It was Christmas and Kinlocochbervie had a festive atmosphere about it. Decorations and fir trees decked out with tinsel stood in windows, lighting the dull afternoon with flashes of cheerful Technicolor brilliance, and the door to the Compass was adorned with a massive wreath. The smell of burning wood was in the air, as the wind tugged at the ribbons of smoke issuing from most of the chimneys. I walked past the Compass, and my nose was assaulted by the wonderful odor of roasting chestnuts, something I had not smelled in years. It conjured many images of Christmases past, and as I walked to the first of the shops on my list, I was whistling a merry carol. — Richard Brennan in Paul Brandon’s Swim the Moon
Hamish and the other hedgies that spend the winter in their wee habitat in the Estate Library in Kinrowan Hall are joined by many Estate dwellers curled up in comfortable chairs, books in hand and a drink of some sort usually as well too; some are absently stroking one of the Estate cats as they read or watching the late Autumn snow gently falling; and a few are having quiet conversations.
So there’s some music by Lúnasa, some tunes from their Melbourne concert in ’91 which Paul Brandon provided us, playing on the sound system here and I’m ensconced in a chair with my iPad in hand writing up this edition as Iain, your usual host, is off with his wife Catherine on a short concert tour in Sweden.
Not surprisingly, we’ve reviewed a lot of biographies and autobiographies about both performers and bands. So let’s pull a few of those reviews from the Archives…
Remember ‘Hotel California’ which The Eagles did? (This performance of it is from their concert at the LA Forum back in 1980.) Well, David looks at what’s likely the definitive book on them and that circle of Southern California musicians: ‘Subtitled the true life adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and their many friends, Barney Hoskyns’ Hotel California is exactly that: a chronicle of the heady days of the singer-songwriter era, when songs became diary entries, and radio listeners learned more about the artists’ sex lives, drug use, and political interests than we had ever known before. Hoskyns captures them all, in all their egomaniacal glory!’
David says Julian Dawson’s and on piano… Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock’s Greatest Session Man is a great treat for readers: ‘Dawson has captured the man, the time, and the milieu very well. The life of a sixties (seventies, eighties, nineties) rock’n’roller is documented perfectly. The book reads easily, and the story is so engaging that time flies by.’
David also looks at Mark Brend’s biography of a late and very much missed rock ‘n’ roller: ‘Mark Brend has written the first biography of Lowell George, described in the sub-title as guitarist, songwriter and founder of Little Feat, but known by his fans (and that includes many of the musicians who worked with him) as “a real musician.” Yeah, he was the Rock and Roll Doctor but the self medication got to him and he passed away far too early, but he left behind a legacy of songs and music that live long afterward.’
Clay Eals’ Steve Goodman: Facing The Music, says Gary, is about someone whose lyrics you’ve likely heard: ‘Everybody knows one Steve Goodman song. The Chicago-born and -bred folksinger wrote “City of New Orleans,” the iconic ’70s song popularized by Arlo Guthrie. If that were the only thing he’d ever done, it would be enough, because it’s a great song, expressing universal truths in a tale set in a particular time and place. Its chorus of “Good morning, America, how are you? / Don’t you know me, I’m your native son,” perfectly captured the blend of confusion and optimism that reigned over the late 1960s and early 1970s in America, as a generation came of age that loved their country but felt alienated from some of its actions and beliefs.’
Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man gets an insightful look by Gary: ‘Aaron Copland is the central figure in serious American music, and Howard Pollack has produced a biography worthy of the man. His treatment of Copland in more than 500 pages is reverential but never blindly worshipful, candid without being lurid, scholarly but rarely tedious.’
Jim Longhi’s Woody, Cisco & Me, says Rebecca, ‘is an entertaining account of three men’s adventures as mess-men in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II. The Woody in the title is Woody Guthrie, the famous folksinger and labor organizer. Cisco is Cisco Houston, Woody’s organizing partner, who also sang and acted in Hollywood. The story is told by Jim Longhi, an Italian-American friend of theirs who went on to become a lawyer.’
And now for something completely different: Robert takes a look at a biography of a Canadia-American composer who had a big influence on modern music, Carol J. Oja’s Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds, which as a biography is somewhat problematic: ‘Oja has done a remarkable job of filling in the outlines of McPhee’s life from interviews and his papers, but I’m not sure I can really consider this a “biography” in any real sense – it is much more about the music than about the man, and valuable for that. McPhee was, after all, a problematical character: forward-looking, to be sure, but ultimately, more influential as a source than as an example.’
For the story according to the man himself, Robert turns to McPhee’s own memoir, A House in Bali: ‘Colin McPhee, a Canadian-American composer who had much more influence on American music than the body of his music might indicate . . . , left behind two books that were as influential, if not more so, than his compositions: Music in Bali . . . and A House in Bali, a charming and perspicacious memoir of his years in Bali in the 1930s.’
