FLUID TRUTHS, PROTEST SONGS,
AND TRADITIONAL REIMAGININGS
The inexorable careen of a well-played Irish set bears no small resemblance to a stretch of river that morphs from a smooth swift flow to rambunctious and frothy to the full-blown tumult of raging rapids. Fiddler extraordinaire Martin Hayes offered a voluminous reminder of this fluid truth during the Masters of Tradition concert March 30 at a fine-sounding Royce Hall on the UCLA campus. Just when you thought he couldn’t wind things any tighter, he blew through your expectations and ratcheted up the energy to another level in a torrential cataract of sound and groove.
The mad-bowing, well-spoken virtuoso had plenty of company. He was joined by a half-dozen other major-league traditionalists: long-time Hayes collaborational guitarist Dennis Cahill, sublime sean nos singer Iarla O’Lionaird, All-Ireland uilleann piper David Power, Four Men and a Dog fiddler Cathal Hayden, steel-string guitar whiz Seamie O’Dowd, and champion squeeze-boxer Mairtin O’Connor. The touring group represents an attempt by Hayes to compress into a few hours the music festival of the same name that he directs every year in Bantry, County Cork.
The idea is, as he explained, to put traditional music in a chamber-like situation, where the artists can focus on “detailing and refining this exquisite music,” to plumb its “organic and elemental sources.” The road show and the festival are not meant to be dry intellectual exercises, but to provide a forum for bringing together some of the best players in the tradition in a nurturing setting–and to have a bit of wild fun in the bargain.
Fun might not be the best term to describe O’Lionaird’s a cappella and accompanied turns, but his ageless, pitch-perfect voice dripped with melancholy, longing, and a fair dollop of boggy dread. Power’s piping explored a wide sound palette, with his fleet-fingered chanter runs entwining with the 170-year-old instrument’s regulator growl and drone on The Drunken Landlady, Sligo Maid and others. Hayes and Cahill paired up in their usual telepathic way, the guitarist’s mimimalist time-keeping and harmonic layering complementing the fiddler’s sweetly ferocious style.
The second half of the concert featured large helpings of fellow masters Hayden, O’Dowd, and O’Connor—the set that kicked off Last Night’s Fun in particular put the ceilidh pedal to the metal—with the others joining them in various configurations on stage along the way. The full septet didn’t play together until the latter stages of the show, leaving some in the engaged audience wanting a wee bit more.
Hayes, Cahill, and O’Lionaird make up three-fifths of The Gloaming (along with Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett on piano and hardanger fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh), whose recently issued album on Real World mixes deep Irish trad, minimalist chamber vibes, and misty soul in a moody, beguiling twilight-hued stew. The 16-minute-plus Opening Set is a masterwork, slowly building from O’Lionaird’s laments to midtempo reeling to the culminating riverine surge. The Gloaming stands apart among recent Irish “folk” recordings, sounding at once comfortably familiar and eerily new. NPR Music’s Anastasia Tsioulcas nailed it when she wrote, “the entire album is full of deeply felt, wonderfully empathetic performances that are rooted in tradition but scoured of sentimentality…. This is the rare album that might well transform the syntax of a whole style.” Highly recommended.
Elsewhere in the Celtic continuum, Carlos Nunez presents an open-armed embrace of many musics on his latest RCAVictor/Sony release, Inter-Celtic. The Galician pipes/whistles/etc. ace takes a Chieftains-esque approach, inviting the likes of Altan, Sharon Shannon, Alan Stivell, Ry Cooder, and the Chiefies themselves to join in the globe-trotting festivities.
There’s plenty of fire, sweetness, and crackerjack playing on the album, with Nunez’s own prodigious skills always in the forefront. Vento das Cies serves up a raucous take on the Galician jig style known as muineira, with accordionist Shannon and bodhran/bouzouki double-threat Donal Lunny joining in, while the slightly more sedate Altan jig Is the Big Man Within provides a cooler turn. But there’s nothing cool (in temperature, anyway) about the stomping goodness of Lundu, where Nunez tussles with the Chieftains and others in fine fusional form.
Although Welsh in origin, Chicago-based Jon Langford’s decades-long career with the Mekons, Waco Brothers, and current group Skull Orchard has taken him far from “the tradition” of his birth turf. The folk-punk troubadour’s latest release, Here Be Monsters (In De Goot recordings), finds him once again fighting the good fight, his plugged-in manifesto at turns raucous, rootsy, profound, funny, angry, and tender. What Did You Do In the War (“did you make more money than ever before?”) and the first-person rock-waltz Drone Operator are biting, clever protest songs, while Lil’ Ray of Light turns his withering satirical eye on punditry and celebrity.
