Matthew Byrne & The Fretless: Live in Westminster, MD

Matthew Byrne/The Fretless

Team GDW had purchased tickets to see this show with The Fretless (featuring Matthew Byrne) when first announced back in early September.  After all, it is not that often that two Canadian artists get to appear on the same bill at a small venue here in our back yard.  Already familiar with Matthew’s music, we would quickly appreciate the amazing talents of The Fretless just one week before this show at the PA Celtic Classic Highland Games and Music festival.  With their tremendous ‘all strings’ show, we took pleasure in knowing that we only had to wait seven days for the opportunity to enjoy this band once again.

Performing in the wonderfully renovated Carroll Arts Center in downtown Westminster, Newfoundlander Matthew Byrne would be introduced onto the stage to commence the show.  Leaving his acoustic guitar alone for the first number, Matthew would perform “Jim Harris,” one of three tracks from his most recent “Horizon Lines” album.  “I learned this song from my dad,” explained Matthew, “it also goes by the name ‘All By Your Onesies’.”  Strapping on his guitar at the end of this song, he would also perform both “River Driver” and “Adelaide” from this album, adding the tales that accompany the history of each piece.

Reaching into his back catalog, we enjoyed the inclusion of both “What Fortune Guides A Sailor” from the “Hearts & Heroes” album, and especially “Pad’s Song” from his time with The Dardanelles.  Adding another traditional Newfoundland tune into the mix, Matthew’s six track set list and storytelling made for a delightful start to the evening.  Prior to leaving the stage at the close of his set, Matthew hinted that he may come back out to play later with the band, “If they play something I happen to know,” he joked.

Following a brief intermission, The Fretless were introduced to commence the second half of this double bill.  With original band member Karrnnel Sawitsky currently taking a hiatus to promote a new solo album, the remaining trio of Eric Wright, Trent Freeman and Ben Plotnick would invite their good friend and accomplished fiddle player, Hannah Read, to join them once more.  Having witnessed Hannah’s contribution the previous weekend, we knew that this would be another fantastic collaboration between the four musicians.

Best known for their unique interpretations of traditional Irish and Americana music, the quartet opted to open their set with “Alphonso McKenzie’s / Salkantay,” an original composition from their 2016 “Bird’s Nest” album.  Both the title track (introduced by Eric as an Irish tune) and “Maybe Molly” would also feature during their time on stage.  Ben would inform all of their most recent “Live from the Art Farm” album, prompting the inclusion of both “Macleod’s Farewell/Palmer’s Gate” and “The Killavil Fancy” as the selected tracks being shared tonight.  Taking advantage of Hannah’s wonderful vocal skills, The Fretless would include a track titled “Water Bound” that combined some haunting vocals with the stringed accompaniment.

Later into their set, after regaling the audience with traditional Irish and old-time Americana music, when asked by Eric if we liked the Irish music, and if we like the old-time Americana music, one person at the back of the room would respond that ‘we love all of it.’  With a sly smile, Eric would ask how we would feel about hearing them share some “UK indie rock music?”  Caught off-guard, the silent reaction prompted Eric to announce that they were going to perform a cover of a Radiohead song, once again allowing Hannah to take the lead vocals for their rendition of “Airbag;” a track found on their debut 2014 self-titled album.  With a positive reception to this number, Trent would later return to this album and share a tale of how they discovered a traditional Americana track which they believe was titled “Lulu,” and which they re-branded as “Lulu Gal” when adding their own unique string-work to this song.

When Matthew Byrne hinted earlier about ‘perhaps’ joining The Fretless on stage later in the evening, you knew that this would be a certainty.  And after wrapping up “Lulu Gal,” Ben would invite Matthew to come out and join them for one last song.  With a round of applause to bring him back to the stage, the audience at the Carroll Arts Center would be privy to a wonderful collaboration where all five musicians would perform Matthew’s tune, “Bold Nelson.”  With Matthew taking the lead vocals, Hannah would offer vocal harmonies and violin, and the three gentlemen in the middle would add some superb string work to really bring out the best in this song.  Of course, for those of us in attendance, we would receive a slightly ‘different’ version of this song, but enough said, right Matthew?  Exiting the stage to plenty of applause, The Fretless would reappear to perform one final encore number, and satisfy those before them.

A wonderful end to this great night of music in Westminster, MD, both Matthew Byrne and The Fretless delighted all with their wonderful personalities and incredible musical talents.  With both artists heading in different geographical directions after this show, we knew that we had just witnessed something very unique that may not occur again anytime soon.  All five artists were a joy to behold, and all five have an open invitation to return to our corner of the US to perform again.  We appreciated the time taken by all to chat after the show, and wish all the best in their continued musical endeavors.

Visit Matthew Byrne’s website.

Visit The Fretless’ website.

Martin Noakes

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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