Releases > May 2010

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ALT001 15 tracks

This CD, sponsored by the Arts Council, has been quite a while in the making and there is nothing spared. It marks the 25th anniversary of the band. It is a wonderful demonstration of something that a lot of us knew already: even if she never played a note on fiddle, Mairead Ní Mhaonaigh has the voice, the understanding and personality to achieve huge success.
It is a special treat to hear her sing, and so naturally, in her own Donegal Irish, but here, though there are eight songs in Irish, there are no words supplied. Neither could I find any global credits for the orchestral arrangements, though Fiachra Trench seems to have done most of the work. They tend to err on the side of conservative – though that is by far the lesser of two evils.
If you want to hear why Altan continue to be a power in the land, listen to the Margaree Reel and the Humours of Westport. Powerful, split second accurate and just plain enjoyable. On a quieter note, there is Mairead’s A Tune for Frankie in memory of her husband. It is dignified, sincere and a competent piece of music making for someone who will not be forgotten while Mairead is playing and attending the winter school, which has been such a success. I know it is not all about Mairead, and I was particularly impressed with the playing of Dermot Byrne on a Dougie Briggs accordion. Sounds like a machine worth checking out.
Obviously, this will go big on the US tour, but it deserves a welcome from anyone who values the sound of an established group feeling totally at home with their music.
John Brophy


Tom Byrne, Own Label, 12 Tracks

With an already well-established reputation on the live circuit as a virtuoso of diatonic and chromatic harmonica, Tom Byrne finally gets the chance to lay-down his “stuff” in this debut recording. The eponymous record, which sells with a quite opulent companion booklet, rolls with a selection of high powered dance tunes played with authority, passion and panache featuring Tom, and guests such as Frankie Gavin, Carl Hession on piano, Paul O’Driscoll on double bass and Laurence Doherty.
This album is damn-sharp for a debut and has a fabulous production value. My highlight of the experience is Byrne’s original tune Caoineadh na Neamh-Chiontach (The Cry Of The Innocent) - which surely belongs on a soundtrack somewhere. It’s a powerful tune, in D-minor, where Byrne attempts to create a picture through the sound of “the cry of the lone voice which struggles to be heard”, Byrne cites that “the single note symbolises truth which cannot be silenced and the tune is dedicated to victims of conflict and abuse.”
Another particularly nice moment is where Tom delves into his own roots, with a version of the charming Sliabh Ban Waltz. The original tune was composed by Byrne’s father and “commemorates his ancestral townland at Malin Head, celebrating the beauty of the landscape”.
All in all I have had this disk running in the car for a few weeks now, and it’s certainly put a stride in my step, and helped lift those obnoxious January Blues. The album includes a list of guest artists, with the aforementioned Frankie Gavin mentioned in the production credits. I’d certainly look forward to Byrne’s follow up record, where I think the Buncrana based musician is well-positioned to go it alone.
Martin Roddy


Gráinne Murphy, fiddle.
With Isaac Anderson, Dónal Clancy, Anna Colliton, Marta Cook, Daniel Murphy, Alan Murray, and John Redmond
13 tracks, 56 minutes, 30 seconds GRA010

There are a lot of impressive young players on the current Irish traditional scene. A cursory perusal of the premiere recordings of many of these would reveal some common features: an eclectic collection of tunes from a number of traditions and an emphasis on fast tempos that permit displays of technical brilliance. The effect upon the listener is almost always rather flat. There’s often so much excitement compressed into the music that it’s hard for the listener to sustain excitement about either the performer or the CD.
Gráinne Murphy is different. Her first solo recording reveals an artful, assured musicianship at play. She is a technically excellent fiddler, of course. A star pupil of Séamus Connolly throughout most of her childhood, Gráinne has blossomed into an accomplished musician who possesses a deep understanding of and respect for the Irish tradition. Oh, she does include one tune from the Scots tradition, and one Quebécois jig, but the rest of her offerings are either solid tunes from the Irish tradition or a few tasteful new compositions. Her careful approach to these tunes is a welcome departure from the too-frenetic displays of virtuosity that mar many efforts of her contemporaries. She eschews the slick and brilliant surface for quiet, deep forays into the heart of her music. And she isn’t afraid of the lesser-heard tune-types. The fact that she includes two whole sets of lovely, lilting slip jigs and an absolutely brilliant set of hornpipes (which are played as hornpipes, and not as reels!) reveals both her accomplishment and her maturity. She doesn’t need to dazzle with breakneck reels – she announces her presence with quiet authority and inventiveness. Listen, for example, to her play Star of Munster/Colonel Fraser. These reels are two pillars of the tradition, but Gráinne makes them sound new by transposing them into flat keys, although she insists there is precedent for this musical decision. Listen to her find depth, playfulness, and breathing room in those two reels. And then breathe easy yourself – there is one of the younger generation of Irish traditional fiddlers who doesn’t care to bludgeon the listener with speed and technical tricks.
Brava, Gráinne. Give us another!
Sally K Sommers Smith


