They Can Do This With Their Eyes Closed

Mike Katz of the Battlefield BandMonday evening’s Institute of Musical Traditions concert featured the Scottish folk music institution Battlefield Band playing to an enthusiastic full house.  From the first notes from Mike Katz’s Highland pipes to the last notes of the encore, this thoroughly entertaining and professional group took the crowd on a delightful tour of traditional and contemporary Scottish folk music.

Battlefield Band has gone through a variety of personnel changes over the 40 years since the group was formed. Besides the bearded multi-instrumentalist Katz, the core of the current band features fiddler Alasdair White (who has been with the band since 2001, when he was 18 years old), and vocalist/guitarist Sean O’Donnell.

The band ripped through a strong first half which concluded with a “big set” of tunes featuring the pipes and twin fiddles. Then Katz came out solo to begin the second half, mesmerizing the crowd with the haunting sound of the pipes before being joined by his band mates.

Then, as O’Donnell began singing a song about bagpipes, everything went dark. As in, the power went out.  No lights (except for the church hall’s emergency lighting), no sound system, nothing. And we soon learned that the power was out all along Old Georgetown Pike.

The band missed a beat for about 15 seconds, then Katz begin playing the pipes from the stage (he never used the sound system in any event), and the other members of the band began wandering through the crowd.  Smartphone lights came on to provide lighting for the strolling musicians.  And the magic began, as first a fiddle would pass by, then perhaps the guitar, then a tenor guitar, and back again.  If you closed your eyes, you heard different lines rise and fall as the musicians walked past different sections of the hall.

This continued for at least 10 minutes, and then the lights returned. But the band stood at the front of the stage and played “acoustic music” for a while longer, perhaps captured by the magic they had just conjured up.

Battlefield Band

Live music is wonderful because of special, unexpected delights. This would have been a terrific concert without the power outage.  With it, the evening became magical.

Enjoy Eight Men of Moidart from a recent Battlefield Band concert.

More to come…


Bare to the Bone

Carrie NewcomerFolksinger Carrie Newcomer played to a packed house at a “rare Monday night Institute of Musical Traditions concert on Saturday night” last evening in Rockville.  As emcee David Eisner pointed out, it wasn’t your usual IMT crowd, but those in attendance kept up the high bar for IMT audiences as they were both knowledgeable and appreciative.

This was my first time to see Newcomer live, and I encouraged Candice to join me, given the singer’s bent for writing from a Quaker and progressive spiritual perspective.  As Newcomer says on her website,

Every day we are living moments of grace and wonder, shadow and light. These are the moments I write about.

Saturday evening didn’t disappoint.  Playing her beautiful Taylor guitar (with an inventive use of capos); singing with that expressive, lyrical, and deep voice;  and accompanied only by keyboardist Gary Walters, Newcomer didn’t hit a false note the entire evening.  Beginning with I Believe, she sang songs from her soon-to-be-released CD A Permeable Life (such as A Light in the Window) as well as old favorites, including the moving Bare to the Bone.

Here I am without a message

Here I stand with empty hands

Just a spirit tired of wandering like a stranger in this land

Walking wide eyed through this world is the only way I’ve known

Wrapped in hope and good intentions and

Bare to the Bone.

When Newcomer ended her encore with the thoughtful Thank You, Good Night from A Permeable Life, we knew we wanted to say the same in return.

Like a long exhale

Like a vapor trail

A wisp of a thing

That changes everything.

Enjoy the beautiful video Everything is Everywhere from Carrie’s 2011 collaboration with Indian sarod masters, Amjad Alk Khan, Amaan Ali Khan, and Ayaan Ali Khan.

More to come…


For the Love of the Music

John Jorgenson The last time I heard John Jorgenson play, it was this past summer under a beautiful Shenandoah Valley sky, where his quintet awed us all with a dazzling set of gypsy jazz.

Tonight, Jorgenson was back – this time at the Institute of Musical Traditions – playing a dazzling set of bluegrass.

And all this from one of the great Telecaster masters of his generation, who once spent six years on the road with Elton John.  It boggles the mind to think one man can switch so effortlessly between technically difficult genres and still make great music. Thank God Sir Elton paid him the big bucks so he can now play all the music he loves.

Jorgenson was clearly having a good time tonight, singing and playing bluegrass with singer-songwriter-guitarist Jon Randall and bassist Mark Fain – both from Nashville – and his old California buddy – and west coast bluegrass/roots music legend –  Herb Pedersen.  The band definitely had the “west coast bluegrass” sound going – with smooth harmony singing (minus the twang) and reliance on folk and contemporary work as much as the old masters.

Jorgenson’s mandolin (and occasional guitar) playing was front and center, but he was flanked by two strong musicians, great singers, and stellar songwriters who both contributed to make this group – playing only their eighth gig together – a band.  Fain, who has played with some of the greats in the field, held down a rock solid but low-key bass chair throughout the evening.

