Sunday, 8 February 2015


Live Review

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

You have to admit that when Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain bring 17 of the best folk and country musicians from both sides of "The Pond" in to the pretty much packed Symphony Hall, Birmingham, you get your money's worth.

Jerry Douglas

The music was superb and included hymns, spirituals, plenty of good 'ol country and a slight smattering of the Celtic tradition.
All seventeen opened with a foot-stomping hoe down just to get everyone warmed up before bringing on the first of the soloists which was sessions regular Tim O'Brien, a vociferously proud West Virginian who launched into the blue grass You Were On My Mind which was followed by the more bluesy Cowboy's Life and where the rest of the Sessions musicians provided the thumping back beat.
 Sara Watkins, from Los Angeles was the first of the women soloists and opened with the slow country ballad Take Up Your Spade, her powerful voice filling the hall in between her slick fiddle playing. She followed this with the bouncier You And Me. She gave up the spotlight to fellow American, Dirk Powell from Louisiana with a great stomping swamp number, Down The River I'll Go which was helped along by some backing singing from Watkins and Devonshire's own John Smith, there making his Sessions debut.  The first soloist from this side of the pond was Scot Kathleen MacInnes, who slowed things down with a cultural mix in Star of the Sea, a Hebridean hymn to the Virgin Mary, sung in Gaelic to a French tune.
Sessions veterans Mike McGoldrick and John McCusker on flute and fiddle respectively, started with an old Scottish pipe tune which then segued into a set of wedding reels and they were more than ably assisted by fellow veteran Phil Cunningham on accordion. Douglas called for calm before bringing on Sessions virgin Smith.
Aly Bain
The Devon singer/songwriter has enjoyed phenomenal success with his album The Great Lakes from where he took his first song Freezing Winds of Change. Next up was an easy country-style tune from guitarist Russ Barenberg who has been with the Sessions since day one and is even responsible for introducing Douglas to the proceedings.
The diminutive Patty Griffin originally from Maine but now a migrant Texan walked to the front of stage with a bright sunburst coloured guitar that made her look like a child with an adult instrument. But as she launched into the country ballad, As Cold As It Gets, the slight figure of a singer had no problem filling the hall with her voice.
She went real country for Lefty Frizzell's sugary Mom and Dad's Waltz. McGoldrick and McCusker came again to the fore this time assisted by the frantic guitar playing of John Doyle for a slip jig which then launched into a real foot tapping reel where they claimed they played so fast only dogs could hear it.
Douglas gave Rodney Crowell the big build up as he took centre stage and opened with a Hank Williams song Honky Tonk Blues, the title of which sums up the tune. There was a point in this where Crowell and the rest of the sessions seemed to lose sync but they were soon back on track. His love ballad called How Much I Hate You ended the first half. It was a much lighter line up which opened the second half fronted by Douglas on his dobro and the lengthy tune gave a chance for Danny Thompson, also a Sessions veteran, to come out of the shadows and show his double bass skills. McInnes then took centre stage again with an ancient Gaelic song about the sun and even though you couldn't understand what she was saying her strong vocals filled the hall with an enthralling sound.  She then did a little rabble rousing appealing to the Scots in the audience with a song dedicated to the Stone of Destiny. To add to the shield beating a heavy beat underneath her Celtic singing gave it the feel of a battle song.
Kathleen MacInnes
Fellow Brit Smith came back on for his second solo spot and did his stand-up routine before launching into the title track from his Great Lakes album which was given a massive sound by the Sessions musicians. Smith slowed it down with another from the album the haunting ballad She Is My Escape.
Back came Watkins with her fiddle and the gentle ballad Be There, from her latest album Sun Midnight Sun.Powell's second bite of the cherry came with a banjo ballad, Water Bound, inspired by his grandfather to whom he attributed his musical journey.
With his hollering lyrics it had the feel of a mountain/hobo song. O'Brien and Berenberg then pulled out a spiritual, How Long? which was a real spine-tingler where they were joined by Watkins and Griffin, and the sound gradually took over the whole hall and audience. Cunningham brought his tune Lovely Molly May on the back of darkly humorous story for which the Celts are noted. However, the accordion tune was a lovely slow air.
John Smith
Doyle finally got his moment in the spotlight with a love song, I Never Let You Know, which sounded like something from The Dubliners' repertoire. It was time for retired Catholic Griffin to return front and centre with a rather unconventional gospel song she wrote, Coming Home To Me which was a little laborious to listen to but then she picked up the tempo for Truth which was recorded by Dixie Chicks.
McCusker was put on the spot about his "massive" tour and eventually got to play Leaving Friday Harbour which segued into Crowell's died in the wool country song, 'Til I Gain Control Again.
If you have ever watched the Sessions on the TV they tend to be a more intimate affairs but when you get the entire entourage on one stage it becomes one big jamming session.
However, among the many things the Sessions do give kudos to musicians to the point whereby it is now considered something of an honour to be included in the line-up, it's pretty good to listen to them too.

The Mike Harding Folk Show

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