AUK kicked off our Celtic Connections itinerary this year in the hallowed portals of an old church situated on the outskirts of The Barras, a once thriving open-air market place and home to the legendary Barrowlands Ballroom. St. Luke’s doesn’t have the cachet of The Barrowlands but it proved to be a fine venue for The Mammals, the name under which Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar are back, having revived the band last year. Mike & Ruthy (as they were known then) played a blinder at Celtic Connections a few years back so it was intriguing to see what, if any, differences would transpire given the band moniker. Truth be told, there was very little other than some line up changes, the loss of pedal steel for keyboards and some more harmonising from the boys in the band.
Appearing on the back of their successful album Sunshiner, The Mammals are steeped in the liberal values and attitudes of their forebears who include Pete Seeger. Concerns about the environment, the value of protest, the importance of family and a deep distrust of the present incumbent of the White House were all aired but in the context of a fabulous band out to play some excellent music which they did from the start with a rollicking medley of barnstorming fiddle songs and tunes. This was music, Ruth explained, that she grew up with and the band offered us several similar offerings through the night but as the strains of ‘Bright As You Can’ (from the Mike & Ruthy album) followed, it was apparent that they have a firm handle on uplifting and memorable folk rock songs. ‘Culture War’, with its martial drumming and nods to Seeger and Woody Guthrie in the lyrics, ‘Rock On Little Jane’ (written about their daughter), and ‘Maple Leaf’, a song with a sweet Laurel Canyon vibe, all surpassed expectations while there was also an excellent wig out on the frantic ‘Doctor’s Orders’ which came across like a hooched up barn dance with swirling Wurlitzer like keyboards.
There were some gentler moments as Ruthy dismissed the male band members and brought support act May Erlewine on stage for a touching rendition of ‘My Baby Drinks Water’ while the band’s version of a previously unheard Woody Guthrie song, ‘My New York City’, rooted them in firmly in the old time American folk tradition. The title song from ‘Sunshiner’ (nominated as song of the year in the upcoming International Folk Music Awards) allowed Merenda to shine and a fine arrangement of ‘Ashokan Farewell’, written by Ungar’s father, was quite moving.
As the band seesawed from rock to country to Cajun to folk some of the lighting effects were perhaps a bit overkill. But as they closed the set with ‘Fork In The Road’, an audience request and a spellbinding romp with some Garth Hudson like organ swirls, it was clear that the Mammals are a band with a social conscience and a great big beating heart.
Those happy punters who arrived in time to see the support act were treated to a grand set of songs from the ebullient May Erlewine. With bass and drums behind her, she opened with the simple strains of ‘Wild’ from her album Mother Lion before going on to sing a song dedicated to her daughter and then an open letter to that chap in the White House. However, it was the earthy ‘River Jordan’, a song covered by by Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellies, which commanded attention as she and Ruth Ungar delivered the song with some intensity. From there on in Erlewine got somewhat rootsier channelling Gospel and soul and ending up with a grand rendition of ‘Never One Thing’ proving that one should always try to see the support act as tonight she was something of an eye and ear opener.