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VARIOUS ARTISTS - The Original Transatlantic Sessions, Volume 1

VARIOUS ARTISTS - The Original Transatlantic Sessions, Volume 1
Whirlie WHIRLIECD15

The original Transatlantic Sessions of 1995 were the brainchild of Aly Bain, his director Mike Alexander and producer Douglas Eadie: a “lightbulb moment” that was (with hindsight, of course) an entirely logical next step after having already travelled widely around the musical roots world for three successive projects (Down Home, Aly Meets The Cajuns and The Shetland Sessions). Transatlantic Sessions’ central premise was the gathering-together of a host of respected musicians and singers from the folk and roots communities on both sides of the Atlantic, in a convivial location (Montgreenan Mansion House Hotel in Ayrshire) which would prove to be perfectly conducive to relaxed communal music-making: the ultimate backporch session, in other words! Wheels were swiftly set in motion, under the musical co-directorship of Aly and Jay Ungar, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As far as transmission goes, the series of seven half-hour programmes was tucked away almost shamefacedly deep within the schedules of BBC Scotland, only finally surfacing south of the border, and woefully erratically at that, on BBC2. Since those less enlightened times, the original series has rightly become the stuff of legend, and has spawned two sequel-series, with a fourth series due for transmission very soon. Whirlie have thus far released CDs and DVDs of Series 3, and at the end of last year an exceedingly long-awaited DVD-set of the entire original Series 1, and now it’s time for the soundtrack recordings of Series 1 to be released on CD in all their glory. (Well, not quite unadulterated – the remastering engineers haven’t entirely managed to erase the occasional mildly intrusive “nature soundscape” elements, but they’ve done their best.) What a roll-call of artists! What inspired teaming! What craic! So here’s volume one of a projected trio of discs, which “mixes and matches” in much the same way as the original programmes but in an entirely different sequence (though it does seem a bit weird to kick off with the Far From Home ensemble set that formed one of the episode playouts, for instance).

In the end I guess what counts is that it’s well enough balanced and musically satisfying to make up an hour-long CD, as well as sounding thoroughly credible from a listener’s point of view too. What comes across loud and clear still is the unbridled joy of these sessions; the guys (and gals) were clearly having a ball. So many classic and genre-defining moments are enshrined in the programmes that to list them would take up far too much space. Even suggesting highlights is bound to be a subjective exercise, but I’ll indulge for a while and list, from this CD alone, John Martyn’s definitive May You Never (with Kathy Mattea); Mary Black’s sublime rendition of Farewell, Farewell; the McGarrigles’ eternally tender Mendocino, with Karen Matheson adding her own creamy harmonies; Jerry Douglas’ perennially stunning solo showpiece medley; Mark O’Connor’s seemingly effortless Grey Eagle bringing even the highly respected house musos down in reverence; Jay Ungar leading the house band and guests in his own Ashokan Farewell, which has since become a repertoire standard. Only one complaint from me: no Emmylou on this disc – but her contributions will come!…The sometimes opaque recorded sound I recall from the TV programmes has been opened out and brightened to enable even more of the detail to be appreciated, without losing the feel and immediacy of the sessions. It really is great to have these performances available for posterity now in CD format: the music-making really is as good as you remember it, and often I feel even better!

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 82 of The Living Tradition magazine.