Jenny Ritter Band/Sarah Hayes @ Celtic Connections. Mitchell Theatre 22/1/16

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It’s somewhat telling of the immense amount of talent that descends on Glasgow for Celtic Connections that tonight’s show featured a full account of a 40 minute thematic song cycle from a “pop star” as the support feature. Sarah Hayes, best known for her work with indie band Admiral Fallow, is a classically trained musician and well regarded in folk circles. Her piece, Woven, was originally commissioned for Celtic Connections’ New Voices series in 2014 with Hayes releasing a CD of the work in late 2015, tonight essentially it’s its second debut if you will. With Hayes on keyboard and flute accompanied by fiddle, accordion, guitar, double bass, drummer and percussionist, she explained to the audience that they would perform the piece without a break, the way she intended it to be heard.

What followed was an intriguing, at times hypnotic and always interesting blend of songs and airs cloaked in tradition, some old, some new, interwoven with instrumental passages and a recurring motif most often played by Holmes on keys and then echoed by one of other of the instrumentalists. Unfamiliar with the piece it was easy enough to sit back and luxuriate in the musicianship, enjoy Hayes’ voice as she harked into the traditional songbook and roll with the flow and eddies as the piece lurched from accordion led melodies to flute interludes and some powerful percussive moments. It was a bold move, at times recalling those tense moments at a classical concert when the audience is unsure whether to applaud and indeed some audience members did suffer premature applaudication as the piece moved from one movement to the next. Nevertheless, there was no sense that this was a wish for the piece to end, merely a lack of bearings within the overall scheme. Having had a chance since to listen to the album and read about Hayes’ theme, weaving family, history, her Northumbrian roots and the weaving industry into one, we would contend that this is a classic piece, one that will grow in stature and going by the number of discs flying from the merch table after the show that growth starts from now.

After a short break headliner Jenny Ritter and her band had it all to do, a sense acknowledged by Ritter (who had watched the Hayes set from the front stalls) saying that she thought she should be the support act. False modesty however as evinced by the sheer delights she and her compadres unleashed for the next hour or so. With a new disc under her belt, the magnificent Raised By Wolves, simultaneously glacial, chunky, folk and country, an album that is both confessional and steeped in the wilderness of British Columbia, she proved up to the task. With fellow Vancouverians Adam Iredale-Gray and Ryan Boeur on fiddle and guitar (both from Fish & Bird) and New Yorker Nate Sabat on double bass Ritter handled banjo and guitar as she took us on a tour of the album.

From the opening Museum Song it was clear that Ritter is a fine songsmith, the words poetic, her voice light as her banjo rippled through the melody. Effervescent throughout the show Ritter spoke briefly about her upbringing in a log cabin before singing the excellent Wolf Wife, a song she described as being about seeing the world through different eyes. It’s a song that takes the listener into Ritter’s world of wonder where “there are things I do in dreams I would never do in life.” Perfectly borne aloft by Iredale-Gray’s pizzicato fiddle playing and Bouer’s tender electric guitar caresses it flowed sweetly by. Ritter remained in her inner hinterland for You Are Also Them, a more down home fiddle led number where she sang, “If I am a light in the dark and I am a road through the hills…I also know how to kill,” bowed double bass adding to the woody sound here.

Reminiscent at times of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell in her invocation of nature Ritter was more upbeat on the “spaghetti western” twang of Turn Your Thoughts and on a duet with Iredale-Gray, an old song from their days in The Gruffs, Sharing Smokes. She revisited her first album, Bright Mainland, for a song written about her early days in Vancouver, Five Nights, the words evocative of the loneliness one can feel despite being surrounded by people but the highlights of the night were two powerful performances of the closing songs on Raised By Wolves. Remember The Life crept along with a crepuscular feel, Ritter’s voice carried to the night stars as Bouer’s guitar added some sinister sparks. Lost and Found was even better, an epic opening guitar sweep leading into this elegiac number, Ritter sounding forlorn yet hopeful as she sang, “I’m slowly sifting through some old debris and I’m throwing out what’s troubling me.” As on the album the song ended with the vivid portrait of an old piano laid to rest, notes turned into firewood even as the performance was chilling in its delivery.

Ritter ended with a fine chunky folk rock delivery of Neil Young’s Heart Of Gold and returned to lead the audience on We Must Sing, her tribute to the power of song. All in all a great performance.

