If you type “hammer dulcimer” into Google, one of the top results you’ll see is something from the Smithsonian. Click on it and at the beginning of the post, you’ll see the following quote, from King Nebuchadnezzar:
“ … everyman that shall hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, shall fall down and worship … .”
Why print that here? Because who the hell knows anything about the hammer dulcimer? It sounds nice. It looks like it’s a pain to lug from one place to another. You can typically find it in any type of music that has absolutely nothing to do with America (which, of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing). And if you head to a Wikipedia entry titled “List of Hammered Dulcimer Players,” you’ll find a collection that probably has less names on it than a similar entry on reality show main characters.
Karen Ashbrook, though? She knows a thing or eight about the hammer dulcimer. She built her first one as a high school project and she hasn’t looked back since, traveling the world ‘round, performing, teaching and spreading a gospel she has studied throughout all her adult life. And now, along with her husband, Paul Oorts, they have released a live record called “KA/PO In Concert” that brings those beloved and studied worldly undertones to the forefront.
The result is a fine enough listen, even for the casual fan who might break out a Chieftains record once every few years. Recorded in conjunction with the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, the mostly instrumental 16 tracks that make up the set are perfect for the kind of faded soundtrack you might want for a dinner party with really smart people. Think about 1977’s “The Chieftains Live!” having a baby with a dinner at Medieval Times and you’re halfway there.
“In Concert” begins with a trip through Irish skies, the duo meshing together “Another Jig Will Do” with “Drops Of Brandy,” “Cronin’s Hornpipe” and “The Moving Clouds.” At 5:37, it’s an adequate primer for what lies ahead, the medley bopping along in and out of varying time signatures that add complexity and girth to the performance. For working with minimal tools, these guys are clearly master carpenters.
Things liven up a bit when vocals pop in, however briefly it may be. The combination of “English Branle” and “I Love Too Many Women” has its charms as Oorts proclaims, “I love too many women, my heart is oversized, my heart is super-sized/ I was born with this condition, it will be my demise, it will be my demise.” Sure, he isn’t crooning away like Michael Buble, but considering how the thing dates back centuries, its appeal is its candor, harp guitar and all.
And then there’s the closing set, listed as “Mariton’s Scottish Rabbit Medley,” complete with lyrics in a foreign language and an accordion that bends into step with the dulcimer at about the two-minute mark. The performance’s first half plays like a lullaby, really, Oorts’ voice soft enough and calm enough to put listeners at true ease. By the time it picks up in tempo to close everything out, the finishing accordion runs are solid fun, earning the cheers that ultimately erupt through the crowd.
All told, however, the rest of the night, interesting and complex as it might be, doesn’t come across as much more than background music. There’s an Italian Tarantella. There’s something called “The Greek Song.” There’s “The English Dance Set.” There’s a jigs medley. And then, of course, there’s “Irish Polka Time,” which, with words, could probably be turned into something The Coors would have done for Adult Contemporary radio. It’s a brand of polka not expected because of the way it soars rather than moves. You almost expect it to help you get up and dance, but instead, it washes over you like a good worldly pop song sometimes can.
Yet to be fair, such is what “KA/PO In Concert” does when it’s at its best. It encompasses a worldly approach to music with encyclopedic zest and a clear passion for essence. It might not be something you want to turn to 11 in the car stereo on a hot summer day, yes. And sure, it’s probably nothing that sticks in your rotation for longer than niche moments. But that’s not the point.
Rather, the point is to master a very specific genre of music and present it with an expert level of precision. And with this set, Karen Ashbrook and Paul Oorts do just that.
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **