Four years ago, a friend, Gerry, from TwickFolk, invited me to a birthday celebration to see Transatlantic Sessions in London at the Royal Festival Hall. For many years the collective had/has been a highlight of the annual Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow as well as a popular BBC Four television series. I accepted the invitation, and boy was I glad I did!
In 2009 Transatlantic Sessions took to the road and have since done so annually, making this venue their second home. It has always been a sell-out. Under the joint leadership of fiddler Aly Bain and dobro master Jerry Douglas, they are the ‘ultimate house band’ and you’d have to go a long way to experience musicianship of the quality they display.
Each year, the twelve core musicians invite ‘special guests’ to participate; this year’s guests were Teddy Thompson, Emily Smith, Eric Bibb, Aiofe O’Donovan and Mary Chapin Carpenter. The special guests each get a turn at singing a song or two, backed by the ‘house band’ as well as sometimes lending harmonies to each other. Members of Transatlantic Sessions also take a turn so you get a wonderful variety of musical styles which mine different traditions from those close to home, the Shetland Isles and Ireland to those further afield like the Mississippi Delta and the Louisiana Swamps. It all seems to come together effortlessly and everyone on stage conveys such joy at being part of something so magical.
Whilst it might be unfair to single out specific individuals I have to say that I was particularly looking forward to seeing Bibb – it’s been a while since I last saw him perform and he certainly made me kick myself for leaving it for so long. He exudes charisma; he seems to have rhythm running through his DNA and his free and easy New Home had me tapping my toes. Going Down the Road, Feelin’ Bad had the same effect as did Champagne Habits which he dedicated to his mother.
Speaking of mothers, Thompson invited his to join him on stage (he’s the son of Richard and Linda Thompson) for Dear Mary which they had composed together – she didn’t take up the offer, presumably preferring to sit, watch and listen to her offspring.
O’Donovan (of Crooked Still fame) was a revelation – I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing her before and loved the purity of her voice. (She will be releasing her solo debut album in June – note to self, buy it!).
Smith is another whose voice is clear, almost ethereal and her interpretation of Robert Burns’ Silver Tassie is a spine-tingler as too was her rendition of The Final Trawl a Scottish seafarer’s lament.
Carpenter is a class act but I have to say the last couple of times I’ve seen her I have been disappointed – not tonight though. Back on form she was the one who led the full cast in the closing song of the second set – Down at the Twist and Shout. All seventeen musicians on stage, for what was her first top-ten single in the US country chart – a fitting end except that it wasn’t quite the end. A standing ovation brought the Transatlantic Sessions back on stage for two more. A couple of traditional instrumentals during which we witnessed again a gathering of accomplished musicians enjoying themselves, playing their hearts out. These evenings are all about the music; there’s no grandstanding, no egos vying for attention, just sheer class and musical perfection. Jela Webb