Canny is as canny does, piano, box and bodhran combine for some aural fizz.
Release date: 18th April 2022
Label: Self Released (Bandcamp)
Format: CD / Digital
Outside of shortbread tin, ceilidh bands and the White Heather Club, piano features rarely in Scottish traditional music, at least once you leave the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland. Actually in folk music generally, the venerable Beryl Marriott, in her excursions with Fairport (as the Fairport Ceilidh Band) and on solo Swarbrick recordings, perhaps the only name leaping immediately to mind. But it is changing slowly, and gradually becoming accepted and, some would say, an integral essential, courtesy the different flavours and nuances the instrument can deliver.
Up at Skye Live, a week or three back, there were a fair few appearances of electric piano, notably Angus Lyon in Blazin’ Fiddles. Plus there is one new name, Michael Biggins, beginning to make waves, since being crowned BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year, for 2021. That same year he was found to be playing excellent piano for Duncan Chisholm in his all-star band. Adept also on accordion, which is his favoured instrument in the multi-celtic band, TRIP, whereas here, he is purely piano. He and his friends, Sam Mabbett, on button accordion, and Callum Convoy, on bodhran, are the Canny Band. Based in Glasgow, and all having spent time at that city’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Biggins and Mabbett have also been members of another young folk band, Northern Company. Whilst The Canny Band are undoubtedly grounded in traditional Celtic music, there are also hints of jazz and classical flavours.
Granny’s 93rd opens proceedings. Granny’s 93rd what? You might consider nervous breakdown, given the frenetic pace with which Biggin’s fingers fly over the keys, ahead of Mabbett picking up the lead. In fact, it is a trio of tunes, written by Biggins, the first, and Mabbett the other two. Strictly speaking, Granny’s 93rd is the third of these, Alan and Paul’s being the first and the intriguingly entitled Lament For the Creme Eggs. Each rattle along, underpinned by Convoy’s deft hand on the percussion, the frame of reference perhaps closest to Relativity, the relatively short lived group of Phil and Johnny Cunningham (Silly Wizard) and Triona Ni and Micheal O’ Domhnaill (the Bothy Band), albeit without fiddle and/or guitar. Blind Harbour follows, two tunes, the first of the same name, by David Munelly and the second, Walking On Water, by Julian Sutton, each box players, and is slower and the piano tinkles over a dancing rhythm, ahead the squeezebox playing a countermelody that touches the spine and causes tingles. Biggins adds all sorts of flourishes, well away from the expected, coming on, at times, like Brad Mehldau. It’s different, and I like, especially as the second tune goes a bit rogue, cantering off in polyrhythms of syncopation. 5 Tunes isn’t, it’s two, each about 5, Tune in 5, another Mabbett composition, and Laura Cortese’s The 5 Time. Starting as a symmetrical construction in loose waltz time, it hangs pleasant on the ear, with, when the segue comes, a shift into what was, originally, a fiddle tune. The two instruments here duck and dive, the bodhran a constant current holding it all together. Penguin Cafe Orchestra might seem another point of reference.
Marit’s is written by a chum of Biggins from Northumberland, from where he hails. Nathan Armstrong runs what is called a “modern Northumbrian Ceilidh band”, which has me sussing all these traddies have been listening to a lot of jazz and math rock. Indeed, it is duly a complex work, the keyboard and buttons seeming in opposition, dancing around each other, with brief spells of making up and playing together, in unison. A tough one to strip the willow to, I feel, it more akin to a modern ballet, probably on Sky Arts. Next up is a slow and delicate air, on piano, that leads you to expect Duncan Chisholm’s violin to come swooping in. Or, more likely Mabbetts accordion. But neither do, clearly, as it’s a solo piano piece, that leaves the listener in a thoughtful place. Pretty unclassifiable, but I can hear it as the credits roll, at the end of a Hollywood biggie, expounding the rise and fall/fall and rise of some poor devil, turning from technicolor to sepia as it plays. Helen’s Song it is, from the pen of Hamish Napier, another keyboard folkie, and one I should have mentioned at the start.
Musette à Govan is the tune that has attracted most attention, sounding typically French in the accordion, if Biggins adds a lot of fairly aggressive piano that reminds me of Keith Emerson. It is really Mabbett’s showcase, his box reeking of a combination of Maigret and Les Miserables. Another trio of tunes, Jacob’s Waltz is back on earlier territory, starting slow, a bit like Helen’s Song, except Mabbett does swoop in and it is an affecting couple of minutes. From waltzing, a pitter patter of bodhran colours the switch to a (Michael’s) jig, at a slightly faster pace, before another (Sam’s) slowly steps a little more briskly still. Michael wrote Sam’s Jig and Sam Michael’s, just to confuse.
A complete change now, as a song breaks the vocal silence. Jack Badcock, of Dallahan, was given the barest of an idea for a tune, writing a song into and around it. The Canopy makes for a rousing interlude, his vocals double and triple tracked in harmony, the Canny Banders doing all their geometric stuff around him. It makes me wonder whether they might consider a more permanent place for vocals in their mix, if only for respite from what can become, in immersion, quite a challenging listen. having said that, the closing piece, the most attractive selection here, starting with a tune from the blind Irish harper of the 17th century, Turlough O’Carolan, whose tunes I am anyway a sucker for. Less “clever” than the earlier stuff, the ensemble playing is a delight, and this could be my favourite track. Convoy gets to stretch out a little on his stretched skin, prompting then some lively piano ripostes, whilst Mabbett makes for quite a party, on two traditional tunes, Maids Of Mitchelstown and Skye Tune. True, the latter threatens to go a bit bonkers, but they hold it all together, a key change adding to the momentum. A great way to end.
This is a good album, but my advice is to avoid playing it, for headphone listening and concentration, all in one sitting, small helpings perhaps more digestible. But then again, sometimes that’s just what the Doctor ordered, complicated brain food to wrangle your synapses. It would be interesting and engaging live, as much to watch their fingers, wondering quite how the hell it is done.
Talking of, here’s a live clip of the opening track: