Sunday, May 27, 2007

Grada Concert Review

Sean Manning reviews the Grada concert, April 28th at the Dunedin Railway Station.

Now I have to say that Grada are a very good-looking band. Structurally similar To Lunasa – guitar and bass on either side holding the thing together and driving the music along, with the tune players, and in this case the singer, in the middle. They are young, energetic, and seem to really enjoy what they do together. There were no moments of ennui, no difficult dynamics. Even after god knows how many almost identical concerts, they seemed to be really having a good time. They told an illustrative story, how on their only day off in an Australian tour, which happened to be in Bondi, they stayed at home to rehearse new material.

They also seemed to be genuinely friendly. After the concert I went up to see what kind of guitars Gerry Paul was playing – he was off somewhere talking to someone else – and the fluter, Alan Doherty, merrily invited me to have a go with them. When their owner returned he was even more encouraging.

(For the guitar players, mostly he played a McIlroy, made in County Antrim by a refugee from George Lowden’s guitar factory, where they make instruments with a major reputation among folk musicians – Donal Hennessey of Lunasa plays one. Another graduate of the same school, Sam Irwin, made one of my guitars. The other one was a 1960-something Martin, a lovely little parlour guitar with tremendous intonation.)

With Gerry Paul crouching over his instrument on the right and Andrew Laking bending across his stand-up bass on the left, both of them New Zealanders, the music was pushed along – they don’t do much in the way of slow tunes. At times it was too complex for me, I wanted to yell, ‘hang on a bit, what happened there? Do that bit again.’ But they were already on to the next, equally complex measure. I can’t really complain, I found the whole concert completely engaging, which is remarkable, coming from this old grump, who can find something boring or just wrong with almost anything. As the concert developed, the layers of the music became plainer – I suppose they were teaching me to listen.

What they do has some roots in Irish diddley-aiddley music, but while superficially similar groups like Lunasa, Danu or Solas remain with the traditional, albeit in a modernized form, What Grada do turns it into pop, jazz and poetry. Nicola Joyce’s singing was not an old-fashioned traditional voice. She delivered the songs with passion and lyricism. An old-fashioned critic might carp that the words were indistinct, something that usually irritates me, but even that was OK, probably more a result of the venue. On their CD, I discovered later, the words are clear.

On either side they were flanked by two stunning instrumentalists – Alan Doherty of flutes and Colin Farrell on fiddle, both also playing whistles on occasion. These are both clearly capable of playing in a traditional style, but apparently impatient with that, their harmonies and solos owed much to improvisation and sounded at times more like jazz.

Favourite moments? Well, the encore for a start (so to speak). They did two things. First, Nicola Joyce and Gerry Paul returned to the stage and did the only reasonably slow thing of the evening – Suzanne Vega’s ‘The Soldier and the Queen’. Not an easy song, it was breathtaking. Then the whole group did something very fast that ended in a chaotically deliberate and high-spirited cacophony. But the best for me was as much visible as auditory. There was a duet on identical low whistles from Doherty and Farrell. Both dressed in black, they framed the singer who sat in the middle playing bodhron, and were framed in their turn by Paul and Laking. To add to the effect, Laking, left-handed on the right, played with his right hand above the left on the whistle, and Doherty, on the left, had his left hand on top. They are the most symmetrical band I’ve ever seen, and they didn’t even know it. When I told Gerry Paul about it afterwards, he seemed bemused.

Friday, May 18, 2007

e-Interview with Ben the Hoose

Ben the Hoose is the award-winning duo featuring fiddler Kenny Ritch from the Orkney Isles and songwriter-guitarist Bob McNeill from Glasgow based here in New Zealand, albeit in different cities. Their music is a spirited interpretation of the dance mu-sic of Scotland; uniquely rhythmic and energetic, they embody the modern Scots tradition. I asked them a few questions by email.

Scottish fiddling is the new gravy on the potatoes of Celtic music. John McCusker is all over and under everything that comes out these days. Is this a good bandwagon to be on? Do you think there is a Renaissance in Scottish music?

