- 01 Mar 13
Bluegrass can be quick to judge those who push against received wisdom, which is why Pat McGarvey’s minimalist approach has proved so controversial.
For a genre that’s younger than jazz, and only slightly older than rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass can be hellishly prescriptive. Maybe it’s that streak of Southern Baptist fundamentalism in its genes. But if bluegrass had tablets of the law, their first commandment would surely be ‘Thou Shalt Play It Like Bill Monroe Would Have Played It’. For a lot of bluegrass players that works – there’s enough room to breathe within that edict, space enough to make engaging music with the spark and lustre to enthral the player as well as the listener. If it’s not though, you can be left with the distinct impression you’re being cast out into darkness.
Southern Tenant Folk Union’s Pat McGarvey comes from Belfast, which, as recent flag protests attest, still has a deep fundamentalist streak. Though he’s one of the most recognisable banjo players around he came to prominence playing bass in The Coal Porters, before making an apparently seamless transition to banjo after that band’s late ‘90s epiphany found them setting aside their electric clothes to be baptised in the clear waters of bluegrass.
I first ran into him just after the release of the band’s eponymous debut album in 2007. Then sequestered in London, the group was dipping its toes into Irish waters. The band at the time hinged around some of the best talent the British capital had to offer.
There was Oliver Talkes’ melodic vocal, Eamonn Flynn’s mandolin and Frances Vaux, styled like a siren at a tea-dance, on fiddle. Then, as now, the banjo drove the band. The interesting thing was the way the banjo player stepped from the spotlight and led from behind. Although the music was clearly bluegrass you might never have guessed from that first album cover which eschewed any references to mandolins or hollers and instead featured an austere and somewhat enigmatic black and white image of an art deco garage.
A similar understatedness marked the cover of the following year’s Revivals, Rituals & Union Songs, which dispensed with an image entirely. Under the covers the record felt like an itch waiting to be scratched. Amongst the uptempo workouts such as ‘Never Get The Best Of Me’ were the seeds of a queasier, gypsy jazz inflected, vision of bluegrass.
Then came Southern Tenant Folk Union’s year zero. Moving from London to Edinburgh Pat McGarvey found himself minus a band and with a blank page. Having written an album’s worth of songs he once again started pulling together an ensemble of outstanding players, based in Edinburgh. The resulting record, The New Farming Scene, owes less to Bill Monroe and more to the various traditional folk musics of these islands than either of its predecessors. Edinburgh also brought with it the possibility of recording with engineer Tim Matthew who set the band up live in a room with an arsenal of vintage Eastern European microphones and let them see the whites of each other’s eyes. It was a startling departure: as bleak, minimalist and darkly atmospheric as the monotone cover.
Attempting to read it as bluegrass makes no sense at all. Even at its most austere , on songs like Hazel Dickens’ ‘Black Lung’ or Ralph Stanley’s take on ‘Matty Groves’, bluegrass doesn’t offer the eerie malaise of a track such as ‘South Ythsie’. While the band maintains the classic bluegrass instrumentation of guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and upright bass these are brought to bear on a range of sounds and textures that can be considered altogether alien. McGarvey’s musical palette stretches far beyond bluegrass and he evinces an admiration for music such as John Carpenter’s soundtrack for Assault On Precinct 13, which depends on a single synth and drum machine for its impact. The LP and its successor, 2011’s Pencaitland, brought the band critical acclaim it hadn’t enjoyed and an audience it hadn’t previously reached. However, it posed a challenge for the group in a live setting where audiences wanted to hear the sort of old bluegrass stompers they can toss out with aplomb.
Pencaitland was, unfairly, less enthusiastically received than its predecessor. Neverthless it represents, a significant stride forward. It’s a record that grows with each listen.
2013 opens with the release of Hello Cold Goodbye Sun, a darkly gothic panoply in which the dystopian unease is pushed even further. Here the writing reaches new heights. The arrangements are rich and subtle, the playing superb. Quite rightly the band have received some of the best reviews of their career. Whether a four stars write-up from the UK Guardian will help build an audience remains unclear. Regardless, Pat McGarvey has no intention of quitting. There’s at least one more record to make in this minimalist vein. After that, he has plans for an uptempo, mainstream bluegrass release, although the challenge of writing classic bluegrass while steering clear of the myriad cliches that bedevil the genre will prove tough. Still, there’s a quiet strength that has brought him this far. I, for one, wouldn’t doubt him for a minute.