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Review: Órla Fallon’s “Lore”

Around the time the coronavirus pandemic hit, Órla Fallon—a founding member of Celtic Woman—sneaked a new CD in just under the wire.

In some ways, the timing could not have been worse. Artists typically tour after an album release to promote their new recordings. Obviously, that wasn’t in the cards. But from another viewpoint, the timing was fortuitous—for all of us who could use a little cheering up.

Fallon released “Lore,” a collection of 12 tunes, in late July. Many should be recognizable to her fans and to Irish music aficionados generally. She says she chose them because each one meant something to her, and that fondness shines through each and every one.

You’ll hear old standards like “Galway Bay,” “She Moved Through the Fair,” “Wild Mountain Thyme,” “Siúil a Rún” and “Two Sisters”—all of which should take your mind off the time of covid and redirect your thoughts to the timeless hills, valleys, beaches, islands and cliffs of Ireland. Continue Reading

Arts, History, Music

Medieval Modern Magical Music: Anakronos’ “The Red Book of Ossory”

Anakronos: Caitríona O’Leary, Deirdre O’Leary, Nick Roth, and Francesco Turrisi (photograph by Tara Slye)

It’s been almost 700 years since Kilkenny’s discordant 14th century Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede, held sway over the souls of his parishioners, but 17 of his medieval poems are on track to reach the listening ears of a 21st century audience on the newly released CD, “The Red Book of Ossory.” And thanks to Caitriona O’Leary and the group Anakronos, what an innovative and exalted musical experience it has been transformed into.

But in order to wax properly eloquent on the newly released CD, there first needs to be some background on the origins of the Red Book of Ossory itself.

Richard de Ledrede was a man of massive contradictions. English-born, and a student of the Franciscan order, he was appointed Bishop of Ossory in 1317 by the Papal Court in Avignon. Immediately after his arrival in Kilkenny, he set about doing things his way, and his way meant a strict adherence to the Church laws and beliefs as he saw them. He set a high bar where morality was concerned and that included a moratorium on the singing of “bawdy” secular songs. He composed 60 poems that are included in the Red Book of Ossory (the original manuscript is housed at St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny) with the instructions: “for the vicars of the cathedral of the church, for the priests and for his clerks, to be sung on important holidays and at celebrations in order that their throats and mouths, consecrated to God, may not be polluted by songs which are lewd, secular and associated with revelry and since they are trained singers let them provide themselves with suitable tunes according to what these sets of words require.” Poetry that Caitriona O’ Leary describes as “beautiful, esoteric and richly imagistic.” Continue Reading

Music

Review: “Echoes of Home” by Phil Coulter

coulterhomeWe’ve just suffered through one of the worst winters in memory. I still have a 50-pound bag of rock salt standing by in the garage. I don’t believe it’s really over.

I’ve been listening to “Echoes of Home: The Most Glorious Celtic Melodies,” a relatively new release by the prolific Phil Coulter. It’s a collection of lush, tranquil and very thoughtful piano solos—with a little help from some heavy hitters like Moya Brennan, Billy Connolly, and one of our favorites, Finbar Furey. And I found myself thinking—this album would have been just the ticket on one of those cold, snowy nights. A splash of whiskey, the lights down low, a warm sweater—and Phil Coulter playing away quietly in the background.

Most people describe what Coulter does as New Age. It’s easy to dismiss the genre as just a bit of tinkly mood music. Sometimes, really, that’s all it is. Singularly unsatisfying. Anyway, it’s not my everyday, go-to genre, but—as on those blustery nights—nothing else that fills the bill quite as well.

“Echoes of Home” is understated. And it’s a recording of piano solos, so of course it’s not overly orchestrated. If you didn’t know what you were listening to, you’d think Phil Coulter wasn’t working very hard. But it takes a deft hand to take relatively complex musical themes and transform them into something light, airy, almost fragile—like spun sugar sculpture.

The album opens with “The Flower of Magherally,” and it sets the tone for everything that comes after it. (There are 15 tracks.) Coulter doesn’t get in the way of the tune. He sits back and lets the tune’s inherent sweetness stand on its own.

