Kevin Buckley – Big String: Album Review

A St. Louis Irish fiddle extravaganza from Kevin Buckley, showing a nimble gift for songs and tunes.

Release date: 8th February 2022

Label: Own (Bandcamp)

Format: CD / digital

Kevin Buckley has been keeping a secret these past fifteen years, in his guise as Full Basement, the St Louis rock band that he has, to all intents and purposes, “been” up until now, with guitar his weapon of choice. OK, maybe not the best of secrets, as his myriad other projects might reveal, from online tuition to a weekly residence at John D. McGurk’s, an Irish pub in his hometown. But this is the first time he has quite so fully embraced his heritage. Of Irish stock, he was tutored on fiddle from the age of nine. And, as this record shows, he has become quite good at it!

Far from wall to wall green-dyed fiddle-dee-dee, this project brings all manner of diverse influences into an acoustic potpourri of fancy fiddle shenanigans, touches of bluegrass, old-time, tex-mex and, even, a dash of Gay Paree all adding to a variety of tones and textures to the undoubted overall nod to the auld country. With the sterling mixing desk skills of Dave Sinko, who has worked with Bela Fleck and the Punch Brothers, Buckley has here produced and played an excellent primer in modern string band music. A multi-instrumentalist, it is he that plays most of the fiddle, guitar, bouzouki and mandolin, with the assistance of a few others on additional instrumentation, mostly more of the above and banjo. He also sings sweetly, with a gentle tone not dissimilar to the late Davey Steele, with three songs to give balance to the otherwise instrumental dominance.

The album kicks off with the strummed guitar flourishes of Sweeney’s Wheel, ahead of fiddle taking centre stage. With the whiff and presence of Music For a Lost Harmonium, it is actually a more attractive tune and sets well the mood for what is to come, and carefully resists the temptation to play too fast, not least as multiple fiddles duel toward the close. Ryder’s Block is another jolly jig, this time with an Appalachian feel, abetted by the sub textures of accompanying mandolin and guitar. An attractive step up the gears at the halfway stage develops into a bit of a runaway train breakdown effect if that isn’t a contradictory metaphor. Time for a song now, The Blackest Crow coming on all Old Crow Medicine Show and is a delight. When the harmony vocal, Alex Sinclair and Dan Lowery, slot in, it becomes wonderful.

Back to tunes, Hardiman the Fiddler being an elegiac air, the sort of melody that would drum into your mind on a long hike, refusing to shift. Which can be a good thing. It’s shorter than the worm it leaves, leading to the only misstep, the gallic/garlic-infused Marcelle et Marcel, which, rather than an outtake from Stephan Grapelli/Hot Club de Paris, sounds more the theme music for a black and white cinéma verité. I mean, as a construction and as a conceit, it is fine, but, listening pleasure, less, evoking too much fromage pour moi. Thankfully another song swills out that taste, an archetypal road song, Never Tire of the Road, demonstrating Buckley’s grasp for a handy hook. (OK, it is Andy Irvine’s hook, he having writ it.) Actually, and appropriately, a very Paul Bradyesque interpretation, which is high praise indeed.

The Queen and the Cook is a stately gavotte that wouldn’t miss a rhythm section, were it that sort of record. It isn’t, and the pace is kept up as near efficiently by Buckley’s one-man band. La Rubia, which follows, is a courtly medieval dance, or schemes to be, the sort of thing I am a sucker for, as acoustic Horslips and Battlefield Band could knock out apace. Terrific stuff. City Of Savannah, by default, ought to have been another song, but he bucks that trend, with another jazzy number, evocative of smoky 1940s clubs in Vichy France, and a whole lot more successfully, too, than that earlier one.

Belles Of St. Louis, ho ho, is a play on words, an uplifting fiddle scoosh, that goes everywhere without going anywhere. And I like that. From the opening bars, you can tell Miss Bailey is a song, and it is another cracker. A distant relative of Knopfler’s Sailing To Philadelphia, it has enough charm, and enough extra licks, to differentiate itself as another great song, three in a row. Buckley shows his way with a lyric that is, well, lyrical. Finally, to the finale, Ships Are Sailing, another solid construct of fiddles and guitars.

A thoroughly enjoyable listen, Buckley certainly has plenty enough of the chops required for this sort of record. To be fair, it is the songs that stand out more than the instrumentals, and, personally, the balance between is askew for me. Don’t get me wrong, this is a well worthwhile album, but it is the songs I will longer recall, such is the current swell of elegant players plowing an instrumental prowess. It is the songs that prop this above that competition, and I would like more, next time.

Here’s Never Tire Of The Road, the Andy Irvine song:

Kevin Buckley online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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