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A Spirited Elegance

Catriona  McKay –  Untitled (Glimster Records. GLIMCD 01)

Fiddlers’ Bid –  Da Farder Ben Da Welcomer ( Greentrax. CDTRAX218)

When I first heard a fragment of Catriona McKay’s playing I thought it was Derek Bell, the great, and now sadly late, Belfast harpist. There was just something about the lightness of touch and the tune briefly reminded me of something by Turlough Carolan.  Well, I was wrong on both counts. It wasn’t Bell and the tune was, ‘The Swan LK243’, composed by McKay herself. It’s here on this, her first, CD along with various Shetland and other traditional tunes plus a couple more originals.  And it is one of those totally refreshing albums that combines harp, fiddle, double bass and percussion with such elegant simplicity that the tunes cannot help but speak and stay with you.

Take the aforementioned piece, ’The Swan’. This was written about a trip from Lerwick Harbour on the sail boat from which the tune takes its name. There is an open air, cool breezes in your face feel as the harp and fiddle glide through and embellish the melody as the bass firmly anchors it all. You can almost feel the decks rolling under your feet!!

But before I get carried away with that one there are many memorable tunes here. ‘The Forlorn Queen’, is taken from the Bunting Collection, published in 1797, and if the word ‘haunting’ wasn’t so over-used I’d be tempted. It is a melody for which no words have been traced and to be honest it is so eloquently written that I doubt if words could ever do it any justice. McKay allows the tune to unfold in a stately, unhurried manner and it is one of those that I keep replaying. Another one is ‘Maurice O’Connor’ and this time it is one of Carolan’s. McKay takes it solo and the grace and elegance that characterise some of the best of the blind harper’s tunes are evident here. Her own, ‘The Loon Mountain Moose’, is equally sprightly and buoyant, abetted by some restrained bass and percussion.

Of the traditional tunes, ‘The Bonfire’, which is three pieces in one, shows off both the fleet-fingered harping and the subtlety of the accompanists whilst ‘More Grog Comin’ brings together another three tunes, all from the Shetland repertoire. Chris Stout’s fiddle gets a chance to solo too as the harp adds its own understated textures.

The album ends with a love song ‘Castle O’Neill’, again without words and from the Bunting Collection. It is a delicate affair with just solo harp to deliver the lovely tune. It is a fitting end to a set that offers spirited revivals from the tradition alongside newer tunes which promise more to come.

If you like the sound of that then you’ll probably also enjoy the collective exuberance of Fiddlers’ Bid, a seven piece specialising in tunes from the Shetland Islands as well as their own compositions. Catriona McKay is a member along side several storming fiddles, guitar and bass guitar. They race through breakneck tunes, like ‘Zander The Sander’, another piece from that boat trip out of Lerwick, a place which also inspired one of their slow airs ‘Leaving Lerwick Harbour’. The latter exudes a melancholy grace as massed fiddles soar over the rippling harp. It is both poignant and effective.

The band’s Shetland roots are explored in traditional pieces such as, ‘Du’s Bun Lang Awa An A’m Tocht Ta See Dee’ or ‘You Have Been Long Away And I’ve Thought Long About Seeing You Again’, a tune that was played as part of a Shetland wedding. Music for wedding nights features again on ‘Da Farder Ben Da Welcomer’, a tune to do with ‘bedding the bride’, apparently. It’s all played with gusto and obvious pleasure. I bet they are a joy to witness on stage.

So to bring me back to where I started there is another harp tune, ‘Christine’ which is a simple and expressive showcase before McKay’s ‘The Swan’ closes the album, this time as a bigger band version which retains every bit of the tune’s delicacy. Currently favourite contender for my ‘tune of the year’ it wraps up a breath-taking set of vital playing that warms the spirit in these dark days of the new year.

Buy the recording:

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Queen of the Gypsies: The Life and Legend of Carmen Amaya, by Paco Sevilla.

Queen of the Gypsies: The Life and Legend of Carmen Amaya
Queen of the Gypsies: The Life and Legend of Carmen Amaya

This is a substantial work on the life and times of the mythic Gypsy flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya, written by an American flamenco guitarist and aficionado.

The first comprehensive work on Carmen Amaya to appear in English, it compiles information from all previous Carmen Amaya biographies (most of which were published in Spanish).

The book also makes available some valuable unpublished interviews that discuss Carmen Amaya, those in her immediate circle and other flamenco performers of her time. An extensive collection of contemporary reviews of Spanish dance company performances from the 1920s to the 1950s is featured, especially reviews appearing in New York and Los Angeles newspapers.

