turning over a new Lief

An interview by Dave Howell,
August 2004

We don't know when Celtic rock started as a separate musical form. Perhaps it was in the distant past in a remote part of the United Kingdom. Or maybe it happened in 1988 in the United States.

The band Tempest may not be the very first, but it was there at the beginning, as the folk movement and folk-rock led to an interest in earlier forms of music. After a performance at the 10-day Musikfest in Bethlehem, Pa., founding member Lief Sorbye told me, "When we started, there was no such thing as Celtic rock." Norwegian-born Sorbye noted that the first Tempest album in 1989 was named Celtic Rock (now a hard-to-find cassette) as a way of explaining the band's music.

And the sound was not universally accepted. Tempest raised the ire of certain purists, and Sorbye said that they toured more in Canada in the 1980s and '90s. He credited movies like Braveheart and shows like Riverdance with exposing more Americans to the music.

Tempest has a different sound than many modern Celtic bands. For example, it was notable at their Musikfest show that they devoted more time to instrumental passages than to vocals. Sorybe said he thought Tempest worked more on arrangements and were more sophisticated than many groups that featured drinking songs and were "pub bands with a backbeat."

Tempest can rock with the best of them, even after an estimated 1,500 performances. If the musicians missed any rock moves during their show, it was an oversight. They moved back and forth across the stage, jumped up and down, flung their hair around, and walked into the audience. Ronan Carroll threw in a bit of slide guitar, and attractive bassist Ariane Cap had the crowd clapping along to her bass solo. Sorbye often played his mandolin - an unusual instrument with two mandolin necks, one tuned an octave lower than the other -- like an electric guitar.

However, there was a hint that Tempest did not take the rock antics seriously -- some wide grins hinted at a bit of parody. The fact that Sorbye and Cap played pattycake while performing was another hint. An even stronger one was using the song "Stonehenge" as an encore, a song made famous by Spinal Tap.

"Tempest has never been afraid of exploring," Sorbye said. "There's always been more than one influence. World music, and a lot of different stuff." Many personnel changes over 15 years have helped keep the band's sound varied. Surfing to Mecca (Firebird, 1994) shows influences of Middle Eastern and country music. Sorbye and drummer Adolfo Lazo are the only current members from that period.

The Shapeshifter CD (Magna Carta, 2003) reflects a return to Celtic and traditional roots while retaining a powerful sound. During the Musikfest show, Sorbye featured the song "Green Grow the Rushes," based on a poem by Robert Burns. Much of the first part of their set was reminiscent of folk-based bands like Pentangle and Fairport Convention.

The latest Tempest CD is their 15th Anniversary Collection (Magna Carta, 2004). The three discs are respectively, a studio disk with many early and deleted recordings, radio performances and live performances. Sorbye calls it "an approach to the roots of the band," and an attempt to present the band's entire history.

If you ever visit Celtic festivals, as I assume many Rambles.NET readers do, Tempest is a band that you have to see.

- Rambles
written by Dave Howell
published 25 September 2004

[ visit the band's website ]