Putting on Airs – June 2015

The Onlies

Long Before Light

It was with some trepidation I put this CD on.  I’m not the greatest fan of old timey music and I’ve heard a few too many recordings by teenagers who were good but maybe should have waited a while before going into the studio.  But put those fears away because neither of those apply.

This trio of 16-year-olds from the Pacific North West is Sami Braman (fiddle, vocals, guitar), Riley Calcagno (fiddle, vocals, guitar, mandolin, banjo), and Leo Shannon (fiddle, vocals, guitar, mandolin, banjo).  They are joined here and there by producer Tristan Clarridge on cello and RuthMabel Boytz on bass.

Nine of the 15 tracks come from the three, the others being a mix of traditional and more recent compositions.  There is nice balance of songs and tunes – the seven instrumentals come from various sources, including Ireland, Scotland and Cape Breton as well as some originals.

The playing of the musicians can’t be faulted: fiddle intonation is spot on, guitars provide interesting, unobtrusive accompaniments and banjo and mandolin add excellent color.  Where they appear, the cello and bass round out the sound to perfection.  The arrangements revolve around the fiddling, with some lovely harmonies and counter-melodies creating a magical rainbow of sounds within the tunes.

Each singer presents distinctive lead vocals, but also come in with supporting harmonies.  I really love the approach they have taken for a couple of the traditional pieces, “Jubilee” and “Handsome Molly”, giving these songs wonderful new leases of life.

That is one of the most impressive things about Long Before Light – the way the band has taken a traditional type of music and invested it with their own special sound, combining tradition with a more contemporary form.  If this album is anything to go by, then I predict a tremendous future for the Onlies.


Haley Richardson with Dylan Richardson

Heart On A String

It was with a little worry I put this CD on. I had heard so much about Haley Richardson, a 12-year-old fiddler from New Jersey, there was no way she could be as good as people were telling me.  Except… she is!

A lively approach to playing, her bow seems to dance across the strings as she tackles 14 sets of sometimes quite difficult music.  She brings warmth to the melodies with her excellent intonation.  I’ve never been especially keen on airs – not all musicians can really do them justice, but Richardson is one of those who does.

Her “Dear Irish Boy,” accompanied by Flynn Cohen with a lonely sounding harp, really draws you into her playing.  “The Comet” set, with its neat, stuttered guitar introduction, features three contrasting, relatively complicated jigs, yet she flows naturally from one to the next, switching moods quite naturally.

Elsewhere, she handles tunes by Scott Skinner, traditional pieces and a couple of her own.  There are seven sets of reels, two of jigs, airs and hornpipes and a set of barn dances making up the 14 tracks.  An hour-plus is a long time to hold attention but overall, she succeeds exceedingly well.

Along with her brother, 17-year-old Dylan on guitar, she is joined by Cohen, as well as her fiddle teacher Brian Conway and accordion player John Whelan on one track each: her solo playing is strong enough to maintain a delightful hold on your attention for the hour-long recording.

Dylan is almost ever-present with his guitar.  He has a strong sense of rhythm and is able to provide an inventive accompaniment throughout.  As a guitar accompanist myself, there are times when I’d choose different chords and progressions, but overall, I approve!  I wish I could have played this well at his age.

It’s refreshing to hear these young musicians coming through. And it’s good to see an area connection – an earlier teacher of Haley’s was Kathy DeAngelo.


And here’s something a little different:

Minnie Driver

Ask Me To Dance

It was with some fear I played this CD.  To be a good actor and to have a strong voice does not mean you are a good singer.  There are many ‘interesting’ recordings out there of actors who have tried and met with maybe a little less success than they had hoped.  However, this is not the case with Londoner Minnie Driver.

Her strong alto voice and wonderful sense of timing combined with tremendous material, intriguing arrangements and excellent instrumentation all come together to make this one of the best recordings around at the moment.  Driver also achieved a degree of success as a singer before becoming a full-time actor, so it would seem to me she had a choice – be a professional singer or an actor – or, as it turns out, both.

She explains on her website, the songs on this album are inspired by her youth: “my entire teenage experience of standing at the side of a dark dance hall, just willing someone to ask me to dance.”  She must have felt a lot, because it is all here in this album.

The material is a wonderful mix of different styles, all put together with a coherent sound that draws you in.  Don’t expect a usual or typical approach: “Fly Me To The Moon” has a totally different kind of swing to Sinatra’s definitive version (beautiful keyboards and trumpet surround her sultry vocals); Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why” takes on a new lease of life, far away from the Canadian’s original; and she has such a different take on John Prine’s “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness” you won’t even think of Prine’s classic.

It’s rare that someone can sing a Lesley Duncan song and succeed – many years ago, Elton John did with “Love Song” and now, Driver takes the same song, closer to the original but still with her own sound, and makes it work superbly.

Some of the wonderful things about writing about music that you discover new musicians and interesting facts about your favorite actors.  Ask Me To Dance certainly has done that.


That’s it for another month.  If you have problems finding any of this music, get in touch with me c/o Irish Edition or by email at jamieobrienmusic@gmail.com.