Deaf Shepherd’s Ae Spark of Nature´s Fire and Synergy

Deaf Shepherd has been going since the middle of the Nineties. They have toured extensively, both in Britain and in Europe. At the moment, there are six people in the band — Malcolm Stitt on bouzouki, guitar, occasional pipes and vocals; Rory Campbell on pipes, whistles and vocals; Clare McLaughlin on fiddle; John Morran on lead vocals and guitar; Marianne Campbell (formerly known as Marianne Curran) on fiddle and vocals; and Mark Maguire on the bodhran and other percussion. Marianne Campbell joined in the time between the two CDs reviewed here, and Mark Maguire joined after both were released. Original bodhran player Angus McLaughlin left after the first CD.

Their debut CD, Ae Spark of Nature´s Fire was self-produced. The band writes in the liner notes that the goal was to recreate their live sound. The CD is, to a large extent, instrumental. Among the 11 tracks, there are only three songs. The instrumental sets are made up of about half traditional music and half newly written stuff, by the band themselves, friends of theirs and other people.

They start off in a grand manner with the “Gie’s a Drink” set. The bagpipes and the instrumentation give you an impression of the Battlefield Band (one of my favourites). On the second set, “The Waltzes,” consisting of two tunes by Rory Campbell, they slow down and use the whistle and the fiddle as the main instruments. The second tune of that set, “Mrs Jean Campbell,” works especially well. It is a lovely tune with a great interplay between the lead instruments. “Out in the Night,” from the last set of the CD, is another wonderful tune with sensitive playing. Just three instruments, acoustic guitar, whistle and fiddle.

Of the louder sets, “Ah Surely” and “Double Pipe Set” work the best. “Ah Surely” is carried through by bodhran and a strong rythmic acoustic guitar. Fiddle and whistle play the tunes. In “Double Pipe Set,” they execute five tunes in just over four minutes.

Some of Deaf Shepherd’s medleys work less well. There is a tendency by the band to treat them as a collection of different tunes instead of as a whole piece. It happens quite frequently that they have built up a strong rhythm and a wall of sound, just to go back to zero in the middle of the set to introduce a new tune.

Of the songs, the first and the last are the most successful. As often is the case with Scottish and Irish bands, Deaf Shepherd puts the energy into the instrumental work and let the songs come across softer and more relaxed.

“Logan Braes” is a lovely anti-war song by Robert Burns. It gets a fine treatment by the band with a single acoustic guitar, some whistles and John Morran’s voice. It finishes off with a verse sung in a cappella in harmonies. “Lost for Words at Sea,” a poem by Brian Smith set to music by John Morran, adds fiddle and bouzouki, but has the same gentle feeling to it. Parts of the verses are sung in harmony, the chorus is just Morran’s voice.

With two fiddlers and a woman’s voice present, Synergy has a slight change of direction from their first CD — but just a slight one. They have called in a producer this time, Tony McManus, one of Scotland’s best acoustic guitar players, and they have benefited from it. Tony and Brian ÓhEadra helps out with some bodhran on the album.

The mix of instrumentals and songs is different here as well. This time they have made more use of the fact that they have a very promising singer in John Moran. There are 5 songs and 7 instrumental sets on the CD.

The instrumental sets are the same mixture of new and traditional stuff as on the first one. The tendency to break the medleys up into separate tunes is less prominent; and, as unified pieces of music, the sets work better this way. “Father John” is a fine example of this. You hardly notice the change from one tune to another.

On the last one, they build up a wall of sound worthy of Phil Spector, with double fiddles and double pipes. On “Reverend’s Revenge,” they change the instrumental setup for each new tune introduced. First the pipes, then the fiddles, on the third a single fiddle and a whistle, two fiddles again and the fiddles and pipes with a bodhran adding to the sound. A lovely build up.

The first tune of “Clanranald” is an innovation for the band. An instrumental interpretation of a Gaelic song, it is played solo by Marianne Campbell.

As for the songs, there is the compulsory Burns composition. This time they selected “Winter of Life,” a song about aging. They present a careful and elaborate arrangement, with three part vocal harmonies on parts of it, and a lovely use of the fiddles and the whistle.

“Weepers I Shall Wear,” a sad song about lost love, is backed by double acoustic guitars, using the melody instruments much the same way as on “Winter of Life,” creating nice instrumental “mellanspel” between verses. No vocal harmonies on this, but still it is the best song on the album for me.

“The Corncraik” is more rhythmic. The bouzouki is in the forefront of the sound; there are harmonies of the last lines of the verses; and fiddle and whistle provide counter melodies. On this track, Clare McLaughlin makes her debut as a writer with the jig “My Friend Sharon” that is woven into the song. It works very well.

“Pawkie Patterson” is another uptempo song about a man from Hawkick. “Huntin’ the Buntin'” is softer with the tale of a yellow hammer. On this album, the songs are more Scottish. Rather than singing in standard English, as they did in the two of the three songs on Ae Spark of Nature´s Fire, they now stick exclusively to a Scottish dialect.

If you want a fine piece of Scottish music I would recommend Synergy. If you like it, then get Ae Spark of Nature´s Fire as well. And, if they ever play at a place near you, do not miss Deaf Shepherd. From what they present on these CDs they must be a great live band.

(Greentrax, 1996 and 1997)

About Lars Nilsson

Lars Nilsson is in to his 60s and works with cultural issues in his hometown Mellerud in the west of Sweden. He has a lifelong obesession with music and has playing the guitar since his early teens, and has picked up a number of other instruments over the years. At the moment he plays with four different groups, specialized in British folk, acoustic country, Swedish fiddle music and the ukulele.
Lars has also written a number of books, most of them for school use, but also a youth novel and a book about educational leadership. He joined the Green Man Review team in 1998.