The Band from County Hell website tells us that the eight-piece (plus or minus) group was formed in 1995 by its front man, Glasgow native Steven “Jock” McClelland. McClelland and his wife Julie are responsible for the band’s original material, with the latter providing lyrics for tunes by the former. Ghosts & Spirits is the group’s fifth CD and consists of 10 originals.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic, but found myself thinking how generic the disk seemed, generic as in musical genre. Here is a modern era, rollicking, rowdy pub and festival Celtic band that might go down nicely with a pint or two of stout, but I struggled to find anything that truly set them apart from dozens of other practitioners. The one attribute that comes closest to giving them a bit of distinction is their use of horns to augment the more predictable array of stringed instruments and percussion. “Gangster” Brealey’s trombone, trumpet and saxophone along with (no first name) Watson’s saxophone occasionally give the songs a bit of color that doesn’t seem somehow all too familiar. The male lead vocals (presumably they’re by McClelland) are not explicitly credited and sometimes have the raw edge of urgency one remembers from the likes of Black 47 and the Pogues, but curiously seem to have little real emotion behind them. Julie McClelland’s vocals are pleasing enough, but again have little distinction.
Their favored approach to arranging the material is to start with pared-down instrumentation while the vocalist goes through the first verse, then crank up the tempo as all the instruments kick in; sometimes they’ll drop the tempo back toward the end of a song. There is a lot of repetition, no doubt the better for getting audiences to sing along. While all the material is original, unless you’re really concentrating on the words it has all the familiar Celtic cadences and timbres that might lead you to presume many of the songs have been around for a while. And the words have plenty of Celtic clichés as well. I’m still trying to decide if some of the tunes are meant to be humorous or ironic or taken at face value. “The Day My Granny Died” begins (if I caught all the words correctly), “There was whisky and glue/There was Coke cans, Irn-Bru/There was vodka and gin by the mug/There was brandy and stout/And there was Granda passing out/The day that my Granny died.” Is this parody or bathos?
Certainly the band has instrumental chops. The playing throughout is more than competent and the disk is well recorded. Fiddle, guitar, mandolin, bass, accordion, bodhran and penny whistle all appear and sound fine.
If you’ve had a chance to see The Band From County Hell live and enjoyed a particularly good show, the disk might well appeal to you as a reminder of the event. If you are a hard-core fan of modern era Celtic folk music you might want Ghosts & Spirits as part of your extensive collection of recorded material. But if you’re tastes are eclectic and you’re looking for something special, this probably isn’t what you’re looking for.
(Redmuze Publishing, 2005)