Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Celtic Connections 2016: a taste of the festival

Celtic Connections, held in Glasgow in January each year, lights up Scotland’s winter with music from artists who connect to their heritage and carry that connection forward. This year artists from Africa, Mongolia, France, Canada, the United States, Ireland, and many other countries join musicians from all across Scotland for eighteen days of musical celebration, a celebration which includes concerts, master classes, talks, art exhibits, come and try workshops on a range of instruments, concerts for school children, late night sessions, the after hours festival club, live broadcasts and tapings of radio and television shows, concerts which feature rising stars...

Here is a bit of what things in Glasgow have looked like so far, The festival runs through 31 January.

At a concert by the Chieftains from Ireland, surprise guest Kris Kristofferson sang with Aylth McCormack. McCormack, who frequently collaborates with the Chieftains, is from Lewis in the Western Isles.

Brian Finnegan lent his talents on whistle to a concert with his musical friends Kathleen MacInnes, Dermot Byrne, and Mike Vass.

As part of the New Voices strand, with which Celtic Connections commissions new music, guitarist Ewan Robertson gave the world premier of his audio visual piece inspired by the Celtman triathalon and the landscapes and history the marathon’s route traverses in Scotland’s north.

Kyle Carey and Giilebride MacMillan offered sets of Gaelic Americana and Gaelic songs and then joined up to sing together at evening’s end.

Eddi Reader celebrated Burns night with a program in collaboration with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, in arrangements Rabbie himself would have found intriguing.

Photographs by Kerry Dexter. made with permission of the artists, the festival and the venues involved. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Scotland, Americana, inspiration: Kyle Carey
Celtic Connections 2013: Images
Eddi Reader sings the songs of Robert Burns
Celtic Connections 2011: images

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Sunday, January 03, 2016

Music, friendship, and the turning of the year

At the turning of the year, it is often a time for reflection, for thinking back and thinking forward. Though times may change and at times friends may come and go, still the value of friendship and the memories of times shared with good friends are keeping things.

Music to go along with thoughts on the subject of friendship:

As Eddi Reader points out in her introduction to this song, Robert Burns may be best known for his love songs. Burns wrote about quite a few subjects in his life though, and friendship is one. Take a listen to Eddi Reader with the lively song Willie Stewart, which she has recorded on her album Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns,

Whether for a short time or a long one, one thing that comes along with good friendship is parting and spending time apart. At times the mingled joy of realizing how much you love someone and sorrow at parting make that moment of leave taking the hardest part. That is captured in the song The Parting Glass. Cara Dillon songs it here. She has recorded it on her album Hill of Thieves and it also appears on the collection Celtic Cafe from Putumayo Music.

Carrie Newcomer explores another of the many aspects that friendship may take in her song The Gathering of Spirits recognizing that there is mystery in it as well as, perhaps as part of, love and lasting connection. One of my favorite lines is “... and we’ll take up where we left off when we all meet again.” Newcomer chose The Gathering of Spirits as the title of one of her albums, and the song also appears on Betty's Diner: The Best of Carrie Newcomer

To close this meditation on music and friendship I’ll send you back again to Eddi Reader and back again to Robert Burns, with a song that, among other things, connects people the world around at New Year’s time. Take a listen to Reader’s reflective take on the song, which she has recorded on Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns.

Photograph by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Emily Smith, Jamie McClennan, and Robert Burns
Eddi Reader sings more of the songs of Robert Burns
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain
Celtic Cafe at Wandering Educators

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Advent: Music, Silence, and Winter

Silence. That’s a quality, a place, an understanding, that is as necessary to music -- to the creation of music as well as the playing of it -- as are the notes, the melody, the timbre, and all else that goes into music.

Advent is often a time to appreciate the varied aspects of silence, and to look and listen for them as things may at times tend to seem a bit too noisy and hurried with winter holiday demands and activities -- whether it happens to be your holiday which is being celebrated or not. The good thing about this sort of silence -- interior silence -- is that you can find it within, whatever may be going on around you. That may take a bit of reflection, or a bit of practice if the idea is unfamiliar to you. Give it some thought though.

“You don’t just crash into a piece of music. You draw it up from within the silence.” That is classical violinist Nicola Benedetti speaking. She said that as she was giving a master class to a group of chamber musicians -- musicians who were of middle school age. Silence is an aspect musicians often savor as an integral part of what they do, and as Benedetti suggested to those students, it is a necessary part of how to think about music as well. That is truenot only for players and creators of music, but for listeners as well.

