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October Browne on October Browne

October Browne began her music career busking on the streets of London, England at the tender age of 11 with cymbals, tambourine, kazoo, harmonica and guitar. She immigrated to New York in 1988, where she immersed herself in the Irish music scene. In 1991, she moved to Canada and made Toronto her home. Known for her fine fingerstyle guitar playing and exquisite vocals, October has played with such notable musicians as Kirk Elliot, Anne Lederman, Ena O’Brien and Oliver Schroer. 

Browne’s haunting ballad, “Lady of the Streets” (Stuck on a Cold Steel Pole, 1995) grabbed the attention of the local media, winning high praise from critics and a good deal of air play. Also a founding member of Morgaine Le Fay, she wrote the rollicking song, “The Gate” for their debut album, Up She Flew (1997). This fall she’ll be releasing her own self-titled debut album in time for the Samhain celebrations at the Harbourfront Lakeside Terrace.

Curmudgeon‘s entertainment editor spoke with Browne before the release concert about her songs and working with some of the North American music industry’s finest musicians, guys like bassist Peter Bleakney and drummer Gary Craig, a dynamic duo known for their work with Anne Murray. “My producer, Evelyne Datl, has played with them over the years and that’s how they came to be on the album.”

With talented female Celtic musicians like East Coast fiddler Natalie MacMaster and Irish-Canadian multi-intrumentalist Loretto Reid on board, the album virtually cooks with proverbial “Goddess Power.” Browne met MacMaster while gigging at the Dawson City Music Festival and ran into her again in Toronto. “I love her playing. She has such feeling and she’s very smart, very quick.” Reid, on the other hand, she’s known for years and the two have worked together on other projects. “Besides,” says Browne,” if it’s amazing whistles you want, she’s the obvious choice.”

Other North American greats on the album include guitarists Russell Broom of Jann Arden, Colin Cripps of Blue Rodeo fame, and Kim Ratcliffe, a Holly Cole accompanist. Browne gives the lion’s share of credit to Datl, however, the behind-the-scenes magician who single-handedly wove the project into a cohesive tapestry.

“We started recording two years ago in October, but before that, there were grants to write and musicians to contact. Evelyne was there for me through it all. I really couldn’t have done it without her. She encouraged me to record, helped write grant applications and did all the producing.” Datl also co-wrote two songs with October, helped arrange the material and played numerous instruments (harmonica, piano, synths, organ, tablas).

Although October Browne has a mind-boggling variety of styles, the common thread throughout is Browne herself. “First I thought, ‘What a mish-mash. How are we ever going to make this stuff cohesive?’ But I believe we’ve done it. By having Gary, Pete, Evelyne and myself on all the tracks, we’ve kept a consistency throughout.”

Browne is a gifted songwriter whose versatility is reflected in a wide range of original offerings featuring unique arrangements and a broad spectrum of influences, from Lou Reed to James Bond and old Music Hall. “There’s something for everyone,” says Browne. “When I write songs, I don’t stop to think, ‘Now I’ll compose a pop song, or a folk song.’ I just write what comes. I’m influenced by a lot of different musicians and types of music.”

Although Browne’s ballads are my personal farourites — I’m a fool for ballads and hers are exquisite, all her songs are captivating. There’s not a single “throw-away” track on the album. “I don’t like filler. I may not be as prolific as some songwriters, but I take great care with each song.” In fact, she already has a few new songs under her hat for her next album.

The original ballads include “Faithless,” which show-cases some of Browne’s finest guitar work, and “Just Wanna Dance,” a song inspired by a lone dancer at Lee’s Palace. “I saw a young hippie girl at a Nomos concert doing her own free-style dance among some traditional dancers who seemed to find her a little ‘odd.’ Out of generosity, Dora Keogh and Thomasina Reilly took her by the hand and danced with her, and I was so touched that I wrote, ‘Just Wanna Dance’.” Incidentally, the rich-sounding keyboard in this piece is actually a B3 organ.

Browne’s stirring ballad, “Naked & Small” resonates with old-fashioned border English balladry reminiscent of the sixties Celtic music revival, while the Mellotron gives it a modern feel, “similar to John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields. The lyrics come from a personal experience that a lot of people can relate to, something I probably wouldn’t write now,” she muses. “It was a particular time in my life.” Browne’s upbeat “Distant Shore” is another  ballad original with a subtle blend of electric and acoustic guitar and a powerful lyrical angst that takes it beyond being more than just an old-fashioned love song. “It can touch on a lot of things, like having a rough childhood.”

In contrast to her ballads, Browne’s most recent work, “No Return” is a fast-paced retro number with a bit of everything from James Bond, Peter Gunn and the Beatles to the Addams Family’s Farfisa organ. But despite its camp, she considers it her most meaningful song. “It’s about how offended I am by genetic engineering. Even though the long-term effects are not known, these guys don’t have to label. It’s all based on profit and greed and not caring for the planet. the song is called “no return” because that’s where I feel we’re going. I feel that our hearts need to be more open as a species.”