Befitting the time of year, we asked Gwyneth what her favorite winter comfort food was and here’s the lead-in to her long and delightful answer: ‘Chestnuts, I’m obsessed with chestnuts at Christmas. The obsession dates back to childhood, when chestnuts roasted over the coals on a fire-shovel were a winter treat, back in the primitiive and labour intensive days when my parents’ house was heated by an Aga (solid fuel range) in the kitchen, and coal/wood fires elsewhere. And marrons glacees were the ultimate in sophistication. . . until I finally tried them, and wondered what the fuss was about. (I’m sure they’re very nourishing, by the way) Now I live in Sussex, I expect to forage a kilo or so of sweet chestnuts in October or November. After that it’s hit or miss. One year I slung them in the freezer wet and still in the shell & they defrosted as mush. Another year I left them in a copper bowl in a corner they went mouldy & the bowl suffered too. The supermarket then provides, boring!’
Chris reviews for us a true holiday classic: ‘Perhaps it’s the season, or the utter magic of Van Allsburg’s talents, whatever the reasons, the Twentieth Anniversary Edition of The Polar Express appears luxurious and incandescent. If you have (as we do) a beloved dog-eared copy that gets read each Christmas you won’t find any misguided, dramatic, self conscious, ‘gee, how can we repackage this for media savvy kiddies?’ mistakes; just the familiar, wonderful, book in a nice matching slipcase. What you will notice most are the deep, rich, exquisitely printed illustrations.’
Everything here in the music reviews is about Lúnasa, a talented Irish group that reminds me more than a bit of the Moving Hearts with their ability to blend trad Irish music with, as Gary notes in a review of one of their concerts, ‘a jazzy, swinging element’.
Gary gives us a look at a Lúnasa performance just a few years after they came together as a band: ‘This band’s calling-card is its emphasis on the rhythmic aspects of Celtic music, to which it adds a jazzy, swinging element. Much of the credit for the driving rhythm goes to guitarist Donogh Hennessy, whose instrument at times performed more the function of a bhodran than a guitar, and bassist Trevor Hutchinson’s playing, replete with jazzy glissandos and syncopation, also emphasizes the swinging rhythm.’
Jack looks at their first live album: ‘Australian author and Celtic musician Paul Brandon, who wrote of one of the finest fantasy novels of recent years, Swim the Moon, has a new novel, The Wild Reel, coming out this summer. He’s also a great fan of Lúnasa, who are capable of some really wild reels! Now, I know that Paul hasn’t heard this album yet, but I’m certain that he’ll find the very wild reels and jigs here to be quite fine, as The Kinnitty Sessions is the first live recording that this group has released. Paul sent me a recording of a concert they did in Brunswick, Melbourne, way back in 1991. Now, as good as that live sound board recording is, this is far, far better. And if you are a fan of Irish music, this is a must hear album.’
The previously mentioned Paul looks at an album that saw a lot of changes for the band: ‘Sé, (pronounced Shay), is Gaelic for ‘six’, and as well as the obvious meaning, is a lovely great mouthful of a title. For those of you who may be new to Lúnasa, this is a four-piece (Cillian Vallely joined a number of years back on pipes and low whistles) traditional Irish band. Just tunes. Great, great tunes. Fiddle, whistles, flutes, upright bass, pipes, guitar, bodhran, a little piano and trumpet even… The variety is wide but never overwhelming. It’s one of the things that have made Lúnasa what they are today: the ability to undertstand just exactly what a tune needs, without ever overcomplicating matters.’
Lúnasa’s The Story So Far is much appreciated by Robert: ‘It’s easy to be enthusiastic about this collection. Yes, there is solid tradition here, from the haunting, intricate pipes that begin “Eanáir” to the intense fiddling that opens “The Floating Crowbar,” but there is a lot of contemporary sensibility that leads new places, not so much a matter of “hey, look, we’re being modern” as an integral part of the approach – guitar passages that could have come from R.E.M. (“Morning Nightcap”), a hint of Fauré by way of new age, perhaps (“The Miller of Drohan”), a bit of a jazz riff from time to time, never obtrusive, never really calling attention to itself, but undeniably there.’
Stephen looks at three of their recordings (Lúnasa, Otherworld and The Merry Sisters of Fate) in a long and thoughtful essay that touches upon the changes in Irish music they created: ‘Sitting here in my house in Cornwall, on a balmy spring evening in 2003, the 1990’s feel like a long time ago. Back then I was living near Slough, one of those modern, overcrowded railway towns that form a steel and concrete archipelago along the West London fringe. Not, in many ways, the most salubrious of locations, but a paradise for anyone who frequented the numerous Irish music venues of the area. Why? Because, and here comes the bold assertion, the 1990’s, those faraway days of less than a decade ago, were a GOLDEN AGE for Irish music!’
Our What Not this time is a Rootsworld conversation with Lúnasa some years back about their personal approach to the tradition, and it starts off by noting that ‘There’s no shortage of traditional Irish quartets, quintets and oddtets that play in pubs, festivals and concert halls around the world. But Lunasa are no ordinary quintet joined together to play some tunes and have a laugh. In four short years, Lunasa have become one of the most successful traditional Irish bands to ever hit U.S. shores. ‘
It’s not quite Winter here as the calendar reckons such things but it feels like it with cold mornings and bright, chilly days. So let’s see what I can find on the Infinite Jukebox, our server of all things digital, to brighten us up a bit… I could choose the Horslips doing ‘Drive the Cold Winter Away’, but let me dig a little deeper…
H’h. That’s interesting… I forgotten that Paul Brandon had sent us music by Rambling House, one of his bands. So here’s ‘Out in the Ocean’, a jig and a reel he wrote for them. Nice, isn’t it?