A Truly Special Relationship: The Transatlantic Sessions, Royal Festival Hall, London
TransAtlantic Sessions on February 5, 2018
A highlight of my musical year for nearly a decade has been the Transatlantic Sessions, the series of shows put together by Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain. Each year they and their house band are joined by a select group of guests from both sides of the pond. Once again this year, they served up a rich spread of musical styles that judging by the applause sent everyone home fully nourished. As Bain remarked towards the close, the "special relationship" across the Atlantic has come under scrutiny recently, but in the context of this music it remains as strong as ever.
To quote Bain again, the “engine” of the performance was the house band: Phil Cunningham, John Doyle, Danny Thompson, Michael McGoldrick, Russ Barenberg, John McCusker, Donald Shaw, and James Mackintosh. They moved effortlessly between their own instrumentals and accompaniment for the guests. This year Douglas gathered from his homeland the Secret Sisters, Suzy Bogguss, and Shawn Camp, as well as Julie Fowlis from Scotland and Irishman Daoirí Farrell.
The guest artists appeared in each of the two sets, interspersed with performances by the house band. Throughout the show Douglas weaved his sublime Dobro as he introduced the guests while Bain led the versatile house band. The result was a performance that flowed back and forth from the old to the new world, its currents bubbling with folk, country, traditional in English, Gaelic, and even Galician.
This was the ninth consecutive annual Transatlantic Sessions tour, and I have wondered if its formula might ever show signs of tiring. Haven’t we heard the house band play that before? Maybe some of the guests will fail to meet expectations. There has been the occasional blip, but never anything to throw the show completely. Why? Because Douglas manages to blend such a variety into a memorable show, each with its own character.
Bang on time the performers filed onto the stage. England, Scotland, and Ireland to the left, America to the right. The house band got proceedings off to a brisk start with three stirring reels. Combining fiddles, accordion, piano, and quick-step rhythm section, these boys meant business. Those not performing sat in a kind of makeshift green room/bar at the back of the stage. First guest up was Shawn Camp, the multi-instrumentalist known for his work with Loretta Lynn, John Prine, and Guy Clark. He and Douglas play in the bluegrass group the Earls of Leicester. With "Would You Go With Me" and "Grandpa," Camp brought a touch of his home in Arkansas to the austere Festival Hall. The Secret Sisters, Lydia and Laura Rogers, put the “I” in irony with "He’s Fine," about the toxic aftermath of a failed romance. The Scottish fiddlers opened for them with such sensitivity, in complete contrast to the song’s sentiments.
Then it was back to Scotland for, as Bain put it, “some tunes”: "Kid on the Mountains," which allowed Michael McGoldrick to excel with his Uillean pipes; Daoiri Farrell made his debut with "Boghri’s Bonny Belle"; then in turn Julie Fowlis and Suzy Bogguss made their appearances, each with a fine example of their work that the house band so complemented. At the same time they underlined the contrast in the lineup’s combined sweep of style. Fowlis brought the purity of a highland burn flowing down the mountainside, Bogguss filled the hall too with a glowing richness.
Of the two, the second set was the stronger. Not that there was anything substandard about the first, perhaps it just took a second shot to get into their stride. Fowlis exemplified this when she demonstrated the sheer scope of her talent by singing Anne Briggs’ "Go Your Own Way" with the perfect accompanimentof Donald Shaw's harmonium. She next captivated the audience with her Gaelic “mouth music,” a solo sung with incredible intensity and speed. Swirling her sequinned dress center stage, she created a magical sparkle that whisked us from the concert hall to a Highland ceilidh.
Everyone else seemed to go up a gear in the second half. Farrell returned with bouzouki and in "Creggan White Hare" impressed with a vocal range missing from his earlier appearance. Camp paid tribute to Guy Clark with their joint effort "Sis Draper" before teaming up with Russ Barenberg for a superb instrumental. There seemed much more to The Secret Sisters the second time round, as they harmonized beautifully on "Mississippi." Phil Cunningham played a tune that summed up this group of musicians, "The Eternal Friendship." After another piece from the house band, featuring McGoldrick’s pipes, Doyle sang us back "Across the Western Ocean" for the final guest slot from a yodelling Bogguss.
Fittingly, Bain concluded the show with "A Glass of Beer" and two other reels. The Secret Sisters led the encore, "Tennessee River Runs Low."
There is no doubt Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain pack a lot into these shows. Perhaps too much, as reflected in that rather breathless run through the second part. But on the other hand they remind us of how much of this wonderful music there is to savor and investigate further. This is a truly "special relationship" that must continue year after year.