Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Faire Folk

E. J. Jones is one of the better-known pipers among the renaissance fair circuit and beyond, branching out and playing with several different bands and in several different styles. On The Wandering Stars, he joins with some bandmates from Brizeus to play a range of tunes Jones said he has picked up over a long career of performing and listening. "These," he says in the notes on the CD, "are the tunes I would play for an audience that had never heard the pipes before."

Leaving aside both the tragedy of the thought of an audience that had never heard bagpipes and the joy of their moment of discovery, Stars offers a good variety of sprightly and contemplative songs that work not only with the Great Highland pipes most of us think of when we say "bagpipe," but also the Scottish smallpipes and the Northumbrian uillean pipes. The latter two usually have a more low-impact sound.

Jones' aim showcases the pipes as an instrument working with other instruments, which is probably the reason he brings in the smaller pipes. The bouzouki that lends "Berwick & Keelman's" an almost Mediterranean/Middle Eastern flair would have been lost behind the full throat of the Highland pipes, and those same smallpipes join with a whistle on the title track to lend it a beautiful delicacy. He focuses mostly on the pipes' use as accompaniment for the kinds of songs people would dance to, rather than the martial or memorial anthems we often associate with them. That kind of music lends itself to some more complex playing, which helps to distinguish Jones' own playing skills.

People who think of bagpipes only in terms of the majesty of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and "Amazing Grace" or the defiance of "Scotland the Brave" might not imagine them as a tool for exploring this much lighter and celebratory side, but in the hands of the right craftsman that's exactly what they do. The Wandering Stars is an excellent work from someone who knows how to highlight multiple sides of this odd instrument and it's enjoyable to listen to him and his friends do it.
Tullamore have been entertaining faire audiences and folk music lovers for many years (though they all, as they are my friends, are splendidly ageless) and this year brought out a new album recorded at their favorite venue, O'Malley's Irish Pub in suburban Kansas City, Two to Get Ready.

For this second album recorded at the pub, the trio chose some songs that have joined their repertoire more recently as the meat of the album; fans who have seen them play over the years will find a lot of newer tracks here. They, as well as old favorites like "She Was the Belle of the Ball," feature the same great vocal blend between hammered dulcimist Mary Hanover and violinist Rachel Gaither Vaughn and guitarist Mark Clavey's encyclopedic knowledge of folk music history. Buying a Tullamore record in digital format cheats you out of a good half of the pleasure, since their CDs are accompanied by extensive liner notes that outline the history of the original song and of the band's story with it.

Tullamore also mixes traditional folk songs, like Robert Burns' poem "Geordie" with modern ones such as George Hunt's "Lighthouse." And although their main well is Celtic-influenced, they include many traditions ("Jambalaya," for example, is a set staple and was on Six Strings and Coffee Beans.) The dulcimer lends an interesting air to the moonshine ballad "Run Rufus Run," but Vaughn's violin and Partonesque vocals set it firmly in the Kentucky hills from whence it came. She also brings a Mexican flavor to "The Rangers of Gonzalez," with the same instrument and Clavey adds a Spanish touch to his guitar work in the same song. Both lend good atmosphere to the story of Irish immigrants in a fight during the Texas War of Independence.

Two highlights a wide range of emotions in its music, from the sad laments often associated with the Irish ("Paddy's Lamentation" and "One of Ireland's Children") to the dreams of lost glory held by the Scots ("Culloden's Harvest" and "Over the Water to Charlie"). "Belle," mentioned above, is a jaunty story of courting that welcomes the airy touch of Hanover's dulcimer.

Since I do know members of the band, I suppose if I ever buy a Tullamore album I don't like I'll probably have to skip reviewing it; fortunately they seem to be kindly avoiding placing me in such a bind.

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