Thingumajig, Ceilidh Party (Hobgoblin, 2003)
Desperate Measures, Milestone (self issued, 2003)
Most dance bands with some experience together eventually get around to recording a collection of their tune sets; much as any working performer does. There is an added factor to consider though. The strength and success of a ceilidh, contra, Playford, or any other genre of dance band for that matter, lies in how well they make the dance work.
Which leads us to a philosophical question - when no one is dancing, is it a dance band? By what criteria are we to judge the music? Over many years of rabid enthusiasm for country dancing I've listened (and danced ) to good bands and God knows, plenty of those who turn the most lively jig into a soggy parody of the tune, leaving the dancers plodding solidly around the room and the energy seeping slowly between the boards. The good ones match the tune to the movements, emphasize the key moves -- the up rather than the down, sweep when you sweep, stomp when you stomp, tell you when to bounce. They know how to build a set, when to change key and when to change tunes, injecting energy when the dancers most need it. The duds are merely carrying out a mechanical exercise, getting from A to Z in a tune book, and don't seem to have made the connection between what they are doing and the dancers slogging through treacle in front of them.
So how do we judge a dance band recording? Dance bands record for a number of reasons: to have an accurate representation of the band in action; to provide recorded music for people to dance to (a bit self defeating); as a memento to sell off the stage at gigs; or as music to listen to. If we acquire the CD at a dance, then we can relive the memory of the event, or we can judge the music solely as an enjoyable auditory experience. Or, we can ask ourselves if the recording makes us want to dance.
Two recent releases by English ceilidh bands illustrate the point. Thingumajig's latest release Ceilidh Party presents the band very much in the context of the dances they play for. The regular band line up includes melodeon, fiddle, banjo, bouzouki, mandolin, guitar, concertina, flute, whistle, bass, keyboards, and bodhran and drums for percussion. This recording features bagpipes on a couple of tracks. The playing is spirited, with plenty of bounce and energy; best enjoyed, I find, when played loud. The percussion does its job well, driving the tunes along, without being an end in itself. Once tunes are established, then there's time for the occasional bit of cross rhythm for that injection of energy.
This is a busy band, whose gig list suggests that they play primarily for first time dancers: weddings, special nights, parties, etcetera. The liner notes contain notations for several dances, and there is an accompanying booklet with details of all the dances. The band's Web site gives detailed instructions on how to have a dance for a special occasion, with answers to questions such as, 'How long will the band play for?' and 'Is it ok to hire a disco as well?' (yes, but you probably won't need it).
The band features the odd song during breathing breaks in the dances, and two are included here. These may provide a useful interval at a dance, but unfortunately aren't of high enough quality to stand alone on a recording. The songs are chestnuts too, well covered elsewhere, and add little here.
Thingumajig fare well on several criteria. Apart from the songs, the album is fun to listen to, the music gives a good impression of the group's strength as a dance band, and there's lots of useful information to get beginners started on dancing.
Desperate Measures are from Yorkshire. Their CD Milestone is subtitled 'Traditional Dance Tunes', and that is exactly what they deliver, with such barn dance standards as 'Davy Davy Nik Nak', 'Bobby Shaftoe', and 'Winster Gallop'. There are a number of tunes of Irish origin, now adapted and entrenched in the English dance tradition, such as 'King of the Faeries' and 'The Red Haired Boy'. The band line up features guitars, flute, melodeon, bass, with occasional fiddle and banjo. This is another band that seems to play primarily for beginning dancers, and they are good at what they do. However, I found this recording more suited for listening to than for dance music. I wonder how the band compares when they are actually playing for dancers. This recording has a studio feel to it -- for the most part, it seems a bit too even, a bit too careful -- and lacks the kind of drive that makes a dance exciting. It is only when they cut loose on the last track, an extended set of polkas, that we get a sense of what an evening dancing to a fine set of dance musicians would be like.