Folk Radio – Livewire

Johnny Whalley - Folk Radio

I’ve often commented in reviews how encouraging to adventurous new music the Glasgow environment has been in recent years. Mec Lir, for sure, is a band that has flourished in this milieu, playing gigs around the city since 2014, attracting an enthusiastic following and earning appearances at Lorient’s Festival Interceltique and Celtic Colours in Cape Breton. However, it likely remains the case, the individual members are more widely known than the band itself, but that should certainly change with the release of Livewire, their debut album. The quartet is made up of fiddler Tomas Callister and bouzouki player Adam Rhodes, both already well-established on the Glasgow scene with Ímar, and prior to that with Manx band Barrule, Greg Barry, the acclaimed drummer from Elephant Sessions and keyboard player David Kilgallon, one half of Isle of Man-based duo, Chronicles. With three of the four having been brought up on the Isle of Man, it’s no surprise that the island’s tradition and culture infuse much of the band’s music. However, it’s the rich musical tapestry the band lays on top of these roots that turn Mec Lir’s music into something to be welcomed with unbridled enthusiasm.

It looks as though, for a band’s first album, Livewire has had a long gestation period. In reality, they started work on it back in 2017 with the intention of releasing it in 2018. Having overrun that original timetable, commitments with their other projects were in the way during 2018 and ‘19. They were just getting back up to speed in early 2020 when, as Adam put it, “the world hit pause”. No longer able to travel and meet up, they either faced another long delay or could switch the recording process to remote mode. Taking the second path presented an opportunity to incorporate guests more readily into the album and, while they’d always intended to have a couple, they’ve ended up with seven.

Livewire opens with a set of three reels, two traditional Irish, the third written by Tom, the track taking its title from the first tune, Repeal the Union. From the outset, a lively rhythm is set from the bouzouki plus the bodhrán of first guest, Adam Brown. An obvious choice of guest given he plays with Tom and Adam in Ímar. First in with the melody is Tom’s fiddle but that’s soon joined by banjo from guest number two, Ciaran Ryan of Dallahan. Fiddle and banjo are in charge of the tunes through most of the track, supported by an array of further guests, the button accordion of Paddy Callaghan, whistle from Calum Stewart and electric guitar from Davie Dunsmuir. Each of these five guests plays on at least three further tracks. In fact, the four core members of Mec Lir are only by themselves for one out of nine tracks. This opener makes it clear, having invited guests on to the album, Mec Lir are going to embrace the opportunity and give the band as big and as varied a sound palette as they can. They’ve succeeded superbly.

They’ve succeeded superbly.

All the guests apart from Calum, stay with us for Woodstock Lenny, three slides from the trad. Irish repertoire, and are joined by Rachel Hair, adding harp to the mix. The opening section pitches a stuttery rhythm from Greg’s drums against David’s slightly more flowing synths before fiddle and banjo step in to stabilise both rhythm and tune. The tunes continue apace with various instruments taking their turns in the foreground until the tempo slackens, and arpeggios from the guitar over gently swirling synth give everyone a breather for a few seconds. Then drums renew their beat, the fiddle returns and off we go again.

Calum is back for the next track, Flashback, his low whistle joining Tom’s fiddle on a march written by Tom and followed by one of Calum’s pieces, giving a chance for his uillean pipes to shine. After the hell for leather pace of the first two tracks Flashback could almost be considered pedestrian, almost. There’s a sense throughout of a band straining at the leash, they hold themselves in check, until the final 10 seconds release David into a burst of Wakeman-esque synthesizer.

The opening section of Väsen really does slow the pace, strings and synth together are positively pastoral and even when the drums start, it’s a restrained, gentle beat over which Tom’s fiddle brings in the trad. Irish tune, Bunch of Keys, inevitably taken up by Ciaran’s banjo. Later, the seventh guest, Sarah Markey, joins in with her wooden flute and as she does the pace starts to quicken. It doesn’t get back up to full speed until the second half of the track, Garageschottis, written by Mikael Marin of Swedish trio Väsen. Fiddle and banjo are, again, largely carrying the tune with Davie’s electric guitar adding a background that bursts to the fore in a blistering solo.

The next track, Arrane Oie Vie, returns the band to the island where three out of the four grew up. Man has a Gaelic tradition, but it’s one that’s suffered an even greater degree of neglect than its close relatives in Ireland and Scotland. Indeed, the last native speaker of Manx Gaelic, Ned Maddrell, died in 1974. Mec Lir have interwoven a 1948 recording of him recounting a Manx tale with their arrangement of the traditional song that gives the track its title. Tom plays the melody of the song as a slow air and is backed by David playing gently lyrical piano and synth. Such a contrast to all that precedes it on the album is a timely reminder that, look beyond the drums and the electronics, and you see a band whose music grows from, and remains rooted in, the Celtic tradition.

It’s notable that for Arrane Oie Vie, Mec Lir haven’t incorporated any guests in the line-up and Earthbound, a track that also presents a marked contrast of style, similarly features the core band, though with the addition of Adam Brown on bodhrán. The tunes are jigs and reels, two composed by Tom, the third Québécois. Tom’s fiddle carries the melody throughout, fading to allow David’s piano to provide links between the tunes and a delightful closing passage. Behind the fiddle, bouzouki, drums and bodhrán set a rhythm as driving as you’d expect for jigs and reels but simpler than on many of the other tracks. This leaves the spotlight very much on the fiddle. It is, however, the synth track that provides Earthbound with its most powerful contrast. Organ-like in its introduction, once the fiddle starts the synth focusses on chords extended almost to breaking point, giving an effect the band quite reasonably describes as ethereal.

Livewire closes with Palm Bay (all day), bringing back all five of the original guests and putting together a track that typifies what I’ve come to think of as the Mec Lir Big Band. Back comes the insistent drumbeat, fiddle and banjo battle to dominate the melody (in the nicest possible way) and occasionally back off to give guitar or whistle a turn in the spotlight. Behind this, all the instruments weave a tapestry of sound that has such depth maybe a luxurious Persian carpet might be a better analogy. As the track nears its end, the other instruments drop away, leaving the guitar and synthesizer locked in a frenetic duet. But how do you end a track as powerful as this? Well, you could just let it fade away and that’s what they do, giving context to the tracks sub-title. Greg, Davie and David do sound as though they could have gone on all day.

packed with music that deserves to be played in front of an audience, preferably one going mental
It’s not particularly unusual to make use of a synthesizer in folk-rock nowadays but the degree of imagination shown by the entire band and the expertise of David Kilgallon in bringing those imaginings to fruition set Mec Lir apart. Add to that, the brilliance shown by the other three members on their more conventional instruments, especially Tomas Callister’s fiddle, and you have a combination that promises much for the future. Clearly, the peculiar circumstances of 2020 played a part in shaping Livewire, freeing up both the band and their guests to focus on this recording. Whether or not the “big band” will be able to make any further appearances only time will tell but I’m already full of anticipation for the second Mec Lir album in whatever form it takes. For now, Livewire is packed with music that deserves to be played in front of an audience, preferably one going mental. If not at the start, it will be, only minutes into the set. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy it in your living room, I did. Just don’t expect to stay still while you’re doing it.