Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ireland's music: Danu: Buan

One of the hallmarks of the music of Ireland is connection, and another is conversation. Between musicians, with listeners, with the strands of irish tradition, with contemporary music which draws on tradition -- connection and conversation happen in al these ways. For twenty years, the musicians who join together as the band Danu have been working on this. Their album Buan clearly shows that they just keep getting better at these connections and conversations.

Across the years and through a few changes in membership, the band has retained the bright fire with which it began in Waterford those years ago and added the seasoning and maturity that twenty more years of living and playing music will bring. With musicians coming from Waterford, Dublin, Donegal, and Kerry they choose music which draws the range of Irish landscape into the conversation.

They invite listeners into the musical conversation of Buan with an opening set of slides and reels in which the traditions of Donegal meet those of Kerry. Bouzouki joins with flute, accordion takes its place as the tunes unfold and fiddle leads a lyrical dance on the closing tune as all the while bodhran speaks of the beat. Musical conversation continues with Nic Amhloaibh singing a song from Dingle in Irish. A lively set of jigs including two from McAuley’s pen flows into Nic Amlaoibh’s thoughtful rendition of Lord Gregory, a story of star crossed lovers which shows well not only Nic Amhloaibh’s fine voice but also the players’ ability and skill in supporting and illuminating a story told in song.

That skill is also evident in another and very different song. Donal Clancy’s choices in singing and phrasing work brilliantly to tell the story of Willie Crotty, an eighteenth century outlaw from the Waterford area whose colorful life is told in a song written by Clancy’s cousin Robbie O’Connell. The fast paced melody and upbeat playing only enhance Clancy’s storytelling flair.

The musical conversation in Buan continues in equally interesting fashion through a set of reels and a set of two lighthearted songs in Irish that the band dedicates to their children. The men of Ireland’s east and north were inspired by the west as well as a lovely set of a waltz composed by McAuley leads into a march composed by Clancy, both written after the band spent a week of rehearsal in West Kerry last spring.

The enigmatic, poetic, and image filled song Passage West by John Spillane of Cork provides a gorgeous showcase not only for Nic Amhlaioibh’s voice but for all the band members working together to create a vibrant story told as much through melody as through word -- and the words and singing themselves are powerful enough that they could stand alone.

Reels and hornpipes taken over from pipes music make up a set following Passage West, which makes a graceful bridge to The Willow Tree, a quiet song which weaves modern day love song with myth, legend, and landscape and which Nic Amhlaoibh learned from the singing of its composer, Padragian Ni Uallachain. That makes a fitting close to this conversation in music -- rather than a close an invitation to a quiet pause to reflect on the journey the conversation has taken, really -- a pause which will very likely lead to repeated listening.

Danu are: Éamon Doorley, guitar and bouzouki, Oisín McAuley, fiddle, Benny McCarthy, Accordion, Dónal Clancy, guitar, voice, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, voice, flute, and whistles.

Joining them on Buan are producer Donal Lunny on buzouki, zook, harmonium and bass bodhran as well as former band members Tom Doorley on flute and whistle and Donnachadh Gough on pipes and bodhran. For the concert at which the photographs were made, Oisin McAuley was delayed by weather from arriving in Glasgow, so former member Darragh Doyle stepped in. Phil Cunningham on accordion and Julie Fowlis on voice and whistles were also guests at the concert in Glasgow.

Photographs were made by Kerry Dexter at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, with permission of the artists, venue, and festival. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Ireland's Music: The Small Hours: Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Robbie, Aoife, and Donal: The Clancy Legacy
Julie Fowlis: Every Story

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ireland's music: Matt and Shannon Heaton: Tell You In Earnest

For their album Tell You in Earnest Matt and Shannon Heaton decided to choose songs framed in conversation between two people. The reason for that choice, Shannon says, was twofold. For one thing though Matt and Shannon both have been and continue to be involved in bands and side projects, for a good while now, “ and now maybe more than ever,” Shannon says -- the husband and wife have made their duo performances and recording their home base in music. The second reason, she explains, builds on that.