Mike + Ruthy Band/The Karrnnel Sawitsky Trio @ Celtic Connections. Old Fruitmarket 17/1/2016

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Bright As You Can, last year’s debut release from The Mike + Ruthy Band was described by Blabber’n’Smoke as a “full blown folk rock album,” somewhat akin to the sound of Fairport Convention in their mid seventies incarnation with Jerry Donahue on guitar. Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar certainly have a folky past with Pete Seeger being one of their champions but with a rock solid rhythm section (and horns on occasion), they certainly rocked on the album. Tonight’s Celtic Connection show was their first and sole appearance in the UK for the time being and it’s fair to say that they rocked the house.

Fiddle, acoustic guitar and banjos may have been front and centre but the powerful bass and drums (from Jacob Silver and Konrad Meissner respectively) was the bedrock here allowing Ungar in particular to showcase her excellent voice on a thrilling and seductive Golden Eye, described by Ungar as “country disco” and the first time I’ve ever considered banjo playing as “sexy,” Ungar wielding it low slung on her hip like an Appalachian rock star. Adding some bite and some country soothing was pedal steel player Rob Stein whose licks were somewhat superb removing the need for any Telecaster twang. An unexpected bonus was the scratch horn section called upon to replicate the brass boom of the album on several songs, a job they handled well especially as it turned out they were from local band The Amphetameanies and had scant rehearsal time with the  Catskill New Yorkers. Their contribution to the soulful Rock On Little Jane was colossal, sheets of sound surrounding Ungar’s vocals which were impressive in their own right while the parps on Golden Eye were just perfect. Not to be outshone Merenda sang on a blistering take of What Are We Waiting For, a country rock soul bonanza.

Chasing Gold, sung by Mike, was a fine slice of chunky country rock, Ruthy’s amplified fiddle sawing through the beat and the song that most reminded one of Fairport Convention although their rendition of The Ghost Of Richard Manuel ran it a close second, the fiddle and pedal steel weaving wonderfully. There were rootsier moments, a sing-along on Simple and Sober and a fine lilting rendition of Ashoken Farewell (written by Ungar’s father for Ken Burns’ Civil War series and which she said paid her way through college). They covered Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning with some gusto and as an encore invited the horns and the support act back on stage for some infectious Louisiana laced gumbo. An excellent show.

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Karrnnel Sawitsky is one half of the duo Fiddle & Banjo who released the excellent Tunes From The North Songs From The South album last year. He was the fiddle; banjo was Daniel Koulak who was also present tonight along with guitarist and fiddler Trent Freeman. The ebullient Sawitsky was a fine host taking time to introduce the songs and tunes which flowed freely from their fingertips.

Again there were Celtic Connections galore, Koulak living close to Selkirk in Manitoba. Jigs and reels and old time waltzes were the order of the day here including two portions of a “rodent suite” dedicated to the woodchuck and the groundhog from the North/South album. Again from the album The Old French Set had Sawitsky and Freeman adding percussive footstamping with the audience clapping along, Rubin and Sally In The Garden were hauntingly delivered and Freeman offered one of his tunes dedicated to his newborn niece. At times sounding like ghosts from the past, at others the best barn dance band you could want the trio were a powerful reminder of musical tradition and great entertainment.

Songs of Separation. Navigator Records

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Aside from being an excellent platform for a multitude of musicians to descend on Glasgow in the dark winter nights Celtic Connections has a reputation for commissioning or being a focal point for unique events; collaborations, celebrations, tributes, meetings of minds and songs. This year has seen the “Celtic” appropriation of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira and tribute is paid to the late Bert Jansch. The plight of Britain’s lost children is commemorated with The Ballads of Child Migration concert and Roaming Roots continues its multifaceted memories of songwriters and troubadours.

Today we’re paying attention to an album released in tandem with the Scottish premier of its live setting on Sunday 24th January at The Mitchell Theatre. Songs of Separation is a magnificent collaborative effort from ten of the UK’s leading female folk artists who gathered together on the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides last year. Separation was the theme and the stroke of genius was to offer it to a female cast as throughout history it has been women who have carried the burden of carrying on as children and men folk have left them, off to war, to sea, seeking fortune or fame or into the grave. The memories carved into song by the womenfolk who stoically carry on. The original idea was conceived by Jenny Hill as the turbulent waters of the Scottish Independence Referendum washed over the land. A travelling musician, she saw the differing views offered north to south, the idea of separation welcomed or decried hence her wish to investigate the concept.

