May CD Reviews

The Gloaming, “Live at the NCH” • This occasional band is the union of five intriguing personalities and talents, all steeped in traditional music while very open to influences from contemporary sources: Martin Hayes, a master of the lyrical East Clare fiddle style; guitarist Dennis Cahill, Hayes’ frequent collaborator; Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh, whose fiddling reflects the Sliabh Luachra tradition but also his own experiments in Scandinavian and American music; sean-nos singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, formerly with groundbreaking Irish/world-fusion group Afro Celt Sound System; and Thomas Bartlett AKA Doveman, a Vermont-born pianist who has played in numerous folk, contemporary and other musical genres (including the wunderkind contra dance trio Popcorn Behavior, later Assembly).
Since 2011, through two studio recordings and a smattering of live appearances, they’ve produced a thoroughly unique sound in which the Irish music tradition is both framework and point of departure, the changer and the changed. Reels, jigs, and other melodies are explored, deconstructed, set in the background to or blended with improvisatory passages, then restored. There are elements of jazz, contemporary classical, experimental, and other modern styles interspersed, but the connectivity with Irish tradition is never in question.
The six lengthy tracks on “Live” – ranging from 7 to 18 minutes – are made up of material from their two albums, in some cases extended and/or appended. The big difference, of course, is that with a live audience you’re keyed into the immediacy of the event, the anticipation and build-up, and the full flowering of the band’s creativity and abilities. So however cerebral The Gloaming might seem, description-wise, they certainly have the capacity to quicken pulses and create excitement among listeners.
For example, there is the interplay between Hayes and Ó Raghallaigh, who uses the hardanger d’amore – a combination of the Scandinavian fiddle and a viola; its deeper, resonant tone is a striking complement to Hayes, whether for melody, harmony, or counterpoint, as heard on “The Booley House,” “The Rolling Wave” and “The Sailor’s Bonnet.” Bartlett’s piano, meanwhile, is a fascinating wild card: At times, it sounds as if he’s working in a different room than the rest of the band, such as when he extemporizes at one juncture in “Sailor’s Bonnet” while Hayes, Ó Raghallaigh, and Cahill (he, by the way, tends to be somewhat down in the mix, which is too bad) are briskly churning out a reel – and then gradually, as the tune takes greater precedence, he begins to synchronize with the others, and the final few minutes are powerful and breathtaking.
Ó Lionáird’s soaring, ornate vocals provide a whole other stimulus, such as his soulful treatment of “Samhradh, Samhradh (Summer, Summer)” in the “Fáinleog” medley that closes out the album, or the dramatic duets with Bartlett at the beginning and in the middle of “Cucanandy.” And in so doing, he reminds us that the Irish music tradition has an extensive song component as equally deserving of attention as the instrumental one.
“Gloaming,” of course, is another word for twilight – that period when grouped objects in our view gradually become less distinct from one another, their distinguishing characteristics hazier. And, yes, in folklore twilight is when the world as we know it is in contact with the supernatural “other world,” and appearances transform. Seems a pretty apt description for the music these fine gentlemen make. []

