CLANNAD – Turas 1980 (Made In Germany Music, MIG02092)

TurasOn the heels of their 1979 US tour – the longest by any Irish band back then – a five-piece Clannad fetched up in Germany having their live show recorded by Radio Bremen. Previously unbroadcast, the recently resurfaced recordings are now available as Turas 1980 (“an turas” meaning “a journey”), a twenty-track double album. Drawing on the band’s early output, the album also features some otherwise unrecorded tracks. It’s a collector’s dream.

It also represents a fascinating point in the band’s evolution. After ten years together, this Donegal family group was on the cusp of achieving unimaginable mainstream global success. Yet here they are, unaware of what’s yet to come, just happy playing to their strong German fanbase.

The live radio recording was a first for the band and Máire Brennan recalls how nervous they all were, although it doesn’t show. This is intensely powerful, rooted and earthy music with a curious timelessness. In tunes like opener ‘Turas Carolan’, the beguiling air of ‘Paddy’s Rambles Through The Fields’ or ‘The Old Couple’, there’s almost a sense of a timeslip: a sidelong glimpse revealing something ancient, raw and deep from the land.

The tracks here also lack much of the misty ethereality characteristic of some of Clannad’s later output, although the roots of it can clearly be heard in songs like ‘Siúil a Rún’ and the bell-like ‘Dúlamán’. The band’s legendary tight harmonies and Moya Brennan’s cool flowing water vocals are beautifully represented, particularly on ‘Valparaiso’ and ‘Máire Bhruinneall’.

The musical tightness and versatility of the band is evident, too. A standard like ‘Down By The Salley Gardens’ may be taken at a respectful, stately pace, but an entirely different mood emerges from the looser, jazzy bass interludes of ‘Níl Sé’n Lá’ that closes the album.

As to sound quality, the music is excellent with all the band parts crisply audible and a pure clean sound. During the often drily witty between-song chat, there is some quality loss and distracting ambient noise, but it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise excellent live recording. It does repay quality audio replay, as the lossy formats don’t really do it justice.

Surviving members of Clannad were involved in bringing this album to fruition and it stands proudly both as an historical memento and a bittersweet memorial to absent friends: to founder Pádraig Duggan, as well as “father of the band” Leo Brennan. It’s a glorious and appropriate tribute.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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A selection of Clannad songs recorded in 1978:

ALISTAIR McCULLOCH TRIO – Off The Hook (Rostral Records RTRLCD015)

Off The HookThe Alistair McCulloch Trio summer tour has become a well-established Scottish fixture over many years now, yet this busy bunch has only just got around to recording an album. Thankfully, they have now whittled down their extensive live repertoire to the ten excellent tracks featured on Off The Hook.

Alongside legendary fiddle maestro Alistair McCulloch, the band consists of Capercaillie founder Marc Duff and Aaron Jones of Old Blind Dogs/The Kate Rusby Band. With a musical pedigree like that – McCulloch alone is 25 years a professional musician – it’s no surprise to find superb playing that’s ultra-tight, harmonious and lithe.

Aiming to capture the band’s live sound as closely as possible, the album also demonstrates a broad-church approach to its musical choices. In a 2013 interview, McCulloch said, “You’ve always got to maintain an open mind and remember folk is an evolving tradition. If you let it stand still then it will stagnate” and this album continues that commitment. Reworkings of traditional tunes and songs nestle comfortably alongside contemporary compositions, with changes to phrasing, rhythm, key or tempo allowing them to flow logically, often virtually seamlessly together.

The tune sets are inspired: ‘Mazurkas’ delicately re-phrases a pair of waltzes, while ‘Brady’s Set’ – with Duff on bodhran – connects four storming jigs. ‘Whistle Solo’ consists of a waltz and two reels, arranged by Jones and Duff, the subtlety of the guitar letting the whistle shine.