Ceol & Cuimhne – Music & Memory,
Gael Linn CEFCD 195

In their new CD notes, Téada include a quote of the poet Shelly used by Irish Times reviewer Frank McNally who was writing about their latest production: ‘Music, when soft voices die/Vibrates in the memory’. It’s really all about the effects of music on the mind and the soul – hence the choice of the CD’s title, Ceol & Cuimhne – Music & Memory. And before sitting down to listen to it, I had just been reading another Irish Times Weekend feature on a new book by scientist/musician Philip Ball who’s quoted as saying of music: “It engages the emotions, the intellect, language processing, language processing centres, and obviously some music engages the body, as well. It’s the gymnasium of the mind.” So the message is that it’s good for you, and it can be most enjoyable, as well!
Well, joy unconfined is certainly spread throughout on the tunes and airs on this recording and it isn’t just in the music itself but the pleasure the musicians get in sharing an ancient body of music through their performances. This is evident in the playing itself but also in the CD notes that reveal a collective awareness of the sources and origins of tunes and those musicians and collectors who made sure the music would not only survive but thrive. The notes for each track inevitably acknowledge who noted down a tune, and where possible, from whom. The annotations also reveal a depth of scholarship, as well, reflecting the past and ongoing studies in music of several of the group’s members. One example will suffice. This is the note to track #2, The Bog of Allen/Eanach Dhúin/BillWeaver’s
“The unusual first jig was notated during February 1862 in the manuscript of P. Enright of Áth Trasna, Co. Cork. A similar version under the same title appears in the mid-19th century manuscript of Canon James Goodman. What follows is a jig version of the famous song air Eanach Dhúin, which fiddle-player Junior Crehan called by the name The Sheep in the Boat. Concluding is a rare version of Bill the Weaver’s, which appears untitled in the Stephen Grier collection.” Lovers of the music, those who appreciate importance of a rich heritage, and anyone who engages in research, will read that sort of background annotation with pleasure. And information along the same lines is supplied for all eleven tracks.
Téada is made up of Oisín Mac Diarmada (fiddle, piano), Paul Finn (button accordion), Damien Stenson (flute), Sean McElwain (guitar, bouzouki), and Tristan Rosenstock (bodhrán). Unusually for an Irish trad group of that size, there are no songs or singers, and their concentration is on the dance music. Of themselves and their music, they state in their web site: “…Téada, meaning ‘strings’ in the Irish language revels in the vibrant traditional music of Ireland, deftly playing up its structural intricacies while preserving the timeless energy of the reels, jigs, hornpipes, and other lesser-known tunes in the repertoire.”
The group is joined by Gráinne Hambly (harp) on The Sligo Air written down from the singing of Sligo woman, Biddy Monahan by George Petrie in 1837. Tommy Martin (uilleann pipes) and dancer Brian Cunningham are also guests, and it all adds up to making this an album of great music and great reading.
Aidan O’Hara

