The title of the new album from Jamie Smith’s Mabon can be taken both literally and figuratively. The Space Between takes the twin concepts of the influences behind the band’s music, and the life of a touring musician. Describing their music as inter-Celtic, Jamie and Mabon create and play music that, rather than attempt to faithfully reflect the closely related cultures around the Celtic Fringe, breaks free of the perceived boundaries and re-unites the ancient Western European musical forms. In the non-geogrpahic margins between Galicia and Wales, between Brittany and Shetland, Jamie Smith’s Mabon meet, compose and arrange music that unites these bygone families.
In addition to populating the cultural divide; there’s the very real, temporal gap between the album launch in Cardiff back in mid November and its official release on Jan 8 January. This is no empty space, though, it’s been filled by a relentless touring schedule that included 20 dates in November / December, and will include a further 20 in February and March. Those live dates have been introducing the band’s faithful live following to the new material written for the album, and that audience have reacted with their usual enthusiasm.
There can be little doubt that, in addition to astounding musicianship, it’s the sheer, boundless energy Jamie Smith’s Mabon bring to a concert that creates such a demand for their live shows. The Space Between delivers this aspect of their music with typical flair. Frank’s Reels is a set of four tunes written by Jamie to celebrate the birth of his son, but it’s an unorthodox start. After an opening of prog rock guitar and subtle synth from Jim Moray, a tentative accordion opens up the melody and takes us towards a fast, furious and perfectly balanced set. With magic and mayhem in the closing stages, it’s typical of the sets that put a fire under their live audiences. And it’s translated so well for the studio.
Of course, Jamie’s main weapon of choice, the accordion, underpins most of the melodies. In the usual brilliant and effervescent pairing with Oliver Wilson-Dickson’s fiddle, it isn’t only the reels that dazzle. A sequel to Mabon’s Fiddlers Despair from 2004, is The Accordionist’s Despair. Jamie tests his own mettle in a box and fiddle duet driven at a blistering pace by the unstoppable bass and percussion pairing of Matt Downer and Iolo Whelan, an unashamedly rock rhythm section. As Jamie’s accordion chases itself around the melody, there’s enough drama in there for a Bond movie soundtrack.
Boundaries have never been an issue with the band’s music; they’re approached, and traversed, with a joyful and productive disregard. This has been a central tenet of the band’s creative flow since Mabon became Jamie Smith’s Mabon in 2011. The new band found inspiration in the musical connections between disparate Celtic regions of Europe, writing and performing music that draws influences from shared roots. The Nordic fiddle of Croeso Ioan (the Welsh word for ‘welcome’), seems to give way to Northumbrian undertones where the accordion takes over. Its joyful, soaring, tumbling and complex structure has instant appeal. More instantly recognisable as a regional piece, 48 in Ortigueira draws more directly from the Galiciain tradition. There’s a gorgeous, frosty tingle from Adam Rhodes’ bouzouki before accordion takes the melody, and a military snare to go with it. This tune’s classic Galician structure is an absolute joy. The double-barrelled race to the finish will please the dancers at gigs, and perhaps even finish them off. Mind you, this is a Mabon audience we’re talking about.
In a northward move there’s a twin tribute to the music of Brittany. Go Kemper! is an old dance but with some snazzy new shoes on, and it’s paired with Breizh; where strings, including banjo from Tomás Callister, synth and driving percussion meet 1970’s syncopation.
When the already successful Mabon morphed into Jamie Smith’s Mabon in 2011, another new feature adopted by them was the addition of songs to their repertoire, and The Space Between has three new songs, two written by Jamie. The title track, which opens the album, takes the second aspect of the album’s concept for its inspiration. Backed by a gently upbeat fiddle and accordion, the song deals with the pressures of life on the road. It’s a trad melody for a contemporary song that shows just how effectively Jamie can merge the modern and the traditional. In Returning From Where I’ve Never Been, Jamie adopts a more directly political voice than he ever has…
There’s something rotten in the heart of this state
But we don’t act we just sit and wait ’til it’s too late
And to close the album, there’s another of Iolo Whelan’s haunting poems, set to music by Jamie. Yr Ennyd (The Moment) asks us to pause at the instant of choice, and ponder the future path. Again the concept of The Space Between bears fruit…
Ond cymer ofal
A chymer anadl,
Dal dy dir;
Gwna fwlch i feddwl –
Fel y gwnei di byddi byw.
(But take care
Take a breath,
Hold your ground;
Make a space to think –
As you do, so shall you live.)
The atmospheric synth and cymbal opening heralds a song where intensity and rhythm grow to a conclusion that includes lap steel guitar from Dylan Fowler, and all the elements of a modern power ballad.
The latest chapter in Mabon’s mission to weave anew the invisible and ancient strands of Celtic culture succeeds on a multitude of levels. We have the irresistible pull of its jigs, reels and a myriad of dance rhythms – the backbone of Mabon’s live performance. There’s Jamie Smith’s remarkable ability to create authentic melodies from those divergent but related influences, and the skill of the band as a whole in arranging them. And we also have the thrilling musicianship displayed by each band member that merges into a dazzling, single entity. Jamie Smith’s Mabon have always been a band for whom live performance is the ultimate expression of their art, their ability to excite and enliven a live audience is peerless. With The Space Between, though, the band have taken another positive and effective step in the confirmation of their capacity for producing memorable, thought provoking music in the studio. When The Space Between begins to gain the attention it deserves in radio play lists and review columns, Mabon’s fans should prepare to welcome a host of new initiates to the remaining live dates – and the more the merrier!
Review by: Neil McFadyen
For full details of Jamie Smith’s Mabon’s upcoming tour dates kicking off in February 2016 visit:
Photo Credit: www.justsimon.com