‘Shetland Medley’ draws the listener through a range of moods, starting with the tense, spare ‘Da Day Dawn’ (a traditional Shetland Christmas Day tune) and winding up at the lively ‘The Lass That Made The Bed For Me’. ‘Xesus’ takes John McCusker’s thoughtful ‘Xesus and Felicia’, letting it just about melt into ‘Farley Bridge’ with a sensitive arrangement, before a final high-speed romp through ‘The Calgary Fiddlers Welcome To Scotland’. This is first-rate tune setting and no mistake, always conscious of how each piece interacts with the next, with the whole and with the overall atmosphere.

Jones fronts the three songs on the album, each a considered reclamation of a well-trodden classic. In particular, ‘The Wild Rover’, which shrugs off its bar room machismo, becoming instead maturely rueful and reflective.

It may have been a long wait, but for those already fans of the Alistair McCulloch Trio it will have been well worth it. For those new to the trio, Off The Hook stands up as an album of top quality music-making and a hugely entertaining masterclass in how to set tunes.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist website: www.alistairmcculloch.com

Four reels filmed during the 2017 tour:

THE ANDREW COLLINS TRIO – Tongue / Groove (own label, ACT003/ACT004)

TongueFinally, there’s an album paying long-overdue homage to practical, yet rustic bathroom panelling. What’s that? It’s not? GrooveFortunately, Tongue / Groove is a paired album set from phenomenally talented, multi-award-winning Canadians, The Andrew Collins Trio. Their hard-to-pigeonhole fusion sound is sometimes referred to as ‘chambergrass’ but absorbs such a broad range of influences, it’s hard to know where to start. There’s bluegrass, obviously, plus flecks of country and bold splashes of swing, lounge and jazz. Here and there are Celtic touches, hints of Spain, Greece even, as well as playful sparks of popular music.

For a trio, they make a big sound across a hugely varied repertoire, all played with a relaxed and fluid skill. James McEleney’s supple expressive upright bass is the backbone for Mike Mezzatesta (guitar, mandolin, octave violin) and Andrew Collins. Collins is a staggering mandolin player, able to achieve extraordinary speed, variety and nuance, whilst also being equally fluent on mandocello, mandola, guitar and violin. And that’s just on this album: the band appears to switch and shape-shift between instruments and roles with absolute assurance and ease.

It’s an incredibly polished album pair, with Tongue, naturally, giving tongue to the songs within. A selection of Collins’ favourites, taking in The Hollies via Nick Drake and a couple of Roger Millers, plus a couple of his own compositions, it’s something of a departure from a band mostly known for instrumental music.

Collins brings a strong, slightly gritty vocal that gives suitably moody substance to Drake’s ‘Cello Song’. Elsewhere, McEleny provides vocal support and harmonies, as on fellow Canadian, Kevin Breit’s ‘Nothing About Us’, which at first sounds incongruously ‘modern’ next to more old-timey songs, but soon settles comfortably into place. In an album of covers, the trio’s startling but entirely brilliant reworking of The Hollies’ ‘King Midas In Reverse’ was a revelation.

As a songwriter, Collins seems to have plenty up his sleeve, too. ‘Coming Into Hard Times Blues’ demonstrates a Tom Lehrer-like sardonic wit. The intense, sawing violins of ‘Black Veil’ (co-written by Collins) lend drama to a darkly murderous tale (a strong contrast with the absurdly chirpy stabbing in ‘Katy Dear’).

It seems that the band felt their audience would expect instrumentals, so they delivered that as well, recording the Groove album to partner Tongue. Groove is a perfect, laid-back lazy Sunday soundtrack, prominently featuring Collins compositions like the gloriously mardy, low-slung ‘The Grumpus’, madly contagious ‘Badabada Ba Ba’ and the subtle mood changes of the Radiohead-ish ‘Lullaby For Ken’. Another surprising, yet oddly successful cover emerges as Pink Floyd’s ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ gets stitched together with the traditional ‘Ship In The Clouds’.

