The Fretless – Live From the Art Farm
Independent – 6 April 2018
It is a happy coincidence that I should be reviewing this new live album from The Fretless as, never having even heard their name before, my introduction to the band in 2012 was in a live setting. And at the music festival in question, (albeit with a slightly different personnel) The Fretless smashed through some barriers for me, going a long way to dissolve an inexplicable resistance I had formed to certain aspects of Celtic music. It is difficult to articulate exactly why my emotional response to it was as it was up to that point but, whether live or recorded, my previous exposure to traditional Irish instrumental music (in particular) had left me cold, unmoved, underwhelmed. So, with so much else out there to listen to in preference, with one fell swoop, I will have foolishly dismissed anything in that realm, or that I deemed to be. At that festival, however, even though the musicians were all seated, the sheer power, intensity and beauty of the tunes performed by this unreasonably talented foursome had me hopping and whirling, along with several hundred others, utterly lost in it. It was simply impossible to keep still and, I kid you not, that experience provided a genuine turning point in my musical thinking and ongoing folk music education.
With their fourth album, Live From The Art Farm, Eric Wright (cello), Trent Freeman (fiddle, viola), Karrnnel Sawitsky (second fiddle, viola) and the newest member, Ben Plotnick (third fiddle, viola), are organically captured in what I subsequently view as their natural habitat: onstage. Recorded (and filmed) before a small, in-their-faces audience at the Artfarm (sic) recording studio in Accord, upstate New York, what you hear (and see) is exactly as it occurred, with only three microphones and no overdubs, just as I first witnessed them. It is raw, exciting, and largely comprising traditional fare. That said, while all but four of the tunes within the sets performed are selected from the traditional oeuvre, here they are treated with fresh, progressive arrangements for a quartet, yet surrendering nothing of their time-honoured origins.
Wright’s cello serves as the rhythm section, so to speak, while Freeman, Sawitsky and Plotnick run riot over the solid foundation he provides, and in this configuration the album kicks off as it means to carry on. The opening salvo comprises Capercaillie’s Donald Shaw’s MacLeod’s Farewell with Joe Liddy’s Palmer’s Gate, and while it is certainly a foot-tapper it provides a restrained opening, at least in comparison with much of what is to come. The ante is immediately upped with the “Maggie’s Set” of Johnny O’Leary’s, The Miller’s Maggot and The Sally Gardens, whereupon the first audience whoops are heard as the third tune takes off like a greyhound.
The Fretless’ treatment of the traditional reel, The Killavil Fancy, verges on a classical chamber rendition, such is its elegance and sophistication. Up next is a pair of tunes in Jenny’s Welcome to Charlie and Bear Island, the former a very popular reel receiving, according to my research, its 73rd recorded version here, but surely it’s most ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ interpretation to date. With Wright’s choppy cello supporting scintillating fiddle interplay from his band-mates, this set is a spine-tingling rip-snorter that will set dance floors ablaze whenever they unleash it.
The Pipe on the Hob is perhaps a lesser know jig, but a truly pretty tune, and on Live From The Art Farm is paired with one of the three Fretless originals present, Sawitsky’s Bixie’s Jig. Less intense than anything preceding it, it presents an opportunity for the audience to draw breath at the midway point. Plotnick’s Holton Alan Moore’s is up next, a snaking melody that exudes mystery and magic, much like the brilliant occultist graphic novel writer for whom it was (presumably) named.
Stockton’s Wing is perhaps the most noted act to have recorded the reel Miss Thornton’s (as part of their The Maids of Castlebar set on the 1995 album, Letting Go), and here The Fretless marry it to a Freeman original with the perpetually relevant title, Climate Change’s Reel. No pun intended, it is another storming performance from this amazing four-piece that, while retaining the intended overarching joyousness of a spirited pub session, also performs their intricate arrangements with breathtaking tightness. No mean feat, but then these four cool dudes are no ordinary musicians.
Like everything else on show within this truly live document, The Templehouse / The Holy Land dazzles with its stunning musicianship, then two further traditional favourites take things home. Dawning of the Day is a melancholy air, reputed to have been composed by a 17th Century County Sligo harpist named Thomas O’Connellan, whose memory is respectfully honoured in the skilled hands of The Fretless. Finally, ending on a…ahem…reel crowdpleaser with the immensely popular traditional reel, The Star of Munster (recorded by such as Boys of the Lough, De Dannan and The Chieftains), Freeman, Wright, Sawitsky and Plotnick gallop at full pelt to the finishing line, members of the audience yelling at peak moments and roaring their approval at the set’s conclusion.
Live From The Art Farm is The Fretless’ successor to their spectacular 2016 Juno winner, Bird’s Nest, thus far the most prestigious domestic recognition of an award-strewn career that, if you were not aware, is a mere six-years-old. Indeed, Bird’s Nest was one of my favourites of 2016, and it seems odds on that this live tour-de-force will light up my 2018 chart. However, I feel it important to reiterate that even before Bird’s Nest The Fretless had already impacted me in a deeper sense, by reopening my ears to a whole world of music that, for whatever reasons, had previously meant little to me. Thinking along the lines of when it was chosen as the 1990 World Cup theme, what a huge effect Luciano Pavarotti’s immense performance of Nessun Dorma had on raising the public profile of opera and classical music in general, The Fretless could feasibly be an important group, a cultural force that could, as they definitely intend, reach many uninitiated ears. It is what happened to me when I saw them live, so what better than a sizzling live album to convert others?
Photo Credit: Scott Ramsay