I first fell in love with Texas while working for the International Accordion Festival in San Antonio, so in my mind when I think of Texas, I think of the wonderfully vibrant Tex-Mex culture of San Antonio. I’ve never been to Austin or Houston, or anywhere else in Texas; San Antonio was so full of culture and history that I didn’t want to leave. At the Accordion Festival, I learned that San Antonio was the heartland of Tex-Mex (or Tejano) conjunto music (Spanish-speaking, accordion-driven county music that still retains roots to the Mexican traditions it originally came from). Not speaking Spanish myself and not really knowing much about conjunto, I was still welcomed into the fold and got to hang out back stage with Flaco Jimenez while he warmed up, chat with Sunny Sauceda about his wardrobe choices (black cowboy boots, black cowboy hat, black-and-white zebra-striped accordion, and black Nike gloves), and party with old-school conjunto master Gilberto Perez.
When I heard that famed conjunto band Los Texmaniacs had a new album out with Smithsonian Folkways, and that this album was their love letter to Texas, with each song based on a Texas city or inspired by a place in Texas, I jumped at the chance to interview Max Baca. Once a member of the genre-bending band The Texas Tornados, where he worked to bring the bajo sexto, a big-bellied, many stringed guitar-like instrument whose heavy bass-runs are at the heart of the conjunto sound, into rock ‘n roll. Now with Los Texmaniacs he’s reveling in the traditions that originally inspired him, and finding like-company with the rest of the Texmaniacs, who all share a deep love for Tejano traditions. Calling from his home in San Antonio, Max was a wonderful person to interview and seemed to have endlessly interesting stories from his lifetime of traveling and performing around the world.
Hearth Music Interview with Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs
Hearth Music: You live in San Antonio; what neighborhood do you live in?
Max Baca: I live in the south side, actually the southeast portion of San Antonio.
Is there a strong Tejano community out there?
MB: There is. San Antonio is considered the capital for Tejano music. So, there’s a big Tejano fan base that’s in San Antonio and in different parts of Texas as well. Being that Flaco Jimenez is from here and a lot of the great accordionists were from San Antonio. Flaco’s father, Tiago (Santiago) Jimenez, Sr., was from here and Steve Jordan (Esteban Jordan) was from San Antonio. They might have been from other parts but they always ended up in San Antonio for some reason. [laughing]
You weren’t born in San Antonio; you were born in New Mexico, is that right? Tell me about where you grew up.
MB: I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1967 and I grew up listening to old Narciso Martinez and Tony de la Rosa and Tiago Jimenez and, of course, Flaco Jimenez was always my biggest inspiration in music. My father, Max Baca, Sr., he was an accordionist. Back in the late 50s and the early 60s, my dad was pretty popular in New Mexico.
When did you start playing the bajo sexto and why did you choose to go from the accordion to the bajo?
MB: When I first started playing music, I started on the accordion. Actually, I made my debut with my dad at the age of 5 in the ballroom. I started on the accordion and my brother played accordion too. When I was about 7, 8 years old, after we saw Flaco, then, he had a bajo player and his name was Oscar Tellez and I was just drawn to that guy; he was my idol. The minute I saw him and he talked to me, I was just so flabbergasted, “Man, this guy’s great!” and the sound of that instrument, the sound of that bajo sexto, it just really attracted me. Later on, I started learning about the bajo sexto itself as I grew up, and I got into more of… “Hey, where does this instrument come from?” I started studying Santiago Almeida, Narciso Martinez’s bajo player, who, back then, was a monster, because in those days he was taking the whole load with the bass and the strumming and everything. I was like, “Wow! That is cool!” Nowadays, you don’t see bajo sexto players playing like that. They take the top strings off. They just use the bottom 3 or 4 strings; they leave out the beauty of the low notes and the rhythm. They just do the “chank,” the bottom chank and they don’t do the bajedo, which is the bass part which makes that instrument so unique. So, when I grew up seeing these guys play, that inspired me, and I said, “Man, that’s what I want to do.”... That’s basically how I got started. Of course, throughout the years, Flaco would say, “Hey, you’re a good bajo player. You can really master that thing and make a name for yourself and be the first one to take your name and take that bajo sexto to another level worldwide to where people will say, ‘Hey, Max Baca, that guy plays the bajo sexto.’” Get a name for yourself and then, he said to me, “If I can accomplish what I do on the accordion, you can. And if Tito Fuentes can accomplish being a famous timbale player and Carlos Santana can be a great guitar player–you can be the first great bajo player.”
