By James Keelaghan
It should be no surprise to you that with a name like Keelaghan, I know a bit about Celtic flavoured music. It might surprise you that it’s not the fiddle in Irish trad that really gets me going — it’s the tenor banjo.
There is a whole twisted and fascinating history of how the banjo got into Irish music, but however it got there, I think the music is the better for it.
For a number of years, the tenor banjo all but disappeared from traditional celtic music. In the ballad heavy 50s and 60s, the five-string banjo was king. But with the trad revival of the 70s, it came roaring back. Kieran Hanrahan of Stockton’s Wing and Mick Moloney brought it to the fore. I was backpacking in Ireland in 1979 at the height of the revival and the sound of the tenor banjo was the soundtrack of my travels.
It went out of fashion for a while, but there’s been another renaissance, though the resurgence has been mainly in Canada. Composers like the late Jean-Paul Loyer and players like Darren McMullen, who was with us last year as part of Còig, have been bringing it back.
Which brings me to The East Pointers, who are joining us for the first time at Summerfolk this year. The East Pointers are a wicked band. Wicked! Tim Chaisson is surely one of the finest fiddlers on the planet, and a great songwriter in his solo career. Jake Charron is a rock-solid rhythm guitar player-like a machine, he drives the tunes forward. And then, there is the tenor banjo player, Koady Chaisson. His playing is staccato, but it isn’t square. It pushes and it pulls, but it never drags. When all three instruments suddenly land on the melody line, it’s electric, played with a precision that is at odds with the laid-back look of the group. You wonder how much they must have played in order to be so pristine. They don’t play it sitting down, either, which is also a change. It adds to the raw energy of their sets.
Here’s the best thing—all the tunes are new. There are no old chestnuts, but every single tune sounds like it’s already a part of the tradition. It helps that the Chaissons (Tim and Koady are cousins) are one of the dynastic musical families on PEI. There have been at least seven generations of musical Chaissons on the island. While the taste in the family has always run to the Scottish, The East Pointers have brought in the Irish and the French to create a sound that not only raises the roof, but rattles the floor. Add Tim working on a stomp box and the pickup system that allows Jake to play bass as well as guitar—it is innovation-advancing tradition at its very best.
I get excited about music that has a bloodline that goes along with the melody line. Music that knows where it came from is inherently more interesting than a flavour of the week, or music from an artist that is dipping a toe into a genre.
Lindi Ortega is serious about the bloodline of country music. Last year she wrote an article partly in response to some things that Blake Shelton said. Specifically his contention that, “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music” and his reasoning that sales are the only measure of good country music. What bugged Ortega was that Shelton’s solution to making country more popular is that commercial country music is now a …“bro country” domain. It is a world full of frat boys, partying and drinking, and making sure their women wear tight jeans and are referred to as “girl”.
She summed it up beautifully. “Gone are the days of originality, not only in style but in songwriting. In that classic era you could tell the difference between Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Artists were easily discernible and legends arose because of their unique qualities that made them not only country music legends, but revered and respected all over the world.”
Ortega is nothing if not discernible. She doesn’t fit the mold. You get the feeling that she probably stands out at industry mixers. That’s bound to happen in a world that often mistakes fashion for achievement. In a town that is notoriously hard on artists that are “different”, critics have nothing but praise for her. Universally, the praise refers to her as refreshing. They then point out that the refreshing thing about Lindi is that she has a classic sound and classic sensibility.
Her songwriting style is confessional, but not self-indulgent. In this, she is solidly in the bloodline of country music. She writes and sings stories that are missing from mainstream commercial country. She’s not singing about pick-ups and beer. It’s about heartache and being from the wrong side of the tracks. It’s about good women and bad choices.
Her singing voice is true, but has rough edges. It’s a voice with character, easily identifiable. If you HAD to make a comparison to a voice from the classic generation, I’d choose Kitty Wells singing It wasn’t God that made Honkey Tonk Angels.
She’s been known to play some classic covers during her sets, but like The East Pointers, she’s really all about moving the tradition forward. To make people realize that their grandpa’s music was pretty good, and that’s the standard you have to write to.
The refreshingly classic Lindi Ortega and new tradition of The East Pointers will be gracing the stages of the 41st annual Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival on August 19, 20, and 21st at Kelso Beach Park. There’s more info at summerfolk.org.