You might also appreciate Coulter’s take on “Minstrel Boy.” I play drums in an Irish pipe band, and if I never hear “Minstrel Boy” again, it will be too soon. I mostly liked Coulter’s version. “Minstrel Boy” is an anthem, one of the earliest patriotic songs. That approach has its place, but that’s about the only approach you ever hear. In Coulter’s case, “Minstrel Boy” becomes more of an air than an anthem. It’s a nice rendering, but ultimately manipulatively and obviously sentimental. Not so much spun sugar as saccharine.

Coulter redeems himself on several other tracks, including “David at the White Rock,” a traditional Welsh air. It’s a particularly evocative and inventive performance. There were moments where it was easy to believe you were listening to a Regency era piano sonata. (Think Jane Austen.) It’d the best, most fully realize piece on the album.

Now let’s talk about the second best—although, frankly, it could be a tie. Finbar Furey plays both low whistle and uilleann pipes (not at the same time), and in this moody little piece, Coulter takes a back seat and let’s Furey’s performance shine through.

Another collaboration didn’t work out as well. Moya Brennan’s performance on harp in “The Lass of Aughrim” seems like an afterthought. At the very end, she chimes in with a bit of gratuitous humming. She’s wasted on this track.

While we’re on the subject of tracks I didn’t much care for, let’s add “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” I don’t care that it’s not Celtic. But it matters very much that it adds nothing new. It’s a plodding, straightforward—too straightforward—rendition of a tune that most of us already know too well. As performed by  Roberta Flack on her classic album “First Take,” it’s a classic. If you can’t do it better, don’t bother. (Michael Bolton, take note.)

Those are really the only false notes on what is otherwise, as the title suggests, a glorious collection.

The album ends with a spare and lovely “Farewell to Inishowen.” Coulter is accompanied by Paul Brady on low whistle. It’s a gentle, crystalline coda, more prayer than piano solo.

And if you’re not well and truly relaxed and completely at peace with the world by then, well, it might be time for another small whiskey.

Music

Review: “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” by Barleyjuice

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice ThingsLet’s just say that “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” the new CD from Barleyjuice, is a party. A loud, raucous, boozy blowout.

And when I say booze, I mean waking up on the kitchen floor with your head in the cat dish, and wondering how all that onion soup dip wound up in your shoes.

For example, this snippet of lyrics from the second track, “3 Sheets to the Wind”:

“Let’s go down to whiskey town
Land of song and sin
We’re not leaving till we’re weaving
Three sheets to the wind.”

The title might also be a dead giveaway.

Bands like “Barleyjuice” are popular because there’s a pretty big market for drinking songs. Some people like rebel songs. Others like traditional folk ballads. And plenty of people like drinking songs. Different strokes for different folks. And face it, drinking songs go back. Way back.

So belly up to the bar, boys. And girls.

Barleyjuice is in great form on this recording. Spot-on lead vocals, and seamless harmonies. Relentless, pile-driver rhythms. Mean, nasty, slashing guitar riffs.

If you can’t wait for the St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl, you can get a head start with the opening tune, “St. Patrick’s Day.” Kyf Brewer take the lead on this rock anthem dedicated to post-New York City parade shenanigans. Brewer sounds like he might have swallowed ground glass somewhere along the way. And I mean that in a good way.

I could call this tune “catchy,” but it really grabs you by your lapels and shakes the hell out of you. You’ll become a one-person mosh pit.

On this tune, guitarist Keith Swanson seems to be channelling the guitarist for whatever band played “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.” (OK, it was the Bobby Fuller Four. Don’t send me any emails.) It’s all clangy, jangly retro chords. Really fun.

The fourth track, “Catholic Guilt,” takes a jaundiced view of that aspect of Irish heritage. There’s a great bit of call and response between Brewer and the rest of the band on the chorus, a kind of steroidal sea shanty. Some brassy in-your-face fiddling on the bridge by Alice O’Quirke. We could talk about the lyrics in depth, but suffice to say references to “plastic Marys” pop with some frequency.

