The Outside Track‘s latest release ‘Flash Company‘ is the crowning moment for this five-piece band who have been relentlessly touring and taking the music to the people for the past five years, not just in the UK but in Europe, Canada and the USA. Taking on such a challenge would terrify most but the band have risen and excelled by topping it with their best release to date, that’s some accomplishment for a band who are committed to traditional music. We caught up with them recently to talk about their music, touring and more.
Despite each member having their own distinct musical traditions the band find a common ground when playing together which shows an underlying inter-connection between those cultures as well as displaying some of their differences. “It was never a conscious decision to form a cross-cultural band. It really happened quite organically as a result of becoming friends, and enjoying playing tunes together. As the band has developed we have enhanced these connections more deliberately. We try to research songs that originate in Scotland and Ireland, but are versions collected in Canada. We’ve also discovered that quebecois tunes seem to work really well for the band – the groove of them is the perfect mix between the Scottish, Irish and Cape Breton styles. In our shows we also highlight the similarities and differences between Irish step-dance and Cape Breton style step-dance, with Mairi and Cillian performing several routines together.”
They manage to blend music from these different styles in a subtle and graceful way yet still managing to show each one off with the vibrancy and colour they deserve. On ‘The Body Parts Set‘ they put this to good show with an upbeat opening tune learned from Quebecois band Tireux d’Roches called Reel deLa Fesse Crampee…before shifting gear for ‘Neckbelly’ a tune made popular by Sharon Shannon that Mairi and Fiona learned from Shelly Campbell in Cape Breton. The interplay between harp, accordion, fiddle and flute is gorgeous throughout.
Their individual musical backgrounds and influences are far from obvious with unexpected twists. “We all come from quite different musical backgrounds, and I think that’s one of the things that makes the band work so well. Norah studied early renaissance music at university, Ailie is currently doing an MA in avant-garde composition, Mairi comes from a strongly traditional background, with a family who are all musical. Those contrasting influences and styles all come together to form something that we hope is musically rich. We often get compared to the Irish band Solas which is a great compliment for us, and certainly a band that we have all grown up listening to.”
Like their musical background the geographical distances between band members has also worked in their favour. “We live further apart than ever! Ailie has just moved to London, Cillian and Fiona are in Ireland, Norah is in Minneapolis, and Mairi is in Vancouver! We call it the ultimate long-distance relationship!
“Because we all live so far apart we don’t have the luxury of being able to do the odd gig here and there, we normally have to do tours at least 2 weeks long to make it financially viable. In many ways though, this geographical hurdle actually works well for us, as it makes us work harder when we are together, and we never go too long without seeing each other.”
And of course there will always be the favourite gig or festival. “We’ve had some amazing gigs over the past few years. Celtic Colours in Cape Breton is always a firm favourite and we’re delighted to be returning this year again. There are so many great British festivals, but one of our favourites was the Purbeck Folk Festival – a great family atmosphere, and brilliant location.”
The band have a wealth of music between them to choose from and on this release the selection is perfect, a nice balance between intrumental and songs, the famiiar and not so familar. The title track ‘Flash Comapny‘, was popularised by June Tabor and Norma Waterson and becuase of that familiarity you get a better grasp of what they’re capable of, they’re able to demonstrate their prowess at re-interpretation as well as their inventiveness. Mairi’s subtle hints of Jerry Holland‘s ‘My Cape Breton Home‘ on fiddle during this track offers a lovely touch and it’s these sort of moments that will bring a smile to your face throughout this album. The extensive liner notes are also an added bonus, a must if you really want to appreciate the origins of the songs and tunes.
I was curious as to how they went about choosing material and whether there was a balance to be struck between them all. “We spend a lot of time choosing our material, and its important to us to try to find tunes and songs that haven’t been recorded by lots of other bands etc. There is no conscious decision to have an even distribution of material from each country, but that tends to happen quite naturally as we all bring different repertoire to our rehearsals. We spend a lot of time coming up with our arrangements, and are conscious of making sure that all the instruments have space to add their particular colours. Its also important to us to keep an even distribution between songs and tunes – there are lots of bands that are mainly instrumental and then throw in a token song, or vice versa, but its very important to us that we give equal attention to both.”
One of my all time favourite songs that listeners may recall from past Folk Radio UK playlists is ‘The Hawk and the Crow‘ which we featured Sean Doyle singing. The Outside Track give this a very bright new sound with Ailie’s prominent harp and vocals along with beautiful uplifting accents from Fiona on accordion and guest Duncan Lyall on double bass, their interpretations are always fresh, there is never a dull moment.
There is a wonderful finesse to some of the slower numbers as as well as some respectful nods and tributes to great musicians, especially the likes of Cape Breton fiddler Jerry Holland (1955-2009). There is also that nice kick in there, that ‘back home’ tradtional sound that will catch you unawares as it does on several tracks, especially the powerhouse number ‘The Transatlantic‘ which features some incredible reels with the penultimate tour de force from the tunes of Dr. Angus MacDonald of Glenuig “who has a knack (along with his brothers Allan and Iain), for writing some of the catchiest pipe tunes around.”
This is a stunning album from some of the most talented young performers out there on the tradtional music scene, Flash Company blazes the way forward bringing the freshest and most vibrant interpretation of tradtional music I’ve personally heard in a long time. Fantastic!
The line up comprises Norah Rendell (Canadian Traditional Singer of the Year nominee), Mairi Rankin (Beolach), Ailie Robertson (Live Ireland Winner, BBC Young Trad Finalist), Fiona Black (BBC Fame Academy Winner), and Cillian O’Dalaigh.
Photo Credit: Ryam Macdonald