Reviewer: John Kennedy
For a more than a decade now, Birmingham commissures of Celtic/Americana Roots music have eagerly welcomed back the Transatlantic Sessions anticipating an uplifting and much-needed tonic to a weary world – and never more so. These artists and their collective eclectic muse are an apposite reminder that this sublime, canon of music draws its inspirational soul from the Old World/New World diaspora that threw its lot into the melting pot of multicultural creative celebration. Tonight is about bridges, not barriers.
Double bass, one-time hotel room mini-bar warrior, Danny Thompson’s presence here tonight signals a poignant nod to the show’s title and, not least, his laudable five-decade longevity. As founding member of Progressive/Baroque-Folk ensemble, Pentangle, he saw their 1968 The Pentangle (definite article soon discarded) debut album issued on the Transatlantic label, now acclaimed for its 60s and later pioneering ethos of promoting artists whom otherwise would have remained the domain of the collectors’ clique filed under ‘imports’.
Tonight, Dobro maestro, Jerry Douglas, shares musical direction with Shetland fiddle legend Aly Bain with the former assuming principal MC honours. Indeed, such is our American musician cousins’ embarrassment about ‘The Donald’ that they lobbied Jerry to run for the 2020 ticket suggesting that the remaining tour might be renamed ‘Dobros Not Dumbos!’ There is also a running riff on how to correctly or not emphasise the ‘ham’ in Birmingham. How these long Winter tours must fly by. With anything up to sixteen artists on stage the logistics and sound mix are sans pareil. A near three-hour programme showcases both the singular genius of drawing together such an ensemble of seemingly disparate musical genres together with sublime musicianship and singing as one entity – Jim Lauderdale’s writing collaboration with Elvis Costello bearing further proof of this with his Country-flavoured rendition of I Lost You being just one of many examples.
Dublin-based Karen Casey’s piano power-lullaby is spine-shiveringly complemented by Danny Thompson’s bass lines. Banjo barnstormer, Dirk Powell makes wry ironic comment about living in the land of Liberty by means of introducing Motherless Children. Aly Bain’s observation after a fiery fiddle jig climax explains that they used to play fast as teenagers to impress the girls. Midlife crisis had them do it to see if they still had it in them. Nowadays, they just play fast to make sure they get to the end. Guest spots feature Country ballads from Tift Merritt Among other grittier numbers. Russ Barenberg’s working titled instrumental Hymn is majestic, its haunting air an evocative theme for an imaginary elegiac Western in the making.
Introduced as ‘The Queen of Scotland!’ the flaming tressed Eddi Reader revisits her acclaimed tribute to Robert Burns with Winter Is Passed. She closes the evening with a diva-disarming cover of Willie Nelson’s I Guess My Heart Just Settled Back To Earth. With the interval impossibly approaching so soon Muscle Shoals maestro, John Paul White, delivers some decidedly sleazy cathouse Delta Blues. Other notable spots include Dirk Powell with his teenage first kiss rush of invincibility, High Score King and John Doyle’s interpretation of the traditional lament for the casualties of war, Bonny Light Horseman. Karen Casey’s King’s Shilling explores a similar theme.
Altogether a sublime evening from the evergreen ambassadors of Gospel Swing, Kentucky kickass Bluegrass and frisky Celtic rave-heart romantic abandon. Most memorable moment if push came to shove might be Jim Lauderdale’s pre-ramble to, ‘Now yawl gonna sing along to this one! – Headin’ For The Hills – Man, I’m sweating up here like Nigel Farage at a Billy Bragg concert!’
Reviewed on 9 February 2017 | Image: John MacKinnon