“It’s great to play with a whole band, it’s lovely,” she says, “ but there’s something just really intimate and spectacularly expressive about a conversation between two people. Maybe a third party wanders into the story in a song, maybe a cello wanders in, but ultimately it’s about the essence of two people and what they can say to each other and how they can listen to each other. So I think,” she continues, “ it was meant to be this overt demonstration, musically, of what a duo is, which is a bunch of different conversations in a bunch of different moods.”

Different moods and different sources, too.

To open the recording, there’s Cruel Salt Sea, a song which had its origins in the traditional ballad Outlandish Knight. Shannon describes the evolution of the song to the version on Tell Me in Earnest. “That song always grabbed me. I always thought it was the outlandish knight, like the craaazy knight! But he was from the northlands, the outlands,” Shannon says. From the traditional version she’s learned on a recording by Shirley Collins “I started changing the words around - of course -- first because I wanted to condense some of the verses. People aren’t going to listen to twenty five verses. So to condense, I have to rewrite a little bit, and then I always like to change any super weird vernacular stuff. But there were still a lot of verses, and so I felt like there had to be resting places, so I added the repeating lines, and then I added a bridge -- I really like the bridge -- and then before I knew it I’d taken away the words outlandish knight and added the words cruel salt sea. So I changed the title. Tinkering around, that’s what trad musicians do!”

Giving their own stamp and creativity to music from the tradition as well as creating their own music is indeed what the Heatons do. On Tell You in Earnest focusing on the idea of dialogue or conversation songs (“Each song is like a mini play,” Matt says), they also take on the Child ballad Gallant Hussar, following mostly traditional words and melody enhanced with original instrumental breaks. There’s Richard Thompson’s classic set of conversations between a guy and a girl about a bike -- and much more -- in Vincent Black Lightning 1952. There’s the dialogue between mother and son that creates a powerful anti war message, all the more powerful when you realize it was written some centuries back -- called Mrs. McGrath. There is a mostly traditional version of a song called The Demon Lover, framed in a conversation with the devil and its consequences, and on a happier note, an over the top Thai love song, Mon Rak Dawk Kam sung in Thai, blending the Heatons’ understanding of Irish traditional music with Shannon’s longtime connections with Thailand. That song, whose title translates as The Enchanted Flower of Kam Tai, proved to be a way into an aspect of this recording the Heatons had not expected. Shannon credits her time spent as an exchange student in Thailand with opening the door to her love of traditional music -- her own heritage tradition of Irish music -- by immersing her in another set of older traditions from another culture. In recent years, on occasion they have worked some of this in to their Irish music repertoire. “As we were thinking about conversation songs, Mon Rak Dawk Tam Kai is a beautiful conversation song, so we thought let’s try it. We were messing around with the idea of including a Thai song on the album and then it got a little deeper. We realized, you know what, that’s part of who I am. And Matt -- he loves electric guitar, he loves surf guitar, he’s played in rock bands since he was a kid.” Parts of that aspect of Matt’s music come out on his work on On Rak Dawk Tam Kai as well as his funny original Easy Come East Go and the well traveled traditional ballad Edwin of the Lowlands Low. In the past, they have included touches of these things here and there in their bedrock devotion to Irish traditional music. “But this time,” Shannon continues, having those touches in their music on this album “That’s really our authentic musical expression, that’s really who we are.”

Matt and Shannon Heaton met in Chicago, when flute player Shannon was called for a wedding gig and needed a guitar player to accompany her. Matt grew up in Pennsylvania, turing the pages for his father;s professional concerts before heading off into his own explorations of rock, surf, tango, and Irish guitar. Shannon’s parents took their kids with them as they lived in several different countries; it was as a young child in Nigeria that she first fund herself drawn to the flute. Later, she studied classical music and ethnomusicology in addition to spending that time in Thailand.

