30 YEARS TOGETHER ... STRUNG, DRAWN AND QUARTERED
I went to a remarkable concert last week—remarkable for a number of reasons. Hard though it is to believe, Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain are currently on a UK tour celebrating thirty years of playing together as a duo. Quite an accomplishment-- as Aly and Phil said, their partnership has lasted longer than any of their marriages.
Aly is 70 now, and Phil is sixty-something, but their playing is as tight and exciting as it has ever been. They both can still play a reel at lightning speed, or a slow air that’s expressive and delicate. Best of all, it’s clear that they still love the music, love playing it, and love playing it with each other.
Where’s the Folk?
Where’s the Folk? I turned 65 last week. Not a big deal, really, but it does seem to have triggered a bit of semi-nostalgic reflection. The media would have us believe that the definitive event for my age group was the 1967 “Summer of Love” when we all took virtual trips to San Francisco, put flowers in our hair, and danced to the sounds of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
Can it be true? No more Lake Wobegon? No Powder Milk Biscuits? Apparently so, as it’s now been made official; Garrison Keillor will be leaving shortly to head (one presumes) over the fictional horizon and back to the town where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.
Celtic Connections [in Glasgow] has come and gone for another year. As is our usual habit, we opted to attend mostly concerts that were one-of-a-kind rather than the ones featuring performers who you can hear at other times of the year. Experience has shown that by doing this we almost always come away with some amazing memories that can never be repeated, and I have to say that this year may have been the best ever. I’ll just mention a few highlights…
I’m always a bit skeptical when a group of top, well-known artists get together for a one-off gig. Seems like most of the time you find that the sum of the parts is considerably less wonderful than the individuals would have been on their own.
I HAD NOTHING TO SAY!
Can you believe it? I was amazed to note that this column marks the start of my twelfth year writing for FolkWorks. Back when I started it was still a physical, printed broadsheet that was available at venues, cafes and music shops all over the Los Angeles area. A few weeks after the column was submitted, I would get a call from the publishers, drive to their house, pick up a trunk full of bundled papers and distribute them along a route in the Burbank area.
THE TANNIES HEAD TO VENTURA
Save the date! It seems like I’m always writing in this column about great Scottish live gigs that I wish you could hear. Well, for once I can tell you in advance about something well worth hearing that’s coming soon to southern California.
Every October, fans and aficionados of Scottish culture gather in Ventura for a two day festival of Highland games, piping, dancing and music. It’s called the Seaside Highland Games
Protesting a Protest Song… Here in the UK and the rest of Europe, November 11 is designated as Remembrance Day, to observe the end of World War I. Poppies are worn and displayed everywhere, much like the poppies we wear in America on Memorial Day in May. This year, Remembrance Day has taken on a special significance because it is the 100th anniversary of the armistice, and one of the tributes was the designation by the British Legion of a special remembrance song. The song that was chosen was Eric Bogle’s No Man’s Land (aka Green Fields of France, aka Willie McBride).
Good idea, no? Yes, but the execution was completely fumbled. First, the privilege of making the ‘official’ recording was given to Joss Stone, accompanied by Jeff Beck. The result was a pop version with an accompanying video of a young couple having a picnic. So, why didn’t they just use Eric Bogle’s original recording? Who knows, but my guess is they felt they needed a well-known ‘name’ to sell the song.
CONFLICT AND LEGACIES
OK, I’m not sure this is actually news… it seems that Neil Young and David Crosby have had a serious disagreement, and as a result Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young will never perform together again. That’s according to Young. Crosby, though, says the statement is a bit “like saying there are mountains in Tibet,” and that the whole thing will blow over. There’s no mention of the nature of the blowup, but Crosby did take the opportunity to mention that he knew “at least 20” guitar players who are better than Young.
MUSIC FOR A CAUSE, OR A CAUSE FOR MUSIC?