I was like, “What? That’s cool!” I’ve been blessed with hanging out with really heavy cats like Flaco, Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers when they used to play the Texas Tornadoes. Of course, David Hidalgo is one of my all-time idols and I’ve been on stage with Willie Nelson and on stage with B.B. King, these monster guitar players. Willie Nelson, to me, those little solos that he plays are just phenomenal, so heart-felt and he doesn’t play nothin’ technical but, when he plays it, you know that’s Willie Nelson playing his guitar. So, that’s the identity that I’ve tried to create with my bajo sexto. People say, “Hey, I know that’s you on the bajo. I hear your sound right away.” You develop your sound and it kind of sticks with you. People are calling me and asking me which strings I use, what picks I use, what pick-up I use, what bajo sexto I use cuz they want to get that sound that I get. It’s consistency and of course, it’s also the way you play. It could be just one note, as long as you’re feeling that one note, and you’re playing with total heart and soul and feeling in it, that’s what counts. That’s what’s going to reach the people. You’re going to connect with the people, just by the way you play your instrument and by how you make them feel it.
Let’s talk about the new album, Texas Towns and Tex-Mex Sounds. It seems like a love letter to Texas. I noticed most of the songs are drawn from specific parts of Texas. Is that right?
MB: Yeah, I guess so. I guess you could say that... we listened to the songs and we said, "This concept definitely has the Texas towns, because we’re mentioning Seguin, we’re mentioning San Antonio; we’re mentioning Laredo, we’re mentioning Austin... And then, a bunch of other songs that we did on there were like, "The Eyes of Texas," "San Antonio Rose," "El Paso," "Deep in the Heart of Texas," "Waltz Across Texas." So, we said, "Well, the towns and songs of Texas, so how about title it, Texas Towns and Tex-Mex Sounds? So, that’s how we came up with that title. Dan [Sheehy of Smithsonian Folkways] said, "I like that. It’s catchy."
A lot of the songs on here are classics like, "San Antonio Rose," "Viva Seguin." I don’t know a lot about conjunto but I know a lot of these songs. Was there a choice to choose classic songs?
MB: Yeah. Of course, "Viva Seguin" is classic and then we did "Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio" which won Flaco his first Grammy. Then the second song we did was a Lydia Mendoza song called "Amor Bonito," a beautiful song. She wrote that song and Lydia Mendoza was from Texas and that song was from Texas. All the songs we put in there were from Texas. I wrote one of them called, "Anna Mia." I wrote it when I was here in Texas, so I guess you could call that a Texas song. I had met a girl and fell in love with her and she was my Anna, that was my girl, and then, one day, she just up and left me, didn’t even say why, what, where, how, nothing. When I first wrote the song, the first half of the song is praising her; I’m so happy that we’re together and I stopped the song there because she left me. So, the second half of the song, I’m pleading with her to come back. That’s typical songwriting that 90% of these songs are about: heartbreaks and everyday life. All the songs that are in the CD, they’re relative to Texas and the Texas towns and the Tex-Mex sound...
The music now-a-days to me is just so commercial. It doesn’t have the beauty and the feel and the heart that it does and that’s the reason why, personally, I like these older tunes, because they’ve been around forever. Like "Waltz Across Texas," Ernest Tubb, he recorded that and it’s been a classic. It’s a classic Texas song and "Viva Seguin" has been around and it’s a classic Texas song. I don’t think these songs will ever die. They have a beauty to them. "Amor Bonito," if you listen to the words by Lydia Mendoza... these are just beautiful, beautiful songs.
How does the rock and roll spirit of the Texas Tornados live on with the Texmaniacs? You guys are playing pretty straight-ahead roots music but how do you keep the rock and roll side?
MB: That’s unique to the Texmaniacs. Augie Meyers told me one time, he says, "You know, you have that vision and you have that engine and that heart, just like Doug Sahm has." He told me and I thought about that and I’m like, "Wow! That’s pretty heavy for you to tell me that, Augie," and he says: "That’s unique to the Texmaniacs. We can do the traditional, roots music that we were brought up with, but then, by the same token, we can twist it a little bit and incorporate the fiddle." On the new CD, we incorporated Bobby Flores on the fiddle and then, even when we do a live show, or live concert to 10,000 people, like if we’re doing a big show overseas, we incorporate our guitar player. We have Willie J., he plays blues guitar and he sings. He’s like the next BB King; he’s phenomenal. He’s really a heartfelt player. So, we incorporate Willy with us into the conjunto, and then that just brings us to another level. We're playing blues and rock and roll but not overdoing it either, not exaggerating with distorted guitars, just playing downright rock and roll with the conjunto elements. That’s pretty cool as long as it’s done right. A lot of conjuntos have tried to play rock and roll but they just don’t have the feel of it. That’s a unique thing about the Texmaniacs, we can get the feel of rock and roll.
