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Eileen Ivers
Crossing The Bridge
Sony Classical (www.sonyclassical.com)

This is a collection of traditional (as in Celtic) and traditional-sounding tunes in a variety of settings, some distinctly odd. I have no problem with the basic concepts here, but the results are mixed. It's not so much that the fiddle sounds out of place as the fact that some of these pieces sound like aural skin grafts, where a funk tune or a flamenco tune was built up around a fiddle tune. Some of these hybrids sound better than others--the African-influenced "Jama" works pretty well and reminds me a bit of Jean-Luc Ponty's work in a similar vein. But some of these efforts sound like they were done simply because they could be. Maybe it's just testing the waters, a restless artist trying on a few styles to see which ones might repay further exploration. We'll see if anything develops from this. - Joe Grossman


Robin Williamson
Ring Dance
Robin Williamson
A Job Of Journey Work
both: Pig's Whiskers Music ( www.thebeesknees.com )

In his work with the Incredible String Band in the 60s and 70s, Robin Williamson cast a wide net in his effort to collect ideas for his music. Traditional Scottish and Irish tunes played a part, but so did old show tunes, mystic pop and Renaissance classics. These two recordings reflect interesting and different sides of his musical coin.

Ring Dance features Williamson the composer, a dark poetic with an often cryptic vision. In some ways this is very much like some of the String Band recordings, with its complex musical layers and ever-changing tempos and sounds. A Job of Journey Work is a more folk related record. It's a celebration of Irish, Scottish and American folks songs, played with casual abandon by a band that includes family members and long time friends. He offers lovely performances of "Streams of Lovely Nancy" and "Geordie Gordon," and a strangely joyous rendition of "Hard Times In Old England" with vocals from one of his children adding to the confusion. Both albums are prime Williamson, full of that infamous grit and child like wonder that have made his reputation. - CF


cd cover Reeltime
Live It Up
Green Linnet (www.greenlinnet.com)

Susan Mckeown
Bushes & Briars
Alula (www.alula.com)

Various Artists
Ramble To Cashel
Rounder (www.rounder.com)

Reeltime is a group of young, spirited musicians who are steeped in traditional music, but also have an eye out for other genres they can incorporate. They skate effortlessly through new arrangements of old Irish jigs and reels, but they also take side trips through Nashville and French musette. In addition, several of the album's cuts downshift to linger on plaintive Irish airs centering around the strong, clear voice of Mairin Fahy.

Some have said that Irish music is so often bittersweet because it is a country with a long history of reluctant emigration. The Irish Diaspora, however, has also proven to be an ersatz cultural exchange. Young bands like Reeltime tinker with the old-time Irish formulas, but add a bit of cosmopolitan sensibility. The differences may be barely apparent to neophytes, however, since Reeltime is firmly rooted in the soil of their homeland: call them Irish evolutionaries rather than revolutionaries.

The new album from Dublin-born, New York-based singer Susan McKeown is slightly reminiscent of Enya. Both women have stunning voices and effortlessly marry ancient and contemporary sounds, but McKeown's album is less awash with dark and stormy synthesizers.

McKeown showcases her resolute alto in several a capella stretches, but elsewhere she constructs backdrops that range from spare acoustic guitar to electronic-bolstered arrangements with a stark modernity. Several of her songs sidle into contemporary folk-pop territory, but they are always unmistakably Irish due to McKeown's doleful singing -- whether it's in Gaelic or English. Even when McKeown experiments with light touches of nontraditional instrumentation, such as the Indian tabla, her songs sound like they are channeling from centuries past.

The acoustic guitar has not been a strong showcase instrument in Celtic traditional music. The music is so melody-centered that in recent times the guitar was relegated to rhythmic accompaniment. A small number of guitarists from Ireland and elsewhere, however, have been adapting the Irish canon for solo acoustic guitar.

Ramble to Cashel is a two-disc series surveying what some of these lyrical guitarists have been able to accomplish. In addition, the series is being released along with a companion instructional video for guitarists who want to learn these fingerstyle techniques.

Both CDs feature the same artists and are pretty much alike in tone, so either is a good choice with which to start. Though guitar aficionados would be better equipped to appreciate the nuances of things such as alternate tunings and claw-hammer-style bass string playing, the overall prettiness of the record also makes it a good choice for those who just want a disc of sweet, pleasant music.

The roster of fingerpicking guitarists include Martin Simpson, Pierre Bensusan, Duck Baker and El McMeen and all succeed in maintaining the spirit of these traditional songs while demonstrating some skillful, delicate and sensitive playing. Even an overdone tune like 'Danny Boy' is wrung free of purple sentimentality here and shines through anew with a simple, lovely arrangement. - Marty Lipp


Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham
The Ruby
Green Linnet (www.greenlinnet.com)

Scots musicians Cunningham and Bain have come together again to find a special sound unlike much of what is in the Celtic music boom today. It is more serene or settled... not exactly lacking in adventure (they manage to string together a Cajun reel, an Estonian waltz, and a French Canadian tune at one point here), but less dependant on obvious flash and more centered on good tunes and high musicianship. Shetland fiddler Bain gives us some of his trademark slow tunes, full of expression and his unique bowing technique. Cunningham can show wild abandon or regal restraint on the squeeze box. These duo projects (their last was The Pearl) focus on the fiddle and accordion, with small additions of keyboard, bass and whistles, which seems to bring out unique qualities you'd never hear in their other projects. - CF


Various Artists
I'm Leaving Tipperary
(Globestyle 082)

I'm Leaving Tipperary casts light on a wider range of Irish musicians and music genres than is ordinarily the case on reissue albums. This material was recorded in America by native Irish and Irish-Americans in the 1920's and `30's. As a measure of the lack of esteem these artists received, it was three years after this type of music first began to be distributed that the labels were persuaded to list the performers.

