THERE were some among the veteran ranks of grizzled music aficionados, shuffling into the Philharmonic Hall ,who were wondering if the transfer of the distinctive Transatlantic Sessions from its vivid and entrancing TV format to a “live” stage would actually work; the “togetherness” of a theatrical setting perhaps, ironically, less cordial than the fireside intimacy of the filmed performances.
Cunningham observed with endearment – whilst rendering a respectable nasal Scouse twang – that since his day the city, certainly the centre, has undergone a remarkable transformation
Since 1995, this blending of Celtic traditional sounds and songs, from mostly Scotland and Ireland, with the markedly similar genre that encompasses American bluegrass and country music, has wooed and wowed even those not inclined to tip a heel to a square dance or an eightsome reel.
True, the touring version, which has been on the road since 2010, led by the indomitable Shetland fiddler Aly Bain and American dobro guitar legend Jerry Douglas, has garnered spiffing press reviews and achieved sell out houses. Yet this was the first occasion for a Liverpool audience, also at capacity, to take stock.
Doubts were soon dispelled as the ensemble of no fewer than 17 musicians and singers cascaded onto the stage to a tumultuous welcome before even a note was struck. And as Bain and his long time accordion-playing pal, Phil Cunningham, along with Douglas, kicked off the set, followed by the whole ensemble, it was time to settle and wallow in a sublime confection of music and song.
The Sessions are highly polished, professional displays of virtuosity that, yet, it must be observed without disapproval, rarely reach the wildly feral level that many of the members can - and do - unleash on live audiences in their own right individually, and as members of smaller outfits.
But that notwithstanding, the sheer faultless execution of the music from the likes of John McCusker (main image, top), whose fiddle playing is breathlessly exciting and meshes so well with the haunting uilleann pipes of Michael McGoldrick (both make a welcome return to Liverpool in March with the Dublin guitarist John Doyle) imbued an exuberance that flowed from the stage, embracing the auditorium.
Guest artists vary from each TV series and tour, but all seamlessly slot in with the regular house band who are, without exception, extraordinary instrumentalists and composers who get the adrenalin pumping up as they rattle along with foot stomping hooligan medleys or give rise to sighs with beautiful airs, gentle rhythms and lyrics to savour.
The whole concept - dreamed up by Bain and Douglas - is awash with performers that span the spectrum of traditional and country music on both sides of The Pond, on this occasion the American contingent: Tim ‘O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Shawn Colvin and the newcomer, Sarah Jarosz; an astonishing array of talent.
The home-grown participants (well, actually from north of the border, which is still part of the UK, at present) include the divine Gaelic songstress and flute player Julie Fowlis, originally from North Uist, and the young Orkney singer Kris Drever, a member of the much acclaimed band Lau, and who is also the son of Wolfstone founder Ivan Drever.
In fact the former, one of the youngest performers on stage, demonstrated her pleasure at being in Liverpool by paying tribute to the Beatles whom, she confided, the folk in the remote islands of Scotland love dearly. She then launched into a delightful Gaelic-English rendition of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird, with backing vocals from by Sarah Jarosz and the rest of the Sessions team giving it a traditional treatment with pipes and fiddles – as well as piano – that must surely resonate with Paul, him being an old Scottish hand from his years eking out a living with Linda and the kids on the Mull of Kintyre.
There was clearly affection for Liverpool emanating from most of the performers and particularly from Phil Cunningham who recalled that he has fond memories of his days – some years back – of living in the city, just off Sefton Park, and appearing at the Everyman Theatre.
Cunningham observed with endearment – whilst rendering a respectable nasal Scouse twang – that since his day the city, certainly the centre, has undergone a remarkable transformation.
And he is right – it is buzzing and lively. Just myself fairly recently back in this locale after an exile of seven years living in China, followed by a decade in Wales (the return undertaken with a mild trepidation, fuelled by recollections of the really austere, economically ravaged days of the 1980s and early 1990s), the incredible demographic, social and cultural changes in Liverpool today are manifest.
The choc-a-bloc restaurants and bars huddled around the area of the Philharmonic Hall emphasised this metamorphosis; and this, mark you, a bleak, cold Tuesday evening early in February with blustery showers on the wind. In town, at least, this is the norm now and the city and its citizens today display a newfound pride and confidence that was on the verge of extinction when I left. Surely this is partly the result of the success of the Capital of Culture wingding in 2008?
Back to the Phil itself and the tunes and vibes with which this audience was patently enraptured, as were two young Chinese students sitting nearby, one from remote Inner Mongolia and the other from Xi’an which is home to the Terracotta Army, who confided that they “love” this style of Western music, and were whooping and hollering as loudly as anyone.
It seems churlish not to present a roll call of honour and list all of the Sessions gang who clearly were having a ball, but space denies further herograms. But if you are not already in their thrall you need to get out and about, see them live, watch them on TV or buy the DVDs and CDs that will transport you to the loveliest stretches of Scotland whilst delivering the most comprehensive range of traditional Celtic and American country and bluegrass music ever assembled in one volume.
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