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Kilmarnock Catholics release Christmas album

First slide

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 cooperation.”


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 second.


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. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016