The featured fiddlers are Michael Hanafin, Hugh Gillespie, and the great James Morrison. There are also cuts by piper Tom Ennis, Neil Nolan on tenor banjo as well as a bunch of music hall-type vocal performances by Dan Sullivan, Murty Rabbet, John McGettigan and the Flanagan Brothers. One intriguing instrumental medley features Ennis on the first tune, Morrison on the second and both on the third. (It was public interest in another record by these two that inspired the crediting of the musicians mentioned above.)

The excellent notes by Ron Kavana supply historical background on Irish immigration and some of the featured performers. Tunes include "Curlew Hills," "Jenny's Welcome to Charlie," "Billy Hanafin's Reel," "Bucks of Oranmore," and 21 more. - Stacy Phillips


Jerry O' Sullivan
The Gift
Shanachie (www.shanachie.com)

His name is everywhere in folk music, from country crossovers to traditional stalwarts. Jerry O' Sullivan is one of those "musicians' musicians," with a following from across the musical spectrum. On The Gift he has the favor repaid by Seamus Egan (as player and producer), singer Susan McKeown, Zan MacLeod, Seamus Connolly, Pat Kilbride, Tony Cuffe, Win Horan and a host of others, on an album that stretches through the broadest definition of Celtic imaginable, from old time American tunes to the shore of Cape Breton and on back to Dublin. O'Sullivan proves himself more than up to the task of uniting all of these strains with bagpipe and whistle in hand, and shows himself as a consummate musician and collector of songs.

Standouts include his bluesy pipes on "Wayfaring Stranger" and his gorgeous whistle on "Wendel's Wedding." A medley of Appalachian tunes shows the bagpipes in brilliant light and his take on Tony Ellis' beautiful and heartbreaking "One Rose," is one of the best bits on the album, making for a emotional sweetness not usually associated with the instrument. He has an interesting bout with barogue, and a less successful foray into slick jazz balladry which seems forced at best. O'Sullivan wants to prove the versatility of his beloved Uillean pipes, and The Gift makes a strong case. - CF


David Kincaid
The Irish Volunteer
Rykodisc (www.rykodisc.com)

"The Irish Volunteer: Songs of the Irish Union Solider 1861-1865" captures the spirit of Irish volunteer soldiers in the Civil War. Vocalist David Kincaid makes use of lyrics written between 1861-1865 and combines them with authentic Irish instruments for an end result unlike anything else currently on the market.

Irish-Americans such as Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher were part of well-respected, all-Irish Northern regiments in the war. They fought valiant battles at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and a dozen other locations, gaining a reputation for their strict discipline and gallantry.

Only one song retrieved for this collection was found with musical notation. The others were lyrics in books that had only allusions to jigs or other melodies that the words were written to. Kincaid completed the melodies as best as possible on these tracks, making use of traditional Irish instruments such as the mandolin, bodhran, uilleaun pipes, and tin whistle.

The lyrics are beautifully written, showing a range of emotions. Ballads like "The Irish Volunteer (#2)" have a light musical touch, but the lyrics reflect the pain of a solider leaving his love for war: "With tear-moistened eyelids, I look through the gloaming, / And think of the pleasures that blessed us of old! / It's breaking me heart is, Sweet Mary Maloning, / With sorrow to leave ye, dear bride of my soul."

The rousing song of Irish soldier's pride, "My Father's Gun" was penned shortly after the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg as a theme to help recruit new volunteers in a time of great carnage and despair. The song shares a melody with "Paddy's Wedding" and pelts out powerful lyrics. "When my father died, to his bedside he called meself, so clever, / Says he, 'My son, now take this gun, and guard it well forever, / But the dirty laws soon clapped their paws on me, the dirty blaggards, / So faix on day, I sailed away to the land of Yankee Doodle."

An interesting story accompanies "Free and Green," the only song written in the 20th Century. It was penned by Kincaid and friend Carl Funk, about a fictional Civil War character Captain Taggart. In the song, Taggart dies in a bloody battle against the rebels. Years after the song was written, Kincaid learned that in an eerie double-coincidence, there actually existed a Captain Samuel Taggart that died at Ream's Station, VA on August 25, 1864 in the same fashion as described in the song.

