Current Affairs
(independent, 2014)

The last time I heard a CD that claimed multiple Child ballads, it was Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer's Child Ballads (a total of seven) issued last year to rapturous reviews and deserved awards. On Current Affairs, a title with at least some of the band's tongue in collective cheek -- the dark events conjured up happened, or anyway were imagined, centuries ago -- there are three: "The False Knight Upon the Road" (#3 in the good professor's collection), "Henry Lee" (#68, as "Young Hunting") and "The Wife of Usher's Well" (#79). Though an acoustic band, Runa employs sophisticated 21st-century arrangements while remaining true to the spirit of the music.

From Philadelphia, more or less, Runa boasts five members from three countries (Ireland, Canada, America) united in a common love of traditional and trad-inspired music, along with their shared ability to push it in creative directions. Old Scottish ballads don't often appear on the same disc with the likes of Brother Claude Ely's "Ain't No Grave" (in fact cobbled together from various 19th-century spirituals) or a composition ("Black River") by folk-pop singer-songwriter Amos Lee. But it all comes together in splendid fashion.

The emphasis, however, is on a contemporary folk sound nodding to the manifest influences of the Irish-American Solas and Scotland's Lau, a deep musicality with touches of rock, jazz and classical integrated into the old rural songs and fiddle tunes. None of this would work, of course, without musicians who know their chops; here they include, among the guest artists, Ron Block, well known in bluegrass circles but playing a different banjo style on this occasion. There is also Shannon Lambert-Ryan's wonderfully compelling singing voice. The effort works, too, thanks to an abundance of first-rate material. The one original is a ballad based on an actual occurrence from 1922, "The Ruthless Wife," co-written by Lambert-Ryan and fellow band member Fionan de Barra, and a gripping tale it is.

Affairs opens with "The Banks are Made of Marble," penned by apple farmer Les Rice in the 1930s and later famously recorded by Pete Seeger. It is surely the most enduring -- one might even say lovable -- anti-capitalist broadside conceived by somebody not named Joe Hill, Ralph Chaplin or Woody Guthrie. Its message is more urgent than ever, though you'll have to listen to the words to know it's the same song; Runa has put together its own tune. The album draws to a somber conclusion with Davy Steele's "The Last Trip Home," familiar to me from the Battlefield Band recording some years back. The simple, sad story that is "Last Trip" is set to an almost oppressively beautiful melody. Runa rises to the occasion, delivering a reading that will knock you to the floor.

music review by
Jerome Clark

27 September 2014

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