to home in Scotland song Indiana.

The four members of Alba’s Edge -- Neil Pearlman on piano and vocals, Lilly Pearlman on fiddle and vocals, Doug Berns on bass and background vocals, and Jacob Cole on percussion and background vocals -- like the idea that the world alba in the band’s name means Scotland in Gaelic and dawn in Spanish. Playing a bit off that, they open and close their debut recording Run to Fly with short pieces called Rising and Setting, which serve, respectively, to set a mood of anticipation and quietly to draw things to a close and bid farewell. The eight tracks in between offer thoughtful engaging, intelligent music that weaves in the Scotland and Cape breton backgrounds of the Pearlmans (they are brother and sister) with their explorations of Latin, irish, Americana and other genres. Their fiddle and piano lines are framed by low end work from Burns and Cole, who bring respectively, backgrounds in playing Latin, funk, and Afro beat music and jazz and ska to the table. That said, such fusions often don’t work, or at least, don’t work out well enough to inspire interest. These four have that covered, though -- you don’t have to know anything about the background of any of this music to enjoy it as works that’s at times lively, at times soothing, at times thought provoking. At just the right moment, too, they draw the strands of tradition together by singing the traditional Scottish song of the sea, The Diamond. Run to Fly was produced by top class Scottish fiddle Player Aidan O’Rourke, who has worked with the innovative Scottish group Lau as well as the traditional stalwarts Blazin’ Fiddles.

Aside: should you ever have the chance to see any of these artists play live, take it. They all tour internationally, so that may come your way -- Alba’s Edge, for example, will be part of the Boston Celtic Music Festival in January, and the Paul McKenna Band will be appearing at Celtic Connections, while Cassel is doing several holiday appearances with Ensemble Galilie and appears at festival, teaches at fiddle camps and does concerts with her own trio as well.

Photograph by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Coffee and the Mojo Hat: Neil Pearlman
Scotland's music: Katie McNally: Flourish
Aidan O'Rourke: Sirius

and... if you are one of Music Road's readers who shops (or would like to) through Amazon UK, check out this promotion for a prize draw entry when you try out Amazon Prime -- and you'd be supporting Music Road too, as this is an affiliate link.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Road Trip Music: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving across America: it is a season of gathering in, of hope, of reflection, of family -- and of exploration and landscape and travel as well. Music is always part of this. Here are three recordings to go along and perhaps open up new ideas for you.

Midnight Special, Goodnight Irene, In the Pines, Stewball, House of the Rising Sun, Pick a Bale of Cotton: chances are, you know these songs. Whether you’ve heard them from rock stars, blues musicians, country singers, folk storytellers or schoolteachers. Chances are too that the reason they and you know these songs today is because of Huddie Ledbetter -- Lead Belly. From prison inmate to in demand artist in the folk music revival, from a childhood in the deep south to stages in New York City and Europe, he became, as Eric Bibb writes in the liner notes of Lead Belly's Gold, “the most famous Black folksinger ever, bringing the attention of millions to the power of African American song, well outside the boundaries of his own community.” Lead Belly, Bibb continues, “...owes this extraordinary status to his uncanny talent for bridging gaps.“ That’s a talent Bibb and his collaborator on Lead Belly's Gold, JJ Millteau, share in their individual careers, and that they each bring to their appreciation and understanding of the sixteen tracks they’ve chosen for this project. They open with Grey Goose, which could among other things be seen as a poetic allegory for immigration and refugee issues. Bibb’s melodic voice with an edge of growl works well on this and other cuts, in fine counterpoint to Milteau’s bluesy with a helping of jazz and folk harmonica lines. Where Did You Sleep Last Night, a folk/blues song from the deep south also known as In the Pines, is one of the many songs Lead Belly learned from southern blues and folk tradition and made his own. Milteau and Bibb put their own stamp on it as well. There’s a fine combination of When That Train Comes Along and Swing Low Sweet Chariot. An original by Bibb, When I Get to Dallas, stands in good company with the older songs. The first eleven songs are live recordings from a performance before a small audience at The Sunset in Paris. The last five, among them Stewball and Titanic, are studio recordings. Bibb and Milteau conclude the disc with another original song from Bibb, which finds Lead Belly musing on his life and legacy, called, appropriately enough, Swimmin’ in a River of Song.

