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What’s in a Tune?

10 May 2010

Fear not:  Cousin Curly’s got lots more sights and sounds to share from his recent southern trip, but right now, we’re going to take a brief detour— a slight step back in time, in fact.  Check out this tasty jam from a workshop with the inimitable Joe Walsh (mandolinist with the Gibson Brothers) at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival

Walsh is accompanied first by Courtney Hartman on guitar and later by Kimber Ludiker on fiddle.  Ludiker and her fiddle literally arrive half-way through the song (you can hear her unpacking her instrument in the background).  This tune represents the first time these three musicians had played together.

The composition featured here, “Saint Anne’s Reel,” started out as a French Canadian fiddle tune and has since spread far and wide.  I used to think people knew it in New England because it’s a staple of contra dancing, but I’ve since run into it all over the place.

At Merlefest, I heard a band play a version of the tune with electric guitar and drums.  Not to beat a dead horse (see my previous post on drums and string bands), but that amped up version, while a lot of fun, was as good an illustration as any of how drumming can “straighten out” a tune.  Lay a “boom-chuck-a” rhythm behind “Saint Anne’s Reel” and it suddenly sounds an awful lot like a polka.  In contrast, in the version I’ve posted here, you can see how Walsh & Co. minutely push and pull the rhythms to give the tune a real bounce.

While I’m sucking all the life out of a fine performance, let me take the opportunity to note a good example of how expert musicians can trade licks to form a kind of musical conversation.  Just about half way into this jam (the 2:15 mark), Hartman plays a little C#-D-E-C#-A phrase:

This phrase isn’t in the original melody, and in playing it, perhaps Hartman was simply transitioning from one chord pattern to another.  Whatever the case, you can hear how Walsh almost immediately seizes upon the phrase, as if to say, “Hey, that’s interesting…” Hartman in turn plays just a fragment of the phrase— now dropped down an octave— just before Ludiker joins in and takes the conversation in new directions.

Last point:  check out how fluently Walsh throws in fistfuls of “passing chords” as he backs Hartman’s solo.  The role these transitional chords have in defining Walsh’s sound can’t be overstated. They lend his playing a sweet and melancholy flavor or color that’s absolutely his own.  Hartman also employs passing chords to nice effect, particularly in the last run-throughs of the tune.

If you like what you heard, Ludiker and Della Mae are playing several shows in the Boston area over the next week or two.

Yer Pal— Curly

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