The McDades are a trio… except there are five of them. Jeremiah, Shannon and Solon are the McDade siblings (although Shannon is now Shannon Johnson) and they are joined by Andy Hillhouse and multi-percussionist Eric Breton plus a number of guests. The family are originally from Edmonton, Alberta and followed their parents in the family business. The Empress is their third album – a mix of traditional and original material plus three covers.
The album opens with ‘Willie Reilly’, a much travelled 19th century broadside now somewhat changed with Colleen Bawn becoming Polly Anne but the story remains the same – Willie Riley is innocent. The song is decorated, as are so many of the tracks by Jeremiah’s whistles which take the lead on the fast paced instrumental, ‘The Oak, Ivy And Ash’, which is one of five McDade originals and gets quite funky towards the end.
‘The Golden Willow Tree’ is a transatlantic version of ‘Golden Vanity’ which Aaron Copland had a crack at back in the early 50s. The story is familiar enough, appearing in many variants and never ends well but that’s folk music for you. The next track is another McDade instrumental ‘The Oracle & The Knot’ which is as much jazz as folk with Solon’s bass and Jeremiah’s saxophones being elbowed out of the way at the end by Shannon’s fiddle.
The first cover is ‘Sundown’, one of Gordon Lightfoot’s darker songs, with fiddle and sax sharing the instrumental breaks. It is suggested that the story deteriorates even more after the song ends. ‘Nomadic Mood & Caroline’s Reel’ is another original instrumental set, again with jazz leanings.
‘Lonely Road’ is a road song by David Francey, a songwriter I admire greatly but isn’t very well known here. It conjures a vision of a semi barrelling along a desert road and the final cover is ‘Plain Gold Ring’, an atmospheric song made famous by Nina Simone and written in the 1950s by Jack Hammer – not his real name, I hasten to add. It boasts a powerful vocal performance and screaming saxophone. ‘The Empress’ is another original whistle-led instrumental.
‘Les Trois Capitaines’ is a traditional song, presumably in Quebec French since it was recorded by La Bottine Souriante almost forty years ago. The McDades give it their best Quebecois swing and they close the set with ‘November 8th’, another original instrumental, this one rich and smooth.
The Empress is a fascinating album, full of variety, packed with energy and incorporating so many influences.
Artists’ website: https://themcdades.com/
‘Sundown’ – live: