The last weekend of Celtic Connections and we’re excited to see, at long last, the strange three headed creature born in the Utah desert, the weird aggregation of old time Americana, chamber music and jazz that is 3hattrio. Over the course of three albums this trio (Hal Cannon, Greg Istock and Eli Wrankle) have insinuated their way into late night listening habits here at home, their mingling of old weird America and parched landscapes, played with, at times, an almost avant-garde edge, a perfect balm after a hectic day.
Our doubts regarding the venue (expressed in an earlier review) remain in term of creature comforts but this once devotional space proved to be an excellent setting for the trio’s music. The sound was clear and their almost spiritual evocation of their home environment leant itself to a sense of contemplation at times especially during some of the many purely instrumental moments. Drawn from their three albums the music was at times circular with motifs and lyrics repeated as they shifted from one number to the next with bassist Istock’s parched vocal invocations( at times sounding like streetwise scat jazz, elsewhere evoking Native American chants) connecting the shifting movements. They did play some straightforward songs with a start, a middle and an end but much of the evening was like a musical illustration of Godard’s famous contention that these three elements need not always be in the same order.
Seated centre was the imposing figure of Cannon, the keeper of the vintage American folklore which is at the heart of the band. On banjo and guitar he was the rock upon which Wrankle’s amplified violin and Istock’s percussive bass playing dashed themselves with Istock’s kick drum adding an acoustic heartbeat. Cannon’s plaintive banjo opened the night as the band gently flowed into Flight, its refrain of “row, row your boat” one that was revisited throughout the night. Cannon’s voice tethers the band to the past of cowboy laments and traditional folk perhaps best exemplified tonight by the magisterial reading of Old Paint; this old song was delivered as if the singer was under a starry sky on a moonlit prairie. Even here however the trio shape shifted as they inserted a freewheeling freeform instrumental passage like wraiths encircling the cowboy’s campfire. Istock opened his share of his songs by heading into the Delta with his Crippled Up Blues, his voice dramatically different from Cannon’s (a feature that hugely enhances the listening experience on the albums) as he seems to inhabit similar territory to Dr. John’s voodoo bebop voice. Steeped in jazz Istock is also a connoisseur of Caribbean music and his delivery tonight of Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up fitted well within the set while there was another hint of reggae in the laid-back philosophy of Along For The Ride.
Instrumentally the band are a joy to hear and see. Cannon roots the sound but his guitar playing was eloquent and not confined to playing rhythm while Wrankle’s violin added texture and effects at times sounding like a screech owl descending on its prey. Istock meanwhile coaxed and caressed sounds from his double bass that were somewhat astounding as he slid along the strings in a jazz manner and knocked and knuckled the percussive possibilities out of the instrument. While no expert on the intricacies of the double bass there were times at night that one imagined that this was what seeing Charlie Mingus might have been like. The apogee was his astounding contribution to the Handsome Family like doom and gloom of Tongues and that takes us back to the heart of the matter, the songs that the trio have carved from their disparate influences. Sand Storm reminds one of Cormac McCarthy and Calexico while Rose is a mutant desert offspring of The Band’s Appalachian harmonies. Despite these influences 3hattrio are a singular experience, one that might be daunting at first but on the strength of tonight ultimately rewarding on several levels. There’s a serene Zen like wisdom imparted from the band to those in the audience prepared to empty their preconceptions.
On a night that was pushing the envelope the support act, Lizabett Russo was another who challenges preconceptions. Originally from Romania but now based in Scotland Russo, (on guitar with Tim Lane on percussion and Pete Harvey on cello) sits with one foot in the fay folkworld of the sixties and the other in its mutant offspring, freak folk. The line up (and their excellent playing) leant itself to comparisons with the jazzy influences heard on Witch Season recordings (like Nick Drake and early John Martyn) while Russo’s voice fluttered between the likes of Joanna Newsome and Bjork. As with 3hattrio the songs were elongated with flurries of instrumental interplay while Russo used tape loops to seamlessly add her own harmonies to several of the numbers. At times this was quite impressive but compared to her studio recordings there did seem to be a wee bit too much emphasis on the layers of vocal sounds with her words lost somewhere in between. Nevertheless if the likes of Trembling Bells and Devandra Banhart rock your boat then Ms. Russo is well worth checking out.