fRoots review – Stem The Tide

These young rising stars were voted ‘Up and Coming Artist of the Year’ at the 2009 Scots Trad Awards, and now their confident second CD fully delivers on their earlier promise.  The album contains Scottish and Irish traditional songs and tunes plus some original compositions by Ewan MacColl, Tim O’Brien, Lionel McClelland and band members Paul McKenna, Seán Gray and David McNee.

Performing on guitars, bouzoukis, fiddle, flute, whistle, bodhran, banjo and concertina, the musicianship is crisp and polished throughout, with Rua Macmillan’s fiddle the pick of a classy bunch.  Throughout this CD the rich musical arrangements are inventive, rhythmic and engaging, with constant variety giving a restless energy to the whole album.  There’s a full-on, kicking rendition, delivered with a real bite, of Tim O’Brien’s John Riley, which tells of the hundreds of Irish Catholics who defected from the US Army to fight for Mexico in the Mexican-American war of 1847.

The Paul McKenna Band has the great gift of crafting catchy instrumental hooks with which to frame the verses of their ballad-arrangements, and of composing counter-tunes to create contrasts with the main melody.  For example, their excellent performance of Banks of Newfoundland segués into a brilliant Bulgarian-sounding tune composed by the band.

It’s hard to pick a favourite from this album.  However, The Terror Time is a classic Ewan MacColl song about the persecution of travelling people/Gypsies, and it has been covered many, many times before.  The Paul McKenna Band’s fresh take on this song is inspired.  Paul’s slow, pasionate, legato vocal is contrasted with an urgent, up-tempo pulse of instrumental accompaniment, creating a febrile sense of rising panic and dread, over which Seán Gray’s flute hovers, heartbreakingly sweet and mournful.  Paul’s vehement vocal is strikingly distinctive and intense: if Tracy Chapman had grown up in Glasgow, she might have sounded like this.

Paul Matheson

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