Pay The Reckoning

Reviews 2002-2003

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Kevin McGrath - Sweet Liberty (Own label, no catalogue number)

We gave McGrath's last outing, "Marmite (And Other Stuff)", a rave review.  And little wonder.  A collection of thoughtful songs, high on insight and compasssion, regardless of whether they were overtly humorous or serious, Marmite was a CD which surprised and delighted.

2003's follow-up, Sweet Liberty, sees McGrath maintain his quality standards.  His spartan, highly effective, guitar playing provides a bedrock on which he lays down his songs.  McGrath's voice is a delicate instrument and yet the passion that underpins most of the tracks on this album is evident despite his maintaining an even keel throughout.  In fact, the very lack of histrionics reinforces McGrath's raging; shouting and posturing detract from the message and he has important points to make - points that require and demand your attention, your concentration.

Much of "Marmite" concerned the aftermath of 9/11.  The events of that day continue to reverberate in McGrath's music, continue to worry at his mind.  The human, individual impacts concern McGrath much more than the political ramifications.  And so is the case with, to our mind, the album's stand-out track, "The Road To Derry".  A meditation on the Bloody Sunday massacre with lyrics by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and a final verse by McGrath himself, looking back at the day from the perspective of 25 years in the future, the anger which suffuses the song stems not so much from the political dimension of the barbarous events of the day in question, but from the human dimension.  Underlying the succinct imagery which brought home to us memories of that frightening day are two visceral questions which pulse like the beats of the left and right sides of the heart; how? why? how? why?

If Bloody Sunday made such an impression on McGrath (and Heaney), then little wonder that 9/11 did the same.  For, in their human impact, both events touch very similar chords (even if, on the political dimension, both events are poles apart).

Elsewhere, in "Kim The Minister" McGrath is able to take a wry look at the current Government's obsession with pushing through asinine licensing laws which could - if enforced rigidly - deal a severe blow to traditional music making in England.  And in "Whitby Coming Home", he gives us a very personal view of the importance of the annual folk festival in the North Yorkshire fishing town.  Howells might not get it; most of Pay The Reckoning's readership will nod in agreement at McGrath's sentiments.

A first-rate selection of songs by the Bard of Harlow, simply recorded and all the more direct and powerful for that very fact!

Pay The Reckoning, December 2003

Maggie Holland - Circle Of Light (Irregular Records IRR050); Robb Johnson - Clockwork Music (Irregular Records IRR048); Whapweasel - Relentless (Own label CD WW005); Andy Smythe - Love Unspoken (Dreaming Element Records DER1445)

From time to time we receive CDs for review which are outside our normal Irish Traditional Music purview.  While these don't always see the light of today as reviews in these here pages, we'd nevertheless like to spotlight some fine releases of 2003 which the artists brought to our attention.

Maggie Holland's "Circle Of Light" collection spotlights her songwriting skills (Cold Night On Bernard Street and Number 4071, Private Bennett), but focuses mainly on her abilities as an interpreter of traditional and contemporary songs.  Holland has a particular penchant for the songs of Robb Johnson, and the CD features five of Johnson's compositions.  The album also sees Holland give voice to songs by Billy Bragg, Al Stewart, Dave Evans, Leon Rosselson, Bob Dylan and Alan Tunbridge.

A restrained and committed singer and musician (guitar, banjo, acoustic bass), Holland is assisted by Malcolm Ross (electric guitar, lapsteel) and Wendy Weatherby (cello).  The end result is a classic contemporary folk album, full of insight, passion and sincerity.

Find out more at http://www.irregularrecords.co.uk

Where you'll again find reference to Robb Johnson.  A singer/songwriter with first-rate credentials, Johnson's songs are delivered in an archetypal understated manner but his vision is broad and much of his writing informed by anger at intolerance, injustice and the posturing of our current-day warmongers.  His latest outing "Clockwork Music" is anything but mechanical.  A highly personal, political and ambitious project, the CDs directness and simplicity hammer Johnson's messages home.

Miranda Sykes' double bass and Saskia Tomkins' cello, viola and violin add depth and drama to Johnson's work, while never detracting from its immediacy.

More at http://www.robbjohnson.co.uk and, of course, at http://www.irregularrecords.co.uk

What's to be said about Whapweasel?  Their blend of traditional English dance music with rock, jazz and "world" rhythms defies description.  Suffice to say that the energy levels are in the red zone throughout the ultra-tight CD "Relentless".  Taking "folk-rock" as a notional starting point, Whapweasel thumb their noses at evolutionary theory and push the envelope in umpteen different directions.  Once on board, part of this particular ride's thrill is the fact there's no certainty as to where the next track will take you.  However you can be sure that regardless of destination, musicians of Whapweasel's calibre will guanrantee a safe journey!

Check them out at http://www.whapweasel.com

After the pyrotechnics of Whapweasel, time for some sober reflection with Andy Smythe's "Love Unspoken" collection.  Taking love - searching for it, finding it, losing it - as his dominant theme, the South East London singer/songwriter demonstrates that there's still plenty of mileage in the "young man with guitar" paradigm!

Pay him a visit at http://www.andysmythe.com

Pay The Reckoning, December 2003

Celtish - Imago (Wise Records WISCD2526)

We gave the group's debut album, "Up For It!", a big thumbs-up when it first appeared and so we were interested to see how things have moved on since the band's first recorded appearance.

Well, the line-up's changed for a start.  Founder members Gwyneth Keen (vocals) and Gordon Taylor (guitar, mandola) are still in the fold.  Jonathan Shorland (flute, pastoral pipes, backing vocals), Sian Phillips (fiddle, backing vocals) and Daniel Murphy (accordion) have joined the group.  The new mix represents an evolution rather than a revolution.  The trademarks of the band's sound remain intact, notably the slightly heavier emphasis given to songs than is common with most traditional/traditionally-influenced acts and the band's keen ear for arrangement.  Arrangement is always a tightrope for traditional bands.  Too much conscious arranging and the results turn off the listener; the music begins to smack of having been manufactured.  Too little conscious arranging can, however, lead to a chaotic mix.  Few bands manage to navigate such a narrow channel without at least once or twice scraping their sides off the rocks. Celtish, on the other hand, make it appear plain sailing.

Each listener will, of course, have his or her favourites from the selection of songs and tunes laid out for us.  However as far as we were concerned, Keen's vocals on "Billy Boy" and "The Bells of Rhymney" made these the stand-out songs on the album, while if it's tunes you're after, you'll want to check out "The Geese In The Bog/Harmony Hill/Half An Hour Early For Being Late".

Just as impressive as their debut, "Imago" continues the tale of a band who have a long way to go, but already are far ahaed of many of their contemporaries.

More information from http://www.celtish.com

Pay The Reckoning, December 2003

Cyril O'Donoghue - Nothing But A Child (Own Label CD 001 COD)

Well-known guitar/bouzouki player and vocalist O'Donoghue debuts as a solo recording artist in this tasteful and understated collection of traditional and contemporary material. Solo that is, except for the support of a cast of luminaries (Siobhan Peoples, Tola Custy, Michael Queally, Paul O'Driscoll, John Kelly, Leonard Barry, Murty Ryan, Tony O'Connell, John Moloney, Padraic O'Reilly, Leanne O'Donoghue, Patrick Branagan, Kevin Branagan, Michael Rafferty, Declan Hoey and Fiach McHugh) who appear at various times and in various combinations to add depth, richness and colour to O'Donoghue's songs and tunes.

Traditional songs such "A Blacksmith Courted Me", "Ae Fond Kiss" (well, composed by Robbie Burns, but such a staple of the Scottish singing canon that it's as near as damn it traditional!), "The Night Visit", "The Bonny Light Horseman", "The Newlyn Highwayman" and "The Recruited Collier" are sensitively treated by O'Donoghue. His keen musical compass points in the right direction throughout; he pulls off that difficult act of balancing passion with restraint. Throughout, the guest musicians respect O'Donoghue's take on songs that he's culled from the tradition, highlighting and colouring the songs but never breaking the spell that draws the listener ever closer to the singer.

On contemporary songs such as Joe Dolan's "The Foxy Devil" (documenting the author's love-hate relationship with the "devil's buttermilk"), Hugh Moffat's "Slow Moving Freight Train", Bruce Guthro's "The Fiddle and Bow" and the title track, Steve Earle's "Nothing But A Child", O'Donoghue brings the same keenness of vision and sensitivity of approach.

Two tracks stood out on first listening; their charms increased with each subsequent visit of this CD to the carousel! We weren't familiar with "The Scariff Martyrs" until we came across it here. Documenting the fall of four young men from Scariff during the Tan War, the song is a classic of its type; personal without being sentimental, rousing but not bombastic.  O'Donoghue combines spirit in his reading of the song with just the right degree of detachment, allowing the song - rather than the singer - to stir the listener's reaction.

The album's closing track is the album's other highlight. "Aoibhinn's Waltz (Saudade)", written during a period on tour in Portugal, was inspired by O'Donoghue's pining for his grandaughter back at home. A tune that captures perfectly the bittersweetness of distance, "Aoibhinn's" is a tune that many listening to this album will wish to return to time and time again.

Accomplished and thoughtful; O'Donoghue has made an album he can be truly proud of!

Available via Cork's Red Hat Music http://www.redhatmusic.com

Pay The Reckoning, November 2003

Stonecross - A Day's Work (Third Stone Discs, No Catalogue Number)

Stonecross are Susan O'Rourke (vocals, guitar, bouzouki) and Ziggie Zeitler (bouzouki, fiddle, mandolin, dobrolin, harp).  On this CD they are joined by Joyce Hagerman (harmony vocals, flute, mandolin, bodhran) and Jiva Falcon (dumbek).

You'll have guessed from the name-checks above that Stonecross have some exotic blood.  The latest band from the US to capture our attention, Stonecross testify yet again to the limitless appeal of Irish and Scottish music.  And yet again, Stonecross prove that the music is capable of absorbing influences from other lands and retaining its identity.  Time and again throughout this collection, the influences of old-timey, mountainy, high lonesome American music appear in the midst of tunes and songs from across the water.  Rather than each music struggling to shrug off the other's influence, the combination works well and the blend sits easy on the palate.

O'Rourke and Hagerman make a grand job of "Lovely Agnes", a homely ballad and well-suited to the close, organic harmonies of the vocalists.  Elsewhere The Banks Of Red Rose and Ar Eirinn Ni Neosfainn Ce Hi are highlights of the album's songs.

And string-players are bound to get a kick out of Zeitler's original compositions, The Morning After, The Tongue Of The Dog and A Day's Work.  The last-mentioned in particular brims with verve, energy and inventiveness.

Find out more about the band at http://www.stonecrossband.com

Pay The Reckoning, December 2003

Meabh O'Hare & Conor Byrne - Bavan (Own label MOHCBCD001)

When it comes to Irish traditional music, the combination of flute and fiddle is surely the "par excellence" dual-instrument combination.  And when it comes to flute and fiddle interplay, O'Hare and Byrne make music that's as good as any.

Supreme interpreters of the tradition, both are superb tunesmiths.  O'Hare's "Union Quay Comotions", "New Year's Dip" and "Fergus Og's", Byrne's "Trip To Seapoint", "Ardenza Storm's", "The Navigator", "Ril Roisin", "Farewell To Drogheda" and "Bavan" and their joint composition - the stunning "Binnian" - are all likely to turn up in other musicians' sets once this album's influence begins to percolate its way into the trad community.

As for their playing of traditional tunes, the opening set (Andy McGann's No 42/Gweebarra Bridge Reel/The Kashmir Cloak) shows the pair in fine fettle, setting a standard to which many players will aspire - but few will equal.  Elsewhere an impeccable "The Hag With The Purse/An Buachaillin Dreoite" simply begs to be repeated over and over!

O'Hare and Byrne combine a thoroughly modern approach to the music with a deep grounding in the tradition.  They source tunes from contemporary composers (Sully Sullivan, Maire Breatnach, Charlie McKerron, Peadar O'Riada) as well as from other Celtic traditions.  The rich brew that results is one to savour!

More information available from http://www.ceolbavan.com

Distributed by Cork's Red Hat Music http://www.redhatmusic.com

Pay The Reckoning, December 2003

Pay The Reckoning are joined in fulsome praise of Bavan by journalist and commentator Alex Monaghan ...

I've always been delighted by Conor Byrne's fluteplaying, from his schoolboy recordings to his solo CD a few years ago. For my money, he's one of the best young Dublin musicians. Now he's teamed up with fiddler Méabh O'Hare to produce a duet album that's pure class. The depth and maturity on Bavan are astonishing. Flute and fiddle merge perfectly, with a oneness that's rare indeed. Both these players are masters of the smooth, mellow side of Irish music, giving exceptional warmth and fullness of tone to jigs, reels and slower pieces. Not that the pace is lacking when needed: Conor is no stranger to high-speed Dublin sessions, and Méabh matches him note for note on the quicker numbers such as Andy McGann's Reel and Conor's own Ríl Róisin.

As well as traditional pieces renowned and rare, there are five of Conor's tunes and three of Méabh's here, plus compositions by Sully, Charlie McKerron, Máire Breatnach and Peadar O'Riada. There's also a gobsmacking slow air composed by Conor and Méabh jointly: it's called Binnian, and it's undoubtedly a highlight of the album. Other highlights are the hornpipes Máire's and An t-Eas, the pair of Méabh's jigs New Years Dip and Fergus Óg's, and the title track which finishes the album. Méabh and Conor also make excellent and sparing use of some great guest musicians, including Donncha Moynihan and Caoimhín Vallely.

Bavan is an outstanding recording by two outstanding musicians, the finest duet CD I've heard in a long time. I'd recommend this album to anyone who wants to experience the true beauty of Irish instrumental music. Bavan combines flawless technique, intuitive understanding, and top quality material: the result is simply gorgeous. If it isn't readily available near you, try www.ceolbavan.com for direct sales.

Alex Monaghan, May 2004

The Lucy Lastic Band - Dance 'Til You Drop (Big Bear Records BIGCD003)

Mention ceili bands to any Irish music fan and immediately they'll think of the dozen or more musicians lined up on stage belting out set after set of mighty reels and jigs.  Two sharp taps on the woodblock and they're off, whipping the dancers into a frenzy with their rousing, pared-to-the-bones settings of well-known tunes.

The term doesn't have quite the same connotations to the right of the ditch, and The Lucy Lastic Band epitomise the English ceili band.  A more compact article than the Irish breed, they rely for their impact less on the strength of numbers than on a degree of spontaneity and edginess that the larger ensemble can't muster.

We blew the band's trumpet when their first CD was launched.  Since then fiddler Richard Whiteside has left the outfit to be replaced by another fiddler, Julia Pugsley.  While the overall dynamic remains unchanged - the line-up continues to boast the combination of fiddle, Guitar (Jon Palmer), accordion (Jane Lewis) and percussion (Susan Heard) - Pugsley's more "classical" approach to the fiddle represents a significant stylistic shift.

The music is a combination of Irish, Scottish and English traditional tunes, played - as the band points out in the sleeve notes - at the correct speed and duration for dancing.  Therefore, don't expect any "improvisatory acceleration" (an excuse we use when, in the odd session here and there, we've personally let speed get the better of us!); this is rock-steady stuff, underpinned by Palmer's thoughtful guitar and Heard's on-the-button rhythm work.

So, clear the furniture to the sides of the room, stick Dance 'Till You Drop on the CD carousel and ... just "do what it says on the tin"!

More information from http://www.bigbear-uk.freeserve.co.uk

Pay The Reckoning, December 2003

Kathleen Nesbitt - Irish Fiddle Tutorial (Self-published book and accompanying tutorial CD, ISBN 0 05433402-0-5)

Now then!  Hands up those of you who started your own musical journey without the assistance of a teacher ...  Hands up those who wished they'd had a teacher from the beginning ...

In the circles in which we mix, there is a perennial debate about the merits or otherwise of being formally taught Irish music.  No matter what side of the fence people are on, there is an agreement that the teacher of the music occupies a special place in the tradition.  There is an element of "imparting" in the teacher/pupil relationship, but - particularly as the pupil develops, often to the point where they are a more competent musician than the teacher - the teacher's role becomes one of coaching, of mentoring, of inspiring confidence and fostering the player's individuality.

Of course, when it comes to tutorial books, much of the latter element is impossible to convey.  And yet Nesbitt's publication comes close.

Nesbitt, originally from the Roscommon/South Sligo/Leitrim triangle, now living in Tipperary is as well known as a player as she is as a tutor, assessor and lecturer (and producer of musical offspring, all six of her children being fine musicians in their own right, including Mairead who is gaining something of a reputation!).

The scope of her tutorial is vast.  Assuming no prior knowledge of the fiddle, Nesbitt's "curriculum" starts at square one - an introduction to the fiddle itself, before summarising in the space of a few brief pages - succinctly and clearly - the basics of reading music.  After a brief skim through scales, Nesbitt introduces us to a few simple tunes.

From this point on she leads us through basic elements of ornamentation - grace notes, triplets, long and short rolls - illustrating their use via a variety of tunes in all of the key meters, each becoming subtly "harder".  All this in the space of just over 40 pages!

When we've mastered all that, she gives us a selection of well over 100 tunes, from slow airs, through jigs, polkas, hornpipes, set dances, hornpipes and O'Carolan pieces.  Ample opportunity to consolidate the knowledge we have gleaned, to perfect our technique and to develop our own style.

The difficulty with tutorial books is that they perhaps deceive the casual reader into believing that mastering this or that instrument is easy - it only takes 40-odd pages!  We all know, however, that this isn't the case.  You may be able to encapsulate the gist into a few pages, but to become a player - well, there's only one sure-fire route and that's the old "practice, practice, practice" road!  The beauty of Nesbitt's book is that by building gradually in the way that it does, by allowing the student to begin to play tunes as opposed to academic, dusty and uninspring scales and exercises, from the earliest opportunity, it makes its points unobtrusively and gently.  It makes the assumption that the reason for buying this book is to enable the learner to make (better) music and from the word go, that's how the pupil will learn!  Not by "practice" but by playing.  (Which would you rather do?)

The accompanying 41-track CD illustrates the variety of techniques in the context of tunes (and is a good listen in its own right!).