The authentic sound of the music on this collection is a strong accent to the heartfelt lyrics of the Irish-American Civil War soldiers. The liner notes consist of a 34-page booklet with lyrics and history and attractive cover art. Kincaid's tribute to these brave soldiers is a valiant effort that succeeds in every detail. - Ryan MacMichael


Afro Celt Sound System
Vol. 1 Sound Magic
Real World

A lot gets said about what would happen if there really were something called a "world music." There are continually hints of what it might sound like: the jive of Soweto, with its mixes of American and African pop, soul and folk; the collision of Irish and Kenyan that made Abana Ba Nasery's experiments so intriguing; the fusion of ancient Celts with innumerable influences from Asia or Africa that mark the work of Sheila Chandra or the first Mouth Music album. They all come close, but at their core they are still fusions of styles, not a real development of something new.

Afro Celt Sound System comes as close as I think we're going to get. Vol. 1 Sound Magic is a collaboration (spawned at one of those infamous Real World recording weeks) that genuinely tries to bring an array of Celtic and African musicians together to create something new. At the heart of the production is, well, gee... the producer! One of Simon Emmerson's most recent success was in his swirling mix of sounds for the last two Baaba Maal albums, Lam Tooro (American listeners were sadly ripped off by the horrible re-production work done for the US release of this one!) and Firin' In Fouta. Here he goes much deeper, designing a dance music specifically meant to be a cross-cultural meeting of hearts and minds. Iarla O'Lionaird, the sean nós singer, Ronan Browne, the uilleann piper, and the Breton harpist Myrdhin are the bulwark of the Celtic side of the project. Kora player Kauding Cissokho and talking drummer Masamba Diop lend deep African roots. Acting as a cross road are Emmerson's various instrumental attachments, the nyatitti of London based Kenyan harpist Ayub Ogada, and James McNally, whose whistle playing in particular draws on both ancient roots and hard contemporary styles.

All of the "tunes" (up to 10 minutes long!) were recorded acoustically, and then put through a modern wringer of computer remixes and regenerations, and it is here where one might be most surprised, because the final effect is one of live energy and often, spontaneity. There are soothing, trance inducing washes of sound, only to be followed by high- energy techno-acoustic dance rave-ups, each a tribute to the depth of the traditions they come from and the determination of the performers and producers to make it a wholly new experience. - CF


Natalie MacMaster
No Boundaries
Rounder (www.rounder.com)

Yet another corner of the world heard from. This time it is Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and the ambassador is the red-hot fiddler Natalie MacMaster. Taking the title of her debut disc quite seriously, MacMaster successfully keeps one foot in both the traditional and modern worlds without stumbling. Overall, this mostly instrumental album revels in its Scotland-via-Cape Breton heritage, but MacMaster also shows off with some East Texas swing and even adds some Little Feat-ish funk and Capercaillie-like hiphop to her repertoire. Neo-trad fans with an ear for something a bit different should love this. - Marty Lipp


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Robert Mathieson
The Big Birl
Lismour / Scotland

Pipe Major Robert Mathieson offers a recording of Highland pipes and Shepherd's new small pipes on The Big Birl. It's a mixed bag of great folk traditions and over synthesized arrangements for the Enya crowd. After a brief solo on the small pipes, the opener turns into one of those swooshy white noise splashes so popular in the pop-Celtic scene these days. But then he hits a set of jigs with a jazzy piano (Dave Milligan) and a band of concertina (Simon Thoumire), whistles (Dougie Pincock) and varied percussion that, while outside of the tradition, is great fun and damn good music. There are some top-notch, straight rootsy moments, a feeble attempt at calypso, some gorgeous slow airs and a bit of an over emphasis on electronics for their own sake. It's a mixed bag, but the hits outweigh the misses and there's enough experimenting that works to make it worth the money. - CF
(Visit the
bagpipe section of RootsWorld for some sound samples of a number of pipers. )


DICK GAUGHAN
Sail On
Appleseed (folkradicl@aol.com)

It's been too damn long since the American coast has had a Gaughan record wash ashore, so it's a welcome situation that a new record label has taken up the cause. Gaughan is one of Scotland's most literate and well-spoken voices, an acerbic political singer, a solid guitarist, and an historian of all things Scots. The depth of his music is stunning, as he chooses known contemporary songwriters like Richard Thompson ("1952 Vincent Black Lightning") and Michael Murphy ("Geronimo's Cadillac"), mixes in great Scot writers like Hamish Henderson (the stunning "The freedom Come-All-Ye") and his own biting songs like "No Cause For Alarm," a call to social reform in this age of unreason. The recording moves from rock-pop anthems like Allan Taylor's "Land Of The North Wind" to surprising folk arrangements like the harp and guitar of "Ruby Tuesday." But the center of the record is Gaughan, his voice, his delivery, his attitude. He can recreate the most surprising songs and make them his own, rooted in his own history like they were born there. A potent voice of the times emanates from Dick Gaughan, once again. - CF


Nomos
Set You Free
Green Linnet

In the tradition of the Bothy Band and Patrick Street (who also have a new Green Linnet release just out) comes this great band from Cork (the new cultural center of Ireland, it seems) with a well-balanced mix of energetic traditional dance tunes and poppy original songs. If you like the pop side of Irish music, then John Spillane's title track was made for you. It's a poetic, anthemic song of vague and yet stirring meaning, driven by a great electric guitar, bass and bodhran rhythm section, punched up by straight forward fiddle and accordion lines. Also superb is their dark and bare version of "The Woman of the Glen," sung in Gaelic over a simple, throbbing bass and drum that hints at a big, grand finish that never happens, leaving the darkness delicious and complete on the last words, "My 500 farewells go with you." The tunes are well played, and a few jump right off the disk and on to your floor, dancing. Watch this band... they are going to rise to the top! - CF


