Tag Archives: celtic

Folk: album review – Na-Mara ‘Sisters & Brothers’

Na-Mara have built a formidable reputation for bringing their translations of songs from the Breton, French and Quebecois traditions to English-speaking audiences, alongside their original and captivating interpretation tunes from the Celtic regions of Spain and France. There’s more to them than that, of course, and their repertoire has always included self-composed material written in the style of the folk tradition.

With Sisters & Brothers Na-Mara’s Rob Garcia and Paul McNamara return with a fine mix of each of these three elements. The self-penned title track gives a nod to the proud history of songs about economic injustices in the past while providing us with a rallying call for the present: “What was done to our fathers and brothers is now being done to our sisters and brothers.” We also have new translations of songs from France and Quebec, such as long-lost soldier/returning sweetheart story The Recompense, and there is an elegant tune-set, including the lovely An Dro from a collection of Breton folk tunes.

Garcia’s mandolin and McNamara’s guitar work and gentle, sincere vocals give the duo their trademark sound and it’s clear throughout the album there is no shortage of inspiration for new material.

Na-Mara continue to make a vital and distinctive contribution to the UK folk scene and Sisters & Brothers is another highly-accomplished offering.

Released: March 2019

http://www.na-mara.com/

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Folk: album review – Rachel Croft ‘Hours Awake’

This review was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of fRoots magazine

Celtic-influenced melodies, lush instrumentation and pure yet ever-so-sensual vocals serve to make Hours Awake a highly attractive debut album from the York-based singer songwriter. The album collects together songs that Croft has been creating over a three-year period between 2014, when she first started writing, and 2017.

Only Dreams, which was also released as Croft’s debut single back in 2017, is one of the standout tracks on the album. Beautifully atmospheric instrumentation combines with powerful lyrics and captivating vocals in a Sandy-Denny-meets-Kate-Bush sort of way and showcases Croft’s considerable vocal range. Opening track, the moody and haunting Old Climbing Tree is another stunner. In addition to Croft, herself, on acoustic guitar a group of talented musicians contribute to making this album something special. The playing of Emlyn Vaughan on double bass, Rachel Brown on cello and Emily Lawler is particularly noteworthy.

Nicely packaged and beautifully illustrated the inside cover-art features some of Croft’s own striking black and white pen and ink work.

The album is not quite perfect. Some slightly weird production mars the second track Hear Me somewhat and the final track Can’t Replace Your Perfect, a big, soulful, gospel-tinged number stands up perfectly well on its own and certainly helps demonstrates the vocalist’s versatility but seems a little out of place here. Nonetheless, Hours Awake is a beautifully impressive debut from a talented vocalist, musician and songwriter.

Released: 8th February 2019

https://rachelcroftmusic.com/

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Folk: album review – Band of Burns ‘Live From The Union Chapel’

This review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

Originating out of the Burns Night gigs that ran at East London’s Wilton’s Music Hall for several years, Band of Burns came about when key members of the team (musicians Alastair Caplin and Dilar Vardar, and promoter Sophie Bostock) decided to put a more permanent touring outfit together. Featuring twelve musicians, this double live album was recorded at one of the band’s celebrated gigs at North London’s iconic Union Chapel and was released thanks to a successful crowdfunding appeal.

As the band’s origins and name suggests the influence of Scotland’s most celebrated poet casts a major presence over the entire project. It would be a mistake, however, to assume the album was focused solely on the work of Robert Burns.

Indeed, it would be a mistake to assume it was focused solely on the Scottish folk tradition either. Those involved in the Band of Burns come from a variety of different backgrounds and musical traditions, hailing from England, Wales and Ireland as well as Scotland and from as far afield as Turkey.

The result is a delightful collection of songs and tune sets from a fantastic array of musicians. From songs based on Burns’ own writing like My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose, Now Westlin Winds and Parcel o’ Rogues, through to other traditional numbers like Banks of Red Roses as well as songs like Richard Farina’s The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, there will be much that many folk enthusiasts will be familiar with here. However, the range of voices, both male and female, together with the exceptional standards of musicianship has resulted in Band of Burns producing something very special here.

