Steve Crawford and Spider Mackenzie “Celticana” (Independent, 2020)

`Celticana’ is the second album from songwriter Steve Crawford and his compadre Spider Mackenzie on harmonica. The title sums up their intent to marry the music of their native Scotland with the U.S, and they succeed. Crawford provides nine songs that range from the rocky and chorus driven to the reflective. He sings with a clear laid- back voice that allows the lyrics to be heard clearly. Highlights include ‘After the Ceilidh’, which catches the blissful exhaustion following from any blow out.

However, the relaxed tone belies the darker themes of some of the songs. The title and opening lines of ‘Get Shit Done’ make you smile but it moves to a reflection on the evanescent passing of time. There is a similar wry humour in the double-edged title `Let Me Be’. This is an appeal for respite from the mistakes of the past, and a search for peace in the here and now.

The songs are also the setting for Mackenzie’s extraordinary playing. On this recording he gives us droning percussive grooves, cascades of high register notes, mournful voicings and surgically timed fills. It seems almost absurd that this range and expression can come from this tiny bit of metal with holes; the instrument that we hide from children when they receive it at Christmas. As he continues to swirl and improvise around the melodies you start to wonder what else he can do with the harmonica. Perhaps he uses it to fix kitchen cabinets or as a makeshift fishing rod. Who knows?

On this album the duo demonstrate they are more than the sum of their parts. In particular, they really come together on the instrumental piece `Bernera Blues’ which perhaps owes more to the Celtic than the Americana end of the spectrum. This is a simple waltz-timed folky tune that swaps between the harmonica and guitar. It is reminiscent of that other Scottish classic `Farewell to Stromness’ and shares it’s sweet, whistleable nostalgia.

In most cases, recordings only offer a hint of the live show. This album is evidence that Crawford and Mackenzie are an act to see when we finally get to experience musically communally again. This reviewer aims to be there, and will be wishing his parents hadn’t hidden that Christmas harmonica from him.

Subtle songs and extraordinary harmonica playing

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