All that may not sound exactly like the background you would expect for two of the most highly regarded players, composers, singers, and teachers in contemporary Irish music. That is a the strong strand of their heritage, however, and they have spent time learning music in Ireland as well as immersed in the vibrant Irish music community of their home base in New England.

The characters in the songs on Tell You in Earnest come alive through the conversations in the lyrics, and through the conversations opened up through the Heatons’ lead and harmony singing, and through their thoughtful and well conceived melodies and intros and instrumental breaks as well. They offer a range of human experience, from the hauntingly poetic murder ballad Edwin of the Lowlands Low to Matt’s funny original song Easy Come Easy Go, in which he imagines what could happen if a bit of story often found in traditional songs went awry. There are grim conversations and supernatural elements, over the top love songs and funny ones, all told in conversations framed in the Heatons' always creative take on carrying tradition into the present.

Give a listen -- these are conversations you will want to return to again and again.

Photographs of Matt and Shannon Heaton (with guest Mike Block on cello in the top one) by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Lovers' Well: Matt and Shannon Heaton
Another Fine Winter's Night: Matt and Shannon Heaton
Listening to Ireland: Patrick season

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ireland's Music: The Alt

Knocknarea, near Sligo in the west of Ireland, is a place of history marked by stones and tombs going back to the Neolithic Age. It is a place of legend and story, going back, perhaps, beyond that. It is also a place of connection and friendship, qualities much in evidence when three Irish musicians gathered near there to rehearse for what would become a new collaboration. They named they decided to name their band and the first recording they would create after a glen on the side of the mountain which is called The Alt. I

t is not that John Doyle, Nuala Kennedy, and Eamon O’Leary were looking for extra things to do: each has a lively career in solo work, in bands, and in teaching. When Kennedy and Doyle crossed paths on Cape Breton Island at the Celtic Colours Festival, though, they found a musical connection they wanted to explore further, and soon added O’Leary to the mix. Each of the three is an accomplished singer. Kennedy plays whistles and flutes. Doyle and O’Leary are both guitarists and play bouzouki. All of them are rooted in the music of Ireland, and have deep knowledge of songs and tunes of their native country, and each has experience of living and traveling in other lands.

All of these things play into the music they chose to record together. Though each is an accomplished writer of song and tune, they decided for their first album together to focus on music from the tradition. Each brought music to their gatherings, songs and tunes with story and melody that spoke to and of the traditions of the music of Ireland and to qualities of life, connection, and story that speak across time as well. There are love songs of varied sorts, songs of travel and of change, despair and hope, a touch of wry humor, and through it all, really fine stories well told. There is journey in the words and in the melodies as well, from quiet to rollicking, from rhythms to dance or tap your foot along to ones to lean in and listen closely. Songs include Finn Waterside, Willie Angler (also known as The Banks of the Bann), The Eighteenth of June, Lovely Nancy, Cha Tig Mor mo Bhean Dhachaigh sung in Scottish Gaelic, a nod to Kennedy’s longtime residence in Edinburgh), and One Morning in May.

Trading lead and harmony singing, lead lines and backup on their instruments, Doyle, Kennedy, and O’Leary create music which is at once intricate, delicate, strong, and straightforward. Begun in the shadow of Knocknarea in the west of Ireland and brought to recorded form in a quiet cabin the Appalachian Mountains of the southern United States,The Alt holds history, melody and stories well told, and the heart of friendship in the sharing of them all.

You may also wish to see
Shadow and Light: Irish Music from John Doyle
 music and journey

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Friday, April 03, 2015

Music for an Easter Weekend

Two meditative pieces which go well with the contemplative nature of Easter weekend, though neither of them have precisely to do with Easter itself.

Classical violinist Nicola Benedetti plays The Lark Ascending, which she has recorded on her album Fantasie.

