Mariel Vandersteel… instrumentally speaking
Pretty much the only time I would listen to instrumental music as I was growing up in the fifties and sixties would be at the beginning or end of a radio show. All of the rock ‘n’ roll disc jockeys from Alan Freed to Murray The K, along with the thousands of others from town and country would all have “theme songs” that they would play at the beginning and end of their shows. Something like The Tornado’s “Telestar” was probably one of the most popular songs, but there were tons to be found if you took the time to wade through the stacks of 45s at your local Woolworths. The more creative personalities really worked hard at finding that truly unique or obscure instrumental tune to help brand their show. My all-time favorite has always been “A Night With Daddy G” by the Church Hill Five, which was used by WIBG’s Hy Lit (affectionately known to his Philadelphia fans as Hyski) and interestingly from a musically historical perspective, it was eventually given lyrics and became a hit for Gary “U.S.” Bonds called “Quarter To Three” that Springsteen has used for decades as an encore.
Now I did get into playing instrumentals for a time when I took up the guitar in 1964 (I had a Hagstrom solid body from Sweden), learning all the riffs I could from Play Guitar With The Ventures. Nothing like a little “Wipe Out” or “Tequilla” in the garage. (This is the point in the blog where Maria’s publicist says to himself “So what the hell does this have to do with my client’s new album? What an idiot!”) By the late sixties I took an interest to the bluegrass sounds I could pick up on late night radio and the occasional Irish jigs and reels you would hear at cultural or folk festivals that were starting to pop up after Newport’s success. But it wasn’t until I watched a PBS special in 2000 on Nordic folk music that my ears put it all together and I heard the link from the old countries to our country. Using my Minneapolis connections I got myself a box of discs from Rob Simonds’ NorthSide Records and immersed myself in the music of Scandinavia. (The May 26, 2000 issue of Entertainment Weekly said that “Nordic music is in!”.) Shortly thereafter the music industry started it’s long downward spiral, record stores closed up, international folk music receded from the headlines and eventually it all started falling into that catch-all phrase “roots music”. And so (finally)…here we are.
Mariel Vandersteel is a young woman who was born and raised in Northern California, got the opportunity to study traditional Irish music in Dublin, attended and graduated from the Berklee School of Music, moved to Norway where she took up the Hardingfele, also known as the Hardanger fiddle. (Using eight or nine strings compared to the usual four found on a traditional violin, its used mainly in the southwest part of Norway, whereas the ordinary violin (called ‘flatfele’ – ‘flat fiddle’ or ‘vanlig fele’ – ‘common fiddle’) is found elsewhere. The Hardingfele is used for dancing, accompanied by rhythmic loud foot stomping. Raise you hand if you also love Wikipedia.)
Returning to Boston in 2009, Mariel began playing along with the band Blue Moose and The Unbuttoned Zippers. She’s also toured or played with others such as Laura Cortese’s Acoustic Project, Putnam Smith, Annalivia and a duo with Emma Beaton. Her debut release Hickory is a showcase for not only her talent, but that of the vibrant roots scene that city has developed. Respected guitarist Jordan Tice anchors the accompaniment on the album, while noted instrumentalists like Scottish harpist Maeve Gilchrist, mandolinist Dominick Leslie and bassist Sam Grisman of the Deadly Gentlemen, fiddler Tristan Clarridge of the Bee Eaters and Crooked Still, and guest fiddler Duncan Wickel contribute to the lush arrangements of the album.
I’ve been living and listening to this album for several months now, and in complete utter honesty I thought it might be a little too much…instrumental…for me, and I’d miss the lyrics and voice. No. With every play I am delighted and dazzled by the way Mariel and her fellow travelers weave together the sounds of Ireland, Norway and Appalachia to create a beautiful work of roots music that is rich in texture and makes you want to get off your ass and dance. Which is not something I do very often if at all, but I can hardly imagine everybody at Club Passim sitting still in their chairs and just listening when she plays there. Good luck with that.
I found a few videos of Mariel on You Tube, but I think this one below captures the feeling and flavor of the album the best. Hickory is available here and also on iTunes and Amazon. Enjoy and remember….support independent music and musicians.