Friday, October 20, 2017

Highlands & Houston on CD

Hey wait. This ain't jazz.

Highlands & Houston reminds me of one of those projects they used to do with people like Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins, where you take two accomplished musicians from different genres and throw them together so they can create something magical and unique. In this particular case, American guitarist Michael Hurdle has teamed with Scottish fiddler Paul Anderson to play mostly Scottish and Celtic folk ballads with a slight Texas twist. It works incredibly well, which is sort of the point--Hurdle initiated the project after a lifetime of exploring the intersections between genres such as gospel, country, soul, blues and even funk.

Both Hurdle and Anderson have plenty in common when it comes to the mastery of their instruments. Both have won numerous competitions, for example, and both are prolific songwriters. But while Anderson is very well known back in Scotland from his appearances on TV and radio, Hurdle spent most of his life working in the healthcare industry and didn't go professional until later in life. (He started off playing in his local church back in the '60s, with a 12-string guitar he named Sister Rose.) You wouldn't know that from listening to him play, however--he plays his hollow body Gibson with a confident style that suggests a huge catalog over many decades.

These two gentlemen probably could have delivered an astonishing album with just their fiddle and guitar, but they've assembled a large ensemble that allows them plenty of flexibility while they straddle musical styles--mandolins, keyboards, drums, vocals and yes, even bagpipes. Hurdle provides even more variety by playing dobro, bass and Cuban el Tres. Sometimes this results in a busy, bright sound, and folk albums should probably lean more towards the understated and natural (especially when the bagpipes appear in the final track, a melding of "Scotland the Brave" and "Auld Lang Syne"). But Highlands & Houston is different enough to be refreshing and lots of fun, and that counts for a lot.

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