Dulcie Taylor knows about that river of song. In her recording Dulcie Taylor and Friends: Wind Over Stone she offers songs touching on love, family, travel, changes, time, courage, and other things, all done with lyrics which combine a clear poetic sense with a clear down to earth sense of connection and communication. Most are written or co written by Taylor, who sings the lead on many of them in a fine soprano. She also has the confidence and good will to step aside and share the spotlight with her equally talented friends and longtime musical collaborators. Tony Recuipido and George Nauful each have songs on the collection and they take the lead voice on those, with Taylor adding harmony. The California based songwriter, whose songs could fit in with Americana, folk, country, and other sorts of playlists, is a fine guitarist, as well. At this Thanksgiving season, you might want to listen out especially for her songs When the Cherokee Roamed and Not Here, Not Today.

Songs with story are and long have been a hallmark of Kathy Kallick’s work. A moving force in the west coast and national bluegrass scene, her work is rooted in bluegrass, but contains much to appeal to lovers of all forms of good acoustic music. Foxhounds leads listeners on a journey from the title track, inspired by a time when Kallick sat with bluegrass icon Bill Monroe listening to his foxhounds run to the closing song, In Texas, a spare and visual evocation of a journey that didn’t turn out the way it might have, inspired by a conversation Kallick had with her daughter. Along the way are other fine originals from Kallick including My Montana Home and Snowflakes, fiddle player Annie Staninec steps into lead singing on a pair of high energy songs, there is a Bill Monroe tune and there’s a song from not so bluegrass musician Richard Thompson. Through the journey Kallick and her fine band -- in addition to Kallick herself on guitar and vocals, and Staninec on fiddle and vocals, Cary Black is on acoustic bass and vocals, Greg Booth ads vocals along with banjo and dobro, and Tom Bekeny sings and plays mandolin -- Foxhounds is a fine and thoughtfully sequenced work that that calls in past, present, and future of bluegrass, one of the forms of American music to celebrate at this Thanksgiving season. .

Music to celebrate the season and for listening all the year around. blues, folk, Americana, country, and bluegrass: vibrant parts of America’s soundtrack. Take a listen and see what you find.

Top and bottom photos by Kerry Dexter, center photo by and courtesy of Skitter Photo. Thank you for respecting copyright

You may also wish to see these stories:
It would not be Thanksgiving around my house without the music of Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Read about their albums that work especially well for this season: Music for Thanksgiving
Music of the First Peoples is appropriate to the season, too, as is music inspired by sharing with family. read about two albums which embrace these ideas: Autumn and Thanksgiving listening
Saint Andrew’s Day is on the way: Scotland’s Music: A Saint Andrew’s Day Tapestry at Wandering Educators
Advent is approaching too. A story for that: First week in Advent: music and journey

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Celtic Intersections: Harald Haugaard and Low Lily

Fiddle player and composer Harald Haugaard grew up in Denmark; Liz Simmons, Flynn Cohen, and Lissa Schneckenburger, the musicians who make up Low Lily, are based in New England. There are Celtic connections in the stories they tell with their music, and they each bring aspects of their own landscapes and backgrounds to the mix.

Harald Haugaard had thought that he was working on an album that would be a rather dark collection of music. He’d positioned it as work about endings, the final part of a trilogy of recordings which began with Burning Fields and continued with Den Femte Soster. As he worked through what he wanted to convey, though, he found himself appreciating “ the beauty and light to be found in endings, in solitude, in autumn,” as he writes in the notes for the music which became Lys Og Forfald, which translates as Light and Decay in English.

