Live Review: Mountain Stage & Mavis Staples in Glasgow

Muruch’s new Scottish reviewer, Jamie Morrison, had the wonderful opportunity to attend Mountain Stage’s special concert in Glasgow, Scotland last Friday. The concert featured Joy Kills Sorrow, Dougie McLean, Mollie O’Brien & Rich Moore, and the legendary Mavis Staples. Jamie is an old, dear friend and happens to manage Oxfam’s Music Shop (Facebook group: oxfammusicedinburgh or Twitter: @oxfammusicedin) in Edinburgh. His review and pics from the show are below…

Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival, now in its 18th year, is a celebration of tradition that also seeks out and embraces the new – casting its net further afield each year to showcase new trends in traditional music worldwide. This year, at the Royal Concert Hall, the festival hosted the first ever broadcast of American radio show Mountain Stage (based in West Virginia) to take place outside its native country in its 28-year existence. A regular showcase for a wide variety of musical guests of diverse nationalities and styles, the Mountain Stage format implies that music from any and all backgrounds can find common ground and flow together, encouraging an atmosphere of collaboration and appreciation – an ethos that marries perfectly with that of Celtic Connections.

On the bill were Boston-based folk fusion group Joy Kills Sorrow, Scotland’s own Dougie MacLean, husband and wife duo Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore (featuring regular Mountain Stage guest, fiddler Tim O’Brien) and legendary gospel soul singer Mavis Staples – another newcomer to Scotland.

5-piece Joy Kills Sorrow play an engaging mix of midtempo bluegrass with a debt to 60s sunshine pop. Singer Emma Beaton’s vocals are the undoubted focal point; she is possessed with a rich country-inflected voice which occasionally recalls Suzanne Vega. On first due to being double-booked at another Celtic Connections event, they will no doubt be regarded as one of the finds of the festival, after a set characterised by accomplished musicianship and interesting songwriting.

Dougie MacLean took to the stage next, not before a good-naturedly grandiose introduction by compere and host Larry Groce (in which it was claimed that MacLean owned his own distillery, a fact instantly called into question by Dougie himself). He played a short acoustic solo set, showcasing material from throughout his 30-year career. Despite the hushed, introspective beauty of his glossy ballads, MacLean can easily call upon his folk club pedigree to win over an audience, regardless of the size of the venue. This was shown a number of times throughout the set, as he led the audience in singing along to some quite complex choruses, and, at one point, filling in a missing guitar line. Culminating in his signature song, the once-ubiquitous alternative national anthem “Caledonia” (“I’ll get lynched if I don’t play it”) and a new eco-friendly number, it was a crowd-pleasing affair from start to finish.

Well-known to Mountain Stage and Celtic Connections audiences alike, Tim O’Brien, his sister, Mollie O’Brien and her husband Rich Moore presented the transatlantic flipside to MacLean’s set. With a nod to Mountain Stage’s heritage, their version of Hazel Dickens’ “West Virginia My Home” soared over the packed auditorium, evoking the same feeling of national longing as MacLean’s “Caledonia.” As Larry Groce astutely pointed out afterwards, this was the message for the whole evening – a sense of unity, of cultural identity being solidified by a common love of music and the lands we call home.

Mavis Staples received a rapturous reception as she made her way onstage, and an atmosphere of anticipation and hushed reverence descended as she and her backing singers (one male, possessing an almighty soul bellow, and two female, both vocally in the same league as Staples herself) launched into an a capella rendition of the gospel standard “I Am His and He Is Mine.” Barely slowing down following this understated opening, Staples and her band assailed us with classic after classic throughout the hour they spent on stage, from the expected to the unexpected, as she flailed her arms at the sky and belted out every line with the energy and fervour of a performer a quarter of her age – particularly during the scream-from-the-rooftops soul of “Freedom’s Highway.”

A major highlight came in the form of the title track of her new album, You Are Not Alone, written for her by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Mellowing the pace after an up-to-then relentlessly rollicking set, the light and shade of Tweedy’s song illuminated a different side to Staples as a performer, as she gave a touching performance, full of emotional strength and assurance.

