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Articles and Press about Caliban

Dirty Linen  August/September 1998
The Record  March 20, 1998
Caliban's first album press release

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Dirty Linen Folk & World Music #77 - Aug/Sept 1998
Caliban; Magna Carta MA-9030 (1998)

Even more satisfying than the last Tempest album is the first outing by the cleverly named Caliban (read Shakespeare's The Tempest). The duo of Tempest members Lief Sorbye and Michael Mullen. Turning their attention away from high energy rock `n' reel, the band concentrates on acoustic material: Celtic, Norwegian and other, yet with the same energy and excitement we’ve come to expect from Sorbye. Sorbye provides the lead vocals, octave-mandola, harmonica. bodhran and mandolin,
while Mullen performs strictly on the fiddle. Producer Robert Berry plays the occasional keyboard, bass and guitar when needed.
There are plenty of instrumental sets that feature some excellent playing, like the opening cut, which pays tribute to some of their favorite venues ("The Open Door/Fibbar Magee's/Bordersholm"), the dynamic set of reels titled "Tipsy Sailor," a set of Irish jigs ("The Pony Set" containing the wonderful “Langstrom's Pony" and "Jig of Slurs"), and possibly the best of all: "The Company of Wolves," a set comprising original and traditional material. All these sets give Sorbye and Mullen a chance to stretch their instrumental skills a bit and show off, without the pulse of bass and drums in the background. Sorbye's mandolin picking is far more dominant than in Tempest, and Mullen's fiddling is inspired and captivating.

The vocal pieces are a mixed bag: a traditional song "the Journeyman", a sad traditional piece from Norway "Jeg Lagde Meg Sa Silde (I Laid Me Down to Rest)", a reworking of the famous traditional song "Bold John Barleycorn", and my favorite, the a capella murder ballad "What Put the Blood?" with Mullen singing harmony. Also included is a cover or Richard Thompson's romantic "Beeswing." All in all, Caliban is a splendid debut from two seasoned veterans of the traditional music world.

- James Morman (Ashland, KY)

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The Record, Friday, March 20, 1998
Troubadour tried & true
By Tony Saint
Record TimeOut Editor

Way, way back - long before CNN and the Internet - there were the troubadours.

While Lief Sorbye is fully wired to a website - you can check him out at http://www.tempestmusic.com/ - the Bay Area Celtic folk musician still prefers to deliver his main message in person, using good old-fashioned wood and string.

These days, hes doing that -at least in part-with fellow folk troubadour Michael Mullen in an acoustic duo called Caliban.

Even the conception of the duo's first CD - "Caliban" which was released March 10 - subscribes to the interactive, give-and-take theory of the troubadouring tradition.

 "It's whatever communicates to you, you know" said Sorbye, 40, of the 11-track album. "We always record stuff the audience likes. Instead of recording first and perfonning it live second, we usually play live first and what gets the good response, what people are into, gets recorded. We've built up a large repertoire and we talked to fans to see what they'd like to have on an album."
The album recorded last December in Campbell and released on New York's Magna Carta Records, mixes medleys of traditional Celtic tunes with songs by British folk-rocker Richard Thompson and Scottish foilde-turned-comedian Billy Connolly, and original material crafted by Sorbye, who plays octave mandola, mandolin, bodhran and harmonica and sings on four tracks, and Mullen, a 34-year-old Fresno native who plays fiddle and viola and provides harmony vocals.
"Were pretty happy with it," said Sorbye. "It pretty much reflects our live performance, you know. It's just various tunes we feel work together. It all really comes from playing live. We spend a lot more time on stage in front of live audiences than we do in the studio. Our musical ideas are largely formed and developed in front of a live audience.Because we do so much live performing, whatever we end up recording is always the result of ideas we get as feedback from live audiences.
"It's a two-way communication with an audience. You flow out to the audience and the audience flows back to you. That creates a place for ideas to happen. That's how things really evolve and different ideas come together We're not alone in this."

