Archive for CD Review category

Hearth Music Big News #1: KEXP

We're very excited to announce that Devon Léger of Hearth Music has started writing for famed radio station KEXP! He'll be writing for the KEXP Blog about world and roots music, probably focusing a fair amount on new music coming out of Africa and North America. It's a huge honor for us to be a part of KEXP, a station that has redefined the role of community radio in the US. From their wonderful in studio videos, to their concerts around town and their ground-breaking expansion into a public space in the Seattle Center, KEXP is leader of the pack!

You can check out Devon's first review for KEXP HERE. It's a review of the new album from blog-turned-label Awesome Tapes from Africa. The artist is Ghanaian kologo player Bola. Great music!

Album Review: Bola – Volume 7

Meanwhile, check out this crazy video from Bola's new album:

Bola - Tigantabame from Awesome Tapes From Africa on Vimeo.



blog date 04/16/2012  | comments comments (0)

A Southern Journey through the Blues: Guy Davis' New Album

Though storytelling is one of the most fundamental human activities, it's surprising how rarely you find recordings of storytellers these days. It's such a primal art, and so viscerally engaging, that you'd think there'd be more recordings available, especially in the world of folk and traditional music. Whatever the reason, it's always a joy to discover an album with great storytelling. Veteran blues songwriter Guy Davis delivers on this and more with his new album, The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues. It's a loving, often-humorous look at the roots of blues culture in the South that also turns an unflinching eye to the horrific life conditions that birthed the blues. The album is chock-full of stories and blues songs, all delivered effortlessly from an artist who knows and respects the culture. The album comes from Davis' work in the theater and is based on Davis' play of the same name, and the influence of the stage shows throughout. Incorporating sound design to fill out the stories, at times the listener feels like they're in a quiet theater watching the play unfold. It's a neat trick to combine theater, storytelling, African-American folk traditions and country blues into one package. And maybe that's why it's a full 2 CDs in length! But the listener doesn't tire, and I moved into the second disc with just as much enjoyment as the first disc.

The album revolves loosely around the narrative of Fishy Waters' journeys through the South. A traveling hobo/bluesman, Fishy encounters all manner of characters and recounts his many stories as he travels and plays his music. The opening track, "Ramblin' All Over" introduces Fishy's travels in a prototypical country blues style. Original songs that sound like old country blues numbers mix with traditional stories given just enough of a new twist to make them sound fresh. Later tracks delve more deeply into Fishy's character and origins, and just as some of the stories are patterned on old folk tales you might have heard around hobo campfires in the South, other stories seem to come from a more personal level, recounting the many levels of poverty that Fishy encounters, along with powerful characters and friendships. Davis is weaving a lifetime of influences in traditional blues to tell a tale that sounds at first almost stereotypical, but quickly evolves into a fully-fleshed out character. By melding theater, music, and stories, Davis pillages the best of each of these idioms to make a beautiful statement about Southern blues and culture. This is a masterful album that's also a helluva lot of fun to listen to. This is a full immersion experience in the country blues.

Guy Davis: Ramblin' All Over

Guy Davis: Fly Took Stockings (story)


Guy Davis: The Adventures of Fishy Waters: in Bed With the Blues



blog date 04/02/2012  | comments comments (0)

CD Review: Bua's Irish-American Masterpiece

Bua. Down the Green Fields.
2011. self-released.

Sometimes all you really need to say in a review is “Damn, they killed it.”

So I’m happy to say about the new album, Down the Green Fields, from Irish-American traditionalists Bua: Damn, they killed it. Seriously. If you have any interest in the traditional music of Ireland, an emerald sound born of fiddles, pipes, whistles, and a clarity of voice that sounds like the musical equivalent of a crystal clear mountain stream and refreshes just as much, buy this album.

