After a slightly traumatic arrival in Birmingham, trying to cope with changed road layouts, erroneous or missing street signs, expensive carparks… the usual problems with driving into a busy city, we arrived at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham to see the Transatlantic Sessions, with a sensational line up of the best in folk music from both sides of the pond. For me there was a special star of the show, Raul Malo.
Birmingham is a fabulous and exciting city, with amazing street sculptures, fabulous shops and markets, a wonderful museum and art gallery and a fine concert hall. It has a long history as a centre for industry and trade and is reputed to have more canals than Venice.
We arrived at the Symphony Hall in plenty of time and found we had excellent seats, very near the front, on the right side of the hall. We looked around for our friends Carolyn and John but couldn’t spot them in the packed hall. The stage was set up with the usual drum kit, piano, organ, mics chairs for the musicians… and a couple of settees beside a coffee table laden with bottles of water. I had never seen sitting room furniture on stage at a gig before and was intrigued to find out why they were there. The musicians trooped on… and whoohoo! On came Raul too, and settled himself on one of the settees, directly in my line of vision. For the whole concert I was gazing at him instead of the other players! I am a big fan of country/folk music and my husband Bari is an even bigger fan and used to play in an Irish band so we were both in heaven, him musically and me… well, I will leave it to you to figure that out!
There were eight chairs across the front of the stage, each with a mic; the home team players were on the left and the Americans on the right. There was a central mic and the others came up to it as it was their turn to play and sing. There were some real stars from the world of music; for the Scots, Aly Bain from Shetland, Phil Cunningham and John McCusker offered a masterclass in folk cool and two Englishmen showed their talents, the amazing Michael McGoldrick on the uilleann pipes and the sensational Danny Thomas, still rocking at seventy-three. The uilleann pipes are the haunting Irish bagpipes and, unlike Scots pipes, the bag is inflated by squeezing it with the elbow – and that is where the name comes from, the Irish word for elbows, uilleann; Michael also played various other pipes and flutes but his star turn was ‘T’Aimse Im’ Chodhladh’ (I Am Asleep, Don’t Wake Me). Danny Thompson, ex-Pentangle, played the upright double bass; he is a legend and Bari was particularly thrilled to see him. Ireland was represented by Declan O’Rourke, who sang several of his own songs as well as supporting the others as they sang.
There were more stars of the American music scene too – Jerry Douglas – the most amazing virtuoso of the dobro, and Tim O’Brien…. And sadly I do not remember the names of the others. Each one was a class act, each one contributed to the music, the atmosphere and the fun of the whole evening.
As well as “the boys”, there were “the beautiful girls” as Raul described them, Ruth Moody from the Wailin’ Jennies, and two truly fabulous singers from Scotland, Eddi Reader and Karen Matheson who often sings in Scots Gaelic although she did not give us that treat on this occasion. She is lead singer of the band Capercaillie Eddi is internationally famous as a solo artist and formerly with the band Fairgorund Attraction. .They were tremendous and coped brilliantly with all the teasing they got from “the boys” – including them mischievously playing wrong notes when Ruth was trying to tune her banjo!
Raul as usual really got the audience buzzing, everyone was dancing in their seats as he did his solo spots; he sang “Around the World” and an exciting version of “Every Little Thing About You,” to finish the first half – everyone was cheering him as he came to an end of that! Then at the end of the gig, Raul did the encore “Hey Good Lookin'” which had the whole audience on their feet. He also sang backing vocals and I noticed (from my excellent vantage point) Raul singing along to one of Declan’s beautiful numbers, “Galileo”; I wondered if Raul might sing the song himself, it is a beautiful and sweet song, lovely melody and meaningful words which is always a winner for me.
As well as the music there were a lot of laughs, a lot of funny one-liners and funny stories. There was the tale of some of the Scottish guys joining Jerry on his home turf to do some recording; unfortunately it was Halloween and every few minutes there would be a knock and the door and a small skelton or vampire would be standing there demanding sweeties.
Raul, of course, had his usual amusing comments, including him wondering out loud why everyone kept tuning their instruments. “Obviously you guys have never played with Mexicans!” He also claimed the Transatlantic Sessions were some of the best gigs ever; what more could you want, he said, sitting on stage with the beautiful girls and drinking champagne (yes, there were several bottles of champers!) The whole gig looked as much fun, if not more for the performers, and at the end Ruth, Eddi, Karen and Declan were doing something approximating Scottish/Irish country dancing.
It was a fantastic evening – but sadly the only pictures I have are in my head! I’ll be booking for next year as soon as the tickets go on sale!