Archive for March, 2015

checking out of shamrock city

Solas. From left: Seamus Egan, Winifred Horan, Mick McAuley, Niamh Varian-Barry and Eamon McElholm (McAuley and Varian-Barry aren't currently in the group.)

Solas. From left: Seamus Egan, Winifred Horan, Mick McAuley, Niamh Varian-Barry and Eamon McElholm (McAuley and Varian-Barry aren’t currently in the group.)

As it returns to Frankfort on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, the heralded Irish-American band Solas finds itself nearing an interval separating two hugely ambitious musical projects.

The first is an album built around a story of Irish immigration composed and presented from a very personal standpoint. The second is a celebration of Solas’ own history – specifically, a recording that will serve as a family reunion of every singer and instrumentalist that has served in the band’s ranks over the past two decades.

“It’s sort of amazing, really,” said Solas fiddler and co-founder Winfred Horan, who performs with the current Solas lineup at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort on Monday. “We’ve been touring Shamrock City, our newest album, for the last year and a half. So we’re wrapping up that touring cycle. Then in May, we start recording for the 20th anniversary celebration album. We’re doing half of the recording here in the States and half of it back in Ireland just because a lot of the band members and former members live there. It’s all kind of crazy to think about.”

Solas (Gaelic for “light”) is the brainchild child of Horan, a New York-born fiddler born to parents from County Wicklow in Ireland, and multi-instrumentalist/composer Seamus Egan, a Pennsylvania native to parents of County Mayo, which became his childhood home when the family moved back to Ireland.

Solas became a performance platform for the two’s takes on Irish music tradition. Lineups fluctuated with nearly every album, but Egan and Horan remained at the helm for a string of folk-based recordings that made Solas one of the most critically acclaimed Irish-American bands on either shore.

That led to Shamrock City, a 2012 concept album that tells the story of Egan’s great great uncle, Michael Conway, and his journey to one of the more unexpected destinations for Irish immigrants – the copper mines of Butte, Montana.

The journey is explained through a series of original songs both plaintive and poetic in feel and instrumentals (including Horan’s lovely Welcome the Unknown) that generously reflects Conway’s homeland. An all-star guest list that includes Americana sensations Rhiannon Giddens and Aoife O’Donovan and veteran Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan help throughout the record.

“Some of the earlier Solas albums have a ton of energy, but it’s unbridled energy,” Horan said. “That’s all well and good. That comes from being young and new and naïve. Back then, we weren’t putting any sort of parameters on anything. But as you mature as a musician and as an artist, you spend more attention to detail and content and message. That’s what happened with Shamrock City.

“I think it’s our most mature album, and that’s not just because we’re more mature. I just think, musically, thematically and continuity wise, it was a really brave move into something different.”

The Frankfort concert will be one of the final performances devoted to Shamrock City. It will also mark the end of this incarnation of Solas. Last year, the band’s accordionist, Mick McAuley went on hiatus to perform on Broadway in Sting’s musical The Last Ship. His replacement, Dublin’s Johnny Connolly, will finish out his stint with Solas this month. Completing the group are guitarist Eamon McElholm and a new vocalist, Vermont born Moira Smiley (“She’ll blow you away,” Horan said.).

After a break in April, McAuley will rejoin and work on the 20th anniversary Solas recording will commence.

“Seamus and I have seen Solas from birth until now,” Horan said. “We stayed committed to it over all these years and saw it through many lineup changes, challenges and 20 years of touring. But I can honestly say that every single person that came into the band brought so much with their contributions – each and every one different, but all very powerful and beautiful.”

Solas performs at 7:30 p.m. March 16 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets are $15, $20, $30. Call (502) 352-7469 or go to grandtheatrefrankfort.org.

critic’s pick 265: the staple singers, ‘freedom highway – complete’ and pop staples, ‘don’t lose this’

staples-freedom-highway-original“We’re not here to put on a show,” remarked Roebuck “Pops” Staples on the night of April 9, 1965 before a congregation at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church. The mission of this iconic gospel stylist was to hold a service. But with the Civil Rights Movement at a boil thanks to the three historic marches in Selma, Ala. just few weeks earlier, Staples also had a message for the world.