There is also valuable information excerpted from recent interviews that have appeared in a number of flamenco journals, including the now defunct American journal “Jaleo” which the author edited.

review by Marie Jost

Sevilla Press, ISBN 0-9646374-1-3

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Ojos de Brujo and Depedro at London’s La Linea 2011 Festival

Ojos de Brujo
Ojos de Brujo
Spanish acts Ojos de Brujo and Depedro will be performing Friday April 15th at Barbican Hall in London. Ojos de Brujo, from Barcelona, fuse flamenco’s driving rhythms with hip-hop, funk, punk and other stray sounds snatched from Spain’s streets.

The group calls this musical mashup ‘Jip Jop Flamenkillo’, a sound that catapults flamenco into the 21st century without losing any of the power or passion of the music’s roots.

Depedro, from Madrid, is the nom de music of Spanish guitarist-singer-songwriter Jairo Zavala, sideman for Calexico, as well as Andrew Bird. His second album for National Geographic Nubes De Papel (Paper Clouds) is just out and was produced (as was his debut “Depedro”), by Calexico’s Joey Burns with other Calexico members sitting in on the sessions.

Friday April 15, at 7:30pm
Barbican Hall
Silk Street EC2Y 8DS
020 7638 8891
£22/£18/£12

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Market for African Performing Arts

Abidjan, Ivory Coast – From March 3 through March 10 Abidjan (Ivory Coast) will host the 5th Edition of MASA, the Market for African Performing. The trade show will feature numerous showcases of African artists, including music, dance and theater. Most artists and delegates come from French-speaking West Africa, France and Belgium but there will also be artists from South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana.

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Jorma Kaukonen & Jon Shain at The Arts Center in Carrboro

Concert Review by Rob Turner
Jorma Kaukonen &Jon Shain at The Arts Center in Carrboro, North Carolina, February 19, 2000.

Jorma Kaukonen’s return to the “triangle” area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) was part of a big weekend on Franklin Street just outside of Chapel Hill. Literally two storefronts away the Smashing Pumpkins were slated to perform a rare club date at Cat’s Cradle. Unfortunately, two of the original members of the band were unable to perform that night, so the cogitative Billy Corgan performed most of the show solo.

Word has it he pulled it off just fine, by the way, some of his most hardcore fans were actually delighted while a handful took advantage of the band’s offer to redeem admission to any displeased patrons.There was no refund seeking at The Arts Center on this night.

These two artists were planning on performing solo all along. Jorma Kaukonen, veteran of Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, and so much more, was the headline. His appearance was met with much excitement, as it was his first area gig in an intimate setting since an appearance at Under The Street in Durham seven years prior (almost to the date, 2/13/93).

Jon Shain, who opened for Hot Tuna as well as Kaukarano (Jorma’s duo gig with Michael Falzarano) a number of times as a member of Flyin’ Mice, was in a familiar pre-Kaukonen slot. (Jorma even sat in with the now-defunct Mice a couple of times.) The combination of the return of a legend, and one of the triangle’s finest singer/songwriters, made the show an easy sellout.

Jorma Kaukonen’s set

The Letter
Loan Me A Year
Child Of Tomorrow’s Summers
Sapphire Sky
New Year’s Eve
Porcupine Rag
Armchair Warrior
One Way Gal
Acoustic Solo
Perambulatory Blues
Step It Up And Go

Jon Shain’s set:
Jon Shain was in the middle of a hell of a week. He and his wife had just closed on a new house. How many people can say that they were opening for Jorma Kaukonen Saturday night, and then picking up a truck rental Sunday morning to spend the entire day moving?

Shain opened the set with a version of his updated take on Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee’s The Letter. While his performance on acoustic guitar was a little shaky behind the initial vocal portion, the first section of lead guitar was so impressive it elicited applause from the crowd. The next six songs were from Shain’s 1999 solo release “Brand New Lifetime”. His finger picking on Loan Me A Year was a bit more subdued than usual, perhaps in deference to Mr. Kaukonen. He chose spice up this version with a lead guitar not usually heard on Loan Me A Year, and an enlivened lead vocal.

Jon was in strong vocal form the entire set. This paid off particularly well as he offered note-perfect versions of three of his stronger recent originals, which also were well received by his hometown crowd. Child Of Tomorrow’s Summers featured the presumably unintentional nod to Corgan’s worries at Cat’s Cradle, with the lyric “frightening nightmare’s in the cradle.” This was a particularly impassioned rendition, as Shain engaged himself in the lyrics of the song, especially as he sang, “at harvest time we’ll have to scour the field, for the seeds we’ve never sown.” He also played a note-perfect, gorgeous solo in this number.

One of Shain’s favorite one-two punches lately has been the old-timey Porcupine Rag, and the Stephen Stills-flavored muscular acoustics of Armchair Warrior. These two shined particularly bright tonight, and grunts of appreciation for Shain’s luscious guitar picking emitted from finger watchers sitting up near the stage.