The first track, “Song of O,” is a catchy tune with Dylanesque mouth harp by Evelyne. And it’s a double entendre. “Since it’s about me, I thought of calling it Story of O, but “Song of O” seemed a little more subtle. It’s the first song I ever wrote, so it’s perfect as the first song on the album.”

Natalie MacMaster plays an awesome fiddle in Browne’s re-mix of “The Gate,” a fun tune she wrote for the Morgaine Le Fay album, Up She Flew, about the James Gate pub on Bloor near High Park. “A lot of my material is emotional and serious, so I needed a light-hearted tune on the album. It’s the Beatles with lots of fiddle.”

Browne and her accompaniment also add a few surprising new twists to old favourites. “I just love the groove that Gary and Pete create on “”Foggy Dew” and Loretto’s amazing whistle.” They also do interesting things to Beatle George Harrison’s version of the Hindu chant “Govinda,” a Sanskrit hymn to Krishna. Evelyne’s arrangements combined with Kim Ratcliffe’s slide guitar and Loretto’s whistles and uillean pipes create an unforgettably cool and unusual Indian-Celtic cross-over. “My album holds surprises for everyone.”

Since surprises are rare in the age of post-modern cynicism, I highly recommend October Browne.

Celtic Curmudgeon: Arts & Entertainment Review, Samhain 1999


Written by barbaramackellar

June 7, 2012 at 5:39 am

Posted in Interviews, Reviews

A Child’s Guide to Fairies

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The Secret Life of Fairies

Who hasn’t wondered at one time or another about the daily lives of fairies? For those of us who want to know, author Penelope Larkspur and artist Leslie Elizabeth Watts offer The Secret Life of Fairies, a delightful child’s guide to Fairyland.

Penelope begins logically with a few cautionary words on entering Fairy World. And since young readers are remarkably logical, she goes to great lengths to tell all…or most. Some questions are necessarily left unanswered, but only because “fairies like their privacy,” she explains, which is why “no one has ever seen inside a fairy bathroom”

Bathroom arcana aside, author and artist show us a typical fairy home furnished with intriguing birc-a-brac: acorn goblets, sprouting sofas, canopied beds (to protect sleep-fliers), silver spoon mirrors, mouse-hide carpets, a cozy fire of wooden matches blazing on the hearth.

We spy a fairy feast in a moonlit wood where a royal family sits atop a raised toadstool dais and dancers twirl about a bonfire in gossamer gowns to flute and harp and walnut-shell bass. We forage a field by day where tiny fairies ride on ants and wingless fairies fly on bundles of sticks by saying the magic words, “Horse and mattock.” Mostly, though, says Penelope, fairies raise white fairy horses called “rades” and fairy cows for milk, and fairy hunting dogs for catching wild mice.

We learn that fairies love fashion an avoid clothes that “pinch, rub or itch.” They prefer dew-draped spiderwebs and jaunty green-leaf hats, or snapdragon caps and bat-wing capes on rainy days. Did you know that one wool hat lost in the woods equals 20 fairy sweaters? They also love bread, butter, berries, bluebells abd bowls of milk. Penelope also reveals a recipe for fairy cake that anyone can make.

Now I can’t imagine a more perfect summer pastime than The Secret Life of Fairies, even for the timid fairy seeker. No need to venture further than your own backyard. Just follow Penelope’s tips: leave a dish of milk in the garden, and plant bluebells for feasts and pink and red flowers for hats, but don’t plant St. John’s Wort, or leave horseshoes and other iron objects laying about. And for the record, fill out the “fairy sighting” form on the very last page.

For a first-hand sighting, warns Penelope, you must be on the lookout for fairies, “especially on moonlit nights. You may hear them before you see them” she cautions. “The thrum of  a harp or the lilting melody of a flute will tell you they are nearby.” Be very quiet,” she cautions, “for fairies do not like to be watched.”

Sounds perfectly logical to me.

Celtic Curmudgeon Arts & Entertainment Review, 1999

Written by barbaramackellar

May 27, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Posted in Reviews

Psycho Queen of Leenane

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Joan Orenstein and Fiona Reid

Theatre critics are raving about the hot new UK playwright, Martin McDonagh and his Tony-winning play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. They compare him to Hollywood’s Quentin Tarantino to a degree tha raises suspicion and arouses a violent need to reject their claims outright. Live theatre and cinema are worlds apart, the effects, the impact, mutually exclusive. Or so I thought, until I saw McDonagh’s play.

A fan of fringe theatre, black comedy and other off-beat entertainment, I am habitually bored by mainstream theatre, in spite of critical acclaim. (Riverdance is a case in point.) So I prepared for two hours of tedium trying to achieve critical objectivity.

