I had never even heard of John McCusker before being given his album to review, but from the first few seconds of Calendar Boys I was glad that that was about to change. An atmospheric stringed introduction precedes an almost tribal combination of bass and percussion. Then the fiddle comes in, changing the tone of the piece completely whilst still retaining the same intriguing quality that can only make one wonder what is coming next. The first tune finishes weaving, and then the piece develops rapidly into a pleasant jig. We’re not even a song into the album, and already we’ve heard a vast range of styles on a wide variety of instruments. Unfortunately there are no sleeve notes to the album, so a listener is forced to rely on ear to distinguish between the instruments, and the other players are left anonymous, but by the second track we can already see that McCusker is not going to hold back in showing us what he can do.
After the six-and-a-half minute opener finishes, It’s A Girl picks up where the first track left off. The atmosphere is more relaxed again as the slower tune delves into a combination of bowed lead with plucked accompaniment on the string section. Eventually the calmness fades away as the percussion kicks in, and we’re given a very danceable and pleasant tune. The Wedding continues the journey with light overtones, and the first change between tunes in this track is the most pleasing transition so far. Picture yourself strolling through the Scottish highlands on a sunny afternoon, perhaps in between two scenic countryside pubs, and stopping to admire the view of the rolling hills and valleys below: that is the feeling this set gives you, before Bothy Jigs gets you leaping out of your seat and ready to dance again. The Milk Carton Kids, like its predecessors, starts of slow before building up later in the piece; however thanks to the sudden transition from its faster predecessor, this is the kind of tune that immediately makes you stop whatever else you’re doing in order to listen – a truly beautiful piece of music, full of hope and promise but with a slightly lamenting flavour as the piece progresses.
The next two tunes progress quickly, offering similar tones to their earlier counterparts, before we are allowed to taste the title track. McCusker has displayed his virtuosity and attention to detail well throughout the album so far, but the tracks like this one are really where he stands out: where he isn’t merely playing as fast as he can, but when he manages to make all of the instruments come together and weave around each other in the arrangement in a way that is both rhythmically interesting and catchy. Just when I thought this tune was starting to tire, it once again shifted into something entirely unexpected; never failing to catch your attention. Despite my best efforts, I could not help but nodding my head up and down to the beat as the track slips into its climax.
Molly’s Waltz and the accompanying Heidi’s Waltz pass by calmly as well, with the latter of the two standing out to me as the one I preferred immediately, though again that is likely because, to me, it conjures up another pleasant rustic image to my mind. Going back to my earlier Scottish highland comment, the entire album so far seems like the perfect soundtrack to taking your dog out for a countryside walk on a warm summer’s evening; just as well that it’s out in mid-Spring then I suppose! As we start to reach the final few songs, Billy’s delves back into interesting rhythm combinations as the melody picks up speed; but by now it begins to feel like we have heard all McCusker has to offer.
Just as that thought begins to settle in, Tune for Nana opens up with something different in the woodwind section. It’s a sleepy track, but brings back the earlier serenity of track five. It’s a tune that sounds almost like a traditional Scottish funerary dirge. The boundaries set by the earlier parts of the album are crossed with the tune here, and it shows again that we never quite know what to expect from McCusker until we have heard it. Under One Sky finishes up the album with a reprise of fiddle playing, before the tune shifts again into a more climatic ending worthy of any folk-rock band. It is a track that is sure to get audiences dancing on or off their seats when McCusker tours it with his accompanying band upon the album’s release, and a worthy finisher.
At times, Hello, Goodbye can feel a little tiresome. It is, after all, over an hour of instrumental fiddle virtuosity which, to those folk fans like me who enjoy a good sing-along, can feel a bit daunting. McCusker successfully makes this his strength, however, by ensuring that no tune feels the same as another. Each one brings an entirely unique part to the whole, and just as it starts to make your mind wander he shifts the sound yet again, showing to all why he deserves the title of a genre-crossing musician, and making sure that you cannot help but listen attentively to every note of every track. The title track is one to watch out for, as well as The Milk Carton Kids and Tune for Nana, but the whole album is sure to be a crowd pleaser live, and I hope I get the chance to jig along to McCusker’s tunes with the rest of an audience soon enough.
Review by Simon James Chisholm
The John McCusker Band, featuring some of the finest traditional musicians including Andy Cutting, Adam Holmes, Innes White & Toby Shaer, will embark on an extensive UK tour in April/May:
John McCusker ‘Hello, Goodbye’ Tour
Apr 15 Glasgow – St Andrew’s in the Square
Apr 16 Edinburgh – The Queen’s Hall
Apr 17 Banchory – Woodend Barn
Apr 20 Peebles – Eastgate Theatre
Apr 21 Barnard Castle – The Witham
Apr 22 Ramsbottom – Civic Hall
Apr 23 Darley Dale -The Whitworth Centre
Apr 24 Canterbury – Gulbenkian Theatre
Apr 25 Nettlebed – The Village Club
Apr 26 Cambridge – Junction
Apr 27 London – Royal Albert Hall – BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards
Apr 28 London – Cecil Sharp House
Apr 29 Shoreham-by-Sea – The Ropetackle Arts Centre
Apr 30 Worcester – Huntingdon Hall
May 01 Lincoln – Drill Hall
May 03 York – NCEM
May 04 Liverpool – The Music Room
May 05 Saltaire – Victoria Hall
May 06 Kendal – Brewery Arts Centre
May 07 Stirling – Tolbooth
May 09 Paisley – Arts Centre
May 10 Birnam – Birnam Arts
May 11 Findhorn – Universal Hall