The Mullingar Races
Own Label

Every Christmas for the last few years I enter the Den of Donohoe the musical maestro from Cavan where I spend a couple of hours in the company of his musician friends, joining with them and employing voice and instrument to celebrate the season that’s in it. Ace accordionist Martin Donohoe sends out a summons to us and we respond with alacrity – whether one’s lacrity is in tune or not! The 2-hour session goes out on Shannonside/Northern Sound radio on Christmas night and includes the likes of Charlie McGettigan, members of the Donohoe and O’Hara families, flute players, John Wynne and Noel Sweeney, harmonica ace, Noel Battle, and box player Aodhán Ó Muineacháin. Joining us last Christmas was Mick Foster – of Foster and Allen fame – and along with his musical right arm, Moyra Fraser, on the keyboard, added hugely to the high-jinks and joviality.
Mick and Noel Battle are old friends and they played a few tunes which they said were featured on their new CD, The Mullingar Races, and so here we are. Mick is well known for the blend of ‘easy listening’ and traditional music that has earned him and Tony Allen a worldwide following. But not everyone knows that Mick was All-Ireland accordion champion three times before he was 17, and that was just the beginning of the many accolades he has earned for his music and performances. But when it comes to winning All-Irelands, who can match Noel Battle who has been crowned harmonica champion twelve times?
What comes through in this new CD of theirs is a demonstration of a total mastery of the music and their obvious pleasure in playing jigs, reels, hornpipes, and one track of airs by the great harper called O’Carolan’s Selection. The album’s producer is Moyra Fraser who doubles as piano accompanist and she is indeed the musician’s musician, supplying just the right touch for dance rhythm and musicality. Noel’s playing of the ‘French Fiddle’ – as the mouth organ is called in some parts of the country – has been rightly described as ‘rhythmic, sparkling and light’. And in noting that it’s Noel’s lungs that provide those qualities, it would be fair to say that his performance at times reaches heights that are breathtaking – for the listeners, I mean. Noel himself never seems to run out of ‘puff’ and makes it all look so easy.
The title track, The Mullingar Races, reflects Mick Foster’s great love of horses and horse racing. But there are other creatures great and small in there among the titles: The Cat’s Miaow, The Chattering Magpie, and Devanney’s Goat. There are names of people and places, too, in the titles, although I am at a loss to know what we’re supposed to make of the reels, Fr Kelly’s No. 1 and Fr Kelly’s No. 2.
Aidan O’Hara

Homespun, Songs of Stephen Foster
Own label, 18 tracks

“Stephen Foster was the first professional pop songwriter in American music history.” That’s the opening sentence of the note Bobby Horton has written on the back of his new CD Homespun, Songs of Stephen Foster that include Oh! Suzannah, My Old Kentucky Home, Beautiful Dreamer, and Gentle Annie. He goes on to say that Foster’s songs touched people all over America, and that in this recording he presents eighteen of them in the style of a 19th century string band. Seems fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? Yes, except that Bobby not only sings the songs, he plays all the instruments, as well! And wrote the notes, too, published the CD, did all the vocal harmonies, and recorded the whole thing at home in his own studio!
For that reason, he says, he uses the word Homespun in the title. But don’t be fooled, because there’s nothing ordinary or unsophisticated about this production. Yes, it’s ‘homespun’ in its presentation, but the process involved requires a heap of talent and patience and a lot of know-how on the part of just one man to make it all possible. The great American film documentary maker, Ken Burns, used Bobby’s extraordinary music talents in a number of his award winning TV series, including The Civil War and The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. He has a lot of admiration for Bobby’s musical skills: “I don’t believe I’ve met anyone quite like Bobby in the ability to understand the soul of American music.”
True indeed, because the man from Alabama is not only a musician/performer, he’s also a historian who researches his material thoroughly, and this comes through in his exemplary CD notes to the songs and the music. Other recordings Bobby has made include a dozen or so CDs covering Music from the War Between the States – perhaps more generally known as the American Civil War (1861-65). The research alone would be an enormous undertaking for any one person, but then to go and sing all the vocal lines and all the instruments! It’s too much for ordinary mortals like myself to take in.
Here are a just a couple of examples of the detail on the songs Bobby provides, and he adds that they became popular very quickly making Stephen Foster a household name all over America: “Oh! Suzannah, this one was first performed in an ice-cream parlour in Pittsburgh, PA” (Stephen’s home state). “My Old Kentucky Home, in the powerful lyrics of this song published in 1853 Mr Foster gives a sympathetic look at the life of slaves on a plantation. It became the official state song of Kentucky in 1928.”
Stephen enjoyed huge success from the late 1840s right through to the late 1850’s. However, by 1860 his star was on the wane and despite his best efforts things did not improve and he took to the drink. His finances wnet in to a tail spin and his marriage suffered, which makes his song Hard Times (made famous again by Mary Black) all the more personal and poignant. On 10th January 1864 Stephen fell ill with a fever in a hotel in New York, he had a very bad fall and cuts his head on a wash stand and a few days later he died from his injuries. Two months later a song he had written in 1862 when things were at their worst was published: Beautiful Dreamer. It became one of his most popular songs and is still beloved of the older generation of singers today.
Aidan O’Hara


Live at the Crane
Own Label

Nothing dusty or especially banjo about this one. Basically, Dusty Banjos is a Galway based project to teach traditional music, and with a fair taste of anarchy coming through, like a tabasco minuet. The idea has been going since 2003, and this recording was made in January 2003, in the Crane Bar in Galway, featuring 48 players.
It is offered as much as a learning tool as a session grab, and it certainly works very well. Indeed, if you have only one album on yer walkperson, this is the one for a beginner who wants to build up a repertoire of standard tune. Beware, though, many tunes are literally not up to speed, and you may need to do more if you wish to pass yourself off in public.
Irish music is inclusive and participatory, and that’s what this album is all about. Sadly, the only thing it can’t teach is to tell apprentices when they’ve reached their potential, but there was never a shortage of those who give the knowing look.
So congratulations to all on this, and take a gander, or even a goose at You Tube for a fuller picture.
John Brophy

