Over the last ten years, The Paul McKenna Band have built a solid international reputation on the back of their outstanding live performances and carefully crafted studio albums. In 2016 they celebrate their 10th year with a typically intense touring schedule and an invigorating new album – Paths That Wind.
The band’s fourth album follows in the footsteps of its very well received predecessors, with a collection of traditional and contemporary songs and tune sets. Paul McKenna is a gifted song writer himself, and it’s one from his own pen that opens the album – Long Days. With a gentle string backing of guitar, banjo and mandolin, this song deals with the pressure of missing home while on the road, but approaches it with a positive twist, enhanced by Conor Markey’s back-beat banjo harmonies.
Paul’s song writing seems to thrive on that driven beat, and in One More Time the stripped back approach of just vocal and guitar taking centre stage seems to enhance the effect. The song’s positive message confirms Paul’s forward-looking attitude, but neither is he afraid to pass comment on recent events. The Dream was inspired by the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and reminds us that it’s important to keep up the fight against injustice…
Do you remember Biko, Freddie Gray and Michael Powell?
Murdered by poor men in power, but no flag was taken down.
Depraved and weak with only hatred written in their eyes.
Stand up, stand up in unity. To forget is to deny.
What happened to the dream?
Will we ever overcome,
and walk hand in hand together
toward the setting of the sun?
A recent social media post asked what had happened to all the protest songs. Well, in addition to Paul providing that fine example, the band have made great use of two well established favourites. He Fades Away was written by the late Alistair Hulett about the plight of men suffering lung disease from working in Australia’s Wittenoom Mines. The breathless tone of John McCusker’s fiddle to open, Paul’s emotional vocal, and Alistair Hulett’s heart-rending lyrics prove a powerful mix. There are few songs more powerful, though, than Peggy Seeger’s Song Of Choice. Not since Dick Gaughan’s arrangement for A Different Kind of Love Song has anyone embarked on such a passionate and stirring rendition. The drone behind the abstract opening verse sets the tone perfectly, and Paul’s vocal is delivered with a visceral fervour.
As ever, the band succeed in arranging traditional song in a way that, while enhancing their own modern approach, stays true to the roots of the music. Banks of the Moy, is no exception. Often these classics of Irish song fly by us, we’re so used to hearing them we can pay more attention to the interpretation rather than the song itself. The Paul McKenna Band’s version compels you to listen, to take in the whole story. There’s still a fulfilling and thoroughly enjoyable arrangement, though, with Ewan Baird’s bodhrán driving the pace towards a stirring flute/fiddle duet.
On Paths That Wind the band’s engaging sound is aided by the work of renowned fiddler John McCusker as Producer. His prowess in combining trad and contemporary elements for the likes of Kris Drever, Roddy Woomble, Eddi Reader and Eliza Carthy makes him a perfect choice as producer for The Paul McKenna Band.
In addition to the songs, of course, there are excellent tune sets from flute player Sean Grey. Mistaken Instrument opens with a fiery flute and fiddle (courtesy of Mike Vass) combination that’s enhanced by a quiet battle-cry from James Lindsay’s double bass throughout, and it’s a track on which John McCusker’s contribution as producer really shines through. Likewise, the album’s closing set, Dodging The Weather, is an irresistible foot-tapper.
The album also includes a fine tribute to the late Jim Reid with his beautiful song in praise of nature, Greylag Geese. Paul’s vocals have always been instantly recognisable, but Greylag Geese also shows how well suited his voice is to Scots song. It would be a treat to hear more. The added bonus of a guest appearance from singer Rod Paterson helps makes this a truly memorable track.
The Paul McKenna Band have, not surprisingly, yet again produced an album that is sure to delight their widespread fan base and earn them further accolades from their peers in the trad music sector. Paths That Wind is yet another first-class collection of contemporary acoustic music inspired by a love of the traditions it fosters.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Released 8th April via PMB Records
Visit their website for details of their UK tour dates: