Rawlins Cross,
Living River
(Ground Swell, 1996)

Living River is the fourth recording from Canadian Celtic rock band Rawlins Cross. The band combines Scottish, Irish and Atlantic Canadian musical traditions with good ol' North American rock 'n' roll, resulting in a unique and memorable sound. The first time Rawlins Cross listener may feel a little out of sorts at first, not accustomed to the intriguing instrumental mix that includes electric guitar and the Highland bagpipes. The sound however, becomes familiar quite quickly, leading one to ponder why every band doesn't have a set of pipes! Of course, there aren't many bands who can pull off this combination quite so successfully. With less skilled musicians, it could be a disastrous (and perhaps even lethal) mix!

Rawlins Cross, who name themselves after a set of crossroads in St. John's, Newfoundland, where the band first came together, hail from four of Canada's provinces. From Newfoundland, Geoff Panting plays piano accordion with midi interface, Hammond organ and piano, and his brother Dave provides guitars, mandolin and backing vocals. From the mainland of Nova Scotia come Ian McKinnon (Highland pipes, tin whistles, bodhran) and Brian Bourne (bass, Chapman Stick, backing vocals). Joey Kitson, the band's lead vocalist, is from Prince Edward Island, and drummer Howie Southwood hails from Ontario. Guest musician Brian Leonard provides percussion throughout the album, and Natalie MacMaster plays fiddle on the final track.

The overall sound of this album reminds me a little of 1980s-style rock 'n' roll -- not too heavy to listen to, but full of energy and innovation. However, there are definite undertones of Celtic and folk. The rock-type style makes the music energetic, and the unique instrumentals make it interesting. The pipes, something which most people don't associate with rock music, add an interesting dimension to the music, and make it quite different -- but they don't sound out of place. In fact, any teenager back in the '80s would probably be astounded to find out that the sound they heard actually belonged to a set of bagpipes ... that's how well they fit. Kudos to Ian McKinnon for making piping into an art! Anyone who can take a song titled "Baby-Oh" and start it with a pipe solo without ruining it has my approval.

I don't think that there was a single song on this album that I did not like. Sometimes I thought the sound was a little unusual, perhaps, but not unlikable. Joey Kitson has a deep, rich voice which is definitely suited to rock music. It sounds a little odd in the context of Celtic music at first listen but, like the pipes, adds to the uniqueness of the band's sound. Some of the slower tracks seemed particularly fitting for Kitson's mellifluous voice; "A Matter of the Heart," "Open Road," "When my Ship Comes In" (one of my favorites -- and with some excellent harmonies!) and "Through it All" are prime examples.

Brothers Dave and Geoff Panting did all of the songwriting for this album, and should be commended for their work. The lyrics are potent, and often contain solid advice. "The Morning After" encourages us not to waste time thinking of things that have already come to pass, and "A Sad Story" could be about anyone's life. The tunes of the songs are all catchy -- many a day I have one of them churning around inside of my head -- and well-arranged, instrumentally speaking. With such an array of instruments to be found on the album, the fact that they work together is a stroke of genius!

There are two instrumentals on the album, and both are well done. "Mairi Nighean Alasdair" (or "Mary, Daughter of Allister" for those who don't "have the Gaelic") features some wonderful instrumental harmonies, particularly with Natalie MacMaster's fiddle and McKinnon's pipes. The set "Little Sara/Jessie's Jig," is an energetic original with an interesting mix between a traditional and more contemporary sound.

I am impressed by this album and the sound of Rawlins Cross in general. The band is successful at fusing contemporary and traditional music styles into a truly unique and enjoyable sound. This requires a great deal of talent and innovation, of which the band's members have plenty.

[ by Cheryl Turner ]

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