O’Quirke later takes the lead on vocals—and plays very sweetly, on a sweet little jiggy number, “Whelan’s Barroom.”

Keith Swanson is out front on “Whiskey for Christmas,” a tune that at times sounds like a song recorded by The Kinks, although I’ll be darned if I can remember which one. And just to mess with your head further, the harmonies remind me of John and George from almost any of the Beatles’ early stuff.

Clever chameleons.

Again, it takes a good bit of talent to pull off smart mash-ups like these and still come across as a loose bunch of rowdies. I admire that kind of talent. So get up on your feet, turn this CD all the way up, and scare the cat. You didn’t like that cat, anyway.

Music

Review: “Little Falls” by Lilt

littlefallscoverSome reviews write themselves. This is one of them.

I’ll cut to the chase.

“Little Falls” is a relatively new CD (late November 2013) from Keith Carr on bouzouki, banjo, mandolin and vocals, and the German-born flutist Tina Eck, also on tin whistle. Together performing as “Lilt.” It is one of the finest recordings of Irish music I’ve heard in a long time.

The whole thing, from beginning to end, feels fresh, exhilarating, and wonderfully, blissfully alive. When I was thinking about how I would describe the sound these two produce, I remembered the title of an old Canadian Brass album: “High, Bright, Light and Clear.” That’s it in a nutshell.

There are a few minor flaws, but you would probably need the aural equivalent of an electron microscope to hear them. These two are so together as to be musically inseparable. They sound like one instrument. And both, of course, are seasoned pros. They play at a very high level.

Carr and Eck came together at traditional Irish music sessions around the Washington, D.C., area, so they’re experienced sessioneers.

Sessions are spontaneous. Players forget how certain tunes go, or they remember after they’ve forgotten, and it seems like they often can’t remember the name of the tune they’ve just played because, hey, they know a million of them. How can you keep track?

But every once in a while, the musicians will launch into a set of reels, and the whole thing just seems to be too impossibly great to believe. The music seems to spiral and soar to new heights. You wish you had remembered to turn on your digital recorder or iPhone because that particular moment would never come around again.

“Little Falls” isn’t as spontaneous and wonderfully undisciplined, but still, it seems to capture those memorable moments. The CD obviously boasts better production. It’s all well-rehearsed. That said, when you listen to this CD, you can imagine yourself sitting with a pint of ale at one of those D.C. sessions. Indeed, Eck and Carr are joined on most tracks by their session friends.

So enough with the gushing. What’s all the gushing leading up to? What is “Little Falls?” And why are there so many questions?

Every track is a winner to a greater or lesser degree. But certain tracks are standouts.

I particularly liked “Planxty Dermot Grogan,” featuring Tina Eck, accompanied by by Carr on bouzouki and Kristen Jones on cello. It’s as sweet and airy as spun sugar.

There’s a set featuring the reels “Eddie Kelly’s” and “John Brosnan’s.” The duo plays “Eddie Kelly’s” like an air, and there are times when the tune almost sounds like Tudor court music. They pick it up with “John Brosnan’s,” and there’s a graceful, seamless transition from the first tune to the second. But it’s “Kelly’s” that I really love.

Well-known sean-nos dancer Shannon Dunne steps out on the third track, a set of reels, “The Messenger” and “Roscommon Reel.” It’s a winner.

Carr shows off his banjo chops on the first tune in a another set of reels, “The Galway Reel,” “Seamus Thompson’s” and “View Across the Valley.” Those chops are considerable. Eck joins in with John Dukes on guitar for the second tune, and on the third tune, it’s Dukes again—this time on bodhran—and fiddler Graham DeZarn.

Finally, there’s a bonus track, not listed on the cover, and I wish I could tell you what the tune is. All I know is that you can really hear Carr on banjo at his very best, taking the lead on a reel that sounds more old-timey than Irish. And yet not. It’s syncopated and jazzy, more newgrass than bluegrass. Catchy fiddling and guitar playing throughout. And there’s another instrument somewhere in there that I’m not quite picking up. But really, really fun. It really is a bonus.

