Altan, Local Ground (Narada 2005)
Crasdant, Nos Sadwrn Bach (Not Yet Saturday) (Sain 2001)
Mick, Louise & Michelle Mulcahy, Notes from the Heart (Cl— Iar-Chonnachta 2005)
John Doyle, Wayward Son (Compass 2005)
Celtic Fiddle Festival, Play On... (Green Linnet 2005)
This is kind of a funny omnibus to be writing, really. At the moment, I'm sitting on a plane at about 35,000 feet, on the way to my first-ever band tour of Tasmania, a beautiful island to the south of Australia. At this particular moment, I'm existing in the peaceful mental zone between checking in an obscene amount of heavy band equipment (and getting away with it!) and the point on the other end where we put the gear back together to see if it survived the trip.
And what better way to pass the time than to listen to a bunch of CDs? I'm battling my self-consciousness at the moment as there's nothing more tossy than someone using a laptop on a plane, especially when there are band members next to me who keep trying to poke keys and generally put me off.
So, Altan's latest, Local Ground. There's always something reassuring about getting a new Altan recording. After nearly 20 years and 11 or so albums, there's almost a written guarantee of quality, and Local Ground is no exception. There's nothing remarkable about this CD, other than an absolutely top band playing beautiful music with a consistency that is just amazing. MairŽad N’ Mhaonaigh's voice is as etheric and sublime as ever, and must surely rank up there with Kate Rusby and M‡ire Brennen as the most wonderful in the business today. There's more energy in this recording than the last couple; the tunes have a bit more fire (especially the "B— Mh’n na Toitean Set," which is almost Lśnasa-esque in its drive and infection), and the songs are the usual Altan mix of stories and lullabies. It also struck me how much more Dermot Byrne is stepping forward on the accordion, no mean feat in a band with two fiddlers and a bouzouki. There are the usual guests, including Carlos Nś–ez, Steve Cooney, Donal Lunny and Tr’ona N’ Dhomhnaill. Smashing stuff.
Now I'm going to write about the next two albums together, not because they deserve any less attention than the others, but rather that they demonstrate a point that I've been mulling about a fair bit lately. I think I'm getting paranoid about the amount of great music that slips past me. Crasdant and the Mulcahy albums are perfect examples. Had (GMR editor) Cat (Eldridge) not sent them to me, I would never have discovered them. The same is true with other artists like Cleia, Kathleen Edwards, even the Wailin' Jennys. Had people not recommended them to me I might never have had a chance to listen, and that scares me. So people, your task for today is to pass on at least three good bits of advice to your friends about albums you've discovered.
Crasdant is a great Welsh band playing primarily instrumental dance tunes. The album title Nos Sadwrn Bach means "Little Saturday Night," and in this case they're using it to refer to Wednesday night sessions. Great title. It's the usual instruments -- guitar, flute, whistles, accordion etc. -- but there's also the beautiful perpendicular triple harp and the pibgyrn, which are Welsh hornpipes. The tunes are a mixture of traditional and new ones, delightfully indistinguishable from one another. Highlights for me were the the set "Nos Sadwrn Bach," which builds delightfully from a flute up to a merry dance, and "Tebot Pultague (Pultague's Teapot)" which is a great drivey jig.
Notes from the Heart by Mick, Louise and Michelle Mulcahy is a similar tale. Mick (accordions) and his daughters Michelle (fiddle, concertina, harp, piano) and Louise (flute, uilleann pipes) are joined by legendary bodhr‡n player Tommy Hayes and Cyril O'Donoghue on bouzouki and guitar, in what really is a fine album. Apologies there for the long listing of instruments, but it gives a fair idea of what you're in for, and that's a delicious variety. There's a kind of unhurried elegance and musical clarity about the whole album that put me in mind of Kevin Crawford's wonderful solo albums. Some of the tunes are well known, such as "Bag of Spuds," "The Galway Rambler" and a great version of "The Hearty Bucks of Oranamore" (dazzlingly played by Michelle on the harp), but there are a swag of ones less often performed, too. The sleeve notes say this is the Mulcahy's second album. Now I just have to track down the first, and tell everyone else to.