Indeed. Sorbe said the very idea of Caliban - formed in 1996 as an offshoot from Tempest, he and Muilen's ongoing electric Celtic rock band - gestated, in part, with the audience.
"It (started) largely because there's lots of smaller venues that can't accommodate Tempest," said Sorbye, calling this week from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., where Tempest was playing a St. Patrick's Day gig in a 1,500-seat theater. "And kind of the need to go into some more intimate acoustic shows. Since we are predominantly acoustic musicians first, it makes sense to have our little duo.
"We're doing these shows based upon demand more than anything. We've built up our own little fan base that really demanded our music."  They got it - and more - on "Caliban."
"At the last minute," said Sorbye,"we wrote a bunch of stuff that was really fresh and to keep the creative process fresh, you know...and give people some surprises, too."
One of those is an "old murder ballad from the British Isles" called "What Put the Blood? "That was a scribbled note I'd had around since the mid-'7Os," said Sorbye. "The song never had a home. I just gave it a new setting, a new home, you know."
Then there are those songs by Thompson ("Beeswing") and Connolly ("Oh No").
"It's one of my favorite Richard Thompson songs," said Sorbye of the tune from Thompson's 1994 "Mirror Blue" album. "It's a  good story and a good song. We always felt we do our own version and give it a little different approach than Richard does. People always ask us to play `Beeswing.' We figured why not? People like it. Let them have it.

It's a song I learned many many years ago," he said of the Connolly instrumental that dates back to the Scottish actor/comedian's days in a folk group (the Humblebums). It's just a song that's fun to play live. People like to hear the song."
Sorbe first heard it during his formative years as a street musician, roaming around Europe in the "bardic tradition and also another subculture, which is the street musician. Hitch-hiking around. Playing in the streets. I supported myself that way. It was a kind of carefree existence...playing in little taverns and bars. I'd go to a new city, go down to the
main street, open my instrument case, and, whatever, just play for tips, you know."
Born in Oslo, Norway, Sorbye originally was smitten by the Beatles, then "mesmerized" by folk singers like Bob Dylan, and ultimately, turned on to the avant-garde folk music created by Scotland's Incredible String Band.
"I was always a hambone," he conceded. "I always wanted to been stage. The first time I heard a fiddle tune, I started stomping my foot. I realized the urge to stomp your feet is a lot more intense to a fiddle beat than to an electric guitar."
He eventually followed that acoustic beat to San Francisco, where he landed as a street busker in 1979. He quickly became a founding member of Golden Bough, a still-active Celtic folk trio that recorded eight albums before Sorbye felt the current of rock 'n' roll resurging, and left to form Tempest in 1988.
That group, still together almost a decade later, has recorded six albums and is in big enough demand to be playing between 100 and 150 nights of the year. He's also recorded two solo albums and one with TipsyHouse, a Celtic folk trio that made Stockton's Blackwater Cafe sort of a second home in the `90s.
In any configuration, he's maintained his troubadouring ethic.

 "We do the same thing the old bards would do," Sorbye said. "Except we have an easier time getting around with airplanes and cars and things. We just take our music around and find an audience for it.
"It'll always be an important part of a live culture. I don't think people ever get tired of it. The truths are the same. The human condition never really changes. You can find traditional songs that can be just as valid in a contemporary setting. In some form or other, 1t speaks the same truth.
"I think people get tired of staring at a computer screen. They want the real thing too, you know."
Increasingly, they seem to want the Celtic thing - with Irish, Scottish, Welsh and British music and culture selling like video games as the millennium approaches.
"You know the biggest box-office tour last year wasn't the Rolling Stones," said Sorbye. "It was the `Riverdance.' That's spread a lot of awareness with people. Like the `Braveheart' movie and things like that that make Celtic culture more fashionable, I think. It just spreads the awareness.
"It seems like we're getting more and more people all the time. There's a lot of interest and the audience base is growing..."

Sorbye, who's based in Berkeley and handles most of his own creative and business affairs with a trusting assist from Patricia, his wife of 5 1/2 years - said that growth hasn't altered his, or the music's, traditional essence.
"It's not like the top 40 community," he said. "We don't have to compromise our integrity to play our music. We can play what's in our hearts and play people what they like to hear. I feel privileged that I'm able to do that, man.
"A lot of this is just the aural tradition. You don't necessarily sit around and pick out all the notes of a song and then record it. You might meet some guy in a pub and he'll show you chord progression and you might scribble down the lyrics. It's been the same for generations. We're just carrying on the tradition."