Shain then pointed out that another one of his heroes was in The Arts Center that night, the esteemed North Carolina bluesman Lightnin’ Wells. Shain then performed One Way Gal, which he introduced as written by a Piedmont blues musician from the twenties, William Moorealthough Shain stole it off of one of Wells’ albums. Shain also chose this moment to acknowledge the many guitar students of his that were in attendance, to which the students shouted out their approval.

There were many of Shain’s most fervent fans in the house also, and he treated them to a rare solo reading of a former Flyin’ Mice showstopper, the poorly titled instrumental epic, Acoustic Solo. (I always thought the title didn’t do the adventurous song justice) Later, one taper who follows Shain’s career closely suggested that it may have been the first live version since Flyin’ Mice disbanded. 

Perambulatory Blues, a long time staple of many Shain projects, found him offering a fiery lead at breakneck pace, definitely his strongest guitar work of the set. Jon then engaged the crowd in a call and response on the set-closing Step It Up And Go. As he departed the stage, most of the audience exalted him with a standing ovation.

I was taken by the respect Jon showed Jorma by shaping his set to complement Jorma’s performance rather than compete with it. The Americana feel of some of his songs, the guttural singing synchronized with an entire lead he took on Armchair Warrior, and of course the call and response with the crowd on Step It Up And Go, all served to appropriately whet the audience’s musical palette for the Jorma set that followed. Shain displayed an awareness of the fact that there is no need to finger pick too many tunes when one of the greatest of all time is on deck.

Jorma Kaukonen’s set:
Harvey Colman’s Clapton Story Intro
Trouble In Mind
Hesitation Blues
Walkin’ Blues
How Long Blues
Death Don’t Have No Mercy
Do Not Go Gentle
I See The Light
Sunny Day Strut
True Religion
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
Living In The Moment
Good Shepherd
99Year Blues
I Am The Light Of This World
Ice Age
Genesis
Follow The Drinking Gourd
Uncle Sam Blues
Happy Turtle Song
Mann’s Fate
San Francisco Bay Blues
Water Song

Police Dog Blues

Keep On Truckin’

One thing that highlights how Jorma has improved, as a performer in the years that I have been fortunate enough to enjoy him is his vocal delivery. As far back as I can remember, Jorma’s guitar prowess has always been evident. However, when I first started seeing Jorma in the eighties, his vocal approach, while always resonant with soul, was sometimes was lacking in comprehensibility. While he was still a delight to see back then, one really had to come to the show armed with prior knowledge of the lyrics of his repertoire to garner a full appreciation. While he still has his own distinctive warm growl delivered with robust soul, he now also sings with consistent clarity. And his guitar work…well…. ridiculous…..off the hook….at times inconceivable….Jorma is one of those artists that render words worthless and weak, but that’s all we got so here we go.

Jorma’s tour manager and close friend, the enigmatic Harvey Colman, regaled the crowd with a story while introducing the man some call, “The Captain.” “Eric Clapton was doing an interview one time and somebody asked him, ‘How does it feel to be the greatest guitarist in the world?’ And Eric said, “I don’t know, ask Jorma Kaukonen!” After showing Harvey some appreciation for going the extra mile with the introduction, Jorma slid into a tune believed by many to be written by B lind Connie Williams, Trouble In Mind. Jorma eased into the set with pretty straight readings of this and Hesitation Blues. That is to say, straight by lofty Kaukonen standards. He did lend some extra muscle to one portion of Hesitation. Robert Johnson’s Walkin’ Blues seemed to energize Jorma, as one slightly botched section gave way to muscular low note improvisations immediately.

Jorma threw down some stunning instrumental work, holding notes and series’ of notes to build tension, and slamming out of them only to return to more liberal improvisation and eventually launch into other note holding sessions. Some of the riffs that he tossed out during Walkin’ were nothing short of jaw dropping, and the show was in gear.

Responding to a request for In The Kingdom, Jorma shared a prayer that he had heard on NPR recently, “I pray for the day I can be the man my dog thinks I am.” He then laid a spectacular version of How Long Blues on us, which featured some stunning sinewy guitar lines. His vocal was outstanding as well, especially his delivery of, “I thought I heard a whistle, mama I think I see a train. Deep in my heart there is a achin’ pain.”

I thought Death Don’t Have No Mercy was going to be the rarely performed Another Man Done Gone at first, until he injected an acrobatic low note guitar roll into the introduction signaling that it was indeed Death. Again, he exhibited many stunning low note guitar flurries. One of the many head-scratching things about Jorma is the amount of notes he can get out with very little plucking from his right hand. That left hand of his is often solely responsible for many, many strong notes, while his right hand patiently waits above the strings. His guitar playing in the verse section of Death seemed to be entirely improvised, and even the fastest riffs didn’t throw off his timing one bit. Jorma’s instrumental passages were pure ear candy, with high notes here, some lusciously repeated chordal work thereit was truly an amazing reading.

