Mabon : Twenty

Jamie Smith's Mabon have been chosen to headline one of the prestigious evening concerts at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod in 2019 (Thurs. 4th July) - this new, live album spells out why,

Over the last twenty years Mabon have graced more than a thousand stages from Wales to Malaysia. Throughout that period bandleader Jamie Smith has built an impressive reputation as an accordion player, composer and songwriter, and the stellar cast of musicians that have surrounded him have never let the standard slip. Twenty serves to celebrate the shared musicianship of the current line up, and the sheer vitality found in the music they make.

Smith and percussionist Iolo Whelan have been together since the band started playing Welsh folk tunes in pubs, dances and small festivals in South Wales. Oli Wilson-Dickson (fiddle), Matt Downer (bass) and Paul Rogers (acoustic guitar) join them for Twenty, a live set that ranges across Mabon's six studio albums for material, and adds a couple of completely new compositions to the mix.

Twenty opens with the infectious, confident funk-folk of The Ridiculous Thinker, followed by the lilt of Jig Trouble in Little Blaina. It then offers the first song - the atmospheric, melancholy Yr Ennyd, written, with the lyrics in Welsh, by Iolo Whelan and sung by Smith. Near the end of the collection Caru Pum Merch (Loving Five Girls) is another Welsh language triumph - opening with Oli Wilson-Dickson's doleful fiddle, it subtly shifts in mood over seven minutes.

The opening trio immediately emphasise that Twenty is an album of contrasts, and across all twelve tracks that is confirmed. Frank's Reels have a drum heavy, insistent rhythm before sparking into swirling life; The Tale of Nikolai, The Dancing Bear opens with a mournful few minutes of conversation between fiddle and accordion before remorselessly picking up the Slavic tempo to a frenetic pace, then closing on a long, sad fiddle note. Hummingbird offers a moment of reflection and grace in the middle of the album.

The most mesmeric music is saved for last. Twenty closes with Easy on the Elephant - an eight minute tune set that starts in stately form with The Elephant's Graveyard March, then segues into the hypnotic whirl of Super Mega Bonus Reel, before a final, frantic instrumental rendition of the traditional Welsh folk song Hen Ferchetan. As Neil Young long ago noted in Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black), it is somewhat better to burn out than fade away, and that rubric applies here.

Twenty rightfully celebrates Mabon's Interceltic influences and the band's career achievements. With Mabon's heritage the virtuosity of this album could not be doubted, but the energy and spirit of it is a genuine revelation.