Monday 11 February 2013


Live Review

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

It may have been the last show of the present tour but sessions frontmen Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas brought together a band of musicians that went out with a bang and left the crowd filling the sold out Symphony Hall wanting more even after the obligatory encore.

Jerry Douglas at Birmingham Symphony Hall
Shetland fiddler and MBE Bain, who comes fresh from gaining a rightly deserved lifetime achievement accolade at the Radio2 Folk Awards, and Ohio Grammy award winner Douglas were joined by 15 other musicians for what was like a Who's Who? of music.
Among those from the other side of the pond were singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, who also made a big impression as a presenter and performer at the folk awards; Eric Bibb an American-born bluesman who has a foot in both camps since making his home in Helsinki; Cajun maestro from Kentucky Dirk Powell and Bruce Molsky fiddle, banjo player and all round expert on virtually anything with strings.
Danny Thompson
Carrying the cause for the UK was another Scot, the Dumfries and Galloway songstress Emily Smith who was obviously pregnant and will soon be singing songs to a new set of ears; one of two Englishmen was Danny Thompson who stands almost as tall as the double bass he plays with such skill and Teddy Thompson who is both a folk and rock musician.
Teddy Thompson
It was he who stepped forward after the full band opened with a bluegrass number which was much appreciated by the Birmingham audience.
His first song Delilah was a full on country song with Chapin Carpenter providing backing vocals followed by one he wrote with his mom, Dear Mary, which jokingly was an artistic process he didn't recommend. The ballad had more of a Celtic feel to it and was accented beautifully by Michael McGoldrick’s ethereal flute playing and the sound of John McCusker’s beautiful fiddle playing which was almost spiritual.
Taking over the mic from Thompson was Emily Smith who provided a Robbie Burns composition Silver Tassie before switching to a sea shanty-style for A Day Like Today which features on her Ten Years anniversary album, and which suited perfectly her crisp clean tones.
Later on in the session she formed a trio with Chapin Carpenter and O’Donovan to provide a seamless blending of voices which produced wonderful harmonies that were one of the highlights of the night.
Aoife O'Donovan
Another high point saw Bain lead the full band in a trio of tunes from Shetland and the US. First with a catchy-titled lament, The Sailor Who Fell From The Masthead followed by Scaraway Lasses and finishing with Icy Mountain. Bain began gently with the lament on the fiddle but by the end of the trilogy the whole band had built a fantastic and intricate wall of sound.
The night moved on with Dirk Powell who was inspired to be a musician while sitting at his grand daddy's feet. He let loose with the Two Step Bon Cafe which was a Cajun swamp stomp sung in French.
Next up was Eric Bibb who looked like a young Howlin' Wolf although his voice was a lot silkier and he moved like Coati Mundi from the days of Kid Creole. Using an acoustic guitar he came up with a blues rift from John Cephas, Going Down The Road Feelin' Bad.
Douglas then took over with Gone To Fortingall a surprising mix of Celtic and blues music which allowed him to let rip with slide guitar and was built up with a heavy backbeat and coloured by the flute and fiddles.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
The talent kept coming in waves with Chapin Carpenter, O'Donovan and Smith forming a trio where their voices harmonised beautifully, most notably O'Donovan whose voice was almost childlike.
Mary Chapin Carpenter then move forward for a solo, a soft country ballad Chasing What's Already Gone with her clear voice, which had a smokey edge to it, filling the hall.
Douglas then upped the ante with a Leadbelly song, On A Monday, a 12 bar blues with heavy backbeat and his native drawl being backed by Chapin, Smith and O'Donovan as he laid it down with his slide. Molsky brought it back to a bluegrass sound with Pretty Sarah with his rasping fiddle filling in with his deep voice. Thompson was soon back at the mic sounding not unlike Springsteen with Don't Know What I Was Thinking, this was followed by another from Chapin Carpenter more than ably assisted by the skills of McGoldrick as she sang Learning The World. Not to be outdone Smith belted our a drinking song Oh Momma were she gave her voice free reign in what sounded almost like a soul song that was undergirded by a fantastic electric blues rift. Bibbs then brought his infectious style back to the front of the stage with a funky and fun rhythm of  Champagne Habits On A Beer Drinker's Pay. Barenberg, who is a real stalwart of the sessions, brought out Through The Gates which had the feel of a road song where his superb guitar picking was blended with Douglas' slide.
Russ Barenberg
Powell, remembering his grand daddy, picked up his banjo and let loose with a bluegrass sound Water Bound before Smith came to the fore with Final Trawl her crystal voice singing passionately about life on the fishing trawlers.
Emily Smith
Then it was accordion maestro Phil Cunningham's turn to suddenly come to life letting all those around him feel the sharpness of his wit. He has been with the sessions for 26 years and played solo for a while on the tune with No Name or what he calls Walter Scott, he admitted to not being too sure. His gentle accordion sound was accompanied perfectly by the fiddle players in the band and McGoldrick on uilleann pipes. It all hurtled towards the big finale with Chapin Carpenter belting out Down At The Twist And Shout. Badgered back by an audience hungry for an encore they let loose with Shove Another Pig's Foot A Little Further Into The Fire and Billy's Reel to go out on a hoe down-style high.

This session may have been the last of the tour but to give all folkies something to look forward to, the gatherings, which have been going on for more than 25 years, will be started again next month in “secret locations” to be shown on TV later in the year.

The full line up was Aly Bain, Jerry DouglasMary Chapin CarpenterEric BibbDirk PowellAoife O’DonovanBruce MolskyTeddy ThompsonEmily SmithPhil CunninghamDanny ThompsonRuss BarenbergMichael McGoldrickJohn DoyleJohn McCusker James Mackintosh and Donald Shaw

All pictures courtesy of Ian Harvey

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