Sierra Hull started out as a bluegrass prodigy, first appearing on the Grand Ole Opry stage aged 11, and has long been acclaimed as one of the finest young mandolin players in the USA. Now in her mid-20s, Sierra has matured into a well-respected acoustic artist and was Grammy nominated for her recent album Weighted Mind. Jarlath Henderson is an outstanding piper and singer from Northern Ireland, the youngest ever winner of the BBC Young Folk Award, back in 2003.
I was excited to be back at Celtic Connections after a break of three years. With tickets for a clutch of top-notch gigs (including Molly Tuttle Band, Molsky’s Mountain Drifters, I’m With Her and The Railsplitters) we were set to kick off our extended trip with Sierra Hull’s Friday night concert at the Mitchell Theatre. As you can tell from my gig list, my first love is the Americana and bluegrass side of folk music, but I was interested to see Jarlath Henderson, whose star is rising on the folk scene. Initially known as a gifted Uilleann pipe virtuoso and whistle player, he’s becoming increasingly acclaimed as a vocalist as he demonstrated on his first solo album Hearts Broken, Heads Turned. The 300 seat auditorium was completely sold out and Jarlath and his band received a warm reception for their set, an entertaining and thoroughly accomplished mix of traditional and contemporary. I was particularly taken by their lovely, brooding take on the ancient ballad The Two Brothers, as well as their exceedingly catchy version of Courting is a Pleasure.
Sierra Hull is another artist breaking the bonds of tradition, having cut her teeth on traditional bluegrass. Hailing from Byrdstown, Tennessee, she was a child prodigy on the mandolin and became a teen recording artist, signing with Rounder Records aged just 13. Following her time studying at Berklee College of Music, in the last couple of years Sierra has been exploring the boundaries of acoustic and roots music, and has gained increasing recognition as a creative artist and songwriter, in addition to her reputation as an instrumentalist. Her latest release, 2016’s Weighted Mind, marked a departure from her previous, more traditional bluegrass work. Produced by banjo legend Béla Fleck (himself something of a musical chameleon), the album was Grammy nominated. It’s quite a pared-down sound compared to her previous albums with full band instrumentation. With mandolin and vocals front and centre, it also features double bass phenomenon Ethan Jodciewicz and harmony vocals from a number of guests including Rhiannon Giddens and Alison Krauss.
I was looking forward to seeing Sierra and Ethan on stage again, having been gobsmacked by the sheer virtuosity and ambition of their music when seeing them perform last year. The duo has recently featured a variety of different guest performers on tour, and it turned out that alto sax player Eddie Barbash was to join them on this occasion. Perhaps not the instrument one would expect to hear in a typical American folk/roots line-up, but Eddie turned out to be an incredibly versatile and tasteful musician, who added immeasurably to the already stellar instrumental components. Sierra switched between her regular mandolin, the octave mandolin and the (“baby Strat-alike”) mandocaster as the concert progressed. Stranded/Compass (the opening tracks on the Weighted Mind album) were perfectly delivered with gorgeous runs on the mandolin and concluded with lovely bowed bass. From an earlier release, Best Buy was a nice contrast to the more serious material, a catchy toe-tapper with some funky saxophone and walking bass.
Sierra showed her versatility and skill once again with a simply beautiful rendition of Bach’s Invention 6 in E Major. Once she picked up the mandocaster we enjoyed a rollicking rendition of Earl Scruggs’ classic bluegrass tune Foggy Mountain Special, complete with sax breaks and some pretty complex bass stylings. I’m sure the banjo innovator himself would heartily approve of such an unconventional (but simply outstanding) version, but no doubt it would have the bluegrass police grumbling! The mood then switched again for a pretty and wistful cover of the Tears for Fears classic Mad World. The trio’s music was so beautifully realised that it brought a tear to my eye on more than one occasion, including Sierra’s lovely original song Lullaby, dedicated to her mum (or “momma” as she would say) and featuring the octave mandolin. Bringing the tempo up again was one of my favourite fiddle tunes, the classic Old Dangerfield by Bill Monroe before a perfectly judged set was completed by another of Sierra’s original songs, the haunting Black River. Stepping out in front of the monitors for an acoustic encore of St Anne’s Reel, Sierra and her super-sidemen rounded off their Celtic Connections debut in fine style and left the capacity crowd gobsmacked at what they had witnessed. There can be no doubt that Sierra Hull is a genuine rising star, and it will be fascinating to see what direction this hugely creative, charming and assured young talent will decide to take next.