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The Little Radio at The Mermaid County Wicklow Arts Centre


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The Little Radio
Mermaid County Wicklow Arts Centre
Bray, Ireland
February 6, 2013

There were hymns, ancient folk tunes, a Gaelic anthem, pop songs and TV themes, all delivered with the joie de vivre of those performing not for an audience , but for their own pleasure—and that was just the Welsh rugby fans from Cardiff who had descended on the pubs of Dublin and its environs in anticipation of the weekend's Ireland-Wales match. In a way, the Taffs' repertoire drew from a similar wellspring of inspiration as The Little Radio—the duo of saxophonist Iain Ballamy and button accordionist Stian Carstensen—one that recognizes a tune for the simple joy it brings, regardless of style or origin.

The Little Radio's six-date tour of Ireland was supported by Music Network, an Arts Council funded body dedicated to supporting creative artists and promoting their work throughout Ireland. Although The Little Radio had played one-off gigs in Ireland in the past, this was the duo's first tour of the island. It also marked a quick return to Ireland for Ballamy, who a fortnight earlier had performed a memorable concert with the trio Quercus alongside singer June Tabor and pianist Huw Warren in Dublin's Pepper Canister Church.

Erik Satie's sentimental waltz "Je Te Veux" opened the set, which toggled between tunes from the duo's eponymous 2004 recording and its latest CD, Muskrat Ramble (Feral Records, 2014). A cheery take on Burt Bacharach/Hal David's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" featured flowing solos from Ballamy and Carstensen, though throughout the set it was the accordionist in the main who stretched out. The Norwegian's unaccompanied solo on Hoagy Carmicahel's "Stardust"—his fleet fingers resounding percussively like a tap dancer's feet—was as astonishing for its dexterity as it was for its delicacy, though it was Ballamy's feathery lyricism that carried the tune.

Carstensen's Balkans-inspired intro on the next tune was a smokescreen for "Teddy Bears' Picnic," a playful romp with the air of a sea shanty. The hymnal strains of Ralph Vaughan Williams gently melancholic "Wither Must I Wander" provided striking juxtaposition to the preceding frivolity, with Carstensen coaxing church organ textures from his button accordion. The duo's muse took them to France and Galic gaiety on "Sous Le Ceil de Paris," followed by a German medley that began with the pretty "An Den Kleinen Radioapparat"—the Hans Eisler/Bertolt Brecht song that inspired the name The Little Radio—and segued into the dramatic "Surabaya Johnny," Kurt Weils' tale of bitter-sweet romance that the duo previously recorded on Ballamy's Pepper St. Interludes (Feral, 2000).

During the Brecht/Weil suite soloing took a back seat to the duo's intricate melodic and harmonic play, at the tail-end of which Carstensen conducted a crowd sing-along, and whilst it couldn't match the passion of the dozen Welsh rugby fans, it certainly pipped them for finesse.

Carstensen once again drew organ tonalities from his accordion on another church-inspired number, before Bellamy's spiraling cadenza ushered in "I Love you so much it hurts Me," Fred Tillman's lilting country-folk ballad that was later recorded by singer/pianist Ray Charles. A faithful rendition of Whitney Houston's "Saving All My Love for You" acknowledged the beauty of the melody by resisting the temptation to overly embellish.

For the encore, Carstensen and Ballamy's quasi-bagpipe fanfare—complete with drone—introduced "Danny Boy," followed without ceremony by a swinging version of trombonist Kid Ory's "Muskrat Ramble."

Two weeks earlier, in an equally eclectic set, Quercus' June Tabor had asked rhetorically "What is a folk song?" It's no simpler a question to answer than "What is jazz?" but as Ballamy and Carstensen artfully demonstrated, in the right hands there's little light between hymns, danceable jazz, cabaret, pop ballads and country music. Perhaps trumpeter/singer Louis Armstrong put it best: "Man, all music is folk music. You ain't never heard no horse sing a song, have you?"

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