The Paul McKenna band have enjoyed some well-deserved plaudits since forming in 2006. Not least, the ‘Best Up And Coming Artist’ award at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards in 2009. Then in 2012 Paul McKenna won ‘Scots Singer Of The Year’ and Mike Vass was hailed ‘Composer Of The Year’. The band’s recordings and live shows have steadily built them a stalwart, ever-expanding following and their third album, Elements, builds on the promise of Between Two Worlds (2009) and Stem The Tide (2011).
Elements opens with a typically strong song from Paul’s own repertoire, Lonely Man. For new listeners this will be an impressive introduction to the band. Paul’s clearly a story teller, first and foremost; with his arresting yet plaintive vocals. Stirring support from banjo (Mike Vass) and flute (Séan Gray) show the strength of the band as a unit. Other self-penned songs include Mother Nature, where Séan’s flute heralds a gentler pace in a song dealing with human frailty in the face of natural disasters. Take Your Time is graced by the unmistakeable pipes of Jarlath Henderson in a stirring conversational duet with Mike Vass’s fiddle.
Of the album’s traditional offerings, Mickey Dam reminds us that tales of Irish immigrant labour in Scotland can always be relied on for a rousing chorus – this fine example is no exception. Paul’s guitar and vocals drive the story of wronged Tipperary farmer Michael Hays, as the tension increases Mike Vass’s fiddle adds to the drama.
The band are never shy about collecting songs from more contemporary sources either. The hugely popular and poignant Nic Jones song Ruins By The Shore is a history of humanity in five acts. The band deliver this classic with more than a hint of sadness and harmonies that will raise goose bumps. In an album full of powerful songs it can be difficult to find one that stands out, but James Keelaghan’s Cold Missouri Waters does just that. The combination of Keelaghn’s poignant deathbed story and McKenna’s low-key arrangement is heart-stopping.
The album draws to a close with a live recording. Walt Aldridge’s No Ash Will Burn gives the home listener a taste of just how good The Paul McKenna Band are in performance. They’re touring in the UK, the US and Europe right now – get out and see them.
The Paul McKenna band are clearly growing, improving and honing their considerable collective talents. There’s plenty to enjoy in this album – intricate arrangements of fine songs, strong production, engaging vocal performances; and the recent addition of the hugely talented Mike Vass on banjo & fiddle has added further depth to the sound. The now familiar sparkle of The Paul McKenna Band never seems to diminish, and continues to catch the attention of a widening audience.
Paul McKenna – Vocals, Guitar and Bouzouki
David McNee – Bouzouki, Tenor Guitar and vocals
Sean Gray – Flute, Whistles, Guitar and Vocals
Ewan Baird – Bodhran, Cajon and Vocals
Mike Vass – Fiddle, Banjo and Vocals
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Cold Missouri Waters
Elements is released on 24 June via Greentrax