It is music of journeys, to be sure, and music of reflection. There are new compositions as well as several pieces from earlier times reimagined. At varied points along the way he brings in members of his touring band as well as players from a former band of his, Serras, the German string ensemble Fraunhofer Saitenmusik, and musical friends including Hans Mydtskov, Brian Finnegan, and Helene Blum. It is Haugaard’s fiddle which anchors and guides the music, however.

He begins the journey in a clear and thoughtful reflection paring his fiddle with Roger Tollroth’s guitar, in, as Haugaard says, “The clear light of September.” As the music unfolds. in the pieces Prelude and Skye-Havnen there are modern day journeys of exploration, challenge, and discovery -- in a bit of a nod Denmark’s well known spinner of tales, Hans Christian Andersen. Consideration of community and connection that form part of ttravels that goes with being a musician come inot play in the tune Sostre og Brodre/Sisiters and Brothers. Port Orford, named after a small community in Oregon, finds Blume lending her voice to create sound rather than to convey lyrics in a piece considering solitude and wilder places.

As creating the music evolved, Haugaard chose on the one hand to comment a bit on past compositions and join up with musicians he’d worked with on other projects. Abne Ojne/Opne Eyes as a commentary one of Blum’s recordings and the tour they did with that music, Nacht des Unbekannten/Night of the Unknown a return collaboration with Fraunhofer Saitenmusik are among these. It is however the title track Lys og Forfald which became the center of the story, as Haugaard came to see change and ending much as the beauty of falling autumn leaves may let the light in to a woods. In what might be heard as a commentary on that, he ends the recording with his fiddle alone playing Morgen/Morning. All of the music on Lys Og Forfald is a journey well worth the taking and reveals new aspects with each hearing.

In just six tracks on their self titled recording Low Lily the musicians of Low Lily offer dynamic and intriguing expression of the music they make, a collection well worth repeated hearing as well. They kick things off with traditional song House Carpenter, with Liz Simmons taking lead voice in a version which manages to be both lively and moody as the enigmatic tale of promises and deception unfolds. Schneckenburger’s original song This Girl’s Not Mine tells a story you might find in the north woods in days past -- and in the present too. There is a fiddle solo in the midst of the song which adds to the storytelling atmosphere, and trombone lines which enliven the contemporary side of the song.

Mandolin from Cohen and fiddle from Schnekenburger lead the conversation in Cohen’s driving original Northern Spy -- you have to think of the crisp flavor of the apple as you listen. Simmons on rhythm guitar and Corey DiMario of double bass anchor the rhythm on this and other tracks on the recording.

Simmons and Cohen follow with an original piece each, each story having to do with travel and journeys and how those may be experienced. Simmons steps up to lead voice again on her song Adventurer, while Cohen’s is the lead voice on All Roads Lead to You. Contemporary songs both, but ones rooted in tradition in both idea and arrangement.

Liz Simmons, Flynn Cohen and Lissa Schneckenburger have individual careers which include solo projects, teaching, playing with musicians across the spectrum of roots music. They are each top notch at what they do. When they join up as Low Lily there’s even more to enjoy in the conversations they share in voice and instrument. They finish off the EP Low Lily with the instrumental set Cherokee Shuffle/Lucky which joins tradition and newly written tunes, and sets the stgae for more to come from this gifted trio.

Celtic connections and intersections inform the music of Harald Haugaard and the songs and tunes of Low Lily, as they bring together ideas from past and present, center and edge, to create music all their own.

You may also wish to see
Long Time Courting: Alternate Routes
Music of Maine: Lissa Schneckenburger
Denmark’s Harbor of Music: Harald Haugaard at Perceptive Travel
Winter and Music in Denmark: Helene Blum at Perceptive Travel

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Friday, October 02, 2015

Folk with edge: Sarah McQuaid: Walking into White

Time of changing seasons, a turn of light, a lift in the air, time of telling stories...

Sarah McQuaid tells her stories through word and melody rhythm and tone and timbre. For her fourth recording, which she has called Walking Into White, she found inspiration from sources as different as the landscape of Yellowstone, the flight of jackdaws, a pattern used for ringing church bells, and stories she has been reading to her children.