Iarla Ó Lionaird
The Seven Steps to Mercy Real World

Sean nos singer Ó Lionaird was most recently heard as part of the Afro-Celt Sound System project late last year. Here we get mostly his incredible Irish voice taking the traditionally unaccompanied style into new territory. By the subtle use of ambient sounds, a bit of electronics and some acoustic instruments. Perhaps the most stunning work on the album is one of Ó Lionaird recorded when he was 14. "Bright Vision" is a gorgeous work that reminds you of what Irish singing is supposed to be about. - CF


SHARON SHANNON
Each Little Thing
(Green Linnet / grnlinnet@aol.com)

While it is too soon to declare this a golden age of Irish music, there is certainly a wealth of young wonderful musicians inhabiting the field of traditional music. And one of the preeminent talents among this cadre is accordionist Sharon Shannon. On this, her third release, Shannon shows how vibrant Irish traditional music can be. But as she has on all of her albums, she simultaneously stretches its borders without betraying its spirit.

Almost every cut here has the unmistakeable sound of Irish music, yet Shannon and Co. successfully tackle tunes from some Celtic cousins, one by the Chilean group Inti-Illimani, and even a sultry tango. "The Bag of Cats" --a string of traditional tunes featuring Shannon on fiddle --even makes use of a programmed beatbox.

The famously shy Shannon is often praised for her nimble playing of her tiny button accordion, but she also embues her songs with poignancy and beauty. Golden age or not, any era with Sharon Shannon playing in it is certainly flecked with gold. - Marty Lipp
(Read Marty's
interview with Sharon)


PREGO Avarela
Roe Moe Records (pregosmith@matlock.the-dial.co.uk)

Again, there's that fine line thing... that precise point on a plane where you either rise to the top or fall to a miserable, unnoticed defeat. Western European bands have been mixing up their own cultures for as long as there has been a place known as "Europe." In contemporary times, there is a self-conscious, tortured trend afoot that has found folk bands wanting to be rock, pop and these days, techno (formerly called disco).

Prego stand resolutely on the precipice. Their foundation in French folk, English Morris music and a more general knowledge of southern European and Middle Eastern traditions give them firm roots. Strong musicianship is brought in on a diverse set of folk tools (hurdy gurdy, bagpipe, flutes and whistles, squeezeboxes and fiddle) as well as more contemporary brass, woodwinds, bass and a variety of percussion. The resulting music is a driving, bouncy hybrid that sounds like it should be traditional even though every tune in the bunch is an original. Avarela is a fine record that I'll bet only hints at what a great live set they must put on. - CF

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MARY COUGHLAN
After The Fall
Big Cat/V2

This is almost as dark, almost as full of denial and risk as June Tabor's work . More lush in its arrangements, fuller and more orchestral in its delivery, this Irish singer's album is an excellent counterpoint (antidote?) to Tabor's desolation. Not that this is cheery, mind you. Coughlan's more bluesy style lends itself to very different kind of material, more upbeat in its rhythms, but just as demanding in its content. "Sunburn" is a wicked number that blends Arabic reeds with subtle Celtic folk, telling a story of tourist in Turkey seeking a little local thrill, outwitted by a local in search of a passport out of town. It's sly, both in its lyrics and in its elastic changes from Irish to Arabic and back. Coughlan's smokey voice gives it all a sweetly cynical edge. "Woman Undone" follows an after-Eden theme of injustice and unfairness, a prick of plucked strings setting the stage for a luxurious piano and organ wash, again using a near-blues vocal to twist the knife. Coughlan is a singer who is often described as "quirky," you know, hard to describe, elusive, indefinable and sometime a little over the top. She has hints of rock, jazz and American country, all defined by her Irish roots, and she unites them into a sound that will either thrill you or send you packing. She's not easy, but she is original.


Mad Pudding
Dirt & Stone [IONA IRCD 040] (1996)
This young quintet from British Columbia has been receiving quite a bit of attention and a host of critical raves. As one might expect, Mad Pudding toss about a blend of tunes from Canada and Scotland. Instrumentally, they are a very tight band that are willing to take some chances. "The Toast" (Parts I & II) starts out innocently enough until Richard Ernst's slapping bass takes over. John Hildebrand's drumming throughout the disc turns on a dime, navigating the varied tempos and folk/rock/jazz flourishes with ease. Similarly, the fiddle playing by Cam Wilson is impeccably neat.

But despite all the instrumental finesse, "Dirt and Stone" leaves me somewhat cold. In large measure this is due to the vocal duties of Andy Hillhouse and Amy Stephen, and the original songs on the disc. Stephen has a decent voice, and she carries a fair version of "The Dewy Dells of Yarrow" which really deserved a more stripped-down arrangement to draw out its emotive impact. Hillhouse's voice is probably better live; he sounds desparate to prove himself vocally, and his original composition is just too long and too verbose. Other original songs such as "Patchwork" and "Service" just fail to connect for me: the songwriting sounds too American and it is sometimes a wee bit awkward. Take, for example, the chorus to "Patchwork": "We've got to treat our love like a patchwork piece of ancient rainforest full of old- growth trees." Hmmmm.

