Celtic Roots
(Maggie's Music, 1999)

What can one say about Hesperus? This ensemble finds its home across eight centuries and many nations' musical heritage. Their "speciality" (if they can be said to have one) is in exploring how the music which has gone before in time and place informs what follows along after. This they do in a style both academic and raucous, proving that "stuffed shirts" are capable of having a good time and still bring a measure of intellectual rigor to what they do.

Yes, I hear you say, but is the music any fun? A reasonable question, that, and deserving of a reasonable answer. On Celtic Roots, the answer is a resounding "yes." Because they are who they are, the music on the CD benefits from a rigorous annotation in the inlay; the advice from here is to read it once, appreciate all that went into the documentation, and toss the booklet aside. It will only get in the way when you strap on your boogie shoes.

One of the measures they've taken to ensure that this is so is to invite along for the ride guest fiddler Bonnie Rideout, who is not only deft of technique, but feisty of spirit. It is this feistiness that informs the best selections on Celtic Roots, including all of the dance tunes (of 21 selections on the disc, eight can be danced) and one rather amazing piobaireachd, performed by Rideout on solo fiddle, which starts as an air, but winds its way into an astonishing keening which held the crowd where I heard it live breathless for most of its duration.

The musical journey stops to sample several period styles and fusions, perhaps the best of which is the examination of the "Scots drawing-room" stype in "The Thistle," but this is a historical artifact in a room full of living music. Stay with the jigs ("Strike the Gay Harp/Langstrom's Pony") or with "O'Farrell's Welcome to Limerick" (a slip-jig). Better still, listen to "Cary Owen" ("Garryowen"), a lean and light version for three recorders.

Your best option, of course, is to see this act live. Like many folk bands, the vigor of the music only finds its fullest expression in a live setting, where the musicians can feed off of the crowd, and magical things can happen. Until you have the chance to catch Hesperus live (and try and do this is a less formal setting if at all possible), Celtic Roots shows you what a bunch of musically accomplished academics can do to to cross the void between the worlds of academic musical exploration and popular musical appreciation. Lord knows, there's plenty of this sort of work yet to be done.

[ by Gilbert Head ]
Rambles: 11 March 2000

[Editor's note: Through an oversight, we have two reviews for the price of one! Read on for a second opinion.]

I've heard lots of Celtic fusion now -- with jazz, with Afro-Cuban percussion, even with Latin forms -- but Hesperus' Celtic Roots was a revelation. It's not quite fair to call it fusion, since the music harkens back to its development as a unique musical style, but this is what makes it sound like Celtic fused with Renaissance and Baroque styles.

The musicians of Hesperus are all excellent, and each plays a variety of mostly-period instruments. They are joined by Bonnie Rideout's Scottish and Philippe Varlet's Irish fiddles on many pieces, and William Taylor's wire and "bray" harps.

The blends of obviously Celtic with equally obvious Renaissance and Baroque styles are what immediately caught my ear. One set of songs summarizes this: "Strike the Gay Harp/Langstrom's Pony" is a very Celtic piece, followed here by "When She Cam Ben, She Bobbit," a piece that uses classical structures to give a chamber music sound to a melody found in early manuscripts from the area. These two are then followed by a piece combining both, in a style of "fusion" popular in Edinburgh in the early 18th century, in which a classical and a traditional fiddler cooperated to create pieces explicitly fusing the traditional tunes into a formally Baroque approach. Not only is this striking to hear, but I liked learning that my fondness for various fusions was shared by some of our ancestors!

The liner notes are some of the best I've seen, although the text is somewhat hard to read because of the too-dark, textured backing behind it. The information is so excellent that it's worth the extra effort to read. As well as a short overview of the album's contents, there's a paragraph of text for each piece of music, and it tells us where the tune was found, how it was arranges, and often historical notes about how it would have been played at various points in history. I learned a lot from these notes, and they deepened my appreciation of the music. I wish more musicians followed Hesperus' lead in this.

I love this album! Renaissance and early Baroque are my favorite classical musical styles, and hearing them in a Celtic context was fascinating and illuminating. My appreciation isn't only intellectual, though; these tunes had my toes tapping, and I caught my self humming and whistling them hours after listening. Celtic Roots will intrigue serious fans of Celtic music, and ought to be of interest to those who are more classically-oriented as well. This is an album I'll treasure, and listen to again and again.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]
Rambles: 8 September 2001

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