Langford is an Artist with a capital “A.” An accomplished painter (the album package contains a separate piece of art inspired by each song), the Welshman from the Windy City also has a poet’s touch in the lyrics department, as the following stanza from Summer Stars demonstrates:
And when the engines stop there’s nothing else to do
But count the stars and name them like we used to do
Walk outside and watch the satellites fall
See new shapes above us all
From the east into the west
Map them out before we die
From the north down to the south
Hank Williams mouth will fill the sky
Another middle-aged marvel on the roots (and pop) music scene, Rosanne Cash, has birthed perhaps her finest album yet, The River & The Thread (Blue Note). Johnny’s daughter stepped out from her father’s prodigious shadow years ago, but returned to honor him on the 2009 recording, The List, which offered versions of some of Dad’s favorite songs. The latest work, however, is chock full of country-folk-blues-gospel originals inspired by several recent trips to her native South, co-written by Cash and her husband/musical partner-in-crime, John Leventhal. The pair’s early January showcase at the Troubadour featured most of the tracks from the new album as well as a generous repast of earlier material and covers, a stunning down-home evening that still resonates.
There’s much to like on The River & the Thread. Opening cut A Feather’s Not A Bird cuts a swampy path and sets the table for the album’s sonic-narrative exploration of her roots: “There’s never any highway when you’re looking for the past/The land becomes a memory and it happens way too fast.” Place names and musical signposts pepper the 11 tunes (Memphis, Barcelona, and the Tallahatchie Bridge all play roles), and the moods swing from troubled or lonely (check the melancholic wink of Tell Heaven) to revelatory tracks like the familial biography of The Sunken Lands and the “new old desire” of 50,000 Watts, which features a sweetly pulling harmony between Cash’s weary angel voice and Cory Chisel’s younger yearn.
Speaking of strong women musicians, few bring it with the commitment, passion and force-of-nature ferocity of Angélique Kidjo. Thoughout her career, the Benin-born singer-songwriter has fearlessly pursued her own syncretic internationalist vision, blending various African musics, funk, rock, and other worldly flavors and social commentary. Her ambitious and lively latest, Eve, is “dedicated to the women of Africa, to their resilience and their beauty.” It features Angélique’s reimaginings of Beninese traditional fare and folk songs from elsewhere on the continent as well as a few originals. She and her awesomely talented band are joined by a vast cast of illustrious guest artists, including Dr. John, Kronos Quartet, and a host of women’s choirs mostly from her homeland.
On any Angélique album, you can count on many moments of stunning, hedge-cutting vocalese, deep-plumbing soul, and funky dance goodness sourced from various points on the Afropop musical map. Shango Wa flies out of the gate with both irresistible groove and vocal pyrotechnics, a breathtaking burner that segues to the more languid title track. Bana, a Congolese folk song that features her mom Yvonne joining the fun, has a feel and tone reminiscent of one of Angélique’s musical heroines, the late Miriam Makeba. The forward-thrusting choogle of Orisha comes to an end way too soon, a(nother) track that will likely benefit from some stretched-out jamming during her live show.
As it turns out, we won’t have to wait too long to experience Angélique do her thang on stage. She will be part of the Grand Performances lineup in downtown LA this summer, helping to get the GP party started on June 20. For those who might be interested in learning more about her compelling life story, the peripatetic Ms. K has cowritten her autobiography with Rachel Wenrick, Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music, available on the Harper Design imprint. The liberally illustrated, straightforwardly written book functions as a sort of mini-coffee table edition, and does not require much heavy lifting in terms of the prose. It even includes a handful of Angélique’s favorite recipes as a tasty addendum.
Angélique’s welcome return is just one of several upcoming local shows of note. Dave and Phil Alvin take over the Troubadour on June 14, when the brothers will perform selections from their soon-to-be-released and already-praised tribute album to bluesman Big Bill Broonzy as well as—the columnist says hopefully–some classic nuggets from Dave’s solo oeuvre and the sibs’ days together in the Blasters. Other attention-grabbing dates on the Grand Performances schedule include July 18 for a first-of-its-kind performance of material from Afrobeat godfather Fela Kuti’s 1969 Los Angeles sessions by Chop and Quench, a band made up of players from the Broadway hit about the Nigerian star, and the local debut of Ukrainian folk-reinventionists Dakha Brakha on September 5.
The Skirball Cultural Center summer series lineup has been released, and as usual, it’s rich in delicious global diversity. The season opens with Mauritanian songstress Noura Mint Seymali (July 24), followed by Cuban classicos Conjunto Chappotín y Sus Estrellas (July 31), and culminating with the good times rollin’ zydeco of Jeffery Broussard and the Creole Cowboys (Aug. 28).
From the early indications, the summertime music scene in SoCal this year looks poised to live up to its usual high standards.
Over nearly three decades of writing about that mighty flowin’ river of sound for dozens of different publications, Tom Cheyney has forgotten more cool tunes and great shows than he can remember, but still keeps coming back for more. He lives in northeast Los Angeles with his wife Cassandra and daughter Brenna.