Tuesday 25 February 2014


Live Review

MAC Birmingham

There was an Englishman an Irishman and a Scot who walked into an arts centre in Birmingham and filled the theatre with the fantastic sound of Celtic/folk music, and that's no joke.

John McCusker back in Birmingham
Individually John McCusker, Mike McGoldrick and John Doyle are experts at their craft, collectively, almost as a break away group from the Transatlantic Sessions, they blend their skills, sounds, music and voices into something wonderful to hear.
Back in the Second City for the second time in a month the trio, minus the other 14 musicians and singers from the Symphony Hall gathering - whom McCusker jokingly confesses were holding them back, filled the slightly more intimate setting of the MAC with the sounds of fiddle, bouzouki, harmonium, tin whistle, uilleann pipes, flute and guitars.
Just because there are only three of them they certainly don't believe in giving short measures either, because the opener was nearly 10 minutes long and included music from McGoldrick's Wired album eventually closing with Rory Campbell's Favourite.
Dubliner Doyle moved to the fore to introduce Hop With The Blood a good old folk solid about a brother murdering his sibling. For this one McCusker switched from fiddle to bouzouki as Doyle belted out the traditional sound of the story of the two brothers,  at times he sounded very much like Andy Irvine although Doyle's voice does have a slightly sharper edge, and Mancunian McGoldrick's pipe playing added a rich strand to the proceedings.
Glaswegian McCusker then got a chance to show his songwriting skills one of which was a tune he claims to have written as an auction prize for a Scottish radio show called Mr Anderson's Fine Tunes and the winner of the prize got a chance name the melody which ended up being called Margaret Ann's Silver Wedding Anniversary. The second was even more bizarre called Pur the Orang Utan and finishing off with Billy's Reel.
His luscious fiddle playing opened the series of tunes with the slow air which then gently became intertwined with McG's pipes. Doyle then picked up the beat with his guitar McG switching over to the whistle for the lighter of the tunes before they really put their foot down and let loose with the reel which McC peppered with incidentals as it took on a hoe down momentum.
Mike McGoldrick 
McC then slowed things right down as he moved on to the harmonium to play what many churchgoers would recognise as the tune to Lord of All Hopefulness where Doyle, picking on his electric guitar, turned it into a ballad with traditional lyrics and McG adding haunting harmonies with his flute.
Centre stage was then given over to McG for his pipe playing with tunes he learned in the Hebrides - Leaving South Uist and the Lochaber Badger.
The opening was a gorgeous, soaring sound which with a little imagination could send you flying over the Scottish highlands and even had a touch of the Andean pan pipes about it. McG filled the pretty much packed theatre with soft, swirling and captivating sound of his flute joined by McC on the whistle and with Doyle adding a gentle and un-intrusive rhythm underneath. McG then picked up the tempo and gave it a Celtic-jazz feel as they built a vortex of crystal clear notes.
No Celtic folk concert is complete without an immigration song and Doyle's was Grosse Isle where thousands of Irish immigrants died and are commemorated with the Irish Memorial National Historic Site on the island and it was the story of those migrants which inspired Doyle's ballad which when he started singing sounded very much like Kris Drever it wasn't until much later in the song that McG and McC added just a hint of flavour to the tune.
John Doyle
McG came in with an air from Cork, Eire called Táimse im’ Chodladh which roughly means 'I am asleep and don't wake me' where McC moved back on to the harmonium and McG opened with the mournful and haunting wail of the uilleanns and brought a beautiful lamenting sound throughout the piece and only towards the end did he pick up the pace to give it a real toe tapper of a finish.
They closed the first part of the set on a high with the sea shanty Fall Down Billy O'Shea and Doyle even managed to get the audience singing on the chorus just like a real folk club. It was one of those standards where you can add as many verses and twist the lyrics as much as you like and it invariably ends up sounding just as good.
Doyle, came out on his own for the first song of the second half and told the tale of his great grandfather from Roscommon who walked to Queenstown, near Cobh in Cork to board the SS Arabic which was subsequently torpedoed by a German U-Boat.
Fortunately his ancestor lived to walk home and tell the extraordinary tale which inspired the tune. But it's worth hearing the full tale from Doyle. The song is a great traditional narrative played perfectly by Doyle on his guitar inserting some fantastic picking in the Spanish style.
McC and McG then rejoined Doyle to play out a medley starting with a little Americana with a tune from West Virginia called Elk River Blues, followed by Rip the Calico, a tune written by McC called Coming of Age and finishing with A Tribute to Larry Reynolds.
McG opened on the flute with a soft melodic intro with his fellow musicians gentle blending in from the background. They moved through the tunes picking up the pace at will and moving in and out of each other's melodies with expertise
The next one, Apprentice Boy, came from the live album they put together from their last tour and it was another ballad with a story of lovers who are separated and worry about each other's fidelity. Doyle did most of the work on this one with McG adding the occasional light insert on the flute and McC accompanying on the bouzouki.
SS Arabic
They pulled out another medley with Wee Michael's March and a new tune reluctantly called Cockermouth starting off with real upbeat tune with a bluegrass feel to it. They also threw in Jigs, Strathspey and Reel from McCusker's Under One Sky album
Towards the end of the set Doyle brought out another dark tale of intrigue and murder called the False Lady which unlike it's morbid content it was quite an upbeat song hammered out by him on his guitar and given extra eeriness by McC and McG on fiddle and flute respectively. It was very much in the vein of Lord Musgrave. Leaving Friday Harbor was a tune which harkens back to McC's early days as a young musician and being fortunate enough to tour in the US and Canada. The tune is a lovely air played elegantly by McC on his fiddle.
The trio went out as they had come in with a medley of tunes which gave all three a chance to show why they are so respected by their peers, before being persuaded to come back for the obligatory encore.

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