The Transatlantic Sessions have become an eagerly awaited annual event which sees Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham joined by an ever changing array of talents from the folk and Americana scenes on both sides of the Atlantic. Which this year means the likes of Tift Merritt and John Paul White amongst others. The format couldn’t be simpler, it’s “let’s play one of mine – let’s play one of yours – let’s do one we all know” and then repeat for a couple of hours. This first visit to Cambridge by the Transatlantic Sessions, at the somewhat cavernous Corn Exchange, forms part of the City Roots Festival, a spin-off from the Cambridge Folk Festival running for the first time this year. It’s quite clearly filling a niche as ticket demand has been high – and on a midweek February evening this is still a near sell out. Many of the band members tonight fondly recall attending the Cambridge folk festival over the years. Tift Merritt reminisced about Bob Harris championing her there…a few years ago; Eddi Reader recalled that her first visit coincided with her first drink and her first time kissing a boy – prompting John Paul White to quip that this was also his first visit to Cambridge and, who knows, maybe he’ll get to kiss a boy too. It was that kind of a night – a huge band, a large handful of singers and a lot of wonderful music mixed up with convivial ribbing and some terrible jokes, often at the expense of Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham who self-deprecatingly played on their combined attributes of Scottishness and entering into their eighth decade.
The band opened proceedings with what is effectively a choreographed jam allowing individuals to show off their prowess – and if you’ve ever wondered what a folk band blending Uilleann pipes, a brace each of fiddles, guitars and accordions, a dobro, a banjo, upright bass, drums, might sound like then the answer is it sounds pretty damn good. There’d be several tune sets of fast reels or wedding tunes interspersed between the guest singers throughout the evening. Jerry Douglas, who acted as main compere as well as providing plenty of dobro, introduced the evening’s first singer as representing a major force in Americana – also providing a handy definition of this term as “Toby Keith – no, Jason Isbell – yes”. This was a fine set up for Jim Lauderdale to take the first singing slot of the evening with his co-write with Elvis (Costello that is) I lost You. He also had the first opportunity to talk about his new record – something which became a running theme and another opportunity for inter-band ribbing as the evening progressed. When it was her turn to sing Karan Casey gave it her all but it seemed that there were a few issues with sound levels that left her vocals somewhat indistinct – this occurred a couple of times in the first half but was resolved after the interval. An unfortunate effect of the Corn Exchange’s layout – and the onstage positioning of speakers and cases – meant that whenever anyone went to the piano they disappeared from view for probably a quarter of the flat stalls audience. These were minor issues though when put against the likes of Dirk Powell who played phenomenally fast clawhammer banjo on Motherless Children, a song he was inspired to sing after the recent chaotic American travel ban and that he movingly dedicated to both motherless refugee children and also their childless mothers.
New music abounded. Tift Merritt gave us a couple from her superb new album Stitch of the World – Wait for me was great with the varied band behind her, and from the piano a truly moving Heartache is an Uphill Climb, questioning the ways of dealing with the pain that love can bring “how does the scar forgive the knife ? And the pride forget the fight?”. Russ Barenberg played a new, as yet unnamed, guitar tune, with the band’s two fiddle players making a perfect blend, the whole swaying like windblown tall grass on an endless prairie. John Paul White growled smoothly through What’s So, shot through with menace on the oft repeated chorus line “Don’t Get Above Your Raising“, before the first half closed out with a combined demonstration of vocal and band power – Desperadoes Waiting for a Train was sung as a tribute to Guy Clark, with John Paul White leading on the first verse as Jim, Tift, Eddi and Karan provided backing vocals and then took verses in turn. What a glorious wall of gutsy country sound that was, and this is the real magic of the Transatlantic Sessions – the times when it all comes together in celebration of one of the finest Americana songs around. Unforgettable and wonderful.
The second half saw the band retake the stage with as much energy as they’d left it. John Doyle sang a slow and mournful Bonny Light Horseman in his deep brogue, and Karan Casey continued the military theme with The Kings Shilling, a song with a clear message – “The drums did beat and the cannons roared / And the shillin’ didn’t seem / The shillin’ didn’t seem much worth no more”. It’s a traditional sounding song which she feels is “a song for our times”. Dirk Powell took things off in a somewhat different direction – High Score King uses arcade game success as a metaphor for teenage love. His Waterbound has a more conventional rootsy feel to it, featuring some lovely interplay between his banjo, Barenberg’s mandolin, John McCusker’s fiddle and some perfect whistle accompaniment. If Tift Merritt had been good in the first half she was triumphant on a powerful piano driven Good Hearted Man, whilst Eastern Light floated beautifully and delicately on combined waves of banjo and pedal steel. Jim Lauderdale conjured up a smoky bar room on the gently heart-breaking ballad I love you more – a confession of a depth of love, a depth not always apparent through outward actions. The dapper John Paul White provided another highlight with another song from his recent album Beulah: Make You Cry, one of the cruellest love songs you’ll come across “I want you to need the way that I’m going to need you / Would it kill you to do some bleeding just for a moment or two?”. This was given added layers with a touch of Gallic accordion from Phil Cunningham and Eddi Reader’s spine-tingling backing vocals.
There was no short changing at this gig – Transatlantic Sessions is like a weekend folk festival squashed down into just about three hours of really splendid music. The varied performances keeps things at a constant peak of interest – and the band really were on fire, causing Jim Lauderdale to compare the heat on stage to that which would be experienced “by Nigel Farage at a Billy Bragg concert”. Closing out the main set with another tribute to one who has departed – this time Ray Price’s Crazy Arms, which was another epic feat of combined musicality, albeit this time a honky-tonking one. Rapturous applause did achieve an encore including a brief appearance of Cambridge singer-songwriter Boo Hewerdine for a superb rendition, with Eddi, of his Hummingbird : this was a night that just kept giving.
Donald Shaw James Mackintosh
John Paul White
Boo Hewerdine (encore only)