February 5, 2015
If you were a fellow in the prime of life back about, oh, a couple of hundred years or so in the British Isles, a press gang was the last thing you wanted to meet. Listen to a few traditional songs from the period (“Arthur McBride,” “William Taylor,” “All Things Are Quite Silent”) and you’ll know that press gangs constituted an altogether nasty form of military recruitment, notorious for using bribery, deception, or brute force to compel young men into serving in the Royal Navy.
But today, if you meet a Portland, Me.-based trio calling itself The Press Gang, there’s no need to fear, especially if you’re a fan of Irish music. That’s because the combo of Alden Robinson (fiddle), Chris “Junior” Stevens (accordion, concertina), and recent Boston-area arrival Owen Marshall (guitar, bouzouki, harmonium, banjo) has established itself as one of the more compelling New England trad bands to emerge in the past several years. Their love of and respect for tradition is apparent, as is the sheer ebullience with which they play, and the overall joviality they bring to the whole enterprise, whether in their sometimes adventurous approach to material and arrangements, or their good-natured, even self-deprecating sense of humor.
All of which is there in spades on their recently released second CD, “The Happy Days of Youth,” coming almost five years after their debut album. Recordings often serve as snapshots, so if the band’s 2010 release was a metaphorical baby picture, “The Happy Days of Youth” offers a portrait of a trio that has grown in many ways.
“We really weren’t a band then,” says Marshall, a Vermont native who now lives in Medford, of that first CD. “We hadn’t played together much at all as a group, and we asked ourselves, ‘How do you become a band?’ Our answer was, ‘Let’s make a CD.’
“We learned a lot about how to work with each other when we were in the studio that first time. Our ears got sharper, more refined, and we caught more things than we had before. Everything got better and better, and so it was a real formative experience for us.”
(Incidentally, don’t look for any kind of significance in the trio’s choice of moniker: “We don’t have a good story for our band name,” admits Marshall. “It just sort of happened.”)
They had wanted to do a follow-up album for a while, says Marshall, but found it difficult to put aside the time and energy. Then last August came a watershed moment: “We were playing at the New World Festival in Vermont, and were having a great time: The audience was very receptive, and we just felt ‘on.’ And then we sold out of all the CDs we had brought with us, so we said to each other, ‘Well, maybe we should do another one now.’ It was one of those moments where we wanted to reinvest in ourselves.”
Let’s just say the ROI on “Happy Days of Youth” is a highly favorable one, from the exhilarating medley of polkas that opens the album (Marshall moving from bouzouki to harmonium to guitar, with great effect) to the closing track, a rendition of the tender 17th-century Thomas O’Connellan composition “Planxty Davis,” which gradually unfurls into full flower with Robinson and Stevens trading off, then joining together on the melody, all to the gentle accompaniment of Marshall’s guitar and special guest Jeremiah McLane’s piano.
The jig-reel set “Apples in Winter/Woods of Old Limerick/Road to Garrison” (the latter tune by Maurice Lennon) – with Hanz Araki on bodhran – is a masterful blend of tone and transition, as is the set that begins with a Robinson-Stevens duet on the venerable hornpipe/set dance “The Blackbird,” then on the strength of Marshall’s guitar launches into a pair of polkas, “An Spailpín Fánach” and “Sonny Sweeney’s.” Another medley opens with Stevens and Marshall vamping together and establishing an infectious contra dance-type groove for three reels, “The Girl Who Broke My Heart/Paddy Ryan’s Dream/The Plough and Stars,” McLane again lending support.
The band also displays its predilection for adapting somewhat unlikely material, taking the Scottish tunes “The Peat Fire Flame” and “Highland Laddie” and “bending” them into polkas (“They didn’t want to be polkas,” says Marshall, “but we made them because, hey, we’re The Press Gang.”). A recording by Boston-area sean-nos singer Bridget Fitzgerald provided the inspiration for “An Seanduine,” which starts out slowly (via a lovely concertina-bouzouki pairing) and with numerous rests before gathering momentum and easing into two up-tempo jigs, Junior Crehan’s “The Lurgadan” and “Have a Drink with Me.”
A reel set that is arguably the highlight track begins with the titular tune and just keeps building strength as it goes into Johnny Harling’s “With Ourselves” (helped along by Araki) and ends with “The Miller of Droghan.” The latter tune, which includes a cameo by Marshall on banjo and subtle, distinctive chords from Stevens’ accordion, is particularly mesmerizing; the whole medley is a tribute of sorts by the band to De Dannan, their source for “Miller of Droghan.”
An additional attraction of the CD are its liner notes, which among other things poke a bit of fun at the trio’s somewhat outsized stature (they’d probably be the odds-on favorite in the Irish Traditional Three-on-Three Basketball Tournament, if there was such a thing): In case, you might wonder, their combined height is 18 1/2 feet, and altogether they tip the scales at 660 lbs. Elsewhere, we learn that the “Blackbird” set was arranged prior to a concert one day during a blizzard: “We hitched Owen to a toboggan and trudged off to play for Portland’s most stalwart audience.” Their first and only camping trip to Maine’s North Woods, meanwhile, is evoked in the “Father Dollard’s” set, as they explain: “It begins happily, with plenty of provisions, and grows increasingly euphoric until the last dismal tune, with the supplies gone and their consequences setting in.”
Yet there’s a certain hint of reflectiveness and contemplation, too, since a lot has happened in these four-going-on-five years, as they note: “We have more dogs, chickens, accordions, houses, girlfriends, banjos and wives than we did when we started.” (Stevens, who got married in 2011, also recently became a father.) What’s more, the trio’s average age is now closer to that magic number of 30. So, is the album title a little ironic, even wistful, perhaps?
“Maybe,” muses Marshall. “I guess you could say we’re not really ‘youth’ anymore, and obviously we’ve had changes in our lives since that first CD. So when you reach another milestone – a second CD – it’s natural to take a look back at where you were and where you are now.
“Our approach is, and has always been, that this is music everyone can enjoy. You don’t try to exploit it, or tart it up, but you look for moments – a transition here and there, a riff or harmony – that alerts the listeners: ‘Something is happening here.’ And for us this comes from a place of respect for the tradition, a desire to bring more people into it. We want to keep it alive.”