So tucked in alongside the spirituals Help Me Jesus and Precious Lord, Take My Hand were We Shall Overcome and a tune Staples penned in honor of the marches, Freedom Highway. A mix of pure gospel jubilation, sagely solace and the exquisite guitar tremolo that gave the Staple Singers the most distinctive crossover sound of any gospel group before or since, Freedom Highway became the title tune of a concert recording that, like the Selma marches, is being revisited on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.

Curiously, the reconstituted album, Freedom Highway – Complete, comes to us on the heels of Don’t Lose This, a collection of Staples’ final – but, until recently, unfinished – recordings that have been lovingly completed with some celebrity assistance.

Staples’ desire that Freedom Highway be viewed as church service is now fully realized. The 30-plus minutes of bonus material gives us everything, right down to the benediction and audio of a pass-the-plate offering that failed to raise even $100 to pay the Staple Singers on its first go-round. But there is also glorious music, like a brief Build on That Shore that highlights the effortlessly soulful harmonies of Staples and his children, including a 25 year old Mavis Staples, and a volcanic Tell Heaven that fully lets Mavis loose after some serious father-daughter testifying.

pops staples-don't lose thisMavis co-produced with her father the initial 1998 sessions for Don’t Lose This before the latter’s death in 2000. But it took the help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, a collaborator and producer on albums that helped reboot Mavis’ solo career, to bring Don’t Lose This to completion.

As with the vintage records of the Staple Singers, the gospel intensity simmers quietly around Pops’ whispery singing and the sinewy lines of his guitarwork. Both are highlighted beautifully on an unaccompanied version of Nobody’s Fault But Mine that gives this music a strong roots-blues feel. Then again, No News is Good News and Somebody Was Watching, which reunite the all three Staples sisters, rocks with the same freshness that stirs the swing behind the album-closing cover of Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody.

It makes for a fascinating epilogue to a steadfast gospel career that never strayed from the Freedom Highway.

bluegrass queen in new country

rhonda vincent.

rhonda vincent.

Rhonda Vincent already had a handle on what was to be her newest bluegrass recording when she got the call to sing at the Grand Ole Opry the night after George Jones died. “They asked everyone on the Opry that night to sing a George Jones song,” Vincent recalled. “So I picked When the Grass Grows Over Me. Never sang it before, but I love the sound of steel guitars. The song just went so well.

“Then it occurred to me to have six bluegrass songs and six country songs on my album. It was kind of a gamble, but these styles seem to correlate with audiences. The record wound up debuting at No. 1 album on the Billboard bluegrass charts and got a Grammy nomination. So I guess it was a good move, but you don’t know that when you’re going into a project like this.”

It’s hard to imagine Vincent being anything but confident as she constructed the 2014 bluegrass/country hybrid album Only Me. Sure, she has been billed regularly as the Queen of Bluegrass thanks to a string of recordings with her longrunning band The Rage and a sackful of Grammy nominations and International Bluegrass Music Association awards. But as an artist who cut her musical teeth in a touring family band that regularly performed traditional country tunes, she was well versed in the sound of old school Nashville. Maybe that’s why country greats like Alan Jackson, Keith Urban and Dolly Parton, among many others, have enlisted Vincent for their recordings.

“Bluegrass has always been the sister to country music,” said Vincent, who performs a free convocation concert with The Rage at Berea College on Thursday. “There are so many similarities. When I was growing up in a musical family, the music that we did was considered country music, even though it might have been acoustic. To me, it was really all the same. That’s what this CD is an illustration of. There may be steel guitar. There may be banjo. The music is still me.”

While the Opry tribute to Jones may have triggered inspiration for Only Me, Vincent had already retuned her sense of tradition on a 2012 collaborative record with country music veteran Gene Watson titled Your Money and My Good Looks.

“The project with Gene gave me confidence. I knew there was an audience for this music. It upsets me when people say country music is dying. Country music is not dying. There are still fans of the traditional country music style. There are fans of the more contemporary country music style. They’re just aren’t many people making recordings and songs that bring something new to the table.

“For most people, if they want to listen to traditional country music, they’ll go put on an old George Jones album or an old Merle Haggard record. I want these fans to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to put on the new Rhonda Vincent album and hear new recordings of the traditional country music style.”