Altogether, there’s so much going on in these two albums – in breadth and variety of styles, in musical skill – that it’s rather breath-taking. Luckily, just another of the talents this trio has is to make their work feel entirely natural, almost slouchily comfortable and deceptively easy on the ear. Tongue and Groove are worthwhile additions to any collection.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: www.andrewcollinstrio.com

‘Coming Into Hard Times Blues’ – live:

DOWALLY – Somewhere (own label, DW002)

SomewhereAre we there yet? Today’s destination is highland hamlet Dowally – or rather, the immensely talented Scottish trio of that name, who decided to call their second album Somewhere. Alongside their first album, Welcome To Scotland, it does suggest the musician’s itinerant life, that standing wave of maps, road signs and satnavs. Somewhere also suits the geographically fluid nature of the band’s music which weaves elements of traditional, jazz, Klezmer and classical into a luscious, glowing soundcloth.

Dowally was invited to record its first album by cellist and creative wizard Graham Coe (The Jellyman’s Daughter, Sam Kelly band). A fairly off-the-cuff affair, it led to a more planned approach for Somewhere, with Dan Abrahams (guitar/double bass) and Rachel Walker (fiddle/whistle) writing most of the material. Phil Alexander (accordion/piano) completes the Dowally triumvirate, and Coe’s cello makes a welcome return appearance on three tracks.

Opening with ‘Sunday Brunch’, as laid-back as its title indicates, the music displays inventive turns of rhythm and fluid changes of pace. As is typical for this album, instruments riff around the melody, dancing away and back again. It’s a playful approach that can only be rendered well by seriously good musicianship.

A surprising cover of Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ is mashed up with fiddle tune ‘The Banshee’. It’s intriguing and striking, especially in the final section where two differently paced vocal lines plus fiddle gather together to a shuddering, implosive halt. Dominic Blaikie’s strong, flexible vocals feature here and on a cover of Lennon/McCartney’s ‘And I Love Her’. This is a most extraordinary, dark rendition, as the vocals dip and soar, almost menacingly, across Alexander’s improvised reel fill and a poignant fiddle.

This album is simply packed with inspired, original moments as the band sweeps the listener along with logical yet unexpected musical progressions. Tunes writhe and twist from one mood to another, musical genres flicker and move on. A slow dance between guitar and accordion gets interrupted by an urgent, insistent fiddle in ‘Veruda’; ‘Be Mine Or One’ courses jazzy peaks and valleys, and the Klezmer of ‘Castellation’ invokes something moodier and darker.

A brusque accordion punctuates fiddle and guitar on ‘St Vincent’s’, developing into a into lush piano, as the whole bends up to its finale. ‘Chris And Emily’s’ loose, bluesy guitar intro to is picked up with superbly curling, intricate banjo, courtesy of Dallahan’s Ciaran Ryan.

Culminating in ‘Port Inn Hornpipe’, a fine display of how this band creates an auditory feast, a jaunty air gets lightly dusted with chilled out jazz until it’s abruptly interrupted by frenetic banjo, dashing piano and accordion. Returning briefly to the central theme, now embellished with bar room piano and vocalising, a last banjo flourish whisks it away for good. Unlikely on the page, perhaps, but fantastically good on the ears.

Produced with a confident, airy lightness that allows each instrument – and the spaces in between – the space to speak clearly and be heard, this album is a true listening pleasure.

So, are we there yet? Yup. Wherever Somewhere is, it’s pretty impressive. Definitely worth sticking around for a while to see where Dowally heads to next.

Su O’Brien

Artists’ website: www.dowally.com

‘Fluorescent Banshee’ – official video:

THE MOONBEAMS – This Land (Moonbeam Records MBR003)

This LandThe Moonbeams band forms the core of The Moonbeam Collective, a multi-platform arts community based in the Yorkshire Dales. This Land, the band’s third album, is once again rooted in that landscape, linking up past and present, rural and industrial.

Apart from the closing song – a jaunty lunge at the traditional ‘The Yorkshire Tup’ in praise of Swaledale sheep – all the songs on this album are the band’s original compositions.

