As the New Year gets off to a cracking CD infused start I’m indebted to Bully’s Acre for highlighting a musical paradox, but doing so in the best possible way. Let me explain. It’s been said here before that folk music, in it’s broadest sense, is the one genre of music that actively supports a regional identity. Sometimes it draws on local stories or events as inspiration for songs and tunes, thereby echoing the folksong tradition. Singers singing with a regional voice or accent are widely accepted, while local session scenes are also where many musicians cut their teeth. Of course, in the world we now live in the opposite is also true. The whole world and so much of its history are at our fingertips and a Scrabble bag of culture is ours to play with, thus ideas change hands and new fusions are regularly created. As one who advocates the importance of both of these strands of music making, not believing them to actually be in opposition, you could accuse me of wanting my cake and eating it. Then along come the Irish based Bully’s Acre, a band with the self-same appetite, while being blessed with the musical skills to make The Twelve Pins, a passionate and fascinating fusion of musical styles and ideals that remains true to its constituent parts, yet also creates something new and utterly exhilarating by putting them together.
Of course, whichever way you get your inspiration it helps if you have the know how to make the most of your musical game plan. The trio that make up Bully’s Acre clearly have that. Peter Browne (button accordion), Lucas Gonzáles (guitar and whistle) and Robbie Harris boast an impressive collective pedigree, both when it comes to study and their professional musical lives, and all regularly tour the international stage. They share in common a stint with the post Riverdance spectacular, Heartbeat Of Home, and with that an obvious passion for Irish folk tunes and dances. But it’s the guitarist, Lucas Gonzáles, who suggests their particular fusion style, as it’s he who brings the Latin brio adding touches of fiery flamenco. From those twin foundation stones, however, they have created an impressive towering sound that mines all of their collective musical experiences and then adds some completely new ones and for a trio, they make a big sound, but are also capable of real subtlety and the kind of grace that only comes from un-flustered finesse.
Peter Browne plays the accordion with a mastery that underlines the fact that he first picked the instrument up at the age of six. Given the encouragement of a musical family, he has been a professional musician since he left school. In his mid 20s, however, he took time out to study jazz at Dublin’s Newpark Music Centre, expanding his grasp of harmonic theory in the process, which now brings obvious, additional benefits to The Twelve Pins.
Guitarist Lucas Gonzáles first studied in Argentina at Conservatorio Felix Garzón before continuing his studies first in Switzerland and then the Royal Irish Academy Of Music. Although he sticks to guitar and whistle here, Lucas is a multi-instrumentalist, playing keys and percussion, as well knowing the technical side of recording. He is widely travelled with many world music collaborations under his belt and, if that’s not enough, is a visual artist and filmmaker to boot.
Robbie Harris meanwhile does percussive things with a bodhrán that few could imagine, let alone achieve. He somehow turns the obvious limitations of a single drum skin and beater on their head and transforms the instrument into something of almost limitless possibility. He is world renowned and has collaborated with far too many to list here, in a wide variety of styles. Not limited to bodhrán here, his abundant abilities bring a lightness of touch make equally light work of tricky time signatures, as Robbie proves to be the rock on which The Twelve Pins is founded.
As it transpires such is the trust that the others place in Robbie, the album was recorded quickly in just four days and without the use of a click track or any other such time keeping aids. The stated aim was to allow the rhythms to breathe, with added space for improvisation they watched each other hawkishly for cues and clues. They chose to record only after a handful of gigs had successfully road tested the material and though mostly kept simple, with a very live feel, they did allow for some overdubbing to further enhance the natural dynamics that they have found together.
The opening “7” announces itself with a quick fire percussive patter from the bodhrán and a flurry of flamenco strumming, before Peter dives in and takes the melody. The complexity of the rhythmic interplay is immediately apparent, as is the way that the individual instrumental timbres allows the musicians clear space with which to work. The bodhrán pitch bends almost like a tabla and in videos I’ve seen Robbie uses some sort of stick in his muting hand, which presumably enhances this. The tune itself is written by the trio, apparently derived from a Bulgarian folk dance and as the title hints, has an asymmetrical count amidst the dizzying poly-rhythms. Lucas overdubs a solo too, darting back and forth across the frets of his nylon strung guitar, ramping the tension still higher, before Peter finishes the piece with a flourish.
By contrast, The Commodore, which follows, is based on The Commodore Reel, written by the highly respected Brooklyn born Irish American Billy McComiskey and has a subtle lithe funkiness. Lucas counts in and sets up a laid back guitar riff, before dropping into a supporting role adding accents and syncopated stabs, as Peter takes the tune on a merry spiral and Robbie fills the space between them with rhythmic surges. To further emphasise that not everything they do is helter skelter the opening of Lucas’ SaL Del Mar has a carefree relaxed air, before Robbie injects a little Mambo exotica, or perhaps Beuna Vista style urgency and Peter once again leads.
Leppaddumdowledum is an elegant waltzing tune written by Planxty founder Dónal Lunny and not for the first time, Robbie’s percussion fills out the bottom end, here with a deep boom. Again Peter is in the lead, but Lucas also follows him riffing around the main motif. The Broken Pledge delves further back into the tradition, plucking a melody found in Francis O’Neill’s C19th Tunes Of Ireland, which allows Robbie to take the spotlight in the middle section before shifting gear again for the finale, where Peter again takes over and the driving rhythm takes a more damped and muted tone.
Encuentro, another tune from Lucas has the makings of a mournful Irish air or ballad, enhanced with the overdubbed whistle that adds to the melancholic feel, while he allows his guitar to meander around the melodic and harmonic fringes of the piece. It’s a lovely tune that finds its match in Farwell To Whalley Range, a piece written by Michael McGoldrick. The Capercaille man is one of the best pipe, whistle and flute players of his generation and grew up within an Irish family in Manchester. Again the tune has that bitter-sweet quality as the title suggests and Lucas plays some lovely stuff through the mid section, with Peter adding a taste of his jazz leanings as the trio slip into expansive mode.
Devlin’ also has a little jazz in its DNA, which reflects one end of writer Tim Rice’s musical spectrum, although he is perhaps better known for being on the progressive side of bluegrass, making this a real pleasant surprise all round. It’s a jaunty sashay of a tune. Lucas lays down twin guitars that snake around the melody as the reverie plays out.
That just leaves the title track, although when I say just, it’s actually one hell of a finish being based on the The Twelve Pins Reel penned by the prolific and highly celebrated Charlie Lennon. It’s as fleet fingered as anything else on the album, yet also has a sense of poise about it that somehow sets the perfect tone on which to end. After all it’s the Irish tune book, with its unique musical heritage that sets the heartbeat of this record. That we are also treated to three master musicians who are prepared to take those tunes and that history, pulling at form and function, moulding them with their individual and collective experiences, extemporising and re-imagining, primping them with a due sense of love and care and thereby creating something new and unique, now that’s something to set the pulse racing.
Review by: Simon Holland