The Dan Cassidy Swing Quartet, Lydbury North Village Hall, Shropshire. 24/05/2012
Friday, May 25, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
An evening of pure entertainment, a blend of wit, warmth and humour with superb musicianship.
The Dan Cassidy Swing Quartet, Lydbury North Village Hall, Shropshire, 27/05/2012.
It’s two years since I reviewed a show by violinist Dan Cassidy’s Swing Quartet at the Lion Hotel Ballroom in Shrewsbury. That was a hugely enjoyable evening enlivened both by Cassidy’s drily humorous presenting style and some great musicianship. The Shrewsbury performance featured Cassidy’s regular partners James Hickman (rhythm guitar) and Larry Melton (double bass) alongside young guitar wizard Remi Harris who was deputising for the indisposed Gunnar Hilmarsson.
Fast forward a couple of years and Cassidy and the group are touring in the UK again this time with Hilmarsson in tow. I was particularly keen to see the Icelander in the light of his contribution to the band’s excellent début CD “Introducing The Dan Cassidy Swing Quartet” (2009). The album still forms the core of the quartet’s live repertoire but a number of new pieces have entered the set since 2010 and tonight’s performance was far from being a carbon copy of the Shrewsbury show.
For those who don’t know Lydbury North is a village a few miles south of the small Shropshire town of Bishops Castle.On a perfect summer’s evening we popped into BC first for a pint at the world famous Three Tuns pub followed by fish and chips in the town square.
Tonight’s gig was a fund raiser for the proposed new village hall but on a balmy summer’s evening there didn’t seem to be much wrong with the old one. However one of the organisers informed me that the existing premises can get bitterly cold in the winter and that fresh facilities were badly needed. I wish them all the best in their endeavours.
The locals had certainly turned out in force for this event with an audience of around sixty seated cabaret style and pretty much filling the hall. This made for a relaxed, convivial atmosphere with the audience listening attentively to the music and responding enthusiastically to Cassidy and Hickman’s between tunes banter. These two also perform regularly as a folk/roots duo with Hickman handling the vocals. Both are genuinely versatile musicians, able to move between the genres yet bringing something of themselves to each.
The music began with Hickman’s fiercely strummed rhythm guitar introducing “Putting On The Ritz” as Cassidy quickly set his stall out with a virtuoso violin solo punctuated by the occasional double bass break as Melton briefly took over the melody.
Originally from Maryland in the US Cassidy now lives in Iceland but has strong ties with the UK, indeed he lodged with the Hickman family in Shrewsbury for a number of years making him practically a local. He has toured this part of the world regularly and has attracted a loyal following. His humour is arch and self deprecating, delivered in a slow, distinctive American drawl, the wryness and dryness striking a chord with British audiences. I’d heard some of tonight’s tales before and they were still funny. Hickman acts as his foil and is the butt of many of the jokes but when it was his turn to take the mic the process was often reversed. Melton also joined in the fun, particularly with his impressions of Woody Allen and Jimmy Stewart in the second set. Not to be outdone Hilmarsson let his guitar do the talking by stuffing a myriad of quotes, many of them humorous, into his solos.
The Icelander came into his own on the quartet’s version of Gershwin’s “ Oh! Lady Be Good”, his fleet fingers bending the strings and throwing in quotes from Glenn Miller as he soloed opposite Cassidy.
Cassidy has clearly acquired a strong affection for the swing music of the 1930’s (and the fashions, for the show he was wearing spats) and was at pains to point out the origins of many of the tunes. Thus we learned that Cole Porter’s “Night And Day” originally appeared in the 1935 stage show and film “The Gay Divorcee” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Slowing down from the breakneck pace of the first two numbers this was delivered at a mid tempo lope with Cassidy soloing first and later shadowing Hilmarsson, who this time found a way of slipping a quote from the Andy Williams hit “Can’t Take My Eyes off You” into his solo. Cassidy rounded off the piece with a spectacular solo violin cadenza.
Not surprisingly the music of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt forms a large part of the quartet’s repertoire. Their playful version of “Swing ‘39” gave Hilmarsson the chance to “stretch out” (Cassidy’s words) and the guitarist grabbed the opportunity with both hands with a typically dazzling solo.
The quartet’s take on perhaps George Gershwin’s most famous tune, “I Got Rhythm”, was similarly quirky with Hilmarsson and Cassidy exchanging solos before embarking on an entertaining violin/guitar duel during which Hilmarsson lobbed Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water” into the mix. You had to laugh.