Still, there is real potential here that can be further refined to make the instrumentals and songs more consistent. The next album may be Mad Pudding's defining moment. - LB


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New Celeste
It's A New Day
IONA

New Celeste run the gamut of contemporary Scottish sounds on their latest release. The influence of dance culture is becoming much more pronounced in Scottish folk projects, with acts such as Shooglenifty, Talitha MacKenzie, the Peatbog Faeries, Simon Thoumire and Fergus MacKenzie, and Paul Mounsey all utilizing percolating club-house rhythms in their music.

It's A New Day is at its best when those rhythms are absent. True, there is an excitement to the meeting of cutting-edge technology and ancient instruments; the setting of "Stumblin' & Stottin'" relies on this juxtaposition when the pipes kick in. Yet wherever the computer-thumping beats take over, New Celeste sound oddly out of fashion. They're no Scottish techno act; the disco rhythms aren't inventive enough, so that quite a few tracks sound immediately dated. Nonetheless, I find the effort oddly charming and not all of the tunes meet with such treatment -- "70 Years/The Caber" has some fine pipe, fiddle, whistle, and percussion work. New Celeste cook solidly enough on the instrumentals, even adding in a jazz/rock element to the dance tracks.

The band's finest moments are the songs. Iain Fergus has a wonderfully smooth, enjoyable voice and the band hits fine folk-rock territory on tracks such as "The Banks of Ayr," Robert Burns' "The Posie/Scottish Brawl," and "Davie and Jeannie." New Celeste is clearly capable of putting all the pieces together. All of which means that "It's A New Day" really grows on you with repeated listenings. New Celeste might not be everyone's cup of tea just yet, but this is a pleasant enough brew for now. - LB


HAMISH MOORE AND DICK LEE
The Bees Knees Green Linnet

I said about two years ago that the instrument of the nineties would be that musical wheeze known as the gaida, the duda, the sack o' wind from the other side of hell. The Bagpipes. Groups like Rare Air, Blowzabella and The Davy Spillane Band have taken the instrument into new territory, no longer confining it to Morpeth rant's and war chants. The bagpipes have the intensity of rock, the slides of blues, and in the right hands, a hint of the subtlety of jazz. Hamish Moore, piper and whistle blower, takes on all of these forms, as well as traditional Celtic music, with gusto. Prodded by the horns and synths of Dick Lee, the music on The Bees Knees often finds new and interesting ground, while occasionally stumbling into a tar pit of false experimentation. The opening cut is a jazz/rock experiment that works well, adding cello, bass and drums to their own breezy arsenal in a fit of skewed tempos and changes. It's the intensity of the playing that keeps it going, something that fails them on a few other cuts as they try for a more free-association style that gets bogged down in itself. Some of the biggest surprises in the set are the traditional tunes, which are played with excitement and skill, and just a hint of the earlier skewing. A set of instrumentals that opens with "The Rock And The Wee Pickle" has a cello scraping out the bottom that gives it an extra bit of drive on one tune, and a regal quality on the next. Mixing jazz and folk tradition is far too uncommon in the music world, but as more and more musicians from one side reach into the other, an interesting new hybrid is emerging that should prove fertile ground in the future.



SOLAS
Solas
Shanachie

With all the electronically enhanced, over produced and over-hyped trash that gets passed off as Celtic and Irish folk music these days, it is particularly important when a young new group comes along, especially one as energetic and brilliant as Solas. Supergroup isn't too far off the mark here: Seamus Egan, the master flautist (and damn skilled on just about every other acoustic instrument imaginable), John Williams' accordion, fiddler Winifred Horan, guitarist John Doyle heartily romp along with singer Karan Casey (heaven!) on old traditional tunes and vibrant new songs and dance sets. Cleanly and expertly produced by Johnny Cunningham (who has been known to fly off the production handle on projects like this in the past, but seems to have resisted the urge), Solas is the kind of band that makes you sit up and take notice of almost on the first note. This may all sound almost like a press release rather than a review, and I'm sorry for that, but they ARE that good, and they deserve high praise for doing the roots thing in an era of cheap imitations, and doing it very well. - CF


SOLAS Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers
(Shanachie)
This U.S.-based Irish-American group of neo-traditionalists continue their winning ways with this, their second release. Alternating sad, beautiful ballads with brisk jigs and reels, these virtuosi show they can play with precision, grace and beauty. Although they usually play without a drummer, the percussive snap of John Doyle's acoustic guitar is more than enough for rhythmic backbone. The crystalline, plaintive voice of Karan Casey is the focus on ballads and songs, many of which have a faintly progressive, feminist slant. Seamus Egan's wind instruments and Winifred Horan's violin weave themselves prettily through the texture of the songs, creating folk music that can win hearts and minds. - Marty Lipp

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MAURA O'CONNELL has passed from folkie to budding country rock star and pop diva, and has landed solidly back in the folk camp with her newest record, Wandering Home (Rykodisc). There is still a delicious trace of American country in all she does, but she is returning to the roots for much of the material here with old standards like "Down By The Sally Gardens." But chosing covers has always been her forte, and on this one she choses the brilliant "West Coast of Clare" by Andy Irvine and the brutal "Down Where The Drunkards Roll" by Richard Thompson as the showpieces of the album. Produced by Jerry Douglas (to preserve that down-home sound), the album includes Arty McGlynn, Donal Lunny and Douglas on dobro.


