Laura Cortese & The Dance Cards

Venue: Grateful Fred's Café Sessions At Cafe D'Art
Towns: Formby
Dates: 18/5/15

Tonight it was a case of "from the Conservatoire to the Conservatory" as the highly talented, all-female chamber folk trio Laura Cortese and The Dance Cards played in the intimate surroundings of Formby's Café D'Art.

My reference to the Conservatoire relates to the fact that all three members of this band studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, which is regarded as the world's foremost institute for the study of modern American music.

The band leader is, of course, Laura Cortese who is a fantastic fiddle player and vivacious vocalist. Laura, who is originally from San Francisco, is probably best known to British audiences as a member of bluegrass band Uncle Earl [who I had the pleasure of seeing at Liverpool Philharmonic some time ago]. Laura has also played with Tao Seeger, Band of Horses and took part in Pete Seeger's 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden.

Laura's most recent album is "Into The Dark", from which much of tonight's set was drawn.

Also playing fiddle [but by no means second fiddle] is Mariel Vandersteel, whose playing combines Old Time and Norwegian Hardanger fiddle styles, as can be heard on her delightful debut solo album "Hickory". Mariel also plays with contemporary string band Blue Moose and The Unbuttoned Zippers.

Third member of the trio is cellist Valerie Thompson who has studied classical cello since the age of ten. Valerie also plays with Fluttr Effect, a "world infused progressive rock band", which sounds like a most interesting concept!

You might think that as this trio are all classically trained, their music would be staid and reserved. Not a bit of it ! With their twin fiddle attack underpinned by Valerie's fleet and rhythmic cello, they really rock!

From the evocative opening notes of "Train On The Island" it was clear that this band are something special and so it proved over their two sets tonight.

My favourite track on "Into The Dark" is the mysterious title track, tonight's performance of which was full of drama and tension, building from the plucked strings at the beginning to the swirling, cello-based climax, not forgetting the rather scary vocal effects. Great stuff.

Another highlight from Laura's album is her superb version of Laura Veirs' "Life Is Good Blues". Tonight's frenetic live version was even better, a cross between chamber music and rock.

During the interval it started raining heavily and the sound of rain on the conservatory roof added an ambient element to the music which was appreciated by both the band and the audience.

Laura introduced three new songs from her next album, starting with "Wishing On A Skipping Stone", with pizzicato strings and lovely vocal harmonies, followed by "California Is Calling Me", a rhythmic number with more exuberant harmonies. The third new one was about internet dating!

Next it was Mariel's turn to take the lead on a couple of fiddle tunes, the first of which was a lovely slow waltz which was followed by a superb uptempo version of Dirk Powell's "Three Forks Of The Cumberland", which features on Mariel's "Hickory" album.

Another cracking track on "Into The Dark" is Sean Staples' Cajun stomper "Heel To Toe" [which features the aforementioned Dirk Powell] and tonight's live version of this "dance party sensation"[Laura's description] was every bit as good !

Finishing off the second set was a stirring version of the Shaker hymn "Lay Me Low", as adapted by John Tams. This glorious version featured an a capella coda beautifully sung by Laura, Mariel and Valerie.

Of course, the band could not leave without an encore and for this they played an unplugged version of "Night Train To Chelsea" from Laura's album "Even The Lost Creek". The band created a wonderful atmosphere as they played amidst the audience and the song featured some gorgeous cello from Valerie. A lovely way to end a lovely evening.

Peter Cowley

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