Julie Fowlis sings the lament/song in praise of Calum, called Do Chalum. She has recorded this on her album Gach Sgeul / Every Story.

you may also wish to see
Scotland's Music: Julie Fowlis: Every Story more about this album
Scotland's Music: Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming -- A Scottish Fantasy a different album from Nicola Benedetti, on which Julie Fowlis also appears
Lessons from an Old Lament thoughts on an Irish song often sung at this season

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Music & Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer Continues

Songs come to musicians in all sorts of ways, and they make notes and shape ideas and work out words and melody in all sorts of ways. “If you line up eleven songwriters and ask them their process, they’ll give you eleven different ways,” says Carrie Newcomer. “For me there’s there’s kind of literary bent to it, I guess, where I do a lot of poetry writing, and short stories, and essays. From those pieces, songs emerge.”

She isn’t thinking about the songs while she is immersed in other sorts of writing, though, not directly. It is, rather, the ideas and characters and flow of things she is working on -- or working out.

“I might have to write the whole essay to get tot he one line that starts a song,” she says. “Also, a lot of it is how I process -- people say I’m pretty prolific, as a songwriter, but I think it’s just how I process my world, and my life. So I’m always writing, and I do a lot of poetry.

“Once I have the poem or the essay or maybe even a series of poems,” she continues,”I have all this language, and all these ideas I’ve been musing with -- it’s like I have this whole palette of stuff to work with, and I’ve thinking about it, mulling the idea over. Then when I go to write the song I might have some language I’ve been thinking through, but the words and the music happen together.”

What has also happened recently is the publication of Newcomer’s first book, called A Permeable Life: Poems & Essays. It is a companion piece to her album A Permeable Life. Newcomer turned to community funding for this recording, and at first was going to put together a small collection of poems to thank those who had helped make the album possible. “I had started a blog and begun posting some of my poems, so there was some interest in seeing a collection, so I thought I was going to put together a few poems that people might see as having a connection to songs,” she says. “But as I was doing that and we started sending them out, the response I was getting was really wonderful, really heartwarming, and we decided -- actually, my husband really encouraged me, he said you know, let’s just release this as a companion piece to the new album. So I said, yeah, sure, let’s do that!” Newcomer says, laughing.

”I’m used to putting out albums, and there’s a certain kind of thing that happens whenever you put out an album, or a song.You’re taking a certain kind of risk -- whenever you put yourself out there artistically, there’s certain kind of vulnerability to it. I’ve done enough albums now that I’m expecting it -- that doesn’t mean it gets any easier, it’s just that you’re familiar with it,” she says. “ But I had never put out that kind of art work before.”

There are thirteen essays and twenty six poems in the book. It is not necessary to know Newcomer’s work as a musician, or to have heard the songs on the album A Permeable Life, to appreciate what she’s doing as a poet and essayist, though the ways she tells stories and the ideas she choose to emphasize, and the language she chooses, do cross points and paths across the two projects. There are some pieces which relate directly to songs, and some which do not, or for which the connection is less clear. What is clear, however, is that Newcomer’s gift for observation, for including details of the natural world, and now and then bringing in her wry sense of humor come through whichever art she is practicing. So, too, does her gift for making the personal universal, and the thread of finding the sacred in the ordinary. In the essay called In the Sitka Pines, for example, an experience of the wilderness of Alaska an learning about Alaskan salmon forms the gateway into thoughts on transformation, in a piece that’s slightly longer than a page and all the more powerful -- and all the more leaving room to draw the reader in -- for its brevity.

Transformation, the idea of thresholds, and the practice of being present are threads which run through the songs on the album A Permeable Life and in differing ways through the material in the book A Permeable Life: Poems & Essays as well. The poem To a Titmouse finds transformation anchored in connection to an encounter on a snowy walk; Dharamsala, a poem begun after an experience while visiting India, suggests presence, connection, thresholds, and the possibility of transformation as well -- all done through an account of a procession and those watching it.

As a songwriter and singer, Newcomer has command of her tools and uses them to invite community, reflection, and the asking of good questions about life, faith, and change. These too are present in what she creates with her essays and poetry.

