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Review: Sandy Brechin & Friends, The Sunday Night Sessions

Sandy Brechin & Friends
The Sunday Night Sessions
[Brechin All Records (2011)]

By all rights, this recording of Scottish traditional music sessions from Edinburough’s Ensign Ewart Pub should never have happened. Not only are traditional Scottish or Irish sessions infamously hard to capture on tape (too prone to wandering, fickle musicians, poor audio quality, or a lifeless recording session), but the Ensign Ewart sounds like a notoriously difficult pub to play in. The liner notes by house piano accordionist Sandy Brechin refer to the bizarre and paranoid habits of the pub owner, like telling the musicians to chat less and play more, or the owner’s distaste for customers that didn’t clear the bar fast enough after ordering, or outlawing dancing to the session’s music. Brechin notes that the pub owner made national news in Scotland after installing coded locks on all bathrooms to keep out tourists who hadn’t bought a drink. Then there’s the fact that the session was unceremoniously fired one day. Brechin wrly notes, “Well, fair enough, after a trial period of fifteen years, it was obvious it wasn’t working out!”

So it may come as a bit of a shock that the music on this album is actually quite magical. But that’s the thing about traditional sessions, they only work with adversity. There’s something about the almost furtive music of a session that simply works best when it’s being not only actively ignored, but possibly suffering from open hostility. It makes the musicians turn inward and seek to appreciate the music for themselves rather than the turning outward you normally get in a performance.

The Sunday Night Sessions is not a live recording of a session at the pub, but rather a studio recording made with the core of musicians that made up the weekly session. So it’s more polished than a session album, but still a bit rough, which is nice. The tunes jolt along at a quick pace, and the instruments bump into each other a bit, but there’s a genuine joy to the music that’s a bit infectious. Stand-out tracks include the beautiful song “Both Sides of the Tweed” and a sweet slow air, “A Mhairi Bheag Fho Uibhist (Wee Mary from Uist).” This air was written by Scottish piper Gordon Duncan, and in fact a good number of the tunes on the album were written by Duncan, who was a friend of piper John Currie (one of the Ensign Ewart session lads) and a gifted composer. The opening track is a set of three Duncan tunes that show off his compositional skills, and the closing track is a field recording of Duncan himself on pipes (he’s a breathtaking player!). Throughout this album, the main instruments are accordions, pipes and fiddle, a healthy sound for a session indeed. And the presence of a full set of polkas is ample proof that these are all session musicians, for who else could take so much pleasure from a polka?

The music here isn’t refined, it’s just music for drinking, partying, and trying to drown out the din of conversation and the weight of a long work day. It’s a great slice of Scottish pub life.

The liner notes are excellent, and give background on each tune and composer. Nicely done, lads!

—Devon Leger (Shoreline, WA)

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