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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Alan Stivell: A L'Olympia


1) The Wind Of Keltia; 2) An Dro; 3) The Trees They Grow High; 4) An Alarc'h; 5) An Durzhunel; 6) Telenn Gwad / The Foggy Dew; 7) Pop Plinn; 8) Tha Mi Sgith; 9) The King Of The Fairies; 10) Tri Martolod; 11) Kost Ar C'hoad; 12) Suite Sudarmoricaine.

If Harpe Celtique sounds a bit too extreme, how about this — a full show played by Stivell at the Olympia music hall in February 1971? No lengthy multi-part suites, very little Celtic harp (most of it on the opening 'Wind Of Keltia'), but an amazing sound nonetheless; no wonder the album became a bestseller (in Europe, at least) and a high watermark in the chronology of «Celtic revival». (Ironically, it is nearly impossible to find on CD these days).

With a five-piece band behind his belt, Stivell sets out two humble goals — (a) to show the mass audience that tra­ditional Celtic music is only as «boring» and «obsolete» as the unskillful non-ex­pert would make it seem, and (b) to try out a real synthesis of Celtic and rock music rather than just play simple folk ballads with electric guitars, or complex Celtic ballads on traditional instru­ments and still call it «folk-rock» because they are mixed in with rock songs.

The first half of the album is mostly dedicated to satisfying the first goal, as he alternates between slow haunting ballads and livelier dance numbers, constantly varying the instrumentation — vio­lins, bagpipes, guitars, organs, drums — and the moods (magical-mystical à la Merlin in 'Wind Of Keltia', Sherwood Forest in 'The Trees They Grow High', sentimental in 'An Durzhunel', dark and omi­nous in 'Foggy Dew'). The audience gets to stomp and clap along on the faster numbers, and continuously rips into applause that, to me, sounds «frantic» rather than «polite».

Then, halfway into the album, we finally get some genuine «Celtic rock», with massive electric guitar parts that are not always «Celtic» in essence: the solo on 'Pop Plinn' sounds like it comes straight off an early 1970s prog-rock album, but it is set to a traditional melody all the same. 'Tha Mi Sgith' is just as good (this time, guitar and fiddle just follow Alan's vocal melody), and by the time they get to the encore, a smouldering, rabble-rousing Breton anthem ('Suite Sudarmoricaine'), most people in the audience are ready to subscribe to Neo-Druidism and start embracing oaks.

Unquestionably, this is the best introduction to Stivell for any type of neophyte — a failure to grasp this means a basic failure to grasp the pleasures of Celtic music as such. (Which is not a condemnation or anything: like most pre-18th century music, this stuff is generally less palatable to the cathartic nerves of the modern listener). And even if these performances take us even fur­ther away from the «pure» revival of authentic Celtic melodicity and instrumentation — if such a thing in itself is at all possible — they prove, better than any attempts at such a direct revival, that all of these long-time-ago folk musings were not mused in vain. Thumbs up, once again, more out of intellectual respect than straightforward feeling, but that's really just a problem of time and space, not one of will and spirit.

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