Of course, I was a big fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty and that kind of music, and later on, ACDC, but we didn't overdo it. We added a little into the conjunto thing, otherwise people will say, "Look, these people have done too much." You just want enough to where it’s hip and cool. Texmaniacs, that’s what we have. That’s what we can do. We can go and play the Smithsonian Folklife Festival with a traditional conjunto and get the point across to the people, and it would be the first time that they would hear this music and they like it. When they leave at the end of the dance or at the end of the show, they go buy a CD because we touched them and they liked it. Or, on the other hand, we can go play at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, or the Hollywood Bowl, a big concert where we’re jamming out and playing Texmaniacs type of stuff and rock out a little bit. In the middle of the set, we break down and we play the acoustic version of conjunto; they love that in a big concert. All of a sudden, the band breaks down and does “Viva Seguin." The crowd goes crazy and they love it. That’s a unique thing about Texmaniacs and I think a lot has to do with what Augie said that the engine and the heart of having that vision of being able to do both, traditional and modern.
You started off in a lot of dance music. You started in your father’s dance band and you’ve done a lot of dance music. When you tour now with those Texmaniacs, you go all over the world. Do people still dance to the music?
MB: Yeah, they do. It’s music to dance to. You want to tap your foot and then you start dancing. We went to play in China and we played in performing arts theaters, beautiful theaters and before you know it, by the end of the show, they’d get up from their seat to the little space between the front seat and the stage, maybe 15-20 feet and, before you know it, people are jumping and dancing... They’re dancing because we’re moving them. It was really cool! Back when I played with my dad, there was a lot of bailes, where people would go dance just to go dance. Now, we play in a big concert to Chinese people and, before you know it, by the end of the set, they’re in that space there dancing in their own way. Even in Holland, or Spain or the concerts, we played one in San Pedro in Argentina, in Buenos Aires and we started playing “Marina” and people just started jumping right there where they stood, they just started jumping, jumping, jumping to the beat.
That’s amazing! [laughing] I love that.
MB: To me they were dancing, that’s their way of dancing. Obviously, they don’t know how to do the right dance steps but we moved them; that was their way of dancing.
Moving on to another question I had… There must be a lot of Mexican immigrants coming into Texas, especially with all the border violence. How have the Mexicans integrated with the Tejanos? Is there a blending of Norteno and conjunto music at all?
Max: Yeah, there’s a huge norteno market right now: huge, huge. At first, I remember Mingo Saldivar would go play in Mexico and he became really huge over there. The “Dancing Cowboy” they called him. He hit with that “Ring of Fire” and it was huge thing over there and he played to 30,000 people a night. He’d come back here and he was still Mingo but over there he was huge. And it’s vice versa; there’s a lot of Norteno bands that are over here in the States or that come over here, and they’re huge over here because of the population of the Mexican immigrants. They love their music. Los Tigres del Norte are a prime example. Those guys will go fill up a football stadium! There’s definitely a big Norteno movement right now. So, they’ve got a style like… they have the beat of the Tejano and then, they incorporate licks and a stylistic way of playing that’s different from the traditional conjunto. It’s pretty cool, man. I really appreciate it and I dig it, but my heart’s always been faithful to the Tejano conjunto sound.
Do you see conjunto being embraced by a younger generation? Is another generation taking up the music now?
MB: Yes, there’s a lot of young conjuntos that are just busting out now, really, really good ones. They have a more modern sound because it’s another generation. I would say Los Texmaniacs are probably one of the last bands that are doing a modern thing but with the old feel to it. The newer guys… they’ll listen to something on the radio and then, they’ll perfect that and they’ll get that commercial sound. You talk to an accordion player now and you say, “Hey, did you ever hear of Narciso Martinez?” and they’ll have no clue who that was, or Flaco Jimenez. It’s another generation; they’re younger. I would personally love to say before I die, “I took my bajo sexto around the world and I made a mark.” Why can’t Texamaniacs be on MTV? Why can’t our music be on VH1 and MTV and those mainstreams? Give it a chance! There’s a lot of people that have never heard it, don’t know what it is, and I guarantee you, if they hear it, they’ll dig it. That’s what I’m shooting for; that’s my goal, to get the younger generation to continue the tradition and hopefully, some day, it’s got a bigger, world-wide appeal than what it has now. I think it’s come a long ways, thanks to Mingo, thanks to Flaco, especially Flaco. He took his conjunto around the world. That’s what I want to do; that’s the footsteps we’re following and carrying on the tradition.
