October 10, 2020
The Anglo-Celtic trio Bellwether -- (L-R) Alex Cumming, Louise Bichan and Eric McDonald -- recently released an EP recording.
CREDIT: Ethan Setiawan
It’s a somewhat improbable combination of voices: West Country English, Scottish/Orkney Islands, and west suburban Boston.
But this blend works just fine for the Anglo-Celtic folk trio Bellwether, which formed in Boston last year and has played several gigs in the area, including The Burren Backroom series and at BCMFest 2020 in January. Skilled instrumentalists all, with many years of experience playing in numerous collaborations, its members – Alex Cumming (accordion, piano), Louise Bichan (fiddle, five-string banjo), and Eric McDonald (guitar, mandolin) – relished the opportunity to devote more time to singing, especially all together.
“It was definitely the singing, and doing harmony vocals, that drew us in,” says Cumming, who moved to the Boston area from Somerset, UK, several years ago. “Having been in bands where song is not quite so prominent a feature, we all felt that our voices, as well as our instruments, made for an exciting combination.”
Actually, getting all their voices, and instruments, into one place at the same time has been challenging, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, Cumming, Bichan, and McDonald were able to do so during the past winter at a recording studio in Waltham, where they put together a six-track EP that has recently been released [see bellwetherfolk.bandcamp.com]. However long it may be before Bellwether reunites, its members are gratified to have captured the essence of a partnership that flowered quickly and has proven to be immensely satisfying.
“All of three of us have been doing this for a long time, in a variety of musical experiences,” says McDonald, a Boston-area native who, after living in Portland, Maine, for a few years is now in Montreal. “It’s refreshing to get together with people who know how to get it going. Right from the start, we were able to give each other the space we needed to make the music; we knew when to take charge, and when to give support. So the band came together sooner than I think any of us thought it would.”
“It’s lovely to be part of a band where I can play music from home, and at the same time, branch out a little,” says Bichan, a Berklee College of Music grad from Scotland’s Orkney Islands. “Most of all, we have a good time with each other; you always like that in a band.”
The album’s first track, a cover of Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart’s “Follow the Heron,” is a fine introduction to Bellwether. Cumming’s accordion lays down a velvety bed of chords at the outset, while Bichan plucks a succession of notes on fiddle and McDonald improvises on guitar; as the accompaniment gradually coalesces, each takes lead vocals on one of the three verses, then voices combine during the chorus – Cumming at the warm, bassy end of the register, McDonald in the congenial middle, Bichan emerging softly at the top. The overall feel perfectly suits Kolwart’s song, which posits the arrival of hope after despair as inevitable as the return of spring.
The EP’s concluding track has a somewhat similar texture, albeit with a different affect. A traditional song found on both sides of the Atlantic, “The Bride’s Lament” came to Bichan from fellow Orcadians Brian Cromarty and Douglas Montgomery (who perform as the duo Saltfishforty), and she and her frailing banjo – with guitar and accordion – gently guide it along, Cumming and McDonald harmonizing on the chorus. The pace feels deliberate, not plodding yet not so quick as to lose the resonant sadness in the lyrics (it is a lament, after all).
Bellwether’s knack for well-crafted arrangements also shows in the other two songs. Bichan’s jazz-inflected fiddle solos and Cumming’s emphatic piano enliven “Both Sides of the Tweed,” a traditional song associated with the great Scottish singer/guitarist Dick Gaughan. “Gypsy Laddie” (a multi-sourced version of “Raggle Taggle Gypsies/Seven Yellow Gypsies/Gypsy Rover” et al), led by McDonald, interpolates an English morris dance tune, “The Blue Eyed Stranger,” until it takes over at the end – all to great effect.
