"Heritage Hall" lives up to the BackWest hype.
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
For some time, I’d been seeing the occasional Facebook accolade for the band BackWest by cycling enthusiast, coffee aficionado and Lúnasa frontman Kevin Crawford. And despite my piqued interest, I really hadn’t before taken the time to sit down and properly engage with their music. This changed recently, when band member Fabian Joyce reached out to pass on their new album “Heritage Hall.” After loading the tracks in my file player, I quickly began to understand what the deserved excitement was all about.
As the music played I began reading through their press material and developing some insight into what this (as it turns out) great band was all about. What was remarkable to me about this material was that instead of dwelling on their musical bona fides – and why should that be explained, after all, when that’s what their recording is supposed to show? – their focus was on what they have to offer as a live act. What do they do as a unit? Where have they played? How do they keep their music fresh? After finding this fuller picture, any question about the group’s identity and direction, or the reasons for the high professional level they set on disc, were answered.
BackWest consists of Maureen Browne (fiddle, vocal), Brendan Browne (button accordion), Fabian Joyce (guitar, vocal, banjo) and Peter Vickers (percussion & dancer), four highly accomplished musicians who, as the press materials rightly state, hold “individual authenticity” and who together play music that is really quite special. As an ensemble they are indeed an incredibly solid unit, playing with great precision and expressive versatility. Joining them as guests in this endeavor are Shane McGowan (guitar) and Carl Hession (piano), both of whom make important contributions, with the former making a particularly strong impact on several tracks.
The album includes instrumental and vocal tracks. Its opener, “The Crooked Road to Dublin,” is a rousing, high energy instrumental that speaks to the brand of music the group plays and sets an auspicious beginning. A medley of three tunes, “The Crooked Road to Dublin / Fisherstreet Reel / The Bond Store,” the track highlights the talents of these four musicians directly. Nimble fingers execute crisp, fast paced melodies over perfectly blended backing in a way that I’m sure would energize listeners and live audiences alike. A closer listen reveals interesting transitions between the tunes, and the perfectly executed 14 (!) note duet triplet run to close out the track will leave more than a few jaws agape. (Incidentally, the inclusion of the Fisherstreet tune in this set was interesting, because on first listen there was a quality in BackWest’s music that reminded me of the band Fisherstreet, which is a great thing.)
This is the basic template with all the instrumental tracks, each of which flashes instrumental virtuosity and smart stylistic variety. The band applies this same musicality to the songs, of which there are three, each giving a different stylistic look. Joyce takes the lead on “The Early Morning Rain,” a Gordon Lightfoot song they heard performed by Peter, Paul & Mary, but which has been widely recorded by the likes of the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and Paul Weller. Their approach is hard to pin down (it reminds me of John Denver’s stylistic individuality in some ways), they’ve given it a brilliantly respectful treatment. Maureen takes the vocal lead on the other two vocal tracks, “Captain Captain,” a song she learned from the American band Crooked Still, and “Lazy John,” which she learned from old time musician Bruce Molsky. Both draw their cues from a stylistic palette rooted in Americana and are very well done. Maureen’s got a strong, smooth voice that suits these songs well.
“Heritage Hall” is an album that lives up to the hype. The group’s musicians are virtuosic players, and they mobilize these talents with great creativity. The fiddle and accordion of the siblings Browne sound with unity, producing a glassy melodic effect that plays easily against the drive of Joyce and Vickers’s backing, and the vocal tracks add stylistic diversity that rounds out a very complete feeling album. Highly recommended. In addition, this is a band I’d be interested in seeing live, as they really seem to match their musical gifts to a serious approach to stagecraft. Consider checking them out on their upcoming U.S. tour May 22-June 3, on which they will visit Illinois, Boston, New Jersey and New York. To learn more, visit www.backwestmusic.com.