Speaking of bring conjunto to new places, tell me about recording with the Rolling Stones!
MB: In 1996, me and Flaco were out on a tour in Los Angeles with the “Rock Angels." It was just me and Flaco and they were backing us up, we were on tour with them and, then, at one of the gigs that we played at, back stage, we got a phone call from Don Was who was producing the Voodoo Lounge CD for the Rolling Stones and he was looking for Flaco because he saw in the newspaper that me and Flaco were playing out there. So, he said, “There’s one song that we would love to have you record on; it needs that Tex-Mex sound to it.” So Flaco said, “Yeah, that would be great and my bajo player, Max, is here.” He said, “Bring him too, that’s great. Recording a bajo together, that would be awesome.” So, when we got to the studio, we had the song because they gave us, back then, a cassette tape and we heard it at the hotel.
The next day when we got to the recording session, we started playing the song and they put my mic up to my bajo and then I was in another room over there and we walked in and Mick Jagger was the first one to greet us. I was in awe! I had to psych myself out. He’s like, “Hey, Flaco! Hey, Max!” Really cool cat, real short skinny guy. Don Was was sitting there and Keith Richards was sitting in the back. The other 2 guys, Charlie and Ronnie, they walked out. When we walked into the studio, Mick shook our hands, “Hey, guys.” I grabbed my case and opened up the bajo and Keith Richards was sitting in the corner and he saw my bajo and he got up and he says, “ Pow! “ He was smoking a cigarette and he says, “What is that thing?” And I say, “That is a bajo sexto” and he goes, “Can I hear it?” and I go, “Sure, man.” And I gave him my bajo and he tried to play it like a guitar and of course, it’s tuned different and he’s all, “Wow! What is this thing? How do you play it? This is beautiful.” And I said, “It’s a bajo sexto” and he goes, “This is amazing!” He was smoking a cigarette and the whole time that he is checking it out, his cigarette is… the ash is building up and he had the cigarette in his mouth and the ashes are just about to fall and so... I’ll never forget... When the cigarette fell, the little cherry fell with it and it landed on the bajo. He wiped it off and said, “I’m sorry, man,” He chuckled and, “I’m sorry. I love this thing man, I want it, I want it!” He goes, “Name your price, I want to buy it from you. Just name your price, I don’t care what it is” he tells me and I’m like, “Whoa, man. Keith Richards wants to buy my bajo.” I looked at Flaco, and Flaco just shrugged his shoulders, like, “I don’t know.” I’m thinking, “What should I sell this thing for, $20,000?" This is Keith Richards here; he’s a guitar collector. He has Elvis Presley’s guitars and he’s got guitars that are amazing. I just started thinking. I go, “Mr. Richards, it was a gift from my father.” He said, “I understand, sentimental value, yeah, I understand. But I don’t care, name your price. I don’t care, you name your price. I want this.” I was like, “Wow, man.” So, it turned out that I never sold it to him and I froze and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t sell it. When I got back from the tour, after we did the recording, and I flew back home to Albuquerque, I told my dad the story and then, he’s like, “Pendejo, you should have sold it to him. Pendejo, you should have sold it. You could have bought 10 of them!” [laughing] I’m like, “Okay, Dad. I’m out here being loyal to you!” But that’s a true story, that’s a true story. But I guess I could say, I didn’t sell it to him. That year, ’96, we won a Grammy, that CD, that album, Voodoo Lounge won a Grammy, so me and Flaco participated in that. They sent us both a double platinum CD album. I have it hanging on my wall... Later on, I recorded with Mellencamp. I did a song with Mellencamp. Of course, Ricky Skaggs, Charles Sawtelle and Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett, so many others.
Do you still have Keith Richards’ cigarette burn on your bajo sexto?
MB: [laughing] I do. I do. It’s still there.
That’s amazing. What was the song specifically that you were on, on Voodoo Lounge?
MB: It’s called, “Sweethearts Together.” Check it out. It’s track #10. It starts off real slow and then, you can hear the bajo coming in. It comes in on the second measure, you can hear it right away. It’s kind of like a bolero, like a bolero and then, in the middle solo, Flaco takes a solo on the accordion.
Well, thanks Max. We’ll have to do another interview again soon. This has been a lot of fun.
MB: You call me anytime, my friend.
Max Baca Talks About and Demonstrates Conjunto Music and the Bajo Sexto:
Los Texmaniacs: Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio (I Leave You in San Antonio)
NOTE: Hearth Music has been a publicist for Smithsonian Folkways in the past, but we weren't involved with this Los Texmaniacs release in any way.