Bottom line: Buy “Little Falls.” You’ll play it until it skips.

Also available on Amazon.

Ossian’s got it, too.

Music

Review: “Friends for Life,” The High Kings

The High Kings

The High Kings

“Johnny Leave Her” is a moldy oldie, but The High Kings might make you forget its age.

On the new album, “Friends for Life,” due out in early February, the ensemble’s four singers do what they clearly do best: harmonies. I’m a sucker for good harmonies—it’s one of the reasons I love bluegrass—but this a capella version is particularly memorable, a lovely update.

There’s a lot to like about this album, although not all of the 12 tunes are up to that same lofty standard. If you’re a diehard fan of the High Kings—and let’s face it, they’re one of the hottest groups in Ireland, if not the entire planet at the moment—you probably won’t be disappointed. Although I should say that the first few listener reviews on Amazon are mixed.

Still, fan or not, give it a listen. There’s much to like.

The manager of the phenomenally successful Celtic Woman assembled The High Kings in 2008, arguably capitalizing on a trend started by Riverdance. Groups like that are more brand than band. But you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and there’s simply no getting around that the four possess undeniable gifts. Wikipedia will tell you that, together, they play 13 instruments. And they play them on a particularly high level. And their singing is ridiculously flawless. And, as more than one traditional Irish musician has told me, you don’t have to play a tune the way it was played at the crossroads a hundred years ago. Music is about invention.

And if you’re looking for a pedigree, you can’t do much better than Finnbarr Clancy, son of The Clancy Brothers’ Bobby. Martin Furey is the son of traditional singer, raconteur and multi-instrumentalist Finbar Furey, and we flat-out love him. Brian Dunphy is a veteran of Riverdance and one-time member of the Three Irish Tenors, but he’s also the son of renowned show band performer Sean Dunphy. Darren Holden likewise did a stint in Riverdance.

So, on to the music.

The Kings’ first tune, “Oh Maggie,” sets the tone for most of what follows. The boys perform the first verse without instrumental accompaniment, and once again, their tight harmonies are flawless, leading into a kicky little rock jig performed on traditional instruments. Eminently listenable. Also dance-able, if you’re of a mind to.

A little later on, we hear the aforementioned “Johnny Leave Her.” As I say, one of the highlights.

The band puts a kind of syncopated country and western spin on “Health to the Company.” Depending on your orientation, you’ll see it as entirely acceptable or an outright violation. It certainly won’t make you forget the song as Kevin Conneff performed it with the Chieftains on “The Wide World Over,” but I liked it. I’ll admit it: I sang along. My harmonies are flawless, too, of course. (As in: In my dreams.)

“Galway Girl” was a sparking surprise. I’ve heard it a million times, but this version is performed as zydeco. I’ve always wondered why anyone would re-make a classic, if they can’t make it better. And whatever tune it is, it almost always fails to live up to the original. Let’s start with almost any remake by the smarmy Michael Bolton. In this case, the re-make is better. One of my hands-down faves on this album.

You might also recognize a grand old ballad by the name of “Peggy Gordon.” Very nice, but I must say, I’ve heard it better. And so have you, if you’ve ever heard our Karen, John and Michael Boyce sing it.

A few of the tunes seem to me like fillers. There’s a tune called “Gucci.” I can’t be bothered to care. You’ll probably skip past it. And I have to say, the title tune—the last one on the album—bores me almost to the point of lifelessness. Their version of Dominic Behan’s “MacAlpine’s Fusiliers” simply lacks soul. If you’d heard a local bar band play it, you’d get into it. In this case, it’s way too slick and overproduced.

Some of you might say that the entire thing is slick and overproduced. OK, I won’t lie to you, they’re not The Pogues. Frankly, on one or two tunes, they remind me of The Corrs. You know—if The Corrs were guys. Perish the thought.

But that’s not what The High Kings are about. So let’s be fair and open-minded about this business. Take them for what they are, and what they are is very talented.

