Calliope Fair,
On Board the Armenia
(Rootcellar, 2002)

It is occasionally an advantage to live in Athens, Ga., home to R.E.M., the B-52s, Widespread Panic and even Bubba Sparkks. Athens has gained a reputation as something of a "music town," and that means that we occasionally bring together some interesting confluences of musical interests.

A year or so back, I helped the local NPR affiliate put together a show, Once in a Blue Moon, for a live statewide feed, and had the opportunity to hear a very polished combo of folks pursuing an exceptionally eclectic set of world music and original tunes. And time passed ... and one day at work, I discovered that one of the members of this ensemble was a co-worker. We talked musical likes and dislikes, and I told her how much I'd liked the set, and how I hoped that one day they would get around to going into the recording studio. The next day, she gave me On Board the Armenia.

The last time I got this excited about a debut recording was back in the 1970s when I stumbled across Child Prodigy, the first LP released by Mike Cross. In fact, I'm a little more excited by Calliope Fair, as I've never heard a first recording so polished in both engineering and in the musical accomplishments of the ensemble. These six people have created a true gem in On Board the Armenia, and I'm pleased to be able to bring it to your collective attention.

The disc opens with "Hora de la Bolinton," a Gypsy-flavored dance instrumental driven by the propulsive mandolin playing of George Norman. Traditional tune "Railroad Boy" follows, given a great read from the strong vocals of Betsy Inglesby, counterpointed neatly by a nicely figured dobro and fiddle exchange. It's back to the Balkans for "Jovano Jovanke," another spirited dance number, this time featuring the passionate violin of guest Andrej Kurti. Next up is a truly splendid rendition of the old Ethel Waters standard, "There'll Be Some Changes Made," perfectly vocalized by Leah Calvert.

Songwriter and string wizard George then offers his homage to the Incredible String Band in "Silhouette of the Saracen," an instrumental fantasia featuring a pretty mean chime, and the old standard "John Reilly" is given an uptempo read that reminded me of vintage Pentangle. George's "Sexy Latin Lover," a tango/quickstep number, is pretty tongue-in-cheek, but full of high spirits and almost has enough cowbell....

The Macedonian instrumental "Chuperlika" ("not to be confused w/ Chupacabra," the liner notes warn) features a spirited exchange between mandolin, doumbek and fiddle, while George's "Full Moon Tango" is the first I've ever heard of an electric mandolin channeling the spirit of Carlos Santana. George next takes solo acoustic guitar in hand to weave the delicate "Spider's Web," giving way to the best version of "Flower of Maharally" I've ever heard. Noel Beverley's voice perfectly captures the poignant mood of the piece, narrowly trumping the previous definitive version offered by Altan.

A troika of medieval dance tunes is framed in the "Early Music Set," with the gem offering being a lively "Maltese Bransle." This instrumental exchange features George's fine mandolin and the spritely fiddles of Andy Heaton and Leah Calvert. The Mark Valentine composition "Waltz for a Winter Sky" marks a change of pace, as piano and pedal steel figurings give way to a lean acoustic mandolin. The pace picks up once more in the "Greek Klezmer Tune" as the electric mandolin trades licks with dancing fiddle. The Danish tango standard (!) "Jalousie" follows, with a restless accordion helping to move the piece along.

There are many versions of the traditional ballad "Silver Dagger" out there; this one is a more modern working of the standard, driven by Betsy's vocals and some sterling work on pedal steel and electric mandolin. The Greek dance tune "Sirtos Azizes" is the penultimate number, anchored by Noel's piano and bass work, and moved along by the dueling fiddles of Andy and Leah. Closing the disc is "A Response" a delicate musical casting of the words of group member Tim Lang's great-grandmother. Tim's vocals are evocative of Elvis Costello's more contemplative work, and the delicate musical framework of Leah on fiddle, Noel on piano, and Tim on guitar enhances these words from a gentler time.

This, then, is the sum total of On Board the Armenia. It is the first offering from a group that I hope will continue to make more spectacular music together. All who admire both the craft of music carefully constructed and the pure joy of those whose passion for their work together is not only obvious but contagious need to make Calliope Fair a regular part of their musical day. May you each enjoy this discovery as much as I did.

- Rambles
written by Gilbert Head
published 28 February 2004

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