Still reeling from the abundance of traditional music that we experienced during the recent Celtic Classic festival here in PA, our craving for finding a ‘few more’ East Coast Celtic artists remains strong. Given the wealth of Maritimes artists that pursue sounds from their traditional heritage, this music is not as one-dimensional as it may appear to somebody unfamiliar with this genre. While some choose to remain firm to the ‘pure’ traditional sound, others opt to combine both original influences with modern riffs and lyrics. Celtic music may seem an easy genre to classify, yet the strength and diversity of the next generation of traditionally inspired artists have expanded the boundaries of this musical style. For this installment of Snappy Snippets, I spent time this week exploring (and enjoying) four very recent Celtic releases.
The Barrowdowns, “Come What May Come”
Hailing from Halifax, NS, this five-piece band offer a perfect introduction to the world of ‘traditional’ music without harboring fears of being fully immersed to a sound from much older times. Founding members Kendra Breen and Rowan Swain are joined here by seasoned NS musicians Dave Fultz, Adam Martin and Neal Read to create some amazing music that is founded on a true NS sound, but with a modern interpretation that steers their sound much closer to the mainstream. Go ahead and start with the tracks “Living Wage” and “Liar Liar,” both of which provide an up-beat and ‘new listener’ friendly introduction to the Celtic world. “Landlocked” opens with a light and breezy instrumental, before the five-piece vocal harmonies dominate to accompany the almost tropical-flavored beat. As the opening track on the album, this song puts any uncertain listener at ease from the off-set, and leads the way for a great collection of ‘modern-traditional’ pieces.
Naturally, The Barrowdowns pay homage to their roots through tracks such as “Mockingbird” and “Boat,” but neither are a full onslaught of pure traditional, opting instead to bring those mainstream audiences a little closer. Veering the listener to a more traditional sound are the cuts “Do What You Want” (yet has a modern bassline) and the closing track “The Imposter.” For something completely different, go ahead and listen to “A Snowball in Hell;” where traditional crosses paths with a style attributed more to The Dead South – an edgier composition that demonstrates how Celtic music is very multi-dimensional when left in the hands of artists that can successfully push and define new boundaries. Recommended.
The East Pointers, “What We Leave Behind”
Following their highly praised and JUNO award winning debut album (Secret Victory), cousins Tim and Koady Chaisson, along with multi-instrumentalist Jake Charron, recently released their sophomore album. While “Secret Victory” leaned a little more towards traditional over contemporary, this trio quickly demonstrated that their mix of stunning instrumental pieces and vocal laden tracks bridged the divide between such extremes. Taking every positive ounce of energy from their debut, “What We Leave Behind” sees PEI’s The East Pointers raising their game significantly. Once again, both Tim and Koady have freedom to captivate with their mastery of the violin and banjo, but the emphasis now is more modern interpretation than traditional.
The opening track “Tanglewood” contains all of the elements expected for an instrumental piece, yet listen carefully and you’ll pick up on those modern dubs that discreetly add another dimension to their sound. With “82 Fires,” Tim offers up the lead vocals and delivers the goods as expected. The surprise with this track, though, has to be the polished production and the amazing backing harmonies that emphasize once more that the trio have shifted significantly to a more contemporary sound. For those seeking the traditional, do not despair, as original jigs (“Pour Over” and “No Bridge Too Far”) and instrumental pieces (“Party Wave” and “The Crossing”) are interwoven across the album to appease your concerns. And for those that prefer that shift towards the mainstream, both “Miner’s Dream” and “John Wallace” are just the ‘crossover’ tracks that will appeal to you. For me, the standout track here has to be “What We Leave Behind,” with its slow, atmospheric sound that politely asks you to pause and devote your attention solely to the brief conversation offered by Koady’s banjo. With this sophomore release, The East Pointers have definitely renewed and stamped their identities for both traditional and contemporary fans alike.
