Review: Transatlantic Sessions at Symphony Hall

Richard Lutz takes his pew for a barnstorming night of Celtic connections.

The fifteen strong ensemble that makes up Transatlantic Sessions sometimes feels more  like a symphonic orchestra than a rock’n’roll touring band. There’s mandolins, fiddles, slide guitars, a dobro, more mandolins, flutes, bass fiddles and, of course, voices like songbirds.

The patched together group haas been touring for seventeen years and produces some of the finest Celtic/Appalachian music this side of a rolling Atlantic wave. This night, at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, was no different.

It’s all downhome back porch stuff as if fifteen friends cleaned up the dinner table, got out of the instruments and the beer and just began playing away ’til the sun came up. But, of course, these are bang up-to-date world class musicians and the proof was in the pudding. And they reflect how music defied the trade winds and headed west from Ireland and Scotland to become the music of Appalachia, the music of Nashville, the music of cowboys and crooners and rock and rollers.

This year – and I’ve been reviewing their annual tour for quite a while – the emphasis was on Celtic voices. Cathy Gordon filled the vast auditorium with a crystal clear voice; her  Irish songs included Sliach Gallon Braes and the plaintive love song Sweet Roseanne. There were hints of Emmylou Harris and Sandy Denny in the quality of her singing and her voice never got in the way of the Eire banter either.

You could have heard a pin drop…..

Also standing out was Rachel Sermanni, a young Scotswoman who quietened a sell out crowd with the Robert Burns song Ae Fond Kiss. You could have heard a pin drop as she sang this 230 year-old ballad about young lovers saying goodbye. Burns would have been happy, somewhere in a heaven studded with Ayrshire drinking dens and a good night out.

Another standout, and his Australian heritage really made him stand out from a UK/US get together, was Tommy Emmanuel. His guitar work is superb, Chet Atkins called him one of the best and his finger work showed, especially on the early Springsteen number I’m on Fire which brought the first half to a close. He was given top spot by re-opening the post interval section as if he never left the stage with guitar solos that summoned up memories of Bert Jansch or Leo Kottke.

The heavy lifting work, after the run of solos from most of the ffiteen performers, was carried out by  dobro musician  MC Jerry Douglas and Shetland fiddler Aly Bain. Some performers offered standard Nashville alt-country stuff, some seemed cemented into an acceptable pass at modern Nashville. But in all, Transatlantic Sessions, despite its sometimes slightly smug personae as a group that knows it is excellent, does really offer the best of music from both sides of the ocean, much of it world class.


One thought on “Review: Transatlantic Sessions at Symphony Hall

  1. See if you can find the book “Wayfaring Strangers – The Musical Voyage From Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia” by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr, University of North Carolina Press. It includes a CD and the forward by Dolly Parton.

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