Appel Rekords
APR 1317, 2009

What’s Irish, what’s Dutch, what’s Flemish? And what have bagpipes got to do with it? Well one recent album Hot Griselda might go a long way to clarify those three questions. I know a few folks from Antwerp who say they speak Dutch but are happy to be Flemish. I recall a picture in the Broodhuis Museum in the Grote Markt in Brussels of a happy crowd walking to to a wedding lead by a red faced bagpiper, that’s by Bruegel painted it around1560. So the language goes back a long way and so does bag piping. But what about the Netherlands and what about uilleann pipes?
Back in 2007 two lads from Holland: Toon Van Mierlo (uilleann pipes, saxophone, diatonic accordion, etc) of Naragonia and Stijn Van Beek (uilleann pipes, whistle) met up with Jeroen Geerinck of Snaarmaarwaar and bouzouki player Kaspar Laval, they had a few tunes together (as you do) and formed Hot Griselda.
So with their roots somewhere in a soil that is almost Irish and almost Flemish they’ve produced an album of exciting often hypnotic bagpipe music. It is a refreshing twist on the old pipes fusion story we’ve been used to here in Ireland. For many years uilleann ipes and fusion has meant the bagpipe gets tacked onto some Hiberno jazz, but here the effect is very different. There are13 tracks on show and they range from more or less Irish material such as the opening Schojateuten, to a what to my ears sounds very Breton De Walvissenmars. Socail dance is on the rise in Flanders and the lads have Doprpledanske to bring them up to date with the latest folk trend. Then there is a track with an intro straight out of Andy Irvine’s work with Patrick Street, Trip To Falsterbo (featuring a lovely interplay here between box and zook). For an altogether gorgeous tune look up Honingkoekjes, it has a feel of an acoustic Moving Hearts and is crying out for someone to write words to it.
It’s all new work, it’s bagpipes and bouzouki and box, what isn’t there to like?
Seán Laffey


The Ewe with the Crooked Horn
Own Label JCB01
16 tracks, 51 minutes

American born and bred, now living in Ireland, Colm Gannon and Jesse Smith were reared on the Irish music of Boston and Chicago but they also bring the wider musical awareness of the modern generation to bear on this CD. Not that there’s any dilution or compromise of the pure drop here: this is old style music, played by musicians who are familiar with modern artists from Moving Hearts to Martin Hayes, and who still stick with the Irish American classics of a century ago, adding a contemporary touch here and there. Colm’s button box and Jesse’s fiddle are backed by John Blake on guitar and piano: John learnt his music in the broad church of the 1980’s London scene, and can turn his hand to most accompaniment styles, as well as firing up the old flute for a few tunes.
The sleeve notes read like a who’s who of Irish music. Give us Another is credited to John McFadden, My Former Wife to piper Bernard Delaney, and many tunes were learnt from the almost holy trinity of Coleman, Morrison and Killoran who recorded in America in the early twentieth century. Whilst this collection concentrates on reels and jigs, there is a set of sweetly turned hornpipes including the title tune, and two track of flings: The Old Stack of Wheat, Johnny Will You Marry Me, and The Four Courts which comes from Frank Quinn’s eccentric version. As Tommy Keane puts it, “the myriad of sources quoted by them for the music they have presented on this recording indicates a common and original journey of searching, listening and learning”, in other words, Colm and Jesse have certainly done their homework!
Speed the Plough, The Connemara Stockings, Drimroe Cross, The Boy on the Hilltop, Dunboyne Straw Plaiters, The Killavil Reel: old recordings are re-awakened on this CD, some from long deep slumbers. The only two recent compositions here are Burnt Cabbage and Richard Dwyer’s Jig, both with an old-fashioned dark side to their minor melodies. Apart from one or two solos, box and fiddle duet throughout and at times their tightness and empathy is outstanding. The melody constantly demands your attention, and its raw intensity can be quite overpowering, John Blake’s accompaniment always keeps a respectful distance and concentrates on enhancing the tunes, perfectly fulfilling its side of the Irish musical bargain.
On this evidence, old style Irish music is alive and well on both shores of the Atlantic, at least in the hands of Gannon and Smith.
Alex Monaghan