Flashback! As I’m writing this, Scotland is in its final weeks of political frenzy leading up to an important referendum vote on September 14. It will be one of the most significant votes taken in any European country in decades… a chance to decide whether we will remain in the United Kingdom or become a separate country on our own, no longer tied to England, Wales and Northern Ireland except as neighbors on the same group of islands.
This is a true grassroots political event, the likes of which I haven’t witnessed since the sixties. And it’s reassuring to note that folk and trad musicians are involved in much the same way they were in those turbulent times.
SINGING BACKUP OR SWINGING BANJOS
When I was a kid, most of my friends wanted to be things like nurses and firemen when they grew up. My career goal was a bit different—I wanted to be a backup singer. You know… a Vandella, or a Pip, or maybe one of those anonymous women who appeared on TV helping Perry Como or Dean Martin to sound good. (OK, I also desperately wanted to be the third Everly Brother, but there was that nagging problem of gender).
It seemed like the perfect career choice. It involved singing (mandatory), you got to record, go on tour, meet cool people, and get paid. But you didn’t have to put up with the downside of fame, or worry about whether your next album would sell.
I never did achieve that career goal, although I came close a few times. But I have continued to admire the singers who make their living doing what I now know is a challenging and sometimes stressful job.
HAVE YOU SEEN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS YET?
Inside Llewyn Davis yet? I really enjoyed it, and I felt it was reasonably similar to my own recollections of the folk scene in the 1960s. It’s set in Greenwich Village at a time when folk music was struggling to define itself and find its audience. We called it the “folk revival,” but in retrospect it was more than that—the music wasn’t so much revived as it was dusted off and given a fresh coat of paint.
Sounds simple, but it wasn’t. Not everyone thought the changes were necessary, or even good. Those days gave us the Kingston Trio, the Clancy Brothers, and “folk” recordings with full orchestras and backing singers. So-called folk started to be heard on mainstream AM radio stations. And for the first time, suburban kids living in the folk-free zone of middle America became aware of something out there that demanded more attention. I was one of them, and more importantly so was a weird Jewish kid up in Hibbing, Minnesota.
For those who had been immersed in folk music all along, it was an uneasy time. They knew the music and the culture had always been there—and that there was no need for either to be “revived.” Most of them had never considered becoming household names who occasionally appeared on network variety shows, but they saw their audience changing and their more opportunistic peers cashing in and finding a certain sort of success.
The Young Lady with Strong Sweet Voice
In my last column, I mentioned that the Battlefield Band’s latest album, Room Enough for All, had been named album of the year at the 2013 Scottish Traditional Music Awards. The awards this year were, I think, interesting in the way that they reflected the shifting and merging of the old and the new. The composer of the year award went to Donald Shaw, founding member and keyboard player of Capercaillie and the driving force behind the annual Celtic Connections festival. Though certainly a member of the “old guard” of modern Scottish music, he is also known as one of its most innovative and creative players.
The Scots Singer of the Year award usually goes to someone who fits the standard image of a tradition-bearer; someone of fairly advanced years who has a long history of learning, singing and sharing the old bothy ballads and travelers’ songs. Not so this year… the award was given to Siobhan Miller, a young lady whose strong, sweet voice is among the newest in the genre. Siobhan could easily have taken the folk singer-songwriter path, but instead she’s dedicated herself to learning and preserving the old songs.
Folk music is always going to evolve. If it didn’t, then it would cease to be the peoples’ music as the people left it behind. I find it reassuring to see the young and the older musicians joining forces both to preserve the past and shepherd the future.
If you’d like the results of the remaining Scots Trad Award categories, they are online.
Remembering Nell… those of you who have been around the Celtic music scene in Southern California for a decade or three may recognize the name of Nell Hannah. Somewhere around 25-ish years ago Nell left her home in Scotland to visit her son John, a regular on the trad music scene in the Santa Barbara area. She found herself immersed in the preparations for an impromptu benefit concert featuring Scottish expats like Donnie “Large” Macdonald and Yvonne McLeod along with son John Hannah. As happens, one of the planning sessions turned into a music session, where Nell was encouraged to sing – which was when everyone realized that she had quite a talent.
