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RUNA 'Current Affairs' - Review and Interview

August 27, 2014

RUNA - Current Affairs - Review and Interview
By Gideon Thomas, for

runa.jpgRuna is a band whose five members hail from three different countries - the US, Canada and Ireland. The band won Top Group and Top Traditional Group in the Irish Music Awards this year, and their love of the (often shared) traditions they find in music are ties that bind the members together, and their new album, Current Affairs draws from a range of musical forms and song types.

From the singing of Pete Seeger to Gaelic ballads to traditional British songs to modern singer-songwriter-penned pieces, the collection has an interesting mix and blend of pieces which have entered the bands' repertoire. I discuss this and more with Shannon Lambert-Ryan from the band below, but first, let's take a dip into the album and see how it feels.

Opener "The Banks Are Made Of Marble" reveals a musicianship that is immediately both Irish and American. Almost as a statement of intent, Maggie Estes White's fiddle reaches across the oceans. The sometimes-sombre "Wife Of Usher's Well" is then treated to quite a jaunty, accordion-led arrangement, and, as the tale spills out, you realise how fitting the vocal actually is. It is so great to see new blood taking on the various song and tune traditions as contained on the album, and treating them as well as RUNA do.

"The Hunter Set" shows clarity and drive, highlighting the adaptability of the musicians - and their ease with playing away from their 'home' styles. Estes White's fiddle leads things off, followed by an especially effective use of a bluesharp /banjo combination. Next up is an interesting take on "Henry Lee," with a pumping, driving feel, which it shares with a lot of its compatriots on Current Affairs. Again, Lambert-Ryan's voice fits the choice of songs well, backed with a chopping fiddle and well-placed percussion. Songs like this, indeed Current Affairs as a whole, take the traditions in different directions, with the band's selection of instruments adding to the story.

A gorgeous version of Amos Lee's "Black River" is fabulously sung, with some very neat harmonies bringing it up and down. The Gaelic song set, "Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir / A Chomaraigh Aoibhinn Ó," is well tempered between voice and a simple but effective backing, where the beauty of the songs is to the fore, never encumbered - the band have that ineffable quality, understanding, which is not always obvious with other groups.

"The False Knight Upon The Road" is both bright and exuberant, with the band taking the decision to treat it thus. The tune really flows, bringing out different parts of the song in different ways. The harmonies have a rushing quality to them, with guitar and some deft mandolin underpinning everything. "Ain't No Grave" is the only moment where the album falls down slightly for me. The version is a little 'lacking', amid the desire for a little more grit. Still, there are effective, multi-layered harmonies, and an interesting, vibrant arrangement. The sliding fiddle and coda works very well.

Inclusions from the pens of Kate Rusby and Davy Steele show that the net which Runa cast spreads far and wide, and will no doubt bring more listeners to the original writers. "The Ruthless Wife" has a lovely bouncing banjo courtesy of Ron Block, and the song stands out as a fascinating story, continuing traditions in different ways, those of family stories and stories of families. The musical journey visits more new and different places on the "Land Of Sunshine" set, which proves that instrumental music can and does actually tell a story, on a piece which feels new and contemporary. Bright, breezy, elegant, and very well put together.

"Rarie's Hill" is a fitting summation of the project - full of personal input, and wanting to take the traditions forward by working out new ways for its songs.

Current Affairs will draw favourable comparison with bands like Bodega, and listening to it makes you glad that Runa exist and are making the music which they are. I hope that the album brings as much joy to as many other people as it has to me. It is a bold statement, one which blends Irish music (in the instrumentation, and especially in the tune sets), with an American sensibility in its influences and execution.

I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to Shannon Lambert-Ryan from RUNA about the band, the new record, and their choices of songs and tunes.

GT: Can you tell us a little more about the band members and your backgrounds. What do each of the members bring to the table in terms of their musicianship?

S L-R: Fionán de Barra (guitar, bass & bodhrán) is originally from Dublin, and began his musical career as the solo guitarist with Riverdance in Radio City Music Hall. He has acted as the musical director for Clannad, Moya Brennan, and Keith and Kristyn Getty for many years. His diverse musical influences (from Miles Davis to Django Reinhardt) drive his creativity on guitar.

Our mandolin and banjo player Dave Curley hails from Galway, Ireland. Since receiving his BA in music from Limerick University, Dave has found a lot of success on an international scale.

Montreal's Cheryl Prashker is a truly unique percussionist, playing with many of the country's top folk artists - including Jonathan Edwards. Cheryl blends her love of all things Celtic with her formal, classical training at Magill University and vast experience in middle-eastern folk music to produce a one-of-a-kind accompanist.

Maggie Estes White is from Kentucky, but is now living in Nashville. Maggie's expertise is bluegrass but extensive training in classical and traditional music combine to give her an exciting playing style. Maggie is a regular on the Grand Ole Opry stage in Nashville (having made her debut there at the young age of 13) and has already established herself as a seasoned player well beyond her years.

And I grew up in Philly around folk and world music, studied at Muhlenberg College, and performed as a step-dancer, actor, and singer. I have a passion for history and drama, and this helps to drive the band's pursuit of stories worth singing about. In addition to singing, I manage the band. So, it keeps me balanced, but very busy!

GT: What are some of your influences, and how did your repertoire shape itself?

S L-R: Anything from Bach to Led Zeppelin and everything in between!

We all come from a variety of musical and geographical backgrounds and we try to embrace all of those backgrounds and include them in our music. They have really helped to shape our sound and to create something different.