Mid-western American singer CONNIE DOVER has been producing a string of fine albums on her own label for quite a few years, and her latest is If Ever I Return (Taylor Park Music). She has the sweet sort of voice that could easily have been translated into the muddy reverb of pop-Celto-swirl, but instead she and producer Phil Cunningham have found a center ground between raw Ceili and Enya-swoosh and created a beautiful album. It doesn't heart to have super musicians joining in: Mánus Lunny (guitar and bouzouki), the great Shetland fiddler Aly Bain, Battlefield Band piper Iain MacDonald are tip of the 'berg.


VARIOUS ARTISTS The Gathering
Real World

No tricks, no gimmicks, no flashy concepts or fusion even graze the outskirts of this recording. The Gathering is just what the label implies, a congregation coming together to praise the roots of their music. John Robert Devall (Shetland), Kathryn Tickell (Northumbria), and Alisdair Fraser (Scotland) bring their fiddles together for a set of jigs. Andy Cutting (Britain) and Karen Tweed (Britain) join forces on an accordion duet that harkens to the old and swings with the new. Hamish Moore (Scotland) solos on the pies. Lined up behind them are Brendan Mulvihill (Britain, now US), Carlos Nunez (Spain), Martin Hayes (Ireland, now US), Joe Derrane (the button accordion's Duke of Boston), piper Patrick Molard (Brittany), and an inspired list of performers who have lived the life of the Celtic-rooted musician and brought it to the world. They all came home in 1995, to Cork, Ireland, to join each other in duets and trios and quartets to honor not only the music, but the world-wide culture that has carried it from New Zealand (Brendan Power) to Quebec (Raynald Ouellet).

While the album is devoid of the electronic swoosh and swirl that has become "celtic" music in the age of Enya, there is certainly no dearth of power and poignancy. Molard's pipe solo, "The Last Chance" is an inspired simplicity, the grouping of Power's harmonica with the accordions of Tweed and Cutting provide us with "Jazz Jig," a tune that has a irrepressible groove without any extra noodling. These artists have come together, not fused together, and the end result is just what the title demands, a gathering of souls and hearts and hands, in celebration and anticipation.


CATHIE RYAN
Shanachie

Irish music has never lacked for great pop singers, and Cherish The Ladies' vocalist Cathie Ryan finally steps out front to show her solo talents on this small gem. It's a classic voice, the mix of Celtic folk and American county-pop that has produced great songstresses and over-rated pop divas, decade after decade. Ryan has chosen a low key, clean sound, produced by Seamus Egan and joined by a cast of musicians that anyone could envy: Egan, Zan MacLeod, Jerry O'Sullivan and Winifred Horan just hint at the great band here. They keep it clean, go easy on the reverb and the white noise, and allow Ryan's voice the room it so deserves.

I love the chicken-or-the-egg problem that current Irish music and American country poses, and we get a couple of good, confusing cases on this album. From the sweetness of "Slan Abhaile" to the blatant Nashville gallop of "Shades of Gloria," Ryan keeps the line blurred in much the same way Van Morrison makes the distinction between Irish and R&B music. She has the voice to pull it off, too, one that can dip into a saccharine ballad and come out all-natural, and than pop into a rock tune with the lilt of a Celtic angel. It's simple, really... a great voice, great tunes, great musicians brought together by a smart producer who knows that content is everything, and aural packaging is naught.


It may be their fourth album, but for me and most of you, this is a first chance to hear LLAN DE CUBEL as they play the folk music of Asturia on their latest, titled simply IV (Iona Records, Scotland). Asturia is a region of northwest Spain that looks geographically and culturally almost due north to Cork, Ireland. The instrumentation certainly has the same sound; bagpipes, tin whistles, fiddles and guitars are driven by frame drums. They bow to technology and augment it all (in barely noticeable ways) with keyboards. The music, however, has a more southern air, and the age old unification of Celtic and Spanish music that this region has created is unique.


New Orleans Irish:
Finally we head down to New Orleans to hear THE POOR CLARES. Change of Habit (Centaur Records, Baton Rouge, LA; the band's e-mail: jmurphy@digimag.net). No surprises here, just honest, energetic Irish music from the American tradition. It's tempting to declare the centerpiece of the band to be the voices of Betsy McGovern and Beth Patterson, if it weren't for the solid musicianship of the entire band. They play it mostly straight, with a few souther idiosyncacies like "The Humours of El Pueblo." They have the good fortune of clean acoustic production siupllied by Gerry O'Bierne that lends them wide open space for singing and playing their hearts out. They do.