On returning to her home in Scotland, Nell decided to check out some of the local folk clubs and sessions. To make a long story short (something that Nell never did), she entered a trad singing contest, became an instant hit, and recorded her first album not long before her 70th birthday. In the ensuing years she recorded three more CDs, performed duets with some of Scotland's best known trad singers, and became fast friends with the respected poet/songwriter Jim Douglas, who created album artwork for her.
DON’T FENCE ME IN
One of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival has been a performance of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus by a troupe from the Beijing Peoples Art Theatre from China. It’s the first time this company has attempted Shakespeare, and the reviews have been filled with high praise. Apparently, this is just one of many examples the Chinese government’s increasing interest in supporting the arts. And within China itself, there is a renewed interest in the traditional arts.
As I am writing this (August, 2013), a month-long festival of traditional theatre arts is taking place in Beijing. Major companies including the National Theatre of China are performing in venues across the city, offering both traditional and modern plays and operas.
Opening the festival is The Grand Mansion Gate, which tells the story of the Bai family over the course of 80 years ending in 1949 with the formation of the “new” China. Musicals, opera and dance were also presented throughout the month. "We will present three productions at the festival. All of them feature Chinese culture and traditions," said Li Xiaoxiang, Art Director of China Opera and Dance Drama Theater.
Given the size of the Chinese population in California, let’s hope we might see some of these productions being performed on local stages some day.
HAPPY, COCKY, BELLIGERENTLY RESOURCELESS
An aptly named festival… This year’s annual Glenfarg Folk Feast has just ended, and it was indeed a Feast. I love this festival. It’s small, taking up only the space available in and around the Glenfarg Hotel, a 16-room treasure on the main (and almost only) street in the village. Mornings are devoted to workshops; this year we had Songwriting, Fiddle, and Traditional Singing. After the workshops there’s a planned singaround session in one of the hotel pubs, with other informal sessions breaking out both indoors and out. Saturday afternoon brings the songwriting contest, which is always given a theme. This year’s theme was “We’re All In This Together,” which provided a platform for a plethora of satirical lyrics.
The Grammy have come and gone, with some interesting results in the categories that are generally of interest to FolkWorks readers. Here’s a short summary (a link to the full list appears on FolkWorks main page):
Best Regional Mexican Music Album: Pecados y Milagros, Lila Downs
(congratulations to LA’s own Mariachi Divas, who were also nominated)
Best Americana Album: Slipstream, Bonnie Raitt
Best Bluegrass Album: Nobody Knows You, Steep Canyon Raiders
Best Folk Album: The Goat Rodeo Sessions, Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Myer, & Chris Thile
Best World Music Album: The Living Room Sessions, Part 1, Ravi Shankar
And a nice surprise in an unexpected category: Society’s Child: My Autobiography, Janis Ian
Fare Thee Well 2012
The other side of the censorship coin… In the last issue, I wrote about the heavy-handed control that’s currently being imposed on music and musicians by the Islamic government of Mali. What’s happening there is clearly an attempt to suppress a culture through the banning of its art. But what happens when a government bans certain forms of music in a self-described attempt to preserve its cultural and musical legacy? Does the intent justify the act?
Orlando Vistel Columbié, of the Cuban Music Institute, has announced a crackdown on reggaeton and other musical styles which he says pose a threat to the country’s musical heritage and culture. Punishments for performing or programming the banned styles will range from fines to being excluded from the official list of musicians who are approved for gigs.
What the Bleepin’ Beep?
Hands—er, songs across the water…I sometimes find it difficult to keep a balance in this column between items of interest to readers in southern California and news that relates to Scotland, where I make my home. But that won’t be a problem this time. I’ve spent the past five days in Dunoon, just across the water from Glasgow, at the annual Royal National Mod.
The Mod is a gathering and a series of competitions for speakers of Scottish Gaelic, the first language of the Highland areas. Children and adults, fluent speakers and learners are all welcome, and all have opportunities to participate in contests for singing, reciting poems and stories, playing instruments, and even writing.