Cassidy described Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme” as “cool, sexy and mischievous” and encouraged the audience to snap their fingers along to the beat (he’d already had us shaking hands with our neighbours). Sometimes Cassidy’s sense of humour is reflected in his music and he arched his eyebrows knowingly as he embellished the familiar theme above the rich undertow of Melton’s bass.
The first half ended with “I Only Have Eyes For You”, originally written for the 1930’s Busby Berkeley movie “Dames” and later a hit for both the 1950’s doowop group The Flamingoes and for Art Garfunkel (sometime in the 70’s).Taken at a stately mid tempo the tune featured an absorbing exchange of ideas between Cassidy and Hilmarsson with the James Bond theme the now anticipated quote.
This had been a hugely entertaining and enjoyable first set and the second was to be even better. The group hit the ground running with a lively “Limehouse Blues” with Hilmarsson at full throttle and with “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” the answer in the “spot the quote” game.
Cassidy slowed things down with the ballad “Body And Soul”, originally recorded by singer Annette Hamshaw but made famous by Coleman Hawkins hugely influential tenor sax version. It’s a piece that has been in Cassidy’s locker for some time and which appears on the album. It works surprisingly well as a violin feature with Cassidy injecting a remarkable amount of emotion into his playing.
From the “Hot Club” song book a suitably vivacious “Coquette” featured Cassidy again in outstanding form but in a very different context. Hilmarsson matched him for virtuosity with a snatch of the “Third Man” theme spicing up the arrangement.
The leader drew on his folk roots for the lovely “Barbara’s Waltz”, a dedication to his late grandmother before the quartet upped the wattage for a fast and furious version of “For Saffron”, a contemporary gypsy jazz tune written by guitarist Jimmy Rosenberg. Both Cassidy and Hilmarsson delivered sparkling solos with the guitarist “going ape” and still stuffing in more quotes (Bond again and “The Girl from Ipanema”). They finished by combining for a humorous exchange between guitar and pizzicato violin. This was tremendously exciting stuff that drew a roar of approval from the Shropshire audience.
The pace was maintained through the highly appropriate “Hotter Than Hell”, an old Fletcher Henderson tune that included features for both Cassidy and Hilmarsson and the closing “Minor Swing” which Cassidy dedicated to his late sister, the singer Eva Cassidy. Driven by Hickman’s propulsive rhythm guitar the piece included another quote laden Hilmarsson solo (a reprise of “Pink Panther” and Greig’s “Hall Of The Mountain King”). However the real highlight was the dialogue between Melton on double bass and Cassidy on pizzicato violin, the virtuosity laced with humour as Cassidy plucked the melody line to the old Hot Butter hit “Popcorn” (a very early example of synth pop). He finished with a final flourish with the bow as a delighted audience shouted for more.
The encore was a rousing “Tiger Rag”, the quartet’s usual “come back” number featuring blazing solos from Cassidy and Hilmarsson. Although the two front line instrumentalists share most of the plaudits the “engine room” of Hickman and Melton should not be overlooked. Both did an excellent job this evening, keeping time immaculately and consistently propelling the soloists to fresh heights.
This had been an evening of pure entertainment, a blend of wit, warmth and humour with superb musicianship. Even the local animal population seemed to agree. Sometime during the first set a local farmer released a group of twelve sheep into the field behind the village hall. With the rear door propped open because of the heat their comments on the music could be clearly heard and during “Coquette” in particular they appeared to be getting distinctly rowdy. I’d like to think their baa-ed comments were the equivalents of “yeah!”, “get down!” or “play that thing!” rather than any mark of disapproval. It all added to the atmosphere of a unique event,you don’t get that kind of thing in Dalston I can tell you!
After the show we gave Dan and Gunnar a lift back to the metropolis that is Craven Arms so that they could catch the last train back to Shrewsbury. James was driving himself and Larry plus all the group’s equipment. The life of a touring musician isn’t all glamour, that’s for sure. Anyway we were glad to help out. During the drive Gunnar told me of his love for the contemporary guitar styles of Pat Metheny and Allan Holdsworth.
I’d urge anyone who may read this and lives in the Shropshire area not to miss out and to get yourselves down to Ludlow Assembly Rooms on May 29th 2012 for the last date of the current Swing Quartet tour. You’ll be well entertained I can promise you that.
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