Nov 242011

Experts don’t know why, perhaps the Coen Brothers are responsible, but it seems to be a golden age for bluegrass fans right now.  Well-regarded among the singers, pickers, strummers, bowers and songsmiths jostling for attention, and road and studio action, are the duo from Seattle, Washington, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West. Bob Harris likes them – and that’s usually recommendation enough for Voice’s David Innes, who witnessed Sunday night delight at The Blue Lamp.

The Lampie stage was sparsely furnished with only four microphones and the same number of instrument cases. No percussion, not a wood bass in sight, the Jazz Club’s house grand piano rolled into the corner and kept under wraps. Minor alarm bells rang. Could a bluegrass duo brass this out without as much as a cursory nod to a rhythm section of even the most rudimentary kind?

On they came, Cahalen Morrison resembling Fleetwood Mac-era Jeremy Spencer, whilst Eli West could pass for Grave New World-period Strawb Richard Hudson in dim light.

With a guitar, banjo, mandolin and an octave mandolin – “it has thyroid issues”, according to West – swapped between the duo, there was beautiful balance between sympathetic accompaniment and studied expert soloing.

Where Morrison and West really excelled though, was when they combined in finely-tuned almost celestial harmony, as if Charlie and Ira Louvin had drifted in to shelter from the Gallowgate’s mild November breeze. Cahalen’s more bluesy edge was perfectly counter-pointed by Eli’s gentler, but no less powerful country gospel larynx.

On occasions where Cahalen sang, his phrasing and way with melody was reminiscent of Paul Simon. It was hardly surprising then, when Eli tongue-in-cheekedly name-checked old Rhymin’ himself as “a great father of Bluegrass” before delighting the Lamp’s clientele with ‘Hearts and Bones’ as his featured solo spot, following Cahalen’s sweet solo ‘Ode To Autumn’.

The Cox Family’s ‘I Am Weary’ was my highlight of the evening though. All that is grand in Morrison and West’s abilities came together in a glorious and spirit-enhancing instrumental, vocal and soulful crescendo; almost a template in illustrating the irresistible heart-tugging power of gospel, even to we secularists – when simply but expertly executed by supremely-gifted musicians like these.

They can bluegrass over Gallowgate any time they like.

Aug 182011

After months of auditions and much speculation, the North East has spoken and chosen the winner of the first ever NEX Factor. Voice’s Stephen Davy-Osborne reports, with thanks to Yasmeen Ali.

The singing contest, organised by Aberdeen based charity Malaika Africa and Cove based event management company Valley Events, encouraged teenagers to put their musical skills to the test in order to raise funds to build a learning centre for street kids in Mirerani, Tanzania.

The first rounds of auditions were held during June and July in Aberdeen, Dundee and Elgin and out of a total of 45 hopefuls including bands, ten finalists were chosen to perform at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre in the live grand final.

Whittling the ten semi finalists down to three were judges Alex Miller, Steven Milne, Joanne Randall and Ross Milne who selected Rowan Ah-See, Amber Hughes and Cara Mitchell to perform again, leaving the final decision to the audience, who chose 16-year old Rowan – from Aberdeen – as the winner of the first ever NEX Factor thanks to his fantastic voice and guitar playing skills,

Rowan Ah-See ( pictured ) walked away with the much coveted prizes of £1,000 in cash, a professional photo shoot, a recording session at a local recording studio and a luxury car to take the winner to the photo shoot.

Yasmeen Ali and Mirjam Meek were very pleased with how the evening went and with all the positive feedback received:

 “We couldn’t have wanted for a better event and it will be a challenge to do even better next year because the standard of talent was already so high”.

The sell-out evening was a huge success and the charity managed to raise nearly £6,000.

More info and Pictures of the event here: The-NEX-Factor-2011.html 

Jun 102011

From time to time, CDs released by artists from the local area well worth a listen. Our David Innes contributes regularly to R2, a publication we like and recommend. The editor, Sean McGhee, all-round good guy and punctuation expert, has kindly agreed to allow Voice to reprint two reviews of local interest from the latest R2, dated May/June 2011. More on R2 here

First up, The Moonzie Allstars, from somewhere near Brechin, it seems, with ‘Hypnagocic’ (SKELPAIG MUSIC)
Moonzies’ pipes and whistles man David Adam claims Hypnagogic is, “a bit schizophrenic, but there might be something for everyone”, and he’s right.

The opening ‘Hypophant’ is structurally and tonally African, but the pipes add a Celtic element to both feel and melody.

Hotfoot behind is ‘Hey Mr Bongo’, the Moonzies again raiding the dark continent’s melodic and rhythmic jauntiness, but with its Caledonian tongue firmly in cheek as deadpan raffle announcements and appallingly obvious rhymes show what happens, as Adam says, “when you let the drummer loose with guitar and mic”.