For the second time in the past 5 years, a group of Americans from California participated in the Mod under the guidance of singer-songwriter Donnie Macdonald. A native of the Scottish island of Lewis, Donnie has lived in the Sacramento area for many years and performs along with his Irish bandmate, James Keir, as the duo Men of Worth. With him were eight Californians, all of whom are involved at various levels in learning both Gaelic and music, who were split into two groups for the Folk Band competition.
The Banjoist Is Assured of a Hearty Welcome
Festivals, past...I’m writing this on a cool August Sunday morning, the day after the spectacle that is the World Pipe Band Championships. Held every August on Glasgow Green, this is the event that determines who will be named the best pipe band on the globe.
For those unfamiliar with the genre, pipe bands are separated into four numbered grades, with Grade 4 being the least experienced and Grade 1 the top bands in the world. (For those who are familiar, yes, I know that’s a very simple explanation). Bands compete only against others in their grade, and can be progressed upward through the grades as they achieve certain levels of skill and success in competitions.
I have a new musical obsession. In June I went to a small town in the southeast of France with three other musicians from our wee corner of Scotland. It’s a long story… suffice to say that there are a bunch of lovely people in France who love everything Scottish and wanted to include us and our music in their local Festival of Europe.
We had a fantastic time playing music and getting to know our hosts. On the Saturday of the festival, every café and pub in the village was decked out to represent a different European country. But as you know, musicians rarely acknowledge boundaries and we soon found ourselves in the ‘Portugal’ pub, playing music with a Portuguese accordionist, a French accordionist, a group of French singers, and our Scottish selves. The session went on for hours, and in the process I managed to fall in love with French accordion and songs.
Reflections on the Age of Download
I was browsing through the results of the Grammy awards when I came across a category that I hadn’t noticed before—“Best Album Notes.” Nice to see they’re still giving an award for that in this, the Age of the Download. Part of the pleasure of getting a new (vinyl) album used to be reading the notes while you listened to the first few tracks, and then having a look at the fine print to see who the backup musicians might be, or who wrote the songs.
C, E-flat, and G go into a bar
Alan Lomax: He was the one who brought us Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters and countless other voices we might otherwise have never heard. Over the years, he created an archive of music that included over 17,000 tracks, and finally the collection is being digitized and will be made available on the internet. Look for it near the end of March. Oh - and did you know that he also created a vast archive of dance on film? There are thousands of hours of film that will also be made available online, too. Here is the website to check them out.
C, E-flat, and G go into a bar....The bartender says, "Sorry, but we don't serve minors." So E-flat leaves, and C and G have an open fifth between them. After a few drinks, the fifth is diminished, and G is out flat. F comes in and tries to augment the situation, but is not sharp enough. D comes in and heads for the bathroom, saying, "Excuse me; I'll just be a second." Then A comes in, but the bartender is not convinced that this relative of C is not a minor. Then the bartender notices B-flat hiding at the end of the bar and says, "Get out! You're the seventh minor I've found in this bar tonight." E-flat comes back the next night in a three-piece suit with nicely shined shoes. The bartender says, "You're looking sharp tonight. Come on in, this could be a major development." Sure enough, E-flat soon takes off his suit and everything else, and is au natural. Eventually C sobers up and realizes in horror that he's under a rest. C is brought to trial, found guilty of contributing to the diminution of a minor, and is sentenced to 10 years of D.S. without Coda at an upscale correctional facility.
(Thanks to Terri Skeoch of The Yew Tree in Cambria for sharing this on Facebook)
Folk Fame: The Recording Academy has announced the newest additions to its Grammy Hall Of Fame collection. And while homage has been paid to recordings in a number of genres, it’s interesting to note how many of them are from the world of folk, roots and world music. Here are just a few examples:
Various Artists – Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways, 1952)
Paul Simon – Graceland
Flatt & Scruggs – Foggy Mountain Jamboree
Los Panchos – Mexicantos
Mahalia Jackson – Precious Lord, Take My Hand
You can view the entire list online on the Recording Academy’s website.
