THEY'RE CALLING Shepherdstown, W. Va., the dulcimer capital of the world this weekend, and with loads of players, builders and devotees of the hammered string thing converging on the town for concerts, lectures and classes, can you blame them?
The Washington band Ironweed will perform Friday night, followed by sets from Passages, Danny Carnahan and Robin Petrie, and builder/musician Nicholas Blanton (and friends) Saturday night. For more information on the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest, call 304/263-2531.
Here's a glimpse of what some of these and other dulcimer players have tapped out in the studio recently.
Danny Carnahan and Robin Petrie "No Regrets" (DNA). Tonic for those who associate the dulcimer with shimmering but emotionless New Age tapestries, "No Regrets" boasts two expressive singers in Carnahan and Petrie and an eclectic mix of songs, including the Grateful Dead's "Losers" and Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day." Among the best tunes, though, are the Carnahan creations "The Drinking Man" and "Sweet Young Thing," both of which suggest Thompson's influence without sounding overly derivative. Moreover, Robin's hammered dulcimer and poignant voice is frequently set off by Carnahan's guitar, octave mandolin and fiddle, as well as a rhythm section with an insinuatingly light touch. The duo appears Monday at Silver Spring Unitarian Church (call 270-9090).
Passages "April Fools' Waltz" (Amallama). A somewhat more refined form of Celtic soul distinguishes this duo's arrangements of the lovely air "Women of Ireland" and the fiddle tunes "Reaping the Rye" and "Duffy the Dancer." Still, the album has a similarly broad, if less contemporary, scope, encompassing everything from an Italian Renaissance piece and Scarlatti's Adagio in D to a fiddle rave-up and "a 100 percent organic, bio-dynamic" vegetarian medley consisting of "Apples in the Winter," "The New Potatoes" and "The Blackberry Blossom." Even the traditional pieces are treated to unexpected twists and turns, and the combination of Jem Moore's hammered dulcimer, flute and percussion and Ariane Lydon's 12-string guitar often make for a sparkling weave.
Madeline McNeil "Heart's Ease" (Turquoise). No surprises here really, just a courtly collection of traditional pieces by Bach, Beethoven, O'Carolan and other masters, designed to soothe, not stir, the soul. Although McNeil's hammered dulcimer is at the center of the arrangements, the addition of Ralph Gordon's cello, Seth Austin's guitar, Freyda Epstein's violin and viola, plus the occasional flute, harpsichord and piano, give several pieces a chamber-like warmth and intimacy.
Ironweed "Dancing Cowboy" (Iron). O'Carolan, the 17-century Irish harper, is also represented here by a tune, but tradition goes out the window when this spry, playful and unpredictable trio shifts gears and moves from the New England contra dance tune "Dancing Bear" to Ennio Morricone's theme from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Elsewhere, hardy vocal harmonies give Stan Rogers's narrative ballad "Northwest Passage" the gusto it demands and the trio quietly resurrects Neil Young's "After the Goldrush" as an ecology anthem for the '90s. Incidentally, the liner notes conclude with this warning: "If you copy this tape without our permission, a flight of harpies will rip your guts out. Have a nice day."
Nicholas Blanton (With Ralph Gordon and Seth Austin) "Ways Upon the Bells" (Gourd Music). This may be the only album ever to include pieces by O'Carolan and John Coltrane, the common denominator being soulful melodies inspsired by a woman -- "Miss Noble" and "Naima," respectively. The trio goes on to explore other alluring and frequently melancholy themes dating back to the 12th century. The instrumentation, mostly dulcimer, guitar and bass, is comparatively spare but often hauntingly effective.