Despite her (justified) claim that she has earned the right to make a few mistakes here and there, it was, all in all, a flawless set from an admirably tight band and an almost peerlessly seasoned performer.

Mavis was joined on stage at the climax of the show by the previous acts (minus Joy Kills Sorrow) for an ensemble performance of the spiritual “You’re Going To Need Somebody On Your Bond,” in which Larry Groce traded lead vocals with many of the performers from the night (though, thankfully not Mr. MacLean, who possessed the unmistakable air of a deer in headlights!) It was a fitting end, and left us with a sense of Appalachian charm and warmth permeating the grim, foggy Glasgow night. Let’s hope this particularly successful collaboration can become a yearly tradition.

Mountain Stage Official Site

Muruch’s Best of the Decade: Albums

In addition to my usual year end lists, I’ve also compiled Best of the Decade lists. Following are my favorite albums that were released between 2000-2009…

Muruch’s Best of the Decade: Albums

25. Muse: The Resistance

This is one of those albums that has classic potential, and I expect to move its way up the list as the years go by. A quote from my review: “Integrating classical and opera music into their theatrical electro-rock sound, Muse have created one of the most exciting song cycles I’ve ever heard.”

Buy @ Amazon

24. Gaba Kulka: Hat, Rabbit

It was difficult to narrow how Gaba’s releases to just one, but I think her latest is her strongest to date. As I said when I named it #4 on my Top Albums list, it is “probably the most unusual and creative album” of 2009.

Buy @ Amazon

Buy @ Artist’s Site

23. Soundtrack: Once

The soundtrack to the Irish independent film Once features The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. I said in my 2007 review that Hansard’s “lyrics are deeply poetic, his music is heart-wrenchingly lovely, and his beautifully raw voice conveys emotion as if the man were literally ripping his own chest open as he sings.”

Buy @ Amazon

22. Antony & The Johnsons: Antony & The Johnsons

Instead of a best of 2005 list, I deemed it The Year of the Bird and that post says everything about how Antony’s music made me feel when I first heard it. While I Am A Bird Now was their more popular release, I’ve always favored their self-titled 2000 album.

Buy @ Amazon

21. Pina: Quick Look

Pina sadly remains my best kept secret. I discovered her in the early aughts when a French pal shared mp3s of “I Loved the Way” and “Bring Me a Biscuit.” I also love Pina’s 2005 release Guess You Got It, but the rougher edges of Quick Look‘s production fit better with her “Gothic folk” style.

Buy @ Amazon

20. Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: Rattlin’ Bones

My 2008 review summed it up: “The flawless beauty of this album is almost beyond my comprehension.

Buy @ Amazon

19. Hem: Funnel Cloud

I like this album even more now than when I called it a “nearly perfect album” in my 2007 review.

Buy @ Amazon

18. Damien Dempsey: To Hell or Barbados

As I stated in my 2007 review, the album is a “genre-hop through folk, rock, electronica, and reggae…but the genre gymnastics still take a back seat to the stunning quality of Dempsey’s voice.”

Buy @ Amazon

17. Anais Mitchell: The Brightness

My 2007 review said: “Like the greatest of classic literature, the compositions on The Brightness are the kind that softly seep through your skin and slowly make their way into your heart and mind before exploding in dazzling display of amazement.”

Buy @ Amazon

14. Xavier Rudd: Dark Shades of Blue

Xavier has quickly become my favorite male artist in recent years, and as I said in my 2008 review: “the astounding quality of his songs make me wonder if future generations might consider Xavier Rudd to be the greatest artist of this era.”

Buy @ Amazon

15. Mavis Staples: Never Turn Back

I’m almost ashamed not to put this at #1, because in many ways this is the greatest album of the past two or three decades. I simply don’t listen to it often as the albums listed below. I suppose this is because the weighty subject matter requires a certain mood. But as I said when I reviewed it two years ago: “We’ll Never Turn Back is what music should be. Gut-wrenching blues, earth shaking beats, hip swaying rhythms, deeply moving lyrics, and a rich voice that defies description.