The ten (Eliza Carthy, Karine Polwart, Mary Macmaster, Rowan Rheingans, Hazel Askew, Hannah James, Kate Young, Hannah Read, Jenn Butterworth and Jen Hill) have certainly risen to the occasion. The 12 songs here, traditional and new, sung in English or Gaelic, don’t fly any political flag and indeed, concept put aside, the album is, at base, a gorgeous collection of traditional sounding folk songs that is somewhat sublime. From the opening croak of the titular endangered bird on Echo Mocks The Corncrake (with Polwart taking the vocal here) to the closing birdsong on Road Less Travelled there’s a sense that the album was conceived in communion with nature. Indeed several of the pieces are “field recordings,” the ensemble gathering in Eigg’s Cathedral Cave for acapella renditions of Sad The Climbing and the Unst Boat Song, both haunting. Gathering songs and stories from Scotland and Yorkshire along with songs inspired by Danish and American poetry they relive the legend of the Pictish “big women of Eigg” on Soil and Soul, tell the tale of a mermaid unable to return to her land family on Sea King and recall a clan massacre on Sad The Climbing. London Lights sees Hazel Askew bemoaning the fate of single mothers with an almost music hall arrangement that recalls the warning songs of Victorian times, the sentimentality tempered by the sheer brilliance of the voices and arrangement. Eliza Carthy’s Cleaning The Stones visits similar territory musically while its lyrics are opaque and reminiscent of vintage Richard Thompson. Over The Border delves into traditional songs (including Flowers of The Forest) with Polwart pointing out the contemporary issue of refugees hindered here and there by borders that fail to see their desperate need.

It’s a wonderful album, soaked in history and tradition but bang up to date as we repeat the mistakes of the past. The singers and players excel themselves and it’s almost impossible to have a casual listen as the songs (along with a fine website) demand further investigation.

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Cam Penner & Jon Wood with Rayna Gellart @ Celtic Connections Saturday 16th January 2016

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Cam Penner and his sonic wizard sidekick Jon Wood transformed the Tron theatre  into a magical space for an evening, Wood setting up a constant thrum and throb with his array of tape loops and sound effects. Akin to the background ambience found in nature, birdsong, wind rustles, trees creaking, the eternal hum of Mother Nature, the effects underpinned the music played and framed the pair’s perambulations across the stage as they chose their  instruments with Penner offering lengthy, wise and humorous introductions to several of the songs.

For music carved in a home built wood shed there’s a great deal of technical wizardry involved but at its heart is Penner’s voice which can change from a tender whisper to a threatening holler and Wood’s lap steel and jagged electric guitar playing. Rudimentary percussion is banged and kicked, Penner plucks a tiny guitar and the loops of sound loop on. The opening song, I’m Calling Out (from the new Sex & Politics album), evoked nothing less than the sweet soft country sound of Neil Young back in the days before it segued into the frenzied alarum of I Believe, Penner summoning ghosts of secular and sacred music hollers, Wood ripping notes from his guitar. Continuing with the new album Broke Down had Penner in a fragile state, his voice a croaked plea while Wood sprinkled the song with slight burbles of sound, almost like faint raindrops. Again the pair then shook up the atmosphere with anther howl of a song, the chain gang like wail of Hey You (Lovers of Music).

Four songs in before Penner addressed the audience who were by now desperate for a breather after this impressive opening. His beguiling tales of dick shaped missiles, his love for RL Burnside and Public Enemy and how he came to be featured on the BBC series Stonemouth punctuated the remainder of the set, his beaming grin and obvious joy at being on stage endearing him to the audience. A brace of songs from To Build A Fire were delights, House of Liars the aforementioned song from the telly and No Consequence a spooky wail dredged from the swamp. A rousing Bring Forth The Healing had the emotional heft and strength of ancient spirituals, Penner showing why some folk have described his music as shamanistic.