Now, for those of you who have a deep love of Irish trad like I do, here’s a more in-depth review:

From the opening track, a set of two reels (Eddie Moloney’s/Micho Russell’s), the boys in Bua show that they have impeccable taste. Whereas most other young Irish bands would ramp the needle up to 11 [this one goes to 78? -ed], burning through these old reels like a gas guzzling SUV, Bua have the taste to know that by slowing the music down and playing at a relaxed pace they can actually have more of an effect. That’s rare in Irish music today, and shows that these players are totally attuned to the true roots of the music. For how could you dance to Irish music when the meter tops out? The frenetic insanity of a band like Dervish only works because those guys are living gods dropped from Mount Olympus to walk among us and demonstrate the powers of musical perfection. Bua would rather play the music right than show off, and that is something that makes me want to stand up and applaud.

Let me take a moment here to commend Bua’s new fiddler Devin Shepherd. I’m incredibly picky about my Irish fiddlers, and was appalled at the use of crappy unornamented Irish fiddling in the new Sherlock Holmes movie almost to the point of walking out. I don’t want to listen to some classical jackass noodle with Irish tunes. True Irish fiddling is as mercurial as the Irish themselves. It doesn’t trust you, doesn’t welcome you, and won’t be your friend unless you put the time in to truly understand. It’s the kind of music that lulls you into a false sense of security with a seemingly regular sense of rhythm, then shanks you in the back when you’re not looking. Don’t believe me? Go to an Irish trad concert and listen to the audience try to clap along. I guarantee you the clapping will fall apart and become arrhythmic in about 10 seconds. That’s because the Irish are pure geniuses at disguising the true heartbeat of the music. Bua’s fiddler Devin Shepherd understands this, but doesn’t overdo it like Martin Hayes. Instead, he strips the show-off ornaments to a bare minimum and focuses on nailing the perfect rhythm and lilt. His fiddling is everything I wanted to be in an Irish fiddler and I’m now a most devoted fan of his.

Sean Gavin brings a subtle beauty to his fluting, piping, and whistling on the album, and Brian Miller shows himself to be a sensitive and beautiful guitarist as well. I have stacks of albums of purely instrumental Irish music, and these guys could hold their own with the best.

But, for me, the heart of Bua is the traditional singing of Brían Ó hAirt, who has dedicated himself to the sean-nós (old style) Irish song tradition, as well as the Irish sean-nós stepdancing tradition. This old style of stepdance is intimately tied to the tune itself, and this means that O’Hairt has a touch with the old songs that just can’t be faked. His voice has the beautiful fragility of the great Irish singers, and his knowledge of the sources of the tune shows his great respect for the tradition. He’s won awards in sean-nós singing (one of the last bastions of old Irish culture), and is a dedicated teacher as well. Sean-nós singing is an arcane style, almost a spiritual ritual at times, that is judged on the singer’s ability to convey the message of a song and to transfix an audience. It’s something that’s not easy to develop a taste for (believe me, I’ve tried), but when it touches you, it touches you deep. By blending the hypnotic, transcendent elements of sean-nós with a full band, O’Hairt has made this old tradition much more accessible. His singing on “Baba ‘Con Raoi” and “Bó na LeathAdhairce” is one of the album’s highlights. It reminds me at times of the seminal 1989 Dé Danann album The Mist Covered Mountains, which married the fire of five young bucks with the wisdom of some of the sean-nós tradition’s elder statesmen. Honestly, I can think of no higher praise than saying that Bua’s new album, Down the Green Fields, compares favorably with Dé Danann’s The Mist Covered Mountains.

Bua’s rendition of the song “Soldier, Soldier” is another album highlight. The song is based loosely on the melody to the old chesnut tune “Flowers of Edinburgh,” a song I’ve heard way too often in my lifetime. Not only do the instrumentalists in Bua totally redefine this old tune, but Ó hAirt’s singing literally brings tears to my eyes …

Damn, this is a great album.

For any fans of traditional Irish music, Bua’s Down the Green Fields is not only the kind of album that should place the band in the highest echelon of Irish groups, but also a truly admirable example of taste and restraint in a tradition that sometimes loses sight of both. Hat’s off!