The title song, a story which spins out in McQuaid’s imagination into an elegant and spare mediation on the nature of trust, began with an image of two children walking across moorland and being caught in a fog. She drew this from a story by Arthur Ransome which she came across in one of his tales, part of a series she’d been reading to her children each night at bedtime. It seemed to her, she says in her liner notes, “like a parable for life... so much so that I decided to make it the title track of this album.”

All this is framed in McQuaid’s distinctive alto and her DADGAD guitar playing. That’s a tuning which often contributes to Celtic music’s haunting aspect and one of which McQuaid is a master. Throughout the album, these elements anchor adventures both in story and in the way the music is presented.

Traveling from her base in Cornwall, England to Cornwall, New York to work for the first time with producers Adam Pierce (who is McQuaid’s cousin) and Jeremy Backofen, who had not worked in the folk genre before, McQuaid and her road manger and sound engineer Martin Stansbury created a collection which weaves in rhythms and sonic placements you might not expect from and artist known as a folk musician. All the while, though, they stayed true to the spirit and ideas of the songs while creating an album that fits in as a natural next step in McQuaid’s musical progress

On her tours supporting the album (at this writing at the beginning of October, she’s in the midst of a US run; she regularly tours internationally). McQuaid has been devoting the first half of her concerts to playing music from the album as it is sequenced, moving from Low Winter Sun, in which her guitar rings in a pattern drawn from the peal church bells to frame atmospheric and enigmatic lyrics that suggest the beginning of a journey, to a sparse and distinctive take of Ewan MacColl’s classic love song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.

Between those two Where the Wind Decides to Blow and The Tide find McQuaid taking furtherinspiration from images in Ransome’s stories to explore ideas of uncertainty, persistence, trust, and reading signs. There’s a lot going on both lyrically and musically, though the songs themselves are rather short, at three verses with a twice repeated chorus for Where the Wind Decides to Blow and six verses for The Tide. The singer raises as many questions as she answers. The idea of walking through and with uncertainty to find trust and connection comes up again in the song Yellowstone, which was in part inspired by conversations McQuaid had with her ten year old son. All of this leaves plenty of room for listeners to explore, and material upon which to reflect.

That is true of each of the songs on Walking Into White, actually, including Sweetness and Pain, an a capella song whose three verses are spaced through the rest of the music at intervals, making a sort of recurring theme and comment which works both in word and melody. There’s also a very fine instrumental called I Am Grateful For What I Have.

Jackdaws Rising came about when McQuaid was playing music one evening with her friends Pete Coleman and Claire Hines. They got to playing an instrumental the pair had written and they suggested that if she wanted to write words to go along...

She was up to that challenge, and it went a step -- okay, several steps -- further when it came to recording the piece, which in lyric is dark and light, falling and rising. So are the production choices, with stamps and handclaps and rhythms which might seem out of time but actually work perfectly to express the energy of the lyric.

McQuaid’s voice is in varying ways the center of things through the recording, and that comes full circle as she draws things to a close with the hymn Canticle of the Sun and that take on The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. It’s thoughtful journey Sarah McQuaid leads on Walking Into White, one filled with interest, surprise, and challenge, as she creates music well worth repeated listening.

You may also wish to see
Buildings, songs, England: Sarah McQuaid at Perceptive Travel
Ireland's Music: Cara Dillon: A Thousand Hearts
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain

Photograph of Sarah McQuaid by Phil Nicholl

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ireland's Music: Altan: The Widening Gyre

There’s mystery, legend, and magic in the landscapes of Donegal, in Ireland’s far northwest. There you’ll also find deep community, lively humor, and strong connections to the past. Each of these things makes its way into the music of the band Altan.

For their album The Widening Gyre they chose to explore and express another sort of connection, too, the one that reaches across the ocean to the music of Appalachia and the American south. With this in mind, they traveled to Nashville, to the studios of Compass Records, to record.