Herb Pedersen at IMT

It was clear from the start that the set list was influenced by songwriters – and songs – that had touched this group through the years.  An Osborne Brothers trio number and a Jesse McReynolds-inspired Grandfather’s Clock were followed by Tom Paxton and J.D. Souther tunes. Instrumentals such as a blazing John Hardy and the old fiddle tune Whiskey Before Breakfast allowed everyone to show off their considerable chops.

There was a whiskey themed mini-set that allowed Jon Randall’s impressive songwriting talents to shine through.  Randall – who played alongside Sam Bush in Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers band – co-wrote the Brad Paisley/Alison Krauss hit Whiskey Lullaby which Jorgenson’s bluegrass band played beautifully.  That song has (at least) two great country lines:

She put him out like the burnin’ end of a midnight cigarette

and then the unforgettable…

He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger

Whew…I can hear Alison singing it now and I’m getting weak in the knees.

The real song-writing star of tonight’s show was Herb Pedersen.  As Jorgenson said at one point, go look at all your Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris albums from the 1970s, and Pedersen is all over them as a singer and player.  But the full house at IMT – which is always an informed audience – knew exactly what was coming when Jorgenson introduced Old Train – a tune covered by Tony Rice, the Seldom Scene, and many others.  As John said more than once, he knew both Herb Pedersen and this song for a long time, but hadn’t realized that Pedersen had written this gem.

John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band

But the crowd was especially entranced when Jorgenson spoke of a Seldom Scene album and song he admired – and then turned to Pedersen to sing his composition Wait a Minute.  The beautiful harmonies took everyone back to those days when John Duffey, John Starling, Mike Auldridge, Ben Eldridge, and Tom Gray were playing weekly gigs at the Red Fox Inn, or the Cellar Door, or the Birchmere.

Jorgenson’s bluegrass band ended the evening with an encore of Wait a Minute “for John Duffey” so I’ll wrap up this remembrance of a terrific evening of bluegrass with video of the two Pedersen tunes:  first the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band’s version of Old Train (where Pedersen’s voice isn’t as strong as it was this evening) and then – in a video posted by my friend and Seldom Scene’s original bassist Tom Gray – the inimitable John Duffey singing Wait a Minute.

Keep playing the music you love.

More to come…


A December Celtic Tradition

IMT Holiday Concert with Robin Bullock and FriendsIf it is early December, you can count on “Celtic Guitar God” Robin Bullock heading up a holiday concert for the Institute of Musical Traditions. So tonight, Candice and I joined about 150 other traditional music fans for the 2012 edition of the IMT Celtic holiday concert.

Bullock was joined this year by Scottish champion fiddler Elke Baker and hammered dulcimer player Ken Kolodner. The evening was filled with traditional Christmas carols as well as Scottish and Irish old time music, all played with great enthusiasm and musiciaenship.

Baker and Kolodner played several beautiful duets, including two of my favorite holiday tunes:  the haunting In the Bleak Midwinter and the French carol Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella.  All three joined together for extended sets of Cape Breton, French Canadian, and Celtic fiddle tunes.

However, my favorite parts of this concert each year focus around Bullock’s solo guitar work. Tonight he had beautiful arrangements of The Wexford Carol and a great mash-up of classical carols as played in the style of Mississippi John Hurt. But one of the most moving arrangements was of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, where Bullock quoted the seldom-used fifth verse and opined that while it was perhaps seen as harsh, it still fit in these times:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled two-thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.

A wonderful night of great music. Enjoy the video below of Robin Bullock playing the Irish tune Lord Inchiquin at last year’s IMT Celtic holiday concert.

More to come…


Robin  Bullock

Claire Lynch: A Wonderful Songbird Keeps Singing

At one point in Monday night’s thoroughly satisfying concert by The Claire Lynch Band at the Institute of Musical Traditions, the band leader mentioned that she started in the music business 33 years ago.  It doesn’t seem that long ago when I heard her play at the Shenandoah Valley’s Oak Grove Music Festival, but in fact it may have been two decades since I saw her with the Front Porch String Band.

Thirty-three years is a long time to be on the road, but Lynch and her band of hot young phenoms supported by veteran bass man Mark Schatz, had the energy and sound to more than satisfy the sell-out IMT crowd.

Lynch has been an impressive band leader, prolific songwriter (truth-in-advertising: some co-penned in the past with my musical cousin, Hershey Reeves), and all-around pioneer in the acoustic music world…but she’s still most impressive as a singer. She showed us all time and again on Monday evening why she won the 2010 IBMA Female Singer of the Year award.

