Jamie Smith's Mabon (Radio 3 Stage - Womad - 29/7/11)

Tagged with: Jamie Smith Mabon Womad Charlton Park BBC Radio 3 Review Concert gig Iolo Whelan Matt Downer Oli Wilson-Dickson Adam Rhodes John Eeles Mary Ann Kennedy Glyn Phillips Grand Pavilion Spiral Awards Wales Celtic Folk British UK Welsh

Jamie Smith’s Mabon - Womad, Charlton Park (Friday 29th July 2011) - Radio 3 Stage

Interceltic folkers Mabon have had a rollercoaster 9 months since I last saw them in October 2010 (in Womex at Copenhagen). Over there and in front of the insiders of the world music industry, they were one of three bands representing Wales to the outside world. An amazing gig (see review here: http://www.worldmusic.co.uk/womex_2010_editors_highlights_pt_3) and the promotion of a new live album and DVD (“Mabon: Live at the Grand Pavilion” on the Easy On The Reels record label - EOTR01).

Since then the album won (deservedly) the Best Instrumental Album Award for 2010 (in the 2011 Spiral Awards), but almost immediately Mabon were thrown into turmoil as internal differences in the band led to the departure of co-founder Derek Smith and a new direction for the band, now renamed, re-launched and reborn in January 2011 as ‘Jamie Smith’s Mabon - after frontman, bandleader, accordionist and composer Jamie (Derek’s son).

an exuberant masterclass in the best of British interceltic folk

A new lineup also saw the inclusion of the distinctly non-Welsh bazouki (played by Manxman Adam Rhodes) join bandleader Jamie’s accordion, Herefordshire-based Oli Wilson-Dickson on fiddle, and Bristol’s Matt ‘the Hat’ Downer on bass andSouth Wales's Iolo Whelan on drums. The Brittany-based, Scot Calum Stewart on wooden flute and pipes usually completes the line-up but was not at the Womad gig.

I was intrigued to see what the new JSM would be like after having seen - and been blown away by - the original Mabon last year. So on arrival at the Womad Festival where JSM were to make their debut, I threw up my tent and hightailed it to the wonderful BBC Radio 3 stage hidden away in the trees of Charlton Park’s arboretum to catch the band. They were already 10 minutes into the set and I was guided through the trees by an irresistible sound.

With the initial tunes mostly coming from the Live album set, I missed the opening numbers "The Hustler" and "Buck Rarebit" but arrived during "Tunnag" and from then on was treated to an exuberant masterclass in the best of British interceltic folk.

an exhilarating, confident, life-affirming sound

JSM take the old, deep roots of British Celticness and subtly merge them with elements from other folk traditions (English and European, such as Jamie’s East European sounding “Nikolai the Dancing Bear”) and a certain rock edge and come up with something that is, I believe, the way forward for British folk at the beginning of the 21st century.

The key word here is ‘subtle’ - there’s no attempt to artificially bolt-on strange electronic rhythms or ostentatious culture collisions, it’s just a very natural - dare I say, organic - way of presenting their music. OK, it might not sound sexy to write about, but it certainly works on stage.

This is an exhilarating, confident, life-affirming sound that - without even trying to - made me proud to be British (or should I say Brythonic?), unconsciously revelling in my own Welsh (and Irish/Scottish/English) ancestry; and this coming from someone who spends most of his time with his head in the sounds of the African diaspora!

pretty young women danced in joyous abandon ... wearing multicoloured wellies

Mabon might have started out as a primarily Welsh band but their pan-Celtic approach is inspired and not just by the inclusion of Scots, Manx and English members into the band. During the lively reel “Fiddlers’ Despair” (which for some reason didn’t feature fiddle - or maybe that’s the point!) Jamie - his fingers flying over his accordion - was joined by two young women dancers (The Mabonettes apparently - one of whom is his wife) who twirled with arms upheld and jigged with knees bent and daintily pointing toes and feet in a display of the little known Manx dancing tradition. Meanwhile down in front of the stage another two pretty young women danced around in joyous abandon to the music wearing multicoloured wellies.

Jamie Smith's Mabon & the Mabonettes - Photo (c) Glyn Phillips (WorldMusic.co.uk)

cascades of notes pouring out of his accordion

Jamie himself doesn’t move about much - there is a quietness and stillness to his presence on stage - he just let’s things happen around him and yet he is undoubtedly the lynchpin of the band, cascades of notes pouring out of his accordion as he leans back with a face as straight as a poker. But besides being the frontman and giving his name to the new band, he also is the main composer.

Jamie’s compositions are what set them apart from other bands

And in reality, this is the unseen strength of JSM. Jamie’s compositions are what set them apart from other bands in the new folk genre. Whilst interviewing him after the show I asked him what is it that makes Mabon distinctive? He paused for a while to think this through and his answer was the strength of the melodies. I agree. Essentially they write good tunes that work at the level of both a listening - and dancing - audience and also for the musicians themselves. It is this focus on strong melodies that really gives these talented musicians the chance to not just shine but dazzle.

Another difference between the new JSM and the old Mabon is the inclusion of singing as Jamie sang the apt “Yes, We Sing Now!” They might have made a name for themselves initially as an exciting instrumental band but this new departure will eventually allow for an even fuller flowering of new work.

the music alone is so strong it does the talking for them, loud and clear

However for me the gig moved into another gear with the wonderful “Gordano Ranter”, a tune in what sounded like 13/4 time based on an encounter with a rather strange character at the Gordano Services on the M5 in Somerset.   As the band went into a medley of Galician tunes (from the Celtic heartland of north-west Spain) drummer Iolo - a man with a permanent smile on his face - leaped out from behind his kit and brandishing a pandereta (a small tambourine with skin) proceeded to slap out rhythms at the front of the stage. This switch from full-kit sound to the more intimate framedrum provided an unexpectedly delicate and refreshing change. Interestingly after the gig I was talking to Radio 3’s Mary Ann Kennedy, JSM’s manager John Eeles and Iolo Whelan, when Mary Ann suggested Iolo explored this avenue of different skin sounds more in the new JSM, something which as a percussionist I could only agree with.

Jamie Smith's Mabon at Womad (crowd) - photo (c) Glyn Phillips (WorldMusic.co.uk)

Back on stage Iolo (to whom the epithet ‘irrepressible’ seems to be permanently attached) shouted out “Come on, Womad, make some noise!” and so they did, the small dancing area beneath the stage being suddenly filled (seemingly from nowhere) by enthusiastically jigging and bouncing girls and ladies (and some blokes too!). We had all been co-opted into the Mabonettes it seemed!

With the final number “File Under Biddley” the newly launched Jamie Smith’s Mabon left the stage to equal roars of delight at the performance and dismay that it was over, coming back to do an encore, the wonderfully-named “Whiskey Burp Reels”.

They might have taken a chance on rebranding a tried and tested formula but Jamie Smith’s Mabon proved at the mighty Womad Festival both to us and themselves, that they’re only just at the beginning of a new chapter in Inter-Celtic folk. They should be recording a new album sometime over the next year and I, for one, will be eager to get it on my decks.

Jamie Smith’s Mabon are here to stay.

When I first saw Mabon last year I went up to Jamie, Iolo and Matt after the show (exhausted and propped up as they were against a wall in the corridor) and all I could think to say was “Mabon Rock!”. Not my finest line at all, utterly inadequate but still true nevertheless. You see they might not jump around on stage and strike theatrical poses, but they don’t have to; the music alone is so strong it does the talking for them, loud and clear. On the basis of this debut Womad/Radio3 appearance Jamie Smith’s Mabon are here to stay.

Glyn Phillips