The Outside Track is one of the very topmost and best-regarded world-class pan-Celtic acts – and that’s not a claim to be made lightly! And the outfit’s a real front-runner in any stakes too – winning the ‘Best Group’ category in both the Live Ireland and ‘Tradition In Review’ awards and nominated for 2013’s MG Alba Scots Traditional Music Award, they also won the German Radio Critics’ Prize for their last album Flash Company. Nuff said!
The original band was formed back in 2005 at the Irish World Academy Of Music And Dance in Limerick. At that time, the band probably drew more on its acknowledged, distinctively Scottish expertise: Edinburgh harpist Ailie Robertson brought her impressive credentials as performer, composer and arranger, with her creative synthesis of Scottish, Irish and contemporary harp techniques, while accordionist Fiona Black (from Evanton, Inverness) was (and still is) noted for her bold intertwining of the Scottish playing style with music from Irish, Swedish and Cape Breton sources. Both Ailie and Fiona have stayed at the core of The Outside Track ever since, providing not only a keen continuity in its broad-minded and ever-enthusiastic approach to repertoire-building but also a rich ongoing link through the traditions by way of their outstanding complementary musicianship.
Between the band’s eponymous 2007 debut album and current offering Light Up The Dark, its personnel has remained fairly static (with the lineup also taking in along the way flute/whistle player Norah Rendell for the central portion of its life-span),and latterly incorporating Mairi Rankin (of the celebrated Rankin Family dynasty of Nova Scotia, also member of lesser-known supergroup Beolach) on fiddle and Cillian Ó’Dálaigh on guitar. Its latest recruit is extraordinary Co. Cork-born singer and flute player Teresa Horgan, who’s blessed with a fantastically versatile, almost chameleon-like vocal personality – so much so that it’s hard to believe her voice changes character so much and so easily between songs. The seductive, emotive side of Teresa as chanteuse takes centre-stage on two key tracks; the plaintive, yearning Gordie Sampson & Fred Lavery composition Get Me Through December (set to the glorious melody of Neil Gow’s Lament For The Death Of His Second Wife) is movingly paired with Catriona Macdonald’s inspirational tune The Joy Of It. And then for a complete contrast there’s Do You Love An Apple?, here transformed into an aromatic, vibrato-bedecked jazz-infused delicacy which just has to count as one of the most beguiling recorded versions of this much-loved song (and there’ve been quite a few!).
The above mentioned one change of singer notwithstanding, Light Up The Dark still contains all the acknowledged Outside Track hallmarks, and the cheery, breezy, forward-looking cover-shot montage well suits and defines the band’s character. The disc’s supremely invigorating opening track Drilling couldn’t form a better introduction to The Outside Track “sound”: a scintillating albeit light-textured brand of driven energy in execution, a real flair for keen instrumental arrangement and a responsive, yet tightly woven internal balance. No one instrument is allowed to dominate, although each takes its turn in the spotlight; for each player is both alert to, and fully responsive to, the ebb and flow of dynamics required by the actual contours of the tunes themselves. It may legitimately be felt that The Outside Track’s tune-sets may require more concentrated “listening” than those of the “norm” of Celtic bands who rely more on impact at specific moments or colour changes or sudden gear-shifts. For The Outside Track play their music at a pace that’s relaxed, leisurely but not languorous, neither rushed nor expressively overstated, and the spirited and compelling interactive musicianship makes for a genuinely refreshing listening experience. Just sample the delightful spring-in-the-step that characterises Glorious, Eh? – a set of tunes that “just emanate happiness” – and the “dynamic blend of ups and downs” that forms the wonderfully-titled Hurry Up And Wait! set . The band’s singularly well-developed sense of good-natured fun carries through from the actual performances of Jiggery-Polka-Ry and Niall Vallely’s mildly disorientating slow reel The Wrong House which staggers in on a would-be-genteel harp motif before accordion and flute join in the entreaties and the party gathers momentum at its new venue!
In the past I’ve invoked initial comparisons between The Outside Track and The Poozies, not least in the common choice of harp as a prominent part of the texture, that often takes the lead in introducing the melody, but on The Outside Track’s latest set that connection’s not as pronounced perhaps, being arguably felt as much in the eclectic nature of the choice of songs, which makes every bit as much a virtue of the contemporary covers as of the traditional material. The latter’s represented by a rollicking version of Canadee-I-O, here receiving an animated, busy treatment that scurries in on a guitar and accordion riff before building with delicious fiddle and harp counterpoint and vocal harmonies coming into the mix. For me, several of the album’s standouts nestle among the vocal tracks. For a start there’s Peter’s Dream, a song by Canadian (Prince Edward Islander) Lennie Gallant (from his 1994 album The Open Window) that pays powerful tribute to the men who worked in the declining East Canadian fishing industry. Then there’s a Transatlantic-Sessions-style account of Nanci Griffith’s Lone Star State Of Mind classic Trouble In The Fields which contains some lovely instrumental touches as a backdrop to Teresa’s truly gorgeous rendition of the lyric. In contrast again, Teresa turns on the bright-eyed charm for the band’s quite rocky version of John Spillane’s Set You Free. Rippling harp is balanced out against some busy drumming propelled by guest Brian Talbot (one of a pair of drummers who between them underpin two-thirds of the album’s tracks).
One major achievement of The Outside Track, aside from the obvious highly desirable qualities of their individual and combined musicianship, is that every song they choose to perform really suits the band’s corporate identity as well as the personalities of the singers who elect to perform them. Their commitment is to create new music using the musics of their native lands (Scotland, Ireland and Cape Breton) as cornerstones. In which endeavour they undoubtedly succeed, for Light Up The Dark is another supremely strong release, a significantly well-balanced collection featuring tune-sets and songs in roughly equal proportion (five to six) and with unquestionably equal success. There really is no dull moment amongst this generously-stocked (56-minute) selection.
Glorious, Eh? – The Outside Track sure is.
Review by: David Kidman
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