July is fast approaching – perhaps it’ll bring summer with it? I’m really looking forward to St Swithin’s Day (15th July) and not because I hope the weather will be set fair for forty days thereafter. It’s because the marvellous Cahalen Morrison and Eli West will be performing their first-ever concert in Yorkshire, at The Live Room in Saltaire. I first encountered the music of this multi-talented duo via the Fiddle Freak blog, which I found at random when looking for online inspiration about fiddle playing. Rather than a fiddle player’s blog, this site actually turned out to specialise in reviews of roots and acoustic music recordings. Anyway, the first thing I came across there, back in April 2011, was a review of Cahalen and Eli’s first album, The Holy Coming of the Storm, along with some audio and video clips, and appropriately enough, I was blown away.
But enough of this weather-related banter! Cahalen and Eli’s music defies categorisation, drawing on elements of old-time, bluegrass, folk and Americana. What can be stated with absolute certainty is that this is something really special. Their considerable skill on various stringed instruments (primarily mandolin, guitar, clawhammer banjo and bouzouki) is married to an unshowy but emotionally genuine delivery. The songs on this first release are also a cut above – mostly originals by Cahalen, with a couple of contributions from Eli and two traditional tracks, they range from catchy fiddle tunes which could easily be 100 year old jam standards, to the most beautiful songs of love and loss.
It’s difficult to pick out favourites from such a strong field, but I particularly love the dreamlike Fleeting Like the Days and the good-time, driving stomp Over There. The album also features gorgeous fiddle playing from Ryan Drickey and contributions from Aaron Youngberg on banjo, Eric Thorin on bass and producer Matt Flinner on a number of instruments. But for me, the crowning glory of all this is the combination of the two voices. Each song features lovely harmonies, with Eli’s rich and mellow tones complementing Cahalen’s distinctive, soulful voice. It really is hard to credit that this musical partnership is so recent, and was just a few months old when the CD was recorded (the lads started playing together in 2010 and released The Holy Coming of the Storm in December of that year).
I had to wait until November 2011 for Cahalen and Eli’s first foray to the UK but as they didn’t come anywhere near Yorkshire on that tour, I trekked up to Glasgow to see them play the Crofthead Concerts series at Neilston, combining it with a Gillian Welch concert at the Armadillo for a glorious weekend of musical treats. Although Gillian and Dave were predictably good, I can honestly say that the Cahalen and Eli gig was my favourite, as I could experience their music up close and personal in an intimate setting. I enjoyed it so much that a few weeks later, my partner and I travelled over to Germany to see them play as part of the Bluegrass Jamboree, alongside our other favourites The Deadly Gentlemen (see my previous blog post here).
Eighteen months on, Cahalen and Eli are back on our shores for a 16-date tour around the UK. Starting in Chichester on Friday 6th July, they’ll be visiting England, Wales and Scotland and making appearances at the Larmer Tree and Summertyne festivals. The majority of dates are at small, intimate venues and I would highly recommend checking them out while you can still see them in such audience-friendly spaces. If there’s any justice in the world, these guys are going to break through in a big way in the future. When we saw them in Germany, my other half said that he could see them having as big an appeal as Simon and Garfunkel. They’ve had plenty of praise from more celebrated quarters too. They recorded a session for Bob Harris on Radio 2 last year and were featured in the BBC TV highlights of Celtic Connections 2012. Their second album, Our Lady of the Tall Trees, is in post-production now and judging by the songs I’ve heard so far, it promises to be another instant classic.