Buy @ Amazon

14. Luminescent Orchestrii: Too Hot to Sleep

I deemed 2005 “the year of the bird,” but that’s only because I didn’t hear Luminescent Orchestrii until 2007 when I said: “there’s a definite connection between their frenzied, violent approach to orchestral instruments and the punk cabaret of The Dresden Dolls, but neither description fully captures their unique and unearthly sound.

Buy @ Amazon

13. Flogging Molly: Swagger

This album ushered in the Celtic Punk craze of the decade. There’s no such thing as a bad Flogging Molly album, but this one was definitely their best.

Buy @ Amazon

12. Vienna Teng: Inland Territory

In my review I called Inland Territory a grand “display of Vienna Teng’s brilliance, grace, and talent.” I continue to fall more and more in love with this album with each listen.

Buy @ Amazon

11. Kurt Vonnegut & Dave Soldier: Ice-9 Ballads

My #1 album of 2009. As I said in my review: “I can’t imagine a more perfect score for my favorite novel of all time.”

Buy @ Amazon

10. Mary Timony: Mountains

I had never heard of former Helium singer Mary Timony until a friend sent me this album shortly after its 2000 release. Mary’s unusual mix of Medieval folk, chamber pop, and indie-rock was unlike anything I’d heard before, and it remains one of the most strangely beautiful recordings I’ve ever heard.

Buy @ Amazon

9. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band: The Whole Fam Damnily

My #1 album of 2008. In my review, I called it an “inebriating concoction of swamp stomp and backwoods pluck.” But in subsequent listens I’ve found myself drawn more to The Rev’s lyrics, which accurately capture the perils of modern rural life.

Buy @ Amazon

8. Allison Crowe: Live at Wood Hall

Oh that voice! Still gives me chills. I’ve posted about Allison Crowe so many times over the years that I consider her Muruch’s musical mascot. As I said in my 2007 review: “there’s really no way to convey through mere words how much the music on Allison Crowe’s Live At Wood Hall moves me” Forget Susan Boyle, Allison sang the definitive cover of “I Dreamed a Dream.” (mp3)*

Buy @ Amazon

7. Soundtrack: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once More With Feeling

I always call it the “Buffy Musical” rather than its proper title Once More With Feeling.” Years before Dr. Horrible, Joss Whedon wrote a hilarious, poignant, and very catchy musical for an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I don’t know how well the songs translate if you never watched the Buffy series, but I still love singing along to the soundtrack. The album features vocals by actors Sarah Michelle Gellar, Allison Hannigan, Michelle Trachtenberg, Nicholas Brendon, James Marsters, and Anthony Stewart Head. This is an example of why file sharing works – I and several friends burned our own soundtracks from mp3s recorded directly from the televised episode long before the soundtrack was released, yet we all purchased the official album once it became available.

Buy @ Amazon

6. Xavier Rudd: White Moth

I could easily include all of Xavier Rudd’s albums on this list, but I tried to limit myself to just two. My 2008 review said: “Rudd deems the album his “proudest work” and it’s easy to understand why.” But it’s really only been with repeated listens over the past two years that I’ve grown to love and truly appreciate its magnificence. And nothing speaks to the greatness of an album like having a panic attack when you think you’ve lost it and knowing you must replace it immediately. Fortunately, I found my copy!

Buy @ Amazon

5. Damien Rice: O

Unlike most Americans, I heard and fell in love with O when it was originally released in Ireland in 2001. My clothbound first edition of the album is a collector’s item now, but I wouldn’t part with it for anything. Rice seems to have faced some post-hype backlash in recent years, but that doesn’t erase the brilliance of this album. Most remember it for Lisa Hannigan’s delicate harmonies, but Rice’s use of strings and opera music were also very unique at the time. And the album as a whole has withstood changing trends in music over the years.