Priced at 45 Euros (around £30, give or take the odd bob), we're sure you'll agree that this a paltry sum for the distillation of a lifetime's experience as a player, teacher, examiner and assessor.

Available via http://www.maireadnesbitt.com

Pay The Reckoning, October 2003

Liam O'Connor & Lisa Aherne - Reel Spirit (LOC Entertainment LOC2)

The trad purist may be a wee bit shy of O'Connor's and Aherne's packaging.  Aherne won't be the stumbling-block so much as himself.  The guy oozes glamour.  From his matinee idol looks to his sharp dressing to his air of supreme confidence, he's a far cry from the unkempt and uncouth crowd that most people associate with the music.  The trad purist might think to him or herself, "Sure, there's not going to be much of a smell of the turf about yer man!"

Well, now!  There might be hints of odours more fragrant and exotic than the turf about O'Connor but when he lets rip on the accordion or concertina he dispels all fears.

Recorded live at the Franciscan Friary, Killarney in January 2003, Reel Spirit captures an evening of entertainment which combines staged, choreographed moments with sets of dance tunes where all semblance of conscious "musical direction" disappear in a welter of inventive, rousing, spontaneous musicality.

Among the former moments are all of Aherne's appearances.  A vocalist of stunning clarity and precision, who combines power with graceful subtlety, the arrangements are carefully worked out to support and colour, but never to distract from, her delivery.  She and O'Connor balance off against each perfectly in the evening's opener "Be Thou My Vision".  Given the ecclesiatical surroundings, to begin with a hymn is fitting.  Aherne's appearance in a flowing white dress suggests there's something of the angel about her. Small wonder therefore that she feels compelled to give us Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" later in the evening.

Superb harmonies give her rendering of "Down In The River To Pray"a feel which is far removed from its Appalachian origins.

We've always had a soft spot for "The Water Is Wide" and Aherne does the song proud.  Its apparent straightforwardness presents a trap for the unwary.  Aherne does it justice, combining restraint with sensitivity.

Let's give the tunes the once-over.

O'Connor is a stellar player.  No question!  When he solos, for example, on the 6-minute long "The Coolin" and when he romps through "O'Carolan's Concerto" with such ease that he makes it appear no more troublesome a piece than a nursery rhyme, then we're in no doubt.  The man's a wizard!

However O'Connor has surrounded himself with some mighty sidekicks - and he's determined that each of them is a member of a partnership of equals.  Cathal Hayden (fiddle), Michael Buckley (sax, flute), Tony Molloy (bass), Ian Parker (piano, keyboards), Eamon McElholm (guitars), Nicholas Bailey (percussion, bodhran, drums) are class acts in their own right.  Together with O'Connor they are a tight and powerful outfit.

There's a sense that although the tunes have been rehearsed, the musicians have agreed not to "over-rehearse", to allow for an organic, spontaneous element to the evening.  The first reel set "Master McDermott's/The Flogging Reel/The Red Haired Lass" establishes the defining pattern of the evening.  O'Connor's wizardry on the buttons is mirrored by Hayden's dexterity and muscularity; both players are confident and keenly intelligent, developing tunes as they play, energising each other.

A sparkling jig set "The Rose In The Heather/Out In The Ocean/Connaghtman Rambles" and the album's closer, a magnificent "Tom Billy's Reel/The Boys of Malin" are blue-chip exercises in ensemble playing.  And fair do's to O'Connor for giving Hayden the opportunity to take centre-stage for a blazing set of reels "The Boys of Ballisodare/Gan Ainm/Lord McDonald's".

Two sets stood out for us.  The first O'Connor's polka/slide set "Deep In The Heart/The Kings Of Kerry" (the latter a recent composition by Mike Scott and Sharon Shannon, but sounding for all the world as if it's been around since the dawn of music!).  Playing his grandmother's concertina, it's obvious that he has a deep respect for the music of Sliabh Luachra.  This is, in fact, the most understated set on the album.

A set to which we returned time and again - thank God for skip buttons on the CD player! - is "Solas Mo Chroi/Victory/The Fox Hunter's Reel".  The first tune is one of O'Connor's own compositions and a fine piece of tune-making!  The second - one of Ronan Hardiman's compositions - is a real showman's tune. Not for the ham-fisted or the hesitant player, "Victory "is one of those quirky, addictive tunes that you don't want to end.  However, as the change looms and the combined forces lock in on a driving "Fox Hunter's", all momentary regrets are put to bed!

Further info from http://www.liamoconnormusic.com

Pay The Reckoning, October 2003

Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer - Thumb Twiddling (Wetfootmusic WFM 020925)

Swan (smallpipes, flute) and Dyer (guitars) are a match made in heaven.  She the nimble-fingered focus of our attentions, he the inventive anchor who ensures that no matter how far her agile imagination allows her to wander, her music remains perfectly grounded.

Comprising contemporary material - the vast majority of which is written by Swan or Dyer themselves - the music rarely strays too far from its roots.  Sure, there are flavours of other ethnic musics that each of the pair has encountered on their travels; sure, there are flirtations with the occasional weird time signature (e.g. on "Jester's Waltz" many of the bars are 7/8).  But taken as a whole the tunes on the album fit right into that particularly Scottish tradition of "made" tunes - original, but completely in character with the tradition which spawned them.

There's a degree of wit and sheer chutzpah on this album which are bound to raise a smile.  Take, for example, "Metamorphosis" - played first as waltz, as a reel, then as a jig and finally a combination of waltz and jig which the pair dub a "wig".  Take "Geordie Lad/The Good Old Way", where deceptively simple (but stunningly effective) guitar lays a solid foundation on which Swan builds a monument!

Superb as the album is, we have no hesitation in awarding a special mention to Swan's "RTW(Round The World)/The Home Coming".  "RTW" - one of the most elegant, clever and heart-rending tunes we've heard - commemorates Swan's lengthy period travelling minus her pipes.  Any musician will commiserate with Swan; the inability to express herself in the way she finds most natural for a long time must have been excruciating.  The sudden lift as she swings into the rousing "The Home Coming" represents an end to that enforced period of longing; a joyful reunion as she fills the bag with air and lets fly with a gush of sheer elation.  The reprise of "RTW", a brief reminder of that period of distance - its poignancy as real, but somehow diluted by "The Home Coming's" appearance.

No elitists, Swan and Dyer have, commendably, published all of their tunes on the web.  Just go to http://www.thumbtwiddling.co.uk and - as they say themselves - "pick up your instruments and start playing". Might we suggest that you start with "RTW" and see if you agree with our assessment?

Swan and Dyer can also be found on the web at http://www.smallpiper.co.uk

Pay The Reckoning, October 2003 

Danú - The Road Less Traveled ( Shanachie Records SH 78057)

Words do not do justice to this outstanding latest release from the (deservedly!) legendary seven-piece whose confidence, tastefulness and passion set them head and shoulders above most Irish trad bands.

The drafting of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh into the fold is an inspired (and inspirational) piece of casting. A singer whose subtlety, whose maturity and whose depth of character belie her years, hers is a voice that will be a role model for generations to come.

On Tommy Sands' "Co. Down", Nic Amhlaoibh avoids the temptation to over-sentimentalise an intensely bittersweet song. Few singers have the degree of innate musical intelligence necessary to tread the thin line presented by the Bard of Rostrevor. Nic Amhlaoibh judges perfectly and instinctively, allowing the song to work its melancholy charm.

Her rendition of Richard Thompson's "Farewell, Farewell" is every bit as exquisite as Sandy Denny's version on Fairport's "Liege and Lief". And exquisite too are her renderings of the aisling song "Ráitachas na Tairngreacht" and the mournful "Beannacht ó Rí na hAoine".

As for the tune sets, we've come to expect a lot from Danú. We expect a degree of fire, spontaneity, wit and keen, uncompromising musical direction.  And have they ever let us down? Devil the bit! But even we fans of the band will not have expected music so bold, so incandescent, so self-assured.

Danú play like men (and woman!) possessed; possessed not by some demon, but by visceral, irresistible fervour; consumed by a furious musicality.  Instruments weave in and out of the mix, each leave-taking and arrival perfectly timed to add texture and colour, to highlight changes in the set or to accentuate the mood.

The opening set (MaCahill's Reel/Doherty's Reel/Gan Ainm) immediately captures the listener's attention and makes a promise which seems impossible to deliver. But each and every set lives up to the gauntlet thrown down by the album's opener from the mighty jig set "Top It Off/Gan Ainm/Kilkenny Jig/Alasdruim's March" through a dazzling polka/slide set "Neilí/Dan Sullivan's Shamrock Swing Band/Dayne Thomas's/Jazzing With Mag Leary".

Donnchadh Gough's piping kick-starts the march/jig set "Song Of The Chanter/The Rakes Of Clonmel", which is surely one of the album's musical highlights as various of the band's players join Gough, circling and snaking their way around and above his intricate pipering.

But pride of place on the album goes to John Sheahan's guest appearance on "The Wonder Hornpipe/The Impish Hornpipe". The teaming of the veteran, venerable Sheahan with the youthful Danú makes for a wonderful musical moment. As far as Irish traditional music is concerned, the concept of a generation gap has no place. If proof is needed, then look no further than this impressive, spirited set of hornpipes!

A band who continue to grow in stature, who continue to delight, surprise and entertain with their soulful, honest, rugged music!

Distributed in the UK by Copperplate (http://www.copperplatemailorder.com)

Visit http://www.danu.net for all the latest from the band!

Pay The Reckoning ,October 2003

Michael Hynes & Dennis Liddy - Waifs & Strays (Tig na Coille Records TNC001); Barefield Ceili Band - Flowers Of The Burren (Own label - no catalogue number); Barefield Ceili Band - Between The Sets (Tig na Coille Records TNC002)

Hynes' & Liddy's "Waifs and Strays" is one of those rare, understated, slow-burning CDs that works its charms subtlely and imperceptibly.  The Clare-based fiddle/flute duo don't have any time for cheap and tasteless attention-grabbing.  They let the music - and their facility with the music - command our attention.

This is an afficionado's album. Great tune selections are done justice by spot-on playing.  The lads have the knack of judging when to hold back and, crucially, when to let fly; here are two musicians who strike that much-sought balance between control and abandon.

As you might expect from the title, the album is host to a rake of tunes that are not so often-heard as the session standards.  Be they original tunes such as Hynes' "Corkscrew Hill/Humours of Smithstown" and "Shanghai Seanchai/Farewell To Philip Lane" or Scott Skinner's "The Cradle Song" or the waltzes "Nicholson's/Bright Visions", such tunes are revelations.

And despite the title, there are plenty of tunes on offer which will be familiar to the traditional music fan.  Reel sets such as "The Four Hand Reel/Billy Brocker/The League", "Ned McCormack's/The Fair-Haired Boy/Micho Russell's Reel" and "The Boys Of The Lough/The Longford Tinker/Buckley's Fancy" will be familiar to those who have an interest in the music.

We always maintain that there's no more apt accompaniment to Irish music than the sound of dancers' feet rattling on the bare floor.  And so pride of place on the album must surely be the album's closing set "Boys Of Ballinahinch/London Lassies/Roarin' Mary".  Hynes and Liddy are joined by eight local dancers for the third figure of The Caledonian Set.  The sense of abandon combined with the sense of purpose - music which provides the dancers with their energy and drive - make this set a particularly exciting listen and one to which we were drawn to listen to over and over again!

The combination of dancers and musicians is a feature of the Barefield Ceili Band's "Between The Sets" and the energy and passion which feed back between the band and the people on the floor is practically tangible.

The Barefield Ceili Band - of which Liddy is the musical director - are All-Ireland Champions (2002).  This album demonstrates why.  All too often ceili bands can - despite their own best efforts - sound just that wee bit cacophonous.  The demands of playing in the ceili band setting are too much for many players; the temptation to individualise, to play ahead of, around or in front of the rhythm becomes too much.

But each of the musicians in the Barefield is disciplined and maintains the degree of tightness necessary to ensure that the sound remains coherent throughout.

There are some classic sets on the album, as you'd expect.  Pure timeless combinations - "Merry Blacksmith/The Limestone Rock", "Limerick Lassies/Craig's Pipes", "The Stack Of Wheat/The Derry Hornpipe", "Jackie Coleman's/The Hare's Paw", to select just a few.  All delivered with great vigour and zip and all - as you can hear - with the ability to stir the feet into action!

It's interesting to compare "Between The Sets" with the Barefield's earlier outing "Flowers Of The Burren".  Their first release was a more eclectic CD than its predecessor, featuring a number of songs, "When A Man's In Love" and "Raglan Road" as well as a number of sets which featured various smaller groupings of the whole band - e.g. a trio playing "Glor Jig/The Lark In The Morning", another trio giving us "Mayor Harrison's Fedora", a duet on "The Trip To London/Fiddlesticks" and eight of the band performing "Planxty Sile Ni Ghadhra".

Of course we get the full band playing on the majority of the sets - and some truly sparkling sets there are too!  Just give an ear to the opener "The Earl's Chair/I'm Waiting For You/Fred Finn's" or the storming "Devanney's Goat/Maid Of Feakle/The Cameronian"!

The music on "Flowers Of The Burren" is excellent throughout.  Yet this band is developing at such a rapid pace that the follow-up of anly one year later sees the band grow in confidence and poise; solid, steady, skilful players one and all.

"Waifs And Strays" and "Between The Sets" are both available from Copperplate Mail Order (http://www.copperplatemailorder.com).

Keep up with all the latest from Dennis and Michael at http://www.liddy-hynes.com

For news on the Barefield Ceili Band, go to http://www.barefieldceiliband.com

Pay The Reckoning, October 2003 

Mick O'Brien and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh - Kitty Lie Over (ACM Records ACM CD 102)

O'Brien (pipes/whistles) and O Raghallaigh (fiddle/whistles) play music with passion, spirit and energy. And above all else, sheer good humour.

"Kitty Lie Over" had us grinning like a Cheshire cat from the first time we gave the disc a spin and it's made many a visit to the CD player over the course of the past few days to put paid to the Autumn blues!

The lads pay homage to the music of the Sliabh Luachra masters to such an extent that Denis Murphy ought to get a credit as the third member of their musical gang. And yet they have a distinctive, unhurried and individualistic style. O'Brien and O Raghallaigh are not merely players, they are truly artists who have worked out for themselves what they want to achieve and have set about realising a lofty ambition.

The opening jig set, "Kitty Lie Over/The Munster Buttermilk", sets the scene. To open the album with such a popular tune, also known as "The Frost Is All Over", is a shrewd move. We've heard so many classic versions of the tune - Ennis' and Planxty's versions must surely stand out as among the best-loved, well-known and utterly memorable - that immediately we are able to home in on the pair's ability to "claim" a tune. Their fluency, subtlety, confidence and earthy joie de vivre come across loud and clear within a few bars and leave the listener in no doubt that these are as gifted a duo as you're likely to encounter.

The promise of the first set holds true throughout the album. Whether they're playing superb reel sets ("Teampall an Ghleanntain/Hickey's", "Woman Of The House/Rolling In The Ryegrass", "The Lady On The Island/Seanbhean na gCartai", "The Copperplate/Paddy Gone To France/The Wind That Shakes The Barley", "Dillon Brown/Sarah Hobbs" and "The Silver Spear/Mullin's Fancy") or cracking slide or jig sets ("Mickey Callaghan's Slide/Winnie Hayes' Jig", "Biddy From Sligo/Punch For The Ladies", "Rathawaun/The Hare In The Corn", "The Sporting Pitchfork/The Rambling Pitchfork" and "Na Ceannabhain Bhana/Mairseail Alasdruim/Munster Buttermilk" - a different and unrelated tune to the that in the opening set), the pair never falter in their ability to communicate their infectious affinity for the music.

O Raghallaigh's notes on each set are as informative and inspiring as they are personal, witty and touching. And Peter Browne's ringing endorsement of the album sums up what most listeners will feel after giving it a listen. "Everything sounds right ... the music is played with enjoyment and ease, yet with the right amount of respect."

A real treasure, which we hope will gain the lads a horde of new listeners. To enquire about the CD, please e-mail ACM at acmrecords@eircom.net

Pay The Reckoning, October 2003

Neil (Neilidh) Mulligan - An Tobar Gle (Spring Records, SCD 1049)

Pipers are few and far between. The task of mastering the instrument's intricacies and idiosyncrasy is beyond most musicians and consequently only a few, a devoted and courageous few, stick the pace.

Thank God Mulligan didn't take the path of least resistance, because An Tobar Gle shows what a consummate musician he is. There are no niches and alleyways in which to lurk as a solo musician. The "line of sight" into the piper's heart and soul is perfectly clear. We feel every shift in mood, every doubt, every worry, every up-welling of joy. Because music played at the level at which Mulligan operates is nothing to do with "the dots". Instead it's about communicating the tune, or rather his version of the tune, with all of its humours and notions, to the listener.

Some fine dance sets such as "East Of Glendart/I Buried My Wife And Danced On Top Of Her", "The Morning Thrush/Colonel Frazer" and "An Fainne Oir/Airgead Realach" are interspersed with tremendous airs, such as his moving version of "A Stor Mo Chroi" and a jaw-droppingly fine rendition of "Taimse im' Chodladh".

Mulligan is as good a writer of tunes as he is a player. "An Tobar Gle", "The Dooneen Reel "and "Oilean Na Meannain" are as infectious and memorable as any of the traditional material on the album and warrant becoming part of anyone's repertoire.

However the most beautiful of Mulligan's self-composed tracks on the album is a slow air dedicated to the memory of his mother.  "Caitriona Rua" is a fitting ode to a deeply loved and sorely missed mother.

Mulligan's love and respect for his family is demonstrated further.  The album contains two tracks on which Mulligan duets with his late father, Tom Mulligan - "The Fermoy Lasses/The London Lasses/The Rose In The Garden" and "Chase Her Through The Garden/Kiss Her In The Furze". Although recorded on primitive domestic equipment, the quality of the playing and the very obvious musical bond between father and son overcome any doubts about the technical aspects of the recording process.

This shockingly good album is available from the increasingly influential and consistently discerning Copperplate at http://www.copperplatemailorder.com

Pay The Reckoning, October 2003

Round The House - 'Til The Wee Hours (Own label - CAV-3050)

It never ceases to amaze us how Irish traditional music has been adopted by musicians the world over. Tucson, Arizona's Round The House are the latest transatlantic outfit to come to our attention and were it not for the fact that the sleeve notes attest to their USA base, the listener would be forgiven for thinking them first-generation natives!