Hear, hear the blood a-leaping
By Linda Dewar
Writing Gordon Lightfoot: I’m writing this in early October, and the release date for this book isn’t until later this month, so I can neither recommend nor denounce it, but it sure sounds interesting. Writing Gordon Lightfoot: The Man, the Music, and the World in 1972 is a chronicle of the events leading up to the 1972 Mariposa Music Festival in Toronto, written by Dave Bidini. Here’s the publisher’s description:
“From acclaimed musician and author Dave Bidini comes a brilliantly original look at a folk-rock legend and the momentous week in 1972 that culminated in the Mariposa Folk Festival.
July, 1972. As musicians across Canada prepare for the nation's biggest folk festival, held on Toronto Island, a series of events unfold that will transform the country politically, psychologically--and musically.
Bits and Pieces
Guitar Bits…literally. Remember the guy who had a hit on YouTube a couple of years ago with his song “United Breaks Guitars?” He’d entrusted his guitar to airline baggage handlers, only to find it in pieces on arrival at his destination.
His was not an unusual story at all. Traveling musicians are at the mercy of the airlines when it comes to flying with instruments. No matter what sort of special flight case you buy, the baggage handlers can and will find a way to damage what’s inside it—often beyond any hope of repair.
The airlines will helpfully suggest (with no thought as to the potential for increasing profit, of course) that if you want your instrument to be safe, then the best plan is to buy it a seat in the passenger cabin. Yeah, sure. For most of us, the cost of that will pretty much wipe out any income you may have earned at the gig you’re flying to.
His Blackberry Blossom was awesome
OK… my last column ended with a plea for some music-related limericks, but alas I’ve heard from no one. So instead, here’s a selection from the members of the online Mandolin Café Forum… some good stuff here.
Folk In Justice
Folk Justice. It’s evening in the Justice William Brennan Courthouse in Jersey City. The judges, juries and lawyers have all gone home- or to the nearest bar, and the lights are out in the upper floor windows. In the rotunda, though, it’s a different story. Volunteers are busy setting up tables and chairs, organizing water, wine and coffee, and setting out brownies and cheesecake. As the first guests enter through the metal detectors at the door and purchase their tickets, a volunteer greets them- “Welcome to Brennan Coffee House!"
Yep, you read that correctly – it’s a coffee house in the rotunda of the courthouse in Jersey City. Brennan’s is the brainchild of Hudson County Executive Thomas DeGise, a self-described “old folkie.” He got the idea while listening to a gospel singer at his own inauguration and enjoying the sound of acoustic music swirling around the dome of the rotunda.
A Winning Combination
Don’t toss that scribble in the trash: The original manuscript (or, more accurately, a handwritten note) of Bob Dylan’s The Times, They Are A–Changin’ was recently sold at a New York auction for $422,500. Sotheby’s auction house had originally estimated the value of the note at just under $200,000. There is not musical notation on the manuscript, which was owned by singer-songwriter Kevin Krown and purchased by a hedge fund manager.
Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room. ~Kurt Vonnegut
Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking. ~John Wain
To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak. ~Hopi Indian Saying
Do you think dyslexic people have difficulty dancing to "Y.M.C.A."? ~Dave Sokolowski
If music be the food of love,
Folk on the BBC: Last year, we lost the voice of Archie Fisher from Travelin’ Folk on BBC radio. Then, we found that Robbie Shepherd’s airtime had been reduced. The following appeared today on the Spiral Earth folk news site: “The BBC Radio Derby 'Folkwaves' show presented for the last 25 years by Mick Peat and Lester Simpson will be axed by the BBC at the end of December. This programme is probably the best folk radio programme in England currently being broadcast, the guys’ knowledge and passion is second to none and it seems a plain daft decision to axe something so good.”
Go to the Facebook page in support of the programme, and 'like' them to push the numbers up...
