I want to talk about British and Irish folk music. And I’d like to start with Henry Purcell.
If you look at the entire history of music, it’s only recently that classical instrumental music became completely separated from folk (and then brought back together with it sometimes in the works of Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and others). And a thrilling new album demonstrates how, even in the 17th century, good music to dance to was also the best music being composed.
The album is called The Alehouse Sessions (Rubicon Classics), an album of English music played by the Barokksolistene, a Norwegian band led by violinist Bjarte Eike. You might expect a bunch of early-music specialists to give an academically-minded performance. But these guys exist to question the whole concept of what “authentic” really means. To quote the band’s official slogan, “It’s just old pop music.”
What hooked me was a track by Purcell called “Curtain Tune (from Timon of Athens).” Rather than the vertical, almost prim, execution of chords most of us associate with Purcell’s music, Eike and his band play freely and are not afraid to arrange and recompose. In a way, this is not for purists. Then again, who’s to say that an individual interpretation – inspired by the venue, audience, and available instruments – isn’t exactly what Purcell would have thought good and right? This feels like living music.
If you aren’t signed up on Spotify, it’s worth it for the free service that will give you access to this piece:
Not much of The Alehouse Sessions is represented on YouTube, but you’ll get an excellent sense of the freedom of style I’m talking about with this live version of John Playford’s “Wallom Green.” Playford was a generation before Purcell in early 17th-century England, writing dance tunes and music theory texts. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to set down your beer and lay down some rhythm on the floor of an Elizabethan-era pub, I’m betting it was a lot like this:
Mixed in with acknowledged “classical” composers of the early Baroque, you’ll find traditional folk tunes like the sea chanty “Haul Away Joe” and “Johnny Faa.” And the Alehouse Boys, as the Barokksolistene are currently calling themselves, are about to launch a fall tour in support of the album. Based on the videos I’ve seen and the energy of their sound, witnessing them live would be a rollicking good time.
Another interesting group playing instrumental folk is the Irish band Buille (which means “frenzy” or “madness” in Irish Gaelic). Their new album, Beo (Alive), from Crow Valley Music, proves the quintet to be worth watching. This is newly composed music, but it’s also Irish folk, not to mention a dozen other genres blended together into a unique and satisfying musical experiment.
The opening track, “A Major Minor Victory,” starts out with a boogie-woogie piano bassline played by composer Caoimhín Vallely, and you wonder who kidnapped all the Irish musicians. But then in comes his brother, Niall Vallely, on his concertina (or “box,” as the cool people call it), and suddenly it’s a high-steppin’ reel. And then it’s a jazz number. Then a jazz number and reel mash-up! Why does this work? Who knows, but it does:
“The 1st of August” is a minor-key reel on concertina accompanied by syncopated rhythm from bodhran (drum), guitar, and piano that gives it a jaunty energy. The accentuation of weak beats in reels is reminiscent of the great Bothy Band, a group that helped established how Irish music should be played for worldwide consumption in the 1970s. The reel (in 2/2 time) opens out into a jig (6/8 time), and then Coaimhín’s piano takes over for a while. Tradition meets composition again.
Buille, for all its innovation, is a pub band. That’s a compliment. Their performances offer no frills beyond the music, and their recordings are a true, unadorned representation of what they sound like in performance.
Which brings me to Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy and their recent album, One. Yes, it has lots of energy. Yes, these two master fiddlers (a husband and wife team of Canadian Celts) have incredible chops. But wow, the record is one slick production, and to this particular folkie, that’s not a compliment.
“The Chase” is a good example of this slickness. Irish meets Scottish meets American country meets Vivaldi in this impressive track, but the playing is so tight, and the high frequencies so accentuated, that the track gleams like it’s made of polished steel. If I can’t imagine dirty wooden floors and the smell of Jameson whiskey, I get very suspicious of a “folk” album:
I don’t need my British and Irish instrumental music to be utterly pure. I just need it to be real.