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Support act, Rayna Gellert was a delight. Playing fiddle and guitar along with her partner Jeff Keith on guitar she epitomised the connection between Celtic music and the new world as she spoke of the Scottish settlers in North Carolina. Playing her own tunes and songs from Uncle Dave Macon and Washington Phillips she reminded one of John Hartford at times, her fiddle jigs and waltzes soaked in old time charm while her rendition of Black Eyed Susie, a favourite from her days in Uncle Earl (and arranged by her father Dan Gellert) was rousing. Singing more these days Gellert was joined on stage for several numbers by Scots singer Siobhan Miller who added some excellent harmonies to Phillips’ Take Your Burden To The Lord and a striking In The Ocean from her album Old Light.

Gretchen Peters. The Essential Gretchen Peters. Proper Records

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Gretchen Peters‘ career has been an interesting intersection of her song writing skills and her own performances. Initially she was successful as a writer, her songs providing hits and awards for country stars such as George Strait, Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless. As a performer she found the going tougher, her early albums struggling to get recognition. Gritting her teeth she ploughed on and in part due to her frequent visits to these shores she gained momentum here, Bob Harris an early champion, and then in the States, eventually being inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. Her last album Blackbirds (reviewed here) is the pinnacle of her career so far, lauded far and wide. Now, on the eve of yet another UK tour she releases this handpicked two-disc overview of her work so far, not a “best of” but an intriguing collection of familiar songs, rarities and demos.

Disc one contains a selection of songs from her albums going back to 1996’s The Secret Of Life. It opens with the tremendous murder ballad Blackbirds, a bold move but the twelve songs that follow aren’t shadowed by it, indeed they cast light on the excellence of her work throughout her career along with her versatility. There is one previously unheard song here, a collaboration with Bryan Adams on When You Love Someone, an achingly tender duet in classic boy/girl country style, pedal steel weeping away. Elsewhere there’s no doubting the majesty of songs like Hello Cruel World and Sunday Morning (Up And Down My Street), the simple truth of If Heaven and the hypnotic pull of The Matador.

A fine selection but for any avid Peters’ fan the lure here is the second disc, the demos and live songs, many of which are unveiled for the first time. Here one can hear her own versions of The Chill Of An Early Fall (a hit for George Strait) and Independence Day (Martina McBride) while an early recording of Blackbirds with vocals shared by the co-writer, Ben Glover, is stunning. There’s a live recording of The Stone’s Wild Horses from the Wine Women and Song set up (Peters, Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg) with heavenly harmonies while Peters also covers John Lennon’s Love (from his Plastic Ono Band album) and sings a dreamlike When You Wish Upon A Star, originally recorded for a charity album some years ago. Best of all is the stark The Cruel Mother, a song that was included as a bonus track on some versions of Blackbirds. It’s a song soaked in tradition, Celtic and Americana, lilting and mournful and just wonderful.

Ms. Peters will be appearing at Celtic Connections on the 30th and 31st January as part of an extensive UK tour. Dates here

Have Moicy 2 The Hoodoo Bash Red Newt Records

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The 1975 album Have Moicy! was the summit of what Greil Marcus has called The Old, Weird America, a term he coined to describe Dylan’s basement tapes which he saw as a continuation of the spirit of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. What Marcus missed was the true keepers of the spirit of Smith’s groundbreaking collection, the musical misfits, smokers and tokers who constituted the extended Holy Modal Rounders family and who were responsible for the delights contained in Have Moicy! After surviving the sixties (and leaving behind him a slew of discs that, among other things, added the word psychedelic to the folk lexicon, graced the soundtrack to Easy Rider and funked up The Fugs) Peter Stampfel regrouped the Rounders without Steve Weber and with Michael Hurley and Jeffrey Fredericks and his Clamtones recorded what critic Robert Christgau called “the greatest folk album of the rock era.” While in 1975 Neil Young was heading for the ditch, Stampfel and his allies were manning a gleeful and zany outpost armed with fiddles and guitars taking aim at the absurdities of the day. Songs about hamburgers, alimentary canals and robbing banks delivered with zest, rock’n’roll, doo wop and folk reimagined in their imaginary world.

