- 15 May 12
As two of the legends of banjo playing pass away, Folk That pays its respects and looks back at their extraordinary legacies.
Since my last column, two giants of the banjo world have left us. Understandably most of the attention has fallen on Barney McKenna, the last of the original Dubliners. He exemplified the Irish tenor banjo style with a raucous, high-powered attack. His death came only a few days after that of Earl Scruggs, who along with Lester Flatt left Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys to form the Foggy Mountain Boys. Although not the first banjo player to use a three-fingered grip, the clawhammer style as it came to be known will forever be associated with him. It will be seen as his legacy to banjo players everywhere.
Sarah McQuaid is set to play a string of Irish dates including a launch gig for her new record, The Plum Tree and The Rose in the last two weeks of April. Whereas her first two albums served very much as vehicles for her exquisite guitar playing this new LP sees her stretch herself far further in her songwriting. Although a thread of personal experience is woven into the material, she comes into her own as a teller of parables. Whether she’s recounting the life of 16th century businesswoman Bess of Hardwick or standing in a cathedral and pondering the immortality of the soul, the specific detail always seems to manifest a universal truth.
The opening track ‘Lift You Up and Let You Fly’ takes the form of a tender love letter from mother to daughter, teasing out the age-old conundrum of how, and indeed when, you cut the apron strings. Underpinning it are the warm strains of Bill Blackmore’s flugelhorn, rendering a layer of non-verbal emotion succinctly. The theme of relationships is continued in the next track ‘Hardwick’s Lofty Towers’. This is Sarah’s ode to the woman who built magnificent Hardwick Hall near Chesterfield, in Britain.
Although some of the source material she draws on is obscure and erudite, there’s no smell of fust, no stifling bookishness. As all good folk albums should, there’s a foray into commentary on our current socio-political climate. She does excellent justice to the global economic downturn on ‘The Sun Goes on Rising’, co-written with producer Gerry O’Beirne. Also co-authored with O’Beirne are ‘So Much Rain’, a rumination on lost love and the changing of seasons, with Sarah’s plangent guitar and string-like vocal harmonies embellished by gossamer piano backing from Rod McVey, and ‘What Are We Going To Do’, an old-fashioned ‘first kiss’ song.
Sarah’s cover of ‘Solid Air’, the late John Martyn’s tribute to Nick Drake, becomes a soulful duet, with Bill Blackmore on trumpet. Other surprises include ‘S’Anc Fuy Belha Ni Prezada’, a 13th century “alba” or dawn song sung in Old Occitan, a sparse arrangement for voice and DADGAD-tuned guitar of Elizabethan composer John Dowland’s ‘Can She Excuse My Wrongs’, and ‘New Oysters New’, a three-part canon published in 1609 by Thomas Ravenscroft, featuring guest vocalists Niamh Parsons and Tom Barry. The album closes with Sarah’s original six-part canon of Thanksgiving, ‘In Gratitude I Sing’
If you want to catch her live, she starts the Irish leg of her launch tour at An Creagan, Omagh (April 19), the planned show in Hollywood, Co. Down the following evening has had to be cancelled due to concerns over noise levels (I kid you not). The tour continues with the Dublin launch date in Whelan’s (21) before which Sarah will be giving an afternoon workshop at Walton’s New School of Music, McCarthy’s bar, Dingle (22), the Village Arts Centre, Kilworth (23), The Local, Dungarvan (24), The Market House, Monaghan (25), Roots Fifty Six, Arklow (26), Crusoe’s Coffee Shop, Castlerock (27), the New Music Club at Moran’s Bar, Clonmel (28) and The Blackbird, Ballycotton (29). After that her absence from these shores will be protracted, with her next Irish shows not anticipated until April next year. So get those tickets now.
David Hope, over the past few months, has probably played more shows in Switzerland and southern Germany than he has in his native Ireland. Having released the Hell Or High Water EP last year he is, in theory at least, working towards a full-length album, having forged a good working relationship with producer Declan Sinnott. The troubl,e of course, is that people keep wanting him to play gigs, so may of them that the chances of the record being completed this year seem to be slipping further and further into the realms of the impossible. The Swiss in particular seem to have taken to him in a big way and he has been playing two-handed shows there with his cousin Rob Hope who can more normally be found fronting rock band Senakah.
The two have beautifully matched voices and the Swiss gigs have been so successful that David has been booked for this summer’s Blue Balls Festival in Lucerne at the end of July. Before that he has a number of shows in the pipeline with Miss Paula Flynn in which he’ll be pitting his soulful, worldly folk against her other worldly country gospel in a series of co-headlined gigs that starts off with a free show in the Bernard Shaw on Dublin’s Richmond St. on Wednesday May 9, and visits Sligo’s Model Arts Centre (11) where they’ll be joined by The Henry Girls, Belfast’s Green Room at the Black Box (13) which is an afternoon show, with a night time gig in Newry’s Amplified also on that Sunday.