David Firestine (mandolin, banjo, bouzouki, bodhran, guitar, tenor guitar, vocals), Sharon Goldwasser (fiddle), Mike Smith (guitars) and Claire Jamieson Zucker (vocals, bodhran) are no bandwagon-jumpers. Their thoughtful and incisive approach demonstrates a deep love for the music, an understanding of its subtleties as well as its power.

Hard-driving reel sets such as "The Boogie Reel/Stack The Rags", "John Stenson's No 2/Speed The Plough/The Star Of Munster" and infectious jig sets such as "Wilshire Lasses/Dever The Dancer/Swaggering Jig" and "Devlin's/The Rolling Waves/Brendan Tonra's" showcase the band's abilities. Multi-instrumentalist Firestine and fiddler Goldwasser weave an intricate aural web, each coming to the fore at one time or another and then dropping back to allow the other space to develop the tune. And then, of course, both will collaborate - creating the dense unison sound of fired-up Irish music. This approach pays dividends on the barndance set, "Stack Of Barley/P.Joe's", where the band finds the "tight but loose" Holy Grail.

However pride of place goes to the waltz/reel set "Vanagon/Salvation". The poignant waltz - a truly affecting tune and a great credit to its composer, Rachel Rosenberg - gives way to a compelling reel. Firestine plays all the instruments on this track; his versatility evident in the fact that he manages to conjure up such a textured feel.

The tune selections reflect both a grounding in the classics of the Irish tradition and an ear for newer material which nevertheless captures the elemental soul of the music. The band are at once traditionalist and experimental, true to the music's spirit but willing to move beyond conventional boundaries.

The listener may therefore be pulled up short by the song selection. "Spancil Hill" , "Irish Molly-O", and "Spanish Lady" would seem to be strange bedfellows with the recent comic song by Brian O'Rourke, "Bodhran Song", with "Willy Taylor" and with the beautiful "Casadh Cam na Feadarnai". However Round The House's treatment of the songs brings out new highlights and undertones.

Congratulations to Round The House and to Roger Landes who co-produced the album for an intelligent and feisty debut.

Find out more about the band and their music at http://www.roundthehouse.com

Pay The Reckoning, October 2003

Christy O'Leary & Bert Deivert - Song's Sweet Caress (Hard Danger Studio HDCD 01)

Christy O'Leary (vocals, pipes, whistles) and Bert Deivert (guitar, bouzouki, backing vocals) are joined by Paul Kelly (mandolin, fiddle), Eva Deivert (fiddle), Martin O'Hare (bodhran, bones), Gunnar Backman (fretted and fretless virtual guitar, loops, bass) and Jonny Wartel (soprano sax) to bring the listener one of the most thoughtful albums of recent years.  Proof, if proof is needed, that musicians from different, but related, genres can work together to make music that is more than just an overlayering of forms, but a true blend.

O'Leary's understated vocals and subtle musicianship dovetail perfectly with Deivert's intelligent and sensitive playing.  The undoubted core musicians of the CD, O'Leary and Deivert nevertheless allow their gifted collaborators room to unleash their talents.

Staples of the traditional song canon ("Green Grows The Laurel", "Bonny Light Horseman") provide an anchor for some lesser-known songs ("Green Fields of Gweedore") and their own "Songs Sweet Caress".  In a similar fashion, well-known tunes such as "The Dear Irish Boy" and "Miller of Drohan/Ormond Sound" provide a base of timelessness against which newly-composed tunes "Bembring/Up Downey" (by Eva Deivert and Tola Custy respectively) and O'Leary's "Josef's March" (which he couples with "Lady Montgomery") are thrown into sympathetic relief.

In a classy, tasteful selection, the lads' version of "Farewell To Whiskey" nevertheless stands out as the track to which we returned time and again.  The interplay between O'Leary and Deivert and the steady, measured pace highlight the beauty of a piece which, although it is a fine tune when played as a polka, loses a great deal of its lonesome grandeur in the process.

A laid-back listen whose charms grow each time it gets a spin!

Available via the ever-tasteful Copperplate at http://www.copperplatemailorder.com

Pay The Reckoning September 2003

Gerry Diver - Diversions (Scorching Sun Records CDSSR001)

Diver (fiddle, banjo, guitar, percussion, bass) is a major talent.  No two ways about it.  You don't even need to listen to the album to know that he's in the first division.  Simply check out the list of people who've gone out of their way to guest with Manchester's maestro.  Lisa Knapp (vocals, fiddle), Tim Edey (guitar, accordion), Lucy Randall (bodhran, bones), Gino Lupari (bodhran, bones), Ed Boyd (guitar, bouzouki), Ollie Blanchflower (double bass), Jo May (djembe), James O'Grady (pipes), Ben Clark (drums), Edel Sullivan (fiddle), Pete Townsend (bass), Johnny Hennessy-Brown (cello), Les Hill (pedal steel) and Richard Pryce (double bass) contribute their various and varied talents to a smorgasbord of an album.

Diver's tastes are diverse.  Eastern European influences feature at various points on the album, as does a Western Swing/country jazz aesthetic on the epic "Hot Summer Hooley".

However Irish traditional tunes form the album's bedrock.  Some quality sets here, grounded in the "pure drop" approach, but accommodating more than a little experimentation.  "Ferny Hill/Rakish Paddy/Christmas Eve" is a real corker and leads into the compelling "The Orthodox Priest/Charlie Lennon's/The Sailor's Bonnet".

"Henry's Jig/Calliope House/The Munster Buttermilk" gets our vote for the highlight of the album.  The first jig was composed by Diver himself as a tribute to his dad.  The closing jig is the first tune he ever learned.  There's a very real sense of the forces that drive Diver in this set; that, despite his love of exotic musical forms from other places, his roots are very much in the Irish tradition.

A modern classic.  Utterly contemporary and yet solidy traditional.  Available from Copperplate at http://www.copperplatemailorder.com

Pay The Reckoning September 2003 

The Red Hat Band - Covering Ground (Red Hat Music RHMCD100)

The Red Hat Band is a collective of some of the finest musicians playing on the experimental, progressive edge of the "traditional" music field.  We've used the quote marks because, although informed by the tradition, much of the music which the Red Hat Band make - in the Red Hat Band format as well as in their "day jobs" in other outfits - is very definitely contemporary, pushing at the boundaries of the music.

The band consists of Deirdre Moynihan (vocals, fiddle), Aine Whelan (vocals), Brian Finnegan (flutes, whistles), Diarmaid Moynihan (pipes, whistles), Donncha Moynihan (guitars), John Joe Kelly (bodhran) and Noel Barrett (bass).  The Red Hat Band gives the musicians an opportunity to continue some of the experiments in music which they have been exploring in their other outifts.  Music which is not so much a form of "fusion" as a radical redefinition.

It's safe to say that some will disapprove of the results just as many others will be delighted.  In any field of human endeavour, experimenters and risk-takers rarely meet with universal applause for their efforts.  This is especially true in the conservative traditional music world, where deviations from the accepted notion of "purity" cause many to shudder.  However the individuals in the Red Hat Band have proved their credentials many times over and many in traditional music circles will be just as likely to embrace their approach, to wish them well and to bask in their music.

Eleven of the album's thirteen tracks were recorded live in Cork at the band's debut performance.  Due to their other extensive commitments, this was the first time the band had been together under one roof.  It doesn't show!  The band's output features many subtle and complex arrangements, all of which work perfectly, even spectacularly!

Drawing inspiration from around the globe, the music is cosmopolitan and highly-spiced.  The band covers Janis Ian's "When The Silence Falls".  Breton tunes feature alongside Diarmaid Moynihan's own compositons ("The Central Line/Skeduz") and paired with Asturian tunes ("Storvan/L'Angliru").  The band even tackle a traditional gospel song, "Jesus Is Comin' Soon" to stunning effect.

The album also features studio versions of "Vasa" and "The Coalface", which epitomise the band's approach to making music - utterly contemporary and yet rooted in traditional music, daring and experimental and yet accessible.

Pay The Reckoning wishes the Red Hat Band every sucess for the future.

Available via the excellent Red Hat Music website at http://www.redhatmusic.com 

Pay The Reckoning, September 2003

Meaiti Jo Sheamuis O Fatharta - Boithrini An Lochain (Clo Iar-Chonnachta CICD 154); Mairtin Pheaits O Cualain - Traditional Songs From Connemara (Clo Iar-Chonnachta CICD 153)

Clo Iar-Chonnachta is one of those labels whose output regular visitors to Pay The Reckoning will lust after.  Passionate about not just capturing, but doing justice to the wealth of traditional music talent in Ireland - and particularly that of Connemara - CIC's sights are not on the mass market but on the true devotees of the music.

The company's latest releases bear all the hallmarks of quality, sincerity and passion that set CIC apart from many companies operating in the traditional music niche market.

Meaiti Jo Sheamuis' and Mairtin Pheaits' recordings major on sean-nos songs in Irish.  Both are blessed with remarkable singing voices and with the ability, in the understated, restrained manner of the finest sean-nos singers, to communicate the wealth of emotion that lies at the heart of their repertoire.

Some who have no Irish may have qualms about their ability to derive proper enjoyment from both albums.  There is no doubt that the Irish speaker will get more benefit from these albums than those without the gift of Irish.  However, in the fulsome sleeve notes which accompany each album, CIC provide sensitive English translations of the songs.  And in any event, the listener doesn't need Irish to recognise the sentiments underlying the songs or to be captivated by the rugged honesty of the singer.

Both albums contain a number of surprises.  In among epic songs of love, loss, banishment and enchantment which form the bedrock of the sean-nos canon, Mairtin Pheaits gives us a version of "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen".  There are those who will cock an eyebrow at the merest suggestion that such a song should be allowed to rub shoulders with the likes of "Ceaiti an Cuil Chraobhaigh", "Peigin Misteal" or "Loingseach Bhearna".  However, as far as Mairtin Pheaits is concerned the song is part of his tradition.  The distinctions - blunt or fine - of academics and pedants and of those who stand on the sidelines shouting their advice matter little.  If the song appeals to Mairtin Pheaits, he'll sing it and sing it well.  His music is not a snobbish art, but an inclusive one.

For an object lesson in the power, beauty and epic grandeur of the sean-nos tradition, look no further than Mairtin Pheaits' version of "An Casaideach Ban".

Meaiti Jo Sheamuis shares some great songs with us as well.  A less "robust" singer than Mairtin Pheaits, he has selected well from his repertoire to give us songs that give free rein to his talent for subtle, organic ornamentation and direct communication.  From the opening "Baile Ui Li" through such beautiful songs as "An Buachaill Caol Ard", the poignant "An Deorai", the harrowing "La Fheile Cailin" to the closing, eponymous "Boithrini an Lochain", Meaiti Jo Sheamuis treats the listener to some of the big songs, as well as a few lesser-known from the Connemara tradition.  His version of the English-language "Patrick Sheehan" will inspire many to add this to their own collections.

A fine singer, no doubt.  And a talented fluter and piper to boot.  Joined by Aisling Ni Neachtain (harp) , Johnny Connolly (melodeon), Neansai Ni Choisdealbha (flute), Luisne Ni Neachtain (fiddle), Micheal Deairbi O Fatharta (melodeon) and Tommy O Mealoid (accordion), he cranks out a couple of infectious reel sets, "Imelda Rowland's/The Gleantaun" and "Lucy Campbell's/The Drunken Landlady" as well as a captivating jig set "The Trip To Athlone/The Leg Of The Duck".

As if all this isn't enough, he lilts us a couple of reels, "The New-Mown Meadows/The Connacht Heifers", in a set which demonstrates that this often-ridiculed art is one of the purest and most affecting ways of putting the music across to the audience.

More information from Clo Iar-Chonnachta at http://www.cic.ie

Pay The Reckoning, September 2003 

Donna Long – Handprints (Long Lost Music 1198)

A remarkable solo album from Cherish The Ladies’ pianist, Handprints’ impact grows with each listen.

Rarely have we come across an album which so perfectly and precisely captures the epic grandeur and simultaneous subtlety of the piano. It’s a cliché to say that if you close your eyes you could imagine you were in Long’s living room as she plays. But cliché or not, the quality of the recording is such that if you close your eyes, you could …

So 10/10 to Long and to Paul McKeown who mixed, mastered and engineered the recording for exemplary production values and exquisite skill.

The true traditional artist has the ability to put across a tune in such a way that their playing remains true to the tune itself and yet, at the same time, makes the tune their own, with their own inflections, ornaments – offering us a glimpse into their soul. (Whereas the mere musician is often content merely to be able to play all the right dots in the right order and fairly much in time!) Long confirms her status as an artist throughout the album, but if you want to shortcut to a tune which typifies her artistry, then look no further than her version of McMahon’s. A session staple, often subjected to the slash-and-burn treatment of the frenetic pub melee, McMahon’s is nevertheless a glorious reel. Long makes the tune shimmer and glow; her touch is light, but brimming with confidence and her instinctive, personal and inspired ornaments enhance the sense of joy which this bright reel conveys.

Elsewhere, playing solo (and without the aid of a safety net!) she imbues airs such as “Bridget Cruise” and “My Lagan Love”, reel sets such as the magnificent “Johnny Allen/Tuttle’s/Imelda Roland’s” and “The Lass Of Carracastle/Ballinasloe Fair” and jig sets such as the album’s opener “As Old As The Hills/The Blarney Pilgrim” with the same sense of passion, spirit and conviction.

A thrilling soloist, Donna has also been able to attract some superb talent to share in the music. On “The Circus Hornpipe/Fitzgerald’s/Jackie Tar” she is joined by son, Jesse Smith (whose album “Jigs and Reels” received rapturous applause from Pay The Reckoning when we reviewed it earlier this year) and daughter-in-law Yvonne Kane. Smith sits in with Long for a mother-son duet on “The Woman Of The House/Johnny’s Wedding” and their close bond is obvious in their playing.

The album’s final track, an air, is one of Long’s own compositions. Accompanied by Billy McComiskey and Liz Knowles, “Luna” is testament not just to Long’s accomplishments as a musician, but as a composer of thoughtful and powerful music to boot!  This compelling air could just become the new "Inisheer" such is its infectious melancholy.

On the monumental “Maguire’s March/The Kerry Jig/Sport”, Long has an opportunity to duet with James Kelly. Kelly’s fiddling is a phenomenon to match that of Long’s playing and the result is a fiery, feisty set which draws to an end with a muscular, energised, lingering piece of bowing by Kelly.

On “The Lark In The Clear Air”, Long begins and ends the piece with a recording of a lark singing. In other people’s hands such a decision might appear a little contrived, a tad artificial, tricksy, distracting. However, yet again, Long’s impeccable taste comes to the fore and the decision to overlay the birdsong works perfectly (and charmingly!).

An album which you’ll want to return to time and again.

Find out more about Donna at http://www.cherishtheladies.com and watch out for the launch of her own website http://www.donnalongpiano.com

Pay The Reckoning August 2003

North Cregg - Summer at my Feet (Greentrax CDTRAX 250)

Brilliant. Triumphant. No difficulty with the third album for North Cregg. This band's brand of perky Sliabh Luachra music goes from strength to strength. As well as a change of record label, North Cregg have had a change of singer since their last album. Fiona Kelleher's West Cork voice is truly stunning: she delivers two traditional ballads, a baby-dandling song, and a pair of light-hearted Ger Wolfe compositions. The ballads, a broken token song and the well-known Recruited Collier, are as clear and precise as any singer you care to mention. The dandling is done unaccompanied, showing the flawless power of her voice. Ger Wolfe's songs are great fun, two fluffy numbers with catchy melodies and excellent arrangements by the band. Swallow Sing was particularly poignant for me: I have several nests nearby, and they're forever leaving notes on my windows.

The instrumental side of North Cregg is as strong as ever, with seven sets of super tunes. Push-button powerhouse Christy Leahy leads on polkas and slides, among them the wonderful Fred Finn's Polka which the boys make their own. Caoimhín Vallely's fiddle emerges strongly on the reels, and there's honky-tonk piano and skiffle rhythms on Cooley's Hornpipe and The Kishkeam Lasses amongst others. At times this CD reminds me of the madcap magic of Reeltime, but Benny Hayes isn't credited. However you slice it, this is a smashing album: North Cregg do what they do so well that everything hangs together perfectly, even when some of it is off the wall. Definitely a must-have.

Alex Monaghan, August 2003

Mike and Mary Rafferty - The Road From Ballinakill (Own Label MMR112000)

East Galway fluter Mike Rafferty has lived in New Jersey for most of his life, but he hasn't lost the feel of the music he grew up with. His daughter Mary, box-player with Cherish The Ladies, has picked up his love for the old tunes, and when the two of them play it's as though they'd never left Ballinakill. On this CD they're joined by neighbour Gerry Conroy, a fine whistle player, and a couple of young lads on guitars.

I'll make special mention of twentysomething fiddler Willie Kelly, because it's the tracks he appears on which really stand out for me. On reels, jigs or hornpipes, with Mike and Mary or on his own, Willie Kelly's fiddling is a joy to hear and this album is worth getting for that alone. There are also two outstanding songs from veteran singers Micheal Rafferty (no relation) and Kathleen Glynn (Mike's sister). The first is an old version of The Banks Of The Lee which Kathleen delivers in a warm relaxed style. The second is a great new song which I'd never heard before called Horses And Plough, written in 1982 by the late Michael Hogan of Ballinasloe. Apparently Michael won an All-Ireland medal with this song in the same year: the singer and the song are both instant winners on this recording.

Mike and Mary mix and match through a very traditional repertoire, slowing down only once when Mike picks up the pipes for the lovely slow air Barrell Ó Rabartaig. Grand old reels and jigs like Ambrose Maloney's, Dominic's Farewell To Cashel and The Daisy Field have been gleaned over the years from Paddy Kelly, Martin Mulvihill, Paddy Taylor, Josie McDermott and others. The general effect is of a really high-class Irish American house party about twenty years ago, great music well played with some of the regional colour that's been bleached out more recently. Email mraffie@aol.com and give this CD a whirl.

