The Mike + Ruthy Band
Venue: Old Fruitmarket
With around 2,500 artistes appearing on the Celtic Connections’ 2016 programme it is worth paying attention when the festival’s own artistic director goes down that “not to be missed” route to single out acts – The Mike + Ruthy Band got such a stirring recommendation and proved more than worthy of it.
But let’s not forget that their excellent current album, Bright As You Can was recorded in the knowledge that the late Pete Seeger, no less, was also a fan. For me this is a real, devilish will o’ the wisp collection that defies attempts to categorise it at every turn.
And so it proved live, with added jubilation.
This glorious outfit, making their European debut in this one-off show, was led fervently by husband and wife duo, Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar from the Catskills in New York State. In no particular order, they played sweaty bluegrass, sweet alt. folk and out and out country rock – and they were no slouches, either, when it came to earthy blues, soul, rock ‘n roll or big, heavy duty ballads that hit the ceiling, thanks to Ruthy’s soaring vocals.
She and Mike share most of the writing credits on their album but they certainly relish a cover and Richard Thompson’s 1991 masterpiece, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” with Mike’s magnificent banjo playing, was a heart-stopping triumph.
This was an absolutely terrific gig that rattled by in a flurry of fun, flair, top musicianship and boundless energy that flooded the auditorium big style. Rock On Little Jane was a belter, with horns provided last minute by three guys from local band, The Amphetameanies. Danny The Champions of the World came into my head during the song, which is about the couple’s daughter, Opal but, for rhyming purposes, is renamed Jane.
The swoon of Chasing Gold came over Fleetwood Mac-like while Simple and Sober, written when Ruthy was pregnant, could have come from a Laura Cantrell songbook. It was a sing-along, carefree treat. The Ghost of Richard Manuel, with Ruthy on fiddle, built into a stonking bump and stomp of a song, dedicated to Levon Helm and The Band. It was hard to keep up.
There was a big crowd but if this bunch decide to return, and we hope they will, a bigger venue will definitely be required. The Mike + Ruthy Band are gleeful and exuberant, and they made us all feel likewise.