By Daniel Neely
Dréos, from the Pacific Northwest, is a trio of accomplished traditional musicians whose members have a long association with one another. Life put these musicians on separate paths for many years after they first met, but fate intervened in 2014 and brought them together again for a performance that led to “The Clearing,” their debut album.
The group describes itself as “an ensemble of performing composers who invent and arrange new and old music using a traditional vocabulary,” which is an excellent way of describing the group’s sound. Indeed, the album contains a preponderance of original material and flashes a number of different “sounds” that listeners will most certainly enjoy. It’s an auspicious effort that will surely turn heads.
Dréos (which means “blaze” in Scottish Gaelic) is comprised of Elliot Grasso, Brandon Vance, and Glen Waddell. Grasso (www.eliotgrasso.com) is an academically trained ethnomusciologist with an impressive performing resumé. In addition to several albums, he’s performed for President Clinton, was a featured artist on "Prairie Home Companion,” and performed and taught for Armagh's William Kennedy International Piping Festival. His recording “Up Against the Flatirons” was the first in Na Píobairí Uilleann’s “The Ace and Deuce of Piping” recording series of master pipers.
Vance (www.brandonvance.com) is a two-time U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion, has a master’s in music from Cleveland Institute of Music, and has performed with a long list of distinguished musicians including John Reischman, Calum MacKinnon, Alasdair Fraser, Bonnie Rideout, Catriona MacDonald, and Buddy MacMaster. His large-scale composition “Gael Storm for Fiddle and Orchestra” was given its premiere by the Cleveland Pops Orchestra.
Waddell (www.glenwaddell.com) is a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, whistles, highland bagpipes, Scottish smallpipes, octave mandolin), a longtime member of the Oregon-based Celtic group Skye, and runs a photography business. His biography on the album includes one of the most interesting details I’ve seen offered: his younger brother once punched him in the face the day before a cornet competition. Thankfully, it seems the incident did not cause any long-term effect.
The album sets a very strong tone from its opening track, “Devil in the Kitchen / …” The tunes there well chosen, but as the arrangement builds in intensity it brings out the great musicianship and reveals the taste of the group’s members. This is a basic characteristic of every track, from the instrumental tracks to the albums single song, “She Moved Through The Fair,” which Vance does a nice job with.
Many of the album’s tunes are original compositions. Vance, for example, has contributed a beautiful waltz, “The Clearing,” and his tunes “Rebecca’s Highland Fling / Winter Welcome / Itchy Feet” are great and make for a memorable track. Grasso’s compositions are lovely as well. His waltz “Silver Trees” has a very expressive feel, while his jigs “The Empty Bookcase / The Lights of Limerick / The Pepper Man” are sound pieces that have a lovely flow.
One of the most interesting pieces is “Day Dawn,” which is arranged for string orchestra, Scottish smallpipes and voice. Based on a melody from the Shetland Islands, the track starts with a solo voice singing “Alleluia” and unfolds with melodic exploration on the pipes and fiddle before it’s joined by orchestral tone clusters that give the track and extremely atmospheric feel. It’s a stark track that provides great contrast to the rest of the album.
“The Clearing” is a taut, accomplished work that plays at the crossroads between Irish and Scottish music. Dréos as a group is very tight musically – each of the members has superior skills – but I think it’s the chemistry that Grasso, Vance and Waddell share that makes their music especially interesting. This is an album for anyone who wants something new with their trad and definitely something to check out in the new year!
Learn more about Dréos and their music at www.dreosmusic.com.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music each week in the Irish Echo.