Luke Concannon

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Catching up with Luke Concannon

Feature

As I'd been in contact with Nizlopi singer/guitarist Luke Concannon regarding the release of his brand new solo album 'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning' (which comes out tomorrow: check out our review at http://www.hotmusiclive.co.uk/article?article=12874), it seemed a great opportunity to catch up with him & find not only what he's been up to but how he sees the world at the moment. Much as I'd like to have popped over to Vermont for the chat, you'll be pleased to hear that we opted for prudent social distancing (just over three thousand miles' worth).

Good morning Luke, I was wondering how have you & yours been keeping during the last peculiar year? It looks like you have been living in idyllic surroundings.

"Yes, in the ‘valley of the blessed' is how it feels; my wife and I moved in to a Vermont farm house in the woods in November 2019, just in time for some country quiet in pandemic times… I've actually loved the peace and simplicity and it's really allowed me to focus and progress with music and my career… Now I feel kinda tired and like I need to connect to my deep self, nature and loved ones..."

Your new album 'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning' has been described in "Hot Music Live" as "arguably his best work to date":   It seems to have taken you quite a while to craft: it sounds like a labour of love?

"Thanks for that review! I agree  :)  Yes; falling in love with an American and moving here, getting married, those things filled up some space and, I started studying with a music teacher; and integrating those learnings in to what I do; and finding the right band here… All took time!  :)"

The songs, as they so often are with you, are a fascinating blend of deep concern with the state of the world yet also a deep joy & optimism: do you find that a fair comment?

"Yes… I love to sing, and was given some sunny enthusiasm by my ancestors… my parents, and, for sensitive souls these times of climate and social chaos can feel like a meat grinder. So yes; the world is still so terribly beautiful and terribly unjust to so many… A lot of change needed, and I hope music plays one part… I like that as a form of activism; it can really be an inside job, the way a song can make you feel so alive, or so moved, it does change us… It's such a privilege to inhabit music, to get to really go in to it… I like what Tolstoy wrote about periods of crisis and famine in Russia; he would go off to serve those in need because they mattered more than his fictional characters in his novels… Although it helped that he was rich! :)"

You also focus very much on the sense of community in your songs: how do feel about how the idea of community has shifted in the last year with people unable to meet up in person but instead over the internet?

"Good question… You know there is such a yearning for intimacy in folk; like really connecting and feeling heard, accepted, loved, and loving, and there is a huge need…. That's probably the centre of our learning as a species now; how do we love our selves and each other, and grow the fabric that lasts… I've been hosting a call each Tuesday that seeks to give a space for this kind of connection.

 

Details here: https://lukeconcannon.com/weekly-gatherings/

 

That's the pearl of great price; the quality of our interactions… And wildly enough it seems as though that can happen on Zoom or in person. I do feel a little bit of social malnourishment though… Probably as much from being locked down on this album as the pandemic!"

 

You seem to be working with some very talented artists: what is the music scene like where you are now based?

"Oh! Well…. Boston was our base till a year ago, and you have Berklee College of Music there, and New England ConservatoryYo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble doing free gigs… And down the road 'The Burren' putting on the best Irish acts who are touring… So it's a musician's paradise in some ways… and; I'm very lucky with the way Nizlopi is a calling card… Darius Christian who played and arranged the horns on the record is a go to guy for the world's largest touring acts, and he called me!?"

Do you manage to keep up with the Warwickshire music scene? If so, is there anyone you've been enjoying or could recommend to our readers?

"Well my Brother John Parker is still right there in it… So I hear about things through him; Stylusboy, Wes Finch and Eleanor Brown"

Any artists from the wider world scene you can recommend?

"Best records of recent years: ‘Hadestown' from Anais Mitchell (the Broadway one), Declan O'Rourke'sChronicles of the Great Irish Famine', ‘Hamilton'! and loving Abida Parveen's singing, particularly earlier stuff..."

I'm guessing from your normal philosophy that you are generally optimistic over how music will emerge from the pandemic?