02/02/2013 | comments (0)
Guest Concert Review by Llyn De Danaan.
On the icy evening of January 11 (the temperatures locally hit 20 degrees Fahrenheit and black ice slicked up the roads throughout town), Dave Greely and Joel Savoy made a stop on their way from Portland to Seattle to entertain a grateful sell-out crowd and inaugurate Olympia, Washington’s newest music venue, the back room of André Le Rest’s iconic Bread Peddler café. Dave Greely, for those who don’t know, is the founding fiddler of the Mamou Playboys [Steve Riley's band] and an earnest student of Cajun roots music as well as a composer and storyteller. He was born in Baton Rouge and raised in Livingston Parish. Savoy is from Eunice, Louisiana and in addition to his fiddling, entertained us with stories of the rural Mardi Gras traditions in Cajun country.
The back room was a perfect place to hear the duo perform and to enjoy a sampling of wine, beer, cheese and breads, and pastries. Among regular roots music devotees present were people who frequent local Quebecois and other jams. The front row was claimed by excited children, students of fiddle and dance, who watched and listened with great concentration. I last spotted this handsome group in the front row of Washington Center for Performance Arts’ recent Natalie MacMaster concert.
This kickoff of the Bread Peddler’s new musical life couldn’t have been more lively and apt. Greely and Savoy played a mixture of old tunes (many drawn from Denis McGee’s repertoire such as McGee’s A Minor Waltz) and newer compositions. Greely introduced the uninitiated to McGee’s work, as well as to the work of Varise Conner, and to the history of “une ronde des danses” which included polkas as well as waltzes and one and two steps. For those who didn’t know the history of the Cajuns/Acadians, there was a brief but informative lesson.
This event was produced by Raincrow Productions. Attendees used the Greely/Savoy evening as opportunity to promote the 5th Annual Olympia Old Time Music Festival to be held at the Urban Onion in downtown Olympia on February 14-17, 2013. The festival will include workshops, dances, and performances. (see http://www.olyoldtime.org/)
David Greely w/Joel Savoy : Cotillion/Chataigner
Lynn De Danaan is a Northwest writer and anthropologist based out of Olympia, WA. Her books include Koans for the Inner Dog: A Guide to Canine Enlightenment, collections of poems, and her latest work, Big Adventure in Moa Nui: The Very Mysterious Events on a South Pacific Island and Their Resolution, a work of fiction based on her travels in Tahiti. Her nonfiction book, Katie Gale’s Tombstone: Landscape, Power, and Justice on 19th Century Oyster Bay will be published by University of Nebraska Press.
01/28/2013 | comments (0)
The Quiet American
The Quiet American is husband and wife duo, Aaron and Nicole Keim. A home-grown modern folk revival, their music incorporates ballads, banjo breakdowns, raggy choruses, gospel duets and other dusty Americana gems, all delivered on a wide variety of acoustic instruments, some of which Aaron built himself. Before forming The Quiet American, Aaron was known for his work with the well-loved Colorado roots band Boulder Acoustic Society. Over 8 years, the band built a passionately loyal following, but Aaron found that their diverse sound was keeping him from his passion for old time folk music. In a quest to get “back to basics,” he turned inwards, moving to the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon to work as a luthier for Mya-Moe Ukuleles. Nicole, who is a musician and artist, embraced the chance to sing and play with Aaron, as they re-dedicated themselves to roots music and to a new life together. This home-made, hand-crafted lifestyle created a new sound for their music, drawing them closer to the traditions that first inspired them.
With their new album, The Quiet American’s songwriting and songcatching focus is on the all-American bad boy, Wild Bill Jones. Over the course of 15 tunes and songs, Aaron and Nicole turn the myth of Wild Bill Jones around and around, bringing new light to the many facets of this classic anti-hero tale. Inspired by the ill-fated love triangle suggested in the song, they focus on each character: the original rounder Wild Bill Jones, the young girl he seduces, Posey, and the mysterious man who pulls the trigger on Jones. With each song, The Quiet American considers the deeper truths behind this age-old story: “Come Walking With Me” swaggers along with the arrogance of Jones’ youth, “Posey’s Song” muses over the female perspective (“Sometimes the right choice is the wrong one, but you make it just the same”), the eerie traditional song “Gallow’s Pole” depicts the condemned man about to be hanged, and “Free Little Bird” is a kind of swan song for Posey as she tries to move on with her life.
