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Holiday Gift Guide: Folk, Blues, Bluegrass and Celtic

by Glenn Weiser on December 12, 2013


The compact disc may be on the wane, but nonetheless several good releases in the folk, blues, bluegrass and Celtic genres saw the light of day this year. If you have a roots-music fan on your holiday shopping list, here’s where you can begin:

 “Magic Sam” Maghett only lived to be 32, but his crisp, economical guitar phrasing and churchy vocals made him one of the foremost performers of the West Side style of Chicago blues. Live at the Avant Garde (Delmark), recorded at a June 22, 1968 appearance at a Milwaukee nightspot, has drawn raves from blueshounds for the quality of the sound and Sam’s playing itself. Magic Sam is backed by Big Mojo Elem on bass and Bob Richey on the skins.

On the acoustic end of the blues spectrum, Rory Block has paid homage to Delta bluesman Mississippi John Hurt with her new Avalon (Stoneyplain). This disc, the fourth in her Mentor series of tributes to great blues artists, is named after the Mississippi town where Hurt, who had recorded in 1928, was rediscovered by blues researchers in the early 1960s (he thought they were FBI agents at first, as his brother was a moonshiner). Block’s fingerstyle guitar chops and singing are in top form on this solo collection of Hurt’s now-familiar songs.

Bluegrass stalwart and Bill Monroe alumnus Del McCoury honed his craft playing the bars of Baltimore over 50 years ago, and now he and his band have tipped their hats to Charm City with The Streets of Baltimore (McCoury Music). McCoury mostly sticks to his old-school traditional sound here, but there are some dustings of jazz and even that most unlikely of bluegrass instruments, the piano, to enliven the mix. McCoury has consistently delivered fine releases over the years, and this latest upholds his reputation as one of the leading names in bluegrass.

After winning the IMBA’s Entertainer of the Year award last year, the Empire State’s own Gibson Brothers went to Nashville to cut They Called It Music (Compass). The Gibsons have cornered the market on the duet harmony vocals that were the cornerstone of bluegrass, and the album abundantly showcases their acclaimed singing. This also may be their last disc to feature mandolin whiz Joe Walsh, who has since left the group.

Folk icon Dave Van Ronk was known as the “mayor of McDougal Street,” and his biography of that name has just been fictionalized in Ethan Coen’s new film Inside Llewyn Davis.  Coinciding with this, Smithsonian/Folkways has put out Down in Washington Square, a 3-volume retrospective of his music stretching from the 1950s to some of his last sessions, cut shortly before his passing in 2002. Van Ronk played Dixieland rhythm guitar before jumping on the folk bandwagon, and several of the New Orleans standards he established as fingerpicking chestnuts appear on the record. As he himself conceded, no one at the time could equal Bob Dylan’s songwriting talent, but then again few could match Van Ronk’s acoustic guitar chops, and his gruff, jazzy vocal prowess.

Twenty-thirteen is the 150th anniversary of several pivotal Civil War battles including Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg. For the occasion ATO Records has released the 2-disc set United and Divided, a stellar anthology of Civil War-era songs performed by Norman Blake, Taj Mahal, Jourma Koukonen, Chris Thile, Ralph Stanley, The Old Crow Medicine Show, Vince Gill, and others. As living down south has reminded this Yankee, the war left an indelible stamp on the nation; this collection is a worthy celebration of the music to emerge from that great struggle.

Considering that the Celtic music revival that began in Ireland in the 1950s was nurtured by classically trained musicians like Sean O’Raida and later Derek Bell of the Chieftains, Lunasa With The RTE Concert Orchestra (Lunasa Records) is a natural outgrowth of the roots of that resurgence. Following the success of a joint concert in Ireland last year by the traditional group Lunasa with the national orchestra, the musicians repaired to the studio to record nine tracks of mostly Irish airs and dances. The result is a splendid disc that takes Irish music out of the pub and into the symphony hall, where you’ll hear it with new ears.

Smithsonian/Folkways has continued its classic anthology series with Classic Celtic Music, a 23-track compilation of previously released Irish, Scottish, and Northumbrian songs and dance tunes. Gathered together are fiddlers Kevin Burke and Jean Carignan, pipers Billy Pigg and Willie Clancy, folksingers Louis Killen and Ewan McColl, and many others. The Smithsonian Folkways anthologies have been great all along, and this one is a must for Celtic fans.