"Well optimism is blind, hope is practical…That's how I look at it… I think the central thing for us as artists is to be devoted to our practice and our community… our dear ones; and growing that the art that really nourishes comes from love of the people and the land, and if it really serves the need in a community it will live and thrive; so as artists how can we give life to those who need it? Speaking to the times… in service of the world that is calling…'

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'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning' by Luke Concannon

Review

One of the most anticipated albums to be issued by a Coventry & Warwickshire artist has to be 'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning' which Luke Concannon is sharing with the world on February 5th.  The tunes have long been assembled & I've long wished to share my thoughts with you. Now the moment is here.

Thankfully, Luke has already released three of the songs as singles "Doing Nothing" which we reviewed in October, "Your Heart is in My Chest" the following month & most recently "Absolument" which has been out a couple of weeks. Three entirely different tracks & each quite stunning in its own fashion and hopefully you will recollect my thoughts on these, or if not refer back to the reviews.

You'll be pleased to hear that the seven tracks on the album which you won't have yet heard fit right in with the themes of individuality & excellence.  Produced by Nashville's James Prendergast at the Vermont farm of singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell (Luke now lives with his wife Stephanie Hollenberg, on Abenaki land in that state), the ten songs feature a most impressive array of musicians (including Stephanie whose voice in the harmonies is prominent).

I'd say that despite the wonderful eclecticism of the collection as a whole, there are several unifying factors. The first, and possibly most apparent, is Luke's abiding enthusiasm which elides into optimism despite whatever issues concern him. This has been so evident in the boundless joy of  "Your Heart is in My Chest" and "Absolument" where the chief problem seems to have been containing it & even "Doing Nothing" had a self deprecating wit which neutralised any possible negativity in his circumstances. The same, as you'll discover shortly, applies to the "new" pieces.

The other common thread, which I keep on returning to in my reviews of Luke's work, is how he has now completely transcended genres in his work: yes the songs as a set are eclectic as many excellent artists' are, but they are internally eclectic too: each individual one contains melded aspects of a variety of styles which he has achieved the art of getting to work together holistically: I think one can definitely hear the acquisitions of all his explorations of musics of the world.

So what are the other songs? A key one, the mighty "Join The Liberation" (which he originally released in 2017) is what you might call trademark Luke: a passionate exhortation for us to unite in meaningful action: plaintive in its description of the current horrors yet getting angry in response to them: at this point his vocals nearly burst out of the melody so great is his emotion.

"Coventry" is a nice touch, reconnecting him with the area covered by this magazine, but of course Luke is no parochialist & it is no token tip of the hat his homeland, but poetic use of the dreadful events of the November 14th 1940 "Moonlight Sonata" blitz to evoke parallels with the cynical & materialistic society he sees around him: strong imagery for sure but he seems unwilling to mince his words on this subject. To add to the sense of moral outrage, the arrangement is very unsettling: odd fragments of disparate cultural tones drift in and out: vaguely "Eastern" strings, sudden horn stabs, wailing harmonies. Like "Join The Liberation", "Coventry" uses the symbolism of civilisation on fire to make its point about impending apocalypse (and he's not the only songwriter from our area doing this currently: I think of Ellie Gowers' as yet unreleased "The Sky Is On Fire").

"The Hummingbird (Kieron's)" (I imagine the title is a nod to his Dad) is probably the most single minded of the album, being the nearest to a pure folk song & featuring absolutely gorgeous guitar playing of a stately reel picturing a pastoral idyll.

"Feel You In My Arms" has as its focus the plight of those without homes & those isolated from their families, the victims of alienation & rejection by society while pleading for compassion towards them & genuine connection.

"It Won't Wait" is a lament set appropriately over an arrangement built around a drone heart, though in characteristic Luke form, after a while his exuberance causes him to break away from this restraint & not only does the track increasingly swing, but we even get a rap section.

"Denial" is another stunner as you might say: sung a cappella, the absence of instrumentation leaves Luke nowhere to hide: but then why would he want to do that? He has the voice to pull it off (though the delivery is totally sincere: there is no showboating here) and above all with Luke it's about the message of the words: and you certainly can't escape them here.