THE CHIEFTAINS Santiago
RCA/BMG
The Chieftains has always been a mixed bag for me; on one hand they are masters of their craft, and one of the longest running groups dedicated to preserving and expanding Irish and Celtic music. But they can also be formal to a fault, scholarly to the point of pedantic. They have of late fallen into a "play with the stars" syndrome that has produced its share of awful music, but also a few golden moments. They brought out the best in Mick Jagger on "Long Black Veil" last year and the worst in Nanci Griffith the year before.

Santiago seems to have found a balance. Here they have focused on the music of northwest Spain, the region of Galicia that is often referred to as more Celtic than Spanish. Their original journeys were instigated by their meeting Galician bagpiper Carlos Nuñez (who has played for many years with The Chieftains, as well as doing recordings with Ry Cooder, Sinead O'Conner, Dulce Pontes, and Spanish rock singer Luz Casal), but soon they were encompassing the Galician influences in Europe and the New World, and by the time they finished they had brought in the talents of Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, Los Lobos in music from Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. southern border. They try their hand at flamenco and Cuban son. Some of this works, some of it falls to "world-mix" muddiness. But bravo to them for the attempt. The Spanish rooted tracks work best, and they introduce the world not only to the prodigious talents of Carlos Nuñez but also to some of the styles and musicians much less known from the Basque region, as well. There's enough brilliant moments to highly recommend Santiago. - CF

Further Adventures: The Galician music of Milladoiro is featured on a number of Green Linnet Records... Superb new music from the Basque lands comes from Benat Achiary's many albums (Silex/Harmonia Mundi)...The Basque accordion is the focus of Trikitixia! (Erde Records) and includes the musicians featured on Santiago in their own rite... On the World Wide Web, look for The Galician Music pages at http://www.clip.dia.fi.upm.es/~boris/gaita/... and the City Of Santiago has its own information,. photos and sound clips at http://www.santiago.jet.es/


The band that has most defined our American concept of modern Scottish folk music is probably BATTLEFIELD BAND. On Across The Borders (Temple Records, Scotland, via Rounder) this quartet is captured live this time out in a set roaring numbers on bagpipes, fiddles, guitar, flutes and keyboards recorded at Queen's Hall in Edinburgh and distills their style nicely. But the extra spice is added by a host of guest artists. Long time mate Alison Kinaird joins them on Scottish harp. Legendary County Sligo flautist Seamus Tansey plays off Battlefield wind-man Iain MacDonald in a brilliant duet of reels. Yorkshire singer Kate Rusby and California bagpiper Eric Rigler also make showings. Perhaps the most curious moment in the show is the battle of the bands between the Battlefield boys and Glasgow country rockers The Radio Sweethearts (a side project of BB member John McCusker), clearly won by the country bagpiping solo that punctuates the last verses. Another live one from the Battlefield Band has been long overdue, but as always, worth the wait. - CF (sound sample available)

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BLOWZABELLA
Vanilla
(Green Linnet)

It's those bagpipes again! In the good Celtic tradition, a sad story to go with it. Like Rare Air did last year, Blowzabella has released one of their most adventurous records ever, and then broken up! More's the loss, because from the opening chaos of "'Spaghetti Panic" through heart-wrenching love ballads back to a live plate of "Spaghetti," this bond has yanked the roots out of the ground and grafted them onto all manner of strange new branches. At the core of it all are those most medieval of instruments, the hurdy-gurdy and the bagpipes, cranked and wheezed by Nigel Eaton and Paul James, both with a drone that could freeze the bone. Swayne and Freya's saxophones add a hot jazzy tone and Ion Luff's bass supplies a funky moan. But this band's strongest point is still its ability to keep alive the old traditions of Flemish, Breton and Celtic music. Jo Freya's vocals on "La Belle C'est Endormir" are bittersweet, and the folk tunes are lively and never dated. They also extend the ancient into the future on cuts like "Beanfield/Monster Cafe," eight minutes of electro-Breton rhythms played out on acoustic (except for the bass) instruments. It pounds out a jig one minute, and then swings the next, but never quite lets go of the taproot of folk music. Excellent! - CF


ROGER ENO Swimming
Gyroscope/Caroline
Here's a peculiar little recording, made by one of the techno- ambient king-pins and what have we here? Irish folk tunes, country dances and singing? This is a sentimental and thoroughly charming album from an innovator who has chosen to slow down a bit and write some romantic, funny and sweet album of deceptively simple songs, simply played (everything, of course, by Eno, from synths to concertinas).


PEADAR Ó RIADA
Winds- Gentle Whisper
Bar None

This month we go a little further afield and find the music of a cultural experimenter, composer, church choir master and agronomist, Peadar Ó Riada; son of Sean Ó Riada, one of the leaders of the folk revival in Ireland in the 60s.

The music here is very deep in the tradition, using both the moods and melodies of ancient Irish music, but what comes of it is far from a revivalist's vision of the past. This music is a new as the CD it's pressed on. He uses the old sounds as a base, then laminates it with classical European and middle eastern music, avant garde and natural ambiance. His vision is almost global, yet never hints at anything except his Irish home.

On Winds- Gentle Whisper he works with a strong ensemble of fiddlers, chamber musicians and a poet, building a sound of depth and intensity that conveys the sorrow, joy and frivolity of real life lived in a real world. These are neither the ambient musings of contemporary "Celtic" nor the barrel-house pyrotechnics of the professional ceili band, but personal expressions, each unique and unflinching in its honesty.


