Tuesday 2 February 2016

Concert Review: Transatlantic Sessions 2016, Royal Festival Hall, London, 1st February

Now into its seventh year, the Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas-curated Transatlantic Sessions has firmly established itself as a tradition as it tours the UK at the beginning of each year: a reliable way of raising the spirits during the murky depths of British winter. As its name indicates, the project – which finds roots musicians from North America and the British Isles performing together in a relaxed set-up – is all about making connections: between Old and New World music, of course, but also between emerging and established artists, and between ancient and contemporary material. And it’s precisely that commitment to connection that makes these shows such invigorating and heart-warming experiences.

Last year’s show [reviewed here] found Patty Griffin, Rodney Crowell, Sara Watkins, John Smith and Kathleen MacInnes appearing with house band and regulars including Bain (fiddle) and Douglas (dobro), Phil Cunningham (accordion), John McCusker (fiddle), Danny Thompson (bass), John Doyle (guitars), Mike McGoldrick (pipes and whistles), Russ Barenberg (guitar/mandolin), James MacKintosh (drums) and Donald Shaw (piano) to form an “International Hillbilly Organisation” (as Griffin ingeniously dubbed them).  

This year sees US newbies Joe Newberry, Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Californian indie folk duo The Milk Carton Kids (Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan) joining seasoned stalwarts Karen Matheson and Cara Dillon to take on material that ranges from the melancholic to the infectiously boisterous.

Sleek in a black suit with tartan sash, Matheson delivered mouth music and Gaelic songs, including a stunningly beautiful version of Burns’s “Yowes to the Knowes”, with her customary grace and elegance. Dillon contributed a passionate “Shotgun Down the Avalanche” and a captivating a cappella “The Winding River Roe” that reduced the house to pin-drop silence; her lead on a singalong “Bright Morning Stars” was a highlight of the second set. Bain and Cunningham, now in their 30th year as collaborators (an association that’s lasted “longer than our marriages,” as Cunningham fondly quipped), led tunes both tender and rousing, with typically dynamic work from McCusker, McGoldrick, Doyle and co.   

As always, those new to the fold brought wonderful fresh textures to the evening. Most obviously arresting was Giddens, whose sublime, fierce swamp blues double of “Julie” (a Civil War-set conversation between slave and owner) and “Waterboy” brought the first half to a spell-binding and dramatic close. Strutting and declaiming, Giddens lifted the show to a whole new level of intensity, and her versions of Patsy Cline's “She’s Got You” and of “Black is the Colour” in the second half were almost as electrifying. Newberry brought charming old timey spirit to an uplifting “Rocky Island”, a chugging “The Cherry River Line” and the appealing maternal tribute “I Know Whose Tears”.

Compared to Simon and Garfunkel yet actually closer to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ brand of tranced-out duetting, The Milk Carton Kids played up their status as L.A. interlopers with wry humour, delivering sterling versions of their own compositions “Honey, Honey” and “Snake Eyes,” and then generating one of the most enthusiastic responses of the night for a stunning take on – yes – Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. It was equally unexpected to find everyone pitching in on a great, ragged rendition of  “It Ain’t Easy” (the Glen Davies song covered by David Bowie on Ziggy Stardust).

Material by Bowie and Pink Floyd may have been the wild card up the sleeve of this year’s show, but its inclusion testified to the openness of Transatlantic Sessions as a beautifully democratic showcase in which no single voice or musician dominates and in which the emphasis is placed, instead, on sharing, support and  collaboration. From the funky to the plaintive, this year’s show once again did dynamic justice to traditional music in all its rich and exhilarating diversity.  

Reviewed for PopMatters

The 2016 Transatlantic Sessions tour continues in Birmingham, Gateshead, Manchester and Londonderry. Further details here


  1. Couldn't agree more - an excellent evening. Dynamic, energetic, resonant and utterly memorable!! Stunning voices, instrumentalists and arrangements, beautifully produced and executed.

    1. Thank you. Yes, an absolutely fantastic night.

  2. Great review and a brilliant night!

    I don't suppose you know the name of the song that John Doyle sang, at all?

  3. Thanks, Rory. John's song was the traditional "I Know My Love".