Countless prayer flags lifted in the mist
It was like music,
Light and fleeting,
LIngering in the quiet,
Filling the world with longing
And our own good intentions.

~excerpt from Dharamsala copyright Carrie Newcomer

You may also wish to see
Music and Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer
India to Indiana in song and image
Ireland's Music: The Small Hours: Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Ireland's Music: Cara Dillon: A Thousand Hearts

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Bluegrass to Bach to Blues: Savannah Music Festival

Swing jazz to Suor Angelica, Hot Club of Cowtown to Brooklyn Rider’s chamber music, Lunasa from Ireland, Lucinda Williams from Louisiana, Kayhan Kalor from Persia, ring shout, gospel, Brazilan soul, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Bach, Sor, blues to bluegrass to Borodin: all these are but a taste of wht is going on at the Savannah Music Festival, which runs this year from 19 March through 4 April, in historic venues across the city’s center and riverfront.

It is Georgia’s largest music festival, and has become one of the world’s most respected cross genre music festivals. There are ten world class chamber music concerts on this years schedule, a schedule which benefits from co-artistic director Daniel Hope’s world renown prowess as a player himself -- he’s a violinist -- as well as the festival’s record of presenting one of a kind collaborations in historic venues well suited for listening to the nuances of classical performance.

Those same venues, which include the Johnny Mercer Theatre, Temple Mickve Israel, the Charles H. Morris Center, the Lucas Theatre for the Arts, and the Ships of the Sea North Garden, are also welcoming platforms for the soul deep musical styles of the Heritage Blues Orchestra and the local Georgia traditions of gospel and ring shout from the McIntosh County Shouters. The rowdy, rootsy folk rock of the duo Shovels and Rope find a home in these places too, as does the Voice of Cuba Orchestra’s Latin Dance Party and the Atlanta symphony Orchestra’s program including Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. Always highly anticipated, too, are finale gigs from the festival’s two innovative music education seminars, Swing Central Jazz and Acoustic Music Seminar, both which see young musicians from around the country creating at the highest level.

Lunasa brings in pipes, whistles, fiddle and flutes from Ireland, while South Africa meets the American South in a bill pairing up songwriter and singer Vusi Mahasela’s songs of his homeland and its struggles with the Appalachian and old time background of Dirk Powell and Riley Baugus. Mavis Staples brings her six decades of experience in gospel and soul music, Jerry Douglas and the Earls of Leicester add their own spin to classic bluegrass, and Rosanne Cash weaves deft stories of life, love, and he American south in her poetic lyrics and graceful voice.

With that line up -- and it is only part of what takes place -- it is no wonder that audiences comes to Savannah from across the world to be present at these concerts. Bluegrass kicks things off this year, with the highly regarded Balsam Range making their Savannah Music Festival debut on the first evening and the closing day of the event offering an afternoon of classical piano, and evening gig by singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash, and a late night dance party hosted by DakhaBraka, a world music band from Ukraine know for their ability to engage audiences with their unexpected melodies and rhythms. In between, more than one hundred performances take place in intimate venues across Savannah’s historic district

At this writing, several concerts are sold out, but there are many good seats left for other gigs. Find out more at the festival’s web site.

Photographs: Kayhan Kalhor by Ali Boustan, Brooklyn Rider and Dirk Powell courtesy of the artists and the festival

You may also wish to see
American South in Song: Rosanne Cash
The festival’s radio show from Georgia Public Broadcasting
Celtic Connections: seeing music

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ireland's Music: Cara Dillon: A Thousand Hearts

Finding songs to record is, for Irish singer Cara Dillon, rather like a journey -- a journey through time and ideas, words and melody, through songs from the traditions of Ireland, contemporary song, and at times music she and her husband and musical partner Sam Lakeman write themselves. They have learned to take their time with things, with letting the music and the ideas take them on journeys, and find the best ways to put their own stamp on them as they share the music with their audiences.

