December 5, 2013

Do you like this?

Straight from the back porch, Olta likes to keep things traditional

WHAT’S IN A NAME? QUITE A BIT IF YOU’RE SHOPPING around for a good Celtic band, apparently. In that instance a name can reveal quite a bit. Black 47 derives its name from the worst year of the Great Irish Famine and this in turn reflects the often political nature of the band’s music.

The Saw Doctors, on the other hand, take their name from the Irish travelling folk, tinkers and gypsies.  When travelling folk are referenced it is generally either whimsical or derogatory, the former in the case of the Saw Doctors who are known for their upbeat and humorous style. Then you have local Celtic band Olta.

Olta means, “Quite drunk.”

The band has been together for a little over a decade now and is a recognizable fixture at local festivals and cultural heritage gatherings including Chattanooga’s Nightfall summer concert series.  They opened for heavy hitting Celtic band Gaelic Storm at the Riverbend festival and have contributed to the soundtracks of at least a few independent film projects.  

Olta grew out of the “Chattanooga Session,” a weekly musical meet-up of Celtic musicians that started many years ago on drummer Julie’s back porch and continues to this day every Sunday afternoon at the Moccasin Bend Brewing company having made its way there via Durty Nelly’s, The Honest Pint and Tremont Tavern, to name a few. The session is open to all comers, be they listeners or players.

Currently a four-piece band, Olta is comprised of Randy Walker, Rachel Lightfoot, Julie Kurtz-Kunesh and Sarah Martin.  Walker has an extensive musical background, well practiced in a variety of styles and traditions including Southern Gospel, Renaissance and Folk.  

Adept at guitar, tin whistle and bodhran (the Irish drum,) Randy was a Vocal Music major in college and puts this prodigious array of talents to good use as the anchor point of the band.  He is joined by his partner in crime, Rachel Lightfoot with whom Randy played in the nineties in the New World Irish Band.

A lifelong singer and musician, Lightfoot was introduced to the bodhran by a friend who was teaching a class and from then on was obsessed with the Celtic style of music. She adopted the concertina as an instrument almost a decade ago and has since demonstrated a mastery of the instrument that brings an infectious light-heartedness to much of the music she plays.

Kunesh is a very gifted and respected drummer achieving more with a single drum than many people do with a full kit. Her singing ability is no less impressive albeit a bit underpowered at times. It has been remarked more than once (good naturedly of course) that she is “the quiet one” in the group although if you’re sitting close enough to hear her she can break your heart or lift your spirit with just a few well-sung lines.

If Kunesh is the quiet one, Sarah Martin is…not.  The boisterous young woman from Michigan is the group’s fiddle player as well as an accomplished vocalist capable of belting out a tune with the best of them. A classically trained musician from a musical family, Sarah’s command of the fiddle is undeniably superb but no more so than her powerful, nearly operatic vocal skills. 

Frankly, Sarah’s voice ought to make her a shoe-in for one of those televised singing competitions the kids seem so fond of these days but lucky for local music fans she elects to stay rooted here in Chattanooga.

Four highly talented individuals brought together under one banner could be a thing of beauty or a holy train wreck.  Fortunately Olta is the former, having struck a pretty fine balance between the rigidly defined traditional (trad) style and the bawdy and irreverent pub style. Put another way, they maintain an air of respectability with a sly wink thrown in every so often for good measure.

The good news is that Olta has been putting in time at the studio, recording an album that could hopefully be finished by spring. The bad news is they are folk musicians so whether it’s the spring of 2014, 2015 or 2016 remains to be seen, but if the handful of tracks already laid down are any indication it is going to be a superlative album and a must-have for fans of the genre.  

The songs are largely traditional but the arrangements are unmistakably Olta’s and it is here that they shine.  Like any band Olta has had its share of trials and tribulations, players have come and gone, but through it all they have developed a voice, sweet and unique, worthy of respect and admiration.  

Speaking as a fellow who knows a thing or two about Celtic music, Olta is simply one of the best in this or any other region. Catch them at the Honest Pint; follow them at, and when you see her remind Julie to “please speak up a bit.”


December 5, 2013

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