Some of the best American Celtic music being played and recorded these days is being made by bands that you’ll never hear live unless you live near where they play in small concert halls and bars. Even the better-known bands such as The Duhks and Solas started out as this sort of band. (I once heard Solas play to a few dozen very sweaty audience members in bar that was so hot and smoky that I had to both shower and wash my clothes when I got home, but it was a great concert!) Based on this latest album from The Sevens, I’d love to live near where the band lives and plays. It is certainly not a surprise to me that, as Sevens fiddler Sarah Blair notes, ‘The Sevens frequently play for contra dancing at dance weekends and festivals such as Falcon Ridge, The Champlain Valley Festival, and Lake Eden Arts Festival.’
So who are The Sevens? And why should you care about them? Why should an American roots slash bluegrass slash Celtic band appeal to you when you mostly likely have local bands that are interesting and that you can dance to? Because they can be damn good, even if this recording isn’t as good as their first one was, that’s why. And despite some weakness in the song area, it’s still well worth your hearing.
This New England group is centered around Mark Roberts, who played with the deservedly legendary Red Clay Ramblers and was a charter member of the equally legendary Celtic group Touchstone. Befitting the involvement of Mark Roberts, this Celtic group has generous amounts of American roots music in its feel. The group consists of the aforementioned Mark Roberts (flute, whistle, five-stringed banjo, guitar and melodeon), Sarah Blair (fiddle), Liza Constable (vocals, guitar), Mark Hellenberg (percussion), Stuart Kenney (upright bass), with guests artists Sam Bartlett (mandolin and tenor banjo) and Chris Turner (harmonica and jaw harp). Now this is not a live album, it is very much a studio recording. Nothing wrong with that as some bands are better in the studio than they are recorded live.
The highlight for me on their first album, Celtic Groove Band, was the haunting lamentation ‘Run Sister Run’ which sounds authentic as it was written by Jack Herrick and Tommy Thompson of the Red Clay Ramblers for Sam Shephard’s play A Lie of the Mind. On this recording, I had a slightly harder time deciding. As always, a Sevens album has stunning vocals and some of the finest instrumentals this side of, well, the Red Clay Ramblers. Stunning good is the ‘Pearl O’Shaughnessy’s/ Shove That Pig’s Foot a Little Further into the Fire’ and just as danceable is ‘Derrane’s Jig Set” ‘. Both sets show just how good Sarah Blair’s fiddling is!
Now I must admit I liked the songs on their first album a lot more than I do on this album — for pity’s sake, why would anyone cover Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers in Arms’? But the instrumentals here more than make up for the less than stellar songs. Bottom line is that I give Celtic Groove Band a solid A plus but this gets a B minus. I expected better than I heard. It’s not a bad album — indeed at times it really is great — but I know they can do better.
(The Sevens, 2007)