Alex Monaghan, August 2003

Shooglenifty - The Arms Dealer's Daughter (Shoogle 03001)

Great name, super cover, excellent album. For their first own-label release, Shooglenifty have gone back to a more acoustic sound and it works perfectly. This CD has all the bounce and brilliance of Venus In Tweeds, plus all the poise and polish of Solar Shears. The Shoogles blend ancient and modern Scottish influences with Eastern sounds, and they do it with such flair. Founder members Iain MacLeod and Conrad Ivitsky have been replaced by Luke Plumb and Quee MacArthur, but the Shooglenifty sound is so well defined that this hasn't made a great difference.

All the material on this CD was composed by the band, but as with previous albums many of Shooglenifty's tunes will quickly make their way into Scottish and Irish sessions. Glenuig Hall is a catchy slip jig by Plumb, followed by one of fiddler Angus R Grant's fine jigs. The title track is a sinuous saraband paired with the punchy reel Aye Right, another Grant tune, underpinned by grungy basslines. Heading West is slightly more laid back, and The Reid St Sofa is a wonderfully spooky reel. The boys throw in an African Rumba and a couple of polkas for luck, then the oriental feel is back on A Fistful of Euro. A couple more quintessentially shoogled tracks bring us to the final Tune For Bartley, one of those bluegrassy slow airs for which Shooglenifty are justly famous. And that's it, a top quality performance from start to finish, available from http://www.shoogle.com if nowhere else.

Alex Monaghan, August 2003

Saltfishforty - Goose Music (Cellar Records CRSFF0103)

Behind this unusual name lurks a duo from Orkney. Douglas Montgomery and Brian Cromarty have been playing together in various line-ups for decades, and it shows, but this is their first commercial recording. Subtitled "traditional and original music from Orkney", Goose Music is feisty fiddle and gutsy guitar with that swing so typical of Scotland's northern isles, and a strong blues flavour on the vocals. Most of the tunes and songs are their own compositions, and their style owes as much to American folk music as to Celtic.

From the off, Montgomery and Cromarty are completely in control. Every note is in place, every word is clear, every touch is totally professional. At the same time, they're clearly having enormous fun with this music and it's impossible not to be carried along by their energy and enthusiasm. The opening Karaoke Carol introduces Brian's raw earthy voice, perfect for his modern ballads and blues: he sings us seven of his songs here, powerful numbers all, in a style somewhere between Leadbelly and Dylan. On Red Diesel Reels Douglas serves up a trio of original tunes from syncopated country to straight-ahead reels, each one more toe-tapping. Brian's aching Song For Ali is followed by the first of two fabulous slow airs: both Tune For Ali and Watersound Shore are world class melodies beautifully played.

And so it continues, with a mix of trad and blues, sweet tunes and bitter songs. Saltfishforty rock it up a bit whenever they get an excuse, and what better excuse is there than Highland Park whisky? Brian is at his best on the Djangoesque Tabasco Twist, a humorous Hot Club romp, and Tongadale Stroganoff is a rock'n'rollercoaster with Douglas pulling out all the stops. Goose Music is a class act from start to finish, and a visit to http://ww.saltfishforty.co.uk is a must.

Alex Monaghan, August 2003

Donogh Hennessy - Lúnasa: The Music 1996-2001 (No publisher, no ISBN, just £12 from http://www.lunasa.ie )

Did you know that over half the tunes recorded by Lúnasa are reels? Only just over half, mind. That's the sort of fascinating little snippet of information which is instantly available from Donogh Hennessy's wee book. In a little over sixty pages, Lúnasa's guitarist has provided chords and melodies for all the music on the band's first three albums. Gone is the need to work it out for yourself, which is just as well because some of the versions I've seen circulating on the Internet have little in common with the reel McCoy.

By joining all these dots, Donogh has performed a great service for Lúnasa fans worldwide - and there are millions of us. It's hard to think of another band that can compete with Lúnasa's range of talent: Mike McGoldrick, John McSherry, Kevin Crawford, Cillian Vallely, Sean Smyth, and that's just the whistle players. If any single instrumental group from the turn of the millenium is going to have a lasting effect on Irish music, it'll be Lúnasa. Imagine what might have happened if the Bothy Band had published a book of all their music in the early eighties. This collection could have a similar effect.

So what's between the covers? Along with all the dots and chords for the seventy tunes on the three albums Lúnasa Live, Otherworld and The Merry Sisters of Fate, Donogh has included notes on the source of every tune, as well as lots of extra bits of information such as alternative names, different keys, a lecture or two on Irish history, and an advert for The Frames among other things. There are also several photos of the current Lúnasa line-up on stage and relaxing, and an individual portrait of each of them doing what they do best: in Donogh's case, tuning his guitar. The photo reproduction is good, and the full-colour cover is even better, but the tunes themselves are printed in a slightly blurred fashion which reminds me of books from the 17th century. This actually seems to be due to rendering digital images at an insufficiently high resolution. It's not a major problem, because it doesn't stop you seeing what's there, but it is an irritation and I hope it will be rectified in subsequent print runs.

The book is organised by album, and by track order, so you can start at page one with Lord Mayo and play right through all three CDs to The Malbay Shuffle on page fifty-two. Or you can hold the Mayo and start with Gavotte. The possibilities are endless. If you want to skip straight to a particular Lúnasa highlight, say Pierre Bensusan's slow reel The Last Pint or the Galician classic Aires de Pontevedra, then you can find it straight away by using the two indices provided: one index by tune type and name, and another by album and track names. The idea of two indices is a great one, and should catch on: for one thing, it let me see straight away that the music is about 55% reels, 25% jigs, 5% marches and 15% other stuff. In a final section, Donogh has provided a couple of pages for guitarists, discussing tunings and showing chord diagrams to match the chord names used in the rest of the book.

And that's really about it. Excellent value despite the blurring, and Donogh deserves hearty congratulations for his "concept, design, artwork and content". I'll be playing a lot of these tunes more faithfully now, and I'll be able to spin a yarn or two about their origins, all thanks to Donogh Hennessy.

Alex Monaghan, August 2003

Pete Clark - Sycamore (Inver Records INVER 224)

Tayside fiddler Pete Clark is joined here by The Neil Gow Ensemble (six fiddles, a viola, two cellos and a bass) for an album which is halfway between an orchestral suite and a dozen sets of fiddle tunes. There's a mix of traditional dance music and atmospheric pieces, all composed by Pete Clark and arranged for a string ensemble. Inspired by the scenery around The Hermitage near Dunkeld, Sycamore succeeds in evoking the Scottish rural landscape and the lifecycle of an extraordinary tree.

From airs to strathspeys, waltzes to jigs, there are over two dozen tunes on Sycamore and many of them can hold up their heads alongside traditional Scottish melodies. Some fit perfectly here but would be out of place in other settings, and others will doubtless join the repertoire of fiddlers and bands countrywide. Croftinloan is a first rate strathspey, full of bite even on massed fiddles. Several of Pete's reels are equally good: I'll mention Dalguise Hall in particular, which combines Shetland rhythm and Perthshire melody. On the orchestral side, The Planting is a nicely constructed piece with a catchy melody and The Firth Of Tay is a grand, sweeping, majestic composition with an undercurrent of sadness and loss which ends the recording perfectly.

Whether you want to listen to this CD as a single musical work or treat each track as a separate entity, whether you thrill to the sound of six fiddles or prefer to learn the tunes yourself, this recording can be enjoyed over and over again and will yield something new each time. You can find it at http://www.fiddlerpete.com if nowhere else.

Alex Monaghan, August 2003

Emer Mayock - Playground (Own label - Is Mise 001)

This young Dublin flute and whistle diva has taken her time producing a second album, and Playground is very different from her 1996 debut Merry Bits Of Timber. Emer's touch is more assured after another five years of hard playing, and her excellent compositions make up the bulk of this CD. She's particularly strong on jigs: Kalyana is a beauty that seems instantly familiar, and August First measures up well to Donogh Hennessy's reel of the same name.

Emer's flute, whistles, pipes, fiddle and cello are supported by the strums and keyboards of Donal Siggins, who has a hand in most aspects of this album and also contributes a couple of fine compositions. This core partnership is supplemented by subtle percussion from Robert Harris and occasional bites from Mick Kinsella's tin sandwich, plus guests on two tracks.

Although this is definitely Irish music, there's an eclectic side to Playground. A gorgeous Breton set and a pair of Grey Larsen hornpipes break up the Mayock tunes. Rhythms come in fives and thirteens, as well as the usual fours and threes. There's more than a hint of Balkan music, but that's no surprise since Riverdance. Lucky Thirteen is a terrific tune, and the rhythm seems completely natural. Other highlights include a languid treatment of The Boys Of Ballisodare (one of only two traditional tunes here), a pair of up-tempo waltzes including the eerie Orlagh's Waltz, and the final slow air Home Time. Check out http://www.emermayock.com for more details.

Alex Monaghan, August 2003

Kila - Luna Park (Kila Records KRCD009)

This is the big one. Celtic spirit, heart-felt lyrics and gut-wrenching tunes meet smooth modern production values. Kila have always been mavericks, rough diamonds with so many facets that their inner beauty was only glimpsed, under-valued by all but the enlightened. Now producer Mick Glossop, whose previous successes have included Frank Zappa and Van the Man, has cut and polished Kila's sound to reveal the fire and passion within.

The stirring Gaelic vocals are still there, as are the pipes and fiddles and all those wild elements of Irishness, but there's a new cutting edge to the music on Luna Park. The 9-minute opener Glanfaidh Mé ranges from a familiar Kila sound sharpened up, through Eastern European and Asian feels, to blockbuster sound track and back again. Hebden Bridge combines Latin and Moorish textures behind some scary whistle playing. The next two tracks expose Kila's New Age leanings: the lazy, misty Wandering Fish, followed by the trance dance beat and staccato lyrics of The Mama Song. Then there's a passage of pristine Irish inspiration, with the jig Bully's Acre and a pair of bewitching new reels called Grand Hotel and Mary Kelly's Hatchet.

And so it continues, with Kila's original outpourings set in a lush, vibrant, multi-tracked soundscape by Mick Glossop. There's a fairground full of guest musicians, too. In fact, the seven members of Kila only play one track without a little help from their friends. That's if you don't count The Hour Before Dawn, a farewell lament from Dee Armstrong on fiddle and piano. The whole CD is a feast of musical creativity and contrast, the best of new Irish music given a transatlantic make-over and spiced with the rich flavours of North Africa or southern Spain. Luna Park has to be one of the tastiest recordings of 2003, and shows Kila to be rare gems indeed. I'd love to see it on stage.

Alex Monaghan, August 2003

Kevin Macleod & Alec Finn - Polbain To Oranmore (Greentrax Recordings CDTRAX 239)

Macleod's follow-up to the acclaimed "Springwell" sees him team up with the talented Finn, of De Danaan fame, to produce an album which sets new standards for the recording of stringed instruments in the Scottish/Irish traditions.

Macleod and Finn are passionate about early 20th century mandolins, zouks, resonator, slide and tenor guitars and the album showcases some fine instruments as well as some outstanding playing.  The use of vintage instruments, set up to perfection and whose individual nuances are captured superbly well (take a bow, Stuart Hamilton), will cause the mandolin and CBOM (cittern-bouzouki-octave mandolin) community to salivate over this recording.

However, this is not an album aimed at simply at fellow players.  Polbain To Oranmore's appeal will extend to all who appreciate honest, thoughtful and passionate playing, regardless of instrument, and the choice of tunes will give heart to all those who, like Pay The Reckoning, love to see traditional music - some well-known and some not so familiar - thriving.

The mix of Irish and Scottish material makes for a rich brew.  There are purists from the Irish and the Scottish traditions who disdain playing tunes from the "non-native" tradition.  (We recall Sean Keane, the legendary fiddle-player with The Chieftains, relating how he was berated for including a number of Scottish tunes on his superb "Jig It In Style" album.)  Such puritans miss the point - and miss the opportunity to share some great tunes.

The balance of tunes swings in favour of the Scottish numbers.  A feature of the Scottish tradition - much more so than in Irish music - is the combination of different rhythms within the same set.  Thus we have sets such as "PM John Stewart/Marjorie Lowe/The Bernera Bridge" which combines a 2/4 march with a couple of jigs and "Farewell to Cape Helles/Mackenzie Hay/The Spey In A Spate" which combines a retreat march, a strathspey and a reel.

From Ireland, we have tunes such as "Dinny O'Brien's Hornpipe" which the lads combine with "The Burning Sands Of Egypt".  The two airs, Slieve na mBan and Slieve Gallen Braes, warrant special mention. The latter in particular is one of our favourite tunes.  Macleod and Finn's treatment set it off brilliantly - Finn's tenor guitar and slide guitar arrangement makes for a positively crucial piece of music!

But of all the tracks on the album, the one to which we found ourselves returning time and again was a waltz set - "The North Atlantic Waltz/The Springwell Waltz".  Both tunes repay repeated listening and, like the very best waltzes, they conjure up an intense atmosphere, where melancholy rubs shoulders with affection.  The second waltz in the set is one of Macleod's own compositions and one which will doubtless survive his passing.

Rumour has it that Finn launched into his accompaniment of a few of Macleod's sets without having pre-rehearsed.  In which case the tightness of the album is surprising.  However perhaps this freshness is one of the elements which gives the album its atmosphere of excitement.  Because this is an exciting listen.  Sparky, invigorating music which contains a host of elements - the empathetic interplay of the two musicians, masterful technique combined with a deep and abiding respect for the music and yet a willingness to experiment, to layer, to "peel back".

Available via Greentrax at http://www.greentrax.com

Those interested in finding out more about Macleod's remarkable instrument collection should pay a visit to http://mysite.freeserve.com/kevinmacleod.

Pay The Reckoning, July 2003

We aren't the only ones to have been impressed by Macleod and Finn's recording.  Read on for Alex Monaghan's verdict.

This is a beautiful recording. And I'm not just saying that. I wasn't particularly impressed by Kevin MacLeod's 1999 Springwell CD, but Polbain To Oranmore is a brilliant piece of work. Alec Finn is every bit as good here as on his enchanting Blue Shamrock album, and the combination of Irish soul with Scottish bite is pure alchemy.

Kevin and Alec play guitars, bouzoukis, citterns and mandolins, plus a few other things. No other musicians are involved as they romp through reels, jigs, hornpipes, marches and strathspeys, or pluck at heartstrings with slow airs and waltzes. Most of the fifteen tracks come from the Scottish tradition, but there are two great airs and a couple of dance tunes from Ireland. Slieve Na mBan is exquisite on guitars and mandolin, and Dinny O'Brien's Hornpipe combines cittern and bouzouki with slide guitars. The stately Miss Hamilton is a joy, full of baroque counterpoint. The reels The Green Mountain and John Keith Laing sit perfectly on bouzouki and mandolin. The classic Skinner tunes MacKenzie Hay and The Spey In Spate give lesser musicians official permission to slow down on the difficult bits. There are bravura performances of the great 4-part pipe marches The Bloody Fields Of Flanders and The Glendaruel Highlanders, as well as a couple of lovely jig sets and two superb waltzes by Freeland Barbour. In fact, there's very little here that could be improved.

Sparkling mandolin and sensuous slide guitar. Bouncing bouzouki and scintillating cittern. Great tunes from the two great Celtic traditions. Polbain To Oranmore is fifty minutes of near perfection.

Alex Monaghan, August 2003

Michael Cooney - A Stone's Throw (Gorthanoe Productions, No Catalogue Number)

Piper Cooney, from County Tipperary, gives us a thoughtful and superbly balanced collection of tunes on a CD whose production values are impeccable.

From the opening jig set (My Love In The Morning/The Split Rock/TheBattering Ram), Cooney generates a sense of excitement and energy which never once flags.

A masterful musician, Cooney's unerring sense of taste admits the occasional flash of experimentation. For example, the presence of an unexpected slide guitar accompaniment on the slow air "Green Fields Of Canada" and his inclusion of Luke Thomasson's beautiful waltz, "Midnight On The Water".

But while Cooney is prepared to accommodate the occasional strange and strong colour in his palette, these do not detract from the overall effect.  The album's core is straight traditional music, played with fire, passion and immeasurable affection.

Some of the tunes have been part of Cooney's repertoire since the days when he was a mere beginner on his musical voyage and are local to his home. Hence on the set "Easter Sunday/The Commons/The Milliner's Daughter", the first two tunes are very personal. Cooney learned "Easter Sunday" from the accordion player Paddy O'Brien from Newtown. "The Commons" is a little-heard reel, named after a village near Cooney's birth-place.

Others are tunes Cooney picked up as he made his way in the world, reassembled here into sets that have great architecture about them. "The Sally Gardens/Jimmy Ward's/Peter Byrne's Fancy", for example, sees Cooney move seamlessly from the graceful and wistful slow air into a pair of urgent jigs. "The Pipe On The Hob/Na Ceannabhain Bhana/The Gleantann Reel" is another remarkably well structured set; the change from one jig to another is a tidy job, the change from the second jig to the reel is testament to the man's ability.

The two marches on the album, "Donald MacLean's Farewell To Oban" and "Johnny Cope", deserve special mention. Both tunes are prime examples of the paradoxical ability of some of the slower tunes in the traditional musician's repertoire to better hold the attention and quicken the pulse than some of the faster tunes.

Cooney is assisted by Kevin Burke (fiddle), Bernie Nau (keyboards, harmonium), Ged Foley (guitar, mandolin), Tom Hall (banjo, slide guitar) and Tim Hegan (bodhran). Each a superb musician in his own right, they are nevertheless prepared to step back and allow Cooney to claim the limelight.

A stunning CD, which will have no bother in staking its claim on your listening time. Discover a bit more about the man and his music at http://www.michaelpipercooney.com

Pay The Reckoning, July 2003

Kathleen O'Sullivan - Born On St Patrick's Day (Lo La Records LL003)

We've already praised Kathleen O'Sullivan's singing to high heaven in our review of the latest release by The London Lasses & Pete Quinn. And so we were delighted to have the opportunity to listen to her solo work.

Before discussing the singing and the songs, a brief digression. All proceeds from the sale of this CD go to The British Heart Foundation.  O'Sullivan's brother, Matt, died at the age of 36 of a heart attack and this is one of the ways in which she aims to support this good cause.

However if you buy the CD, the BHF will not be the only beneficiary! Your ears will thank you as well.