Shortcuts To Happiness
Celtic Connections Lineup: As I write this, I'm listening to a live broadcast on Celtic Music Radio in which the lineup for this year's Celtic Connections festival is being announced. There's a definite theme of marking anniversaries, including a concert to celebrate Bob Dylan's 70th birthday, and another to commemorate the founding of the School of Scottish Studies. Sadly, there's also a tribute planned to honour the memory of Davy Steele, who died ten years ago.
The Elephant Smoked Too Much
Guitar Players: When is the last time you gave your guitar a real cleaning and checked it over to make sure all its working bits are working? Taylor Guitars and Elixir Strings have posted a few videos on YouTube with tips not only for cleaning and maintenance, but a brilliant technique for stringing. I've tried using the methods that are shown in the videos, and I'm hooked-my Taylor looks great, sounds great, stays in tune longer, and best of all it plays easier. These tips work for other stringed instruments, too...my bouzouki is next in line. Click here to see part 1 of the video.
New from Martin Guitars... 00-15-M Here's something that guitar players may want to check out: In response to suggestions from Martin Owners Club members, Martin has developed an authentic blues-type guitar reminiscent of small bodied Martins of the 1930's. According to Martin, "these mahogany bodied guitars have a warm tone and clear voice all their own. The 00-15M is further enhanced tonally by A-frame Sitka bracing. A single ring wood rosette is used in keeping with the old 30s tradition. The genuine mahogany 14-fret neck has the classic solid headstock with vintage-style Gotoh tuners. Fingerboard and "belly" bridge are East Indian rosewood. Nut and compensated saddle are bone." Seems like lately, all of Martin's new offerings have been "tribute" models that pay homage to artists. It's nice to see them bringing out something that's a real addition to their line, particularly as it's in response to a request from Martin owners.
Are you a member of Folk Alliance? If so, then here's some good news. Folk Alliance International now offers an opportunity for all domestic Folk Alliance members to obtain comprehensive health insurance at an affordable price.
Are you an Artist, Audio Engineer, Broadcaster, Manager, Producer, Promoter, Publisher, Songwriter or any other folk music professional? Would you benefit from affordable health insurance, a medical supplement plan, hospitalization coverage, or other forms of protection?
Many music industry professionals are self-employed and the need for access to affordable benefits is great. Folk Alliance International's (FAI's) endorsement of the Sound Healthcare will provide FAI members access to a variety of benefits and insurance programs.
As I write this, the last echoes of Celtic Connections are still ringing in my head. What a great festival it was. We had to choose our concerts carefully-the ticket prices are not outrageous, but they add up quickly over the course of a three-week festival. But I think we chose wisely, and certainly got more than our money's worth.
First on our festival menu was a double bill at St. Andrews on the Square, featuring Jim Malcolm in the first half and The Poozies in the second. In both cases, the sets were a combination of tracks from just-released CDs, mixed with favorites from their existing repertoire. Malcolm's set was spot-on, both musically and with his usual interim patter. The Poozies can't be faulted for their musicality, but they did fall short a bit with their chat between songs, perhaps because they all have other musical commitments and don't play live together as often as some.
Even though I live in Scotland and am involved primarily in various forms of British folk music, I usually try to cover all genres in this column. Not so this time... there will be a definite Scottish flavor to this one because we're at the time of the year when the biggest events have been happening. Next time, I promise to return to a more eclectic mix.
The second week in
October is always reserved for the Royal National Mod. A mod is a gathering
that includes competitions in singing, instrumental playing and spoken word,
all in the Gaelic language and tradition. Regional mods are held throughout the
year in Scotland,
but the National is the big one, where a career can be made with the awarding
of a gold medal.
Does OSHA know about
Playing music can be deadly!
October is a big month for music here in Scotland, starting with the Royal National Mod. The Mod is a week-long celebration of the Gaelic language, with competitions in solo, small group and choir singing, instrumental playing, songwriting and arranging, and literature. Just as good as the Mod itself are the "fringe" events. This year's Mod is being held in the West Coast town of Oban, where there will be music and dancing in just about every available venue each night.
