Road to Fort Duquesne
Water & Vines
Celtic music can evoke spry, repetitive melodies created to keep audiences either dancing or crying in their pints (or both), and Pittsburgh's Callán doesn't exactly break from that tradition on its new release, The Road to Fort Duquesne. Fiddle, pipes and accordion drive the melodies with a certain brightness, even in minor keys. The quartet's arrangements, on the other hand, breathe new life into this style.
Several of the tracks are arranged in "sets" -- "Big Jig Set," "Roast Beef Set" -- and come off like medleys of related tunes or variations on a theme. In addition to vocals, Sheila Liming switches between Scottish smallpipes (which often sound like a droning clarinet), tin whistle and accordion. When she switches from pipes to whistle mid-song, in "The Foxhunter Set," the tonal change takes the song away from the rigid verse-chorus format. A rhythmic twist in one section also makes sure any dancers are paying attention.
The Road to Fort Duquesne sounds compelling, partly thanks to its crisp production. Sam Matthews, veteran of numerous guitar-based local bands, recorded Callán without production effects. The unprocessed live sound lets the rhythmic basis of this music come through clearly -- Kip Ruefle's subtle bodhran drumming and Scott Grady's simple but important acoustic strumming. The same can be said for Cara Hayden Masset's fiddle: The uncluttered sound shows off her melodies and gives her instrument a depth that never sounds shrill, even in the upper registers.
Another local group, Devilish Merry, resides in a musical zone where Celtic tradition, American country and other related strains of music join together. Given the musicians' individual resumes, that's no surprise: Jeff Berman (dulcimer) and Sue Powers (vocals, banjo) also play in world-fusion band AppalAsia; Bob Powers (lap steel) plays blues with JJ Burner; and L.E. McCullough is known around the world for his tin-whistle prowess. The group began three decades ago -- a time when genres crossed without any self-conscious attempts at "world beat" and the like -- and now also includes Callán's Ruefle (who also plays in ATS and Paperback), Matthews (on bass) and fiddle player Jan Hamilton-Sota.
The first few tracks on the group's album Water & Vines convey a sense of drama that wouldn't sound out of place in one of Patti Smith's more recent albums. Powers trades Smith's rasp for something a little sweeter, however, and her approach to the banjo -- a bluesy variation on clawhammer plucking -- makes her an original.
Most of the songs last upward of six minutes, but the blend of instruments sustains the momentum even at slower tempos. From the more traditional Celtic instrumental "Toure's Farewell," to the frenzied, slide guitar-driven original "Crash Site," Devilish Merry continues to blaze its own unique trail.
Callán CD Release. 9:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 9. Park House, 403 E. Ohio St., North Side. Free. 412-224-2273 or parkhousepgh.com