Friday 7 February 2014


Live Review

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

If Carlsberg did folk orchestras then it would probably have looked something like the line up which graced the stage at Symphony Hall, Birmingham featuring some of the finest musicians and singers from both sides of The Pond.

Dobro maestro Jerry Douglas
The 17 members of the latest sessions' tour, which has been going more than a quarter of a century - the concept not the tour, spread right across the impressive hall's podium sporting an array of instruments which made it look like a musical warehouse.
Introduced by one of its musical directors and renowned dobro master Jerry Douglas, the group of individuals became as one as they opened with a blue grass instrumental with the fiddles of West VirginianTim O'Brien, Shetland's own Aly Bain and Glaswegian John McCusker featuring heavily with a strand of colour added by Douglas' slide sound. The tune started strong and then continued to grow to get the eager audience warmed up nicely.
Tim O'Brien
The first of the soloists was Orkney's,  award-winning singer/songwriter and frontman for LauKris Drever whose unique and lamenting tones are always a pleasure to hear. Now sporting an impressive beard, he opened with The Call and The Answer accompanied by his acoustic guitar and backed by his fellow musicians who infused a Celtic beat. He followed this with another soft ballad which blended beautifully with the sound behind him.
Drever was followed by the first of the female contingent, Texan Sarah Jarosz who showed off her strong voice with the country blues song, Run Away, after which she paid homage to Bob Dylan with a cover version of his Ring Them Bells to which she added a definite country sounding skew.
Aly Bain
Another of the TS regulars is Edinburgh's own Phil Cunningham who, metaphorically, stepped out of the background and introduced a trio of instrumentals featuring McCusker, Mike McGoldrick who was born in Manchester to Irish parents and fellow Capercaille band member and Argyllian Donald Shaw.
They opened with The Hut on Staffin Island, which he claims is a song about his unsuccessful attempts at being a surfer, and thankfully successful attempts at being rescued by fishermen, which was followed by the more upbeat Shake A Leg and finished with Wing Commander Donald McKenzie's Reel. The trilogy started off with the reel with the full band backing up the accordion sound which gave way to a more obviously Irish sounding tune with the fiddles coming through really strongly.
Sarah Jarosz
Without doubt one of the highlights of the night was the Hebridean songstress Julie Fowlis who did the rather novel antic of singing The Beatles' Blackbird in Gaelic. Her lovely and sweet tones, which have a childlike quality, gave the already gorgeous song a real ethereal quality.
She them moved to do a duet with Bruce Molsky where together they produced a great blue grass sound with the Blackest Crow.
They were shored up by the gorgeous tones of McGoldrick, Shaw, Douglas and the assembled fiddles.
The front of stage was then occupied by another pairing of O'Brien and Kentuckian Darrell Scott who produced a hill billy sound for Just One More from their latest album Memories and Moments. The second of their set was dedicated to double bass maestro Danny Thompson, originally from Devon, who spent the whole evening almost hidden at the back of his fellow musicians, where he seemed perfectly happy.
Mike McGoldrick
The duo turned out a gentler country ballad with Come Into This Room
Introduced as one of Douglas' favourite musicians Shawn Colvin took centre stage with her acoustic rock ballad We All Fall Down. Her nasal tones gave quite a distinctive sound to the song and although it stayed slow it always seemed to want to build up to something bigger.
Her second offering was a tribute to the iconic Martin Luther King Jr and which was a slow country ballad. McCusker then took over on the fiddle with a jaunty air which built slowly and took out the first half of the session with a jig and a big finish.
Douglas opened the second half on his own with a real marathon of an instrumental on his dobro which saw him pull in a wide range of musical sounds which enthralled the audience.
Donald Shaw
O'Brien and Scott  then produced another double act with a further track from their album, Talk To Joseph, which saw O'Brien, this time, showing off his banjo and vocal skills, while Scott added the guitar sound to what was a marvellous blue grass song. It All Comes Down To Love - a more bluesy ballad - had O'Brien showing further versatility by moving on to the mandolin.
They were then joined on stage by the full ensemble and Cunningham came to the fore with a couple of tunes he wrote for his accordion, one of which, as yet, remains unnamed but for one night only was called the Paul Crawford Song which was a slow air that was gently built up in musical layers.
Jarosz returned to front and centre with a faster ballad and which just happened to be her new recording. Build Me Up From Bones had Fowlis adding her rich tones as a backing singer.
Another of the highlights of the night followed with Shady Grove where Jarosz picked up the banjo, O'Brien his fiddle, Drever his mandolin and Molsky his guitar to execute a fantastic blue grass version of the well-known folk song.
Julie Fowlis
With the full session now back in on the act O'Brien performed a strong ballad Brother Wind this time using his mandolin.
Pennsylvanian Russ Barenberg teamed up with Douglas for an instrumental which had a distinct calypso/carnival lilt to it with McCusker adding wonderful highlights in the form of really slick jazz fiddle.
The haunting voice of Fowlis was then back with another gorgeous ballad, The Choice, sung in Gaelic. She picked up the tempo for the next song which was a real tub-thumper with her voice blasting out the lyrics like a verbal fireworks display.
Drever took over, this time on guitar, with a slow air perfectly suited to his smooth voice which then gave way to the waltzing Shining Star which was given a continental feel by Cunningham's accordion and O'Brien's mandolin.
Darrell Scott
To finish the set Colvin was welcomed back starting with the soft and good old country misery song of The Four Walls before going out with the big finish of the ballad Diamond in the Rough.
Any one of these musicians and singers individually stand out in their own right, but to put them all together on stage with the common purpose of producing the music and sounds they love without egos or jostling for the limelight is a treat and a testament to the vision Douglas and Bain have shown in putting it together for decades.
To paraphrase Drever's song if you want to see a sky full of shining stars then the sessions is the way to do it.

John Doyle

Bruce Molsky

Shawn Colvin

Phil Cuinningham

Danny Thompson

Kris Drever

James Mackintosh

John McCusker

Russ Barenberg

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