Ten Strings and a Goatskin, “Auprès du poêle”
We were fortunate to see this PEI trio perform recently at the Celtic Classic Festival in Bethlehem, PA, and were amazed by their stellar instrumental skills. Brothers Rowen and Caleb Gallant, and guitarist Jesse Periard offer a unique fusion of Acadian-Quebecois folk music that perfectly balances both traditional-instrumental and modern-vocal tracks. Following their 2013 debut “Corbeau” album, the trio released “Auprès du poêle” in 2016 to very favorable reviews. We purchased this album after their Bethlehem show, and after just one listen, can definitely understand and appreciate the accolades bestowed upon them.
As we have already seen with both The Barrowdowns and The East Pointers, Ten Strings and a Goatskin are equally eager to offer both original compositions and traditional covers. For this trio, however, the split between traditional and contemporary is very evenly made. Listeners that lean towards the older generation of East Coast tunes will take refuge in “Maluron Lurette” (complete with full Acadian lyrics) and “Maudit Anglais” (translates as “The Damn Englishman”). Conversely, those that have a penchant for the modern interpretation will head straight to “The Town” (as close as this trio gets to a crossover tune) and “Shoot The Moon.” Not content to keep both aspects separated, there are several pieces on this album where both original and traditional come together to form jigs (“The Ukrainian Expedition,” “Igen” and “Begavningsmarschen”).
The trio push such boundaries further on a couple of tracks, with the modern sharing traits with previous generations in “Coal Not Dole,” and the traditional being given a new twist during “When First I Came To Caledonia” (complete with some amazing harmonies at the end). The end result here is an eleven track masterpiece that seeks not to differentiate between ‘old and new’, but to bring fans of both sounds together with this collection of well selected and well performed material. Irrespective of what you are seeking in a Celtic inspired band, Ten Strings and a Goatskin are more than capable of providing listening pleasures and taking you along for a wonderful musical journey.
The final selection of music from the Maritimes was discovered purely by accident. I initially saw their name as participants in the most recent Celtic Colours festival, and then saw them shortly afterwards as a recommendation from one of the ‘if you like this band, you may like these too’ type of internet leads. And what a discovery this turned out to be! Hailing from Cape Breton, NS, this ensemble of Rachel Davis, Jason Roach, Chrissy Crowley and Darren McMullen already have quite the following in their native Province, with numerous awards and honors bestowed upon them. With their most recent album, “Rove,” Coig offer up twelve tracks of up-tempo instrumental pieces and haunting vocal numbers. Produced by East Coast stalwart Dave Gunning, “Rove” may veer a little more towards the traditional when compared to the other albums in this article, but by no means dismiss this one if you are looking for something that contains a modern vibe and unbridled energy.
From the opening piano introduction, and subsequent well-paced and infectious instrumental piece, Coig immediately dazzle with their musical skills. With their distinct modern interpretation of traditional music, this opening track shares many similarities with the sounds of West of Mabou. A good Celtic album needs a monumental instrumental presence, and both “Whistled No. 1” and “The New Prairie Spurs” fulfill such duties. No Celtic album is complete without some lively jigs, and Coig have you covered here too, with “Hashtag Jigs,” The P.F.P. Set,” and “Four to Get Ready,” all capable of prompting you to dance, clap and stomp in time. And of course, it takes some noticeable vocals to step out from this well populated genre, and this is where Coig truly do shine. Go ahead and start with “Bedlam Boys” for some wonderful, haunting melodies, before skipping to “Land O’ the Leal” for a more traditional sounding ballad. Now double-back to “Down the Road,” and take delight in this original piece that has all of the ingredients to cross genres and appeal more to a wider audience.
For me, the biggest surprise here (because I truly was uninitiated with Coig’s music) is their amazing Celtic-lite cover version of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” I truly admire how Coig have adopted a well-recognized 1980s popular music hit and have not only stamped their name and signature style over it, but remain true to the sound of the original. If anything can be learned from this track in particular, it is that the pre-determined boundaries that define both the ‘popular’ and ‘traditional’ genres can be drawn much closer together when the music is placed in the hands of genuinely talented musicians such as these. With “Rove,” Coig have not only performed and produced some fine traditional music, but have proven that such music offers much more to appeal to both purists and casual observers alike. If, like me, you have not yet taken the opportunity to discover this band for yourself, I urge you to go do so immediately. Like me, you will not be disappointed.