Interior silence is a spiritual discipline found across many faiths and many denominations within faiths. It is also part of the creative practice and discipline across artistic disciplines, from poets to actors to, yes, musicians.

At this time of deep winter in the northern part of the world, long nights and quiet stars may be a good gateway to this sort of reflection. So too may many sorts of music.

I encourage you to ind your own way into these ideas this Advent. Here are music and stories to explore along that way

Advent: music and quiet
Kathy Mattea: Joy for Christmas Day
India to Indiana: Everything Is Everywhere from Carrie Newcomer
Cathie Ryan: The Farthest Wave

You may also wish to see
Music, connection, education: Nicola Benedetti
Music, silence, and spiritual journey

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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Listening to Christmas: new winter focused albums

Winter holidays are a time for savoring the familiar and enjoying the new. That holds just a true with music as it does for travel, or flavors of Christmas cookies. Treats are in store this season, with new winter focused recordings from artists whose backgrounds range from bluegrass family band in the heartland of North America to sean nos from the Gaeltacht of Connemara in the west of Ireland. There’s a gathering of a half dozen of Scotland’s top musicians who bring their well loved Christmas concerts to record, and a recording that features the artist alone with her guitar. There’s a reunited trio of musical friends, a top Scots singer and songwriter, and one of the most well loved bands in Ireland and Irish America. All these artists have their own ideas of winter and music to share. Listen on...

Rhonda Vincent is the artist who claims bluegrass as her heritage, growing up in Missouri playing in her family’s band. She’s had success in country music too, always bringing along her strong connection to her heartland roots. That’s something she carried through in Christmas Time, her third album of holiday songs. She offers carols and secular holiday songs along with several she’s written herself. For Twelve Days of Christmas she invites in musical friends including Dolly Parton,Charlie Daniels, and Pam Tillis. Of her originals, Christmas Time at Home is the strongest, and there’s a nice medley of several familiar songs she hasn’t gotten to in full to close out the disc.

Róisín Elsafty comes from a family background in music, too, but of a different style: hers is the sean nos singing of the west of Ireland. She’s joined up with Ronan Browne on pipes and Tony Maher on piano to offer a thoughtful and interesting collection of Amhráin Na Nollag: Favourite Christmas Songs In Irish. There are melodies you’ll recognize even if Irish isn’t one of your languages, and there are several finely done instrumentals to give breadth to the sound. Singers of sean nos must learn ways to give emotion and story in song through word alone, and though Elsafty brings instruments to accompany her voice here, her mastery of that is evident, especially in some of the quieter pieces. Elsafty, Browne, and Maher have a a bit of fun with things too. In addition to thoughtful and reverent takes on such well loved songs Don Oíche Úd I Mbeithil (One Night in Bethlehem) and Oíche Chiúin (Silent Night) they also take on An Drumadóirín (The Little Drummer Boy) and then, well, there’s Rudolph Na Sróine Deirge...

Eddi Reader, Karen Matheson, Kris Drever, John McCusker, Ian Carr, and Kevin McGuire -- you could call that a dream team line up of Scotland’s musical talent, and when you consider the Christmas concerts they appear on each winter are put together by Phill Cunningham you understand why both the audiences and the artists have a really good time. Over the years and the songs, what’s known as Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook has grown from a one night gig in Edinburgh to a five night run that takes in different towns and cities in Scotland. This year, it has also made it to a recording also called Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook, which is filled with with generous helpings of holiday songs serious, winsome, and funny in the mix, among them The Holly and the Ivy, In the Bleak Midwinter, and Santa Will Find You.

Lindsay Straw has no backing musicians for her gig -- it’s just the woman and her guitar on her download only release The Winter EP. The Winter EP. Just a few songs, too, but they serve to show the strength and gentleness of the Boston based musician’s way with voice and instrument, and with how well she puts the two together. In her non seasonal work Straw often draws on the music of Ireland, Scotland and Appalachia, and that informs her take on It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, The Christ Child Lullaby, and the other pieces she offers.

The three women who comprise the Scotland based trio Shine decided on a winter themed EP for this season as well. Alyth McCormack, Mary MacMaster, and Corrina Hewat recorded an album together some years back but each has a full slate of musical projects in their separate careers. When they began talking about working together again, one of the things they’d like to do, they decided, was a Christmas tour in Scotland. Fire & Frost is the recording that came out of that idea. The three have terrific harmony skills, which makes whatever they choose to sing well worth hearing more than once. Hewat and MacMaster are fine harpists, as well, and they all know how to weave notes in and around the line of a song. Added to that, they’ve some things you may not have heard before, such as the Christ Child’s Lullabye with lyrics in Scots ans well as Gaelic and English.