As they were considering the songs that make up the collection they have gathered for A Thousand Hearts they were struck by by a thread of hearts and passion which run through the stories told. Not that the pieces are all romantic love songs -- there are those, but alongside them songs of longing, regret, choices, change, faith, mystery, love for land, emigration, and humor -- all things which encompass and are encompassed by love. So they came to the title A Thousand Hearts.

Dillon often crosses the borders of musical styles in her work, but it is to Irish tradition that she returns as the base for her understanding of and respect for music.

“I’m from a very small town in County Derry, in the northwest of Ireland,” Dillon says, “ and basically where I’m from music, traditional music, is a way of life. Everyone is encouraged from when they’re knee high to play an instrument and to sing. to learn the local songs of the town there, Dungiven, and the local history and the legends of the town.”

It was to memories of music she learned while growing up that Dillon and Lakeman returned for several pieces on the album. My Donald is one such: it is the story of a woman thinking of her man, who works on the sea following the whale. In Dillon’s introspective treatment, it seems as though the listener is hearing the woman’s tale directly -- set off by an instrumental bit at the end which both allows Dillon’s gifted backing musicians to show their chops and suggests thoughts of those stormy and distant seas the sailor might traversing.

The Shores of Lough Bran finds Dillon giving a thoughtful take on an emigration song, which in a way resonates with her choice of Shawn Colvin’s modern day song of another sort of leaving, a love affair which is, as you might gather from its title, going to end: Shotgun Down the Avalanche. Lough Bran is, in fact, a much more hopeful and upbeat song, which makes sense, but both speak of longing and change -- as does River Run, another contemporary piece written in memory of one who died at a young age. River Run, Dillon’s voice is backed by Lakeman alone on piano, offers a quiet meditation on grief and change done with just the right degree of understatement.

All of which may make the album sound a bit grim; it’s not, not at all. There are upbeat songs, for one thing: the cheery story and melody of Jacket So Blue, the wry humor of Eighteen Years Old are two.

Speaking of love, and hope, and hearts: two of the strongest songs on the album -- though all of them are keepers -- treat of these things in differing musical and lyrical ways, but yet the threads of love, hope, choice and change resonate through them as well. Bright Morning Star Arising, from Canadian musician Ruth Moody, suggests that idea of hope and change -- for the better, this time -- through both title and lyric, and Dillon has found that when she does it in concert, people in her audiences are singing along with the choruses. Taímse Im’ Choladh. which Dillon sings in Irish, is an aisling, a dream song, in which Ireland (or Scotland, the song is known there are well) appears in a dream in the person of a beautiful woman urging the dreamer to rise and help her.

Whatever the source of the song they are working on at the time, “we always try to keep the song at the forefront of what we do, myself and Sam,” Dillon says, “because we both have such a great respect for the tradition. The way we describe it to each other at times is like finding a really beautiful gemstone and trying to find the right setting for it, so that it’s the focus of everyone's attention. The setting is just as important for it to be seen. We work on the songs a lot, and sometimes people come up after the show and say, is that a traditional song, or a song that you’ve written? And to me, that’s quite a big compliment.”

Gorgeous voice, thoughtful phrasing, backing players who add their own gifts to the telling of the stories: with A Thousand Hearts Cara Dillon and Sam Lakeman have indeed met the challenges they set themselves. Take a listen; take more than one. Each song is a gem which reveals another facet as listenings unfold.

Photograph of Cara Dillon by Kerry Dexter, made at the Celtic Connections Festival with permission of the artist, the festival and the venue. Thank you for respecting copyright.

Note: the links from the title will take you to AmazonUK, where you may learn more and from which readers in the US and elsewhere in the world as well as the UK may order, if desired. At this writing, the music is not available directly from US sources. Music Road is an affiliate of Amazon both US and UK. This does not influence coverage in any way.

You may also wish to see
Ireland's music: Cara Dillon: Lass of Glenshee
Julie Fowlis: Every Story
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain

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