Collapsing time into song

Justin Brake
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The Dardanelles' new album courts a new generation into an old musical marriage

The Dardanelles. - Submitted photo

If there's a trad record fierce enough to make a splash this year and send waves up the island's shores, over the Strait and, who knows, even clear across the pond - this is probably it.

You might remember when, two years ago, The Dardanelles released a debut album that swept dusty pub floors with dancing feet and, in no time at all, put the group of talented 20-somethings in the company of those who inspired them.

Of course, even though Tom Power knows they've "got something," the "Deep Roots" CBC Radio host and Dardanelles founder won't have anything to do with holding himself or his bandmates in the same esteem as predecessors Jim Payne, Kelly Russell and Anita Best, or forebears Rufus Guinchard and Emile Benoit.

But everything about the group's followup effort "The Eastern Light" says what Power, who is seated across the table from me in a downtown café, can only humbly evade.

With the goal of bringing traditional music into the indie-rock dominated mainstream, he explains, "we're just trying to add to it, to re-contextualize it and, without sacrificing any of the integrity of the music, really trying to make it work for our generation."

Though only two original members remain, The Dardanelles have finally evolved into the band, says Power.

The Irish-influenced self-titled 2009 debut was warmly received both locally and nationally, and Power (guitar/banjo), Richard Klaas (bodhran/percussion), Aaron Collis (accordion/whistle/mandolin), fiddler Kate Bevan-Baker and bouzouki player Andrew Dale found themselves gigging all over into their "first summer of folk festivals," Power recalls.

Around that time the group also decided to "explicitly focus ourselves, as much as possible, on traditional Newfoundland music," he adds.

Come fall, Bevan-Baker bid farewell as she headed for Montreal for grad school, and with The Once rising to national fame Dale affirmed his commitment to the folk trio and its busy schedule.

Power called up high school friend and former band mate Emilia Bartellas, who was studying in Toronto but returning to St. John's in the spring, and found a Dardanelles fiddler and violist in her.

He also recruited rising folk singer and bouzouki player Matthew Byrne, who earned three MusicNL award nominations last year for his debut solo album "Ballads."

"I say it onstage, and I'm not lying: Matthew's my favourite traditional singer next to Anita Best in this whole province," says Power.

With the help of Great Big Sea member Bob Hallett, the group enlisted John Doyle, who Power regards as "the greatest living Irish guitarist," to produce the album.

Not only were a tighter-than-ever Dardanelles now in exceptionally good hands (Doyle as producer, Hallett as executive producer and Don Ellis as engineer) for their next project, they'd also managed to compile and dust off a solid collection of tasty jigs, reels and other songs.

"We had to address why we were making this record," Power recalls. "In the past couple years there's been some wonderful traditional Newfoundland records come out, (like) Daniel Payne's 'Chain' and Graham Wells' 'Traditional Music of Newfoundland and Labrador,' and we wanted to make the great tune record as well ... the best record we could possibly make.

"We wanted to get traditional music as right as we could and treat these tunes with the respect we thought they deserved to be treated with."

If there's something beyond the 42 minutes of stellar musicianship that begins with the opening reels on "McCarthy's" and ends with the party shanty "Big Bow Wow," it's a strengthened confidence that Power attributes in part to recently published rare footage of a Guinchard performance at the 1981 folk festival.

"We saw just what a wonderful musician this man was," he recalls, "and it really inspired us on this new record, that we were doing things correctly, doing things right."

"Polly Moore" is our introduction to Byrne's soft but searing vocals against a Dardanelles backdrop. He uncovered the song - an age-old tale of a sailor who vows to marry his lover when he returns from sea - in Memorial University's "MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada" collection.

The track segues into and ends with an original Collis tune called "The White Winged Diver."

Title track "The Evening Light" was collected from Henry Young of Grey River by folklorist Wilf Wareham. Byrne's brother Allan borrowed the tape from Wareham years ago, "and we adapted it and turned it into our own kind of song," says Power.

"Pad's Song," originally written by Byrne's father and uncle for his grandfather, is the group's new voice's most eloquent vocal performance on the album.

"Matthew comes from an incredible lineage of traditional singing," says Power, "and he writes a real poignant thing in the liner notes: 'This is a song about a fellow I wish I could have met.' It's about the way of living in Newfoundland that doesn't exist anymore. It's so close to Matthew and it became close to us."

"Big Bow Wow," a good chorus trad song acquired from Fergus O'Byrne, closes out the record and, with a chorus of band members, musical friends and family members, represents the whole experience of the album's coming into being.

It's clear that their youth, spirit and timing make Power, Byrne, Collis, Bartellas and Klaas something of a renaissance bunch with the ability to invite a generation of ripe ears into an affectionate relationship with the music that once dominated the kitchens, pubs and halls of this island.

They've sought out and carefully picked a collection of old numbers, in the recording process blew the dust off them, and The Dardanelles will undoubtedly continue to make magic as they bring them to life on stages around town and across the island, country and world (they're headed to Australia in late December to play a folk festival).

The group celebrates the release of "The Eastern Light" with an all-ages performance Thursday even-ing at The Rocket Room on Water Street in St. John's. Showtime is 8 p.m. and tickets ($10) are available at O'Brien's Music and Fred's Records.

Organizations: CBC Radio, Great Big Sea, Fred's

Geographic location: Dardanelles, Newfoundland and Labrador, Montreal Toronto Atlantic Canada Grey River Australia Water Street St. John's

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