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THREE MILE STONE - Three Mile Stone

THREE MILE STONE - Three Mile Stone
Private Label 3MS001

This is a sparkling gem of a disc, to be sure. Three Mile Stone is an intimate all-string (fiddle, mandolin, guitar) trio based in San Francisco, and this, their debut album, was produced by John Doyle. Although TMS is very much a string band of equal parts, the wonderful ringing tone of Marla Fibish’s mandolin seems to be the dominant timbre at first hearing, by a little more than a whisker. But first impression can still be deceptive – and in any case that’s no complaint, of course, when the musicianship is as scintillating as this (and that’s from all three players too, I mean!) There’s an abundantly infectious drive propelling Erin Shrader’s brilliantly fiery fiddle playing, which is ideally matched by Richard Mandel’s powerful guitar work, whether taking the form of a high-energy rhythmic input or a more intricate embellishment. And not only do the three musicians switch around the melody and backup roles with a natural virtuoso fluidity, but they also manage to vary the basic instrumental complement by the judicious addition of tenor banjo (Richard), button accordion or mandola or tenor guitar (Marla) or second mandolin (Erin) to the available armoury, with entirely winning results.

The tunes are delightfully tastefully managed (and crisply, cleanly recorded with all John’s trademark clarity and insight), with a joyous inherent gusto in the playing that still allows the phrasing to breathe and bring the melodies alive outside of the mere sounding of the notes in their correct sequence and tempo. Perhaps my favourite moments come with the delectable medley of jigs collected from box player Mary Rafferty (track 7) and the wonderful banjo/mandola interplay on Piper On Horseback, but I also rather liked the lazy barndance-and-reel combo (track 4), and the time Richard’s guitar gets to take the lead on Snug In A Blanket, which is neatly paired with a Quebecois version of a hop jig before dashing to the finishing line with Tommy Peoples’ reel. And then there’s the brief but dignified slow air Old Innishowan, which works well as a fiddle-and-guitar duet.

As if this were not enough, the CD’s ten excellent and varied instrumental offerings are interspersed with four well-presented songs, at least three of which furnish us with disc highlights (Marla’s tenderly expressive account of her own setting of Robert Service’s Song Of The Wage Slave; Erin’s fine “moment-choosing” unaccompanied rendition of Dark Is The Color, clearly influenced by her song-tutor the great Joe Heaney from Connemara; and a charming treatment of the tripping Heather Down The Moor, also from Erin). And even though the combined set-list is drawn from the individual repertoires of each of the band members, the whole disc exudes a very real sense of unity, not least in the exemplary way the three work together.

As purveyors of Irish music go, Three Mile Stone are indisputably in the top bracket, and you’re seriously unlikely to come across a much more elegantly persuasive and genuinely uplifting small-ensemble record than their eponymous debut.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 86 of The Living Tradition magazine.