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Caliban Press Release

Highly unique Celtic progressive rockers Tempest have now begat an offspring, two-fifths of the band, leader Lief Sorbye and manic fiddler Michael Mullen finally filling a multitude of fan requests for a Caliban project. What is Caliban? Lief explains (sort of): "Caliban is a character in the Shakespeare play The Tempest, who  sometimes appears as a villain and a servant, and sometimes appears in a mask. Servant, mask, villain it all applies. People that are hip to Shakespeare get it right away, not like we're big Shakespeareans (laughs)."

But Caliban is also the Tempest duo's "pure folk project", or more pointedly a heart-warming gathering of acoustic singsongs, featuring both originals and traditionals, rendered close, quiet and deeply rooted in history.

"We'd been doing quite a number of shows throughout the last year in and around the San Francisco area and have built up a bit of demand for it. It started off because we're working musicians and wanted to play more intimate settings, simply for a sense of diversity. We've ended up playing festivals where Tempest headlines, and Caliban play on a secondary stage,
but so far Caliban has been more of a local project. So for the album, we took the songs our fanbase said they wanted to hear on record, and recorded it in the same sort of intimate, relaxed setting as our performances, trying to stick to an intimate live feel as opposed to a big production. It's more of a down-home folk album than anything progressive rock. A traditional folk music album. It's more of a pure setting, versus the rock environment we have with Tempest."

But the Tempest experience has definitely had an effect on the sensibilities of Caliban. Through two Magna Carta releases ('96's Turn Of The Wheel and '97's The Gravel Walk), Tempest have built themselves into an international touring act with a mailing list of 12,000 fans, friends and followers. And before Tempest (after his emigration from Norway to California in '81), Sorbye spent eight years with traditional Celtic act Golden Bough, as well as releasing two solo albums, “Spring Dans” and “Across
The Borders”. A lifetime of dedication.

So the Caliban record is a whirlwind tour of flavors building on this rich legacy of courting the Celtic muse, Sorbye's sonorous storyteller vocals and meticulous octave-mandola countering Mullen's ever-flowing fiddle patterns, creating a singular synergy of Lief's Norwegian heritage, Michael's grounding in country and classical, and the duo's shared love of Scottish and Irish musics. "Yes, Michael was classically trained, playing in youth orchestras and stuff," recounts Lief. "But where he's from, the Fresno area, the music that goes over very well is country music, so he played a fair bit of that, which has given him a lot of diversity of style. And with that, he's also built up a lot of Celtic techniques based on his Irish heritage, and taken it from there."

"So the record's a mix of stuff," Lief offers. "I sing one song, 'Jeg Lagde Meg Sa Silde', in my native Norwegian language. It's an old 16th century ballad I've known for many years, which I rearranged for this recording. It's a diversity of ethnic roots really, because we've got everything from a Scottish march, to Irish reels, dance tunes. We've got a Norwegian song, a British murder ballad done acappella, and then we've got some contemporary songs, so it's definitely a cross-section."

Standout tracks include two traditional pieces 'Bold John Barleycorn' and 'The Journeyman', bluegrass-tinted Billy Connoly tune 'Oh No', plus a Richard Thompson composition called 'Beeswing', which Lief figures is his favorite on the record.  "I'm particularly fond of that one because it really came off naturally, easy and relaxed. A lot of this is first takers, and I felt on that one, for some reason,  I was able to relate the story with the right amount of passion." Mullen also figures prominently on borrowed viola.

So the Caliban record endeavors to capture the sense of communion shared at a robust, but soft-footed, folk-rooted Celtic concert. "Yes, in a way, this is a document of the live experience. Michael's a guy that gets very involved in his playing when he's on stage. He's a true showman and the two of us can stir up quite a bit of energy on our own. So we wanted to create the record very quickly and spontaneously to hopefully capture that."

Also integral to the record was Tempest producer Robert Berry (recording took place at Soundtek Studios in Campbell, California), who efficiently harnessed the band's energy, meeting effortlessly the particular production and mixing demands of acoustic instruments, as well as adding a bit of bass, guitar and keyboards.

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