The result is a clear and sparkling set of song and tune that interweaves these connected yet distinct ways of sharing and thinking about of music. The members of Altan -- Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh on voice and fiddle, Ciaran Curran on bouzouki, Ciaran Tourish onfiddle, vocals, whistles and low whistle, Dáithí Sproule on guitar and voice, Mark Kelly on guitar and voice, and newest member Martin Tourish on accordion and keyboards -- explore these connections and travels of song in collaboration with longtime musical friends from the American folk scene, among them Bruce Molsky, Tim O’Brien, Garry West (who produced the recording), Natalie Haas, and Alison Brown. “We’ve made lifelong friends through music,” Mairéad says. “ The circle has expanded over the years, and our new album celebrates those relationships.”

The fourteen track disc opens with a set which sets the path for that, taking a journey through a lively tune from Scotland, a reel from the Irish tradition, and an original reel composed by Mairéad. Molsky and Ní Mhaonaigh turn Walt Aldrige’s old timey Americana song No Ash Will Burn into a vocal and instrumental collaboration that unlocks the Celtic nuances of the piece, and although it is a rather sad love song, also calls to mind the partings and stories of those who moved from one place to another in earlier times. Tune For Mairéad and Anna Ní Mhaonaigh is a slow air which was composed some years back by Dáithí Sproule for the birthdays of Mairéad and her sister Anna, and is done here in lovely spare fashion.

White Birds is a quiet piece too, one which evokes travels across land and sea in reality and imagination, with Mary Chapin Carpenter adding in her to voice to Mairéad’s for lyrics written by poet WB Yeats set to music by Fiona Black. Only right to have words by Yeats here; a different Yeats poem is the source the band turned to for the album’s title. “The title The Widening Gyre appeals to us and depicts the spiral of life, widening and embracing the new. It has an innate energy. We think that idea is reflected in the album’s music,” says Mairéad.

That energy is readily apparent in the Buffalo Gals/Leather Britches/Leslie’s Reel set, which evolved from the musicians siting around in the studio swapping tunes. It’s a fast paced event which holds the energy of Appalachian bluegrass along with fiery Donegal style music and creates its own place between. That also holds true of The Triple T, a tune which Ciaran Tourish wrote for his son Thomas and which invited in the talents of musical guests Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin, Darol Anger on fiddle, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Jim Higgins on bodhran, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Alison Brown on banjo -- an all star jam in deed, and all these fine talents in collaboration in service to the tune.

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s distinctive soprano is as much a hallmark of Altan’s music as are her fiery fiddling and thoughtful compositions. All are in fine evidence here. She sourced the song Má Théann Tú ‘un Aonaigh, which offers advice (in irish) to a young man setting out in the world, from a field recording from the Arranmore Islands in northwest Donegal, while Cuirt Robin Finley/Moladh Shliabh Maoineach has as its substance a love song to a mountain in Donegal. She trades voices and stories with bluegrass/Americana master Tim O’Brien on The House Carpenter/ Gypsy Davy and her slow reel Samhradh and Aniar Aduaidh Jig pair naturally in a set with Martin Tourish’s The Donegal Jig. Far Beyond Carrickfinn is a song composed by Ian Smith and Enda Cullen to help give Mairéad perspective after the death of her father Francie, a himself a fine musician. It is a lasting piece that’s beautifully sung and presented here by Mairéad and Scotland’s Eddi Reader and could indeed apply to journeys of many sorts. “Stars lead the way, as your journey begins...”

There is much more to explore and enjoy. The mountains of Ireland’s northwest and the Americna south, seacoasts and hollows, journeys through them and stories told across time: all these come into play in Altan’s The Widening Gyre.

...and while you are at it, note the fine cover artwork by Édaín O’Donnell.

photographs courtesy of the band, Compass Records, and Colin Park and Joseph Mischyshyn. thank you for respecting copyright

You may also wish to see
The Wild Atlantic Way: Music of Donegal and Derry part of a 4 part series I’ve done for Wandering Educators
Music of Donegal: Altan: The Poison Glen/Gleann Nimhe
Music for the first week in Advent: candle in the window
Alison Brown: The Company You Keep
Tim O'Brien: The Crossing

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