Lief Sorbye has spent decades marrying traditional Celtic music to the contemporary sounds.
It's a union not everyone appreciates. Traditionalists prefer their jigs and reels played acoustic and unadorned, a performance style more in keeping with the music's roots.
Tradition, Sorbye told me in multiple interviews conducted over the years, is just what he's trying to maintain by adding drums and a backbeat in Tempest, his Oakland-based band. The songs the traditionalists treasure are folk tunes, after all, and are meant to reach the broadest possible audience.
“I love traditional music – I love it – but I think it tends to have a smaller appeal and it sort of ends up as a museum piece," Sorbye (second from left above) explained in one interview. "But if you use a sound that people are used to listening to, I think it's more accessible. It's the most natural thing to do.
"Folk music is music by the people played for the people. They would have used electric instruments but they didn't have them 200 years ago."
That's hardly a problem anymore and Tempest will mark its 25th anniversary Friday at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. Golden Bough opens. If you can’t make it out to the show you can listen to a live stream beginning at 8 p.m. at www.concertwindow.com/shows/golden-bough-and-tempest.
I first encountered Sorbye’s approach to Celtic music not via Tempest but through his work with the tradition trio TipsyHouse. Tempest I first experienced when Sorbye brought the electric outfit to the Calaveras (now Sonora) Celtic Faire in the Mother Lode; the band remains a staple of that March event. The group includes in addition to Sorbye (lead vocals, mandoguitar, double neck mandolins), Michael Mullen (fiddle), Gregory Jones (guitar), Brian Fox (bass) and Adolfo Lazo (drums).
I conducted one interview with Sorbye a decade ago, when Tempest was marking its 15th anniversary and releasing the aptly titled album “Shape Shifter.”
“What we're doing is musical shape shifting," he explained from a Campbell studio during a break in recording. "We're taking traditional folk music and songs written in that style and turning them into some energetic and, hopefully, catchy and passionate rock 'n' roll numbers.
"I'm always trying to make the perfect Tempest record,” Sorbye added. “It never gets old for me. The music is always evolving."
Celtic music encompasses traditions beyond the Irish and the Oslo-born Sorbye incorporates Norwegian folk tunes in the mix. That's the music he was raised on but from an early age Sorbye has pursued a parallel passion for rock.
Sorbye began playing guitar at 7 and quickly immersed himself in the Bob Dylan canon. As a teenager, he was belting out the hits of the day in youth clubs around Oslo.
It was only after a friend turned him on to the avant-garde folk music created by Scotland's Incredible String Band that Sorbye left pop music behind. He spent much of the '70s busking on the streets of Europe – in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London, Geneva and Venice – before landing in San Francisco at the decade's end.
Once settled in the Bay Area, Sorbye went on to co-found Golden Bough. Taking a strictly traditional approach to Celtic music, however, never has sufficed for Sorbye. His desire to turn up the amps was evident from Tempest's debut album, "Bootleg" (1991), which mixed original tunes such as Sorbye's "Captain Morgan" with rocking takes on such traditional favorites as "Handsome Molly."
The formula was repeated and expanded on such later releases. Tempest thrives on making Celtic music accessible to everyone.
"I grew up with rock 'n' roll," Sorbye said. "There's an amount of beat and energy in traditional music that you can really bring out by utilizing contemporary instrumentation. And I've always liked the way it sounds."
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