Moreover, it is definitely a collaboration that lends itself well to the live album format. Although overflowing with talent, it would be difficult to imagine the album having quite the same impact had the recording been studio-bound. The awed crowd reactions to the ballads and the rapturous responses to some of the tune sets wonderfully capture what must have been an incredible atmosphere in Union Chapel on the evening of 29th January 2017.

Although nicely packaged a little bit more information on the background to the song choices and the playing on each track would not have gone amiss. However, with information about both the sizeable number of musicians and the concert itself to cram in there is probably a limit to how much additional information can be squeezed in.

Two discs, twelve musicians and one magical night, Live From The Union Chapel is a wonderful celebration of the life and work of Robert Burns.

Released: Ord Ban Music  19th January 2018

https://www.bandofburns.com/

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Folk: album review – Gerry O’Connor ‘Last Night’s Joy’

This review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

Acclaimed County Louth musician Gerry ’Fiddle’ O’Connor is a fourth-generation fiddle-player, has several decades of playing behind him and has worked with Irish folk outfits Lá Lugh and Skylark, releasing albums with both, besides a range of other collaborations. Last Night’s Joy is O’Connor’s second solo album, following up 2004’s Journeyman.

Across the album’s eleven instrumental tracks O’Connor displays his incredible versatility and virtuosity. The majority of the tunes forming each set are traditional, although there are a handful that have been composed in more modern times. Together, they each take us on a journey through a wonderfully spirited mix of styles, tempos, moods and emotions.

Meticulously sourced, the detailed sleeve-notes for Last Night’s Joy give a fascinating insight into the background to each of the tunes, The listener is therefore provided with little gems like the following, for the delicious tune-set The Old Dash Churn: “The collector Brendan Breathnach recorded County Louth fiddler Peter McArdle in Mark McLoughlin’s Bar in Dundalk in 1971. Apparently, due to time and resource constraints, he asked Peter to play only his more unusual tunes and these double jigs were learned from that recording.”

The haunting Bádaí na Scadáín with gentle piano accompaniment from O’Connor’s son Dónal, originates from the song of the same name telling the story of a father searching for his three fisherman sons lost at sea. Even without words none of the sadness is lost in this beautiful, mournful rendition which is one of the album’s real highlights.

Along with O’Connor’s son, the album also features luminaries of the Irish music scene including Séamie O’Dowd, Niall Hanna, Neil Martin and Seán Óg Graham among others. O’Connor’s namesake Gerry ’Banjo’ O’Connor also appears on one track, the punningly titled StereO Connor, for a set of gloriously energetic American polkas.

Anyone with a love for Irish traditional music and for vibrant, expressive fiddle-playing will, indeed, find this album a joy.

Released on Lughnasa Music on 1 October 2018

https://www.gerryoconnor.net/

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Folk: album review – Ross Couper & Tom Oakes ‘Fiddle & Guitar’

This review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

Ross Couper is from Shetland, known for his incendiary fiddle-playing with Peatbog Faeries amongst others. Tom Oakes is from Devon but has settled in Scotland, too, and as well as being a much-celebrated flautist is also a noteworthy guitarist who has played alongside a number of the big names in contemporary folk.

The two have been playing with one another for almost ten years now and clocked up many, many gigs together but, surprisingly, this is their debut album as a duo. Fiddle & Guitar is exactly what it says: an instrumental album comprising ten tracks of Couper’s fiddle-playing and Oakes’ guitar.

In spite of only two players, two instruments and all tunes (no songs), the first thing to stress is what a varied selection of playing we get on this album. There’s brooding and melancholy, there’s fast and furious, there’s delicate and reflective and much more besides. It means that where other albums in a similar vein start to run the risk of being a little repetitive and samey, however excellent the musicianship, this one never suffers from that.

Not only is the album full of inventive musicianship the duo have got to earn some points, also, for inventive song titles. Sunburn, Man-flu and the Shits has got to be up for some sort of award in this regard, and whatever horrible images it may conjure up it’s actually a very beautiful tune.

The Last Gasp is described as a song without words and the slow, sorrowful fiddle against some gently expressive guitar-playing certainly allows the listener’s imagination to soon formulate a dialogue in their head about what it might be telling us.

Those who have been following Couper & Oakes live will at last be pleased that they finally have something to take away with them. And for anyone else who admires virtuoso musicianship delivered with genuine passion and feeling this is definitely an album worth exploring.