Ah, the joys of flying behind a baby with a full diaper. At first, I blamed it on my flute player, Sarah, and her stinky cheese sandwich, but alas it was nothing as temporary as a piece of fragrant cheddar. Still, it's a quiet baby, and I think most people would rather put up with the somewhat pungent odour over the caterwauling any day. Perhaps if I stuck some of Sarah's stinky cheese up my nose, the two smells might cancel themselves out. Maybe I should just move onto the next album and hold my breath.
On to John Doyle. Now this chap is somewhat of a legend within Celtic circles, especially if you happen to play a guitar. Up until a few years ago, John Doyle was pretty much the backbone of Solas, and his stunning rhythm playing is ogled and ahhhed at by most who'd strummed a guitar. But as his first album Evening Comes Early and this latest effort Wayward Son show, there's much much more to Doyle. For a start, he's a damn fine singer. Comparisons are difficult, as he has a fairly unique voice, but at a push I'd suggest Michael Dhomhnaill from the Bothy Band recordings. The songs are mostly traditional, with a single original (more about that later) and there are a scattering of tunes, picked out on guitar that just make my eyes water with the virtuosity of this man. The change from Doyle's own jig, "The Glad Eye," into the Mick McAuley (the current Solas box player)-written "The Journeyman" is nothing short of spine tingling. But it's the songs that really shine, from the brilliant reworking of "The Wild Colonial Boy" as "Jack Dolan" to the glimmering highpoint of the album, the song "Captain Glenn," which has a wonderful tale of the sea, murder and redemption set to a hypnotic rhythm, and with those amazing doubled low whistles of John McCusker and Michael McGoldrick . . . well . . . Paul heaven. Doyle's original song, "Bitter the Parting," is an achingly melancholy duet with Kate Rusby with McCusker on fiddle (Celtic music is just so deliciously incestuous). And of course the usual Doyle co-conspirators of fiddler Liz Carrol and Seamus Egan are there too. Look, all I can say in summing up is that it made me forget the pongy baby smell, so it must be good!
"I walked down by the sea today to think on friends who slipped away and softly sought that distant shore to wish them passage, clear and sure. I watched the moon rise with the tide and fought the ocean trapped within whilst weeping crests of mighty waves to carry them to harbour safe." -- Johnny Cunningham, July '98
Any album that counts in in French accompanied by stomping boots then fires into a tune with three fiddles and a guitar, well . . . how can you go wrong? Celtic Fiddle Festival is Kevin Burke, Christian Lema”tre, AndrŽ Brunet with Ged Foley on guitar. Play On . . . is their fourth album, but the first without founding member Johnny Cunningham, who passed away at a terribly young age a couple of years ago. This is an album basically for him in the music, the soul and the art (the cover features three chairs, two with fiddles on them and one empty, which is poignant reminder of just how much he is missed). But this album is a celebration of life and Celtic music, recorded in its best possible fashion, and that's live. Considering the circumstances, the tone could have quite easily descended into a fiddle-based melancholy, but thankfully it's as enjoyable and footsy-tappy as the last three. As always, the tune selection is curious, from trad standards by O'Carolan to twisted and sly reels from Brittany and Quebec, and the achingly beautiful Johnny Cunningham-penned "Leaving Brittany" makes a poignant return from the first album. For what started as a bit of a laugh between friends, the Celtic Fiddle Festival has grown into one of the best bands around right now.
Well, that's about it for me. We've started the descent into Hobart so I'll be spending the next 10 minutes pulling weird faces in an attempt to sort my ears out from the pressure. Last time I flew I went deaf in one ear for two weeks -- not great when you're a musician! It's been a good flight, even if I have spent the whole time breathing in recycled air tainted with stinky cheese and baby-arse. Now to see if the instruments survived . . .
(Update: All went well, and the tour was just amazing. There are a few tales here