Music: Root & Branch (A Breath Against the Calm)


One of my favorite pastimes once a month is sitting down with the latest Folk Radio newsletter and going through each and every review to listen to what is being offered. Most of the time the material is quite amazing, and this month was no exception. I don’t imagine I would have heard Root & Branch were it not for the newsletter. What a treasure. Worth the price for The Road To Germany alone. JP

12 November 2018 || Folk Radio UK

Root & Branch is a five-piece band of musicians from both sides of the Atlantic – their website states they “play the traditional music of Britain, Ireland and the Appalachian mountains”.

It’s a heady cross-pollination of their specific influences that distinguish their special brand of music-making. I could take the easy way out and say it’s a bit like a Transatlantic Session but more immediately exciting – which is not in any way to undersell the tried-and-tested TS franchise, but Root & Branch seem to run on an even higher-octane fuel and live more dangerously.

Perhaps a closer comparison is Lankum – not so much in terms of repertoire, or even in specific instrumental blend or timbre, but more in spirit, in key elements such as the energy, intensity and commitment, coupled with the deep respect for their traditions.

Then, of course, is the resultant in-yer-face experience, a veritable wall of attitude and understanding that’s couched in a blistering swoon of driven sound, complete with forthright singing and some remarkable and very persuasive musicianship.

The tremendous richness of the gutsy Root & Branch sound stems in no small measure from its strong (comparatively heavy-duty) complement of bowed strings. These comprise two fiddles plus cello (played by Ewan Macdonald, Nathan Bontrager and Jess Whelligan respectively).

Even when these colours aren’t utilised full-force, they’re still capable of much in the way of dynamic shading. The contributions of Stuart Graham (bouzouki, suitcase drum, tambourine) and Chris Jones (banjo, concertina, mandola, mandolin) prove every bit as important in the scheme of things, not least because each musician possesses a keen and flawless sense of balance and timing. The band has also been playing together for a good five years, and it shows in the close-knit texturing.

The album contains just eight tracks – four instrumental sets and four songs. Six of the eight tracks clock in at well over five minutes, but there’s no letup in the excitement value and none feel at all prolonged or outstay their welcome. The pace and vigour of the tunes never let up either, but at the same time, there’s no sense of rushing despite the stomping drive of the suitcase drum beat, which can occasionally seem a mite ubiquitous.

The convivial opening set of three traditional reels (Big John’s Daughter) could almost be taken for an Appalachian hoedown, while Shputnik is a set of Scottish jigs named after its middle tune, which comes from the pen of the late Martyn BennettThe Barndance (Dornoch Links) at last gives a studio outing for this long-term staple of the band’s live repertoire, building from a stately Scottish pipe-march to a rough-hewn fun frenzy that almost makes it sound like a cousin of Soldier’s Joy. Nathan’s gritty original slowpoke-ragtimey tune Cathar Rag is well matched to the old-time standard Hunting The Buffalo, whose scoring in this instance (somewhat unusually) utilises the concertina for its melody line before the massed fiddle brigade takes over for the final push and it proves impossible to keep still in your chair.

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The four songs are also allowed to take their time since their message and impact is measured by necessity rather than by any desire to spin the yarn out for its own sake. They deliver an enterprising mixture of types and sources, from a superbly twisted, darkly waltzing and almost psych-folk rendition of Hares On The Mountain (sung by Jess, introduced a cappella with Nathan and Stuart providing harmonies, and finishing on a chilling la-la ensemble coda) to a brooding take on The Dalesman’s Litany set to a tick-tock pizzicato fiddle rhythm.

Stuart’s original composition The Road To Germany, which tells of a Syrian refugee journeying to Europe, is a passionate and well-written (in the traditional style) standout (his singing here put me in mind of a rougher-hewn Pete Morton). The classic cross-pond murder ballad Young Hunting brings the disc to a close in epic fashion with liberal use of drone textures and vocal harmony layerings.

Yep, Root & Branch’s A Breath Against The Calm (how apt a title) is sure to figure on my year’s-best of lists (tho’ sadly it’s been released too late to get into some of this year’s polls). They’re a band with a hell of a presence, and this is real hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck time!



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