Fans of the Transatlantic Sessions series of television programs will be pleased to know that a fourth edition is in the works. The award-winning approach developed by director Mike Alexander offers singers and instrumentalists an environment a world away from the pressures of the concert stage or the tyrannies of the recording studio: a secluded, top-quality country hotel in the Scottish Highlands; a recording venue that scores three “A”s for excellence – acoustic, architecture and atmosphere; a resident “house band” backing star guest performers who take part on a three-day rota basis.
I managed to spend most of February back in the USA, and it was great to see so many friends. Our first couple of days back in California were spent at the Queen Mary Scottish Festival in Long Beach, where we re-connected with so many people that we could hardly walk a step without seeing someone we knew. Best of all, of course, was getting to play music with Men of Worth (Donnie Macdonald and James Keigher) and John Taylor again.
The Queen Mary festival has always marked the start of the Scottish festival season in California, and by the time you're reading this, there will be one happening somewhere in the state almost every weekend. One of the biggest and best is the newly re-named "ScotsFest," which will take place at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa on Memorial Day Weekend. Their entertainment lineup this year is exceptional, including Celtic Spring, Molly's Revenge, Alex Beaton, Brother, The Browne Sisters, and Wicked Tinkers. For more information, go to www.scotsfest.com and click on "entertainment."
It's festival time! We've already kicked it off in Scotland, with Celtic Connections. Once again, the organizers managed to make it even better than the previous year. The whole point of the festival is to celebrate the connections between musical cultures that are or have evolved from celtic music. Since this is the Homecoming year in Scotland (more about that later), and the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, there was a large emphasis on his songs. I was lucky enough to beone of the artists asked to participate in the "Twelve Hours of Burns" concert, in which we managed to perform every single Burns song at least once. As partof "Simply Burns" I also had the opportunity to perform on the Danny Kyle Open Stage in the concert hall, and I have to say that it was one of the best audiences I've ever experienced.
As I write this, Scotland is being very Scottish-damp, cold, dreary... and still somehow beautiful. Among the many new words I've learned since coming here, one of my favorites is "dreich" (rhymes with "creek" but sort of gag and clear your throat at the end). It means, well... damp, cold and dreary. The trees are just at the end of an amazing display of colors, and the almost-midnight sun has been replaced with darkness by 5:00pm.
It's been a great year for music here-Celtic Connections in January, the World Piping Championships in August, Perthshire Amber festival and the National Gaelic Mod in October. Best of all, I'm finally a participant in some of these amazing events. I sang with the Gaelic choir at Celtic Connections, was selected for one of the open mic slots at Perthshire Amber, and even won my first-ever individual Mod prizes, for my entries in the Choral Arranging competition.
In America, there's OSHA - plus CAL-OSHA in California. Here in the UK, it's just called "Health and Safety," but the idea is the same - to protect workers from injury while on the job. So far, so good... Woody would have approved of the concept, I'm sure. But sometimes, things are taken a bit too far.
A few weeks ago, the British government (not to be confused with the Scottish government, please!) came to the startling conclusion that bagpipes are very loud. It has therefore been decided that pipers in a pipe band are in an officially designated "hazardous workplace" and effort needs to be made to remove them from the source of the potential injury. Huh???
The world is smaller than we think. Last month, hubby and I attended a folk festival put on by the Glenfarg Folk Club. On the evening of the final concert, which featured the McCalmans and Jim Malcolm, we got there early and began chatting with a woman seated in front of us. She was a delightful older lady (in her 80’s), who had just released her fifth CD of Scottish songs, having begun her musical career in her 60’s.
Hearing my American accent, she asked where we’d come from, and we told her we’d moved from Los Angeles to Scotland, which prompted her to ask if we’d ever been to Ojai. “Oh, yes…” said hubby, and mentioned our friend, Scottish musician John Hannah who lives there. The dear lady looked stunned for a moment, and then a smile broke out across her face. “Well,” she said, “He’s my son!”.
