By Sean Smith
We Banjo 3, “Roots to Rise Live” • It has been four years since this Irish/Americana outfit released a live album (“Live in Galway”), and in that time WB3 has made a significant transition in the “Celtgrass” genre – a mix of Irish and American folk styles, traditional and contemporary –they’ve helped pioneer. As was evident on last year’s “Haven,” their most recent studio release, the band has shifted more to the Americana side of their musical persona while putting greater emphasis on writing songs in the folk-rock-pop idiom, a la Mumford and Sons.
But “Roots to Rise Live,” recorded at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Mich., has a back-to-basics feel. For one thing, it’s all WB3, with none of the guest musicians – notably the small brass section – they used on portions of “Live in Galway” album, and the studio recordings that came after it. This serves to magnify WB3’s sheer force of personality, as well as its musical prowess, from David Howley’s expressive, engaging vocals and excellent rhythm guitar to the fleet yet skillful fiddling of Fergal Scahill, to the equally adept playing of Enda Scahill on tenor banjo and Martin Howley on mandolin and tenor banjo (the band is composed of two sets of brothers, if you’re wondering about the common surnames). The crowd-pleasing, pulse-quickening crescendos, tempo accelerations and other flourishes stand out all the more because they sound so immediate, with a very appreciate audience pumping up the ambience (especially when the guys break into a pop song cover you wouldn’t expect, and absolutely nail it).
What’s also appealing about “Roots to Rise Live” is its cross-section of the band’s productivity, going back to their first album, 2012’s “Fruit of the Banjo Tree,” and points in between. You can decide for yourself how favorably latter-day material like “Haven” and “Hold Onto Your Soul” compare with the likes of “Little Liza Jane” and “Prettiest Little Girl in the County” from farther back in the catalogue (to these ears, just fine). Even better is the inclusion of some of their classic cross-tradition instrumental sets: “Puncheon Floor/Late for the Dance/Sean Reid’s,” “John Brown’s/MacDonald’s March” and “Martin Wynne’s #2 and #3/The Coalminer.” These medleys get to the heart of WB3’s allure: their robust, seemingly effortless mining of the common ground between Irish and American music, with the tenor banjo as touchstone.
The impression from “Roots to Rise Live” is that however much they’ve embraced their new direction, WB3 remains true to their earlier body of work – and this is a good thing. [webanjo3.com]
Malinky, “Handsel” • This is how you do a 20th-anniversary album: with a nod to your past as well as your present, but also a tribute to the singers who inspired your involvement in traditional music – and a salute to those who will keep the tradition alive.
No surprise that this landmark, double-CD recording is by Malinky, one of the foremost champions of the Scottish song tradition since forming up some two decades ago. Not that the band has been exclusively Scottish in its repertoire – they’ve also drawn from Irish (north and south), Canadian, American, even Macedonian and Scandinavian traditions – or strictly traditional, featuring songs from contemporary writers, notably their co-founder, Karine Polwart (now one of the better songwriters around). Whatever the source, Malinky has always treated songs with the utmost care and respect, regarding them as shareable treasures containing messages “we think matter with people who might have never otherwise heard them,” as they explain in the liner notes.
The band’s devotion to song takes on a whole other dimension on “Handsel,” with their inclusion of six guest singers across generations, from teenager Ellie Beaton to octogenarian Hector Riddell. Also joining them are Barbara Dymock and Len Graham, who along with Riddell represent the mentors that helped guide and shape Malinky’s development over the years; and Cameron Nixon and Dàibhidh Stiùbhard – like Beaton, among the cohort of young folk/trad singers just beginning to blossom. Far from being some promotional gimmick, this sharing of the spotlight is a statement that, whatever stamp they may put on folk and traditional music, Malinky regards itself as a link in a very long chain.
The current roster – co-founders Steve Byrne (vocals, bouzouki, guitar) and Mark Dunlop (vocals, whistles, bodhran), Fiona Hunter (vocals, cello), and Mike Vass (tenor guitar, fiddle, vocals) – has now been together for a more than a decade, and its cohesiveness and vision is manifest on “CD1” of the album, recorded within the past year. Many of the songs on this disc are from the bedrock of ballad tradition, found in esteemed collections by F.J. Child, Greig-Duncan, Ord and others, but also via respected traditional singers like Ray Fisher, Maggie Stewart and Lizzie Higgins; the liner notes nicely summarize the research and sources involved for each, as well as the tweaks and alterations by the band members.
Of course, these folks aren’t just dedicated scholars. They can sing the heck out of these songs, individually or collectively: Hunter’s jaunty, sure-handed take on “Begone Bonnie Laddie” and gentle empathy on “The Braes o Broo”; Byrne’s strong narrative focus on “The Forester” and his own creation, the tragic “Lads o the Lindsay,” about the impact of a maritime tragedy on a community; Dunlop’s tenderness on “The Maid of Doneysheil” and “Lovely Armoy.”
Their collaborations with the guest singers are equally delightful: Graham’s deep, soulful voice on “True Lover John,”, Liddell’s fun with the satirical “Hash o Bennagoak,” Beaton’s confident lead on “Sleepytoon,” and so on.
A longstanding Malinky attribute has been their harmony vocal and instrumental arrangements, which gracefully embrace and carry along the songs without overwhelming them, and these are as spot-on as ever on “Handsel” (with the help of double bassist Euan Burton).
The archival disc, “CD2,” includes some previous releases, such as their exquisite treatments of “Billy Taylor,” “Seán Ó Duibihir a’ Ghleanna” and “Son David,” and “Whaur Dae Ye Lie,” Polwart’s setting of the Srebenica massacre in Scots traditional ballad form. But there are some wonderful unearthed treasures, too: demos of “Martinmas Time” and “Clerk Saunders,” for instance, and live performances of Byrne’s “The Lang Road Doon,” plus trad songs “Fisherman’s Wife,” “The Newry Highwayman” and – perhaps best of all – “The Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie/Silver Spear,” the latter recorded at their 10th anniversary show with all past and present members. As on the other disc, voices, instruments and arrangements are of the highest quality throughout, and inspire keen anticipation for this third decade of Malinky. [malinky.com]