What surprises most about Only Me is how regularly country and bluegrass mingle. In theory, the two styles are grouped separately on the album. But the title song, which boasts help from Willie Nelson, along with an update of the vintage country duet We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds (performed on Only Me with Daryle Singletary) wind up among the bluegrass songs while Jerry Irby’s Drivin’ Nails, which Vincent cut over a decade ago with the Rage as a bluegrass romp has been retooled and cast among the country material.

“The obvious thing would have been to have Daryle Singletary on the country side and have Willie on the country side, but I wanted to do something really different. And as for Willie, he fits in anywhere. He’s the universal artist. He could sing with anyone and still be himself. He doesn’t alter his voice at all but always seems to blend so well. I was so amazed and so excited to work with him.”

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage perform at 8 p.m. March 12 at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College. Admission is free. Call (859) 985-3359 or go to berea.edu/convocations.

in performance: natalie macmaster and donnell leahy

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

The promise by Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy to transport a Sunday afternoon audience at the EKU Center for the Arts to Cape Breton, the Canadian headquarters of Scottish inspired fiddle music, didn’t initially sound too fetching to some in attendance.

“Canada? Really? After this week?” remarked one patron seated nearby who was likely still in thaw mode following the 18 inches of snow that buried Richmond three days earlier. But much like the abundant sunshine and 50 degree temps that were defrosting the city yesterday, the mix of contemporary and traditional jigs, airs and reels offered by MacMaster and Leahy made Cape Breton seem especially inviting.

Presenting a program titled Visions from Cape Breton and Beyond, the husband and wife duo offered an understandably varied representation of the island’s fiddle traditions. MacMaster is a Cape Breton native and one of the great modern champions of her homeland’s dance hall inspired music. That was especially evident during vibrant string blasts supported only by piano. Leahy grew up in Ontario with a mother who was a Cape Breton step dancer. So, needless to say, everyone’s feet were flying yesterday, from the stars of the show to three of their six children (all of whom were also wickedly adept fiddlers for their young ages) to band members.

Of course, the program did mention the music would venture “beyond” Cape Breton. As such, several medleys were full of multi-stylistic charm. The show opening St. Nick’s, merrily shifted between Celtic flavored fun and Americanized swing while The Chase allowed in classical and even gypsy flavored accents.

But the most richly emotive tune was also the one truest to Cape Breton itself. During the centuries old Scottish air Hector the Hero, MacMaster downshifted to explore a melody of simple, sterling beauty. Fittingly, a simultaneous video backdrop depicted Cape Breton not as some coastal branch of the Great White North, but as a retreat of rolling green countryside that could have passed for Scotland itself.

The visuals, and the lovely music they accentuated, may have been intended as a beckoning from a far away land that suggested an even farther away land. Yesterday, though, it was hard to view Hector’s mix of green hills and plaintive fiddle lyricism as anything other than an invitation to spring.

the family that fiddles together

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

It’s a sobering state of affairs to suspect, just after marriage, that you and your beloved don’t really make beautiful music together after all.

Donnell Leahy, fiddler and leader of the celebrated Celtic family band from Ontario that bears his surname, thought as much in a very literal sense once he and the acclaimed Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster tied the knot in 2012.

“It was just after we got married,” Leahy said. “Someone taped a house party set we played. In listening back to it, we just didn’t sound very good together. Each of us were covering up the other’s styles. It was just this big jumble. But what we found was that if we write together or learn a tune together, things sorted themselves out.”

Just over 12 years and six children later, the first couple of Canadian Celtic music will release their first ever collaborative album this spring – an appealing mix of traditional, contemporary and original fiddle-saturated tunes titled simply One.

The title, of course, implies unity. But before exploring the project, or the tour that brings MacMaster and Leahy to the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond on Sunday, there was the matter of solidifying common ground between their differing fiddle styles. After that came an even mightier task – the logistics of plotting a recording and tour for two artists with separate careers and a joint household.

“We have very different styles,” Leahy said. “Natalie is a Cape Breton player. She grew up in Cape Breton listening to Cape Breton fiddlers. I grew up in Ontario without that kind of style around me. But I listened to my father play the fiddle. I listened to the radio. I listened to accordion music because I had a friend who was an Irish accordion player. Any Cape Breton music I heard came from my mother playing it on the piano.

