This year will see John McCusker celebrate 25 years as a professional folk musician. The widely acclaimed musician, composer and producer is marking the anniversary with an extensive UK tour and the release, on 29th April, of Hello, Goodbye; his first solo album in 12 years
When John McCusker embarked on his musical career by joining the Battlefield Band at the age of 17, earning a living as a folk musician was, at the time, almost impossible. But John’s experience with the band shaped his outlook on performing, recording and composing music. After ten years in the band, John left to record his second solo album Yella Hoose (2001) followed by Goodnight Ginger (2004). Not only is Hello, Goodbye his first solo album since Goodnight Ginger, it was recorded in his newly built home studio in the Scottish Borders; a converted 18th Century bothy, and as the first release on his newly fledged record label, Under One Sky Records.
Recently, John has been best known for his work as a collaborator, in projects such as the hugely successful Drever, McCusker, Woomble 2008 album, Before The Ruin. His credits as a producer includes the début solo albums from Kris Drever and Roddy Woomble; Eddi Reader, Heidi Talbot, Eliza Carthy, Linda Thompson and Blazin’ Fiddles. His own work has earned him a string of awards and nominations though, including BBC Radio 2 Folk Music Awards 2003 – Musician of the Year. He was nominated a further 4 years in succession for the same award (2007-2010) and at this year’s Folk Awards he will be honoured with the Good Tradition Award for his contribution to the preservation, dissemination and progression of traditional music.
For long-term fans of John’s work, it’s wonderful to see him return to recording his own music in a home setting, and the multi layered introduction to the album’s opening track, Calendar Boys, couldn’t be more fitting; with John’s wife, Heidi Talbot, providing the only vocal on the album and their daughter, Molly Mae, on thumb piano and musical box. Family is at the heart of the album, but not only the immediate McCusker clan – John’s extended musical family. As the unique tone of John’s fiddle brings on the melody amid Ewan Vernal’s masterly bass lines and Ian Carr‘s guitar, the light, skipping melody brings forth that instantly recognisable sound and leads to a pair of reels driven gently to a happy conclusion by Ian’s guitar, Innes White‘s mandolin and the usual precise and perfect percussion from James Mackintosh.
It’s that big wide sound that’s one of the many distinguishing features of John’s music. So big and wide it’s not always easy to pick out all the contributors, of which this album has many, and that’s all part of the charm. The Wedding, for instance, isn’t the only track to bring in Michael McGoldrick‘s flute. As Craig And Joe’s Wedding rolls along at a lively, but soothing pace, flute and fiddle share the soaring melody of the set’s second tune, Dark Night Adventure. Hello, Goodbye is, mostly, an album of tune sets, and you get the impression John’s been bursting with new tunes for quite some time. He’s said that most of the tunes were composed while he toured the world recently as part of Mark Knopfler’s band.
Those mighty sets keep the toes tapping. Mightiest among them has to be The Bothy Jigs. Guitar and percussion combine for the opening Hello Goodbye, and we move on to the finest of flute and fiddle duets in The Quair Old River, and for the stirring conclusion (and tune with the best title), Should All The Penguins Be Forgot, Jarleth Henderson joins on Uilleann pipes. Jarleth returns for FooFoo and a funky opening of bass, brushes and a swing guitar from Innes. It’s an irresistible toe-tapper and as Jarlath’s pipes herald the arrival of the second tune, The Wishing Tree, there’s added depth from the brass of Toby Shippet and Neil Yates. As if that wasn’t enough, Andy Cutting makes one of his many appearances, which seems entirely apt for this lively, fun-filled set.
The sheer delight in the music can also come across in the more gentle melodies. The soothing Jessica’s Lullaby opens It’s A Girl and is delivered by that delightful fiddle/bass/guitar trio before moving on to a tune so utterly full of joy it could only have been inspired by the happiest of events, before the set closes with a complex jig, in which Innes White’s mandolin is there with John’s fiddle every step of the way. There’s also a very special pair of waltzes. Molly’s Waltz and Heidi’s Waltz have a soft trans-Atlantic accent that’s helped along by Tim O’Brien‘s mandolin – both are, of course, utterly delightful.