We like to think of our music as "Celtic Roots music". Like the roots of a tree, the musical roots of any genre spread out in many directions - the roots that have influenced a musical style and the roots that will be influenced by that musical style. The origins of Celtic music are rooted in traditional Irish and Scottish music, and its roots have continued to influence bluegrass, folk, and Appalachian music. In RUNA, we like to explore all of those different roots and genres!

As far as our repertoire, Fionán and I had recorded an album of traditional Irish and Scottish songs in February 2008 that formed the original basis for the band. We started working on those songs to begin with, just to get the ball rolling and to see what suited us. In early June of that year, Fionán brought a song to the table that he had played with a dear friend, Geraldine MacGowen, several years earlier. The song was Claudine Langille's "Jealousy" and it turned out to be the song that established RUNA's signature sound.

We spend a great deal of time, carefully, researching songs whose story is as relevant now as when it was written, which gives the band more material to work with.

GT: Tell us about putting the album together. How long did the process take and how did you decide on the choices of songs and tunes for the record?

S L-R: It, usually, takes us the better part of a year to produce an album from the start of the research/writing process to the final touches of the mixing and mastering. Deciding on the songs and tunes or "set list" for an album is probably the most important part of the process, since those songs and tunes create the skeleton around which everything else is built. So, probably, almost one third to half of the overall time working on an album is dedicated to researching, writing, and choosing the right songs. We tend to gravitate toward songs with really poetic lyrics and interesting melodies that we feel we will be able to make our own.

With each album, we try to explore new sounds and ideas, and with "Current Affairs", it was the first time that we were working with Maggie for a recording. We were, also, incredibly lucky to have some of our dear friends and brilliant musicians from Nashville join us on a few tracks! So, in many ways, we had a whole new array of options at our fingertips. We delved a bit into the bluegrass realm with some of the songs and tunes on this album (something we've wanted to do for a while), while still remaining true to RUNA's signature sound. RUNA's current line-up offers some new musical opportunities and we've really tried to take advantage of them with this album! So, when looking at songs and tunes this time around, we've expanded our well of resources to include bluegrass and Appalachian material along with Irish, Scottish, and folk music.

GT: Some of your arrangements are very interesting and individual - how did the new ways for some of the older songs come about?

S L-R: RUNA strives to present fresh-sounding music to its listeners. So, when we look at the content of an older song - the melody and the lyrics, we try to find a common thread between the present day and the older world of the original version of the song. Our arrangements are a combination of our varied musical backgrounds and our diverse geographical upbringing.

GT: I'm really interested in how you take the traditions, and push them in new directions. How much of a deliberate choice has this been?

S L-R: The choice is very deliberate. In RUNA, we try to be respectful of the traditions and the roots of the music we perform but, we, also, believe that the tradition is a living, developing entity and that, if it stood still, it would not be as widely accepted and enjoy around the world. Every generation of musicians has their own take on this development. We hope ours is pleasant for all of our listeners both young and old.

GT: How would Runa describe the "modern reality" of the Irish American experience?

S L-R: RUNA is a great example of the current, Irish American experience. We have two members fresh off the boat from Ireland and two from the United States. Our fifth member is from Montreal, Canada. The "modern reality" is quite subjective. We travel nationwide and witness an overwhelmingly genuine, open, and fun embracing of the two cultures. We truly enjoy incredible establishments like the Irish Center in Philadelphia, an institution for many generations (now in some difficulty due to a change in the socialisation of the current generation I suppose!) where the Irish American community congregates and shares its music and culture.

GT: Finally, what's Philadelphia like in terms of its scene, its music, and its people? What recommendations do you have for readers?

S L-R: The Irish and folk music scenes in Philly are vibrant and youthful with great venues and festivals around the city and surrounding areas, showcasing wonderful talent. We love going to see shows here in the area when we're not away touring. Of course, Philadelphia is a huge hub for many local and touring artists in many genres. With its ideal geographic location, it's a hot spot for arts and culture, drawing together artists and audiences of multiple generations, including a large percentage of Irish-American citizens.

RUNA's Philly recommendations:
Plough and the Stars, Fergie's Pub, & The Philadelphia Irish Center (pub/session)

Kimmel Center & World Café Live (concert venues)

The Beautiful Sellersville Theatre (concert venue a stone's throw away from Philly)

Philadelphia Folk Festival, Bethlehem Celtic Classic, Musikfest, & Spring Gulch Folk Festival (festivals). Fionán and I met at the Philly Folk Festival, and that was the start of our friendship (we're now married) and, eventually, to the band.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 7:58 PM | Comments (1)

Song Premiere: The Stray Birds, "Best Medicine"

August 22, 2014

by Kim Ruehl, for

straybirds.jpgThe Stray Birds seemed to show up out of nowhere back in 2012, with a self-titled debut that stopped short the folk and Americana worlds. Driven by a contemporary grasp on traditional music that rivals that of giants like Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, the Stray Birds followed the debut up with 'Echo Sessions,' an EP of cover songs. But now, they're back with another full-length album titled for one of its most infectious tracks. When Maya de Vitry howls out the first "well, well, well" of the chorus on "Best Medicine," it's part proclamation, part revelation. There to catch her are the supportive harmonies of guitarist Oliver Craven and bassist Charles Muench. Together, the three carry the song through to its stirringly poetic catharsis: "If the body is a temple, the soul is a bell / That's why music is the best medicine I sell."

Best Medicine will be released on October 21st on Yep Roc Records.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 2:47 PM | Comments (5)

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