Bua: Eddie Moloney's/Micho Russell's

Bua: Baba 'Con Raoi/Bó na Leath-Adhairce


Bua: Down the Green Fields



NOTE: This review first appeared in Driftwood Magazine. Be sure to visit their excellent website to find more great bands. They've taken up the torch left with the passing of Dirty Linen and are doing a marvelous job.

blog date 02/07/2012  | comments comments (1)

Peter Stampfel & Baby Gramps' Cabinet of Curiosities

The folk music world has always been known for its collection of eccentric personalities, but few folk musicians are more deranged than Peter Stampfel and Baby Gramps. Stampfel's known, of course, as one of the Holy Modal Rounders, a seminal psychedelic folk duo that somehow managed to turn the most mundane of American folk songs into otherworldly trips of the mind. Baby Gramps is a beloved folk music figure in the Northwest and beyond, renowned not only for his huge knowledge of old vaudeville and hokum blues songs, but also for his long, rambling versions of these same songs and his ability to naturally work throat singing into the idiom. Plus his scrotum song has to be heard (and seen) to be believed. Individually, both Stampfel and Gramps have spotty outputs. They're truly best live, and this doesn't always translate to great albums for listening. They're always creative and fascinating, of course, but some of their albums seem a bit too helter-skelter. But somehow bringing these two scatter-brain geniuses together has enabled them to balance each other out, and their 2010 duet album, Outertainment, is a wonderfully insane romp through the trash-strewn back alleys of Americana. It works great, with Gramps gravelly voice switching off with Stampfel's nearly indescribable vocals, and their always-on-the-edge picking somehow teeters along the edge of total collapse without ever falling, kinda like a drunken kung fu master.


Together, Gramps & Stampfel revel in a dumpster-diving collection of the gross and bizarre. "Bar Bar" is a merry little ditty about getting drunk at bars and starting fights, then barfing everywhere, and "The Puppy Song" is a great folk number about the rather disgusting things puppies get up to, and how cute it is. These are the songs they've written, but they've also sourced songs from pretty interesting places. The truly wonderful vaudeville delight "Monkeys Have No Tails in Zamboanga" came to Stampfel from "Leave it to Beaver," evidently. Other songs come to them from Grandpa Jones, a killer sea chanty comes from Laurence Welk, surprisingly, and they've even got an evil cover of "Heigh Ho" from Disney's Snow White. Yow! There's even a crazy version of the all-time classic "Surfin' Bird."

Stampfel and Gramps' duet album is a like a cabinet of curiosities. It's just chock full of strange discoveries and bizarre little oddities. But with characters this interesting, you just can't look away (or stop listening in this case). It's a helluva lot of fun to poke around the dusty cupboards of these guys' brains. This is definitely fractured folk music of the highest order!

Peter Stampfel & Baby Gramps: The Monkeys Have No Tails in Zamboanga

Peter Stampfel & Baby Gramps: Buzzard on the Gut Wagon


blog date 01/20/2012  | comments comments (0)

150 Words: Goat Rodeo, At First Light, Dana Falconberry, Windy Hill

I've been asked recently to write reviews for various publications and sometimes asked to limit myself to 150 words. This is not easy. It's quite hard to tell an album's story in such a small space. But it's also great practice for keeping my writing brief and readable. So I'm debuting a new blog type here: 150 Word Reviews of some of the artists we've been listening to. It's a quick way to find new music, so help us spread the word!

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris ThileThe Goat Rodeo Sessions

I may be strange, but as a fiddle nerd, it was Stuart Duncan's name that made me buy this album in Starbucks. Sure, Yo-Yo Ma's the most famous cellist in the world, and Chris Thile redefined the mandolin much like a young Bill Monroe once did, and Edgar Meyer's a bass God. We know all that. But Stuart Duncan is one of the best American roots fiddlers alive. I love him because he slips between bluegrass and old-time fiddle effortlessly, and can fiddle anything else under the sun. This album is a great listen, an essential part of the new wave of "chamber folk" music. The tunes are half-composed, half-improvised, and sound like a perfectly balanced blend between folk and classical music. Only these artists could pull it off, and it's a great sound. Don't expect covers of old folk songs, but do expect to enjoy this listening experience.




