Asturian Mining Company,
(Lochshore, 2000)

The world was a little late in welcoming the Iberian peninsula into the realm of Celtdom, but now it is this neck of the woods with its related cultures which has become the leading light. So much of the best music being played today comes from here.

Many years ago, Milladoiro called attention to its Galician homeland. Collaborations between the Chieftains and Carlos NuĖez, along with the piper's Brotherhood of Stars debut album, drew the spotlight back to that corner of Spain. Then Kepa Junkera again rekindled the Basque fire. And now Asturias, an old, small, mountainous principality on the Bay of Biscay, takes its turn.

The Asturian Mining Company is the brainchild of Lee Wolfe, an American who first arrived in Spain 16 years ago. After working with a number of other bands, he put together this septet and proceeded to dig for gold with the folk music of his adopted region.

To understand the music of the AMC, a glance at the musicians places the band in context. This is not straight folk music, even though the players have a strong feel for the tradition. The personnel has character and diverse backgrounds, which gel into the tight sound and inventive arrangements present on Patrimoniu.

Strongly featured are the bagpipes of Alberto Varillas, who introduces almost a swing sound to some of his solo playing. He is paralleled and supplemented by the dancing quality of Margot Lorences' accordion. Varillas is also lead singer in the band and has an impressive voice, warm and embracing which leaves you longing for more than just four songs.

The rhythm section is intriguing without being overpowering. Luis Felipe plays drums, solid and driving, almost rock-with-a-touch-of-Latin in their sound, while Manuel Cordero adds color on percussion. Nacho Filipe's bass at times seems rooted in rock and pop music.

Linking lead and rhythm are Lee Wolfe and Xavier González. The occasional guitar and dobro solos pay homage to the homeland of band founder Wolfe. But even his bass runs do not jar. He has obviously played and loved this music long enough to know what fits. He has taste and it shows in the general rhythm work. González adds extra dimensions with his jazz-based style of piano playing. He spices the sound with touches that theoretically should not work, but in reality are extremely effective.

Perhaps the beauty of this band is the clever mingling of distinct styles while retaining the character of a folk tradition, something many bands attempt but not all succeed at.

There are many gems among the dozen selections on the album. But three stand out -- quite a feat, as there are no bad tracks on the entire recording. It has been a long time since I last came across "A Miner's Lifeguard" -- in fact, it might have been two decades ago, under the guise of "H-Bomb Thunder," a powerful anti-war song. Here, it is sung in Asturian (also a coal-mining area, in case you haven't worked that out yet) where it is just as effective. "The Clumsy Lover" is also featured, giving Lorences a chance to demonstrate her digital dexterity. Though perhaps the piŹce de resistance has to be the closing "Overture," a four-minute epic in which all the players stretch their wings. Imagine the Allman Brothers jamming with Moving Hearts on a warm Asturian night.

The Asturian Mining Company with Patrimoniu demonstrate once again that there is a wealth of music emanating from the southwest of Europe, music that deserves a wider audience. Pipes and accordion are versatile instruments in the right hands, and the inventiveness and respect for the tradition Wolfe and his friends show that this is a band that should gain the attention of people outside of their homeland.

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]