Aside from cover bands and white guy blues, the one genre of music you can always find in Maine on any given night is Celtic music. Someone, somewhere, in a bar or coffeehouse or grange hall, has got a guitar or a violin, and will probably sing “The Fields of Athenry” if you ask nicely.
But this generalization of course only scratches the surface of the breadth of Celtic music performed in Maine. We’re just a stone’s throw from Maritime Canada, where traditional Celtic music in the Scots-Irish and Acadian tradition has thrived for several centuries. We’ve got plenty of folks of those heritages right here in Maine, too. And the Galley Rats, a Bangor-based four piece comprised of singer and fiddler Colin Graebert, guitarist Pat Sylvia, bassist Josh King and drummer Drew Albert, know this well — their music blends the traditional with the contemporary, merging Celtic melodies with Maritime songwriting and bluegrass energy. The band’s first album came out this month, and is a strong, expertly played debut for a group of musicians that have been performing around the state in various combinations for years.
The easiest comparison one could make when talking about the Galley Rats would be Great Big Sea, the popular Newfoundland Maritime rock trio, with their prevalence of close three-part harmonies, driving rock rhythms and traditional Celtic percussion and fiddle (listen to the fast, thumping “She Dances” and you’ll see what I mean). But where the Galley Rats differ is their lyricism — less of a biting edge, more of a gentle kind of looseness — and their embrace of the southern side of Celtic music, i.e. bluegrass and Appalachian music. Two songs that exemplify this approach come right after one another on the album: “The Frigate Niobe,” an original (and beautiful) Maritime-style seafaring ballad about a French frigate captured by the British, followed by “Going Down the Road,” a cover of the bluegrass classic made popular by Woody Guthrie and the Grateful Dead.
Graebert’s training as a musician shines through in his singing: by day, he’s a teacher and accompanist, and by night, he splits his time between jazz and the music of the Galley Rats. His vocals are precise and clear, and those harmonies present on just about every song are note-perfect. In fact, every track on the album is expertly played — these are four excellent musicians, from Sylvia’s acoustic guitar to the often understated but effective rhythm section of King and Albert. Seven out of the eleven songs are originals, with the remaining drawing from the Celtic and bluegrass songbook, and thankfully, not a one feels out of place among the songs that were actually written a century or more ago. Though it seems to me that these songs are best heard in their natural element: live.
The Galley Rats will perform on Wednesday, Aug. 5 at Hammond Hall in Winter Harbor. The new album is available at Bull Moose Music, to download on iTunes or to stream on YouTube.