Virtuoso piper/whistler John McSherry gets his groove on at The MAC with his latest collaborative project
The Olllam take their name from the Gaelic word for master. It’s an apt name, as the band’s eponymous debut album, released in 2012, showcased not only fine musicianship, but songwriting craftsmanship to boot.
Fronted by Belfast’s renowned piper/whistler John McSherry and the Detroit duo of piper/whistler Tyler Duncan and drummer Michael Shimmin, Belfast is the final stop on the band’s first Irish tour, and reviews have been uniformly glowing.
The word has obviously spread, as a packed theatre at The MAC shows. The Olllam are here to kick-start the Not So Trad series of concerts organised by Eamon Murray, a showcase for musicians who fuse traditional music with other genres. That genre, in The Olllam's case, would be 'groove'.
The opening act is the ridiculously talented guitarist David Browne-Murray. Above all a melodist, Browne-Murray’s rhythmic drive and technical flights of imagination on original and cover material is little short of mesmerizing.
Most folk are here, however, for The Olllam. From the get-go, their music has the feel of a window thrown open, letting bright light and fresh air rush in on the trad form. Not for this band jigs and reels.
Tonight, additional musicians add to their sound. Martin Atkinson’s minimalist keyboard dabs and acoustic guitarist Sean O’Mara’s refined ostinato on the intro to 'The Belll' are steeped in pop culture. When McSherry and Duncan’s low whistles and uilleann pipes enter in freewheeling unison, the modern marriage is complete.
Bassist Joe Dart and Shimmin’s bass pedal bring deep grooves to the lilting 'Three Signs of a Bad Man' – a real head bobber of a tune. The up-tempo 'The Devilll for my Hurt' is punctuated by passages of brooding bass and chiming keys, and features an exhilarating pipe and whistle motif.
Virtuosity takes a back seat to tunefulness on the delightfully breezy 'The Follly of Wisdom' – the perfect soundtrack for summer. And if this summer is a long one, then the infectious dance tune 'Bridge of Glllass' keeps up the theme, lasting well over 10 minutes.
In truth, there’s little in the way of outright improvisation; these are through-composed songs with an emphasis on melody and groove. Even Dart’s bass solo on a Santana-meets-Moving Hearts tune sounds as well rehearsed as the solo Gerry McAvoy banged out on his bass nightly for 20 years alongside Rory Gallagher.
All the same, it’s hard not to be totally seduced by the grooves and the collective power in the ensemble voice. A balladic flute and guitar intro offers momentary stylistic diversion on the next number, but The Olllam don't do mournful, and soon enough the rest of the band slips in, lifting the quite beautiful melody so that it soars.
A fat beat and simple whistle melody seem to define another infectious number, 'The Tryst after Death', but the tune suddenly disappears around a corner and emerges as a stirring slice of art-rock to rival any Radiohead track. A lyrical flute then introduces the slow-burning epic 'Prayer for Tears', the last song of a vibrant set.
An instant standing ovation greets the final notes and The Olllam return to play a rousing, pipe-driven Spanish tune from the McSherry songbook. On tonight’s evidence it will be a major surprise if The Olllam don’t go on to festival fame around the world. A memorable night at The MAC, this is already a contender for one of the gigs of the year.
Visit The Mac website for more information on forthcoming Not So Trad concerts.