Standouts from a wealth of good tunes in the two-hour set included Hummingbird, which Lynch sang with banjoist Alison Brown on the Fair Weather CD; a haunting Dear Sister, about a Civil War soldier writing his sister on the eve of the battle of Stones River; and the old-time inspired Widow’s Weeds, with Schatz on clawhammer banjo.  Schatz, as usual, also livened up the evening with his hambone dancing and solid play on the bass.  Guitarist Matt Wingate showcased impressive chops throughout, as he’s taken big strides in his music since I last saw him with the Lovell Sisters (and he was pretty doggone good at that point). And the newest member – fiddler Bryan McDowell – didn’t miss a beat on his second night out with the band.

After closing with a spirited Wabash Cannonball, where everyone stretches out musically, Lynch and the band came back on stage for an encore – and played my cousin’s Hershey’s composition Your Presence is My Favorite Gift.  This simple and beautiful gospel number was a perfect ending to an evening with a wonderful songbird.  Enjoy the video below of Claire singing Your Presence at a 2008 concert (with the song beginning about 55 seconds in).  Thanks to the good folks at IMT for making it all possible.

More to come…


A Celtic Yule

On a blustery, cold evening in suburban Washington, a full crowd was warmed by the 11th annual Celtic Yule concert of Robin Bullock and Amy White & Al Petteway.  Hosted by the Institute of Musical Traditions (or IMT), this annual concert is like much of the holiday musical scene – familiar yet welcome.

Bullock has a wonderful tone coming out of his Taylor guitar and sounds better with age.  The second half opened with his haunting In the Bleak Midwinter/The First Noel/It Came Upon a Midnight Clear medley.   His solo mandolin pieces exploring the Bach unaccompanied violin and cello suites are a new (for me) part of his show, and they demonstrate his impressive chops.  The Cello Suite #4 is technically demanding (the E-Flat major transposes into B-Flat major on the mandolin), but Bullock made it sing on his beautiful Gibson A-style mandolin from the 1920s.  Check out the video below of Bullock playing solo guitar, and then imagine that it sounds twice as good live.

Al Petteway and Amy White played holiday tunes (including a beautiful The Holly and the Ivy) but also promoted their new album High in the Blue Ridge. They opened with The Drovers’ Road, an evocative piece celebrating the switchback roads of the North Carolina mountains.

All in all, a satisfying and enjoyable holiday evening.

More to come…


Terrific Roots Music Coming to Washington This Fall

Del McCoury BandWe’re into fall here in the Washington region and that means that the acoustic music scene is busy pointing toward those holiday concerts.  But before December arrives, there are a few highlights for lovers of bluegrass, Americana, and roots music in the District of Columbia.

This Monday, the Blue Moon Cowgirls and flatpicking champion Orrin Star are featured at the Institute of Musical Traditions concert in Rockville.  I’ve heard Star before, and he’s a treat for those who like the old flat top.

Country singer extraordinaire Patty Loveless will be at the Birchmere on November 1st.  She’ll no doubt be featuring tunes from  her new album, Mountain Soul II. The original Mountain Soul was a terrific album, and the follow-up begins with a great version of that old country classic, Busted. (Well the bills are all due and the babies need shoes, we’re busted…) Sure to be a great show.

For those who don’t mind a bit of a drive, folksinger John Gorka is playing on November 20th at the historic Avalon Theatre in beautiful Easton Maryland.  Gorka has one of the most distinctive voices in folk music and I believe I could listen to him sing the phone book.  (There’s also a nice Historic Hotel of America – the Tidewater Inn –  in Easton for those who would like to make a weekend of it.)

The next evening,  Saturday November 21st, the Del McCoury Band – just about the best traditional bluegrass band on the circuit today – will be at the Birchmere.   They also have a new album, entitled Family Circle, out later this month.  Del and the boys never disappoint.

As I wrote earlier, Irish harper Grainne Hambly will be at the National Geographic Society on Friday, December 4th, with the Irish band Teada.  They will be performing as part of their Irish Christmas in America tour.

Finally, Monday, December 7th, will pose a real dilemma, as both IMT and the Birchmere have top-notch Christmas shows.  I’ve attended the IMT Celtic Christmas show featuring guitarist Robin Bullock and husband/wife duo Al Petteway and Amy White for a number of years.  With Bullock and Petteway, you have two terrific guitarists and this show is always a treat.  But the same night, the Birchmere has booked my long-time favorite Jerry Douglas along with Irish singer and song interpreter Maura O’Connell for their own “Very Jerry Christmas.”  Few people can interpret a song the way O’Connell can and her newest CD is a collection of acappella duets entitled Naked With Friends. (Click on the link and read the great review at Fiddlefreak.) The friends include Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Mary Black, Kate Rusby and more.  I love hearing O’Connell live, so I expect I’ll be at the Birchmere on the 7th for that show.

To give you a hint of what you might hear on the 7th, I’ve included a video of Maura O’Connell in a duet with Nanci Griffith and with Jerry Douglas on Dobro playing the Griffith tune Trouble in the Field. Simply sublime.

More to come…