The tunes and songs on Wild Bill Jones have been stripped back one by one, even slowed down in some cases, with new melodies built, new words created, and original songs crafted from snippets of inspiration. On the album, you can hear an old-time string band rubbing shoulders with a back-alley hokum jug band, or vintage country duets sounding off with bluegrass harmonies. Aaron works as a kind of curator for the project, drawing from his life-long musical passions to draw out new sounds and ideas. With Wild Bill Jones, The Quiet American has created a pastiche of the roots of American music, and a new way of looking at these old songs and stories.
The Quiet American: "Keys to the Kingdom"
The Quiet American: "Gallows Pole"
01/24/2013 | comments (0)
I'm getting ready to start up as a once-monthly Celtic radio DJ at KBCS in Bellevue, WA, so I've been getting in neat little packages of Celtic music for a while. Now it's time to get caught up and enjoy the fruits of some beautiful music-making in late 2012/early 2013.
Vishtèn is a Canadian roots music band very dear to my heart. They're one of the few groups out there today playing Acadian music, and they're absolutely the best. Acadian music is the ancestor of today's Cajun music, and is centered in the French-Canadian regions of Eastern Canadian provinces New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. There are very few traditional players left of this music, especially the fiddling, and, as a matter of fact, Canadian "Down East" fiddling (à la Don Messer) and bluegrass has done much to supplant the original Acadian traditions in E. Canada. There's a particular flavor to the bowing of Acadian fiddling that's absolutely addictive to me. There's a lot more syncopation than in other forms of French-Canadian fiddling, like Québécois fiddle for example, and the tunes are more rough-hewn, and often shorter. I use Acadian fiddle and fiddling techniques to play for contra dancing, and these tunes are like crack to dancers! They go berserk on the floor with the heavy rhythms and syncopation of the tunes. The songs of the Acadians are better known, since so many Acadians have emigrated from E. Canada, first with the Great Deportations of the 18th century, and even up to the present day with Acadians moving in New England. Acadians love call and response songs, and they love old medieval ballads, and actually a lot of groups in Québec today use Acadian songs in their repertoire, especially Le Vent du Nord.
On Mosaïk, Vishtèn showcase their dexterity with traditional and original tunes and songs. Sisters Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc have such lovely singing that the songs on this album really stand out. They're also widely knowledgeable about Acadian music and the traditional songs here are drawn from archival sources, friends and colleagues, as well as the Cajun tradition. This is great to see, and I know that Vishtèn have successfully toured in Louisiana. Even though Cajun music today doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to Acadian music today, those cultural links are still powerful, and you can find some amazing old Acadian songs in the early recordings of Cajun musicians. The songs are beautifully arranged, another hallmark of the band. The tunes are mostly original, but are of course based on Acadian traditions from the West of Prince Edward Island, where Emmanuelle and Pastelle come from, and the Magdalen Islands where their fiddler comes from. As a fiddler myself, I a huge fan of Vishtèn's fiddler Pascal Miousse. He's heir to the spectacular and wild fiddling traditions of the Magdalens, a small island chain off the coast of Québec. These islands are one of the very last strongholds of traditional Acadian culture and are a hugely ignored treasure trove of amazing music. I spent a bunch of time last year with Bertrand Deraspe from the Magdalens and his fiddling is a wonderland of lost rhythms and old old tunes. Pascal's inherited much of this music from island fiddlers and does us all a great service in taking this music far from the isolated islands where it still lives. Special mention here for Pastelle's accordion and Emmanuelle's flute playing. As a trio, Vishtèn can rock both song and tunes with aplomb.
This album is a very highly recommended foray into the rich Acadian traditions of Eastern Canada and window to a vanishing world that highly deserves to be appreciated by anyone interested in Celtic music or N. American traditions.
Vishtèn: La fougue des fées
It's been a few years since Irish-American singer Cathie Ryan's last album (The Farthest Wave in 2005), but it's great to have her back, and with a new collection of songs, and even a bit of a new sound. It seems, to me at least, that the new album, Through Wind and Rain, is a bit folkier than past outings. It mostly works great, though there are actually a few tracks that felt "too" folkie; like "I'm A Beauty," whose flat and preachy lyrics from songwriter Laura Smith were grating. But other songs, like "In the Wishing Well" and the Irish song "Mo Níon Ó" hit a nostalgic note for longtime listeners of Irish trad wishing for the glory days of the 1980s and 90s. And throughout, it's clear without any doubt that the true star of the album is Cathie Ryan's gorgeous, unforgettable voice. It's so beautiful and clear, like a mountain stream, that one can forgive all excesses without reproach. The best track on the album, "Fare Thee Well," is a show-stopping duet with folk singer Aoife O'Donovan (check out our exclusive interview with Aoife HERE), and a true showcase for Ryan's subtlety as a vocalist. She's got no need to shout, or max out the recording with her voice, she just fills the booth with a full ground swell of vocal purity. A cover of Kate Rusby's "Walk the Road" is another stand-out track, as is her cover of Irish guitarist John Doyle's song "Liberty's Sweet Shore." We got the scoop on the story behind this song in an earlier Inside the Songs post with Doyle, btw. Ryan's joined on her album by a list of amazing Irish and Celtic players, from Seamus Egan to Phil Cunningham, Joannie Madden to Niall Vallely, and so on, but it's really her vocals that stand out the most here, which is saying something.