Windy Hill. Let's Go to the Fair.
2011. self-released.

I'm always on the look out for the new bluegrass music that harkens back to the classic days of the genre's formation. The sound that Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs birthed in the American South in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I'm not looking for a stale recreation, but that kind of red-hot, fire-in-the-belly picking and keening harmonies that made the old classics so perfect. Impossibly young bluegrass band Windy Hill have this in spades on their new album, Let's Go to the Fair. Their music fairly crackles with hot picking and burning fiddling, and their harmonies are deadly accurate. Somehow they manage to make the music sound entirely new without compromising the smallest smidgeon of respect for the true tradition. This isn't bluegrass handled with delicacy, it's a blazing brand of bluegrass pulled forth from the fire with cool iron tongs.

Windy Hill: I'm Leaving Town
(Two Notes: 1) They wrote this song, and 2) Good goddamn that is a hot fiddle solo opening this track!)


Windy Hill: Let



At First Light. Idir.

Though I'm a longtime fan of Irish traditional music, I've never been too familiar with the Northern Irish traditions. So I'm thankful that At First Light have been presenting their beautiful Ulster music to world audiences. On their new album, Idir, the core trio of uilleann piper/tin whistler John McSherry, fiddler Donal O'Connor and multi-instrumentalist Francis McIlduff are joined also by the beautiful singer Ciara McCrickard. If they sound a bit like Irish super-group Lunasa, that may be because McSherry was a founding member. In fact, McSherry's got to be the busiest uilleann piper around! In addition to a recent solo album and an album with Bob Brozman, he also released an EP with Bellingham, WA songwriter Robert Sarazin Blake (that we helped promote). On Idir, tunes and songs rush together like a babbling Irish brook, and you can easily imagine yourself in a Belfast pub, enjoying truly beautiful music.

At First Light: Ar Thóir na Donn


At First Light: Idir



Dana Falconberry. Though I Didn't Call It Came.
2012. Crossbill Records.

I met Dana Falconberry a few months ago when she was touring with my favorite indie-roots artist, Matt Bauer. I hadn't realized then that not only is she a respected member of the Austin, TX music scene (no small feat), but she's also got her own intriguing projects. On her new EP, Though I Didn't Call It Came, released on Crossbill Records, her music is as delicate as a deep-sea diatom. Carefully performed, beautifully arranged, this is the kind of hand-made music that's almost a family heirloom. Woven vocal harmonies, softly plucked strings, a cracked patina voice; it's beautiful and fascinating and something you'd like to keep to yourself rather than share around. At four tracks and fifteen minutes, it's a tiny vignette EP that's hopefully a preview of more to come.

Dana Falconberry: Petoskey Stone



blog date 01/19/2012  | comments comments (0)

Guest Blog: Irish Trad with Innisfree Ceili Band and Danny O'Mahony

We're pleased to welcome back guest blogger Dr. Squeeze with reviews of two amazing Irish trad albums. Sorry we didn't get to these earlier, but it's not like this music is going to get stale. It's still gonna be great even five or ten years from now. So slap on your headphones and have a read-through! Thanks to Dr. Squeeze for the guest blog.

Two Irish Trad Albums Reviewed
Guest Blog by 
Dr. Squeeze

Danny O'Mahony. In Retrospect.
2011. self-released.