“Natalie and I intended on recording together for awhile, but I had projects planned and she had projects planned. Then babies started to arrive. It just kept getting delayed and there was never any time. Basically, this project should have been done eight years ago. It got to the point where we said, ‘Okay, this is ridiculous. We have to record.’ So we put everything else aside and said, ‘This is what we’re doing’ and made it happen.”

Enter a totally unexpected guest to serve as the project’s producer – Bob Ezrin. Over the last four decades, the fellow Canadian has produced such high profile records as Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Kiss’ Destroyer, Lou Reed’s Berlin, Peter Gabriel’s self-titled solo debut and all of Alice Cooper’s career-defining albums from the early ‘70s.

That begs the question of how things went in the studio when a veteran rock producer takes on a Celtic fiddle album.

 

“Bob called us up,” Leahy said. “He heard that we were making a record and said he would like to be involved, so we met. He brought such a great attitude and, of course, all that experience. But he also brought great ears. He brought honesty and a great sense of arranging.”

Then there is the family situation. Who tends to the children back home when mom and dad are fiddling around on tour? Simple. No one is because the kids are part of the road crew.

“Our duties at home are on the road,” Leahy said. “We bring all the children with us, which is really the only way we could do this. The kids love it. They love the music and they love the excitement of being on tour with swimming pools and tour buses and new cities.

“We home school our children, as well, which is necessary for our lifestyle. But we get the schoolwork done quickly so the day is left for us to see museums and check the hockey scores.”

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy perform at 3 p.m. March 8 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets: $23-$36. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to ekucenter.com.

critic’s pick 264: robert earl keen, ‘happy prisoner – the bluegrass sessions; steve earle and the dukes, ‘terraplane’

robt earl keenIn the liner notes to their two newest recordings, Texas-bred troubadours Robert Earl Keen and Steve Earle outline the appeal of two linked yet different musical turfs that remove them from their Lone Star roots.

For Keen’s Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, the draw was a mix of urgency and intimacy. “I like to imagine sitting on the floor watching the guitar player curled around his instrument, strumming for his life,” he writes.

The resulting music on Happy Prisoner is a compromise of sorts. Beefing up his veteran band with some primo progressive string music pals (vocalist/songsmith Peter Rowan, banjoist Danny Barnes, fiddler Sara Watkins) to take on a repertoire that constitutes a bluegrass sampler (Old Home Place, East Virginia Blues, Footprints in the Snow), Keen summons a back porch feel as warm and whimsical as his own music.

But Keen’s ace-in-the-hole trait, however, has long been an ability to take to songs of desolation and loss as readily as his more bemusing tunes. As such, he offers powerful yet understated deliveries of outlaw ballads both classic (the immortal Long Black Veil) and contemporary (the Del McCoury by-way-of-Richard Thompson hit 52 Vincent Black Lightning). The lighter fraternal cast of T for Texas with longtime Lone Star running buddy Lyle Lovett is an extra fun bonus.

steve earleEarle has distanced himself from his home state – at least, geographically (he currently resides in New York) – but not its musical reach, as shown by the seasoned drawl of his singing and the often specific inspirations he has embraced (typlified by Townes, his Grammy winning tribute album to Texas songwriting great Townes Van Zandt).

Terraplane adjusts that vision somewhat and scoots it over into blues territory, wherever that may be. “They run so deep and dark and close to the bone that folks walk around every day with the blues as though it were perfectly natural for a human being to go on living with a broken heart,” Earle writes in the Terraplane notes.

That translates neatly into the album’s 10 original songs, which summon senses of restlessness, loss, lust and eerie independence. The latter fuels Acquainted with the Wind, a dark rambler’s affirmation set to a jagged electric romp colored by the guitar and fiddle accents of the Mastersons (the husband and wife duo of Chris Masterson and fiddler Eleanor Whitmore) and the rustic rhythms Earle summons on mandolin.

Equally evocative are Baby’s Just as Mean as Me (a congenial lovers’ spat performed as a rag-flavored duet with Whitmore), The Usual Time (an Elmore James-meets-Carl Perkins style saga of troubled desire) and especially Better Off Alone (a romantic postscript beset by loss and magnified by an absolutely evil guitar groove).

All offer shades of blue enhanced by a master storyteller’s uncompromising candor.

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