All in all, there's no disputing that Ryan is one of the great voices of Irish music today, and her new album brings interesting new songs and a chance to really sit down an enjoy the magic of her voice.
Hanz Araki & Kathryn Claire. The Celtic Conspiracy Box Set.
It's remarkably ambitious in this day and age for any Celtic musician to release more than one new album in a year, let alone an entire box set, but sometimes you have to follow your inspiration, and it's clear that ace Northwest fluter and singer Hanz Araki has been tapping a deep well of creativity these days. With his partner, fiddler and singer Kathryn Claire, the two have formed The Celtic Conspiracy, a loose group of collaborators who have been putting on themed shows for the past few years in the Northwest. The themes range from topics like murder ballads to songs of labor and songs of emigration to season themes of winter and spring. They've turned up a lot of material from this and now have put together a box set of four albums, one for each theme. The discs are:
-A Winter Solstice Celebration
-The Emigrant's Song/The Laborer's Lament (which brings two themes together)
The most recent disc, A Winter Solstice Celebration, is a lovely celebration of wintery Christmas themes. You can actually buy this one separately, and I'd definitely recommend it for a Celtic Christmas album stocking stuffer. It's got a lot of British influences actually, namely old and sometimes ancient Carols from sources like Kathyrn's childhood Christmas'. Themed tunes from the Irish tradition abound as well, like "Christmas Eve" , "Apples in Winter", "The Frost is All Over". I'm a sucker for tunes with themed names, so this is always welcome.
You can pick up A Winter Solstice Celebration separately HERE. But if you have the money ($50 for the box set and you have to email Kathryn directly to get it- firstname.lastname@example.org), the full box set is certainly a great present for the Celtic and especially Irish trad music fan. Hanz is one of my most favorite Irish flute players, with a deft sensitivity to the melodies of this old music, and command of subtlety that few other musicians possess. Perhaps this innate focus on melody and the beauty of the music comes from his other background as a sixth-generation Japanese shakuhachi master? In any case, any music from Hanz's flute is a real treat. He sings beautifully with Kathryn as well, and the two share song duties on a good number of tracks here. Together, their dense harmonies are the hallmarks of the albums for sure. Special note should be also made to their clever reworkings of some of these songs. On the more common songs, the duo have totally reworked their common arrangements to justify their inclusion, and brought new life to the old standards. I'm thinking specifically of "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender," which gets a eerie harmony vocal treatment that brings out the old horror of the song, "The Banks of Red Roses," which only needs Hanz's stunning voice to make me love this song again, and "My Johnny Was A Shoemaker," an old Steeleye Span chestnut that Kathryn nails. There's unusual songs here too and hidden gems, and with four albums you'll find a lot to love. Kudos to Hanz and Kathryn for this ambitious project; it's absolutely a job well done.
Hanz Araki & Kathryn Claire: Apples in Winter/The Frost Is All Over
Hanz Araki & Kathryn Claire: The Banks of Red Roses
Kathleen Conneely. The Coming of Spring.
There's a strongly predominant school of Irish tin whistle playing these days, and Kathleen Conneely is not a part of it. And that's a good thing. The main way of playing the whistle these days, as perfected by the fine folks in Lunasa, is a near-constant stream of ornaments designed to smooth out any of the rough edges of a tune and sound like a quietly burbling brook. It's beautiful and amazingly dextrous, don't get me wrong, but there's a real kind of beauty in the older way of playing too. The stately slow tunes of Micho Russell and the clearly enunciated ornamentation of Mary Bergin are hallmarks of the older style. And of course, that's not counting the regional whistle styles, of which I confess I don't know too much. But what Kathleen's doing on her new album, The Coming of Spring, is delving into the heart of the tune, perhaps the most sacred duty of any Irish traditional instrumentalist. Her ornaments never obscure the melody and never homogenize the sound of a tune, instead drawing out new facets and directions for the melody. Her phrasing of each tune is a thing of wonder, employing all kinds of stops and starts in the breathing, and breath rhythms that I rarely hear from whistle players, again all in the employ of better expressing the beauty of these tunes. It's a masterful album. In fact, it could easily be a master class in Irish tin whistle playing and perhaps a much needed lesson for some of the folks in the Lunasa school who love to obscure the tune by flooding it with cascades of ornaments. Special mention should be made too for the other players on the album, all current De Danann members: Mick Conneely (her brother) on bouzouki, Brian McGrath on piano, and Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh on bodhran. They help this album attain the true-drop Irish trad sound I've come to love from the old recordings.