ANDY IRVINE
Rude Awakening
Green Linnet

Andy Irvine has always been acclaimed as a singer, musician and, occasionally, as a song writer. He has founded or participated in some of the legendary bands of Irish modernism, including Planxty and Patrick Street. For the first time, on Awakenings, we get to really zoom in on his song writing. Maybe it's because he's had years to get them all together, but you will be amazed at his scope and vision. These are songs in the image of American writers who simply and directly told their stories. The album is a collection of heros and anti-heroes from all over the world. "Never Tire Of The Road" is a dust bowl ballad a la Woody Guthrie, a tale of the "wobblies" travelling the depression era landscape, holding on to hope as they look for the light at the end of the tunnel. "The Whole Damn Thing" recounts a meeting with Sinclair Lewis, who warns, "Decline and Fall are waiting in the wings, and at the final curtain call as the critics wait to spring, you may doubt the wisdom of the whole damn thing." The musical juxtapositions are sometimes quite unusual. "Viva Zapata" tells the Mexican revolutionary's story to an Irish sounding tune. The tale of socialist union organizer "James Connelly" is sung as a somber and moving ballad, played out on Irvine's bouzouki and Bill Whelan's keyboards. The whole set is personal,incisive and poetic. Rude Awakening should finally put Andy Irvine into the ranks of songwriters like Paul Brady and Ron Kavana. Highly recommended. - CF


PATRICK STREET
Cornerboys (Green Linnet)

Marta Sebestyen credits P.S. founding member Andy Irvine with bringing her into the world of Irish music, as he and his cohorts have done for decades in the dozens of band and solo projects they have created. This quartet (with newest member Ged Foley on the guitar and smallpipes) seems to be able to sum up a thousand different ideas of what "Irish" music is in a single set of songs. Jigs, reels, slides and polkas offer the dancing segment of the show, while this album is heavily punctuated by Irvine's singing of both traditional and original songs. Each Patrick Street album seems to have one central focus, and this time around it's Irvine, blowing the harmonica, writing the tunes and songs, and singing his heart out. Jackie Daly's accordion is as smart as ever and fiddler Kevin Burke once again proves himself one of the grand masters. Together they prove (again) the vitality of good music played straight, with real fire.


Topic Records continues to raid the vaults and uncover brilliant little bits of treasure. This time it's a set of 1960s recordings of Irish music recorded live in a London pub titled Paddy In The Smoke (Topic Records/UK). The Favorite was like many other English pubs at the time, catering to the Irish working class living in London, and providing a place to get back to the roots and away from the show music of the dancehalls and theaters. These lively sessions were amateur, but hardly immature. The playing is spirited, informal and skilled, and the lack of staging and professional pretense only fuels that spirit. Just listen to Tony McMahon squeeze the accordion along with fiddlers Martin Byrnes and Andy Boyle to be totally taken in. This is Irish music, and it's the cure for all that so-called "celtic" air that has been so heavily polluted of late. - CF


Loreena Mckennitt
The Visit
(Warner Brothers)

This album will immediately give you two images: a foggy, down river scene that could be Ireland or South Asia, someplace mystical and yet familiar and Van Morrison, again because of the placeless mysticism of the music and voice. McKennitt has been around for a while, producing and distributing her own records out of her Vancouver home, but this is her step into the big-time. She takes it without a hint of commercial sell-out or hype.In both the traditional songs and her original work, she displays a sense of awe at ancient cultures, and manages to pay homage to Asia, Ireland and North America without trivializing any of them. "All Soul's Night" exhorts the spirits with accordion, fiddle, Balkan balalaika, the droning Indian tamboura, all kicked along by a sliding bass line and a heavy tom-tom drum. Through the whole record, the unique instrumentation continues to guide you back to her voice, a voice that's breathy, almost hoarse at times, both chilling and inviting. "Greensleeves" makes the traditional folk song into a painfully sad ballad, with a vocal McKennitt credits to what she thought it would sound like sung by Tom Waits. It's close. There's also a excellent "Tango To Evora" that brings ancient Celtia an ocean closer to Patagonia. - CF


John Renbourn And Robin Williamson
Wheel Of Fortune
Flying Fish

Hybrid music is often a strained affair, taking random, hip ideas and slamming them together. But when the breeders are brilliant, the blossom can bloom in surprising and beautiful ways. Renbourn first came to fame as a member of a baroque folk jazz band called Pentangle, where ancient Brits wore pork pie hats. Williamson was half of The Incredible String Band, who grafted pseudo-Indo riffs onto psychedelic lyrics hung on tattered branches of Celtic mesmerization. It took almost thirty years, but they joined up for an American tour that led to this recording of live concerts. Renbourn is the impeccable guitarist with the wry wit, Williamson the bard with a harp. Together their music is at once mystical and gritty, and the balance they achieve is perfect. With nothing more than two guitars, a harp and a whistle, they join their hands and voices in an experiment in musical horticulture, and it rows green. - CF

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See also: Europe, bagpipes, accordions
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