Hot Club of Cowtown Sizzles

Hot Club of Cowtown

March 29, 2011

Iron Horse Music Hall

Northampton, MA

Hot Club of Cowtown might not be the best trio on the planet, but if the category is pure fun, it's damn close! I confess that I had grown a bit weary of the swing boom that hit about six or seven years ago. It's good music and all that, but it seemed like every guitarist from Austin to Alpha Centuri had just discovered Django Reinhardt (was he lost?) and every woman who could warble three on-key notes in succession thought she was the next coming of Patsy Cline. So I was only mildly up for Hot Club, a band I hitherto knew only from its CDs. You can now call me a gone-to-the-river been-baptized convert!

What makes this band stand out on the crowded peer [sic] is that it manages to walk the delicate line between not taking itself seriously and in laying down skilful, dynamic, and varied music. Yes, there was some Django, but there were also sizzling covers of Stephane Grappelli and Bob Wills, the later the band's latest project. Yes, there was Patsy Cline, but also some Patty Page. And yes, there was plenty of complicated swing cadences, but these were balanced with some delightfully simple two-steps. And you simply must see bass player, Jake Erwin in action. To call his style slap bass doesn't begin to get it; that boy slaps that instrument with a gusto that might get him hauled off the stage for assault! About the time you cant take your eyes off of him, Whit Smith let's lose with a hot jazz guitar solo that would have done Django credit, or Elana James lets fly a flurry of fiddle notes that threatens to strip the paint off the walls. She and Smith are also fine lead and harmony vocalists.

It may sound clichéd, but Hot Club of Cowtown is a seriously hot band.


Lunasa Adapts on the Fly


March 18, 2011

University of Hartford

Is there a better band in contemporary Irish music than mighty Lúnasa? They made their annual swing through the East this St. Patrick's season and the audience at the University of Hartford's Wilder Auditorium came primed to hear them. After an unexpectedly lacklustre opening the band soon hit its stride and regaled the several hundred strong throng with its usual mix of jaunty melodies, most of which were punctuated by Trevor Hutchinson's muscular bass scaffolding upon which flautist Kevin Kennedy let's his instrument swoop, soar, and dive. The opening was a tad rocky, mostly because fiddler Seán Smyth, Kennedy's usual duelling partner had to go back to Ireland mid-tour. (Smyth is a practicing physician and had to go back to return to his practice.) Thus the band was working with a guest fiddler, the very talented Colin Farrell. (No, not that one, rather the former fiddler from Grada.) Farrell had literally been learning some of the tunes in the green room, so it took him some time to get his bearings. But here's the thing about a band as talented as Lúnasa; they're so good that they can adapt on the fly. Once Hutchinson, Uilleann piper Cillian Vallely, guitarist Paul Meehan, and Kennedy got the measure of Farrell, they brought the melodies to him, left him space to innovate, and threw him some solo interludes. He did not disappoint. As impressive as the arrange-on-the-fly adaptations were, it was Vallely who really shone. He's a self effacing and quiet man, but he sure can write tunes and play; some times his pipes buzzed like an agitated hive, while at others they were so deft that they were as subtle as a lullaby. And we always know what we'll get from Kennedy: a shanachie as emcee who wields his flute with the joy of a man who'd pay for the privilege of playing. Most of the material came from the band's two most recent recordings: La Núa (2010) and Sé, though there was also new material from a forthcoming release.

If you've never caught Lúnasa live, stick them at the top of your to-do list. This all-instrumental line-up doesn't need a singer to change the pace or mood. The skill and chemistry that allow them to break in a substitute fiddler before your eyes is the same formula that casts an alchemical spell on an audience.