Anna MacDonald is a singer and songwriter of folk songs which reflect the strong influence that different strands of Scotland’s traditional music have had upon her. A multi-instrumentalist, she is able to play the piano, guitar and clarsach which she beautifully intertwines with Scots, English and Gaelic songs. As well as performing regularly at folk clubs and festivals, in May 2011 Anna began work with Fraser Fifield on her second EP, Paper Flowers. This August 6th, her highly anticipated new record finally sees a release.
Opening with the title track, the EP sets its stall out as a gorgeous collection of haunting, soft, love songs, Anna combining the traditional music she loves with her own flair for dramatic vocals and lyrics. Glasgow Rain is marked as a perfect example of this, MacDonald observing that ‘Trees throw shadows, in the fire of those street lights’ – an ode to her beloved Glasgow.
Having made quite a name for herself on the live circuit, and garnered positive reviews from The Guardian and The Glasgow Herald, Anna can be regularly heard on Radio nan Gaidheal (BBC Radio Alba) as well as appearing on Celtic Music Radio and Radio 4′s “Miller’s Tale”. In 2010, MacDonald released her debut EP “You Held Out Your Hand” to critical acclaim from national and music media alike.
The saying “…born at the right time…” couldn’t be more appropriate in describing this more than welcome trip down memory lane. I remember first meeting members of the band when they turned up unannounced one night at the Cambridge Folk Festival (was it really 1975?) and provided their spell-bound audience with an impromptu set that left us all breathless thinking just how good they were. They also…just by chance…happened to have some freshly pressed vinyl and sold a batch of them including one to yours truly. In their short-lived five year career the band provided the ‘folk’ club scene with some of the most enjoyable Celtic based music and entertainment (at that time not a ‘dirty’ word) it was our pleasure to experience. Captured here is a good cross-section from each of the band’s four recordings showcasing the talents of Frank Simon’s flashy, jazz tinged guitar playing to Jim and John Yardley’s knowledge of traditional songs, Ian Cutler’s demon fiddle, Fergus Feely’s wit and pumping bouzouki and Colin Reece armed with his own self-penned traditional styled songs. “Trooper And The Maid”, “Trumpet Hornpipe”, “Open The Door Softly” and “Madmen Of Gotham”…they’re all here with the trademark Bully Wee sound and personally speaking not a duff track to be found anywhere. Expertly digitally re-mastered by Graham Semark, this is an opportunity for those old enough to remember the band’s glory days to reacquaint themselves with a group that would certainly give any of today’s young pretenders a run for their money.
What a lovely voice! I just knew I was going to enjoy this album from the moment I played the first track “South Australia” which I’m more used to hearing being bellowed at volume eleven by burly shanty ‘men’. Instead, Maz’s controlled and never forced vocals blends so well with her accompanying musicians Matthew Jones (guitar/double bass), Joe O’Connor (melodeon), Nicola Lyons (fiddle), Jim Molyneux (percussion) and Sam Sweeney (cello) that her maturity belies her obvious youth. When you can also roll out that hoary chestnut “Leaving Of Liverpool” without it sounding clichéd then you know you’ve done a good job and in the process seriously impressed your dad. Personally speaking I’m really pleased that Maz has opened her solo recording career by using a majority of well established traditional songs including “Red Red Rose”, “Constant Lovers” and “Caw The Yowes” because if, for some reason she chooses to rely more heavily on her own (not inconsiderable) song-writing talents (“Rambling Free” and “Songs Of Old” etc) we, the listener can at least be comfortable in the knowledge that we know where her ‘roots’ lay. This recording is a very impressive debut and I look forward to the next one.
For roots music to work, it needs to well up from a deep sense of love for the tradition. On the debut album, Hickory, from Boston fiddler Mariel Vandersteel, you can sense this love of the music in every beat. Each tune, drawn from old-time and Norwegian fiddle styles, has the mark of a musical memory. Perhaps a night of music among friends, or a fiddle lesson in Norway, or even a moment alone under a pine tree with her fiddle. You can hear the joy she takes in her music, and it helps that she’s a deft and subtle fiddler, able to draw the kind of emotion out of instrumental music that you’d expect from a song. She’s also a master at finding common ground between two traditions. Inspired by the beautiful harmonies of the Norwegian hardanger fiddle, she found a connection to the drone-heavy syncopations of Southern old-time fiddling. On Hickory, she effortlessly blends the two traditions together, reveling in the rich, acoustic tones of true folk music. Her fiddling lies somewhere between the old fjords of Norway and the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains.
Hickory is a product of Boston’s vibrant roots music scene, and it shows both in the music and in the friends that Mariel brings along with her. Respected guitarist Jordan Tice anchors the accompaniment on the album, while noted instrumentalists like Scottish harpist Maeve Gilchrist, mandolinist Dominick Leslie and bassist Sam Grisman of the Deadly Gentlemen, fiddler Tristan Clarridge of the Bee Eaters and Crooked Still, and guest fiddler Duncan Wickel contribute to the lush arrangements of the album. Throughout, Mariel’s fiddling shines like a polished gem, at turns racing through an old-time tune like the title track “Hickory,” or spinning gently along, as in the tune she wrote called “Sitting on the Ridge.” Mysterious old Norwegian tunes rub shoulders here with new compositions from Keith Murphy and Dirk Powell, compositions from Mariel herself, and old-time tunes inspired by sources like John Hartford and Foghorn Stringband.
Hickory is an inspiring testament to the power of the old tunes, and the new tunes that we continue to write. This is proof positive that traditional fiddling holds the same power today that it did hundreds of years ago. Hickory is an album of music with its roots deep in the past and its branches reaching into a new century.
Since 2002 when she won Scotland’s Young Traditional Music Award Emily Smith has garnered many accolades from the folk music press with no less than Mike Harding citing “…As far as I’m concerned she can walk on water!” Possibly a little over the top but certainly heading in the right direction this young lady is a fair old chanter and in company with her musicians including James Fagan, Stuart Duncan and long-time collaborator Jamie McClennan makes a more than pleasurable sound. With a traditional background it’s unsurprising to find the likes of “Gypsy Davy”, and “Lord Donald” in her repertoire along with Richard Thompson’s “Waltzing’s For Dreamers” and her own self composed tracks nestling comfortably within a set that showcases her not inconsiderable talents as both musician and songwriter. Possibly my favourite track on the album is the gently sweeping acoustic funk of “Sweet Lover Of Mine” a setting of one of many traditional puzzle songs although I have to say that the rather abrupt ending isn’t quite so much to my taste. Perhaps it could have been rounded off by a tune…but, a minor quibble on what is a well-produced recording and a further feather to Smith’s burgeoning career.