Released: May 2017

http://www.rossandtom.com/

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Folk: album review – Top Floor Taivers ‘A Delicate Game’

My review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

The dramatic piano introduction that opens A Delicate Game instantly tells the listener that this is going to be something slightly different to the numerous, admittedly excellent, début albums that are coming out of the Scottish folk scene these days.

Aside from the fresh, engaging voice of Claire Hastings, who won Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2015, the piano of Tina Jordan Rees is very much the dominant sound on A Delicate Game.

It gives this young female foursome, and the album itself, a very distinct identity. Hastings and Jordan Rees are joined by fiddler Gráinne Brady, with Heather Downie on the clàsrsach, the Gaelic triangular harp.

Material-wise the album is dominated by covers, including some very well-known ones, with a couple of traditional songs and two originals thrown in. In terms of covers they don’t beat about the bush, choosing iconic songs like Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows and Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.

While the tune and lyrics of the latter are always going to be instantly recognisable, transforming the guitar maestro’s famous vintage motorcycling death-disc into a pacey, keyboard-driven track is an ambitious and genuinely interesting treatment that works well.

Other covers include Andy M. Stewart’s Ramblin’ Rover, while the traditional material includes The False Bride.

Of the two original tracks, one is by Heather Downie and her brother Alasdair, in what the sleeve-notes reveal to be their first foray into writing together. Called Jeannie and the Spider it’s a tongue-in-cheek look at relationships and the roles each partner plays within them. While it’s perhaps not the most memorable song on the album it is fair to say it is up against some stiff song-writing competition. It has a catchy, easily likeable melody and shows promise for song-writing that captures the spirit of the tradition.

The other original track, 10 Little Men, is Hastings’ re-imagining of the old nursery rhyme, and offers something a little different from the band’s usual style with electronic percussion and swirly atmospheric soundscapes. This track does, however, also offer an opportunity for Brady’s beautiful fiddle playing to really shine.

This is a band who have established a sound and a clear musical identity for themselves. At the same time they are not afraid to experiment and as a début A Delicate Game is an excellent showcase for the combined talents of the Top Floor Taivers.

Released 2016

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Folk: Album review – NUA ‘Flow’

My review originally appeared on the Bright Young Folk website here

Toronto-based instrumental trio NUA are fiddle player James Law, guitarist Graeme McGillivray and bodhrán player Jacob McCauley. The band draws on Scottish and Irish folk traditions. Flow is their second album and follows their well-received debut Bold, which came out in 2013.

A nice, clean, uncluttered sound, it is the interaction of the rhythms of the guitar and the bodhrán with the melodies of the fiddle that really make this band. However, that is not to suggest for a moment that the guitar and the bodhrán just remain in the background while the fiddle takes centre-stage. Launching their new album, Jacob McCauley recently explained, “We wanted to have three members that equally share the spotlight so to speak. Where each member can take on multiple roles depending on what is going on musically. Obviously when it comes down to it, we only have one melody player, but the guitar and bodhrán both have their moments to speak melodically instead of just rhythmically. The fiddle also has times to lay back and keep a more rhythmic feel or a more subtle drone.”

The result is an album of twelve original self-composed tunes, half joint compositions by fiddle-player, Law, and guitarist, McGillivray, and the remainder written solely by one or the other.

Opening track Wide Open makes for an uplifting start and sets the album up nicely, beginning with some bright, sunny-sounding guitar before being joined by some lovely fiddle that darts and dances around.

A whole album of instrumentals, regardless of how good each individual tune is, does need light and shade, depth and colour and several changes of gear to maintain the attention of most listeners, however. This CD is one that meets those challenges even, at times, within a single tune.

The excellent Ghostrider, for example, starts off with a very gentle and soothing melody but gradually gets more and more frenetic, drawing the listener in until finally, at the very, very end, the tune draws to a close with all the soothing gentleness with which it began.

A fresh and vibrant take on traditional Celtic music, a strong collection of original tunes and some inspired interplay between the three musicians, NUA are likely to continue cementing their reputation on the folk scene and no doubt pick up a few more awards with this, their second album.

Released: June 2016

http://www.trionua.com/

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