Saturday, 9 February 2013

Transatlantic Sessions - Birmingham Symphony Hall Thursday 7th February 2013

Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain
When Mary Chapin Carpenter steps forward and praises the venue as one of the world’s great concert halls, you know you’re in the right setting. Likewise when the ensemble of artists on stage is referred to as the deepest collection of roots musicians you are likely to see, then you’ve got the quality of performers the venue warrants. With this combination, expectations are high and just like 12 months ago, the 2013 Transatlantic Sessions left the sold out Birmingham Symphony Hall audience enthralled with a stunning performance of bi-partisan roots music.

This highly structured and seamless format see a core band of twelve musicians led by the near-symmetrical arrangement of Aly Bain co-ordinating three top class UK musicians and Jerry Douglas doing the same for his fellow stateside compatriots, all very fine exponents of a variety of string-based instruments. Four further backing musicians complete the sound set on keyboards, bass, drums and support guitar, leaving five guest vocalists to accept the invitation and honour to deliver their own songs in such prestigious surroundings.
This year’s version of the sessions saw a slight tilt towards our stateside visitors with long term almost Anglo-performer Mary Chapin Carpenter being joined by Crooked Still vocalist Aoife O’Donovan and Eric Bibb offering his take on the blues. Each artist stepped forward for a trio of synchronised songs either side of the interval. Carpenter like a true seasoned singer-songwriter offered three recent self penned compositions ‘Chasing What’s Already Gone’ and ‘Transcendental Reunion’ from her latest album and ‘ I Have a Need For Solitude’ from the recording before. Amongst Eric Bibb’s selections were an old John Cephas blues number ‘Going Down the Road Feeling Bad’ and his popular own song ‘Champagne Habit’. Aoife O’Donovan sang a Dock Boggs Civil War song titled ‘Calvary’ as well as one of the highlights of the evening, a superb tune titled ‘Oh Mama’

The three contrasting American singers were matched in their diversity by the two home grown artists. Scottish folk singer and soon-to-be mother Emily Smith included an interpretation of the work of Rabbie Burns as well as ‘A Day Like Today’ and the folk sing-a-long number ‘Final Trawl’ on the occasions she was invited to step into the limelight. Teddy Thompson has a number of different guises and on this evening there was a definite country leaning towards his style. Following on from performing ‘Delilah’ (not that one) and ‘Dear Mary’ in his first set, he delivered a version of the George Jones song ‘ She Thinks I Still Care’ when presented with the opportunity to perform in the second half.
All five vocalists colloborate on the finale
The deluge of fine songs is not confined to the prime guest vocalists. Banjo and Cajun accordion player Dirk Powell sang ‘Water Bound’ and ‘Le Two Step de Bon Café’ to illustrate his multi talents. Long term U.S. session members Bruce Molsky and Russ Barrenberg both provided a solo vocal contribution with ‘Pretty Saro’ and ‘Through the Gates’ respectively. As well as being one half of the Sessions heartbeat and show orchestrator, the legendary Jerry Douglas showed his talents aren’t confined to a world class dobro and lap steel player by opening the second half of the near three hour show with a vocal rendition of Leadbelly’s ‘On a Monday’.

Another popular feature of the evening is the impressive instrumentals that liberally complement the songs. Aly Bain and John McCusker as per usual leave the audience in no doubt as to why they are acclaimed as two of Scotland’s finest fiddle players as do the pipes and whistles from Mike McGoldrick and the accordion playing from Phil Cunningham. The acoustics of the Symphony Hall really do justice to the sounds emanating from these world class musicians.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
As the evening evolved, the Cajun sounds from Dirk Powell gave a hint to what was in store for the evening’s finale. When Mary Chapin Carpenter last brought her full band to Birmingham a couple of years ago, there was a significant song from her back catalogue omitted from the set list. In my opinion, the wrong of that evening was corrected tonight as she, with the assistance of the four other singers, took the whole hall on a journey to Louisiana. At the end of a rousing version of ‘Down at the Twist and Shout’ , the ensemble left the stage, although their return was inevitable with one more inspirational instrumental before Douglas assured the audience that a 2014 return was highly likely.

Another TV recording of the Transatlantic Sessions is already planned and on the evidence of this magnificent evening, it is only a matter of time before the sold out signs are once again raised in the nation’s concert halls. Aly Blain and Jerry Douglas have created something very special and quality vocalists should be knocking their door down to perform in the future.

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