I enjoy Do Not Go Gentle, because it is a song that particularly allows Jorma to take it wherever he pleases. Tonight, it wandered into some sweetly ethereal spaces. The opening chords of True Religion, sparked some hoots out of the attentive audience. The reading was slightly slower than I am used to, which seemed to put more emphasis on the prescient lyric of this Tuna classic. Just the way he inserts a gentle smidge of his growl into the verse ending “Hal-ay-lu’s” (phonetic) was chill-inducing.
Nobody Knows You lends itself to Jorma’s style of vocal and phrasing beautifully. An example of one of my favorite things about Jorma was when he crooned the “Nobody Knows You When” and then with “Your” he trailed to a growl and let his guitar play the “Down and Out,” part which flowed seamlessly into an instrumental section. As Harvey would ask, “does it get any better than this….really….does it?”

Living In The Moment, is a new song that will soon have words, “if I’m lucky,” Jorma says. It is a contemplative piece, which tonight I believe had a new portion that wasn’t included in the version I had seen in Atlanta just two days back. It’s always nice to hear Jorma working on new material. This is especially true with a piece like this one, where there is ample space for improvisation. I’m sure Jorma will take advantage of this as he becomes more familiar it. One fan yelled out, “don’t need no words Jorma!”To which the eternally quick-witted Kaukonen responded, “That’s not what my wife says!” Jorma dipped back to his psychedelic days with a heart-felt rendering of Good Shepherd, which was first made popular by the Jefferson Airplane. His vocals were spiced with quiet embellishments. He effortlessly alternated delicate guitar parts with resonant chords where his left hand grabbed the guitar with such might I though he was gonna throw the thing. Jorma also displayed some energetic rhythm guitar before and during the familiar descending patterns that return the song to its final lyric.

99 Year Blues has become something of a “hit” for Kaukonen lately, as the crowd responded to the opening notes, and the end of the first verse for that matter, with fervent applause (as they did in Atlanta). Jorma appeared more than happy to play 99 Year Blues as he fired off some dizzying guitar lines, and was jubilantly toying with the phrasing. Rev. Gary Davis’ I Am The Light Of This World, provided further evidence of Jorma’s ability to easily work his left hand across the fret board like a contortionist. The crowd seemed hypnotized by a spectacular reading of his own spooky composition, Ice Age. Jorma took full advantage of this piece on the final instrumental portion, which found him to twisting the song into new directions before he power-strummed it to its conclusion.

A woman squealed with delight when Jorma announced that he was going to perform Genesis. Jorma thanked the exuberant fan by saying, “bless you.” Widespread Panic covers this song occasionally, and in case some of their younger fans don’t know, it i a Kaukonen-penned Hot Tuna song. His heart-wrenching lead vocal was mesmerizing as Jorma delivered a memorable version of this wonderful song. After its completion, Jorma got ta’ talkin’ about surreal moments, and among the ones he shared was a recent day that he had heard his instrumental Water Song in an Ohio airport. After a couple more stories, he offered an extended version of his instrumental, Follow The Drinking Gourd in lieu of a requested White Rabbit.

While all of Jorma’s material takes on a different feel in a solo setting, this version of Uncle Sam Blues departed radically from any I’ve ever heard. His choices of where to accent, lyrically and instrumentally, were strikingly adventurous. This made for an interesting listen, as did the Jorma chestnut that followed. A friend of Jorma’s had asked him to perform Happy Turtle Song, and Jorma obliged, introducing it as “A little thing in C.” It was a quick lil’ nug, but I’ll take it. Hot on its heels was a version of Mann’s Fate that was nothing short of stunning. There was one point where he was repeating two separate guitar lines in unisonJorma at his stunt acoustic guitar best!

I’ve always preferred Jorma’s approach to Jesse Fuller’s San Francisco Bay Blues to anyone else’s, and tonight’s version did not disappoint. He twisted the song beautifully, stretching out some words, and galloping through others. His fingers skipped across the guitar as he offered an unthinkable array of rhythms, repeated notes, and sick licks. The room seemed in collective awe as it was beyond silent until a rousing ovation greeted its conclusion.

Jorma’s tantalizing reading of Water Song ended the set. The crowd exploded with a loud standing ovation that did not let up until he returned to tune up for a solid version of “Police Dog Blues.” After he attempted to leave again, the crowd continued to roar their approval. The venue turned on the house music, but that only caused the crowd to increase its cheering. As the thunderous applause drowned out the house music, Jorma re-emerged to leave us with a animated version of Keep On Truckin

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