March CD Reviews

The Jeremiahs, “The Femme Fatale of Maine”
• As the folk revival has gone on, there has been a gradual proliferation, especially in more recent years, of bands that utilize the architecture of traditional music in presenting their original music – close to the tradition yet at a certain remove. The list is extensive, and would certainly be open to argument (Kila? Enter the Haggis? LAU? RUNA?), but Dublin’s The Jeremiahs is a solid, and quite creative, entry.
Formerly a quartet, this trio’s mark of distinction begins with lead vocalist Joe Gibney, whose voice has a Sean Tyrell-like gravitas to it: an edge with a hint of portent (“The Wild Barrow Road,” John Spillane’s “Passage West” or “The Plough and Stars”), but also a capacity for tenderness, such as on “This Boy” or the title track. Complementing Gibney are James Ryan (guitar, bouzouki, harmonica) and Jean-Christophe Morel (fiddle, bouzouki), as well as guest (or perhaps “auxiliary member” is more appropriate) Julien Bruneteau on flute and whistle.
If Gibney provides the impetus, then Ryan, Morel and Bruneteau provide the continuity – Ryan with crisp rhythm, Morel and Bruneteau with their superbly delivered fills and breaks, as well as flat-out gorgeous harmonizing. The songs, most of which are written by the band, have a reticent charm and wisdom about them: “Wild Barrow Road” is a different take on the our-crazy-band-adventures theme, setting the frenzy of traveling alongside the serenity and mystery of the landscape (“As we drive through this valley/we rise and we fall/like this tune with no top or no bottom at all”); “Femme Fatale of Maine” visits another familiar subject, temptation and ruination (“Every stage of a poor man’s life/should at least inform the other/But a lady fair will leave men cold/and take all they can give her”), while “This Boy” juxtaposes an upbeat melody and tempo with the painful, inevitable realization of love gone wrong.

Of a more iconoclastic nature, perhaps, is “Plough and Stars,” which the band’s liner notes describe as an “anti-rebel song” that, even as it touches on Ireland’s troubled history, endorses the modern “put down the gun” mindset: “And come the morning we’ll rise again/and break the chains from the plough and stars.”

Ryan, Morel, and Bruneteau are at the forefront on the album’s three instrumental tracks, the best of which is “Croix-Rousse,” highlighted by a nifty, slow-building transition from leisurely to full-tilt pace, girded by Ryan’s fine guitar work.

The concluding track, “Derry Gaol,” is not a band original – it was penned by Dublin singer-songwriter Alan Burke with Tim Potts – but fits very well into The Jeremiahs’ oeuvre: a jailhouse ballad along the lines of Jez Lowe’s more sardonic “Durham Gaol,” expressing lamentation, solidarity, and defiance. Don’t be surprised if you hear the repeating riff by Morel and Bruneteau in your head long afterwards, along with some of the other words and music you’ll hear on this album. []

Helena Byrne, “Tóraíocht Shonais (Pursuit of Happiness)” • Byrne has pursued a multifaceted career as singer, songwriter, storyteller, and actress that includes appearances with James Taylor, Moya Brennan, and Bob Geldof, and numerous theatrical projects. This album builds on her previous effort “Scéal” – a collection of stories and reminiscences of Ireland – to recall and evoke the experience of Irish immigration to the US and Canada from the mid-19th century on, and the social, political, and economic impacts that resulted – both for the new arrivals and the lands they now called home. Byrne’s historical narrative is mixed with traditional songs (including a nice medley of “Dowie Dens of Yarrow” and “Wayfaring Stranger” to compare and contrast Irish and American traditions) and her own compositions.

On the one hand, the ground here isn’t exactly unbroken: There are sections on the Great Famine, anti-Irish prejudice, “American wakes,” and JFK. But Byrne also touches on some fascinating sidebars, like the tragic story of Michael Considine, an Irish immigrant (and briefly a Boston resident) who penned that vivid remembrance of his native Clare, “Spancil Hill,” or the donation made to Irish famine relief by the impoverished Choctaw Nation – one of the more improbable but profound bonds between America and Ireland.

The best feature of the album is the excerpts of interviews with immigrants and their descendants, which grounds the artistic and dramatic content in a folksy authenticity. And you’ll hear a few references to Boston and other Massachusetts communities, which is hardly surprising but does underscore the Bay State’s ties with Ireland.

Sure, sentimentality and pathos are readily found in “Tóraíocht Shonais,” but history isn’t supposed to be an entirely academic, dry-eyed affair. Byrne does an effective job of personalizing the thousands upon millions of stories born of the journey from the Old World to the New. []

Pete’s Posse, “The Conversation” • The “Pete” in question is Vermont’s Pete Sutherland, a mainstay in New England folk/traditional music for decades, playing in bands like Woods Tea Company, the Clayfoot Strutters, and Metamora. Sutherland was among a vanguard of musicians a few decades ago who pulled together the various strands of music traditions found in New England – Irish, Scottish, Canadian maritime, Quebecois, Americana – and located them in a contemporary milieu: crossing genres sometimes within one song or tune set, devising thoughtful, elaborate arrangements, and adding their own compositions, which fit snugly into the mix.

On “The Conversation,” Sutherland (fiddle, five-string banjo, keyboards) and his “posse” of the past four years, Oliver Scanlon (fiddle, mandolin, viola, foot percussion) and Tristan Henderson (guitars, mandolin, bass, jaw harp, foot percussion), present this kaleidoscope of sounds and styles with equal parts amiability and energy. Kicking off the album – their third – is a medley of Irish reels (“The Brocca Set”) that begins with a flourish of experimental sounds, until a fiddle slowly and steadily builds up a 4/4 rhythm, and the trio is off and running.

Other instrumental tracks include a typically infectious Quebecois set (“Reel de Grandpere”), “The Vermont Set” – three reels that underscore the New England/Celtic connection – and “Turlette Electrique,” anchored by a Cape Breton reel by Andrea Baeton that is sandwiched between Scanlon’s “Silver Bay” and Henderson’s “Turlette Electrique,” the latter a vocalization backed by Nicholas Williams’s flute. There are also some surprising turns, such as on “The Bunny Tree” when Henderson lets fly with a jazzy-funky electric guitar solo. Arguably the piece de resistance is “Stick Season Suite,” a nine-minute tapestry of tempos, tones, and instrument and vocal combinations.

While joviality is apparent throughout the album, a couple of songs by Sutherland strike a more serious note: “Up and Blow Away” is a homespun but sincere reflection on mortality, while “The Sap Ain’t Running” is a literal on-the-ground commentary on the effect of climate change. “Don’t Let Me Go,” another Sutherland piece, has a subtle pop dynamic to it, complete with a sweetly earnest three-part harmony. “The Conversation” is a very eloquent piece of work indeed. []