Bob: Yes I suppose so. I think the Scottish music world is in a very healthy state. In the last few years I think there’s been a real revival of what I see as the spirit of the music, in contrast to the tendancy for some of the drier institutions to view it a bit academically. There are so many young ones playing now, it’s fantastic. And so much diversity.

Kenny: I’d say that Scottish fiddling has been gravy for a very long time and by that I mean very nice, slightly peppery gravy with no lumps. Being on the Scottish music “bandwagon” is a great thing and Bob and I both know how lucky we are to have grown up with it. A renaissance in Scottish traditional music has been going on for years now. Blazin’ Fiddles injected a lot of life into the scene back in 1998 and it really opened the eyes and ears of young folk all around Scotland who perhaps didn’t appreciate the music they had at their fingertips. Since then young Celtic bands have been appearing all over Scotland.

Do you prefer the guitar for accompaniment rather than the cittern/bouzouki or, for that matter, the piano? Bob, what instruments are you currently playing?

Bob: I like both guitar and piano for accompaniment. It’s not the instrument, it’s the person playing it! Generally, I like far more guitar backers than piano backers. I’m not a huge fan of the “vamp” style on any instrument, especially piano, so I’ll leave that alone, thanks. I also really don’t like the modern splashy right hand style they have in Cape Breton. Kenny and I found early on that guitar worked much better for us in Ben the Hoose, to the extent that I don’t play bouzouki at all in the band now. I wish my piano playing was better!

Kenny: I’ve always loved hearing piano and fiddle together. My Granny, when she was alive, was a lovely pianist and she used to play with me at competitions when I was living at home in Orkney. When Bob and I started playing together, Bob played as much bouzouki as he did guitar. It didn’t take us long though to realise that the sound we were after only came out when he played guitar. Yes, I obviously love the guitar (how could I say otherwise?) but a tune with a great piano player is a magical thing too.

Who is inspiring Ben the Hoose?

Bob: Gavin Marwick, Jonny Hardie, The Iron Horse, Capercaillie (their early music especially), Cry Cry Cry, Richard Shindell, Mark Nevin. A big mix of people.

Kenny: Fiddlers Johnny Hardie and Gavin Marwick are two huge influences for me and the two albums they made together are unforgettable. As far as bands go I’d have to say Session A9 and The Iron Horse and the early Capercaillie stuff. Then there’s Alistair Fraser, Gordon Gunn, Eilidh Shaw, Jennifer Wrigley …

There's a fair bit of kudos in winning the 2006 Folk Tui but is it helpful?

Bob: Well. We suppose it will be especially so when we go abroad (outside NZ) with the band. For us I guess it came across as a sort of vote of confidence in what we were doing – that a Scottish album (albiet with some New Zealand flavour to it) could win in NZ.

Winning the Tui was a great thing for us and has certainly helped to boost album sales. Bob and I didn’t set out to win an award with the album – it was just a good way of solidifying a lot of the music we had in our heads – but getting recognition for it is always appreciated.

How do Orkney fiddle styles and arrangements differ from Scottish?

Bob: Orkney has theoretically been Scottish since 1472. However, its culture and by entension music, seems to have remained quite unique until fairly recently. Kenny’s the expert here, but I hear a lot of north east fiddle style in Orkney music now – all the regions in Scotland have borrowed, expecially recently, from all the others – Bands like Blazin’ Fiddles, Session A9 and Fiddler’s Bid, all of which have lots of fiddlers, have encouraged this

Kenny: It’s hard to say if there’s any difference at all. Perhaps 100 years ago you could have drawn a distinction, but not now – there’s just too much blending of influences. That said, I’m sure if you asked a Scottish mainland player about Orkney fiddle playing they’d swear it was fuelled solely by beer and single malt. Who am I to argue?

Bob, your original songs are particularly well crafted and evocative of the bleaker bits of Scotland and its history. There seems to be a very methodical approach to you songwriting, is this so? Who is covering your material?

