CD: Midwinter’s Night
Artist: Erwilian

Midwinter's NightIt’s not that often in the new age music genre that I get a live concert album to review. However, I know from writing about Erwilian’s excellent Light From Darkness CD, and learning more about them, that live performance is a major aspect of the group. In fact, as founding member Jordan Buetow told me: “Erwilian originally began in 2000 as a performance group with a passion for bringing audiences seasonal music that was not always given the attention it deserved. An album – a live album for that matter – of this material truly was like a distilled manifestation of the very soul of the band.” He goes on to say: “Performance, a live concert, is a community event, a gathering of players and listeners. It’s the human element of a concert – the voices of the audience, the missed note or slipped beat – that make the event richer than the meticulously executed studio recording.”


For those who may not be familiar with this Seattle-based ensemble, Erwilian is an all-acousticErwilian stage set group (and proudly so). In their words: “Acoustic music embodies the sounds of life. It is a living thing – the wires strung over the wood, the breath that draws the melody from a wooden pipe, or the hand upon the taut drumhead.” In general, their instrumentation includes guitars, drums, recorders, hammered dulcimers, mandolin, marimba, and a vintage celesta, as well as some exotic ones like mandola and bouzouki. All of the group members are multi-instrumental musicians and it is not unusual to see them playing a variety of instruments over the course of a performance. Erwilian includes Jordan Buetow, Bill Bowser, Bethel Melton, Scott Melton, Robert Schuweiler, and Jeff Reed. Their sound has been described as “blending everything from the rhythms of bluegrass and otherworldly new age instrumentation, to fantasy folk music and the experimentalism of electronica” (minus the circuitry, of course).


As mentioned, this is a live album, although interestingly, it was not recorded with the intention of releasing it. According to Jordan: “We’ve always recorded our live concerts, but simply for internal reference purposes like improving arrangements, tightening up transitions, etc. But during one concert season (2008 – 2009) we were struck with the dynamism of these Christmas-centric recordings. This was the catalyst for Midwinter’s Night. Further, that the collection was centered on Christmas music gave us the final push that we needed to gather and release it to the world. This collection remains one of our personal favorites, and endures as a magical inspiration for each new holiday season.” And while it is a holiday-themed album, these are definitely not the well-known Christmas carol standards that you’ve heard so many times. Reviewer Nick DeRiso colorfully described it as: “A Christmas album with nary a bough of holly or jolly old elf to be found… the perfect antidote to jingle-bell schlock.”


Erwilian wastes no time getting into the holiday spirit with a lively, festive opening track called “In Convivio.” I can’t say whether this is technically a Celtic jig, but that is the feeling it comes across with. The second song was of particular interest to me. The reason being that when I wrote about the previous album by Erwilian, I mentioned them as having some semblance to the well-known band Blackmore’s Night. Not that they necessarily sounded just like them, but that the music of both groups would appeal to a similar audience. Now, reading the liner notes, I find that this song, the title track, was actually written by Richie Blackmore and Candice Night, the principle members of Blackmore’s Night, and used with permission by Erwilian. This one also projects a bit of Celtic flair with a lovely loping rhythm and a sweet pastoral ambience.


Erwilian posterA decidedly different ethnic influence is heard on a track called “Villancicos,” which as the title clues us into, has more of a south of the border feel. Parts of this tune are quite sprightly and it drew my attention to how incredibly tight Erwilian is as an ensemble to hang together like they do through those up-tempo changes – very impressive. More Latin fire is ignited on a spirited track called “Memories.” A number of the songs, such as “Wandering” are actually medleys and segue into excerpts of other tunes – in this case: “I Wonder As I Wander” and “Wayfaring Stranger.” Another one is entitled “A-Wassailing” and actually starts out as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” before morphing into other musical directions. One of the sweetest, most endearing songs on the album is the more laid back “Calling Birds.” I particularly enjoyed the sparkling tones of the hammer dulcimer blended with acoustic guitars, and other stringed instruments.


An interesting musical collage is “This Little Babe” which includes “What Child Is This,” set to the familiar melody of “Greensleeves.” The song builds to a rousing grand finale reminiscent of an arena rock concert, although certainly not as loud, but just as exciting. The album draws to a close with an epic medley called “Gigues” that morphs through “Bring A Torch Jeanette Isabella,” “I Saw Three Ships,” “Sussex Carol,” “The Snow Lay On The Ground,” and “In Dulci Jubilo.” This Celtic-flavored mélange also builds to an explosive climax that leaves the crowd cheering wildly as the recording fades over the last 30 seconds or so.


There is no doubt that Erwilian has the power to thoroughly engage an audience. Their Erwilian livemusicianship is absolutely first-rate. Each member is a virtuoso, and the fact that they are all so accomplished on a variety of instruments leaves me feeling even more impressed. But more than their individual talents is the level of interplay between them that is absolutely magical. They are like a well-oiled machine that moves with “apparent” ease through complex changes and seamless transitions. In years gone by I used to marvel at the musical telepathy of the Grateful Dead in concert, as they would transit through different spaces so flawlessly. That’s a similar feeling I get in listening to Erwilian live. They seem to be in synch with each other on the deepest level. Also, being a live album, I was amazed and appreciative of the outstanding sound quality of the recording. It is beautifully mixed and I was aware of how different instruments appeared out of each speaker, enhancing a feeling of being there for the listener


I liked a particular section in the liner notes and will share it here as a closing thought: “Finally, the holiday season is life. Winter has inspired both believers and non-believers to celebrate life in the midst of the bleak winter. Music and company have long been a symbol of the need to, in the words of the old folk song, “drive the cold winter away.” We offer this collection with the hope that it will provide a spark of warmth for more than one midwinter’s night.”