Mad River 1011

The phrase “Celtic music” is problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that it’s largely a marketing invention rather than an actual genre. (The late, great Tommy Makem once remarked that he had never heard the term before 1964, at which point he had been singing “Irish” songs for over two decades!) But we’re stuck with the term, so let’s at least get more mileage out of it. One of the overlooked Celtic lands—defined as regions settled by tribes speaking one of the many variants of Gaelic—is the region of northwestern Spain known as Galicia. And few bands have played its music as well as La Musgańa, an ensemble now in its twenty-first year of performing.
La Musgańa is Spanish for “water rat” and, strictly speaking, the group swims in a stream that's more pan-Iberian than Galician, but its instrumental mix of fiddles (including a bellows-enhanced model!), accordion, hurdy-gurdy, hand-held drums, recorders, acoustic guitar, bass, and gaita (Galician bagpipes) makes the Celtic designation appropriate. 20 is a fine introduction to La Musgańa, as it culls from the band’s six-album backlist and offers a sampling of Spanish folk music past and present. You’ll hear majestic suites, pastoral folk melodies, jazzy instrumental breakouts, and neo-Renaissance music, all from a region whose influences include peasant herders, North African travelers, the Jewish Diaspora, nomadic Celtic tribes, and the contemporary imagination. Plus you get to hear the gaita—also popular in Portugal. It looks like a set of Highland pipes, but its sound is less shrill, its drone is capable of playing a second octave, and it meshes well with hurdy-gurdy. This—and a preference for 6/8 rhythms—gives Galician dance music a distinctive sound.

Click here for a very nice YouTube video of the band performing live.


Up From Punk

Never Say Goodbye

Cocoon Records 06869

Sarah Bettens is a veteran of the European punk and alt.rock scene who has appeared on MTV and has fronted bands such as K’ Choice. If you know her from those days, Never Say Goodbye will surprise you; if you don’t, she may well be the acoustic discovery of the year. Her husky alto and new repertoire are what you might get if you crossed Diana Krall and Diana Jones.

The album title is an apt one, as many of the selections are torch songs about pursuing love to the bitter end. “I Can Do Better Than You” is a grudge song supreme, its defiant lyrics kicked up by blaring horns and an arrangement evocative of 1930s small combo jazz. Most of the selections are simpler, but they retain the hybrid jazz/folk/pop feel of the opener. Bettens mixes her moods well. In a mid-album stretch she lays down the melancholic jazz blues “Cry Me a River,” and follows it with “Win Me Over,” the sort of love song that encourages bump-and-grind slow dancing. Then it’s something quite different—the funky drum-and-bass “Come Over Here,” which is far sexier than anything Barry White ever did! And then it’s a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” followed by the up-tempo and bright tones of “Go.” The chirpy little catches in Betten’s voice are like something from an old Cyndi Lauper record.

There is wonderful synergy between Bettens—who plays acoustic and electric guitars—and pianist/guitarist Tom Kestens. The duo serve notice that none of this is a studio trick—about half the tracks are live and they do a stunning acoustic version of “Not an Addict,” which was a radio rock hit in Europe. Sarah Bettens is the real deal and Never Say Goodbye reveals a side of her that we hope she continues to reveal.

Here's a version of "I Can Do Better Than You" without the horns.


James Taylor: Safe, But (Enormously) Satisfying

Photo by Dominique Thiebaut

The grounds were muddy, the skies were threatening, and rumors abounded that Hurricane Danny was going to pelt the Berkshires with torrential rain. And not a single person was deterred; James Taylor took the stage at Tanglewood before a sold-out throng of 18,000. Over the next three hours Taylor delivered the equivalent of a summer movie: a formulaic concert that was long on nostalgia and short on risks, but so enormously satisfying that it practically demanded that we turn off critical faculties and feel the love.

I suppose that one might say that Taylor missed a golden opportunity. The gathering of hardcore Taylor fans was such that it would have been a great venue to try out new material. Hell, this audience was so pumped that Taylor could have asked it to chant from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the idea would have been greeted with a thunderous ovation! Instead, Taylor reserved the night for oldies. He sang the entire of his 1970 breakthrough album Sweet Baby James and the only song from a recording done after 1991 was his rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Fade Away” (from his 2008 Covers release). Taylor’s repertoire, arrangements, and vocal timbre were quite similar to his two-disc Live album that came out in 1993.

The last statement is part of what made Saturday night’s Tanglewood show so unforgettable. It’s been sixteen years since Taylor’s live release, he is sixty-one years old, and he still sings with the suppleness, sweetness, warmth, and (most of the) range he had in 1970. Taylor is the consummate professional who hasn’t lost much because he knows how to sing. When the cameras zoomed in for big screen close ups you could see him doing everything a singer should do: chin down, chest expanded, diaphragm filling, and air passing effortlessly from lungs to vocal cords. Taylor also sings with his band as an equal rather than trying to force his way into the limelight through gratutitous vocal pyrotechnics. This is well and proper as it’s hard to imagine a more professional backup ensemble than the one backing Taylor (seven musicians and four singers, including the revelatory gale-force voice of Arnold McCuller). There’s little that can rival a group of skilled musicians on a night in which everyone is on the same page playing off each other’s enthusiasm, and Saturday was such an evening. Tight doesn’t begin to describe the synergy between Taylor and the band; if a Lou Marini saxophone blared or an Andrea Zonn fiddle lick flew, it was because the song demanded it. Everybody was having a great time, right down to Taylor’s playful electrical guitar exchanges with Michael Landau on “Steamroller.”

Taylor shared the stage with Sheryl Crow, who likewise worked through her greatest hits catalog and served up delights such as “My Favorite Mistake” and “If It Makes You Happy.” Crow could have usefully ratcheted down her amps a tad and tamped down the upper-range vocals to make them more affecting and less histrionic, but her high-energy performance was in keeping with the mood and she was superb when working with Taylor. The two turned in an unexpected duet version of “Fire and Rain” that was enhanced by the sonorous cello of the evening’s other special guest: Yo-Yo Ma.

Superlatives are feeble when discussing Ma; he is simply one of the most astonishing talents of our time, a musical polymath who can seamlessly go between Brahms, Brazil, Beijing, and The Beatles (or James Taylor in the Berkshires). Music is in Ma’s soul and the joy of playing it is etched on his face. I’ve been a James Taylor fan since I first saw him forty years ago, but his cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” was never among my favorites until I heard Yo-Yo Ma texture it with cello. He turned a song that tracks toward sentimentality into one that is pure and fragile. Like Taylor, Ma works so effortlessly that you have to be alert to appreciate his full magic. At one point I found myself wondering how Crow managed to sustain a particularly high note. She hadn’t; Ma echoed her voice as she ascended the scale and continued climbing when she ran out of breath.

Moments such as these more than compensated for the lack of repertoire surprises. As the evening came to a close, Taylor and Crow rocked out on the first two encore songs. Not only was there no rain, the skies began to clear. Danny wouldn’t dare break up a love fest such as this. How to end such a night? “Sweet Baby James,” of course—with Yo-Yo Ma making his cello cry, Sheryl Crow adding plaintive harmonies, and Taylor singing a lullaby. Rock a bye sweet baby James, indeed.