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.
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.