Hypnagogic has gone some way to curing me of my fusion aversion. Despite my addiction to genre-defying southern soul stews, country-gospel or other labels applied to those delicious Tennessee grooves, less natural, ‘manufactured fusions’ have always left me suspicious. I’m sure Bitches Brew is to blame because it isn’t Kind of Blue.

The musicianship is outstanding and the production flawless. Overt Eastern and jazz influences bubble up and vie for space with potential movie scores; there are delights galore in the more traditional Celtic vein. If that’s a Frank Zappa t-shirt being proudly worn by an Allstar on the sleeve, he’d have approved, I’m certain.

From the Hebrides, but becoming well-known around the city, ‘Shoebox Memories’ (SELF-RELEASED) is Fiona Mackenzie’s impressive debut effort…

 On paper sometimes, there are collaborations that one would expect not to work too well. That was my initial thought about Shoebox Memories when I read its background press release.

In NE Scotland, guitarist Graeme ‘Bug’ Stephen is a revered jazz guitarist. Fiona ‘Bosie’ Mackenzie is not yet as well-known, but given her Hebridean background, it is easy, not to mention lazy, to categorise her immediately as a Celtic artist. Not so, and for making that assumption, I apologise.

Shoebox Memories works, and it works because Mackenzie has taken a range of influences to craft songs which are pleasingly unclassifiable and sung in her own way, with fleeting nods to Eddi Reader and Suzanne Vega.

It works also because, as Fiona notes on the sleeve, the musicians have “breathed life into my wee songs”, none more so than Stephen who gives a masterclass in understated chromatic accompaniment and subtle soloing, never better illustrated than in the guitar/strings interplay on ‘In Your Hands’ and ‘Dress Me Up In Blue’.

Offering thirteen tracks, Shoebox Memories may be on the long side, but credited to Bosie (a hug in the local patois), it is akin to being enclosed in a warm, comforting melodic cuddle.

© The foregoing reviews are copyright R2 May/June 2011. Thanks again to Sean for allowing us to use them.


Feb 182011

In Aberdeen’s residential west end, there are hundreds of commodious, well-tended gardens set amid streets and avenues of solid, no-nonsense granite dwellings. At the foot of one such garden, a modern building, unobtrusive and fairly non-descript, conceals one of the city’s best kept secrets with a master craftsman at work inside. Voice’s David Innes spent an hour or two in his company then went home, intent on sawing up his Mexican-made Fender Telecaster.

That craftsman is Ian Taylor, sometime member of several top Aberdeen rock n roll acts, including the Original Diamonds, the first Aberdeen band to play Hamburg’s legendary Top Ten Cub in the wake of The Beatles’ success over there, and he’s building guitars.

“A hobby,” he declares, “A bit of extra-mural activity but I hope to sell what I build. Whether or not it becomes a business I’ll wait and see”.

Interspersing our conversation about Guyatones, Futuramas, Les Paul Juniors, Fit Like New York? Ian being the first Stratocaster owner in Aberdeen and mutual musical acquaintances and influences, he talked with energetic enthusiasm about his labour of love, which has developed from an instrument maintenance venture to the creation of high-specification, superbly-finished electric instruments.

For technically-minded muso readers, Ian creates two basic instruments, based on the Fender Stratocaster and its older sister, the Telecaster. One can’t argue. When Leo Fender first unleashed the solid slab of the Esquire, later to morph into the Telecaster with the addition of a neck pick-up, on an unsuspecting post-war world, most musicians agree that he achieved the extreme rarity of getting it spot on first time. Many have tried to improve on Leo’s original design, but really they’ve only been tinkering with near perfection.

Admitting that modern CNC technology makes hand-crafting guitar necks and bodies too labour-intensive on a small scale, Ian imports top-end finished Strat and Tele bodies and necks from across the Atlantic.

He then matches them to user’s requirements for pick-up choice – single coils or humbuckers – and configuration. This influences how the guitar will look, sound and perform in finished form under the lights and behind the monitors.

A work in progress is a Tele-shaped instrument and Ian has agreed with the guitarist who will be road-testing it that this will be a single pick-up model. With no switch needed, this has allowed Ian to rout out the cavity for the volume and tone controls from behind, meaning no need for a mounting plate. The control knobs will be fitted directly to the body, giving an attractive, unadorned look to a beautiful instrument taking shape. The most remarkable feature for me was seeing Tele bodies with wrist and abdomen chamfers, a guarantee that these solid slabs will be slightly lighter and more comfortable to play over an evening’s gigging….

Taylor guitars are fitted with the best electrics available too, all hand-assembled by this craftsman’s hands. He also fits the frets and other hardware, and in a fully-equipped and environmentally-friendly spray booth – only water-based lacquer is used – he applies billiard ball-smooth finishes which are outstanding to look at and will have any appreciative musician desperate to plug in, turn up and rock out.

Right now, I reckon that this friendly, knowledgeable and interesting Aberdonian has the best job in the city.