Emily Smith usually does Christmas shows too, mostly taking a break from her international touring and keeping things close to home in her native Dumfries and Galloway in the southwest of Scotland at the holiday season. It was time, she decided, to put some of her favorite songs from those shows, songs first gathered near to home and some which caught her ear on her travels, on record. On Songs for Christmas there are carols and songs of hope and faith ranging from Silent Night to Christ Has My Hairt Ay to Smith’s own graceful meditation on the challenges and changes of winter called Winter Song.

The members of Cherish the Ladies took things home for Christmas in a way, too -- the top Irish American band, which often includes musicians from Ireland as well as Irish Americans, went to County Clare to record the band’s third Christmas album and they decided to call it Christmas in Ireland. It’s a fine collection comprising song and tune and a bit of spoken word, new material and well handed down pieces, material from Irish tradition and material created drawing from it. To the core group of Joanie Madden on flute and whistles, Kathleen Boyle on piano, Mary Coogan on guitar and Mirella Murray on accordion, top Irish musician Nollaig Casey added her talents on fiddle and Hannah Rarity from Scotland and Don Stiffe from County Galway stepped in as singers. It’s a well paced and beautifully performed collection, with every track a keeper worth repeated listening. Especially to take note of though are All the Valley Down, the O Christmas Tree set, The Christmas Letter, and Errigal Beauty.

Photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

you may also wish to see
Listening to Christmas: Shannon Heaton, Cathie Ryan, Mary Black, Hanneke Cassel
Cherish the Ladies: storytellers in music
Old stories, old songs: Roisin Dubh by Elsafty, Armstrong, Browne

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Monday, December 07, 2015

Second week in Advent

Advent: it is a season which holds both preparation and celebration, both reflection and creation. In the prayers said at mass when I was growing up, it was a time when we were advised read and reflect on the wisdom to be learned from the scriptures. I thought then and still do that there is much wisdom of the season to be gained in song and story, in poem and painting and looking up at the night and morning star, as well. Ideas which may illuminate scriptural aspects, and which may be illuminated by them.

Music to go along with these ideas, seasonal and otherwise --

Anticipation is one of the features of Advent. That’s an aspect Gretchen Peters expresses in two very different ways on her album Northern Lights in her songs Waitin’ on Mary and December Child. With people across the world thinking about or being refugees so much at this time, it’s a good time to take a listen to them both.

Carrie Newcomer’s music is always both reflective and thought provoking, and quite beautiful as well. On her album A Permeable Life the songs Light in the Window and Writing You a Letter speak to the aspects of travel and connection across distance that come with winter holidays. So, too, does the tile track of her European release The Slender Thread.

There’s joy in the anticipation and preparation as well as tenderness and reflection. Cherish the Ladies are great at expressing all these through their music. They have a new seasonal album out this year which they went to County Clare to record and have called Christmas in Ireland. Song, tune, and spoken word comprise the lively collection. If you might have a taste for seasonal music mostly in Irish, then check out the just released collection Amhráin Na Nollag: Favourite Christmas Songs in Irish from Róisín Elsafty and Ronan Browne with Tony Maher. In addition to spiritual classics including Don Oíche Úd I Mbeithil/ One Night on Bethlehem there are also seasonal favorites, among them that song about the reindeer, Rudolph Na Sróine Deirge.

Shannon Heaton recognized that she wasn’t a big fan of winter weather, but, having chosen to make her home in Boston, she decided to write a song that would help her remember the good things about deep winter. The result is Fine Winter's Night, in which she contrasts the beauty of cold night with its sparkling stars with warmth beckoning to fellowship and community within. It became the title track fro the seasonal album Shannon and her husband Matt made, which includes several fine originals in both song and tune, the Wexford Carol, which reaches back to twelfth century Ireland, and other fine songs new and old.

Take a listen to these musicians this Advent, and see how their perspectives might inform your celebrations and anticipations this season.

Photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see

First Week in Advent: music and quiet
Advent reflections and music
Music for Winter Travels and Celebrations at Wandering Educators
Wreaths, Music, Legend at Perceptive Travel

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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 canvas 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 Atlantic Way came to be. It’s a designation that frames the place in all its diversity and commonalities, 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 wild western edge and on its western waters. In the thirteen tracks 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 flute...you 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

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