Friday, November 16, 2007

Concert review: Enter The Haggis

Okay. So I’ve just joined the ranks of the unemployed. Money is tight. What do I do? Go out and spend money so Sparkly Seacow and I can hear some live music!

I suppose I should back up a little bit. I discovered Enter The Haggis in August of 2006 when I somehow found myself stranded at Milwaukee’s Irish Fest. I am of Irish descent, but I’m not a big lover of celtic music. It can be interesting, but for the most part, if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard ‘em all. So, there I was, surrounded by celtic music and wondering if I could find a quiet spot to sit and read until my kids were done listening to Garlic Storm (alright, they’re really called Gaelic Storm, but allow me my small pleasures, okay?) I checked the schedule and saw that a band called Enter The Haggis, from Toronto, was playing on the celtic rock stage. “Great name!” I thought and decided to check them out. Surprise! Not only did they have a cool name, but they were a truly exciting group of musicians. I went home, ordered some CDs from B-Side, my favorite local independent music store and, lo and behold, my daughters, Cinderbelle and Sparkly Seacow, found that they, too, liked ETH as much as I did. It probably doesn't hurt their appeal to teenaged girls that the band is young, good-looking and, oh, yes, talented, too.

Fast forward to November, 14, 2007. ETH is at the High Noon Saloon in Madison. I had endeavored to convince as many people as I could to attend, but the show was on a Wednesday night. Convincing people to go out on a weekday evening isn’t easy. Selling people on celtic rock wasn’t easy, either. When you say celtic rock, people tend to think of The Pogues. Enter The Haggis sounds nothing like The Pogues. They should really be described as a rock group with celtic and other flavors. You can hear jazz, latin and eastern-european influences but, when it comes right down to it, they are first and foremost a rock group. There are a lot of bad or generic rock groups out there, but ETH reminded me how exciting an original and skilled group of rock musicians can be. Right before they took the stage I counted around 35 people. Sparkly Seacow and I were there along with two friends of ours, PoodleDoc, Jr. and his mother. The rest of the audience looked like they could have come from out of town. Not a good showing from Madison, I’m sorry to say. Hopefully, we'll do something about that next time.

The show opened with the DeWayn Brothers, a contemporary bluegrass group out of Emporia, Kansas. They played very well, had great energy and I would recommend them to anyone who likes bluegrass, but, unfortunately for them, I would have to say it was a stylistic mismatch. They were entirely acoustic while ETH was most definitely not.

When ETH came on, they didn’t seem at all phased by the light turnout. They appeared to enjoy themselves and put on a great show for the lucky few in attendance. Their sound is huge and full of energy. I don't see how anyone could hear them live and not be energized by the experience. I am a bass player, so I have a bit of a bias, but I believe that any group can be made or broken by its rhythm section, the bass and drums. While ETH is brilliant on many levels, their rhythm section alone sets them apart from so many other groups. James Campbell (drums) laid down a tight and driving groove, yet was never repetitious. He embellished and played against and around the beat in the way that a good jazz drummer would, but the feel of the song was never compromised. He is an intelligent player who never settles for the obvious, doesn't overplay, but finds a way to make even the simplest of beats interesting. Mark Abraham (bass, vocals) is one of, if not the most, exciting bassists I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a few. I’ve seen bassists who play faster and more complicated bass lines, but Abraham was always musical in his playing. His parts had great movement, fluidity and energy in them and he made it seem effortless. Campbell and Abraham are the "oomph" in the sound, and they have a lot of "oomph."

On top of this rhythm section are founder Craig Downie (bagpipes, whistle, harmonica, guitar, vocals), Trevor Lewington (guitars, vocals) and Brian Buchanan (vocals, fiddle, guitar, keyboards). Downie is probably the most stylistically traditional member of the group. He is an animated performer and plays a mean bagpipe and tin whistle. In a number of songs, his bagpipes, whistle or harmonica were a main part of the melody or harmony, while at other times he filled the space that, in a more conventional ensemble, would have been the territory of a keyboard. This approach is a big part of the overall sound. Lewington is another high point. While skilled in many different styles, he has an ear for interesting effects, riffs, textures and tones. At one moment he would sound like a folk guitarist, the next hard rock, then avant garde. I was particularly taken with his use of effects and feedback. Also, it really must be said that Lewington is often a part of the rhythm section, locking in with the bass and drums with guitar riffs or chords, creating a truly massive sound. Then there is Buchanan, an impressive musician regardless of the instrument he happens to be playing. He, like Lewington, was also liberal in his use of effects. More or less the front man, he interacted with the audience more than the rest of the group and gave the impression that we were all his friends, and you got the feeling that he meant it.

One thing I really like in a group is when they have more than just one good vocalist, and good backing vocals and harmonies. ETH often had up to four singers and their harmonies were spot on. Buchanan and Lewington sang almost all of the lead vocals, but all of them sang except Campbell. Never was there a moment where I thought to myself “missed that one, guys.” After the show, Brian credited their in-ear monitor system for their ability to hit harmonies so well. The equipment probably is something of a factor, but you have to be able to sing well to begin with. Their vocals were superb, and I didn’t see or hear any evidence of the pitch correction equipment that is everywhere in music these days. They’ve been touring incessantly for quite a while now, and it shows. The group is amazingly tight, they look relaxed on stage and it all looks easy. Their material is strong, the arrangements sophisticated and they appear to enjoy playing together. They are at that level where they don’t need to think about what they’re doing, which gives them the freedom to play loose and have fun.

Nothing can ruin your enjoyment of a group like discovering that they aren't very nice people. I was pleased to find that they are all, well, really nice guys. After their set, the whole group mingled with the audience for a while. Craig spent a few minutes giving Sparkly Seacow some advice on how to go about learning to play bagpipes. Mark and James chatted and signed autographs. Trevor and Brian took a moment away from packing up their gear so I could take their picture with SS (see top of page.) Maybe it's a Canadian thing, but their lack of attitude was refreshing.

Why, you might ask, am I going to such lengths to tell you about this group? Well. I have enjoyed them immensely and want to share that experience with others. I can see two possibilities in their future. They could become hugely successful, and then the only way to see them will be in huge venues at huge prices. Or, if that doesn’t happen, they could tour and tour until they burn out. So, I’m telling you, if you love music, go see them now. I guess I’ve run out of ways to say how good these guys are, but they are the real deal. It isn’t often one gets to witness artists at this level of enthusiasm, creativity and skill. It may not last. I hope it does, but go see them while you can.


Suzy said...

Okay, okay ... I should have gone, I know. Sparkly Sea Cow looks pretty happy. I'm glad it was a good show.

Cinderbelle said...

I don't think I can say enough how incredibly jealous I am and how much I am looking forward to them coming here. I'm hoping that the turnout will be big but not so big that I don't get to spend some quality time with the guys. I really wish I could see them sooner, though. Youtube videos can only do so much. Thanks for the tshirt, daddy!

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

How cool is it that they mingled with you all after the show. I love Canadians.