The hammer and brass intro to ‘The Flags Beneath Our Feet’ followed by the whirl of whistles on ‘This Land’ make a promising start. The lively ‘Gathering Day’ counts up sheep whilst ‘Ginny Bickerdyke’ turns out not to have been the local “witch” of many childhood rumours and dares. The banjo intro to ‘Syke As Thee’ prefaces an old-time love song – with a surprising electric guitar break towards the end. And if it’s surprises you’re after, have a listen to ‘Slow Down’ where spacious, dub guitar underpins Nick Cave-like semi-spoken vocals in a tribute to slow living. (The suggestion to “take a slow train” did induce a wry smile as Greater Anglia’s finest crawled through the Hertfordshire countryside: it wasn’t at all relaxing).

The core band members have been supplemented by different musicians and instruments on each album to date, and this one is no exception. Instrumentally, there are some interesting things going on, with shades of country, pulses of reggae-influenced syncopation, blasts of electric guitar and even a small brass section. Jen Haines’s smoky, earthy viola frequently resonates with mediaeval tones, and Mark Fletcher’s whistles occasionally stray into folk-horror territory, as on the oddly creepy ‘My Girl From The North Country’. This eclectic, often quite raw-sounding, mix insinuates itself into the spaces between the words.

For it is a wordy album, with a strong storytelling urge and some skill in evoking particular scenes and moods. The free-flowing lyrics, though, can threaten to overwhelm verse and melodic integrity. Occasionally undershooting the available rhythm, they more often lean towards the over-stuffed and squeezed in. A rather limited range in the vocals also, over the duration of the album, creates a generally dampening effect on the melody line, and on some otherwise interesting and diverse material.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: www.themoonbeamcollective.co.uk

BARRY NISBET – A Bright Ray Of Sunshine (Own Label, RRIG001)

Bright Ray Of SunshineShetland singer-songwriter (and sailor) Barry Nisbet’s little box of delights, A Bright Ray Of Sunshine finally reaches the top of the unruly stack by the CD player. Although released in March, this absolute treasure chest of ten songs fully deserves to receive the widest recognition.

Some expected themes – a strong sense of place, history, nature, the sea, wanderlust – feature here, but it’s very much contemporary, aware of the modern world. It’s also warm and compassionate, with Nisbet’s gentle burr adding emphasis to his thoughtful lyrics, whether about Australia’s ‘Desert Wind’ or a love letter to his home, ‘Come In The Summer Time’.

Flavours of country/Americana can be heard in Nisbet’s guitar playing, such as the restlessness of ‘Borderland’, and the gentle tumbling guitar of ‘Comfortless Cove’ where it’s meets unmistakeable Scottishness in both melody and wistful whistle.

One of two instrumental tracks, ‘Brydon & Anona’s Wedding Waltz’ is tender, evolving and building with each turn of the phrase. The second is a 2-tune set: tensely twisting fiddle and choppily strummed guitar in ‘Imperial Jig’ bridging into ‘Night Trip To London’. With its folk-rock intro, this tune quickly develops into a jazzy, discordant distillation of relentless bustle, hum and traffic noise – a fierce partner to Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’.

Standout track, ‘Train To Anywhere’ might be the antecedent to Lau’s Ghosts in theme and sentiment. It is every bit as movingly powerful, with a melancholy harmonium underscoring the reluctant refugee’s core dilemma, “If I had the choice I would not knock upon your door, but my children are afraid”. A beautiful song, all the sadder for needing to be said at all.

The traditional-style ‘Hunger’s Daughter’, a haunting tale of love and starvation, has Nisbet’s vigorous fiddle playing reveal the frantic desperation left understated by the lyrics. Similarly, telling ‘Da Ballad O Da Jessie’ – the true tragedy of the sinking of the Shetland fishing fleet – in Scots, lends an emotional immediacy and rawness.

Final track, the lovely, ‘Within Sadness’ characterises Nisbet’s expressiveness in a reflective moment, “within sadness, a bright ray of sunshine”. There’s a directness, a truthfulness in this delightful collection that feels very welcome just now. Barry Nisbet will be going straight to the top of the CD pile next time, and no messing.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist website: https://www.facebook.com/barrynisbetmusic/

‘Borderland’ – live: