Gig review: Transatlantic Sessions at the Royal Festival Hall, London
The Transatlantic Sessions ethos is to demonstrate the links between Americana and roots artists and the Celtic folk music traditions that have influenced them. For the audience, it offers a chance to sample artists they perhaps wouldn’t go to see in their own right. So the traditional folk audience of Aly Bain get to see contemporary performers like Ashley Cleveland and Dirk Powell, and those who’d turned out to see Allison Moorer were exposed to the wonderful traditional Gaelic singing of Julie Fowlis.
Jerry Douglas on dobro and Aly Bain on fiddle, each a master of their chosen instrument, were the mainstays. Douglas acted as MC for the evening, and played throughout, while Bain, as well as accompanying most of the other performers, punctuated the evening with a series of both traditional and self-written instrumentals.
Fowlis was one of the undoubted successes of the evening. Her first song was a strikingly beautiful rendition of Gaelic mouth music, quipping “it sounds very, very difficult to sing because it is actually very, very difficult to sing”. It transpired that one of the themes of the evening was some very strong female singers. From Tennessee, Cleveland is steeped in the traditions of old hymns and black gospel music. Her song “Rock In A Weary Land” closed the first half of the show on a high, and she came back for a couple of equally impressive and well-received songs in the second half.
Not to be outdone, Moorer played the title song from her last album “Crows”, complete with some idiosyncratic piano, as well as “The Hardest Part”, and a fine version of the traditional Irish song “Carrickfergus”. Moorer left the audience wanting more.
Ensemble playing was the other keynote to the evening, so the one piece performed solo – by Jerry Douglas – while impressive for its musicianship, was curiously uninvolving. And Paul Brady’s cover of “Baker Street” as a tribute to the late Gerry Rafferty, while well-intentioned, mis-fired. The other disappointment of the evening was that Tim O’Brien was unable to appear due to family illness.
Dirk Powell from Louisiana, who brought a Cajun flavour to the proceedings, was another who undoubtedly made himself some new fans. An accomplished instrumentalist on banjo, accordion and fiddle, he also sang his own song “Waterbound”, inspired by his grandfather and their shared love of music. Powell also led the closing encore of “Jambalaya”. Not for the first time, the stage was filled with 14 or so performers, all playing and singing their hearts out. But on this occasion, the slight air of under-rehearsal, acknowledged by Bain in his introduction to the song, gave an additional edge, as Douglas pointed to whoever was to take the next solo. It made a fitting end to an eclectic show.