Live at the Grand Pavilion
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
An excellent calling card for the band and a good demonstration of the energy levels they are capable of generating in concert.
“Live At The Grand Pavilion”
(Easy on the Records EOTR01)
Mabon are a six piece instrumental Celtic folk band from South Wales led by the talented young accordionist Jamie Smith. In a three pronged front line the group also includes violinist Oliver Wilson-Dickson and Scottish born flautist and piper Calum Stewart. Smith’s father Derek plays acoustic guitar in a largely rhythmic capacity and the band is given extra clout by the inclusion of electric bassist Matt Downer and drummer/percussionist Iolo Whelan. Indeed it’s Downer who is responsible for one of the band’s most distinctive elements. His powerful bass lines, whether played on his unusual electric upright bass or on a more conventional bass guitar, add jazz and funk elements that are rarely heard in what is essentially a folk setting.
Although they include one or two traditional items in their repertoire Mabon specialise in original tunes, most of these coming from the pen of the prolific Jamie Smith. He adapts traditional folk forms-jigs, reels, mazurkas etc.-and gives them a contemporary twist, the titles often reflecting a wicked, slightly surreal sense of humour.
I recently saw the band play a very enjoyable concert at the Assembly Rooms in the town of Presteigne on the Welsh Borders. The level of musicianship was uniformly high throughout and the group’s sense of humour very much intact. However the sit down nature of the venue muted the audience response and it all seemed a little too polite, and one sensed that the group were playing within themselves.
There’s nothing to suggest that on this live recording made at The Grand Pavilion in Porthcawl close to the band’s home town of Bridgend. Mabon have a reputation as folk festival favourites for their energetic performances and this high octane live album shows why. The recording was made with violinist Ruth Angell replacing Wilson-Dickson otherwise the line up is the one that I saw at Presteigne. Much of the material is the same as that featured in the Presteigne set and a number of these tunes also appear on the band’s two studio albums “Ridiculous Thinkers” (2004) and “OK Pewter”-great title- from 2007.
Things get off to a storming start with Smith’s “The Hustler” with chugging, interlocking accordion/fiddle/wooden flute lines and Derek Smith’s guitar pacing the arrangement. It’s actually a set of two tunes with bass and drums coming in during the second tune and giving the already lively music a mighty kick up the backside. Jamie Smith is the star instrumentalist but it’s a solid team effort all round.
The pace doesn’t relate on “Schindig” with propulsive bass and drums evident from the start urging the front line on to even more furious,breakneck playing. The enthusiastic Welsh audience breaks into spontaneous clapping along-we had to be rather cajoled into it at Presteigne- and I’d surmise that the Porthcawl date was a standing show.
“The Buck Rarebit” adds a touch more subtlety to the proceedings, the soaring melody providing a feature for the wooden flute of Stewart before things take off again during the second part of the tune.
Next up is a set of two Mazurkas. “Kinnersley Castle” is named after a splendid old house in my native Herefordshire and is thus worth a mention. It’s a courtly piece again featuring Stewart on flute. The second tune in the set “La Mazurka de l’Accordeoniste” centres on Jamie Smith as the title suggests.
“Fiddler’s Despair” is another tour de force for Jamie as his two front line colleagues sit out. It’s a fast moving piece featuring bravado accordion playing over propulsive rhythms and rumbling bass grooves.
“The Tale Of Nikolai, The Dancing Bear” begins slowly with mournful fiddle and accordion before suddenly erupting into fast and furious action. These two modes of expression alternate throughout the course of the piece in a crowd pleasing display of dynamics that introduce an element of Russian/klezmer music into the group’s mainly Celtic inspired repertoire.
“Divers Alarums” represents a bit of a breather, but its flowing melody is hugely affecting with flute, accordion and fiddle sharing the lead and coalescing beautifully. There’s also wonderful liquid electric bass from Downer that draws its inspiration from the more lyrical moments of Jaco Pastorius.
“La Randonee” (it’s French for excursion) is a return to the band’s foot-stomping default setting and after a quiet opening the energy levels are maintained throughout the set of tunes going under the collective title of “File Under Biddley”. It’s obvious the audience are up and dancing and the group return for an encore of “Easy on The Reels” which incorporates a frenetic version of the traditional tune “Hen Ferchetan”.
“Live At The Grand Pavilion” is an excellent calling card for the band and a good demonstration of the energy levels they are capable of generating in concert. It’s very much Jamie Smith’s band but although he’s the dominant instrumentalist there are fine individual contributions from everybody concerned. Whelan is one of those drummers who is clearly a frustrated front man, the group’s Presteigne performance saw him coming to the front of the stage tambourine in hand, much in the manner of Oysterband’s Lee Partis for the piece “Galician Stylee”.
Mabon have established a cult following for their highly skilful, highly energetic performances. They played a successful set at this year’s Cropredy Festival and I’m sure they’d also go down a storm at my favourite folk/roots festival the Oysterband curated Big Session Festival held each June at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall, an event which features elsewhere on this site.
“Mabon Live” contains a bonus DVD filmed at the Quay Arts Centre, Newport, Isle of Wight on the same tour. It’s much the same set as on the audio CD but with my DVD player currently out of action I’m unable to make further comment on this at the present time.
Mabon’s reputation as a live act should continue to grow but if they are to progress further they should perhaps be looking to add a greater emotional and dynamic range to their material and possibly Jamie Smith should be looking to write songs and adding a vocal element to the band. He likes to describe himself as a “tunesmith” but this would not only represent a challenge to his abilities but also be the next logical step if the group are to expand their audience still further. As Oysterband have proved this step can be made with no reduction in quality or artistic integrity. Indeed the Oysters have blossomed since moving on from their instrumental ceilidh roots, their song based repertoire presents a substantial body of work that deals with personal and political matters in an eloquent, powerful and poetic fashion. Their live shows however have an energy and passion that makes audiences dance and think at the same time.
Mabon certainly have the personnel to make this move should they decide to do so. The rhythm section are clearly highly adaptable and in Wilson-Dickson they have a highly versatile violinist who has worked with Tea Hodzic,Luke Carver-Goss, The Ian McMillan Orchestra and others. It’s up to Jamie Smith what direction he wants to take the band in next but in the meantime “Live At The Grand Pavilion” is an accomplished, energetic and very enjoyable album in its own right.
The band are currently touring. Details of dates and of album releases, merchandise etc. can be found at http://www.jamiesmithsmabon.com
We have been contacted by the band’s percussionist Iolo Whelan to inform us of important changes relating to the group and their music. Here’s what Iolo has to say;
“You may be aware of the band’s developent this year, or if not, you may have guessed by now! Mabon has disbanded, and a new band, under the new title “Jamie Smith’s MABON” is picking up where Mabon left off. There is one personnel change in the form of Adam Rhodes on bouzouki, who replaces Derek Smith on guitar. Another development in the band’s sound is the inclusion of some vocal tracks to augment the existing instrumental repertoire.”
Are we prophetic, or what?
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