Brittany Haas & Lena Jonsson with the Ben Somers String Band @ The Harrison, London, 25th March 2015.
The Harrison is a small pub with an even smaller basement used for acoustic gigs. Intimate isn't the word - only sixty people, a stage little bigger than a large sofa, and seating so close you can reach out and touch the performers. I was keen to see Haas and Jonsson, a fiddle duo from the States but capable of playng a wide range of music, and this was the only UK date in their short European tour.
The Harrison is known for old time music, and bluegrass, and comedy, and at the weekends Klezmer and Irish sessions, so I wasn't sure what to expect from the support act. When the Ben Somers band trooped on stage, it was clear that the boys were dressed for hillbilly music. Bassist Ben Somers looked the part in denim everything, while fiddler Kieran Towers sported the check shirt and carelessly shaven cheeks of a backwoodsman. Dan DeLion Edwards was mainly hidden by an enormous beard and an equally huge guitar.
The girls had made more of an effort, Charlotte Carrivick and Rachel Eddy looking demure on mandolin and fiddle/banjo respectively. Songs and tunes flowed almost flawlessly, mule-kicking arrangements and virtuoso solos on old time favourites with names like Scraping Grandma's Drawers and Catfish Under the Front Porch.
When the main act came on after a brief interval, the sartorial cues suggested a step-change in sophistication. Their bold print dresses, boots, braided hair and bangles heralded a smorgasbord of Swedish, Stateside and other fiddle tunes old and new. Polskas and waltzes by the scandalous rural fiddlers of 19th century Hälsingland, reels and breakdowns by contemporary American composers, and of course the pair's own compositions.
Traditional numbers like Devil in the Strawstack and Polska efter Christoffer Tholsson bumped into shiny new Novembervals and Breakneck Hill, with horror stories ghoulishly recounted. The Canadian Duck Dance rubbed shoulders with a Mark Simos creation specifically chosen for this duo, interestingly titled Keeping the Cats Happy.
On just two fiddles, Jonsson and Haas wove complex harmonies and beautiful arrangements, chopping and pizzicato and other technical mastery, into their powerful twin melody lines. According to Jonsson, their music adapts the classic Swedish folk style and the down home fiddling of American old time to produce something which is strictly neither, but which to my ear is more than the sum of those parts.
A great concert was rounded off with the return of the Ben Somers quintet, joining Haas and Jonsson for a few toons including Rockingham, Kentucky Waltz, and a version of June Apple interrupted by a cheeky squeaky mouse. The hard core stayed for a late jam session, swapping tunes and instruments, the perfect end to a night of fine music.
Photo Credits: (1) Ben Somers, (2) Brittany Haas & Lena Jonsson (unknown/website).