BIR CD Reviews, January 2018

For this month’s column, we’re going to take a look at some recent recordings by Celtic artists with Massachusetts and New England ties.
The Press Gang, “Fortune It May Smile” • Formed in 2009 amidst the proliferating Portland, Me., folk music scene, The Press Gang had been doing just fine as a trio, centered around the power and artistry of Christian “Junior” Stevens’ accordion and concertina and Alden Robinson’s fiddle, with the intrepid backing of Owen Marshall on guitar and bouzouki. Their first two albums firmly established them as one of the best traditional Irish ensembles to emerge from New England in the past decade or so.

Then, a couple of years ago, Hanz Araki moved to Portland from the West Coast and brought not only his masterful flute and whistle-playing, but also his fine singing voice to the group. With “Fortune It May Smile,” The Press Gang is as instrumentally robust as ever, and now they have an outstanding vocal presence to boot.
The band’s flair for putting together well-structured instrumental sets is front and center on the first track, a quartet of reels: Araki, on whistle, and Marshall (bouzouki) blaze along on “Seán Sa Ceo” with Stevens adding concertina the second time through, before Robinson spearheads the transition into “Mick O’Connor’s,” Marshall doubling up on guitar; then it’s into the driving A-dorian “Jolly Tinker,” Araki returning on flute (meanwhile, listen how Marshall eases up a bit on the fourth part and works in chord variations), and finishing up with the effusive “Fox on the Town” by Richard Dwyer.
A jig set has fiddle and flute taking the lead on the darting “McIntyre’s,” Stevens’ concertina supplying a soft drone at the end until he launches into “I Was Born for Sport,” with its G/E-minor back-and-forth; they conclude with “I Ne’er Shall Wean Her.”
Other instrumental highlights include “Pearl O’Shaughnessy’s Barndance,” driven by Stevens’ accordion and Marshall’s express-train guitar, seguing seamlessly into the reel “Kiss the Maid Behind the Barrel,” played at ridiculously fast pace yet with full control; a similarly energetic assortment of polkas – the second of which has the arresting alternate title of “Captain Moonlight’s Army” – and another of slides; and a comely waltz by Kerry guitarist Matt Griffin, “Válsa an tSean Bhaile,” that features a graceful Robinson-Marshall duet at the start.
On the three song tracks, Araki proves he is at least as expressive a singer as he is a musician. His is a sweet-toned, sensitive yet deceptively powerful voice, which he utilizes judiciously, such as the crescendos on the traditional soldier-leaves-sweetheart ballad “Banks of the Nile,” heightening the inherent drama without overdoing it; or the way he swells the held notes in “Master Kilby,” one of the more wistful romantic songs in the British Isles tradition (associated with the legendary Nic Jones). And he’s strident but sympathetic on “Johnny Miner,” a commentary on the bitterness felt by coal miners about the demise of their profession, from the pen of Northern English working-class songwriter Ed Pickford.
Araki’s fellow Press Gangers, meanwhile, support his singing to great effect, such as Stevens’ soft piano backing on “Banks of the Nile” and Marshall’s lovely guitar work on “Master Kilby.”
A gentle “Carolan’s Receipt” closes out the CD, and though cliché it may be to say that the end feels too soon, it is certainly the case here. The fourth album can’t come soon enough. []
Emerald Rae & Somer O’Brien, “Artifact” • Rae, a Gloucester native, has been a part of the Greater Boston folk music scene since her teens, and in a number of incarnations: a US Scottish Fiddle Champion with a special love for the Cape Breton tradition; a member of the Irish/American “alt-trad” band Annalivia; a practitioner of Cape Breton and Irish dance; and a solo performer whose interests have extended to songwriting and exploration of old-timey/Americana.
O’Brien, who comes from Pennsylvania and lives in Gloucester, has a similarly extensive curriculum vitae, with a background as a classical pianist but also as an accordionist whose repertoire encompasses jazz, Afro-Latin and European music.
Hence, “Artifact” has a delightful polyglot quality to it: You can almost visualize Rae and O’Brien jamming on a Halifax pier one minute, and in the next performing in a little village square somewhere within sight of the Pyrenees, or doing a leisurely set in a Neapolitan café. Yet for all the moveable-feast vibe, there is nothing unpolished or amateur about their sound. The command of instrument each demonstrates enables them to confidently adopt, individually or together, the distinguishing characteristics of whatever musical realm to which they travel.