Whether she's singing a light-hearted piece such as "The Boys Of Tandragee" or "The Bold Rogue" or a big song such as "The Verdant Braes Of Screen", O'Sullivan has the ability to capture the mood perfectly and, in the process, captivates the audience.

Like the singers who have inspired her and who she namechecks at various points in the sleeve-notes - Cathal McConnell, Kevin Mitchell, Seamus Ennis, Paddy Tunney, Roisin White, Dolores Keane and others - O'Sullivan is a natural, whose only training has come through experience and exposure. While she has absorbed and internalised all that's tasteful through listening to great singers, at the same time she's gone on to develop a unique style. Her delivery is so effortless that it may give the uninitiated cause to think that singing's an easy business. However those in the know appreciate just how much effort will have gone into preparing herself to make the most of her vocal gifts.

The fruits of that effort are evident to all on this blinding recording. As well as the songs mentioned above, O'Sullivan makes a great job of the well-known and the well-loved (such as "The Lark In The Clear Air", "Suil A Ruin" and "The Broom Of The Cowdenknowes") as well as the lesser-known gems which will appeal to the collector in all of us (e.g. "The Maid From Maraclune", "The Cold Quay Market").

O'Sullivan is a real treasure. A distinctive, characterful voice; a great ear for material and the ability to communicate the highs and lows of the human experience through song.

Available via The London Lasses' website http://www.londonlasses.net

Pay The Reckoning, July 2003

The Ennis Ceili Band - Traditional Dance Music From County Clare (Rath Records RRCD002); Padraic O'Reilly - Down The Ivory Stairs (Rath Records RRCD001)

The Ennis Ceili Band, under the direction of pianist Padraic O'Reilly, have built up a formidable reputation in Irish music circles.  Current All-Ireland champions, the band has all the hallmarks of the ceili band sound - percussion, a driving piano accompaniment and tight musicianship with pared-to-the-bone settings.  However a band doesn't claim the hotly-contested All-Ireland title on the virtue of these alone.  To achieve this ultimate accolade an outfit requires the "je ne sais quoi" that separates the confident and competent from the masterly.

Hard though this special quality may be to define, it's by no means difficult to detect.  And nowhere is it more obvious than on the opening set "Martin Mulhaire's/Cregg's Pipes", captured live at 2002's Listowel Fleadh Ceoil na hEireann.  The barely-restrained energy of the band mirrors the excitement and tension of the audience and the ecstatic, enthusistic ovation from the assembled crowds is richly-deserved.

The second set, "Maid At The Spinning Wheel/Port an Bhrathar (Behind The Haystack)" is a mighty piece of music.  Those of you who play music may, like we have, struggled with the first tune in this set - a jig which is as intricate and wide-ranging as it is exciting to the ear and appealing to the feet.  We were genuinely surprised to find a ceili band tackling this tune which, on account of its many intricacies and quirks, we have always associated with the solo player.  (Seamus Ennnis, for example, played a typically majestic four-part version of the tune.)  However we learn from the sleeve notes that The Kilfenora Ceili Band have recently recorded a version and so - we eat our hat and ponder the fact that we don't know ha;lf as much as we think we do!  Still, we marvelled at how fluidly and expressively "The Ennis" rendered the tune and how well it sits alongside Port An Bhrathar - another big jig.

Elsewhere, keep an ear out for two marches from the Grier Collection, "The Fourth Dragoons" and "Number 101".  The latter in particular is such a splendid tune that its Gan Ainm status is a complete surprise.

You will also be captivated by the jig set "Claire Griffin's/King Of The Pipers".  The appearance of the second tune in this set took us by surprise.  Like "The Maid At The Spinning Wheel", this elaborate jig is one which we always associate with individual musicianship and it's a mark of The Ennis' confidence that they tackle (and with such applomb!) a piece of this nature.

Ed Reavey's "Hunter's House" appears in two settings, firstly paired with "Rakish Paddy" and later with "Rip The Calico".  The decision to include the tune twice is a very nice touch, demonstrating the band's versatility and flexibility.

We're well aware that some traditional Irish fans are wary of ceili bands.  We'd urge anyone to set their prejudices to one side and give this album a listen.  You may well find that you regard ceili bands in a very different light afterwards!

Similarly, many traditional fans will shy away from an album of piano music and we'd offer the same advice as above to those who would hesitate before giving O'Reilly's "Down The Ivory Stairs" a spin.

O'Reilly steps out of his role as leader of The Ennis to bring us an album of piano versions of some fine tunes.  While his presence is always very felt in the ceili band setting, Down The Ivory Stairs presents O'Reilly with an opportunity to demonstrate his credentials as an interpreter of the music and as a technical virtuoso.

An inventive, even experimental(!) album, O'Reilly and co. (Tristan Rosenstock - bodhran; Liam O'Connor - fiddle; Carmel O'Dea - fiddle; Garry Shannon - flute; Ronan Ryan - flute; John Blake - guitar, saxophone; Damien O'Reilly - accordion) never stray so far from the path as to lose the listener.  Occasionally, as O'Reilly himself predicts, the listener will raise an eyebrow at some of the more exotic interplay between the musicians.  But few will find cause to ask for their money back.  The occasional foray into terra nova apart, the musicians stick for the most part to the plot.

The sleeve notes suggest that Martin Hayes is a big influence on O'Reilly and there are, indeed, a good many similarities in their respective approaches.  We would suggest, however, that the biggest similiarity between the two musicians is not their musical style.  Rather O'Reilly and Hayes share a common belief in individuality, where respect for the tradition is blended with a desire to express something of their own spirit.  Few players achieve such a marriage and where Hayes has succeeded, so too has O'Reilly.

Check out, for example, the opening reel set ("The Land Of Sunshine/Phil Cunningham's/Gan Ainm"), the first two tunes of which are O'Reilly's signature tunes.  And as for that exotic interplay we mentioned, just give a listen to "Cathal McConnell's/The Monaghan Jig" and note how O'Reilly and Shannon in particular spark off each other!  The jig set "The Ballycarroll Jig/The Blue Angel/Down The Ivory Stairs" (the final tune of which is O'Reilly's sole composition to date) is a corker and sees Blake dust off his saxophone to great effect.

The above notwithstanding, three tracks caused us to hit the replay button immediately. The "late night" set "The Drunken Sailor/Fair-Haired Molly" sizzles with excitement.  Surprisingly, O'Reilly had never played the second tune until the night the set was recorded.  Perhaps that novelty lends the track its edge.  Whatever!  An outstanding turn altogether.

On "Madame Bonaparte/Planxty O'Connor", O'Reilly gives one of Pay The Reckoning's tunes a pristine, personal treatment before tackling one of O'Carolan's more accessible pieces.

And the album's finale "Feargal O'Gara's/The Raveled Hank Of Yarn/Tilly Finn's" is a pure stormer.  If the album opens with a bang, then it closes with a wallop!

Both albums are available through Alan O'Leary's mighty Copperplate empire, which can be reached at http://www.copperplatemailorder.com

O'Reilly's home on the web is at http://www.irishpiano.com

And the Ennis Ceili Band have established themselves at http://www.ennisceiliband.com

Pay The Reckoning, July 2003

Jed Marum - The Soul Of A Wanderer (Boston Road Records BRR022)

Marum, a New Englander by birth, now living in Texas, combines his love of American and Irish folk traditions on an album of traditional material, self-compositions and contemporary songs by other artists.  Produced by Paul Mills, renowned for his work with the legendary Stan Rogers, the tasteful arrangements are superbly captured on an album which is remarkable for its clarity of thought and execution.

Marum himself plays high-strung and 6-string guitars, harmonicas and, of course, provides the lead vocals.  He is assisted by a talented crew, who share his views on understated, quality musicianship - Rick Fielding (guitar, mandolin, autoharp, backing vocals), Mick Lane (backing vocals), Brian McNeill (fiddle), Dennis Pendrith (string bass), Wendy Solomon (cello), Curly Boy Stubbs (resophonic guitars, mandolin) and Betty Blakley Waddoups (whistle, backing vocals).

Such is the consistency of this collection that it's no easy task to single out one or two tracks from the 15 on offer.  However the listener will remark how well his own compositions such as "Desolation Island", "Banks Of The Mobile" and the eponymous "Soul Of A Wanderer" complement classic and timeless pieces of Americana such as Bob Will's "San Antonio Rose".

Regular visitors to Pay The Reckoning will not be surprised to find that we homed in on the Irish material on the CD.  Marum's version of "Garden Where The Praties Grow" - which some might regard as a typically Victorian piece of sentimentality - rehabilitates the song.  He got it from his father, who got it turn from his grandfather, Martin Little from Galway.  The song has prospered from its journey over many miles and over many years!

We would also commend Marum's version of "Drill, Ye Tarriers!".  One of the most sparse arrangements on the album - just Marum's guitar and vocals - this is also one of the  album's most powerful cuts and goes to demonstrate why so many superb musicians welcomed the opportunity to work with the album's author.  When a musician is this good, he attracts quality collaborators like a flame attracts moths!

However pride of place on the album is reserved for the closing track, "Sarah's Mountain Time".  Using the tune "Go Lassie Go", Marum's elegy to the deceased Sarah, "... my dear young friend Sarah ...", is a typically understated, honest and deeply affecting tribute.

If soulful, distinguished musicianship gets your vote, then get along to http://www.jedmarum.com or http://www.bostonroadrecords.com

Pay The Reckoning, July 2003

The Black Irish Band - Into The Arms Of The Sea (Black Irish Music BIM CD12)

This collection of songs of the sea - traditional and original - by Californian outfit, The Black Irish Band, will surprise many listeners.  We've come to expect this genre to be dominated by lusty, choral shanties and while The Black Irish Band are as capable as any of their contemporaries of giving vent to traditional shanties (e.g. their renditions of "Old Maui" and "Spanish Ladies") the original compositions reveal an emotional depth that many of the traditional sea-songs lack.

Patrick Michael Karnahan is the band's leading songsmith and his compositions tend - with a few notable exceptions - to examine the dangers awaiting those who travel the seas.  Which led us to ponder the album's title.  "Into The Arms Of The Sea" suggests a sort of "surrender", a hope that the sea's arms will be warm, embracing and protecting.  Often, however, as Karnahan's songs such as "Whalers Cove", "The Fate Of Miss Gregg" and "The Wreck Of The Brother Johnathan" demonstrate, the sea can be a capricious and destructive force which claims its share of human bounty in return for its yield of riches.

As you would expect, our attention was caught by songs which have an Irish provenence or connection.  The lads' versions of "Donegal Danny" and "Fiddlers Green" in particular transcend the songs' familiarity and, by virtue of their re-emergence in the repertoire of musicians from many thousands of miles distant from their origin, remind the listener of the power and poignancy of songs which deserve better than the throwaway treatment they often receive in Ireland!

The two instrumental tracks on the album "Rickett's Hornpipe/The Columbia Bar" (the latter by band member and  multi-instrumentalist, Steve McArthur) and "The Night They Stretched Larry" are thoughtful and picturesque pieces and a  testimony to the Black Irish Band's ability to conjure vivid imagery from their musical approach.

Find out more about these stalwarts of the American folk and traditional scene at http://www.blackirish.com

Pay The Reckoning, July 2003 

Dervish - Spirit (Whirling Discs WHRL007)

Few bands have captured the attention of the Irish traditional fan base in the way that Dervish have. Impeccably tasteful, Dervish combine a deep respect for the tradition with an unconstrained musical vision and a ruthless individuality.

The current line-up comprises Brian McDonagh (mandola/tiple), Tom Morrow (fiddle), Liam Kelly (flute, whistles, backing vocals), Cathy Jordan (vocals, bodhran, bones), Seamus O'Dowd (vocals, guitars, bodhran, harmonicas, tarabuka, bass, tiple, tambourine), Shane Mitchell (accordion) and Michael Holmes (bouzouki, mandocello). With no trace of self-consciousness or self-importance the band lays out yet another superbly balanced mixture of tunes and songs, traditional and (more or less) contemporary, as urgent and insistent as they are timeless.

Dervish has the ability, possessed by only a few ensembles, to capture the energy of the music at the same time acknowledging its patient, solid core. So while sets such as the CD's opener, "Tinker Hill/Patsy Touhey's/Mary Bergin's/Johnny "Watt" Henry's", positively blaze, others such as the wonderfully restrained sung jigs "An Rogaire Dubh/Na Ceannabhain Bhana/Paidin O Raifeartai" glow in the most satisfying manner. Both approaches succeed in warming the cockles of the trad fan's heart.

Dervish have never shied away from experimentation and on a number of tracks, in particular "The Swallow's Tail" and "Troundell's Cross/Whelan's", the band tips its hat to other world music forms. This is not fully-blown "crossover" territory; the arrangements are subtle and sympathetic and the Irish music is not subjugated in the process. Elsewhere, Brendan Graham's "The Fair-Haired Boy" features a string arrangement courtesy of the West Ocean String Quartet (Seamus McGuire, Niamh Crowley, Neil Martin - we make that a trio - but who's counting?!) which adds greatly to the song's grace and charm.

It's nice to hear so much of O'Dowd's vocals. On "Na Ceannabhain Bhana" he takes the lead vocals and makes a very effective counterfoil to Jordan on "Paidin O'Raifeartai". And he delivers Ewan MacColl's "The Lag's Song" in a brooding rendition which underlines the song's crushing sense of claustrophobia.

Howeveer, when it comes to singing, few would argue that Jordan is the star of the show. For our money, one of the most exciting, instinctive singers to have emerged from the Irish traditional scene, Jordan gives a superlative account of "The Fair-Haired Boy", "The Soldier Laddie" and "The Cocks Are Crowing". However one of the album's standing-out moments is her version of Dylan's "Boots Of Spanish Leather". There have been many covers of Dylan's songs and few have added any value to the author's own renderings. Not so, in this case. Jordan's ability to wring every last drop of melancholy from the song and her capacity to raise and lower the temperature of the song in the space of a few notes combine to great effect.

So, Dervish move on. Sure of their own direction, gifted beyond measure, tightly co-ordinated. Spirit finds them on top form. Are you able for such music? If so, get yourself over to http://www.dervish.ie

Pay The Reckoning July 2003

Well, that's our verdict.  Read on for Alex Monaghan's thoughts ...

Dervish are among the hottest, slickest, smoothest bands anywhere, and Spirit can only enhance their reputation. From the casual perfection which takes the first reel up to speed, to the last sigh of the final hidden track, this is pure class. As you'd expect. The only surprise is that it's even classier than their last album.

Highlights abound on this recording. Jig Songs is a masterpiece, three mouth-music ditties put together in a stunning arrangement. Tom Morrow's Siesta Reel grabs you by the ears and drags you along with glee. Liam Kelly's rendition of O'Raghailligh's Grave is right up there in the top ten flute slow airs. Whelans brings electric guitar, sitar and all sorts of mayhem into two jigs which had been quietly minding their own business, and the result is fabulous. The Dylan song Boots Of Spanish Leather will appeal to those who remember the original. The Lag's Song by Ewan MacColl is of the same vintage, and is sung here by Seamus O'Dowd.

Much of this CD reminds me of Altan's 1993 Island Angel release, high praise indeed. Some bits could only be Dervish, though: Cathy Jordan's earthy vocals and uncanny Scots accent on The Soldier Laddie, the synergy between Liam's flute and Shane Mitchell's accordion on the opening track and elsewhere, and the sheer energy of Swallow's Tail.

Spirit has been four years in the making, but it was worth the wait. Almost all of it works as well live, as I saw recently in Cambridge. You shouldn't have any problem finding this one in the shops, so what are you waiting for?

Alex Monaghan, August 2003

Tom Walsh - In Company (Own label, no catalogue number)

Walsh (vocals, mandola, banjo, gazouki(!) and harmonica) has a long and distinguished pedigree as a member of An Beal Bocht, which made a big impact on the Dublin folk/trad scene in the 1980s, and, in the 90s, as a member of Rattlin' Strings.

His first solo album sees him joined by various members of those outfits; Mark Lysaght (guitar, acoustic bass, mandola, bouzouki), Bary Carroll (hammer dulcimer, slide guitar, vocals), Joe Foley (vocals, bouzouki and, incidentally, one of Ireland's most respected luthiers), Johnny Curtis (bodhran, mandolin), Willie Walsh (guitar), Maria Fahey (fiddle, backing vocals), Joe McHugh (whistles) and Jerry Foley (bodhran).

The emphasis is very much on stringed instruments, whose interweaving and overlayering, jockeying and teasing bears more than a passing resemblance to the sorts of arrangements favoured by Planxty or - before their advent - Sweeney's Men. But Walsh and his assembled company refuse to dwell in the past, bringing a fresh feel to the music.

Of the eleven tracks on the album, seven are songs and four are tune sets. Walsh's original songs, such as the album's opener "No Flood Of Tears" are true contenders and bear comparison with the more traditional numbers such as "The Hiring Fairs Of Ulster" and "The Flower of Sweet Strabane".

Walsh's version of "John Jelly, The Boy From Killane" is a superb rendition of a song whose underlying melancholy is often glossed-over by the "gulderers". Walsh - a man whose approach is more subtle - explores the poignancy of the song and, in the process, may have created the definitive reading.

Walsh's banjo is in pole position in the tune sets and he proves himself to have a great feel for the instrument. A delightful right hand technique is complemented by accurate and nimble work on the fretboard. On sets such as "Old Hag You Have Killed Me/Old Tipperary/O'Keeffe's" and "Kitty Went A Milking/The Laurel Tree/Jennie's Wedding", Walsh proves himself the equal of many a more loudly-hailed banjo player with his accessible and convivial style of playing.

On the basis of this outing, we hope that Walsh has developed a taste for solo recording adventures. Surely he's got a repertoire that would sustain two or three further such efforts?

Check out Walsh's home on the web at http://www.tomwalsh.org

In Company is currently available via http://www.claddaghrecords.com and http://www.madeinirelandinc.com

Pay The Reckoning July 2003

The London Lasses & Pete Quinn - Track Across The Deep (Lo La Records LL002)

The follow-up to 2000's debut from the London Lasses and Pete Quinn repays the patient fans of their timeless, dignified music. Karen Ryan (fiddle/whistle), Elaine Conwell (fiddle),Dee Havlin (flute/whistle), Maureen Linane (accordion), Kathleen O'Sullivan (vocals) and Mr Quinn himself (piano/keyboard) play with restraint and feeling. Pyrotechnics and machismo don't feature in their approach. Instead, the lasses and Pete appreciate that passion and power are not reliant on elaborately-strummed guitars or vast clouds of rosin dust. The true power of Irish music is in its innate pulse, its quietly insistent message aimed at both head and feet.