Finally we have "Grow Wild", which certainly seems to be a highly personal one: possibly directed at Stephanie & it consists of a series of themes & metaphors which  twist around each other so organically it is sometimes difficult to disentangle them: which almost certainly is what you are not meant to do. We get layers relating to gardening, creating music, personal relationships & nurturing whole communities: both literal in every case (I think) and mutual metaphors: all delivered over one of the most "genre defying" arrangements on the record: another seamless concoction crafted from many elements with which Luke feels comfortable as a writer.

As I say, there is so much going on on 'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning', yet despite the delights in all the many details, the core messages of hope, love, the need to engage etc remain crystal clear. He asks much of us, whether it's to respond to the challenges in his lyrics or get around his often very idiosyncratic song structures and arrangements, but that is not in my book a bad thing.  Luke's discography is extremely impressive, yet this is arguably his best work to date: many things are coming together & maturing & this is the album of a man confident in his own creative skin: clear on what he wants to sing about & clear on how to say it. An artist with a bulging portfolio of musical ideas to pull out in service of his songs & the skills to combine them into coherence.

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"Absolutment" by Luke Concannon

Review

In advance of the full release of his new album 'Ecstatic Bird in the Burning' in February, Luke Concannon is this week sharing a third single from it, namely "Absolutment" (look out for the online launch party on the 8th January, featuring as Luke's guests, two time Grammy nominated Creole, rock & soul musician Sean Ardoin as well as singer/songwriter Jordan Brooks).

"Absolutment" has the daunting job of following the two remarkable singles already released from the album: October's "Doing Nothing" and "Your Heart Is In My Chest" which came out & was reviewed in November.

Luke being Luke, this naturally is a feat he pulls off with aplomb. Part of this I expect comes from his ever increasing experience & confidence  at composing & performing in various styles, but at heart I suspect that it derives fundamentally from his complete openness to all forms & approaches and a complete lack of interest to either being tied to a single style nor even writing an individual song within one. This is an artist with an insatiable curiosity for exploring music & consequently you can infer a complete love for the diversity of the artform.

Regular Luke fans may probably be surprised by the immediate blasts of brass, while very long term ones probably won't be quite as surprised at (though I must say the immediate effect is delightfully startling) as they have come to expect the unexpected.

As usual, any genre descriptor is pretty elusive. The presence of a jazz flavour won't come as too much of a shock, but this song is much closer to a big band swing form than his usual arrangements and likewise while soul is always present in his work, this is a bold & triumphant version. Add in the French element of the title (and refrain), harmonies which elide subtly between jazz, soul & African styles (the latter a connection with the start of "Your Heart Is In My Chest") and you have a rich mixture.

Again the joyousness of "Absolutment" is trademark Luke, though rarely quite as much as this: has he been to New Orleans before writing this I wonder?  The lyrics offer a characteristic range of layers of depth & philosophy from the immediate call to get up and dance to the exhortation to make real change in our lives.

Given that he has already shared three completely different songs from the same forthcoming collection and having heard the others already, it's clear we can anticipate an extremely eclectic album. Records with wildly differing styles can often by chaotic, incoherent & jarring, but Luke is one (perhaps like Elvis Costello or Paul McCartney) who can pull this off…. On the evidence to date, this is shaping up to be his best yet.

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"Your Heart is in My Chest" by Luke Concannon

Review

If next February seems still an awfully long way off to wait for the release of 'Ecstatic Bird in the Burning', the next album from Luke Concannon, then at least he is allowing us substantial glimpses of it in the meantime, starting with the startling "Doing Nothing"  which I told you about at the start of this month: a tour de force of great writing & performing in which Luke demonstrates how he can combine both frank personal insights & self reflection with a great sense of humour & humanity. Since I wrote that review, he has also released a stunning video which you can find at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1H8HwzhTqQ&feature=emb_title

 

I urge you to check it out: it's one of the most imaginative & touching I've seen in a long while.

Hot on its heels however comes a new single, "Your Heart is in My Chest". There is an online launch party on   6th November at 8 pm featuring performances by Luke with Stephanie Hollenberg, Ruairí McKiernan and Darius Christian: the latter playing a set of his own songs & the former discussing his book "Hitching for Hope'.

