Wickham Festival last August and Michael McGoldrick has just come off stage after a blazing set with John Doyle and John McCusker, we repair to the bar and he can’t wait to tell me about the recordings he’s just finished as producer for Emma Sweeney. He’d been bowled over by the talent and imagination that Emma had brought to the sessions. I’ve had to wait a tantalising few months before getting my hands on a review copy of Pangea, the CD that resulted, but patience has been well and truly rewarded.
Manchester based Emma has been quietly building an enviable reputation, primarily for her fiddle playing, firmly rooted in the Irish tradition yet, at the same time, capable of surprising the listener, bringing in influences from across the Atlantic and further afield. Her fiddle technique can be breath-taking, choose from beautifully precise and rapid ornamentation, bowing that makes the fiddle growl or slides that are perfectly positioned and paced. With such talent on display from Emma, the impressive list of collaborators on the album comes as no surprise. These include McGoldrick, Manus Lunny and Donald Shaw from Capercaillie, John Joe Kelly, Matheu Watson, John Doyle, all top notch musicians who clearly recognise a rising star.
The majority of tracks on the album are tune sets, some traditional, but often linked with Emma’s own compositions. There’s no mistaking the flair and passion she brings to this style of material, the results are a delight. However, it is when she branches out into other styles and genres that you begin to appreciate the musician she is maturing into. The Golden Fiddle Waltz and Elk River Blues bring in a decidedly North American influence, the waltz ideally suited to the slides that are destined to be one of the trademarks of her fiddle technique. With Elk River Blues she adopts an original approach, prominently featuring a jaw harp in the arrangement.
There is one vocal track, a wistful treatment of the Nick Drake song, Place to Be. Emma’s voice is light and airy as befits the song; the arrangement has fiddle and whistle lines intertwining each other, overlying sparse dobro. The whole works beautifully and promises much for future vocals.
The final track, Pangea, has a strong Indian influence, reflecting the time Emma, then just 18, spent in Kolkata, working with street children, teaching them to play the tin whistle. The album fades out to a simple melody played by the tin whistle choir.
As a geologist, the album title, Pangea, intrigued me no end. The word derives from Greek roots meaning ‘entire Earth’ and is used by us geologists to refer to the supercontinent that formed on Earth around 300 million years ago, when all the present day continents were joined into a single landmass. So is the album title declaring a goal of world domination? Or is it suggesting that music has the power to join together all the continents?
The album is scheduled for release on 19th January with launch gigs in Manchester on 10th January and as part of Celtic Connections in Glasgow on the 19th. The line up for these gigs is stunning, Michael McGoldrick, Matheu Watson, Duncan Lyall and Cormac Byrne. If you can get to either, you will be in for a treat.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Available to pre-order from Emma website: