From a fabric woven tightly with nostalgia and joyful, porch-swing harmonies comes the Transatlantic Sessions – a ritual jam-fest uniting some of the best folk musicians from both sides of the pond.
This year’s tour marries the evergreen house band with fresh voices like mandolin player Sierra Hull and Cahalen Morrison from the US and Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel – promising a soundscape set to rattle Brighton Dome this month. Phil Cunningham – a Sessioner since their inception in 1994 – can’t wait to make the tour’s first visit to Brighton. “It’s a highlight of our year! The original concept for the TV series brought together musicians from Scotland and America to explore the age-old connection between music moving from here to there. A bunch of us would lock ourselves in an Ayrshire hotel and trade songs for two weeks. Then Celtic Connections Festival wanted a live version, so we formed a band that could work with new musicians from Scotland, Ireland, America.”
The live show – host to previous starry guests like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Patty Griffin – includes around 20 performers, fashioning new sounds from a rich and bottomless canon. Phil likens it to a cake with great ingredients – accordions, fiddles, whistles, guitars – and a jubilee of voices.
“The Sessions are never the same twice. We’ve only got two days to meet and work everything out before we’re onstage! But that’s the joy – everyone is so able. Aly Bain, who started the Sessions, says that everyone leaves their ego on the peg with their coat. In rehearsals, someone will be writing a hook in a corner, changing the chords in another. It’s an organic process.”
It’s a feverishly quick turnaround to absorb over 20 tunes; a feat, even for these most accomplished of artists. But the method, Phil fondly states, makes for a special kind of madness: “You get some real seat-of-the-pants moments; genius and uplifting. The audience loves to see that little edge. Sometimes it goes off the rails and it’s like watching a stunt driver. There’s usually a wry look and giggle winging across the stage, but we’ll always regain control. You’re allowed to be spontaneous, to let things fly. It’s organised chaos, but very beautiful.”
It’s what makes the show such a sought-after experience. Its popularity a sign, perhaps, of a folk renaissance. “At school in the early 70s, I was the only one playing traditional music. Nowadays, kids are hiding behind the bicycle sheds for a cigarette – and a few tunes. In Scotland, we have incredible young performers on pipes, harps and fiddles. The music is enjoying a new life and people are nurturing it. Preserving it but moving it forward in a respectful way.”
It’s a way of life that Phil hopes will be on offer for children for many years to come. “It’s so important for kids to have the chance to learn music in school; it opens the door to so many cultural experiences, expands the mind. It’s truly life-affirming.”
Brighton Dome, 8th Feb, 7.30pm