Thanks, Aunt C. We needed it.
But if you're one of those who hates the rain under any circumstance, at least there'll be plenty to lift your spirits indoors during the month of March. The Celtic music calendar kicked off last weekend with the amazing Celtic Fiddle Festival at the Berger Center, a nationally touring, bi-annual event that hasn't landed in Tucson since 1994. The festival, which started off as a one-time American tour in 1992, has been spurred on to repeat performances by rabid fans, of which Tucsonans proved no exception. A full house at the Berger Center greeted the Scottish wit of Johnny Cunningham, Ireland's unequaled Kevin Burke, and the distinctive Breton mastery of Christian Lemaitre, fiddlers all, backed in turn by fingerstyle guitarist Soig Soberil (of Lemaitre's traditional band Kornog). For those who missed it, the live CD Encore, recorded over a week of U.K. performances in September of 1997, is a sweet consolation that will ensure you don't miss these virtuoso performers next time around. The bad news: it may take four or five years to woo them back.
As folk traditions go, Celtic music, like its American bluegrass cousin, has in recent years taken increasingly bold steps toward modernization. While listeners may not like all of it equally, it bears remembering that growth is the sign of a healthy organism. As the music continues to reach wider audiences, a renewable resource of interested young musicians and recording studios ensure we'll have plenty to listen to for years to come. And that's a good thing.
Speaking of fusing the old with the new, a certain band of old dogs returns to the Temple of Music and Art with some new tricks on Thursday, March 23. Scotland's Old Blind Dogs celebrate their tenth dazzling year on the leading edge of Celtic roots revival with three new faces and a solid addition to their evolving sound on 1999's The World's Room. The 10-track CD offers a seamless mix of four traditional ballads, two new-trad hybrid songs, and four originals that'll have you looking to the liner notes to confirm suspicions and offer explanations (three of these and one other give songwriting credit to newcomer Rory Campbell).
The Dogs' exciting percussive battery, a band tradition grounded by the electric bass of founding member Buzzby McMillan and carried into the 21st century by teenage-newcomer Paul Jennings, creates a big sound to back Jonny Hardie's trademark fire on fiddle and mandolin. With strong vocals and 12-string guitar by Jim Malcolm, and Campbell's backup vocals, tin whistle and Border pipes replacing the soprano sax of Fraser Fifield (who debuted with the band on their last pass through Tucson in 1997), this five-member acoustic band makes the most of its multi-instrumentalists. Fans of that traditional instrumentation with an ear for jazz and blues inflection will find some welcome new partnerships here.
Continuing the trend toward contemporary is Nova Scotia's Mary Jane Lamond, who kicks off the Celtic Crossroads series at the Berger Center on Sunday, March 26. Lamond's vibrant, even vocals are the centerpiece of 1999's Làn Dûil, a stirring 11-track collection of traditional songs with (mostly) new arrangements by Lamond and collaborator Phil Strong. Though its material is traditional, Làn Dûil has popular music sensibilities that have made Lamond a favorite in Canada and the Eastern U.S. Her unique style layers Scottish Gaelic vocals with traditional fiddle, acoustic guitars, Indian tabla, Irish bodhran, lap steel, trumpet and percussion that ranges widely from a full drum-kit to beating a wool cloth on a 250-year-old table brought over from Scotland. The whole is a very different take on the old Celtic canon.
Though the album has its joyful moments, Lamond's emotive vocals and rhythmic-heavy arrangements tend toward more solemn-sounding registers -- call it the dark side of Enya.
She's one of those laudable musical historians, deeply involved in preserving and perpetuating Cape Breton's Scottish Gaelic tradition, "a huge oral literary tradition," she says, "that is being lost at an alarming rate."
"But I'm also an interpreter, a singer and musician," Lamond adds. "In my music the challenge is to create something new and exciting that doesn't destroy the heart of it."
YOU'LL NEED TO mark your calendars for the last two shows, which complete the greenbelt rounds with the distinctly British departure of Jacqui McShee's Pentangle in April, and a solid return to roots with the legendary Battlefield Band in May.
Vocalist McShee is the only original member of the trailblazing Pentangle, a late-'60s/early-'70s group credited with making one of the first revivalist contributions to world music with their fusion of modern jazz with traditional Celtic and English folk tunes. McShee's rich, warm vocals survived into the '90s in the John Renbourn Band, with a brief reunion with the original dual guitar/double-bass and drums Pentangle lineup. These days she's traveling and recording with Spencer Cozens on piano, keyboard and vocals; percussionist Gerry Conway, sax player Jerry Underwood and guitarist/bassist Alan Thompson.
Their latest CD, the aptly titled Passe Avant (Go Forward), is an adult contemporary mix of originals and changed but recognizable trad tunes. For those tuned toward the easy listening spectrum, the tracks here may offer a new cadence to that mellow sound. McShee's traditional trills and broad range showcase her talent as a vocalist, but the band has that contemporary jazz sound that puts this listener in mind of a dentist office or grocery store aisle. To me, it's sleepy; but to others, perhaps, dreamy.
Special guest Gordie Sampson, a Nova Scotia singer/songwriter in his mid-20s, opens the March 26 show in support of his debut CD Stones. A rocker at heart, this young guitar and vocal talent nonetheless sticks with equal passion to the turf of his Cape Breton homeland with a palette of styles that ranges from radio-friendly pop to a handful of instrumental jigs and reels.
Finally, no tour would be complete without an encore by Scotland's pioneering Battlefield Band, who after 25 years in the world music trenches knows how to entertain an audience and keep an evolving tradition alive. Founding member Alan Reid is still penning songs, but traditional bagpipes meet their match with modern synthesizer and vocalist Davy Steele (of the group Ceolbeg). John McCusker's high-energy fiddle and accordion never disappoint on those jigs, reels and airs, and the Battlefield boys are always good for several laughs between songs.
So shine your shoes and save your pennies. These rare talents are like the daffodils that bloom in spring on their Atlantic shores -- they'll grace our fair burg but once this year, and leave only a memory.
The Old Blind Dogs perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $14, $12 for seniors and In Concert! members, available at Antigone Books and Hear's Music. Call 327-4809 for information, or to charge tickets by phone.
Nova Scotia songstress Mary Jane Lamond opens the Celtic Crossroads series at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 26, at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Special guest Gordie Sampson opens the show. Tickets are $16 in advance (available at Antigone Books and Hear's Music); and $18 at the door. For tickets and information, call 881-3947.
Jacqui McShee's Pentangle performs at 8 p.m. Friday, April 28, at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Tickets are $17 in advance (available at Antigone Books and Hear's Music); and $19 at the door. For tickets and information, call 881-3947; or 1-888-278-9212 from outside Tucson.
Scotland's Battlefield Band performs on Friday, May 5, also at the Berger Center. Tickets are $16 in advance, $14 for seniors and In Concert! members. Call 327-4809 for reservations and show time.