Around this time of year, the airwaves are filled with cheery
holiday tunes. In our pop music world, it can be jarring and beautiful to hear
the singular sound of a bow across a viola or a breath through a tin whistle.
A new Christmas CD from Spencer & Beane, a Celtic musical duo
from St. Francis de Sales Church in Kilmarnock, has a stripped-down, soulful
sound. It’s merry and bright in an authentic way, mindful of the birth of
Christ. The album’s simplicity is reminiscent of the bare-bones first Christmas
— a man, a woman and a baby born in a humble stable.
The album, “Christmas Day in the Morning,” features Mei-Li Beane
on violin and viola while Matthew Spencer plays the acoustic and electric
guitar, tin and low whistle. The duo arranged all the carols, some familiar and
others more provincial, from places such as Wales and Galicia, Spain.
In their album, Spencer and Beane describe the arrangement of the
songs as ancient melodies reborn through “creative minds and temperaments (and)
a mixture of spontaneous artistic impulse, friendship and purposeful
Their rendition of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” with its slow,
gentle bass notes, is one of the standouts of the album, along with the title
track, “Christmas Day in the Morning,” a lovely medley of well-known carols.
Becoming a duo
Beane was born in Spain and began playing the violin at the
tender age of 3. She studied music and history in college and now lives in
Kilmarnock with her husband and their six children. Spencer learned guitar as a
child from a bluegrass musician, and later became interested in rock and Celtic
music. They met providing music for a homeschool play.
Soon after, Beane was booked to play music at a wedding, but the
song the bride requested required a guitarist. She encouraged the couple to
hire Spencer and their duet was born. Their Celtic sound “was a natural
progression of the instruments,” said Spencer.
In addition to playing at special events, Spencer & Beane
play regularly for Sunday liturgies at their home parish of St. Francis de
Sales, at Grace Episcopal Church in Kilmarnock and Campbell Memorial Presbyterian
Church in neighboring Weems. “We go to church more than most people, that’s for
sure,” said Beane.
On their first self-titled album, they played folk songs such as
“O, Shenandoah” and “The Dear Irish Boy.” The CD, released in 2015, sold better
than expected, so when inspiration struck again, they began work on their
Christmas in March
Preparations for the CD, which was released Nov. 20, had to begin
during Lent to be ready by Advent. They both came up with a list of Christmas
carols they wanted to record, then showed them to each other. “We had a lot in
common, and (the choices) turned out very Marian by chance,” said Beane.
A few of the 10 tracks are wholly instrumental while Beane sings
for others, often times in the original language of the song. “Gabriel’s
Message,” a Basque carol, is sung half in English and half in the regional
dialect of Euskera. “We were joking that I don’t have to worry about proper pronunciation
because there’s only a few thousand people who speak it,” said Beane.
They recorded the album at Campbell Memorial Presbyterian Church,
as the acoustics were perfect for their sound, said Beane.
They are scheduled to perform next at
the historic Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg Dec. 27. Whether heard during the
candlelight concert in a hundreds-year-old house of God or through a car
stereo, the timeless carols are a poignant reminder of that holy night.