I just got my hands on the recently released first CD of master Irish button box player Danny O’Mahony and it’s like a breath of fresh air. The album was released in May 2011 after many years of Danny saying he wouldn’t make a CD – thank goodness he changed his mind. Here we have a master box player, several times All-Ireland champ, playing straight up classics with flawless technique on priceless vintage accordions. Danny comes from Ballyduff in North County Kerry and earned a performance degree from University of Limerick. He has toured throughout Europe, North America and Australia and has a weekly radio show, ‘Trip to the Cottage’, which features Irish Traditional Music and Song on Radio Kerry. He also performs with the Shannon Vale Ceili Band who won the 2011 All Ireland Band title. On this his first CD, he is joined by some good friends and great performers such as Cyril O’Donoghue on bouzouki, Patsy Broderick on Piano and Johnny McDonagh on Bodhrán and Bones, but it’s really the accordion that dominates here and what a beautiful sound!

Danny plays three different accordions on the recording: a 1940’s vintage grey 3 voice B/C Paolo Soprani, another 1940’s grey 3 voice Paolo Soprani in D/D#, and finally the Ioria 6 voice D/C# box of the late great Tom Carmody from the 1930’s. The Ioria was bequeathed to Danny by Tom’s widow and Danny is presently doing research on the life and music of Tom Carmody and The James Morrison Band that dominated recordings of Irish Music in New York in the 1930’s. In Retrospect takes us back to those days of early Irish music in New York, with a faithful reproduction of the sound and the tunes. Custy’s Traditional Music Shop in Ennis says: “This album rates up there as one of the best accordion releases over the last ten years”. Definitely.

Danny O'Mahony: An Pointe/Cronin's/Come West Along the Road

Danny's Website (only way to purchase the album)

Excellent Video on Comhaltas

As an added treat: here's a great video of Danny and Micheál Ó Raghallaigh together on box and concertina. Enjoy!



The Innisfree Ceili Band. Music of North Connacht.
2009. self-released.

When the folks at Hearth Music asked me if I would like to review the new CD by the Innisfree Ceili Band, I jumped right unto it. I am always interested in anything that involves accordions and I am also a member of the Shilshole Bay Ceili Band here in Seattle. Not only does the Innisfree Ceili Band boast two accordion players, both button and piano, but they also have four flute players, three fiddlers, a piano player and a drummer. One of the fiddlers, Oisín Mac Diarmada is already well known as the founder of the Irish Christmas in America show and a member of the famed Irish group Téada. The Irish Times praised them for « keeping the traditional flag flying at full mast » and the Innisfree Ceili Band carries on the tradition. All the players in the group grew up playing together in the North Connacht region of Ireland and represent the styles of Sligo, Leitrim, and Roscommon. Following in the footsteps of the great Ceili Bands of yore, such as the Tulla and the Kilfenora, the Innisfree Ceili Band plays with the smoothness and drive of a great dance band.

The word ‘Ceili’ in Gaelic means a social gathering or a party. In the early days, most Ceilis hosted singing, dancing, and story telling. Ceili dances became popular after the Public Dance Halls Act in 1935, passed to discourage the wild house parties and crossroads dances, replacing them with licensed, regulated and government-controlled dances in larger venues that could afford the license fees. This led to larger dance bands in a more formal setting, often dressed in suits or tuxedos and hiring drummers, pianists, and even saxophone players. The glory days were in the 40’s and 50’s, then declined with the new ‘Seisîuns’ involving smaller groups in pubs, playing for their own enjoyment or as background music to drinking your Guinness. The Innisfree Ceili Band is helping to bring back the tradition of the old Ceili Bands and were the winners of the 2008 All Ireland Ceili Band Competition.

Sit back and listen to this collection of jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, and marches. This is music that will set your toes tapping and lead you to the dance. Their blend of flutes, fiddles, accordion, piano and drum set is seamless and flows like a well-oiled dance machine. You will hear some great tunes handed down from legendary musicians such as Michael Coleman, Father Charlie Cohen, Michael Gorman, James Morrison, Paddy Kiloran, and Denis Murphy. And the dance goes on…..

Innisfree Ceili Band: The Real Blackthorn Stick/Trim the Velvet



blog date 01/16/2012  | comments comments (0)