by James M. Manheim
The young new Canadian band Greenwich Meantime calls its music "Celtic rock/
pop," but even more than these three genres are involved. These musicians seek to use the Celtic past in a modern, eclectic context without recourse to sentimentality, and their appeal lies partly in the variety of styles into which they can incorporate a Celtic element and have it mean something while it's there.
Many of the songs on Greenwich Meantime's eponymously titled debut album share a common two-strain structure: one section, vocal or instrumental, draws on some genre external to Celtic music, and the second tune is an answer, traditional in shape and played on the fiddle or Highland bagpipes. All of these songs take a little step as they move between the two parts, and in a couple of cases it's more of a lurch "Living Easy" deploys Quebec-born Shelley Downing's fiddle in a rhythmic counterpoint to a Miles Davis-style jazz version of "Summertime," complete with trumpet, and "420" (the term is one of the most recent in the long parade of code words that have been used to refer to cannabis) alternates between fiddle and electric-guitar psychedelia.
In the band's original songs (all members contribute, and several sing), the relationship is closer. The traditional-style tune usually has a specific part to play in telling the story. In "Ode to Joe" it represents the ties to home of a traveling soldier from Quebec during World War II (there's also a French Canadian layer in Greenwich Meantime's music); in the full-blown pop-punk "Leaving Toronto," bagpipes speak of the freedom of the open road. The range of styles is huge, touching on pure pop ("A Girl"), singer-songwriter folk ("Falling for Silence"), traditional folk song ("The Leaving of Liverpool"), folk of an older generation (Si Kahn's "Aragon Mill," here called "Belfast Mill"), African jazz ("Sikulela"), and even the ersatz Irish sound that has sprung up so often in country music over the last decade ("Ireland,"
originally done and partly written by Garth Brooks). It all hangs together because of the band's nimbleness in fitting Celtic tunes into these forms. Eclectic music often stands or falls on the skills of its percussionists, and Nigel Gibson and Steph McAlear use a large collection of instruments and seem able to keep up with whatever the rest of the band throws at them.
Greenwich Meantime comes to the Ark on Friday, July 7. Its base is Cornwall, Ontario, and several of its members played with the high-energy Glengarry Bhoys, who appeared at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival a couple of years ago, and all have switched off among Canada's remarkable collection of Celtic bands. We in Ann Arbor are lucky to have a border-state seat from which we can spot new developments in this vital tradition, and Greenwich Meantime is unusually promising.
[Review published July 2006]