Mairead Nesbitt and April Verch: Two for St. Patrick's Day

Celtic Commotion for St. Patrick's Day

Well we must have some Celtic music for St. Paddy's Day, to be sure, to be sure. Here are two new releases.

"Hallowed Fire" unfolds to woodwinds, pulsing strings, harp notes, swooping instrumentation, and the polished conducting of a symphony orchestra. Then come the lead strings of Máiréad Nesbitt—mournful, precise, and controlled, as she makes her way through a slow Irish-themed tune. This is the flavor of Hibernia (Cosmic Trigger). If Nesbitt's name doesn't immediately resonate, think of Michael Flatley's "Lord of the Dance" or "Feet of Flames" dance extravaganzas, or of Celtic Woman, whose videotaped performances are a staple of PBS fundraisers. Nesbitt is the slit-gowned blonde who likes to kick off her high-heels and flash a lot of leg in ways simultaneously suggestive and innocent.
            I generally hate the kind of stuff Scotland's Dick Gaughan calls "tarted up tourist kitsch," but I really liked this album—probably because the act of listening transported me beyond the faux glamour. At least Ms. Nesbitt's light classical approach is honest; she studied under none less than the late Emanuel Hurwitz (1919-2006), so call this album Celtic music in its formal clothes. As befits her training, Nesbitt immerses herself within circumscribed compositions and eschews instant variations and spur-of-the-moment grace notes. Fast-paced numbers such as "Becoming" are fiery, yet disciplined; "TheButterfly" flits, but as in a netted conservatory. "The First Sheaf" is pastoral—in both rural and idealized form, just as the well-known "Merrily Kiss the Quaker," a West Kerry slide, is lively, but decorous. The latter suggests why Nesbitt's formalism works. The notion of kissing an 18th century Quaker was, depending on the context, either a rebellious act, a violation, or an insider's joke–the Quaker being a symbol of reserve and outward piety. Ms Nesbitt's arrangement captures these contradictions. Okay, so tunes such as "The Dusk" or "Captain H" sound more like something one would hear at a formal ball than on the village green, but there's no quarreling with Ms. Nesbitt's talent. I still prefer the spontaneity and wildness of unconstrained Celtic, but it's fun to dress up now and then.

It seems like just yesterday when April Verch was a 14-year-old fiddle prodigy who ventured out of her native Ottawa Valley and showed up at a few folk festivals. She's 38 now and has ten CDs under her step dance shoes. Her eleventh is titled The April Verch Anthology (Slab Town Records), an eighteen-track culling of releases from 1998 to 2015. Although it excludes material from her two earliest recordings, Anthology does kick off with "Trip to Windsor," when Verch was still a fresh-faced country girl sawing away at a tune with precocious skill, youthful energy, and rough-around-the-edges tones. It's also a textbook case of how Celtic music in Canada is different—simultaneously more rustic in feel, but also played in ways that predate Victorian era embellishment.           
            As a Canadian dancer and fiddler, Verch immediately drew comparisons to Natalie MacMaster, but when she started singing in sweet, high tones, those comparisons shifted to Alison Krauss. Neither is apt. If you must make an analogy, a lot of her repertoire and approach is that of barn dance albums in country music's pre-slick days. Some of it feels as if it were a 1930s anticipation of A Prairie Home Companion—wholesome, spare, and rootsy. Verch's are, however, deep and long roots that stretch from Celtic lands to the Ottawa Valley and into the Southern U.S. Appalachians. "He's Holding On To Me" is bluegrass gospel, while "Jump Cricket Jump" sounds like one of those old John Hartford raw fiddle tune/songs that evoke the subject without being onomatopoetic. There are tear-jerker country songs such as "It Makes No Difference to Me," old-timey selections such as "That's How We Run," and vulnerable folk offerings the likes of "Long Way Home." We also hear Verch's growth as a performer. Contrast the opening track with "The Newpart" (2015). In the latter, Verch heads her own band, with flat-picked guitar laying down a framework for fiddle that swells to a repeated and memorable theme worthy of Jay Ungar. When she sings, it's with the slightly nasal and true-to-her-wellspring country tones that deliberately avoid the smooth polish of Alison Krauss. About that wellspring—its waters are the coming together of French-Canadian, Métis, and Celtic. Call Ms. Verch the real/reel deal.

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