Bob: Thank you! But that’s really only one aspect of my writing. I’m not a historical writer at all in fact – just that, when I started writing songs, I found that type of song easier to write. Most of the stuff I’ve written in the last three years has been contemporary, about modern themes.

I can’t do what somebody like James Keelaghan can do with real stories. (By the way, the Scotsman newspaper described him as the “Master of Disaster” - brilliant).

I think when you’re talking about songwriting you can get very technical about some-thing that really isn’t – there’s a particular evocation of sound and melody that I’m going for, every time, to frame the words and the way the character is saying them. The lyrics, phrasing, singing style, guitar style, chord shapes and tuning are all textures that, if you get it all right, will make the listener hear what you heard, when you wrote the song. Great songwriters make you feel what the character feels, not what the songwriter feels, I guess. That’s what you aspire to.

Who’s covering me? I don’t actually know, a lot of the time. But I do know that people are. I get emails asking for backstory and lyrics etc, the two most recent ones from Ireland and Germany, and I do get the (small) cheques, too, so I know people do actually do them and report it, bless them. I don’t Google myself much. Should I?

Explain the cuisine component of the full Ben the Hoose experience.

Bob: Difficult. I refer the interested reader to The Playboy Gourmet Cookbook by Thomas Mario. There you will discover a world of cuisine, elegance and class that I personally found hugely appealing. It may be a strange thing to say, however, in my opinion at the time, this was what was missing from Scottish music.

Kenny: When Bob and I started playing together in mid-2005 we quickly realised that we both have a bit of a passion for good home-cooked food. We did a wee workshop at the Dunedin Celtic Arts Festival that same year that involved us playing tunes and yapping while cooking steak (with a particular tasty red wine sauce). We did plan on putting recipes on our album sleeve but it never happened. Anytime we’re together having a tune, mince and tatties, bacon sandwiches or steak feature high up on the meal list. Music and good food is a killer combination.

Rumours of Bob's imminent departure from these shores would appear to put the duo into recess - or is it something that can be maintained and developed despite the 'tyranny of distance'? Does Ben the Hoose intend to do some international touring? Does Ben the Hoose aspire to being an internationally recognised unit?

Bob: Yes. Yes. Yes.
I wouldn’t think that if either of us were to return to Scotland it would make all that much difference to Ben the Hoose’s modus operandi. We tend to do gigs in bunches anyway, and living in different cities, we have to do a fair bit of planning ahead. Currently gigs have to pay a certain amount before they’re feasible – that’ll just get more pronounced. We’ll just do fewer gigs, but bigger ones. Longer term, having one of us in Scotland, for example, would be a big advantage – there are a lot of festivals over there.

Kenny: Certainly Bob being in Scotland is a trickier situation than him being in Wellington but we intend to keep things going. We’re looking at the possibility of touring Scotland, Ireland and parts of Europe and having Bob based over there will make that easier.

Both of you being musicians AND working in computers must make you Super Geeks. How do you manage to communicate with your audiences?

Bob: For me, it’s the left brain – right brain thing. It may sound hackneyed, but it’s true. A good balance is to use both. I suppose that our core audience is from the Web generation as well, they’re our age anyway, but I hadn’t really thought about it like that… I’ve always regarded having a day job as fairly separate from what I do at night.

Kenny: By talking out of our mouths. In these days of email and text messages it’s quite a novel way of communicating, but it really does work. But, if that fails, the following computer code usually works:

10 Print “Hello, we’re Ben the Hoose”
20 Print “Here’s a set of Scottish tunes …”
30 GOTO 20

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Small Diversion on the NZ Folk List

Brian Dooley writes:

This all reminded me of the Bog Pipe, a classical folk instrument that I recall from schooling in Britain. I went to Amersham College of St Thomas a Becket, on the outskirts of London. Despite its impressive name, Becket School (called thus, as there was another Amersham College) was largely made up of prefabricated buildings. To complete the picture, I remember when my friend Jeremy, alias Stick, threw his father's WWII bayonet into the wall between classrooms and it collapsed.

