Rafe & Clelia Stefanini,
Lady on the Green
(Old Willow Tree, 2012)

Mariel Vandersteel,
(independent, 2012)

Though by common consent of those who judge such things he's among the finest living performers of old-time Southern music, Rafe Stefanini grew up in Bologna, Italy, and didn't move to the United States until 1983, by which time he was a fully grown adult. Today he lives in a Philadelphia suburb, where he makes and repairs violins. He also tours and records, playing banjo, fiddle and guitar and winning deservedly good notices everywhere. He often does that in the company of his wife Nikki Lee (guitar) and daughter Clelia (guitar, fiddle).

All, along with mandolinist Carl Jones, are represented on the warmly pleasurable Lady on the Green, a set of well-chosen fiddle tunes and traditional folk songs, presented with grace and skill but without frills and pretense. The playing is at once spectacular and straightforward -- back-porch music maybe, but only if you have some extraordinary friends in the neighborhood.

Proceedings open with a striking two-fiddle reading of "Poplar Bluff," from the repertoire of the late Ed Haley, and move on to explore mostly not overly familiar material. (One exception is the Delmore Brothers warhorse "Blues, Stay Away from Me," which -- nothing against the Stefaninis, mind you -- I'd be happy never to hear again. On the other hand, I don't expect ever to grow weary of the mournful "I Never Will Marry," which Clelia sings in an appropriately unadorned voice.) The fiddle harmonies give the tunes a wonderfully rich, almost orchestral texture, among other effects bestowing a more sober tone than its title suggests upon the instrumental "Shove the Pigfoot a Little Bit Further into the Fire." Pretty much everything here will improve your humor. And if you love old-time music, it will remind you of what drew you to it in the first place.

Mariel Vandersteel's Hickory is something of a stunner. Perhaps part of this owes to the shock of happy discovery, inasmuch as I was unacquainted with her music until the CD showed up in the mail. A young woman who lives in Boston, Vandersteel is schooled in at least three fiddling traditions: Southern mountain, Irish and Norwegian. In the company of comparably minded musical associates on Scottish harp (Maeve Gilchrist), mandolin (Dominick Leslie), bass (Sam Grisman) and fiddles (Tristan Clarridge and Duncan Wickel), she approaches new and old instrumental pieces with an international perspective and a musical vision that resonates far beyond her years.

The opener, an Appalachian tune I'd never heard before titled "Hog & Sheep Going to the Pasture," is pure, unadulterated joy, funny, moving and celebratory. The Norwegian tunes tend toward the dark and somber, laced with the austere beauty of Scandinavian folk music. Though this version is without words, "Huldreslat" is from an old ballad inspired by the same kind of elvin legend that led William Butler Yeats to write the poem (sometimes set to music) "Song of the Wandering Aengus."

Almost needless to observe, Scandinavian and Appalachian tunes rarely appear on the same disc, and then even more seldom by the same artist or artists. This shouldn't work, but it does to a degree that commands immediate notice and refuses to let go. Lacking any more eloquent way to express it, let's just say I fell in love with Hickory. I doubt that I am or will be the only listener so smitten.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 February 2013

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