Friday, 10 February 2017

Transatlantic Sessions - Birmingham Symphony Hall. Thursday 9th February 2017

Tift Merritt 
A recurring thought during this show was how incredible and blessed each guest artist must feel with an extensive backing band of this stature playing on their songs. Probably the most redeeming feature of the annual touring Transatlantic Sessions show is the collaborative excellence, and once again this was on full show as the extravaganza returned to Birmingham. From a personal perspective it was the case of a fresh renewal after missing last year’s show following a run of four straight years. No significant changes affected the core of the presentation, other than an opportunity to see three outstanding American guest performers adding their own distinct styles to the show.

The sum of the parts will always prevail in the Transatlantic Sessions and for me the wonderful highlight of the evening was a full accompaniment celebrating the life of the late Guy Clark with a moving rendition of his classic cut ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’. At this moment all five special guests – Tift Merritt, Jim Lauderdale and John Paul White plus this year’s British Isles invitees Eddi Reader and Karan Casey – converged at the focal point of the stage to pay the most fitting tribute to a wonderful songwriter.

Depending on your preferred access point into roots music, the intrinsic highlights may differ, but there was rarely a misplaced moment of musical marvel. Whether it’s the fired up fiddle faction of John McCusker and Aly Bain or the twang-led input courtesy of Jerry Douglas and his band of compatriots, the elaborate Symphony Hall was awash with the sound that has bound the roots fraternity of both lands together over at least a couple of hundred years. For me the Dobro of Douglas is the key pivotal sound, probably adding an adhesive edge to a majority of the songs forming this year’s set.

Jim Lauderdale
Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a brand new album out right in the middle of your Transatlantic Sessions guest appearance. During her four songs in the spotlight, Tift Merritt took the opportunity to share some of her new record STITCH OF THE WORLD. While the new songs will take a time to bed in, there was a stunning reminder of her outstanding back catalogue, with the delivery of the soulful ‘Good Hearted Man’ on piano proving the pick of the quartet. Jim Lauderdale was the other artist with a record hot off the press. LONDON SOUTHERN is a very quick follow up to Jim’s 2016 album and is set to maintain the momentum of this highly esteemed stalwart of the Americana scene. However like Tift, it was one of his older tunes which stole the moment with ‘Headed for the Hills’ probably surfacing as the most crowd pleasing song of the evening.

In contrast, John Paul White’s latest record is around six months old, but BEULAH was the long awaited post-The Civil Wars release from an artist who admitted he had rather enjoyed an extended time away from the spotlight at home in Muscle Shoals Alabama. The good news for his fans is that the hiatus didn’t become permanent and the swampy sound that emanates from this new set of songs was an essential part of the aura that circulated around this pristine environment. ‘I’ve Been Over This Before’ was the pick of John Paul’s twin-song sets complete with a backing vocal trio of the highest order. In line with the tribute angle to this show, John Paul paid his own respects to Ray Price with a delightful version of ‘Crazy Arms and Heartaches’ complete with the atmospheric tones of accompanied pedal steel giving the proceedings a very country flavour.

John Paul White
At this point it’s pertinent to also add that Jim celebrated the work of Ralph Stanley with a gospel number, another legend who has recently departed. On the other hand, Willie Nelson keeps going on and hopefully his current bout of missed shows through illness doesn’t escalate. Therefore Scottish singer Eddie Reader’s version of Willie's ‘Back to Earth’ was a tribute to a living legend and ranked highly alongside another of her offerings, this time a little closer to home with a nod to Rabbie Burns. Eddie has been a regular contributor to the Transatlantic Sessions over the years and her appearances are always greeted with enthusiasm for this much loved performer on the Scottish and wider UK folk music scene. 

Joining Eddie as the home representative (providing you view music as ignoring boundaries and borders) was Karen Casey from Waterford who like Tift utilised the piano well for a couple of her songs. This ensured there is always a Celtic element to the touring show. Although regular contributor John Doyle is always there to help a hand in this quarter and duly stepped forward from his backing role to sing one song.

Not quite, but nearly a regular to the touring show is American banjo/guitar player and vocalist Dirk Powell. He was invited a couple of times to share a song. ‘Waterbound’ was recalled from seeing him on this very stage a couple of years ago and ‘Motherless Children’ ensured that no serious music show is devoid of relevant political content in 2017. Dirks' partner for the evening on the US side lines was the ever present Russ Barenberg on guitar and mandolin.

Any reflection of a Transatlantic Session show would be remiss without acknowledging the contribution from this stellar assembly of gifted musicians. Joining Aly and the two Johns from the home ranks were regulars: Phil Cunningham, Michael McGoldrick, Donald Shaw, Danny Thompson and James Mackintosh. A packed Symphony Hall suggested the thirst for this regular early February post- Celtic Connections gathering shows no signs of abating. As long as the commitment of Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas to mastermind and co-ordinate the project remains, the infinite list of willing guests will ensure this event continues to flourish within the established format.