Transatlantic Sessions

Venue: Philharmonic Hall
Town: Liverpool
Date: 5/2/15

Like Christmas, New Year and Easter, the Transatlantic Sessions tour is a perennial fixture in my diary and has been for many years. I love its format of an all-star, twelve-piece house band plus special guest vocalists and would not miss it for the world. As in previous years, line-up of musicians and singers was simply fabulous ; this year's "special guests" were Rodney Crowell, Patty Griffin, Sara Watkins, John Smith and Kathleen MacInnes, a pretty impressive line-up, I am sure you will agree.

As if that were not enough we had top-notch house band. On the American side, led by the amazing Jerry Douglas, we had a superb line-up of Tim O'Brien, Dirk Powell and Russ Barenberg. On the Celtic side, led by the wonderful Aly Bain we had a stupendous instrumental front line of Phil Cunningham, John McCusker, Mike McGoldick and Donald Shaw.

Last but by no means least was the impeccable rhythm section of Danny Thompson [one of my all-time musical heroes for his work with Pentangle, John Martyn, Richard Thompson and many more], James Mackintosh and John Doyle.

With such a fantastic array of musicians and singers, this promised to be a cracking concert and so it turned out to be. Three hours of pure magic.

As well as the big name American artists, what impressed me greatly were the two "home grown" singers, Kathleen MacInnes and John Smith.

To be honest, I had not previously heard Kathleen sing before this evening, but when she sang a Gaelic hymn, the English title of which is "Star Of The Sea", I was immediately struck by her wonderful voice. Fortunately, we had another chance to hear Kathleen later in the evening when she delivered an equally lovely Gaelic prayer, the title of which translates as "The Sun".

It seemed to me that tonight was a rather momentous one for English singer-songwriter John Smith as he was playing in his adopted home town of Liverpool. John revealed that when he was still a student, he used to work behind the bar here at the wonderful Philharmonic Hall and that he used to sneak in to the back of the hall and watch the gigs. Now he was playing in the very same hall to a capacity crowd alongside some of the very best musicians in the folk and roots world!

John also had an advantage over his bandmates in that he could nip home to Aigburth to get his washing done!

John performed two of his own superb songs, "The Freezing Winds Of Change" and "Great Lakes" in his rich, deep voice and received a well-deserved ovation from his home-crowd. Jerry Douglas is on record as saying that John is one of his favourite new artists and you can understand why.

Another highlight of this wonderful evening was Dirk Powell's tribute to his grandfather "Waterbound", which according to Aly Bain is "the nearest thing to a hit for The Transatlantic Sessions". Certainly, it is a great song.

Guitarist John Doyle stepped up to the front of the stage from the back line to deliver a lovely song called "I Never Let You Know" and for me this was a revelation as I had not heard him sing before. Clearly, John is more than "just" a great guitar player.

Tim O'Brien is a regular member of the Transatlantic crew and tonight he led a Country-Gospel Quartet consisting of himself, Dirk Powell, Patty Griffin and Rodney Crowell in an inspirational rendition of "Before This Time Another Year" which was absolutely wonderful.

Clearly, it is not possible to mention every artist's contribution individually but it would be remiss of me not to mention the fantastic performance by Rodney Crowell.

I have been a fan of Rodney's since I first saw him play with Emmylou Harris's Hot Band way back in the 1970's. He is a consummate songwriter and performer and tonight he was simply peerless. He performed two songs at the end of each half of the show.

The first pair were "Kid From Tennessee" and a stonking version of Hank Williams's "Honky Tonk Blues", which had the crowd buzzing as they went for their interval refreshments.

At the end of the second set, we had the highlight of the night for me, as the band segued from John McCusker's beautiful tune [from his early days in the Battlefield Band] "Leaving Friday Harbour" into Rodney's superb " Til I Can Gain Control Again". This has, traditionally been a duet between Rodney and Emmylou Harris but tonight Emmy's cowboy boots were more than ably filled by Sara Watkins [of Nickel Creek fame]. Rodney and Sara re-created what, for me, is one of the greatest country duets ever, with some superb harmony singing.

Rodney's final song was a suitably rousing version of "Leaving Louisiana" which had an authentic Cajun flavour, courtesy of Dirk Powell's accordion, and which brought the crowd to their feet.

The evening ended as it began, with a set of tunes by the best house band in the world.

Roll on Transatlantic Sessions 2016!

Peter Cowley

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