There are three exceptions to the ‘tune set’ rule, though, and in the first of these, The Milk Carton Kids, there’s a gentle guitar opening from Innes White and a fiddle sound so closely matched to John’s, as Duncan Chisholm joins for a beautiful duet. A Trip to Roma sees the same eloquent and amiable fiddle pairing, as Ian Carr’s guitar keeps a flawless cascading rhythm throughout, until Innes’s mandolin takes over the cascade with just hint of whistle and a light warm breeze of brass towards the close. The final melody presented on its own is Tune for Nana. Featuring a glorious McGoldrick/Henderson duet on low whistle/Uillean pipes and Phil Cunningham on accordion, it’s a heartfelt and beautiful tribute.
Trip to Roma
The title track, Hello, Goodbye, opens with a light pair of hornpipes helped along by Andy Cutting. Mr Cutting also brings some perfectly matched harmonies to the extra spring in the step of the closing tune. The same lively pace is very much in evidence for Billy’s, where Michael McGoldrick’s flute picks up the melody of Billy’s Reel from John’s fiddle and it’s all beefed up by a healthy helping of brass. Then comes the more stripped back, but no less lively, M Street Kitchen before it’s back to the big sound for A Tribute to Larry Reynolds (a favourite of John’s live sets with Mike McGoldrick and John Doyle). Concertina maestro Simon Thoumire is listed in the album credits and it may be towards the end of this track I detect one of his dexterous contributions – I’ll leave it to you to find any others.
The album’s close will be familiar to those who’ve had the pleasure of hearing John’s border-crossing album of the same name. Under One Sky is a gently stirring tune that definitely deserves another airing, especially with Duncan Chisholm’s husky fiddle and a touch of brass added to the mix. The tune is still paired with the astounding Iain MacDonald’s Reel, this time with a pair of fiddles doing the job of the pipes from the original tribute to John’s Battlefield Band mentor.
It’s a gorgeous big, lively, happy sound on which to close the album.
Hello, Goodbye sees John McCusker in what’s sure to be a very welcome return to solo projects. His work as a producer and as musician of choice for a wide range of established performers may have prevented him, to an extent, from pursuing the development of his own compositions. But the time and energy John’s devoted to writing and arranging this music, building his own studio and preparing for this polished and immensely enjoyable album has been a sound investment. John’s return to solo work sees an increased confidence and faith in his work, a host of friends keen to make valuable contributions to the sound, and a range of tune sets and individual melodies that are bound to please his existing fans, as well as those more recent converts to trad music who may not be so familiar with his solo work. I’m sure everyone will be hoping that, after 25 years on the scene, John McCusker’s new album will be more Hello than Goodbye. Welcome back, John, you’ve been missed.
Hello, Goodbye is released 29 April via Under One Sky Records
Also available via Amazon
John McCusker ‘Hello, Goodbye’ Tour
Apr 15 Glasgow – St Andrew’s in the Square
Apr 16 Edinburgh – The Queen’s Hall
Apr 17 Banchory – Woodend Barn
Apr 20 Peebles – Eastgate Theatre
Apr 21 Barnard Castle – The Witham
Apr 22 Ramsbottom – Civic Hall
Apr 23 Darley Dale -The Whitworth Centre
Apr 24 Canterbury – Gulbenkian Theatre
Apr 25 Nettlebed – The Village Club
Apr 26 Cambridge – Junction
Apr 27 London – Royal Albert Hall – BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards
Apr 28 London – Cecil Sharp House
Apr 29 Shoreham-by-Sea – The Ropetackle Arts Centre
Apr 30 Worcester – Huntingdon Hall
May 01 Lincoln – Drill Hall
May 03 York – NCEM
May 04 Liverpool – The Music Room
May 05 Saltaire – Victoria Hall
May 06 Kendal – Brewery Arts Centre
May 07 Stirling – Tolbooth
May 09 Paisley – Arts Centre
May 10 Birnam – Birnam Arts
May 11 Findhorn – Universal Hall