Kathleen Conneely: Imelda Roland's/Master Crowley's/The Limestone Rock
01/22/2013 | comments (0)
The California Recordings is an intriguing slice of lo-fi indie-folk from Calgary-based songwriter and folk traveler Mike Tod. It's the result of Tod's travels through the wooded hinterlands of Northern California in summer 2012, and it's the results of one afternoon spent in front of a recorder with just his voice, a guitar, and some lovely backing vocals from friend Alyssa Jean Gardner. It's beautifully simple stripped-back folk music, with lyrics that gently ruminate on his travels and thoughts. Used to be this kind of lo-fi folk was a lot more common, but I guess we're moving into an era of more heavily produced, deep harmonized, hand-clapped folk anthems from groups like The Head and the Heart and Mumford & Sons. I like both those groups, but I'm struggling now to remember any of their songs. Mike Tod's more in the vein of The Lumineers, who understand that folk songs were made for singing along. He's at his best on this release when he's playing with folk idioms, not exactly subverting them, more like turning them over and over and admiring them. The best song is his truly lovely take on the classic "Inch by Inch."
There's a lot to this album and it certainly deserves repeated listens. And I hope that this is the prelude to a more produced album that can explore more of Tod's muse. He's certainly got a lot of room to move from here. And on a final note, everything about this album reminds me of Northern California. I was born in California and raised in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and I miss my old home a lot. I can't really describe how he does it, but somehow Tod's managed to tap into the red-dirt and Ponderosa pines of my home to dig up music that sounds perfectly at ease on the banks of the Yuba River. I love that most of all about this album.
01/18/2013 | comments (0)
There are those who say the banjo is a percussion instrument, those who say that it’s a stringed instrument, and those who say it’s a little bit of both. Brooklyn-based duo Dubl Handi are surely part of the latter group. On their debut album, Up Like the Clouds, banjo player Hilary Hawke has married the rhythms of the banjo with multi-instrumental percussionist Brian Geltner. Brian’s loping snare drum rhythms, and rollicking washboard beats (Dubl Handi is named for an old washboard company of the same name) brings a new sound to this old music. They bring in new instruments like the mellotron and the marxophone, but the key to their music is their ability to tap into the sounds of the Appalachian Mountains. Hilary has conquered the keening vocal style of the region, and with Dubl Handi’s stark and beautiful arrangements, it’s clear they’ve got one foot in the past and one foot in the future of acoustic roots music.
Though it’s far from the motherland, Appalachian old-time music is huge in Brooklyn! The scene is centered on the storied Jalopy Theatre, a welcoming venue, soon to be featured in the Coen Brothers’ upcoming movie, that’s known for booking cutting-edge roots musicians. Hilary works at the Jalopy and the duo are fixtures in the local old-time scene. On Up Like the Clouds, Dubl Handi show that Brooklyn’s new revivalists have their ears closely tuned to the classics, as they produce fascinating versions of songs from sources like Roscoe Holcomb, Earl Scruggs, and Wade Mainer, plus newer inspirations like Tony Trischka and Brad Leftwich. Each song is done with a clear love for its origins, but flipped and twisted enough to bring something new to the table. Take for instance “New River Train.” What is typically a jovial platitude of Appalachian music, gets transported into a spooky modal sound with precision snare drum beats. Ola Belle Reed’s wrenching “Undone in Sorrow” is given new depth and texture with a subtle trombone line by Sam Kulik and mournful harmonies between Hilary and guest vocalist Zara Bode. Even Hilary Hawke’s three original songs on this otherwise traditional album blend easily into the landscape of Americana trad. Both “Little Orchid” and “Lonely Ghost,” for example, are clearly woven from the tapestry of American folk song, and could fit in well with any other old-time song written ages ago.
On Dubl Handi’s debut album, nearly every track is a surprising twist on old standards, without ever once feeling like the point is to be fresh and new. Rather, the point is to make great music together, and to revel in the raw rhythms and melodies that make this music so compelling.
Dubl Handi: "Katie Cruel"
Dubl Handi: "Shout Little Lula"