But there was one permanent building made of stone blocks from an earlier era; of course, this would be the loo. It stood by itself, and had been re-plumbed from something else many years previously. Now, this having been a part of a larger complex, and the materials being ancient stone, the original plumbing still ran through the walls and exited through an open pipe that would have connected to the previous building. Young criminals in waiting that we were, the player would wait for a visitor to visit this loo, and, whilst he was comfortably ensconced upon the throne, would submit embrochure to pipe end, and blow a furious tune in the manner of a bugle. A terrible moaning would erupt throughout the small building, and the walls would literally shake. The terrified visitor generally came flying out the door, whilst the player of the Bog Pipe, now away from the dread instrument, would look on quite innocently - doubtlessly infected with a multitude of cooties from the mouthpiece, and yet, content in the results of his recital on that grand old organ!

Friday, May 04, 2007

2007 Country Music Award finalists announced.

News release May 4,
Two relative newcomers and one of New Zealand’s favourite country duos are the finalists for the Best Country Music Album of 2007. Perennial Kiwi country favourites The Topp Twins join Wellington’s Warren Love Band and Johnny Possum’s Good Time Hootin’ Band from Christchurch as the three to compete for this year’s Tui award. The winner is to be announced at the Gold Guitar Awards in Gore in June and will also be acknowledged at the New Zealand Music Awards in October.Jools and Lynda Topp have been selected as a finalist for their album “Flowergirls & Cowgirls”. The Waikato-born and Auckland-based duo aren’t strangers to the music awards stage after winning the best Country Album Tui in 2001 for their highly successful ‘Grass Highway’ album.

Former busker Warren Love’s debut album “Warren Love Band” comes off the street, teaming up with some of country’s leading New Zealand musicians. They include Warratahs’ accordionist Al Norman and local music icon Wayne Mason, writer of ‘Nature’.Formed in 2005, Johnny Possum’s Good Time Hootin’ Band’s debut CD “Tickets” features old and new country favourites as well as an original single called ‘Bluegrass Saved the Earth’. Taking their cue from traditional country music roots, the band has included several standard tunes with new arrangements whilst also digging deeper into 19th century blues to apply the special Possum treatment.

New Zealand Music Awards spokesperson Campbell Smith says the finalists represent a cross section of country music in New Zealand.“Jools and Lynda are New Zealand’s icons, superb songwriters and entertainers.“Johnny Possum and Warren Love bring a fresh new perspective to country music with their modern interpretations and wonderful story lines.

Country music is very much alive and well in New Zealand as the standard of these finalists shows,” Campbell says.“It’s fantastic to see our Country artists producing great music, and when they come together in Gore at the biggest Country music festival in New Zealand, it makes for a very special occasion. ”The winners are announced at the New Zealand Country Music Awards on Friday June 1 in Gore as part of the Gold Guitar celebrations. Attracting more than 5,000 country music fans during the festival, Gold Guitar week is in its 34th year. For more information visit: More information about the Country Music Album of the Year Award is available at

About RIANZ: The Recording Industry Association of New Zealand Inc (RIANZ) is a non-profit organisation representing major and independent record producers, distributors and recording artists throughout New Zealand. RIANZ works to protect the rights and promote the interests of creative people involved in the New Zealand recording industry.endsIssued for the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand (RIANZ) by Pead PRRIANZ Best Country Music Album (Tui award)For more information including award criteria and history, and finalist information please contact:
Pead PR ContactBonnie Smail, Pead PR, Tel: 0-9-918 5581, Mob: 021 722 276, E-mail: Bonnie Smail( bus +64 (9) 9185581 mob 021 722 276Level 2, Carlton DFK Centre, 135 BroadwayPrivate Bag 99911, Newmarket, Auckland

The Wrong Trousers

Couple of YouTube clips of a great young trio - double bass, mandolin and harp.