Music

Review: “Shamrock City”

Solas

Solas

About a year ago, fiddler Winifred Horan and accordion player Mick McAuley—bandmates in the Philadelphia-based Irish supergroup Solas—played an intimate house party in Ambler. About midway through the performance McAuley sang a new song he and Solas front man Seamus Egan had written about early 20th century Irish immigrant Michael Conway, who ventured to Butte, Montana, to join droves of other Irish emigres who found work in the lucrative local copper mines.

Within six years, Conway lay dead in the streets. Many Butte miners died young, but Conway’s death came at the hands of local lawmen, who beat him viciously as punishment for stubbornly refusing to throw a bare-knuckled boxing match.

Horan, visibly moved, wiped tears from her eyes as the song came to a close. Hers were not the only misty eyes in the room.

McAuley’s performance was a sneak preview of a then relatively new musical and visual Solas project called “Shamrock City.” Conway was the great uncle of Seamus Egan’s father, so Egan family lore inspired the project. Several of the tunes were available on an EP sold at concerts and in other venues, and the band previewed them in concert over the past year, including an appearance at World Cafe Live. The full-length CD has just been released, and no doubt you’ll hear much more about it—and much more music—when Solas returns to the World Cafe for two shows on the evening of Saturday, February 9. (Learn more here.)

“Shamrock City” is easily on a par with anything that has been written, played or sung about the hope and heartbreak at the nexus of most Irish diaspora tales. It might even be better in that it stands not as one song or two, but as a unified whole, a complete and compelling story.

Solas has more than a little help bringing “Shamrock City” to life. The cast of contributing musicians is like a who’s who of contemporary folk, roots and Celtic music, including Natalie Haas on cello; Lunasa bassist Trevor Hutchinson; Dirk Powell on five-string banjo; singer and fiddler Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops; Philadelphia dobro virtuoso Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner; Scottish singer Dick Gaughan; Aoife O’Donovan, lead singer of the bluegrass band Crooked Still; and the British-style Allegheny Brass Band.

Longtime Solas associates bassist Chico Huff and percussionist John Anthony (who also recorded and mixed the CD) also appear.

The album opens with “Far Amerikay,” another ballad written by McAuley, who shares writing credits with Seamus Egan on this and several other tunes. It’s about what you would expect—a tale of leaving—but with some particularly lovely lyrics like this poignant mother’s lament: “God knows it’s not for glory, son, we just have to make some room. / My heart will surely break for you, sweet treasure of my womb.” Solas lead singer Niamh Varian Barry takes the lead on this one, with deep, droning backing chords by Natalie Haas. It’s a finely drawn piece of work, and it sets the stage for the story that follows.

There’s no escaping the sadness of life far from home, and that sadness gets an airing again later in the CD, with Varian-Barry’s heartfelt rendering of the traditional “Am I Born to Die.” But it’s not all gloom and doom—far from it.

Take, for example, Seamus Egan’s whimsical instrumental “Girls On the Line.” You can probably guess what kind of girls they are. And Rhiannon Giddens takes a turn as a kind of taproom chanteuse in the old-timey “Lay Your Money Down,” another McAuley-Egan collaboration. (“Drinks are on the house now, sonny, the sweetest deal in town / You can’t take it with you, honey, so lay your money down.”)

Some lively clogging dancing starts out “High, Wide and Handsome,” with Winnie Horan taking the lead. You can practically feel her fiddle bow disintegrating. Horan also takes the spotlight in one of her own compositions, the wistful waltz, “Welcome the Unknown,” with Egan on low whistle.

Probably the one tune destined for “RPT” play on my CD player is the rebellious “Tell God and the Devil,” leading off with percussive banjo picking by Egan, lead vocals by Varian-Barry, with tight backup vocals by McAuley and the talented longtime Solas guitarist and keyboard player Eamon McElholm, who consistently provides some of the best harmony in the business. Little more than indentured servants they might be, the song seems to say, but these miners are tough, resilient SOBs.

The final tune, “No Forgotten Man,” strikes a note of hard-won triumph against incredible odds, and leaves the listener with a feeling of hope. It’s a fitting and satisfying end.

