Review od Dirk Powell with Emily Smith & Jamie McClellan Sat 1st Feb at Celtic Connections
Emily Smith and Jamie McClennan definitively performed as a single entity, Smith & McClennan, tonight. A musical marriage made in Heaven would be a fair description as the pair performed flawless versions of songs, some brand new and some taken from their latest CD Small Town Stories.
Jamie has taken on a much greater share of the writing chores, leading to a more Transatlantic Scottish/Appalachian sound as compared to previous releases that stressed a mainstream Scots agenda.
I have to say, I think the songs are brilliant. There’s only one thing outshines them: their performance by one of the finest duos on the folk/acoustic circuit today. There’s scarcely a whisper separating their harmonies, and the instrumental side shows off two of the best musicians around.
People tend to forget that Emily is not just a phenomenal singer (winner of BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2002) but also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist – guitar, percussion, and former National Mod Champion on the piano accordeon.
Jamie is a guitarist in the David Rawlings league of harmonic experimenters – I loved his insertion of Rawlings’ trademark driving repetition of a note a tone below the chord’s root then sliding up/hammering onto the keynote. But Mr McClennan has licks aplenty and to spare of his own. He’s also a dab hand on the viola – with which he evoked the electric guitar he’d originally used for one track, claiming that they were “about to play a cover of our own number that you haven’t heard in the first place!”
That relaxed good humour was also a stand-out of Smith and McClennan’s banter with the audience. It found its place in the lyrics too. Mackenzie and His Dog, based on a poem from Jamie’s native New Zealand, celebrated the career of the pioneering Scot, whose canine companion was credited as being brilliant at “rounding up lost sheep whose owners didn’t know they were lost.” The audience laughter at that nearly drowned out the song.
It’s hard to pick out stand-out tracks – every song was a winner – but my memories as a parent were stirred by The Sweetest Girl, Long Way Down was starkly beautiful, and Better than War – written by the woman who was, effectively, New Zealand’s Poet Laureate, Willow Macky, had the whole crowd joining in on its simple, but moving, anti-war chorus.
A word to Celtic Connections organisers: give these two a major headlining concert next year – Dirk Powell fans, unfamiliar with their work, were raving about them at the interval, and CD sales looked very healthy indeed!
The headliner was a man who has worked with an astonishing number of top-class musicians – including Rhiannon Giddens, Emmylou Harris, and Tim O’Brien – Dirk Powell.
He brought some of those amazing players with him tonight as his backing band: Shooglenifty drummer James Mackintosh, Capercaillie’s dynamic duo Donald Shaw (accordeon) and Michael McGoldrick (flute, whistle, and uillean pipes), Rhiannon Giddens sideman and acclaimed solo artist Ric Roberts (bass guitar, mandolin, acoustic guitar & vocals). Dirk himself shone on banjo, fiddle, and guitar, as well as taking over bass duties when Ric Roberts did a sterling version of Patsy Cline’s Leavin’ on Your Mind.
Harmonising and playing guitar on that last one was a certain 18-year-old young lady of whom it was asked that we did not post YouTube videos as she was “supposed to be doing her school project” instead of touring Europe with her dad.
Amelia Powell is proof that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – apart from having Dirk as her father, her grandfather was American Cajun fiddler and singer Dewey Balfa, so she’s learned from the best. Throughout the show, she provided excellent harmonies as well as providing lead vocals, with a more than fair range and plenty of power, on a medley of Cajun French songs.
Apart from those musical outings by Amelia and Ric Roberts, the evening was primarily a launch concert for Dirk’s new album When I Wait For You.
The musical stream that runs from Scotland, through Ireland, then crosses to Canada, Appalachia, and Cajun Country gives Dirk’s music a real Transatlantic quality – although you’re never left in doubt for long about his liking for the sounds of Louisiana. Sandwiched between the songs were instrumental medleys of Cajun waltzes and two-steps – the kind that always makes me think of chickens strutting!
Most of the numbers played were Dirk originals, and I’d pick out a couple that, for me, were both outstanding songs and really moving.
Say, Old Playmate was based on a story told Dirk by his father whose best friend till he was eight years old was an African-American boy. His father was told, on his eighth birthday, that the two of them could no longer be friends – the American colour bar still being very much the mainstream viewpoint. He was never able to get over the loss of his buddy, and never able to understand why all the “Love thy neighbour” stuff he was being taught didn’t apply to Black Americans. Dirk noted that, although things had improved, there was still too much of this kind of racism dividing America.
The other song that really got me was I Ain’t Playin Pretty Polly Anymore – essentially an anti-murder ballad. Dirk, along with many others, had always just accepted the murder ballad (a keystone of much of Appalachia’s folk heritage) as part of the tradition. But, given the increasing violence in the United States, and the political climate egging that on, he decided that he just couldn’t sing anything that gave violence, especially male-on-female violence, any aspect of normality.
The song was rendered even more powerful to by Dirk’s telling of his younger daughter’s school receiving a hoax bomb warning. Luckily, the police were able to arrest the hoaxer before he could carry out the rest of his plan: to wait till the pupils were assembled outside at the meeting point, and then to open fire on them.
It wasn’t all serious though! The evening also contained plenty of songs in a lighter vein – one inspired by Dirk waking up on the tour bus to discover a bandmate, sleeping naked because of the heat, had rolled out of bed and was snoring away with certain key parts of his anatomy, inches from Dirk’s face, and lit up by the rising sun. Bright Light of Day had a Louisiana rhythm that reminded me of one of my favourite bands of yesteryear: Little Feat.
Brilliant concert, lots of variety – both vocal and instrumentally, and two top-notch sets of performers – what’s not to like? I’d give this concert 5 gold stars any day of the week – and I don’t think I was alone in that view!
by Bob Leslie