Late 19th-century New England had a remarkably diverse musical environment. Immigrants and tradespeople brought folk music traditions from around the world to the region and it became a marketplace of tones and rhythms, a melting pot of musical flavors and ideas.
This history has been lost today, but New Englander Brendan Taaffe channels this open-world idea on his latest album Can't Hold The Wheel. By fusing Zimbabwean mbira and African rhythms with American roots music–Irish and Appalachian, Taaffe and his band The New Line uncover the ties that bound these musical traditions together in a new world.
A multi-disciplinary multi-instrumentalist, Brendan Taaffe has a breadth of talent and experience spanning across multiple musical traditions. He’s written a book on Irish fiddling and holds a Masters in Traditional Music from the University of Limerick. He’s a prolific composer and conductor of Appalachian and shape-note inspired choral works, touring and leading workshops around the world. And, perhaps most strikingly, he’s an accomplished mbira player, having studied under Cosmas Magaya, a master of the Zimbabwean instrument which consists of a series of tuned metal keys fixed to a resonator. It is this sound which provides the grounding for all the arrangements on Can’t Hold The Wheel. Taking a cue from his New England forbears, Taaffe realizes that a sound can recast a song. “Treating the songs this way brings out new layers of meaning in these familiar songs,” says Taaffe. “I had never realized that ‘Train On the Island’ was a break-up song before, but the mbira brought out the story. I think it’s because the sound of the mbira is so evocative, perched on the knife edge between joy and sorrow, and that brings out the poignancy of these old songs.”
In addition to the mbira and Taaffe’s own guitar, pump organ, and vocals, The New Line is comprised of some of New England’s best roots musicians to be found today: Adam Hurt on gourd banjo, Stefan Amidon (Sam Amidon, Natalie Haas) on percussion and vocals, Colin McCaffrey on electric guitar and bass, Mike Olson on trumpet, and Heather Masse (The Wailin’ Jennys, Joy Kills Sorrow) on vocals. Can’t Hold The Wheel is not an attempt at extravagance, but rather a master class in simplicity. Taaffe’s respect for these different musical traditions, as well as his experience and skill as a conductor and arranger, shows in how effortlessly music blends together. This music doesn’t sound written. It sounds grown out of soil and time.
With Can’t Hold the Wheel, The New Line keep close to their New England roots by simply allowing something new to develop. And at the helm, Brendan Taaffe brings out the best in his collaborators, knowing when to trim or add more. Like a farmer, Taaffe knows that pruning yields the best fruit. His arrangements are those of a cultivator, paring things down to their roots until they flourish. These songs are the sound of life cycles, effortlessly expressing the sustainable nature of folk traditions, always being trimmed back to grow again, returning stronger, newer, and more fruitful with each generation.