Center Stage: Merging Celtic tradition and folk rock

Jennifer Cutting’s uplifting OCEAN brings with it a touch of The Beatles too

ocean-promo-1Jennifer Cutting (far right) with the OCEAN Orchestra. COURTESY PHOTO

NORTH BETHESDA — Celtic tradition and high-spirited folk rock came together when Jennifer Cutting’s OCEAN orchestra performed its new “Waves” album at Strathmore’s AMP on March 31.
OCEAN, described as “Celtic music for ancient moderns,” is grounded in the Celtic tradition while mixing in genres like Beatles-style pop, Southern rock and even Bollywood in the “Waves” album.
Some of the songs in “Waves” come from the start of Cuttings’ music career 23 years ago, which makes it the culmination of “many, many years of work.” The orchestra has created a long and loyal following, many of whom were present at the “Waves” debut.

The first song, “Waves,” contained the soaring vocals of Celtic music combined with the fast-paced rhythm of drums, piano, guitar and bass to create an uplifting and dynamic song.
According to Cutting, this song is based on the idea that life and its relationships resemble the waves of an ocean that appear and disappear but remain part of a greater body. In this vein, the song explored the relationships of people, notably with the lyric “I send a wave to you”.
The songs “Rocking the Baby” and “The Curlew” were based on traditional Irish jigs in which the bagpipes, violin, and drums played a fast-paced and upbeat tune to the clapping of the audience. These tunes would feel right at home in a tavern, when unexpectedly the electric organ came in to give the song a classy pop flair that resembled songs from the British invasion.
This fluid blend of music styles and instruments that OCEAN is not afraid to embrace is addressed in “Johnny Has Gone Electric,” a tongue-in-cheek response to traditionalist folk music fans who gave Cutting “the stink eye,” or looks of disapproval, when her band performed with nontraditional instruments like drum sets and synthesizers in church basement folk clubs.
Like many of OCEAN’s songs in the Celtic tradition, a story is told about two characters, Johnny and Polly, archetypes of rural folk songs who leave their traditional roles to “plug in their instruments.”
The song began with the vocal twang and lyrical rhyming of Celtic call-and-response, soon joined by violin and drum set to become a fast-paced song reminiscent of 1960s counterculture as colorful patterns appear on a projection in the background.
The song poked fun at the traditionalist fear of changing music norms with the lyrics “What if the oceans dry up,” referring to the exaggeration of the ‘evils’ of less-traditional folk music.
Songs like “Wheel of Fortune,” featuring direct references to traditional folk, referred to the ancient connotation of the wheel as a symbol of fortune and life’s uncertainties.
Like “Johnny Has Gone Electric”, the song was laden with cadenced rhyming and descriptive lyrics evocative of the Celtic tradition. Violin and guitar accompanied Stephen Winick’s Irish-accented singing to make for a toe-tapping experience.
As Cutting put it, “Crane and Tower” was an uncharacteristically “dystopian song” about the natural landscape falling to urban development. A funky bass tune opened the song accompanied by accordion and cymbal clashes, joined by somber lyrics about construction cranes dotting the skyline, which brought an alternative-rock feel to the song.
In one of the most surprising twists of the night, OCEAN combined Bhangra, Indian nightclub music, with the sounds of the highland bagpipe in “Everything Glows.” The combination of bagpipes with bass guitar and Indian string music fit together surprisingly well, blending music from two cultures known for their uplifting and dynamic music.



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