Transatlantic Sessions, Royal Festival Hall, London, 6th February 2020

In its 17th year with little change to the formula, how do the Transatlantic Sessions keep packing out some of the larger venues up and down the country? Quite simple; hosts and musical directors, respectively, the dobro and fiddle aces Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain, have pulled together a formidable “house band” of musicians from both sides of the Atlantic around whom they invite new guests each year. Douglas and Bain’s good humour and light touch is infectious. With minimal rehearsals they put on shows of such cohesion that all these musicians sound as if they’ve been together for years.

Jerry Douglas is the master of ceremonies, calling up house band and guests to perform. The result is an open mic night that blends some of the best in roots music and this is how Douglas and Bain keep the Transatlantic Sessions fresh year after year. All fourteen performers filed onto the stage. Around Douglas and Bain sit the house band while the guests occupy a kind of open “green room” at the back until their turn comes. Three uplifting reels got proceedings off to a brisk start. John McCusker’s fiddle, Michael McGoldrick’s pipes and Phil Cunningham’s accordion follow the lead from Douglas and Bain. To those Russ Barenberg (mandolin), John Doyle (guitars), Donald Shaw (keys), Daniel Kimbo (upright bass) and drummer James Macintosh swiftly turn the cavernous Royal Festival Hall into a pub ceilidh.

To regular attenders, listening to the house band feels like catching up with old friends. The guest line-up is keenly awaited as Douglas always manages to gather a diverse bunch. This year’s guests seemed to gel particularly well.

Australian, but long-time Nashville resident, Tommy Emmanuel rose to Douglas’s challenge of “let’s play a fast one” with his dazzling picking in the Chet Atkins style. Other people’s songs are a regular feature of these shows but perhaps not from The Boss. Nevertheless, Emmanuel did a fine job with ‘I’m On Fire’. Perhaps a more likely inclusion was the Irish folk from Cathy Jordan, ‘Sweet Roseanne’ being her best and the Scottish “folk noir” from Rachel Sermanni. Haunting hardly does justice to a voice that swirls with mystery. Her version of ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ was sublime.

Cahalen Morrison took the roots focus back across the pond excelling solo then blending his banjo mastery with McGoldrick’s pipes and Sierra Hull’s mandolin virtuosity. Though a guest, Hull doubled as part of the band alongside Barenberg. Her own song, ‘Lullaby’ shows that comparisons with Alison Krauss are completely valid.

The engine room of this graceful vessel is the house band whose contributions they modestly called “tunes.” These were not all traditional either. Fresh from touring the world with Mark Knopfler, McCusker and McGoldrick’s ‘Madison Square March’ showed that fiddle and pipes are not restricted to events from long ago.

Yet among all the musical dexterity the highlight was Hull, Jordan and Sermanni gathering round a single mic for a divine a cappella of ‘In The Old Churchyard’. Individually each has a distinct vocal style that together they fuse as one.

When next asked, “What is Americana?” much of the answer lies among The Transatlantic Sessions.

Author: Lyndon Bolton

Writing about americana, country, blues, folk and all stops in between

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