RUNA – Current Affairs – Review and Interview
By Gideon Thomas, for FolkAlley.com
Runa is a band whose five members hail from three different countries – the US, Canada and Ireland. The band won Top Group and Top Traditional Group in the Irish Music Awards this year, and their love of the (often shared) traditions they find in music are ties that bind the members together, and their new album, Current Affairs draws from a range of musical forms and song types.
From the singing of Pete Seeger to Gaelic ballads to traditional British songs to modern singer-songwriter-penned pieces, the collection has an interesting mix and blend of pieces which have entered the bands’ repertoire. I discuss this and more with Shannon Lambert-Ryan from the band below, but first, let’s take a dip into the album and see how it feels.
Opener “The Banks Are Made Of Marble” reveals a musicianship that is immediately both Irish and American. Almost as a statement of intent, Maggie Estes White’s fiddle reaches across the oceans. The sometimes-sombre “Wife Of Usher’s Well” is then treated to quite a jaunty, accordion-led arrangement, and, as the tale spills out, you realise how fitting the vocal actually is. It is so great to see new blood taking on the various song and tune traditions as contained on the album, and treating them as well as RUNA do.
“The Hunter Set” shows clarity and drive, highlighting the adaptability of the musicians – and their ease with playing away from their ‘home’ styles. Estes White’s fiddle leads things off, followed by an especially effective use of a bluesharp /banjo combination. Next up is an interesting take on “Henry Lee,” with a pumping, driving feel, which it shares with a lot of its compatriots on Current Affairs. Again, Lambert-Ryan’s voice fits the choice of songs well, backed with a chopping fiddle and well-placed percussion. Songs like this, indeed Current Affairs as a whole, take the traditions in different directions, with the band’s selection of instruments adding to the story.
A gorgeous version of Amos Lee’s “Black River” is fabulously sung, with some very neat harmonies bringing it up and down. The Gaelic song set, “Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir / A Chomaraigh Aoibhinn Ã“,” is well tempered between voice and a simple but effective backing, where the beauty of the songs is to the fore, never encumbered – the band have that ineffable quality, understanding, which is not always obvious with other groups.
“The False Knight Upon The Road” is both bright and exuberant, with the band taking the decision to treat it thus. The tune really flows, bringing out different parts of the song in different ways. The harmonies have a rushing quality to them, with guitar and some deft mandolin underpinning everything. “Ain’t No Grave” is the only moment where the album falls down slightly for me. The version is a little ‘lacking’, amid the desire for a little more grit. Still, there are effective, multi-layered harmonies, and an interesting, vibrant arrangement. The sliding fiddle and coda works very well.
Inclusions from the pens of Kate Rusby and Davy Steele show that the net which Runa cast spreads far and wide, and will no doubt bring more listeners to the original writers. “The Ruthless Wife” has a lovely bouncing banjo courtesy of Ron Block, and the song stands out as a fascinating story, continuing traditions in different ways, those of family stories and stories of families. The musical journey visits more new and different places on the “Land Of Sunshine” set, which proves that instrumental music can and does actually tell a story, on a piece which feels new and contemporary. Bright, breezy, elegant, and very well put together.
“Rarie’s Hill” is a fitting summation of the project – full of personal input, and wanting to take the traditions forward by working out new ways for its songs.
Current Affairs will draw favourable comparison with bands like Bodega, and listening to it makes you glad that Runa exist and are making the music which they are. I hope that the album brings as much joy to as many other people as it has to me. It is a bold statement, one which blends Irish music (in the instrumentation, and especially in the tune sets), with an American sensibility in its influences and execution.
I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to Shannon Lambert-Ryan from RUNA about the band, the new record, and their choices of songs and tunes.