In this way, they can take on a pair of contemporary-style Irish slip jigs, “Soggy’s” (by Sean Og Graham of Beoga) and Michael McGoldrick’s “Farewell to Whalley Range,” and then proceed to the hot-blooded gypsy jazz of “Passion,” written by Italian-born musette player Tony Mureña and composer Joseph Colombo. Or a Scottish/Cape Breton medley (“She’s Sweetest When She’s Naked/Fiddler Play the Light Strathspey/Tim Horton’s/Wooden Whale/But Why Is the Rum Gone?” – the latter written by Boston-area fiddler Rachel Reeds) on one track, and on another wind their way through a Scandinavian/Breton mix (“Joker’s Pulska”).
Or consider another study in contrasts: On one track is a medley that begins with the solemn “Nathaniel Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Brother” and fires through Phil Cunningham’s 5/4 gem “Leire’s Trip To Cozac,” the traditional “Dark Night of Tomaidh” and “Fletch Taylor,” an original by her former Annalivia colleague Flynn Cohen; and on another is the spellbinding “Saros,” a composition of Stelios Petrakis, a musician and instrument maker from Crete, with its multiple musical influences from East and West – O’Brien’s accordion lends a pulsating undercurrent as Rae’s fiddle churns through the multiple key changes.
“Artifact” is an intersection where folk traditions and “high-art” music nestle comfortably, and unironically, in the capable hands of two top-flight musicians who display equally excellent chemistry, as well as an abiding sense of adventure and joviality.
And by the way, Rae is already at work on her next project, recording an album of 10 original songs. []
Fellswater, “Skipping Stones” • Originally formed as a quartet a decade ago, Massachusetts-based Fellswater has in the past few years undergone a significant change to its roster. Co-founders Elizabeth Ketudat (fiddle), Sarah MacConduibh (flute, whistle, fife) and Jim MacConduibh (acoustic bass, bouzouki, guitar) welcomed Andrew McIntosh (Scottish small pipes, border pipes) – who succeeded original piper Matt Phelps – along with percussionist Kyle Forsthoff and husband-wife vocal duo Chris and Diane Meyers (Chris also plays guitar and octave mandolin). Besides its Fellswater tenure, the band’s collective background, experience and influences include classical, contemporary folk/folk-rock and fife-and-drum corps.
“Skipping Stones” is Fellswater’s first release with this expanded line-up, its third overall. The band has displayed a certain deliberateness in its approach to Celtic music – Scottish, Irish and Breton traditions among them – marked by meticulously arranged instrumental sets. Four on “Skipping Stones” stand out in particular, presenting tunes by leading latter-day Scottish musicians like Angus Grant, Adam Sutherland, John McCusker, and the late Gordon Duncan.
Among these are the opening track (“Strichen Gala/Road to Aikey Brae/Jig Ahoy”); a medley that includes Grant’s twisty-turny “Two-Fifty to Vigo” and “The Fourth Floor,” a characteristically intricate Duncan piece with all kinds of rhythmic mayhem; and sets featuring McCusker’s “Leaving Friday Harbour,” and two more Duncan tunes (“The Famous Baravan” and “Zito the Bubbleman”). It’s the Scottish material that plays to the band’s strengths, especially when McIntosh is at the fore (fair to mention, also, that he does yeoman’s work on a batch of Northumbrian pipe tunes, with their unique decorations and outbreaks of eighth and sixteenth notes).
The vocal dimension obviously sets this Fellswater album apart from its predecessors. Diane Meyers’s deep, soulful voice lends itself well to Stuart and Wanda Samson’s anthemic “Shores of Caledonia,” and her lead and harmonizing with Chris is quite appealing on a setting of Robert Tannahill’s “Are You Sleeping Maggie?”; the couple also are in fine form on “Star o’ the Bar,” by Scottish singer-songwriter Davie Robertson, a song about love that manages to be engagingly sardonic and philosophical at the same time.
Sometimes on the album, though, reach exceeds grasp. “The Blacksmith” – that much-covered ballad of romantic disappointment – comes off rather over-wrought here, and the attempt to interpolate the “Kid on the Mountain” slip jig into the song doesn’t exactly work. The rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” (from his early, folk tradition-influenced period) seems more a showcase for the Meyerses than a band piece. An excursion into Quebecois tunes lacks the lift and agility you expect from that tradition. And there are junctures where the music feels over-arranged – you wish for less instrumentation, more space for the melody or a tune’s innate rhythm.
But when it works – and there are plenty of times it does on “Skipping Stones” – the result is very pleasing to the ear. As the band’s new line-up continues to settle in, seven may well turn out to be Fellswater’s lucky number. []