[20 April 2008]
There are some folk groups that take old songs and roar into them, punch up the bass, punk up the fiddles, pound across the stage in a welter of string and tambour. And then there are other groups, like this one, which have a calmer, more egalitarian sound, concentrating on piquant tweaks of the fiddle, on small, nimble changes, subtleties, twists and modulations, on harmony, on good workmanship performed with excellent tools, on a sound that flows and bobs more often than it leaps and stabs. The music jigs and Olivier Derners’s toe taps the wooden floor and you’re welcome to dance if you feel the urge, but you know that underneath it all the wood is well-polished, the electricity in this hall will always work, and that afterwards there will be complimentary sandwiches on the table at the back, tasty sandwiches cut in straight lines by smiling kitchen workers with clean knives and healthy children who do well in school. Dans Les Airs has the air of a good democracy, a core stability that doesn’t stifle the inhabitants.
The band’s four musicians hail from Québec. All of them had histories with other groups before they came together in 2002 and named themselves Le Vent du Nord after a collaborative album released the year before by Derners and Nicholas Boularice, titled Le Vent du Nord est Toujours Fret …
Dans Les Airs is Le Vent du Nord’s third album after 2003’s Maudite Moisson! and 2005’s Les Amants du Saint-Laurent. Here they seem seasoned by their past careers but not exhausted by them. It’s easy to believe that they still find pleasure in the feel of their instruments: the fiddle, the guitar, the accordion, and the hurdy-gurdy. This hurdy-gurdy is not the small hand-cranked barrel organ that is sometimes called by the same name but a particular kind of fiddle, the vielle á roue. The viellist, in this case Boularice, pressures the strings with a rosined wheel in place of the normal fiddle-bow. It gives the music a slight medieval quality, a trimly arched buzz. There’s a little bit of piano on the album as well, but not a lot. In “L’heure Bleue” it’s there mainly to pave the way for the accordion and to bounce roundly against the sound of hard shoes rapping their way through a dance.
The Québecoise music these musicians play traces its roots back to Europe’s Celts, and anyone who enjoys, let’s say, Irish trad, is going to feel that they’ve come to a place that is both familiar and unfamiliar. There’s the known rhythm of reels and jigetty-jigging, and there’s the sound of an ebullient Celtic-seeming fiddle calling to invisible outer-album dancers in “La Traversée”, yet the lyrics are sung in Quebec French and the album includes a tune called “Petit Rêve III” in which the accordion takes on a character that sits halfway between Montreal and a Champs-Élysées café, a dreamy Parisian lilt coloured with nostalgia.
Le Vent du Nord don’t have the slappy, meaty feel of some of their compatriots, La Part du Quêteux, for example, the newcomers Tu M’en Diras Tant, or the foot-stompers of La Bottine Souriante, the group I was thinking of when I started to write that first line about roaring into songs and pounding across the stage. The call and response singing in “La Fille et les Dragons” and “La Piastre des États” is beautifully done and cleanly enunciated, without the lusty village chorus quality that the Bottines have when they bite into a song like “Paye La Traite”. Instead, Le Vent seem composed and buoyant, as if they’ve examined the music from every angle before embarking and now they feel they can work their way through it lightheartedly, with complete confidence, uncovering new pieces of terrain as they go, fresh valleys and mountains, all conquered with firmly-modelled élan.