Among the tunes we have old favourites and the lesser-known, all settling happily alongside each other, shepherded by the players into coherent and well-balanced sets. The first set (The Bohola Jig/The Besom In Bloom/Paddy Taylor's/The Piper On Horseback) captures the listener's attention from the start; the switch from 6/8 to reel-time injects the set with energy.

Elsewhere, a tender rendering of Marcus Hernon's "The Beautiful Goldfinch", shows the band's feel for the most delicate of waltzes. And their firm grasp of sets such as "The Geese In The Bogs/Taylor's/Father Tom's Wager" and the glorious closer, "The Kerryman's Daughter/Paddy Fahy's/Mary McMahon" shows their absolute command of the music.

It is good to hear "Rodney's Glory" turn up; many of us will have heard the tune's name long before we ever heard the tune itself since it's one of those name-checked in the ubiquitous "Galway Shawl". Taken at a stately pace, this set dance is an intricate and inspiring piece and one well-worthy of the outfit's attentions.

O'Sullivan is in distinctive voice on this album. Her versions of "There's A Path Across The Ocean", "The Red-Haired Man's Wife" and "The Ball Of Yarn" are graced and ornamented liberally and instinctively, but never so as to distract the listener from the tune or the narrative.

Track Across The Deep will continue to be hot property in years to come. In the Irish music world, the reputation of this or that album grows slowly but, where true talent outs, surely. Be one of the first to grace your CD collection with this fine music by visiting http://www.copperplatemailorder.com. Find out more about the band at their website http://www.londonlasses.net

Pay The Reckoning July 2003

Pubcrawler – Captured Live (Own label, no catalogue number)

From Austin Texas, “Captured Live” features the might and muscle that is Pubcrawler. Irish music for a tough audience – you can almost smell the stale beer and sniff the hint of danger in the atmosphere – but the audience is no match for the power and commitment of Neville Stewart (bass, vocals, bodhran), Wes Pasco (guitar, vocals), Wayne Duncan (drums) and Sean Orr (fiddle, vocals).

A look at the track listing which features such standards as “The Wild Rover”, “Whiskey In The Jar” and “Wild Colonial Boy” might lead the uninitiated to believe that they are about to listen to some mawkish paddywhackery. However as the band demonstrate in their self-penned “You’re Not Irish”, nothing could be further from the mark. Each of these standards is remoulded, given a shot in the arm and placed alongside rocket-fuelled tunes which career from Orr’s fiddle like a stampede.

Live albums are always a gamble. Rarely do they capture the excitement of the live event. However, more power to the production team on this outing who have taken pains to avoid prettifying the sound. The result is a raw and energising slice of live action. On sets such as “Banks Of The Barrow/The Eastern Harper/Dirty Old Town/The Priest And His Boots/The Orange Blossom Special”, “Danny Boy/You’re Not Irish/The Irish Washerwoman” and the album’s closer, the epic “Cooley’s Reel/The Hills of Conamara/Sugarfoot Rag/Blackberry Blossom/Church Street Polka/I’ve Just Seen A Face/Dinkey’s Reel”, there is a real sense of being in the thick of the action.

Special mention as well for the band’s “Hey Paddy” – a song about police thuggery whose acute observations about the mundanity of heavy-drinking and navvying do not prepare the listener for the cruel closing sequence.

A great album. Not “The Pure Drop”, but it never claims to be. Infectious and rousing. Fair play to them!

Find out more by e-mailing pubcrawler@themidtown.com.   If you think you’re hard enough, that is!

Pay The Reckoning, June 2003

Emily Smith – A Day Like Today (Foot Stompin’ Records CDFSR1716)

Small wonder that among the many accolades which have come her way, Smith won BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician Award in 2002. A voice that is natural, unforced and unrestrained; dextrous on both accordion and piano, and possessing a keen sense of musical direction, Smith is a consummate musician.

Smith’s approach to music (and that of her band – Ross Ainslie (whistles, border pipes), Jamie McLennan (fiddle), Sean O’Donnell (guitar, vocals) and guest musician Neil Cameron on double bass) individualises and contemporises the age-old and time-worn in subtle and unobtrusive ways. Her self-penned material – the title track being an obvious example – draws on traditional themes and is so in keeping with the truly traditional material among which it resides that the absence of a “trad arr” credit is a surprise.

A very well-balanced collection sees roistering sets such as “Party In My Pants/Angus John MacNeil of Barra/Denmark Distortion” sit happily alongside plaintive lost-love songs such as “Fair Helen of Kirkconnel”.

As well as the title track, we were highly impressed by Smith’s versions of “Green Grass Grows Bonny” and the spine-chilling “The Cruel Mother”. However, like all astute musicians, Smith keeps her ace up her sleeve until the last moment. The closing set “MacLeod’s Farewell/Crossing The Tay With A Blind Man And A Dog” is a jewel! All that has gone before, superb as it is, is surpassed by a display of exuberance and joie-de-vivre that leaves the listener with a real sense of uplift.

Smith has already established herself as an artist brimming with talent and potential. Let’s hope that 2003 is the year when the world at large embraces that talent and potential; there are singers in “the new tradition” who receive more attention than Smith and, in our opinion, less deservedly so! Surely talent will out and the imbalance will be rectified …

Smith’s home on the web is at http://www.emilysmithband.com

Footstompin’ Records may be tracked down at http://www.footstompin.com

Pay The Reckoning, June 2003

Four Men and a Dog - Maybe Tonight (Hook Records Hook002)

The boys are back! Cathal, Gerry, Gino and Kevin are joined by several guests including Mairtin O'Connor and former Dogs Donal Murphy and Arty McGlynn. Maybe it's their new-found maturity, or maybe it's a cunning marketing ploy, but with this recording they're bursting back onto the scene in a more low-key style than I'd anticipated. They're still a long way from chill-out land, and fans of their masterful mix of Celtic fire and transatlantic vibes will not be disappointed by Maybe Tonight.

The album opens with a slightly restrained bash through the ever-popular Music for a Found Harmonium, then the first of three songs by Kevin Doherty lays the foundations for the funkier side of things. Mairtin's virtuoso box takes us on Rambles in Russia, combining influences from Gagarin to Galway, next comes the first set of reels and things begin to hot up as Gerry O'Connor unleashes his banjo. The title track shows Kevin Doherty in super-relaxed mood, the polka Barlow's Knife picks up the pace a bit, and the high octane deisel finally kicks in on Leslie's March. Interestingly, Gerry's back on banjo and Gino Lupari makes his first appearance now. Gino's considerable presence continues on Midnight Special, a fitting vehicle for the band's tasty fun and games, and another high point. A pair of spirited instrumentals bring us close to the end, with a lovely tight sound on some West Kerry classics before the lads gather speed through a trio of well-known reels. The final scene starts with Kevin boogying on down to an arrangement that includes the kitchen sink and even the Hammond organ, then our heroes ride off into the sunset to the strains of The Last Rose of Summer. In jig time.

It's great to have them back, no question. A bit more flash banjo wouldn't hurt, though, and more of Mr Lupari too (you know what I mean). Still no sign of the dog either. That aside, Maybe Tonight is a first-rate album full of class and more than worth the money. If you can't find it, enquiries@4menandadog will be delighted to help.

Alex Monaghan, May 2003

Dicky Deegan - An Phib (Own Label DD002CD)

Dicky Deegan's second CD is a vast improvement on his debut recording By The River Of Gems. There are still times when Dicky's technique lets him down, but most of the time this CD is entertaining and enjoyable. Dicky clearly loves the music of his Irish forebears, and is doing his best to recreate the sound of early 20th-century uilleann piping in his Tasmanian home.

For the purists, there are still plenty of nits to pick. The drones are less than steady, the tuning is less than perfect, the fingering is sometimes sloppy, the style shifts at random from extremely percussive to super-fluid, and unintended register jumps are compounded by occasional dead stops. But Dicky Deegan is not a purist, and being largely self- taught he has picked up techniques and ideas from all over. The interest and appeal of his music is largely in its energy, passion and innovation: there are no classic performances here, but there's plenty to entertain, intrigue, and even inspire an open-minded listener.

One thing nobody could complain about is the quantity of material on An Phib. With sixteen tracks totalling 72 minutes, Dicky has filled almost all the time available on current CD formats. Unusually, Dicky has concentrated on the slower side of the Irish piping repertoire. There are ten airs and numerous other slow tunes on this recording, and the innovative variations and imaginative arrangements are certainly worth hearing. As Sandy Brechin famously wrote, "Sometimes it doesn't work" - but that's the nature of progress. When it does work, it's first class: the opening track A Stor Mo Chroi is an eloquent statement of intent, and the stately treatment of Limerick's Lamentation is a clear winner. Dicky's spirited renditions of The Flags of Dublin, The Fairy Dance, The Gold Ring and other dance tunes are equally refreshing. So is the big, brash, unapologetic sound of the pipes on this album, and the frequent use of regulators.

An Phib may well not be an easy CD to find, but it is available online from http://www.pipers.ie/shop (not the simplest site to use, and it requires javascript) or you can email dickydeegan@hotmail.com for more information.

Alex Monaghan, May 2003

Bohola - Bohola (Shanachie 78048)

10 tracks, 65 minutes.  It doesn't take a genius to work out that the tracks on this CD are unusually long: up to twelve minutes long, in fact, more like a mini concerto than a traditional Irish medley. Bohola have put a great deal of thought into their music, and come up with some inspired arrangements. Combining songs and tunes on the same track is unusual in Irish music, but Bohola weave grand old tunes around songs such as The Shamrock Shore, Ewan McColl's Go, Move, Shift, and the rather weaker Home which probably wouldn't hold our attention without the pair of reels grafted on.

Bohola combines the powerful piano box of Jimmy Keane with the chameleon fiddle of Sean Cleland, backed by Pat Broaders on bouzoukis. The tight trio sound drives firmly through a wide range of dance tunes, and Pat sings seven songs. All the material is broadly traditional, and much of it has a clear Irish American flavour not too surprising for a Chicago-based band. The faster tracks are lean and hungry, packing quite a punch: from Larry Redican's Jig to Lady On The Island, Bohola kicks mule and no mistake. The other side of their music is the emigrant's sentimentalised view of life back home, in songs such as The Little Thatched Cabin, The Shamrock Shore, The Shamrock Sod, and pretty much anything else with a hint of green. Pat Broaders puts the lyrics across with gusto, and the arrangements are generally spot on, but you have to be in the right frame of mind. When First Unto This Country is a great song well sung, but its impact is definitely weakened by being the sixth song of exile here.

If you have any sort of leaning towards the Irish diaspora, you'll find plenty here to your taste. There's bags of lift in the music, a wonderful variety of tones and textures, and several good songs: just don't sing them all at once. Information on the material is sparse indeed, but http://www.bohola.com promises to fill that gap in the future. I'd say Bohola would be a great live act too.

Alex Monaghan, May 2003

Gráda - Endeavour (Own Label Gráda1)

Dublin-based youngsters blend traditional and contemporary music. How many times have we heard that before, accompanied by pronises of an exciting new sound? On first hearing, Gráda sound like just another easy-come easy-go band of young, gifted and over-hyped musicians, following in the footsteps of Oige, Turas, Síona, Calando and so many others. They have all the hallmarks: lots of their own material, a mixture of musical backgrounds, and some highly eccentric haircuts. Two things make Gráda different: one is the fabulous flute and whistle of Alan Doherty, and the other is the fact that the sound they produce is actually very enjoyable.

Whether he's backing a modern song, teasing emotion from an ancient air, or simply battering through a set of dance tunes, Alan Doherty's playing never fails to impress. He seems in perfect control of breath, tongue and fingers, allowing him to handle demanding modern compositions such as Kishor's Tune by Breton guitarist Soig Siberil or The Black Wind by Diarmaid Moynihan. Yet he's also able to sink into a tune and make it his own, giving it a whole new personality, as he does with the spine-tingling slow air The Brown-Haired Girl. Alan's low whistle is strongly reminiscent of Cormac Breatnach, and his flute playing puts me in mind of Seamus Egan or the late Frankie Kennedy. They don't come much better.

Gráda isn't a one-man band, and the other four members all play their part in the overall attention-grabbing sound. Nothing is too in-your-face, but the consistent good timing, the rich full sound, and the frequent contrasts make this a compelling album. Anne Marie O'Malley fronts half of the tracks with a strong sweet singing voice: she's at her best with more traditional material, the love song I Once Loved A Boy is my favourite, and her version of the bawdy ballad The Spanish Lady is almost as good. I'm not nearly so convinced by the band's own two songs, and they try slightly too hard to jazz up the traditional She's Like A Swallow, but these are minor criticisms of a very fine almost-debut CD.

Whether they're rattling through a Gaelic rap by Kila's Rónan Ó Snodaigh, wringing tears from slow airs and ballads, or trotting out their own inventive slip jigs, Gráda are well worth hearing. They also have an eye for a good title: new tunes here include Pint of Reference, Mr Brennan's Psychological Problems, and the groanworthy BiodeGrádable. Let's hope their sense of humour is less infectious than their music. If you can't find this album locally, try their slightly flaky website http://www.gradamusic.com for online ordering. I'd say Gráda will be with us for a while.

Alex Monaghan, May 2003

Siobhan Peoples & Murty Ryan - Time On Our Hands (Own Label, No Catalogue Number)

Launched at the Ennis Traditional Music Festival, this is a long overdue recording of two very fine young musicians based in Clare. Fiddler Siobhan is well known worldwide, partly through her father Tommy, but I believe this is the first time she has fronted a full-length album. Murty Ryan has yet to establish an international reputation, and this CD might just do the trick. Fiddle and button box are given an extra boost on most tracks by the bouzouki of Cyril O'Donoghue, the guitar of Donnacha Moynihan, and John Moloney's wee drum.

It's easy to take this CD for granted. Its pedigree and provenance generate expectations of a first-class album, and Time On Our Hands doesn't disappoint. The music flows beautifully, tempo and dynamics are steady as a rock, and there's plenty of lift. Like much of the Clare tradition, there are no fireworks or fancy showpieces: the tunes speak for themselves, and the musicians don't interfere. The whole thing jogs along so smoothly that its exceptioonal qualities can escape attention, so I'll tell you the ones I've noticed.

Siobhan and Murty are both excellent musicians, and their technical brilliance is the perfect vehicle for great traditional tunes. Crusty old reels like The Dairymaid and The Skylark rediscover their youth through the flexible fingers of this pair, with every turn revealing a new twist. Box and fiddle blend into each other as well as ever you heard, rivalling duos such as Burke and McGuire, Hill and Linnane, or Bain and Cunningham. Listen to the sultry version of The Humours of Bally Manus, or the unaccompanied duet ending with Tommy Tourish's Jig. This uncanny togetherness obviously doesn't extend to the solos, of which there are three: virtuoso performances all, but again it's the music not the musician which takes centre stage. That's how it should be.

This is not your average unadorned traditional album. Siobhan and Murty are about as far from average as you can get, the accompaniment is similarly high class, and every last drop of musicality has been squeezed or scraped out of the tunes and etched into this CD. If you're still hesitating, try the final track of uninhibited reels, The Mossy Banks and Pat the Budgie: it doesn't kick but it certainly dances. Music doesn't come much better, and it's even available online at http://www.custysmusic.com and elsewhere, so there's no excuse for missing out on this one.

Alex Monaghan, May 2003

Tommy Peoples - Waiting for a Call (Shanachie 78052)

This is a rare recording indeed. Most of it dates from around 1985, and features a still youthful Tommy and equally tender-aged Alec Finn on bouzouki and Donal Lunny on bodhrán. Seán Ar-Óg Potts apparently bunked off school to play the pipes on a few tracks. Back in the days when an album could last up to 40 minutes, there wasn't quite enough material to release so Tommy went back into the studio seventeen years later with guitarist John Doyle to finish the job.

And what a job they finished. This is one of the finest recordings of Tommy Peoples. The drive and spark which characterised the Bothy Band and inspired a generation of fiddlers is there in abundance. Tommy's skill and grace are as astonishing as ever, particularly on the older tracks, and there's a sweetness of tone in many tunes which isn't always associated with the Donegal tradition. Feast your ears on John Blessing's Delight or Tommy's own slow air The Fairest Rose.

The bravura performance of Carmel Mahoney Mulhaire would put many a young virtuoso to shame, and Tommy attacks big old tunes with gusto: The Monaghan Jig, The Mooncoin, The Spike Island Lassies twice, and two different versions of King of the Pipers. There's a beautifully light-fingered version of Páidin O'Rafferty, and a powerful gutsy rendering of the strathspey King George IV. Few other fiddlers could take a well-known tune like The Lark in the Morning and make it their own as convincingly as this man.

Tommy's combination of an earthy Donegal repertoire and an urbane relaxed style is a sure-fire winner. Echoes of Bothy Band energy abound: Give Us a Drink of Water, Drumnagarry, and the reels Miss Ramsay and Tommy Peoples' where the pipes come in strongly. Several of Tommy's acknowledged compositions make an appearance, along with tunes by fiddlers such as Ed Reavy, Aly Bain and Francie Dearg. The occasional highland or hornpipe adds yet more variety, and illustrates once again the versatility of this man: Waiting for a Call is an album to treasure for many reasons, all of them Tommy Peoples.

Alex Monaghan, May 2003

Mary Rafferty - Hand-Me-Downs (Own Label TR1103)

Judging from the cover, this young lady plays button box with her feet. In fact she's one of the best Irish American box-players around, and generally uses her hands, as you'll know if you've seen her as part of Cherish The Ladies. Here she plays a selection of tunes learnt from her father, flute-player Mike Rafferty, who learnt them in turn from his father Tom "Barrel" Rafferty. The CD title is a clear statement of the importance of aural family tradition, a practice which is strengthened by recordings such as this. On Hand-Me-Downs we can hear father and daughter sharing tunes, and we can appreciate the gradual evolution of styles through successive generations. So there.