Buy @ Amazon

4. Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine

This is another example of why file sharing can have a positive effect on album sales. Remember “Free Fiona”? If you don’t, Fiona recorded a version of this album with producer Jon Brion and her label initially refused to release it. Mp3s of the demos were leaked online, the fans loved them, and a huge campaign called “Free Fiona” was launched in hopes of getting the album released. It worked, though Fiona re-recorded most of the album for the official release. I was one of many who purchased the album even though I had the demo mp3s. My 2005 review also shifted the focus of this site from simply sharing music to encouraging people to purchase albums. It has since become one of my favorite albums ever, and I hope Fiona decides to grace us with another release in the near future.

Buy @ Amazon

3. Soundtrack: Hedwig & The Angry Inch

Among the 2000-04 archives of this site that have been lost were my reviewes of the movie Hedwig & The Angry Inch (which I saw in a double bill with The Anniversary Party at a local film festival) and its soundtrack. Whether or not you’re familiar with John Cameron Mitchell’s awesome musical about a German transgender rocker, the soundtrack is one of the best rock albums of all time. There are thunderous punk rock numbers like “Angry Inch” and heart-melting ballads like “Origin of Love.” Why Mitchell continues to act instead of record music is a mystery to me.

Buy @ Amazon

2. Old Crow Medicine Show: Big Iron World

In my November, 2006 review, I said “I don’t believe I’ve ever said this about an album before, but I think Old Crow Medicine Show’s Big Iron World is just about perfect.” I stand by that statement. I’ve played this album more than any other released in the past three years, and only one band could keep it from the number 1 spot…

Buy @ Amazon

1. The Dresden Dolls: The Dresden Dolls

Anyone who knows me or has been a longtime reader of this site knows that The Dresden Dolls are/were my favorite band. My posts about their self-titled debut (and the live A Is For Accident album that preceded it) were also lost with early archives of this site, but I’ve raved every other Dresden Dolls release since then. After “Over the Rainbow”, The Dresden Doll’s “Girl Anachronism” is my favorite song and this is possibly my all-time favorite album. Amanda Palmer proves without a doubt that – in the right hands – the piano is the most punk rock of all instruments.

Buy @ Amazon

*mp3 hosted by & posted w/ permission of artist

Mavis Staples: We’ll Never Turn Back

We’ll Never Turn Back is what music should be. Gut-wrenching blues, earth shaking beats, hip swaying rhythms, deeply moving lyrics, and a rich voice that defies description. Produced by Ry Cooder and featuring guest vocals by original members of The Freedom Singers and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the April 27th release from the legendary Mavis Staples is a collection of modernized Delta-blues and spirituals both old and new. Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s as well as the Hurricane Katrina disaster, police shootings, and celebrity racial slurs of this decade, Staples effortlessly blends the emotional, inspirational, and intelligent lyrics of past revolutions with contemporary dance beats to create a intoxicatingly powerful force. And her voice has not lost one ounce of its incomparable potency.

“Down In Mississippi” and “In The Mississippi River” set the album on fire with deep Southern Gospel thumps, bluesy guitar riffs, and funky dance grooves beneath Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s melodic choir and the bottomless growl of Mavis Staples.

“Eyes On The Prize”, “We Shall Not Be Moved”, “On My Way”, “Turn Me Around”, and “Jesus Is On The Main Line” are traditional songs given a modern spin by Staples and Cooder. “This Little Light Of Mine” and “99 And 1/2″ are also traditional songs that the pair augmented with new lyrical rants and pumped up musical arrangements.

“My Own Eyes” is a Staples original inspired by the singer’s own life experiences – such as being unjustly jailed by “Southern racist cops” in the Civil Rights era – and the world around her today, particularly in New Orleans.

Producer Ry Cooder hit the mark when he called these songs “physical music”. The music on We’ll Never Turn Back is so alive and full of passion it’s almost tangible enough to grasp in a clenched fist. These are not background songs for other activities. This is music to give your full attention to, to immerse yourself in, to get lost in, to get high on. This is not only what music should be, it’s what all music lovers should be talking about.

Mavis Staples Official Site
Anti-Records

Buy the CD