Live from the Powerhouse
I knew, generally, what to expect from Mozaik's Live from the Powerhouse even before putting the CD into the player. After having listened to and performed traditional Irish music for nearly 20 years, it's hard not to have some basic expectations of a band that includes two of the genres most influential figures -- Andy Irvine (vocals, bouzouki, mandolin, harmonica) and Donal Lunny (backing vocals, bouzouki, guitar, bodhran).
As members of Planxty, they infused Irish music with the sounds and rhythms that Irvine brought back from 18 months of busking throughout the Balkans in the late '60s. Over the years his repertoire has continued to include and expand these influences. Lunny has had an equal influence both as a musician and a producer emphasizing world music influences. Together in Mozaik, they present Irish, Balkan and some American traditional music with cross-twining influences.
They are joined in this endeavor by Bruce Molsky (vocals, fiddle, 5-string banjo), Nikola Parov (gadulka, gaida, kaval, tin whistle, clarinet, guitar, kalimba) and Rens van der Zalm (backing vocals, fiddle, mandolin, guitar.) Live from the Powerhouse was recorded over two performance nights at the Powerhouse in Brisbane, Australia, in March 2002.
Overall, I like the CD. The arrangements are layered, complex, yet surprisingly subtle. The spotlight on each of the tracks is exactly where it needs to be at the time -- vocals, when there is singing, and the primary, driving lead instrument on the instrumentals. This moving spotlight is very difficult to obtain when there are multiple lead instrument players of this caliber in a studio environment. It is much more difficult in a live setting and kudos go out to Joe Ferguson (the sound technician in Australia) and Lunny (who worked on the final mixing) for their efforts to capture that.
One criticism that I have heard from friends about similar work is that it is "too stringy," usually meaning that there are too many plectrum instruments in the arrangement. If you feel that this is a problem, then this CD may not be for you. In some cases, there are two bouzoukis and a mandolin or guitar plus at least one fiddle. That being said, Irvine and Lunny pioneered a style of arrangement in Irish traditional music that featured complex counterpoint -- there are multiple lead melodies that complement each other -- instead of a melody with chordal accompaniment style, or even melody plus harmony -- and that style is represented here to full effect. Lunny's accompaniment on the guitar is very lighthanded. You know he's there and you can feel that he fully embraces his role as a contributor to a greater good.
Molsky and van der Zalm work very well together on fiddle, moving effortlessly between the different styles and traditions complementing the strings on the song arrangements. This is highlighted on "Romanian Hora/Black Jack Grove," a Romanian dance tune flows nicely into a Blue Ridge Mountain fiddle tune. Parov's influence on kaval (a Balkan folk flute) and gadulka (a bowed instrument reminiscent of an upright fiddle) is more subtle but is definitely present, although it can be lost behind the fiddles and other instruments. His work is easiest to pick out as the source of the wind support on "Smeseno Horo."
There are some pieces that are exceptional.
"Sandansko Oro" is a beautiful Macedonian tune played in 22/16 and named after Macedonian freedom fighter Yane Sandanski; it flows seamlessly into the song "Mechkin Kamen" in 18/16. "Mechkin Kamen" is "The Bear's Rock" in Macedonian and refers to the mountain near Krushevo where the Macedonians staged an attempt to overthrow Ottoman oppression in 1903. The uprising was brutally quelled shortly thereafter, but the song recounts the heroics of the people who stood up. One minor disappointment is that the lyrics (in either Macedonian or English) are not provided in the liner notes.
Another outstanding piece is "Pony Boy/Never Tire of the Road." "Pony Boy" is a fiddle duet played by Molsky and van der Zalm firmly in the American tradition and leading into the song. When I first heard "Never Tire of the Road" I was sure it was a Woodie Guthrie song. It has the Guthrie feel, patently American imagery, mentions "Okies" -- and with a line like "All of you Fascists bound to lose," how could it not be? Irvine has always admired Guthrie's songs and has payed homage to them in the past on several occasions. I was very surprised when I learned it was an original song by Irvine. It is an incredible tribute and Guthrie's spirit must have been involved in the inspiration as it comes across so easily. I will also say for the record that I am not a fan of harmonica and Andy plays a lot of harmonica at times. But in this case it fits perfectly to bring out the American feel even more and contribute to an outstanding piece of music.
While I enjoy everything on the CD, I do have complaints that are minor compared to the overall quality of the arrangements and musicality of the CD as a whole.
First, almost half of the material has been recorded before, sometimes multiple times. "My Heart's Tonight in Ireland," "Mechkin Kamen," "Suleman's Kopanitsa," "Banaesa's Green Glade" and "A Blacksmith Courted Me" all lived before either with Planxty, on the Andy Irvine/Davy Spillane collaboration East Wind or other Irvine projects. "Smeseno Horo" makes its third appearance on a recording in as many names (on Planxty's After the Break it appears as "Smeceno Horo" and on East Wind it appears as "Hard on the Heels.") The main problem with reused material is that when I hear them I don't hear Mozaik. I hear Mozaik playing Planxty and Andy Irvine and Andy Irvine plus Davy Spillane. Even so, the tracks that have been recycled from other projects have a new life and in some cases (such as "A Blacksmith Courted Me") I like these arrangements better than any of the others. This is especially true of Irvine's song "Banaesa's Green Glade," which has a much more mature sounding arrangement here than when it was recorded by Planxty in 1974.
Also another complaint is that the last track, "The Last Dance" seems out of place. It fits the genre and the theme (last track versus last dance), I suppose, and it's a beautiful piece of music. The description in the liner notes say that it is traditionally the last tune played for the bride to dance at her wedding. However, after spending the whole of the other 10 tracks listening to songs and tunes consistently arranged for strings and the occasional whistle/pipes, the clarinet lead, arrangement and pace seem so different from the rest of the CD that it's mildly discomforting.
I highly recommend Live from the Powerhouse to anyone, especially those who want to appreciate how close and natural fitting the American, Irish and Balkan traditions really are.