Mike Rafferty joins Mary on four tracks, and there are bit parts for most of Cherish The Ladies. I could also mention guitars, percussion, keyboards and step-dancing. Mary herself plays button box, Anglo concertina, flute in a duet with her father, and whistles. She has a rare lightness of touch on the free reeds, which gives a wistful tone to most tracks and brings out the beauty of the slow tunes. Between the jigs and the reels, Mary squeezes in a set of hornpipes and three slower tracks. The air I'll Mend Your Pots is a clear highlight, with its full arrangement and Dordan-like tone. Another exceptional track is the aforementioned flute duet, fine playing on two rarely-heard jigs, and as close to unison as you're likely to hear.

Reels definitely take pride of place on this recording, though: ten tracks are devoted to that wildest of Irish musical forms. The last four tracks are reels all the way, and they give a pretty good idea of what the bright young things are doing with Irish American music these days. Grand stuff altogether. You can get a copy by visiting http://www.raffertymusic.com, by emailing MRaffie@aol.com, or by dropping in to see Mary in New Jersey. Ask her about the dog.

Alex Monaghan, May 2003

Iain MacDonald & Iain MacFarlane - First Harvest (Roshven Records RRCD001)

If you're serious about Scottish traditional music, you have to hear this CD. The fiddle, pipes and flute duets are magical, the solos are awesome, and the whole thing is simply world class. The two Iains have impressive CVs in Scottish music, and there are echoes of their previous lives on many of these tracks: hints of Battlefield on tracks 1 and 4, Boys of the Lough on tracks 5 and 11, but no hangovers from Iain MacD's brief sojourn with Wolfstone.

The winning formula behind this recording is extremely simple. Iain MacF sticks to fiddle, and Iain MacD divides his time between highland pipes and wooden flute. There's muted backing from other instruments on most tracks, and there are two songs from the rich dark voice of Kathleen MacInnes, but aside from a little double tracking there's very little technical mucking about. The result is a pure sound with the main protagonists to the fore. Even the two Iains' singing doesn't muddy the mix too much.

As well as the undoubted brilliance of MacD and MacF, it's the rich variety of music here which keeps the listener rapt. Drawing on the best of three hundred years of Scottish music, we are treated to unsurpassed versions of The Clumsy Lover, The Pitnacree Ferryman, The Road To Skye and many other classic tunes. Add to these the modern compositions of Blair Douglas, Allan MacDonald, Iain MacD himself, and a handful from Jerry Holland, and the musical cake is well iced. The Iains even throw a few Irish cherries on top: a set of those irrepressible Kerry polkas, jigs of course, and a great reel in Cuz Teahan's.

I haven't even mentioned my favourites yet: the set of heavyweight pipe tunes ending with The Rejected Suitor, the pair of flashy hornpipes The Steamboat and Thomond Bridge, and the swaggering romp that is The Battle Of The Braes. Get your own copy, and tell me if I missed anything.

Alex Monaghan, May 2003

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason - A Song Of Home, An American Musical Journey (with James Galway) (RCA Victor 09026-63883-2); Harvest Home (Angel Records 7243 5 56720 2 5); Waltzing With You (Angel Records 7243 5 66782 2 4); Civil War Classics, Live At Gettysburg College (Fiddle and Dance Records FDCD 102); The Catskill Collection (Various Artists compiled by Jay and Molly) (Fiddle and Dance Records FDCD 103); The Lovers' Waltz (Angel Records  7243 5 55561 2 7)

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason are impossible to pigeonhole - traditional musicians who stray outside narrow boundaries; musicians who play traditional American music and yet recognise and absorb the input of other cultures into the constantly-evolving canon of such music; players with a lightness and deftness of touch that graces the most delicate of tunes and yet, when performing a breakneck tune, they have the power and commitment to do justice to its non-nonsense muscularity.

Impossible to pigeonhole, but easy to rate. Quite simply, music-making does not come any better. At what they do (and they do a lot!), Ungar and Mason are at the top of the tree. And this lofty position comes not through sheer technical virtuosity alone, it's as much down to the fact that Ungar and Mason are warm, intelligent, communicative musicians who understand their music, understand their audience and know how to walk the thin lines that all musicians tread - when to hold back and when to let rip, when to embellish and when to play straight.

Of the two musicians, Ungar is best-known in his own right. For as long as musicians continue to make good, honest music, his majestic, bitter-sweet "Ashokan Waltz" will be heard the world over. A tune that has been incorporated into many repertoires, "The Ashokan" is a favourite of old-time, bluegrass and Irish players - as well as those who don't profess to belong to a particular camp, but know and love a good tune when they hear one!

And a good tune this waltz most definitely is. It reflects all of the best qualities of Ungar and Mason's musical approach; it's honest, it's direct and it speaks simply and powerfully to the heart. But that apparent simplicity masks the fact that the tune may be relatively easy to play - but it's a tune that few can play well. It's not a technical test-piece, but a visceral upwelling of emotion. As played by Ungar and Mason, the tune's rawness is as prominent as its sweetness.

One of the pleasures of listening - as we've done recently - to a number of Ungar and Mason's CDs is the opportunity to experience several different takes on this monumental tune. Ungar's proprietorial familiarity with his own composition allows him take risks with the delivery and each outing casts aspects of the tune in a different light.

The other pleasure of immersing ourselves in the work of these exceptional musicians has been the sheer variety of their output. All of the major themes of traditional music emerge at one time or another; blistering reels, melancholy songs, gossamer waltzes; tunes from the Scandinavian, Irish, Scottish and klezmer traditions rub shoulders with versions of undiluted Americana. This kaleidoscope of forms and influences is testament to a breadth and, indeed, generosity of vision that few musicians can muster.

We're reluctant to nominate one of these outstanding recordings over another. However "The Lovers' Waltz" must surely rank as the pinnacle of their career to date. A varied and stunningly original album, there are moments of sheer musical poetry which will cut straight through to your emotional core.

Ungar and Mason's recordings are available from http://www.jayandmolly.com   If you've not had the pleasure of their company, then we urge you to enhance your musical life by buying at least one of their CDs. We're confident that you'll not regret the investment!

Pay The Reckoning April 2003

John Blake, Lamond Gillespie and Mick Leahy - Traditional Irish Music From London (Archway Recording Company ARC001)

When you've listened to the speed-merchants and boy-racers - the type of player who equates good music with the ability to go from 0-60 in two bars - then you'll thank the Gods for this thoughtful, stately and balanced selection from Blake (flute, guitar, piano), Gillespie (fiddle/viola) and Leahy (bouzouki).

These three know that good musicians allow the music to breathe; that a tune is not to be harried or prodded. Instead they relax, paying as much attention to the spaces between the notes as to the notes themselves; ornamenting and embellishing sparingly and effectively according to their fine-tuned, impeccable sense of taste. This is an album where holding back is a key principle; there's no need to strut and preen, no desire to wallow or to milk the listener. The CD is infused with deep respect, for each other as musicians and for the music.

Respect is also much in evidence for the guest musicians on the album. Brian "The Godfather" Rooney (fiddle) duets spectacularly with Gillespie on "The Golden Keyboard/Kiss The Maid Behind The Barrel" and "The Duke Of Leinster/The Reel Of Rio". And Tommy Maree contributes some deft box-playing to "Jenny Picking Cockles/The New Custom House".

The tunes will be familiar to the traditional music initiate. There are no quirky interlopers from other traditions, no newly-composed numbers. But this very familiarity allows the listener to focus on the playing - comparing, say, their interpretation of "The Tarbolton" with the seminal Coleman version, or their version of "The Templehouse" with the Ballinakill Ceili Band's version (in the guise of "The Fowling Piece"). Needless to say, Blake, Gillespie and Leahy weather such comparisons very well. Here, indeed, are three of the new vanguard; three players whose interpretations will become benchmarks of quality, sensitivity and taste.

Available via http://www.archwayrecords.co.uk

Pay The Reckoning April 2003

Various Artists - Between The Jigs And The Reels (Conamara Music CONCD002); Various Artists - Behind The Mist (Conamara Music CONCD001)

Released as mementoes of the popular and successful Bog Week and Sea Week festivals in Letterfrack in Conamara, both CDs delight the listener with their charm, their honesty and their passion. Local artists such The Kane Sisters and various of their students rub shoulders with guests from further afield. The effect is that of a hugely satisfying session - where talented and enthusiastic musicians give freely of their efforts for like-minded individuals. The performers have obviously had a ball and this is a means of giving something back to a supportive and sustaining audience of fellow enthusiasts.

On both albums, the majority of tracks have been recorded in small gatherings at the homes of local musicians; an inspired decision on behalf of the production team. A great deal of the warmth and conviviality, the crack and togetherness comes through in the recordings.

We suspect that none of the artists involved in these ventures agreed to do so on the basis that their individual contributions would be singled out over any others, and so Pay The Reckoning will resist the temptation to nominate a few tracks for special mention in despatches.

Suffice to say that there are some very big-name stars of the trad scene who strike up some stellar sets. Alongside them are individuals who are less well-known (who, in fact, probably have no desire to be "known" at all) but whose contributions are no less enjoyable. All of the splendid music on offer resonates with the afterglow of good times spent in pleasant company. What better reason do you need to buy both CDs?

Available via lfrack@eircom.net

Pay The Reckoning April 2003

Becky Taylor - Becky Taylor (Own label - no catalogue number)

Multi-instrumentalist Taylor (on this CD alone she plays uilleann pipes, viola, fiddle, whistles, duet concertina and Northumbrian smallpipes) has provided an astonishing solo debut album which combines a deep immersion in traditional music with a love of contemporary compositions and songs, an ear for skilful and sensitive arrangements with a joy in playing straight, unaccompanied pieces.

No slouch at dreaming up tunes, the opening track combines the majestic "Elizabeth Kelly's Delight" with Taylor's own "Baby Rosey's Slip Jig". Elsewhere she pairs her own reel "The Wage Of Crow Hill" with "The Maple Leaf" and throughout the album gives us versions of her own tunes, which are sufficiently well-crafted to stand their own ground, needing no grounding by pairing with standards from the tradition in order to prove their mettle. Worthy of special mention is her piece on the smallpipes - "The Happy Union" - in which she transplants an uilleann pipe style to the smaller relative, and to very good effect.

But this outing is not simply an excuse for Taylor to show off her abilities as a tunesmith (not that there would be anything wrong with that!). Indeed as far as we were concerned, she invests her interpretations of "The Bonnie Bunch Of Ferns/Robbie Hannan's Jig" and "The Girl Of The House/The Holly Bush" with as much personality, energy and commitment as her own compositions.

We tip our hats to her collaborators whose contribution to the overall success of the venture cannot be underestimated. So, step forward Hugh Bradley (bass), Paul Cowham (guitar), Aidan Kilroy (bodhran), Frances O'Rourke (accordion), Mik Stevenson (didg), Spence (guitar and vocals) and Neil Thomas (vocals)!

Available via http://www.beckytaylor.info

Take our tip! Taylor is one to look out for in the next few years. On the basis of this recording we're in the company of a musician whose star is very much in the ascendant.

Pay The Reckoning April 2003

Henry Marten's Ghost - Ireland, A Troubled Romance (Own label, no catalogue number)

In case you're thinking that "the music" is the only form of Irish musical culture which continues to thrive, then Henry Marten's Ghost will dispel such wayward imaginings. Miners of the rich vein of ballads, love songs and rebel songs, theirs is a distinctive and rich approach. No Aran sweaters and lusty sing-alongs, no false bonhomie in search of the touristy buck. Instead we get sensitive and subtle arrangements which re-position such old standards as "Carrickfergus" and "The Galway Shawl". If you think you've heard such songs a hundred thousand times and back away, then we urge you to think again!

HMG have available to them a superb fiddler - Piotr Jordan - whose Eastern European style provides a contrast to the style of players schooled in the Irish or Scottish approaches to the fiddle. The elemnt of surprise - as Jordan gives familiar tunes a new reading - is a vital ingredient in the outfit's sound.

Padraig Lalor, guitar/vocals, comes at his material a way which reminds us of Ron Kavana's reworking of old standards in his "1798-1998" collection. (High praise, indeed!) Just like Kavana, Lalor turns his back on hackneyed approaches and, through his unique interpretations, subverts the listener's expectations. Alongside Jordan and Lalor, Chris Knipe (mandola) and Maire McSorley (bodhran) ad layers of intricacy and rhythm which by turns elevate and underscore the overall mix.

A number of compelling tracks stand out. HMG's reading of "Cunla" is a delight; the interplay of vocals and fiddle is mischievous and sprightly.

And the band's decision to record "Tom Williams" is a courageous one. Like the much better-known "Kevin Barry", the song commemorates the execution of a teenage insurgent and, whatever the listener's views on the rights and wrongs of armed struggle, is a raw examination of the emotions that arise out such an act by the State. A song which we heard often in our childhood and which has lurked on the fringes of our memory ever since.

So, there you have it! Street ballads, love songs, rebel songs. Staples of the balladeer's trade delivered with insight, passion and uniquely sensitive arrangements. Here's to more of the same in due course!

For information about the band email padraig1@lineone.net or visit http://www.hmg-irishmusic.com

Pay The Reckoning April 2003

Paul McGrattan - Keelwest (Hares Ear Music Publications 002)

McGrattan's music, like the landscape in his adopted Achill Island - a place well-known to Pay The Reckoning - is rugged, exciting and, at times, brooding and lonesome.  A new release from the master flautist is bound to cause a stir in the Irish traditional music scene, but this CD will surely surpass the great expectations of the music-hungry masses.

A musician of exactingly high standards, McGrattan has enlisted a crew of equally luminous talents - Arty McGlynn (guitar), Paddy Glackin (fiddle), Noel O'Grady (bouzouki), Colm Murphy (bodhran) and Gavin Ralston (keyboard).  Each player instinctively and naturally adds colour and depth to McGrattan's playing and while McGrattan takes care to ensure that their playing is never overshadowed by his own, neither does any of the excellent company attempt to snatch the spotlight.

McGrattan's tastes are not confined to one or another regional style and therefore he is able to switch from a rousing set of Donegal barndances ("Con Cassidy's Barndances"), to langorous reels associated with East Clare ("Mary Mac's/Gilbert Clancy's") before treating us to a highly personalised version of "The Banks of Sulan" from Kerry.  (An interesting contrast with Harry Bradley's recent supersonic treatment of the same air in its other guise, "The Pretty Maid Milking Her Cow"!)

McGrattan obviously goes to some lengths to track down tunes which, though not perhaps widely known, contain all of the ingredients which set fire to his imagination.  And so the traditional fan will thank him for giving an air to tunes such as "The Dispute At The Crossroads" and "Donall Na Greine".

And yet one of the CD's crowning glories is the jig set "The Lark On The Strand/The Geese In The Bog/The Eavesdropper".  All well-known tunes, but played with an energy and verve and combining passion with precision, they are elevated beyond the commonplace.

A release which, like McGrattan's earlier work, will grace the collections of those discerning fans of the tradition!

Enquiries to haresear@iol.ie

Pay The Reckoning, April 2002

Jesse Smith - Jigs and Reels (Own label 33001)

Smith, American-born and now resident in Galway, has released a debut solo CD whose unassuming title belies the exciting joyride to be had by all who venture to get their ears around his stellar performances.

Smith's wellspring of inspiration is the golden era of Irish music in America at the turn of the 20th Century. References to Kimmel, Killoran, The Flanagan Brothers, Coleman and Morrison are sprinkled throughout the sleeve notes and Smith's approach captures the sense of devil-may-care rumbustuousness and joie de vivre that informs the glorious music that emerged from that highspot in Irish traditional music's long history. Which is not to say that Smith mimics any particular artist. His personal vision is too well-formed to admit any mere imitation. However his keen musical radar has zeroed in on the sense of abandon and un-selfconsciousness which made many of the recorded performances of such players a treat. Too often these days Irish music is treated studiously, with too much buttoned-down reverence. Smith demonstrates that it's perfectly possible to let the oul' hair down, to celebrate the tunes and to take delight in one's own ability to twist and vary and colour them without losing any sense of respect for the music.

A scintillating stylist, Smith's ability to personalise a tune is astonishing. A combination of a razor-sharp musical intelligence, finely-honed technique and the fact that he is very widely- and well-read crystallises in his treatment of well-known and lesser tunes from the tradition.

The album's opener (Back In The Garden/Colonel Frazer) leaves us basking in the warm glow of being in the company of a master musician. And from then on, it's one incendiary set after another. Rhythmic and powerful when he chooses, striking crisply-executed triplets and other ornaments at will, Smith nevertheless has the ability to stay his hand and render an air such as "The Little Heathy Hill" with restraint and discernment.

Backed throughout by John Blake on guitar and piano, rapidly establishing himself as the accompanist of choice, Smith is joined by Harry Bradley (flute) on an explosive polka set "The Happy Birdie/The Bluebell" and by Seosamh O'Neachtain (step dancing) on a jig/reel set (Devlin's Favourite/The Musical Priest). O'Neachtain's intricate footery adds a great shade to Smith's playing and the smooth transition which the pair make from the 6/8 rhythm of the first tune to the 4/4 of the latter is a change which few musicians could attempt.

However, there's little doubt that the duet with Bradley is the highlight of the album. Encounters between two exceptionally-gifted musicians don't always pay off. Music - to paraphrase Gary Hastings - is as much about people as it is about the dots. If two musicians don't share the same "headspace", then regardless of their virtuosity the results can be disappointing. However, when two musicians of Smith's and Bradley's calibre click mentally and emotionally, the outcome can be much greater than the sum of the parts. So it is with this festive duet. Both Smith and Bradley throw caution to the wind and urge each other on; Smith's wild (though perfectly controlled) bowing and Bradley's trills and unexpected diversions take this staple tune off in directions you may never have thought possible. We at Pay The Reckoning are eternally grateful to Smith for capturing this moment for posterity!

The album comes with the recommendation of no less an authority than the estimable James Kelly, who says "...I look forward to hearing many more recordings from this great musician". Well, given that the lad is in his mid-20s, I'm sure James that he'll continue to astound all with a gra for "the music" for many years to come!

Smith's home on the web is http://www.jsfiddle.com. Pay him a visit today.