And for the first while, The Beauty Queen did not disappoint. It was opening night. The cast was shy, their movements were awkward, and their Irish accents kept unravelling. And that, thought I with a satisfied meow, is simply not Tarantino, a director known for sucking his audience into a vortex of fast-lane violence and angst-driven thugs from exciting establishing shot to unnerving finish.

The Beauty Queen builds almost too slowly, more like a Hitchcock thriller, and with as many twists and turns, starting with the boring daily lives of two very boring women. As the play develops, however, we learn that mother and daughter have been weaving a sinister web. The double-binds and petty betrayals are of Hitchcockian proportion and lead inexorably to a terrible, shocking end. It has all the elements of Psycho. Think bare light bulbs, Norman Bates and mother-possession, with a few minor differences: the bare bulb is not restricted to the basement — these women live in squalor, Bates is a broad, and mother is still alive and full of piss, which she dumps down the sink. Disgusting? Very.

Queen Fiona

Joan Orenstein is almost too convincing at times in her role as 70-year old Mag Folan, a lazy old bitch of a mother hell-bent on making a life-time slave of her estranged 40-something daughter, Maureen, played to perfection by Fiona Reid. Maureen resents her, of course, but their circumstances in rural Ireland leave her no alternative but to look after her abusive mother and their paltry farm, until Pato Dooley (Oliver Becker) offers her a tiny window of opportunity. And that’s when the real friction begins. Mag steps up her scheming while Maureen flaunts her escape plans. Mom wins (sort of) with the unwitting help of Pato’s younger brother, Ray, a frenetic lad whose restless impatience with the old biddy most resembles a Tarantino character. Scene-stealing Canadian actor Matthew Edison brings to the stage the vibrance and humour of a Pulp Fiction punk. He tosses about, rolls off his chair and pretty much crawls up the walls with all the insolence of youth, chanting “feck” as though it were some demented Irish mantra, until he finally leaves Pato’s letter to Maureen with Mag to do with as she pleases, which se does, apparently sealing her daughter’s fate…and her own. But that’s not all. The surprising twist at the end is worthy of Hitchcock and must remain a mystery “for fear of spoiling the effect for our readers” (as the great Master of Suspense himself might’ve said in a prologue to the play).

McDonagh’s own fate was sealed when both play and director won Tony awards for the 1997-1998 season. The Beauty Queen won the award for Outstanding Broadway Play, and Ms. Hynes, the Lucille Lortel award for Outstanding Direction, making her the first woman director to win a Tony. “Naturally I was thrilled, but it seemed extraordinary to me that a woman hadn’t won, particularly given the contribution made to the American theatre this century by women directors, founders of the great regional theatres, and others who were very influential,” Hynes told me in a brief interview at the Bluma Appel Theatre shortly before opening night. She was in Toronto overseeing Druid’s joint production with the Canadian Stage Theatre Company.

After touring Ireland with The Beauty Queen, Ms. Hynes and the Druid Theatre Company teamed up with Royal Court for a co-production and moved to the Atlantic Theatre in New York, where McDonagh’s play became a highly-acclaimed sellout, receiving unprecedented reviews from the American Press. “Sometimes you don’t even know what you’ve been craving until the real thing comes along,” raved New York Times critic Ben Brantly, and The DAily News called it “a new Playboy of the Western World.” Then on April 23 of the same year, McDonagh’s play went to The Walter Kerr theatre for its award-winning Broadway debut.

Such tremendous acclaim for all involved — including the cast, who won the 1998 Theatre World award for Outstanding Ensemble — makes one wonder what it was about McDonagh’s script that initially caught Ms. Hynes’ attention. “You read plays, and if they’re good and exciting, you tend to want to do them. The same process happened with Martin. It was unusual in the sense that he had extraordinary sophistication for (what I didn’t know then, but now know was) a first-time writer, and maturity for a young writer. He told a story, he wrote wonderful dialogue, and he’s very funny. I can’t think of a much better reason.”

McDonagh wrote the first installment of his Leenane trilogy in a basement flat in only eight days, in London, England, where he grew up. Although the 28-year-old playwright is not from Ireland, his father’s from Connemara, where most of his work is set. Nor does he have a degree in drama. He is in fact a high school drop-out  who spent several years watching tellie on the dole, and he’s a self-confessed pop-cult pundit to boot. Before Ms. Hynes and Druid took him under wing, he had 22 radio plays rejected. He has also confessed to being influenced by Tarantino, but aside from his character Ray, there’s more Psycho than Pulp Fiction in this playwright’s philosophy. I suspect that a steady diet of BBC prime-time during his formative writing career must have embedded Hitchcock deeply in his subconscious mind, or better yet, the old master has come back to take possession of the young McDonagh and we’re in for a decade of award-winning suspense theatre. Notorious, you say? Strictly for the Birds? This fringe junkie can’t wait.

Celtic Curmudgeon Arts & Entertainment Review, 1999

Written by barbaramackellar

May 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Posted in Reviews