Have Moicy! ended with the song Hoodoo Bash, a saw fiddle fuelled and surreal gathering of the tribes all bringing Thunderbird wine and a pound of hash. Stampfel sings, “Lovers or strangers we’ll all go through changes when we get the good old spirit down at the hoodoo bash.” Fittingly enough The Hoodoo Bash is the given title for this long waited follow up of sorts to the 1975 masterpiece. The genesis of the album is too long to be repeated here but Stampfel had been considering some sort of sequel for some time. With original collaborators Jeffrey Frederick and Paul Presti deceased and Michael Hurley eventually declining an invite Stampfel still had Robin Remailly and Dave Reisch from the original disc and in a reflection of the earlier sessions managed to marry New York and Oregon freakiness with his inspired invite to Baby Gramps and Jeffrey Lewis to join in, the stage then set for this second summit meeting.

It’s important to state that this is not an attempt to remake the earlier album. While that may have been Stampfel’s original vision, with Hurley, Frederick and Presti out of the equation it couldn’t be. Instead it has the same irreverent yet respectful take on old time American music going back to minstrel shows and up to early rock’n’roll. Recorded without overdubs and no chance to listen to the tapes (other than for producer Matt Sohn) it’s an unholy mess but wonderfully so. Instruments wheeze and splutter, plink and plonk with the rhythm wavering and voices appearing from nowhere on the choruses. The ensemble are completed by Kristin Andreassen, Zoe Stampfel and The Dustbusters and it’s a song by a member of The Dustbusters, Rich Man Poor Man that best displays the wonky groove they found and worked on while the instrumental Banjolina shows that there was indeed a lot of work put into rehearsals with the ensemble playing here incredibly tight. Scattered throughout the album, Stampfel’s goofiness, Lewis’ witticisms and Gramps’ seadog saltiness are all aired while all three Dustbusters contribute songs that sound as if they were written a century ago.

Stampfel opens the album with his reboot of Del Shannon’s Searchin’ complete with spooky hoodoo chorus voices while New Fiddler’s Dram is classic Stampfel weirdness adapting the old chestnut into a tale of, as he puts it, “a patricidal mother fucking skull fucking sociopath.” It works a treat as does Eat That Roadkill, originally a minstrel song called Carve Dat Possum, it has a similar macabre pull as those old racist cartoons that depicted black folk as simple folk happy just to sing.

Lewis in the main takes Stampfel tunes as a start point, he channels the sixties in Nonsense, a wonderful ditty that does recall the psychedelic sweetness of Random Canyon, Intelligent Design could have sat easily on a Fugs album and It’s No Good is a skeletal slice of beat freak folk, a Horse Badorties for our times. As for Baby Gramps, his songs are shanties of the utmost saltiness, his voice growling and burbling in fine fashion on Nailer’s Consumption and Crossbone Scully. While I’ve kind of separated the contributions here, throughout the album there’s a fine degree of cross fertilisation, lead vocals swapped and shared, a true collective effort.

A wonderful collection of songs that see saw away with Stampfel’s love for (and his long standing subversion of) old time music proudly at the helm, The Hoodoo Bash is an essential listen for anyone beguiled by the idea of old, weird Americana.

The album is available here

Celtic Connections

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It’s that time of year again when the good folk of Glasgow (and elsewhere) brave the cold for the warm sup of Celtic Connections, better than chicken soup for the soul in these dark January nights.

There’s the usual array of star names. This year Lucinda Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Rickie Lee Jones, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson are all on board while the likes of Rhiannon Gidding, John Grant and Patti Griffin should be familiar to readers. Over the next few posts Blabber’n’Smoke will be highlighting some acts we’ve reviewed who are appearing, perhaps less stellar in the billing but guaranteed to appeal.

Cam Penner Tron Theatre. Saturday 16th January

Penner (along with his musical wizard Jon Wood) brings his sparse, cold songs, steeped in nature and history to The Tron. His last album, To Build A Fire was universally lauded and two of its songs were used by the BBC for their series Stonemouth. He’s got a new album, Sex and Politics out this month so we can expect some of that to be aired. We reviewed his last Glasgow show  here

The Mike and Ruthy Band/ Sawitsky & Koulack Old Fruitmarket Sunday 17th January

Looking forward to this one. Debut  Celtic Connections performances for both acts with Mike and Ruthy bringing a full band including a horn section over for what should be a rollickingly good show. We  noted that they have a solid propulsive folk rock sound on their album, Bright As You Can .Meanwhile Sawitsky & Koulack were responsible for the haunting old time guile of Fiddle & Banjo

 

We’ll look at some more of the hidden gems of Celtic Connections soon and see you if you’re at any of these shows.