Monday, November 09, 2009

Day 48 (Round IV) "In the trenches": maritime Celts edition

I've blogged before about my own maritime background, both as regards birthplace and one of the favorite records of my childhood. I've also commented upon the strategies that we use for programming the Celtic Ensemble--and how much I like running that group.

Well, we're in that stage of the Fall 2009 semester when we have to start nailing down concert dates in the available venues for the second half of Spring 2010 semester. Partly these days are a product of available openings in the venues, partly it's a product of what I think the kiddos can get together in time to make a satisfying and effective program, partly (a big part) it's a question of what I predict will be both pedagogically effective and artistically satisfying for the kids.

But part of it is also the same kind of decision-making in which any competent concert promoter has to engage: what will be accessible, yet intriguing in promotion; engaging, but also challenging, in performance for the audience. As a concert programmer, as a radio presenter--hell, even as a blogger--I have a tendency to succumb to the musicologist-within-me; that is, I have a tendency to want to give too much context, too much back-story, just too goddamned much information (Dharmonia will roll her eyes when I start telling a story and first feel that I have to back up two or three or four events or anecdotes or years). As my buddy Coop (goddammit Coop! get that shit out of your lungs! we--especially your stalwart girlfriend--need you too bad! get better!) will say, in the indirect-but-nevertheless very clear manner you learn as a Preacher's Kid in the Church of Christ, "aw, shit, there he goes teaching again!" To an extent, I've learned to suck it up, shut up, and get on with presenting the music. But the impulse is always there. Not, probably, much alleviated by kids in the Ireland seminar field-trip saying, out of my hearing, "I could listen to him talk all day"--which is like musicologist's methamphetamine.

Anyway, it's one of the things I like about running the Celtic Ensemble: I get to teach music that I love, dictate (or, better, "direct") how it gets played, turn kids on to stuff that I think they'll dig, and, oh by the way, talk about it. One of the CE kiddos said, on a long drive back from a teaching weekend when we were talking about the strategies that have gone into shaping the spring "Easy" or "Big" program, "I love how our programs often have a kind of historical component--that seems different." Well, of course, it's fundamentally the musicological meth talking--but I like that factor too.

As I've said to friends and colleagues (and ranted to Dharmonia when I'm particularly fed up with Lubbock), in a place like this, where the musical receptivity is very high--fantastic tradition of blues, rock, and country in this region--but the musical diversity is very low, if you play a relatively esoteric or unfamiliar music, literally every gig you do has to include audience education. Not the old-school NPR "listen to this Great Music because it's Good for You, even if the music, or more accurately the pompous presentation, bores the snot out of you" kind of way.

But, rather, with a vibe/mood/manner that conveys to an audience, "hey, this is great music, and the fact that you're here means that you're somebody who's receptive to great music, and we think you're going to really dig this music because we really love it." Such a vibe/mood/manner can go light-years toward making an unfamiliar music seem interesting, intriguing, rewarding, and mind-expanding to an audience with low familiarity. It's the best kind of "audience education" a musician can engage in, and sets up by far the best kind of performer/audience interaction.

Where I come from--and where I spent some time this past summer--"sea music" is if not ubiquitous then at the very least quite sufficiently available. It seems like every little tourist seacoast town, every little day-long folk festival, every one-night-a-week folk coffeehouse, will exhibit a large percentage of guys (mostly guys), mostly bearded or in the most extreme cases luxuriantly sideburned, usually beer-bellied and/or red-nosed, guys who at the very least provocation will stand up, stick a finger in one ear, and start roaring out sea shanties.

"Sea music" has become something that, like Irish "pub ballads" or Renaissance Fayre "filk songs", can cover a multitude of sins, mostly revolving around bad music-making, egocentric posturing, and/or drunken obnoxiousness. These issues are not lessened by the fact that some "sea music" people also have a tendency to show up at Irish music sessions--guitar, bodhran, or (shudder!) spoons in hand--and busk along semi-competently to the tunes, transparently waiting only for that momentary lull in the music upon which they can pounce with "OoooooooO Santy Anna gained the day..." et cetera.

Now, as a child and adolescent in the early '70s, going to many of these self-same or similar festivals and coffeehouses, I got to see some giants in the world of this music, in rooms where the sound of waves and the smell of the sea breeze came in through the windows, whose oak floors were bent and twisted off-kilter because of the sheer age of the buildings--when I wasn't hearing them on the decks of little coasting wind-jammers and schooners.

And some of those individuals were people whose music AND character I still admire: John Roberts and Tony Barrand, the late Stan Rogers, my brother-in-music Larry, and, most notably and famously, the legendary Stan Hugill, the "last of the shanteymen"--that is, one of the last men to have shipped out on a wind-driven deepwater craft, and to have served as the singer whose various song-types coordinated the work--hauling, pumping, capstan shanties to raise anchor, and so forth. When I met him, that one time, at a coffeehouse on the North Shore of Massachusetts, he was probably already 74 or 75: with a slight stoop, impossibly weather-beaten face, a white goatee and long hair tied back, and palms, at the handshake, that felt like rough-hewn oak boards--and still able to knock back the ale, roar out the songs, and spin impossibly long and impressive tales with the best of them. He set a pretty high standard-

So I got to thinking that, in the tradition of the CE's spring-semester "easy" or "big" programs of more familiar, typically English-language repertoire--so-called because they're intended to provide (a) a respite from the "hard" programs in more challenging styles or languages of the Fall, and (b) an accessible, engaging program for the festivals and guest shots which tend to come our way later in the spring, we might be able to do something with "sea" music. Precisely because what might seem tired to me, or the people I grew up with, or carry too many associations redolent of Aran sweaters or pub ballads or filk songs, might seem wildly exotic and intriguing to people who are now living, and many of whom were born, 600 miles from the sea. And it's *certainly* wildly different than much of anything that the CE kiddos have previously experienced.

Program title: "The Rolling Wave: Maritime Celts"

And, really, how you gonna go wrong with a list like this?

Albion Band
Andy Irvine & Paul Brady
Battlefield Band
Brass Monkey
Cliff Halsam and John Millar
Ewan MacColl
Jeff and Gerret Warner
Joe Hickerson
John Roberts and Tony Barrand
June Tabor
Louis Killen
Martin Carthy
Martin Simpson
Michael Cooney
Peter Bellamy
Stan Hugill
Stan Rogers
Sweeney's Men
The Watersons

Pretty much any record by any artist on this list is going to be killin'. And a wonderful discovery, for the kiddos and for our audiences.

Sure was for me.

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