Thursday, April 3, 2014

Katie McNally Trio at a Bothell house show

Through work contacts I heard that katie McNally, a talented fiddler, was playing a house show in Bothell, which is right next door to the town I live in on the north end of Lake Washington. Dana and I went and had a great time. Katie McNally described herself as mostly a Scottish-style fiddler then proceeded to play all kinds of different music that I'm pretty sure included Scottish and Cape Breton and Galacian music, plus something written by a Bengali in a European style (the details elude me, I should've taken notes), her own compositions, and more.

Katie was interesting to listen to as she introduced songs and told stories, and then the playing started and I was transported. I grew up listening to bluegrass music on my dad's stereo back in the sixties. He recorded some at the monthly Saturday Maltby Bluegrass Jam - which is still running 50 years later, amazingly enough. Every weekend we'd listen to the KRAB live Bluegrass show - late at night, live on the radio for hours on end. There was always a fiddle and a guitar, usually a banjo, more often than not a singer or three, and occasional percussion. Katie's music wasn't exactly the same, rather it's one of the main roots of the folk music I grew up listening to, filtered through Appalachia and recordings from the thirties. The music has continued to grow and thrive in parallel and some of the more interesting pieces were composed by Katie - they sounded old school as heck, like I'd grown up listening to riffs stolen from them, and I'd never heard them before. That immediate familiarity and comfort stands out. I was listening to music played by someone I'd never met playing songs I'd never heard and it felt like I was coming home to the familiar haunts I'd grown up in.

It was evocative - it took me back to my childhood growing up in Edmonds - the instruments were different, Katie's trio mostly played with a violin, viola and grand piano; sometimes with 2 fiddles, but it was hauntingly familiar. The reels and amazing string duets and the interplay with the complex piano arrangements all added different elements, and the viola often switched to pezacata and struck approaches to get a variety of sounds. He also played some of the softest accompaniment I've ever heard, very subtle stuff. It paid off to listen very intently, and the room as very quiet, even the younger kids mesmerized by the performance.

The dynamics were interesting and the quiet bits would build both in volume and rhythm to peaks with the musicians wailing away, then Katie thumping out a beat on the carpet as they are all sawing and playing away to bring it back home and wind the parts back together. Underneath it all there was the frequent return to the strings winding around each other, skipping along and playing off each other, converging on notes then playing intervals against each other, multi-string violin bowing increasing the volume and intensity and complexity as the music comes alive at the touch of the fingers of the musicians.

The talent and precision was breathtaking and the songs were powerful; we all enjoyed the show. The pianist and the viola/2nd fiddle player each took the spotlight for a bit and performed a solo number - the pianist calling himself a poseur for playing a Galician tune on a piano, since pianos are not authentic Galician instruments. Poseur or not, it was inspired. He played with rhythms and nearly percussive approaches on the keys - I really don't have a good vocabulary to describe it. The solo piano number was amazing and the sideman did a classic Brahms number that was tasty and we had a break - and opened the windows, it was very warm - and the trio played a second set.

The empathy the musicians had for each other bordering on telepathy, the way they could play with tempos and alternate transitions on scales, playing with tempo without losing each other, reflecting tempos and rhythms and passages across instruments gave the live performance a very organic spontaneous feel - structured and well rehearsed yet with plenty of room to improvise and respond to each other.

The trio did a number of reels that were thrilling - moving briskly and precisely, pretty soon zipping along, and Katey stomping (now on a carpet protector, better sound!) the beat out to drive it on to a powerful climax. We all wipe a bit of sweat off our brows, catch our breath, and Katie explains the next bit - how she wrote it for a large group (an oddly instrumented large group) and had to cut it down for the trio - and they proceed to wreck us all over again.

The intensity of the music, the singing strings on the leads and multiple string bowings for chords and the dynamics from quiet to loud and back again in the same song, the jazzy and quiet but essential piano accompaniment, the occasionally interesting left hand rhythms all combine to make this unique and fascinating - time flies and the show is over way too soon, even with a few songs in an encore.

There are so many elements and I'm already forgetting many - I'd swear the pianist said he was playing a Macedonian number in 22/8 time, I think I recall obscure arkestars from roughly that neck of the woods into crazy time signatures. Crazy signature or not the music was enthralling and beautiful. The tuning was rapid but consistent between songs and the humidity was brutal on the bows with many broken bowstrings, or are they threads? One song used a simplified D-G-D-G tuning (if I recall) and Katie made getting into and out of that tuning quickly while keeping the patter going seem effortless so even with fairly major tuning changes the show moved right along.

It's rare that I stay engaged with music that has no verbal component - no lyrics, no voices singing, that's OK we had strings singing and crying and laughing and a piano chuckling and pounding and alternating and playing and themes running around all over the place. The show was very satisfying and I'm glad I got the tip from work, I don't see enough variety and I surely don't see enough good fiddle music. Musicians this talented are worth seeing no matter what they're playing, so getting to hear the old familiar music from my childhood or at least it's cousins played that well made me realize how much I miss hearing some of the varieties of music I grew up on. Time to get out to Maltby for another bluegrass fix, I think. Maybe that will hold me until McNally gets back to town.

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