Bob Bradshaw, “American Echoes” • Bradshaw, a Cork native now living in Boston, is thoroughly in his groove with this, his seventh album. His brand of country-rock/acoustic folk-pop is enriched by a songwriting approach that can be observational (“Exotic Dancers Wanted,” “Call It What You Will”), introspective (“Material for the Blues”), economical yet eloquent (“O Brother”), sly (“Workin’ On My Protest Song”) and endearingly tender (“Meet Me,” “Stella”).
While Bradshaw has often shared author credits – here with several others, including longtime collaborator Scoop Maguire, on 10 of the 12 tracks – there’s never been any question that the songs are his. A lot of them are set in the paradigmatic rough section of town, amidst dive bars, diners, and coffee shops that probably never had better days to see (“Different names on different nights/Candi, Dixie, Annabelle/What’s written in the lights/Whatever thrills the clientele”), but there’s nothing salacious or voyeuristic in the tone; Bradshaw doesn’t invite pity for or judgment on the characters, just our attention, perhaps our empathy.
Bradshaw’s supporting cast for “American Echoes” is slightly different, notably including electric guitarists Andrew Stern and Andy Santospago, who bring a strong rock presence to songs like “Weight of the World,” “The Assumptions We Make” and “O Brother.” A welcome returnee is keyboardist James Rohr, contributing a graceful piano to “Call It What You Will” and a warm Hammond organ to “Stella.”
Unquestionably, one of the album’s lyrical highlights is “My Double and I,” a wonderfully wry lament for the age of identity theft and dissociation set to a jazzy rhythm, Stern’s wah-wah electric guitar accentuating the song’s sense of absurdity: “My double and I rarely meet/When we do it’s a touchy matter/We both try to cross the street/Neither one of us is flattered”; “Then there was this girl who’d seen us/She ended up in therapy/When I made her choose between us/She said he pretended he was me.”
To close out the album, Bradshaw shifts gears again with “Old Soldiers,” a simple, dignified ode to veterans (and a welcome contrast to puffed-up pseudo-anthems that stoke patriotism’s worst excesses) carried along by Mike Connors’s soft regimental drumming and Chad Manning’s gentle fiddling. You can practically envision a Ken Burns-like montage as Bradshaw speaks to soldiers’ humanity, rather than their deeds (“Old soldiers on old horses/on faded trails of chivalry”).
In typically modest fashion, Bradshaw said a couple of years ago that he’s learned to get “out of my own way” in his songwriting – his goal being “to write a song that apparently wrote itself.” But Bradshaw can, and should, take full credit for his work – and those who appreciate a good songwriter should take notice of “American Echoes.” []
Rosie MacKenzie, “Atlantic” • MacKenzie wasn’t even in her teens when she started playing music professionally in 2000, as fiddler for the Cape Breton quartet The Cottars, whose members included her brother Jimmy and another sister-brother duo, Fiona and Ciaran MacGillivray. After six years, she struck out on her own, and put together a touring and recording ensemble, The MacKenzie Project, with a phenomenal line-up that at various times included Pauline Scanlon, Donogh Hennessy, Kimberly Fraser, Ashley MacIsaac, and Howie MacDonald.

“Atlantic” is even more of a MacKenzie project, since all the tunes and songs are her compositions, and the focus is squarely on her fiddle and vocals. There’s also an overarching musical and personal vision at work here: MacKenzie took up working as a cook on a sailboat and has crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice, experiences that provided her with time and inspiration for writing. It’s not too fanciful to imagine MacKenzie contemplating the journey made by so many – including ancestors on the Scottish side of her family – across that span to find a home in her native land.
But MacKenzie has lately spent a lot of her time on the side of the Atlantic opposite her birthplace, in the western Ireland outpost of Dingle. And while the Cape Breton style is still evident in her playing on “Atlantic,” the Irish influence is prominent, too. Instead of the distinctive Cape Breton piano backing, the accompaniment throughout is by London-born Irishman Matt Griffin on guitars, bouzouki, and bass. Other guests of note include Niamh Varian-Barry (formerly of Solas) on violin and viola and Beoga’s Eamon Murray on bodhran and percussion; Scanlon also contributed harmony vocals, and Hennessy served as co-producer and did the recording and mixing.
This confluence of place and impression manifests itself in “The Hunter,” a medley that builds from the slow, moody “Sailing Over Greenwich” to the neo-Sliabh Luachra “Hike to Cassis.” “The Girls of Panthalassa” set has a similar progression, while the jig-to-reel “Ron John’s” track evinces more of a Cape Breton personality, as does “Shannon McNeil’s Waltz.” Overall, MacKenzie demonstrates a knack for writing tunes that are “of the tradition” while incorporating innovation and experimentation.
The album’s two Americanaesque songs are decidedly somber, heart-on-the-sleeve affairs, MacKenzie’s confident, assured alto belying the vulnerability expressed in the lyrics: “It’s how you can leave the room/a moment’s passed and you assume/that I will be strong, the winter is long now”; “The well is dry and the money’s gone/you left me for the morning sun/and I will weep and I will fly/wildflowers never die” (“Wilding”).
It’s worth remembering that, even with all she’s accomplished thus far, MacKenzie hasn’t reached 30 yet. She comes across as a thoughtful, discerning sort who is open to adventure – remember, sailed across the Atlantic twice – and new pathways. Those qualities should serve her well, on both land and sea. []