The High Road,
Round the Bend: Music
from the Gaelic Tradition

(Lightning Ridge Music, 2000)

The High Road is one of those unusual Celtic groups that not only knows where they come from, but also knows where they are going. This trio of superb musicians explores music from the Gaelic tradition with the full knowledge that the music stems from ancient lands and beliefs, but has come many years and many miles to reach today's audiences. Knowing that Gaelic music traveled across the seas to new places, the High Road includes the strong influences of Cape Breton and Appalachian music with the traditional roots brought to America. The result is a rich mix of sounds, old and new, with a wide mix of instrumentation. There should be something to please most any music fan on this recording.

The trio consists of Howard Wooden (electric stand-up bass, guitar, English concertina, bodhran, vocals), Iain MacHarg (Highland pipes, Scottish smallpipes, flute, pennywhistle, bodhran, vocals) and Tom MacKenzie (hammered dulcimer, banjo, guitar, keyboard, vocals). The sheer variety of instruments gives the group a wide range of sound options from which to choose. They make good use of this, combining in three part vocal harmony, bringing banjo and pipes together, flute and hammered dulcimer, and many other interesting combinations. The fact that these three are clearly excellent musicians on their respective instruments adds to this flexibility.

The CD opens with a rousing rendition of "Drops of Brandy," with Scottish smallpipes, hammered dulcimer and bass combining with a driving beat. The pipe ornamentation makes this tune especially exhilarating. From this thriller, they turn to a laid-back original song, "Round the Bend," presented with an Appalachian twist. MacKenzie's banjo gives this song a down-home country feel, while the pipes give it a distinctly Celtic flavor.

MacHarg's stirring "Breton Air" is beautifully and emotionally delivered on flute with backing guitar, followed by a few upbeat dance tunes, ending with the familiar "An Dro." The group does a couple of Corries songs: "Banks of New Foundland" and "Gin Ye Marry Me," as well as the traditional "Oh the Shearings No for You." The lead vocals on all the songs are deep and smooth; a liquid melody frequently matched with outstanding harmonic backing vocals. "Gin Ye Marry Me" has a wonderful bodhran beat driving the vocals forward. Perhaps the standout of the vocal tracks is McGilivary's "Coal Town Road," sung a cappella in leader/chorus format. The chorus harmonies on this one are precise and beautiful, and there's a striking modulation between two of the verses.

Among my favorite tracks are those featuring traditional pipe tunes, especially "High Road to Gairloch/Athol Highlanders." This track opens with the pipes backed by guitar in a slow march style. The hammered dulcimer joins for percussive accents on the second round. Suddenly, at the top of the third round, the tempo takes off to a quick march or even a jig tempo, setting the heart skipping ahead and ready to dance by the time "Athol Highlanders" comes around. Definitely an exciting rendition. "The Kilt is My Delight/Star of Munster/Devil Among the Taylors" is also a stirring set, opening with solo bagpipe, which hands the melody over to the hammered dulcimer, and finally ends with a well-matched duet between the two. The great Highland pipes shine on "Old Hag You've Killed Me/Queen of Rushes," showing off MacHarg's piping prowess on this solo track.

The closing track, an original by MacKenzie called "The Passage/Whistle Jump," opens with the pipes wailing in the wind over the sound of lapping water, creating the image of a ship departing port. This is an excellent image to leave with the listener.

The only thing missing from this fine CD is a more complete set of liner notes. I'd like to know more about the inspiration for the original songs, and what led to the choices of traditional tunes. That aside, however, this is a musical odyssey likely to please many a fan of traditional music.

[ by Jo Morrison ]

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