Spring at last...here in Scotland, we can tell it's spring because the daffodils are blooming and they're tall enough to be seen above the snow. OK, it's not quite that bad, but I do have to say that this year March came in like a lion and went out like a Polar Bear. Another sign of spring is the arrival here in our village of the first tourists of the season. This early, they're mostly from England, but soon we'll be seeing folks from all over Europe and North America.
It's what we call the "dreich end" here in Scotland. Snowdrops start to bloom in late February, the days are finally getting noticeably longer, and the end of the dreich (wet, yucky) winter weather is in sight. For musicians and music-lovers, January is an exhausting time. Celtic Connections lasts for three weeks in January, with very little sleep involved, and in the middle of it comes Robert Burns' birthday, with all of the Burns Suppers, concerts, and similar events. I was lucky enough to be involved in some great experiences, including being invited to sing at the Killecrankie Village Burns Supper, plus getting to perform with the Aberfeldy and District Gaelic Choir and Margaret Bennett at the Glasgow Concert Hall.
January in Scotland means only one thing to us folkies… Celtic Connections. For those not already aware, it’s a festival of folk, traditional and world music that lasts for almost three weeks, occupies fourteen venues, and pretty much takes over the city of Glasgow. It’s impossible to attend all of the concerts, workshops, clubs and ceilidhs that are available, so there’s always a great deal of discussion about who or what to see and do on which days. And you never know what may happen… last year, we went to hear Dick Gaughan and discovered that The Poozies had been added as an unadvertised opening act.
Cei-lidh (kā-lē) (kay-lee) n. An Irish or Scottish social gathering with traditional music, dancing, and storytelling. That's Webster's definition. Originally, a ceilidh was a way for neighbors to gather and entertain each other. Everyone was expected to participate with a song or a story, and there were always enough musicians to form a band for dancing.
These days, especially in America, when a ceilidh is advertised it usually means that a band has been hired and they will play for the audience to listen or dance-there's no mention of participation by anyone other than the hired musicians. But here in rural Scotland the tradition is very much alive in a slightly updated version of the original.
Believe it or not, one of the things I miss about life in America is the availability of Starbucks. It's not the coffee-our little village here in Scotland actually has two outstanding coffee shops, and I'm quite happy to be getting my caffeine fix from independent merchants. It's the music I miss. I used to look forward to hearing whatever might be playing in my local Starbucks, and I bought some pretty amazing CDs there.
So I was really pleased to hear that Starbucks is extending the scope of its "Hear Music" program and launching their own label. Say what you will, someone in that big corporate office has a pretty keen ear for innovative sounds. It's just recently been announced that the first release on the new Starbucks label will be a studio album by Paul McCartney, which I'm sure will be a big seller, but let's hope that they will continue to seek out and present more unknown artists, too.
Music Across Perthshire
Here in rural Scotland we have a group called "Music Across Perthshire" (MAP) that's a sort of collective of musicians, venues and promoters of all kinds of music from classical to folk and beyond. Each year in late February, MAP produces a collection of events called the Dreich End Festival. "Dreich" is a Scottish word that means, roughly, "yucky cold, gray, damp weather," and the festival is a way to remind us that the spring is near. Of course, spring means warm, gray, damp weather, but any improvement is welcomed.
So last Saturday, I found myself sitting in the Taybank, a terrific music pub in Dunkeld, preparing to participate in the second annual Taybank Music Marathon. The idea is to hold a 12-hour session where the music literally never stops - someone must be playing at every moment. Musicians can come and go, and everyone takes turns singing or playing whatever they can, making sure to overlap the beginning of one tune with the end of the next so there's never a second of silence.
When we play, sing, dance to and enjoy traditional “folk"
This column may be a bit different than some of my others. That’s partly because I’m writing it in motel rooms during a drive from LA to New York, a sea voyage, and another drive, in the process of moving to Scotland. By the time you read this, the move will be over, but right now as I write there are some topics that come to mind because of recent events.