This album stands out because there’s no slushy sentimentality on display anywhere; just a gritty but life-affirming authenticity. The homesickness, the harrowing risks, the cheapness of human life, the irresistible need to find pleasure in a pint of beer or in the arms of a goodtime girl—all the shared experiences of Irish immigrants in the town that became known as “the richest hill on earth”—all are encapsulated completely into the story of one bold young man from Cork, and the town that became his home, if for only a little while.

Like Michael Conway himself, with “Shamrock City,” Solas pulls no punches.

Music

Review: Moya Brennan and Cormac De Barra at the Sellersville Theater

Cormac De Barra and Moya Brennan

Cormac De Barra and Moya Brennan

The last time Moya Brennan appeared in concert at Sellersville Theater, there was a frog in her throat the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. In short: She was not in good voice, and she canceled all concerts on the tour after that.

Appearing in concert this past Saturday night, she admitted, she felt bad about that concert, and she greatly appreciated the audience’s forbearance at the time.

No vocal amphibians appeared to sabotage the act Saturday night. In fact, Brennan’s performance was a spot-on demonstration of how wondrously well the voice can continue to serve a singer when well tended, even after 40 years.

Brennan’s voice is truly one of a kind, a blend of airy delicacy and barely restrained power, with resonant lows and tremulous, silvery highs. Her vocal range seems to have lost nothing at either end.

Brennan was joined in the performance by harper Cormac De Barra, one of Ireland’s most acclaimed performers on the instrument, with whom she released  choice little CD, “Voices & Harps,” in June. Accompanying the two was Brennan’s 19-year-old daughter Aisling Jarvis, playing guitar and whistle and singing harmony.

Brennan and De Barra set the tone for the night with the traditional Irish folk standard “She Moved Through the Fair,” the first track off “Voices & Harps.” Brennan shimmering high notes were a perfect complement to the soft strings of the harp, masterfully played by De Barra. (Brennan occasional joined in on a harp of her own.)

In many ways, this was a very different Moya Brennan than the Maire Brennan who fronted for the pioneering Irish band Clannad. Indeed, the trio performed several old Clannad tunes, including “Dúlamán,” from the 1976 Clannad album of the same name, “Theme From Harry’s Game,” a tune released by the band in 1982, and the encore “The Two Sisters,” from the 1975 Clannad album “Clannad 2” and the 1998 “An Díolaim (The Collection).” Several tunes from Brennan’s long solo career also made an appearance: “Against the Wind,” Brennan’s first solo single, released in 1992, as well as “Tapestry” and “I Will Find You” from Brennan’s 2006 recording “Signature.”

In this concert, all the old tunes were stripped down to their bare, acoustic essentials, absent the reverberating multi-layered harmonies, drums and synthesizers. It was like being re-introduced to old friends who had mellowed with age and yet have held up surprisingly well. Brennan acknowledged as much. Speaking of “Harry’s Game,” she said, “If you can sing a song and it can stand up to any style, then it’s a good song.”

So it went through the night… a blend of old Clannad and Brennan’s solo hits, coupled with several tunes from “Harps & Voices,” including “My Match Is a Makin’,” “An Seanduine Dóite/The Burnt-Out Old Man,” and “Carolan’s Concerto.”

On the latter, De Barra showed why, as Brennan insisted, he is possibly the best harper in all of Ireland. The “Concerto” is a complex old tune in the Baroque style, and it takes a gifted hand to play it with expression, bringing forth all its subtle beauty. DeBarra accompanied Brennan on harp all the night, but the word “accompanied” doesn’t really do him credit. The performance was a marriage of equals. De Barra also has an expressive tenor voice, his harmonies a strong counterpoint to Brennan’s breathier vocals.

De Barra showed off his stuff on another Carolan standard, “Miss McDermott,” paired with a perky piece, written by De Barra, called “Hobnobs”—after the chocolate biscuits he and Brennan munched in the studio while recording their CD.

And let’s give a round of well-deserved applause to Brennan’s daughter Aisling, a budding guitarist whose light, bright harmonies proved a lovely addition.

Let there be no doubt: Brennan’s Sellersville fans got their money’s worth this time around.