Few people would credit Bob Dylan with pioneering Celtic rock. However, when he shocked the world by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Dylan opened the flood gates through which new forms of traditional folk music could be expressed.
Lief Sorbye, founder, singer and double-necked mandolin player from Celtic rockers Tempest, is a direct by-product of that historic day, though he draws his inspiration from elsewhere.
“I grew up with rock being the folk music,” says Sorbye, who performs May 8 with Tempest at Jack of the Wood. “Then one day as a kid, I figured out that I was always tapping [my] feet to fiddle tunes, but I never tapped my feet to a guitar solo.”
And so began the life of a Celtic-rock band which has, today, become one of the most inventive and colorful of its kind. By draping traditional Celtic themes in hard-driving rock, Tempest — named after Shakespeare’s play — delivers a sound big enough to please both rock audiences and traditionalists alike, and especially those who like a fusion of the two.
“There will be a lot of situations where we would take a traditional melody and write new lyrics to it, or we’ll take traditional lyrics and write a new melody to it,” Sorbye says. “A lot of our songs, you can’t tell whether they’re traditional or original, because it’s got elements of both. So the final outcome of the recorded work will be a real crossover between the two.”
While traditionalists can find solace in the meandering fiddle romps and bouncy rhythms, rock fans can also sink their teeth into Tempest, who’s often been compared to Jethro Tull.
“There’s enough time changes and key changes to satisfy those people,” Sorbye says from his adopted home of Oakland, Calif. “If they always look for intricate arrangements, we tend to play some fairly large pieces of music now and again in our shows, and I think the prog-rock viewpoint welcomes that sort of stuff.
“I feel there’s enough rock energy to satisfy the rock audience and there’s enough traditional folk music to satisfy the folkies,” he adds. “We try to keep a good balance of original and traditional material.” That attitude led directly to the title of the band’s latest record. Balance, released last year, is Tempest’s ninth CD and its fourth on Magna Carta, home to unabashed prog-rockers like Kansas and Steve Morse.
“I love to listen to old field recordings,” Sorbye offers, “but I also realize it doesn’t have a great entertainment value in the year 2002. I can respect preserving the very strict traditional form. At the same time I’m always eager to take the next step.
“Everything,” he says, “is evolving so fast and there’s so much cultural interaction and there’s so much stealing and borrowing and exchanging in culture that [it’s] this whole big world-music thing that knows no boundaries. It’s hard to have a purist viewpoint in this day and age.”
Not so long ago, however, those purists thrived, critical of Tempest for messing with a formula that has survived for ages.
“I don’t get that negative thing about bastardizing traditional music they way we used to, say 10 years ago. In the beginning, nobody else seemed to be doing what we were doing and it was a new thing. We got slammed a lot,” Sorbye admits. “These days, people are used to it, and if they don’t like it, they leave us alone. People are less dogmatic about stuff like that than they used to be. There will always be the people who have that viewpoint — but they’re a lot quieter. There’s a lot more awareness now.”
Influenced as a child by Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, Sorbye founded Tempest in 1988, immediately after leaving the traditional Celtic band Golden Bough. Tempest has gone through a few lineups, but none as robust and talented as the current one. Virtuoso fiddle player Jim Hurley has played with Zydeco diva Queen Ida, rock legend Ritchie Blackmore, swinging oddball Dan Hicks and New Age/world-music band Ancient Future. His jaw-dropping fiddle runs are matched by hot-shot guitarist Todd Evans, a graduate of the esteemed Berklee School of Music. The group is rounded out by bassist William Maxwell and Cuban drummer Adolfo Lazo, who’s been with Tempest since the beginning.
“I wanted folk music to be played in a rock band with predominantly rock musicians’ viewpoints, as opposed to folk musicians plugging in, which is what really I am,” Sorbye says.
He may be a folkie, but Lief Sorbye is not actually of Celtic origin: He was born and raised in Norway. “Scottish and Norwegian music is so close, both geographically and musically,” he explains. “In Norway, there’s a strong fiddle tradition in folk music. I did record a solo album of just traditional Norwegian folk back in the ’80s, but it goes so well hand-in-hand with the Celtic stuff. We’ve got medleys of tunes that combine the two cultures really easily.” With such apparent ease is precisely how Tempest manages to please traditionalists and rock crowds alike.