Transatlantic Sessions was the brainchild of renowned Scottish fiddler Aly Bain and dobro supremo Jerry Douglas, and a full 20 years on from its inception, the venture shows no signs of either a loss of vibrancy or a diminishment in popularity. The concept is simplicity itself: North American and British roots musicians convene to play together in a loose, relaxed environment, performing their own and others’ material in set-ups that range from intimate duo performances to foot-stomping jigs and reels featuring the entire company.
Guests over the years have included Nanci Griffith, Karen Matheson, John Martyn, Iris DeMent, Darrell Scott, Allison Moorer, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Rufus and Martha Wainwright, among many others. But what’s crucial to the concept is that no one voice or personality dominates. Rather, these events are all about the democracy of traditional music as a form: of the pleasure of collaboration and sharing songs; of the joy of musicians just jamming; and, especially, of the humility of a singer taking centre-stage for a spot but then being just as willing to humbly chime in with some discreet backing vocals later on.
Transatlantic Sessions started out as a TV series in the mid-1990s, with the performances filmed in various Highland locales. But in recent years these series have been supplemented by live concerts, of which last Friday’s show at Royal Festival Hall was the final stop on the (all too brief) 2015 UK tour. Joining the fond and friendly fold this time around were Rodney Crowell, Patty Griffin and Sara Watkins on the American side, while Devon (via Essex) songwriter John Smith and Scottish singer Kathleen MacInnes made up the Brits. These performers combined their talents with those of the illustrious house band and regulars including Phil Cunningham (accordion), John McCusker (fiddle), Danny Thompson (bass), Donald Shaw (piano), John Doyle and Dirk Powell (guitars), Mike McGoldrick (pipes and whistles), Russ Barenberg (guitar/mandolin) and James Mackintosh on drums, not forgetting the ever-present Douglas and Bain, of course. The musicians made up a seventeen-strong collective (or “International Hillbilly Organisation,” as Griffin nicely dubbed them) that rocked and reeled boisterously while also delivering moments of equally breathtaking delicacy, too.
Following the dynamic instrumental opener “Waiting for the Federals,” Tim O’Brien took to the stage to deliver delightful bluegrass in the shape of “You Were on My Mind” and “Cowboy’s Life”; O’Brien later led the company in a soul-satisfying spiritual that briefly turned the hall into a revival meeting. The crystalline-toned MacInnes contributed a couple of Gaelic language numbers to the night, including an exquisite Hebridean hymn augmented by Shaw’s plaintive piano, while her rendition of “The Song of the Stone” bristled with attitude and assertiveness.
Sara Watkins’s airy yet taut vocals ignited the uplifting “Take Up Your Spade” and the poignant lover’s plea “Be There,” while Patty Griffin demonstrated her considerable stage presence on an intense “Cold As It Gets,” a heart-meltingly lovely “Coming Home” and a charming take on the Lefty Frizzell perennial “Mom and Dad’s Waltz.” John Smith’s intricate guitar-playing and beautiful keening vocal style compelled on his own compositions, including “Freezing Winds of Change,” while Dirk Powell led the swampy “Waterbound” with passion and grace. Meanwhile, Rodney Crowell was effortlessly commanding on elegant covers of songs by his inspirations and mentors, including “I Still Miss Someone” (by his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash) and Hank Williams’s “Honky Tonk Blues,” preceding the latter by succinctly summarising the concerns of country songs as follows: “Friday night trouble. Saturday night sin. And Sunday morning redemption.” Crowell was later joined by Watkins and Griffin for a rowdy rip through his own “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.”
Plucking, twanging and teasing out new textures from the more familiar material, the band were in fine form throughout the night, and were especially captivating on instrumentals both joyous (a pair of Nova Scotian wedding tunes) and tender (Cunningham’s “Molly-Mae”, composed for McCusker’s baby daughter).
As its very name indicates, Transatlantic Sessions 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. A thrilling three hours in the company of musicians whose talent is equal only to their graciousness, this was an evening that did more to inspire belief in the “Special Relationship” than any number of Obama/Cameron photo ops could ever hope to do.