This year’s edition of the Celtic and American traditional music roadshow generated as much collective energy as ever
-by Clive Davis
Another evening, another party. No concert series I know of is as downright joyous as these long-running celebrations of Celtic and American traditional music. Year in, year out, the fiddler Aly Bain and Dobro guitarist Jerry Douglas preside over performances that evoke the informality of a sing-song in a pub.
If Rhiannon Giddens’s guest appearance in 2016 set a benchmark that will be hard to beat, this year’s edition of the roadshow generated as much collective energy as ever. It’s always intriguing to see how Bain and Douglas calibrate the line-up throughout the night, creating endless permutations of the dozen or so musicians on the stage.
The humour was irresistible too, whether in the form of the accordionist Phil Cunningham’s muttered asides between numbers or a calypso-like mandolin duet by Tim O’Brien and Russ Barenberg that asked us to imagine that indestructible ne’er-do-well Keith Richards having a mishap on a tropical island. Douglas was also on mischievous form, turning Hey Joe into a scampering bluegrass anthem.
Gretchen Peters offered a more introspective glimpse of material from her new album, Dancing with the Beast. Even some of the old hands in the band seemed to be paying close attention to the clawhammer guitar technique of the much-acclaimed newcomer Molly Tuttle — who, like Peters, will be back here on tour soon. Cara Dillon supplied wistful Irish balladry, while the Scottish singer-guitarist Paul McKenna included a song inspired by memories of playing seven shows a day, five days a week at Disney World in Florida. Inspiration strikes in the most unpromising places.
This was a night, though, when the men stoking the engines came to the fore. It seemed strange not to see the token Englishman, Danny Thompson, at his usual post on double bass, yet Daniel Kimbro was an accomplished replacement. John McCusker’s fiddle playing was ecstatic and James Mackintosh’s brush-based drumming offered a masterclass in soft power. As ever, the guest artists stayed on stage on sofas when they weren’t performing. It’s an inspired touch. By the end, I didn’t want to leave either.