The remaining two tracks are instrumental. A pair of jigs firmly establishes the Orcadian strain in Bellwether’s DNA: “Miss Sarah McFadyen” by Jennifer Wrigley – who together with her sister Hazel are fixtures of Orkney folk music – and Bichan’s modern-leaning “Roca House,” the latter with dynamic interplay between Cumming’s piano and McDonald’s guitar as they back Bichan’s powerful strokes and phrases. Cumming’s minor-key, bluesy accordion jig “Francis Frenzy” kicks off the other tune set with all kinds of whimsy – including a guitar solo – before shifting to reels, another Bichan original, “Rhena’s 80th,” followed by “Cutting a Slide” by Silly Wizard co-founder Phil Cunningham.
The EP’s contents offer some hint to the array of experiences, backgrounds. and interests of Bellwether’s members. McDonald is most familiar to Boston folk/trad music aficionados: His numerous collaborations have included the bluegrass ensemble Jaded Mandolin, Scots/Cape Breton-style fiddler Katie McNally, contra dance band Matching Orange, and, more recently, the Irish traditional group Daymark and Scottish trio Cantrip; he also has gone the contemporary folk-rock route, as a member of Pesky J. Nixon and the Dave Rowe Trio.
Cumming has been part of an a cappella quartet, The Teacups, and one-half of a duo with fiddler Nicola Beazley, and has an extensive portfolio in folk dance music. He has also served as a teacher and workshop leader for Boston’s Folk Arts Center of New England, the Country Dance and Song Society of America, and festivals and organizations in England and the US.
Bichan, while ensconced in the Orcadian fiddle tradition from an early age, and a former member of all-female folk/trad bands like Gria and Fara, has explored other styles, notably with local quartet Corner House, which melds Irish/Celtic, bluegrass, old-timey, New England contra dance, plus contemporary and singer-songwriter folk. Her magnum opus is “Out of My Own Light,” a multi-media project based on the life of her grandmother that includes a suite of instrumental pieces composed by Bichan; she also employed her talents as a photographer and videographer.
In the intricately connected Boston/New England folk scene, it’s theoretically possible for every musician to encounter every other one at least once. Suffice it to say, Cumming, McDonald, and Bichan crossed paths through mutual pursuits and/or friends, and their initial get-togethers were so full of promise that, even while still putting together a band repertoire, they decided to book a few gigs.
One source of appeal for the three in playing together was, along with some commonality in their individual musical pastimes, the prospect of branching out into less familiar territory, as Cumming notes: “I had dabbled in a few short-lived Celtic bands, but most of my music has been very much in the English tradition. It was quite exciting to match up my accordion to Louise’s fiddle style, which was not something I’d much experience with. Meanwhile, it turned out that Eric and I have a similar approach to chords and rhythm, which was a pleasant discovery.”
“It was a real pleasure encountering bits of musicianship I hadn’t heard before,” says McDonald. “I loved the arrangement Louise and Alex had worked out for ‘Follow the Heron,’ and felt able to situate myself in there. And I hadn’t known that Louise played banjo, so it was fun trying out things on guitar or mandolin with her.”
Another reason for Bellwether’s collective enthusiasm had to do with the venue for their rehearsals: Rather than crowd into a cramped living room, the three met at the Unitarian Church in Medford, where Cumming serves as music director.
“It’s got great acoustics, and a gorgeous grand piano, so I thought ‘Why not use it?’” he says of the church. “We had a lot of fun playing there, and the sound was incredible, so I think that provided a lot of inspiration.”
Given their other musical activities, along with personal and familial commitments, Bellwether has had to make the most of its time – which makes it all the more fortunate they were able to do most of the work on the EP before the pandemic hit and created an enforced separation. The COVID lockdown, along with other issues, forced them to scuttle plans for a tour in California this fall and another in the UK next year.
The three haven’t played – or been in the same room – together since a gig in early March at Boston’s Lansdowne Pub, and given coronavirus-related uncertainty, that situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. There also are some important life events ahead: McDonald and his wife are expecting their first child, while BIchan plans to move to Portland this fall.
But their relatively short stint as a trio has left Cumming, Bichan, and McDonald determined to stay with it for the long haul, even if their voices (and instruments) will have to blend via video chats instead of in person.
“I’m sure that every so often,” says Cumming, “one of us will get in touch with the other two and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea…’”
For more about Bellwether, see bellwetherband.com.