A real contrast with its predecessor, this new song opens with a most powerful a cappella section with massed chanting which to my ear displays roots in Africa. A love song as the title suggests (though probably every Luke song could be described as expressing love for someone, whether an individual or a wider community), after such a start, it switches into a much more intimate delivery: hushed as if he was singing it right into the listener's ear and it reminded me a little of the style of Nick Drake (coincidentally another Warwickshire songwriter of course). As harmonies & further instrumentation enter the mix & his voice rises in passion, that sense of one to one never leaves us.

The arrangement is delightfully sparse, leaving us the chance to hear & absorb everything which is going on, and is, as so much of his work is, as much a jazz tune as a folk one: not that rigid adherence to a genre has ever been his approach.

The quality of lyrics match that of the arresting song title (I honestly can't think of anyone else in the long history of love lyrics to use this idea: top marks for creative thinking) with a string of well crafted images.

Sometimes the most passionate songs shout their intentions from the rooftops: others provide as much via this sort of intense approach & who could argue which is the more effective? At any rate, you are left in no doubt at all as to the honesty of his feelings: like the previous single, which spoke the truth inwards, this track speaks similarly to another.

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"Doing Nothing" by Luke Concannon

Review

Today, I'd like to draw your attention to a new single to be released on October 2nd from across the Atlantic: quite an unusual review for an ostensibly Coventry & Warwickshire orientated magazine, but since it's been created by one of our own, namely Luke Concannon, it  certainly falls within our remit.

I've been following Luke's creative path since he began & frankly though it's tempting to look at how his travels & explorations have shaped his music (I'm sure his odyssey around the Mediterranean to Palestine had a massive influence) and so look for Americana traces in "Doing Nothing", in fact his work has always been a most interesting and seamless genre defying mix: originally billed as folk meeting hip hop, that description was light on the jazz inflections of Nizlopi let alone his Irish music roots. No doubt many other cultures have since informed what he now does, but the new single as with all his work remains definitely individual & unmistakably Luke: but then which of his records does that not apply to?

The song acts as an appetiser for his forthcoming album 'Ecstatic Bird in the Burning' (which comes out on February 5th 2021). I've been privileged to hear the whole collection & am most eager for you to do the same: February seems such a long way off but it certainly gives us something to look forwards to.

"Doing Nothing"  (is there a little Specials reference in there?) generally addresses the subject of internet addiction (I imagine that his concerns predate COVID-19 and the upsurge in online activity) but frankly there is a huge amount going on in there in terms of not just what Luke is singing about but also the mood which shifts almost constantly throughout: there is humour in there (as you'd expect) but also (as again you'd expect) concern for us all and above all a great deal of self examination which had it not been for the humour & humanity could have made for uncomfortable listening. Yes, he does warn about his own susceptibility to the dark side of the internet and by extension our own, but it also more than touches upon facts such as that his former protégé Ed Sheeran is now doing so much better commercially. Is it because Ed takes more risks than Luke or because the latter wastes his time online? Or because he is "scared of his own gifts"? Some very deep thoughts here & your heart goes out to him.

He apparently "avoids the discomfort of taking risks" by "watching cage fighting and eating chocolate" which I have no doubt to be true (and he confesses to researching old lovers on social media too) but balancing this to some extent I would point out that he has also been using the internet for beneficial purposes: his regular live streams seem far more dedicated to promoting other artists than his own work.

It's very soul searching stuff (a long term characteristic of course) and I imagine it helped him cathartically but I also assume he means it as guidance to us too.

Musically the song is much nearer the traditional folk end of the spectrum of his material, with a stark guitar part augmented later on by what sounds like a ‘cello, plus female harmonies (his wife Stephanie Hollenberg?) All very tasteful & suited to the very personal nature of the song, which in turn very much sets the scene for the full album to come: powerful new material which really challenges the notion that "doing nothing" is entirely what he's been up to.

As a very special bonus, should you care to pre-order "Doing Nothing" at https://smarturl.it/0e6shl  then you'll be entered into a draw with the winner having Luke write a song for them. Which is quite an incentive in addition to the excellence of the song.

Check out the incredible video too at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1H8HwzhTqQ&feature=emb_title

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