Pay The Reckoning March 2003

Colin Spence - Ten Folk Duets (Ring-bound booklet and accompanying CD - Sweetone Music, no catalogue number)

Spence's labour of love is a set of tunes in a variety of rhythms from the Irish and Scottish traditions, arranged for two instruments. Such arrangements are uncommon in either tradition where unison playing is the preferred modus operandi.

Spence's arrangements give us a glimpse of a tantalising alternative. The scores which he provides in the ring-bound booklet serve as a tool to assist other players to achieve his goal of tight, complementary arrangements. However they will likely also inspire the inquisitive musician to explore their own such arrangements.

The tunes tend towards the more well-known - The Flowers of Edinburgh; The Lisdoonvarna Polka (Leather Away With The Wattle-O or Grand Ould Dame Britannia as it's also known); The Irish Washerwoman - but there's little call for obscure tunes in such an instructional booklet. On the whole these are tunes with which the traditional player will be readily familiar. He or she will, however, be struck by the way in which a well-arranged tune reveals new features, by the way in which an unexpected - but intelligently located - counter-note helps to colour an old favourite tune.

Spence has recorded his arrangements on the accompanying CD. A quick listen will convince those who resist that Spence has one hell of an ear for dynamic, though utterly sympathetic, arrangements. Played on an extremely clean electric guitar with acoustic guitar accompaniment, Spence's languid pace is ideal to play along with. The CD of recordings is intended as an educational/instructional tool and Spence probably hasn't envisaged it attracting the attention of the non-player. Nevertheless, we at Pay The Reckoning were very taken with the clarity and pace of Spence's playing and found ourselves listening for sheer pleasure. (And we're sure others will do likewise!)

In particular his rendition of The Flowers of Edinburgh is a joy. The tune is deceptively simple. However it has its quirks which present challenges to the player. Spence handles these with fluid ease.

For an example of a well-played slow reel, look no further than Spence's version of Drowsy Maggie. This staple of the canon benefits from Spence's unrushed, confidently articulate picking. A pure delight!

If we've managed to whet your appetite, then get yourself over to http://www.sweetonemusic.com where Spence touts his wares.

Pay The Reckoning March 2003

An Tor - Buds In Winter (Leiselaut LLCD 1-001)

The latest German band playing Irish music to make ripples is An Tor. Comprising Nils Nolte (vocals/whistles), Elke Mathes(fiddle/backing vocals), Siggi Zörntlein (fiddle/viola/backing vocals), Gregor Ostermann (box), Klaus Feketics (bouzouki/backing vocals) and Marcus Metz (guitar), An Tor's music is lush and muti-layered; proof of the band's ear for subtle and complex arrangements as well as their ability to knock out a canny tune or two.

Buds In Winter is essentially a showcase CD. Comprising just five tracks, which include two songs, "The Banks Of Sullane" and "Lough Erne Shore", the CD is a taster of the band's versatility and virtuosity. However, like many such appetisers, it may leave the listener feeling somewhat unsated. Let's hope that the main course will follow soon!

The songs mentioned above are both melancholy numbers, delivered with grace and due reverence by Nolte and textured stylishly by his fellow musicians. However it was the tunes which - inevitably - caught our ears.

The reel set "The Silver Spear/Jerry Holland's" is a furious romp through tunes from Ireland and Cape Breton repectively. Ostermann sets the wheels in motion and from the opening bars it's clear that the outfit take no prisoners.

The jig set which follows - "Con Cassidy's/The Rambling Pitchfork/The Legacy" - employs some audacious intros. These create a bittersweet tension which the first tune and subsequent changes resolve. Amazingly fine playing on this set, with arrangements shifting between tunes and highlighting this or that player in turn.

Which brings us to the album's closer (and deal-clincher!), Nolte and Metz's original waltz, "Buds In Winter". Composed over a couple of bottles of wine in an ancient Rhine valley monastery, the peatiness of the tune belies its origins. Like winter itself, the tune has a wistful starkness; however like winter buds, it comes suffused with hope.

So, An Tor have crafted a tantalising sampler of their individual and collective talents. Bring on the full-length album, we say, and let's see what other gems lie in wait!

Visit the band at http://www.an-tor.de for more info and an opportunity to add "Buds In Winter" to your collection.

Pay The Reckoning March 2003

The Volunteers - Whiskey, Love and Disaster - American Celtic (Stray Bullet Records 7100CD); Ten Penny Bit - Paddy On The Railway (Own label, no catalogue number)

The purists and pedants will fling up their hands in horror. "Oh no", they'll cry,"...not more bastardisation of "the music" by Johnny-Come-Latelys across the sea!"

Well, much though we love and respect the "keepers of the true flame" and value the work you do in preserving the purity of the tradition, we'll have to ask you to step aside for the moment before the mighty juggernaut of tastefully hybridised Irish music mows you down!

Note that phrase "tastefully hybridised". It's carefully chosen. Here at Pay The Reckoning Towers we have had the misfortune to wade through woeful attempts to fuse or inflect Irish music with other forms, some of which had us reaching for the sick-bag, others for the hammer. But every now and then albums such as The Volunteers' and Ten Penny Bit's latest offerings arrive on our doorstep which come laden with such energy, insight and intelligence that the cross-overs seem not just natural and unforced, but completely invigorating to boot.

Henk Milne, chief spokesperson and rabble-rouser of The Volunteers (vocals/dobro), would argue that the music which he and his band play is traditional American music in any event. The songs and tunes were brought to America by Irish immigrants, fair enough! But once the songs arrived they quickly became part of the collective musical folk consciousness. All The Volunteers have done is to add drums and bass and, occasionally (and very effectively!) generous helpings of country-blues riffs. The end result? Imagine The Pogues' first album if Shane had found himself washed up in America rather than London and if he hadn't already begun to devote more time to self-destruction than to making music!

A lot of the trademarks of that sound are there - the marriage of energy and subtlety and the intimate understanding of the touchstones of folk music and rock'n'roll. Milne is a belter rather than a crooner (and there's nothing wrong with that!) and his drive and vim are mirrored by the tight outfit of Barbara Drake (whistles/vocals), Debbie Spring (fiddle), Jack Shawde (guitars, mandolin and banjitar), Homer Wills (harmonica), Mitch Mestel (bass/vocals) and Diane Ward (drums/vocals).

Whiskey, Love and Disaster is essentially The Volunteers' reading of ten staple songs of the folk canon. From the skipping-rhyme simplicity of "I'll Tell Me Ma" (which is given a stirring country-blues treatment) to the poignant "Parting Glass" by way of "The Star Of The County Down", "The Mountains Of Mourne" and "A Man You Don't Meet Every Day". To limit the focus to such well-known songs is a gamble, but one that pays off big time! Familiar chestnuts derive a new layer of interest from radical, though sensitive, versioning. Highlights of the collection include The Volunteers' romp through "The Irish Rover" (where did you say Mick McCann comes from, lads!?) and the raw version of "The Black Velvet Band". On the latter, the lyrics differ significantly from the version with which we grew up (courtesy of Luke Kelly) and provide us with a more "cinematic" slice of low-life.

Hailing from Louisville, Kentucky, Ten Penny Bit's line-up suggests a old-timey string-band. However Robin Loeffler (hammered dulcimer), Bob Loeffler (guitar), Mark Cannon (fiddle, whistle, banjolin, vocals), Todd Morgan (fiddle), Sonny Prentice (mandolin, guitar, vocals) and Blue Murphy (upright bass) are not your standard old-timey string band!

The Bit play Irish music (or music which has crept into the Irish tradition, witness "La Grande Chaine/Miss McLeod's" which have been assimilated from the French Canadian and Scottish traditions respectively - the former much more recently than the latter, which now speaks to us with an Irish accent!). However, their roots are showing in each and every tune and song. Whether it's the highly effective mando chops, the ringing quality of the dulcimer or the occasional staccato percussiveness of the guitar work, an element of pure Americana rests easily alongside the Irish music at every point in the entire collection.

And yet there doesn't appear to be any conscious effort to bend the tunes or songs to fit an old-timey/bluegrass mould. They are given the utmost respect and the melodies receive a gracing and ornamentation that wouldn't go amiss in any of the Irish traditional music heartlands. But something of the Kentucky approach to music informs the players' work and makes its presence felt in a subtle, tasteful and pleasing way.

The combination of the two sensibilities makes for a potent cocktail. Whether it's the rhythmic pulse of the reel "The Killarney Boys Of Pleasure", the melancholy "Fiddler's Green" or the plaintive "Si Beag, Si Mor", the finely-judged arrangements show us that Ten Penny Bit are not simply practised musicians, but they possess an ability to communicate the joy and exuberance as well as the wistfulness that lie at the heart of Irish music.

Highlights of the album include the superb jig set "Jig Of Slurs/The Ten Penny Bit/The Kitchen Girl" which is given a run for its money by the equally effective polka set "St Kilda Wedding/Bill Sullivan's/The Rakes Of Mallow". Of the songs on the album, "Jackson and Jane" a contemporary "comic" is a gem and one which many of our readers would waste little time in taking to their bosoms. However we found ourselves many times revisiting the album's opener "Paddy On The Railway". This is a song that has been "done to death" by many cack-handed bawlers and so we approached The Bit's recording with some nervousness. To find a revelation! Strong, though restrained, vocals combine with the band's trademark straightforward rhythmic approach to produce a foot-stomping, smile-inducing performance.

Both of these albums showcase the fact that Irish music, far from being the dry and dusty form which many begrudgers and gainsayers would have us believe, is an immensely powerful music. Capable of crossing the globe and inspiring new audiences, it lends itself to reinterpretation and re-presentation and, providing it is assimilated with the degree of care shown by The Volunteers and Ten Penny Bit, it can take on a new life as the backbone of a new musical form. So, let the traditionalists nurture "the pure drop", and fair play to them! But let's create a little space at the same time for the adventurers to give the music a new twist and by so doing to give birth to American Celtic, which promises to be as diverse, as interesting and as life-enhancing as the Irish music which makes up its core...

The Volunteers can be reached at http://www.thevolunteers.com

Ten Penny Bit can be reached at http://www.tenpennybit.com

Pay The Reckoning March 2003

Molly's Revenge - Revenge Is Sweet (Own label MR-02)

Pay no heed to the riled, impudent-looking guttersnipe on the front cover.  Revenge Is Sweet is ... well ... sweet!  Rarely have we come across an album which is so chock-full of charm.  Unassuming musicianship combines with a down-to-earth production ethic. The result?  An album of traditional (and traditionally-influenced) music, played with flair and elan, and yet accessible to those who haven't immersed themselves in "the music".

Molly's Revenge are David Brewer (highland bagpipes, electric pipes, whistles, bones, bodhran), George Grasso (banjo, flute, whistle, bodhran, bouzouki), Mark Boronkay (guitar, mandolin, cittern) and Pete Haworth (guitars, bouzouki, vocals).  The lads are joined by Theo Paige (fiddle) on The Liffey Banks/The Floggin' Reel.

You'll have guessed from the names that Molly's Revenge don't hail from the sod.  Based in California, the vengeful ones are another prime example of the way in which traditional music has captured the imagination of musicians the world wide. There are those snobs who will insist that Irish music can only truly be played by musicians who are themselves Irish.  We at Pay The Reckoning would take issue with that argument and - to prove our point - would use Revenge Is Sweet as Exhibit A.

For this is music played as well and with as much understanding and passion as you're likely to hear in Clare or Donegal or Connemara.  This isn't a bunch of blokes jumping on some paddy-whackery bandwagon.  These are people who know what moves them and know how to use that knowledge to move others.

They certainly moved us!  From the opening skirl of the pipes-led first set (Gaelic Air/Rocking The Baby/Jolly Tinker/Kelsey's Wee Reel) we were captivated.  You will have noticed that Pay The Reckoning is somewhat fond of the mandolin, tenor banjo and other instruments in that general family.  And you'll not be surprised to learn that we were in seventh heaven throughout the album, where mandolins and their larger relatives combine with banjo on most tracks to create just the sort of racket that sets our pulse hammering.  It's not just the fact that the players know their way around the fingerboard but that their feel for tempo is remarkable.  A set such as "Will You Come Home With Me/Cook In The Kitchen/Snow On The Hills" illustrates this perfectly.  The tempo is restrained, almost languid to begin with - infused with the sort of unhurried, unhurriable quality of the best traditional music.  Yet by the time the last tune arrives the pace has picked up and the players flex their muscles, cranking up the power!

The album may major on tunes, but let's not overlook the songs.  Only two of these on the album, but both are blinders.  "South Australia" gets the rousing chorus treatment while "Crooked Jack", a Dominic Behan number set to the tune of "Star Of The County Down", will provide great value for fans of Behan's acerbic commentaries on the lives and times of navvies in England.

Other highlights include "The Pipe Set From Hell" (Devil In The Kitchen/Heat From The Furnace/Maggie's Pancakes/I Was A Tailor, Now I Have A Knitter) and the delicately delivered "Finnish Polka/Pirate Polka".  However we'll stick our necks out here and nominate a great hornpipe set - "The Hut On Staffin Island/The Blackbird" (no, not THAT Blackbird, rather the original composition by George Rowley) - for our man of the match award.  It's not just the fact that each of the two tunes is mesmeric in itself; the delivery is supremely well-judged and we guarantee you'll be reaching for the repeat button as The Blackbird reaches its sudden, emphatic end.

We're glad to have made their acquaintance.  Get acquainted yourself at http://www.mollys-revenge.com

Pay The Reckoning March 2003

Mad Rush - Music of Time (Own label, no catalogue number)

A welcome return to the studio by Plymouth folksters, Mad Rush, has resulted in an album that is quietly ambitious, accessible and intelligent. The line-up of Ned and Deni Couch (guitars/vocals/bouzouki and vocals/accordion/piano/whistle/ percussion respectively) hs been augmented by Geoff Horne (double bass/electric bass/vocals) and Chris Wolfe (guitar/ bouzouki/banjo).  The transformation in the overall sound is remarkable.  Whereas the debut - "How Well Do I Remember" - derived much of its impact from its naked directness, the band's second outing is a more lush and highly-textured affair.

Many of the themes which drove the first album re-emerge in the latest release.  Ned's original songs, crafted around key moments in English military history and therefore very pertinent to a band who come from a city so rooted in such history, form an important part of  the overall collection.  "Lord Horatio", "The Sabbath Day" and "Revenge" are so colourful and immediate that they could have been written many hundreds of years ago, just after the events they describe had taken place.  However Ned may be inspired by military history, but he's not completely obsessed by it as his song "Quarrymen" amply demonstrates.   

Deni's no slouch either when it comes to crafting music.  She collaborates with Pamela Hodge on the eponymous opener, sets an air to an anonymous Scottish poem "We Are Exiles" and gives us three songs entirely of her own making, "By Moonlight", "Bring The Young Men Home" and the album's closer "For A Bygone Time".

For all of their skill in crafting and delivering their own material, the two stand-out tracks on the album are not by their own hands.  The first of the two musical highpoints of the outing is an acoustic cover of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".  An intricately picked guitar intro sets the scene for some unfussy and highly effective guitar/bouzouki interplay, over which Deni gives a restrained reading of the lyrics.

As far as we at Pay The Reckoning are concerned, the album's highlight is the traditional song "Canada-i-o".  A jangly bouzouki gets pride of place in the accompaniment, above which Deni delivers a fine vocal performance, as usual avoiding pyrotechnics and cheap tricks in favour of a measured reading.

Mad Rush have proved their ability to develop and mature from their first to this, their second, album.  What delights lie ahead of us as the band tackle their third and subsequent albums time alone will tell.  Pay The Reckoning will be at the front of the queue to find out!

More information at http://www.mp3.com/Mad_Rush

Pay The Reckoning March 2003

Jim Condie – Distant Cousins (Redberet Records BERCD01)

Although we’re primarily interested in recordings of traditional music, we nevertheless receive – from time to time – CDs of other forms of roots music. We don’t always have an opportunity to review them in these here pages, but in the case of Condie, we’re going out of our way to make an exception.

Condie (guitar/vocals) and his band (Dice Jameson, dobro/backing vocals; Jane Discome, mandolin/backing vocals; Joe MacSnide, lap steel/backing vocals; Janice Domes, backing vocals; Iceman Jones, double bass and Davie Paton, drums/percussion/bass) brew up a heady folk/blues/country mix. While they’re quite capable of pulling out all the stops and giving it plenty of throttle, the charm of Condie’s approach to music is its lack of macho posturing. These guys are good – and we hope they appreciate just how good! – but they’re not going to bludgeon you into submission with self-indulgent, macho rock-goddery. The secret of their success is the way each song quietly and unobtrusively performs its magic on the listener. The arrangements allow each of the lead instruments to add colour, but never to distract from the song or tune.

The CD balances newly composed material against some traditional folk blues standards. “Tamp ‘Em Up Solid”, a close relative of the bluegrass staple, “Roll On Buddy”, is infectious and deceptively unelaborate.  The ability to make music appear so straightforward, spontaneous and natural is an art in itself, and one which (usually) comes through having paid one’s dues many times over.

A cover of Woody’s “Vigilante Man” in a bare, moody, visceral arrangement is one of the album’s highlights. Condie and his band know exactly when to hold back and when to let rip. This is one occasion when holding back adds tremendous power, when the old cliché “less is more” rings perfectly true.

Elsewhere, a cheeky version of “Sleepwalk” will raise a smile, as will the wry humour of “Didn’t Quite Make It”, a song which celebrates last-minute defeat …

The band’s cover of Steve James’ “Talco Girl” is understatedly perfect Americana (are we sure Condie hails from Scotland?) and a further reinforcement of the principle that simplicity is a virtue to be prized over just about everything else in music.

An album that Condie and co can be truly proud of, and one which Pay The Reckoning will be giving a good deal of airtime for some time to come!

Find out more at http://www.geocities.com/jimcondie

Pay The Reckoning March 2003

Josephine Keegan (and others) - The Keegan's Tunes (A Selection of Irish Traditional Music Composed by Josephine Keegan) (Own label, no catalogue number)

A small number of Irish musicians are renowned and revered for writing tunes. Of those whose influence is most recent, the giant is Ed Reavey, a man whose name resonates down through the past years as a vital conduit for some inspired music.

Well, now that Reavey's place is, sadly, vacant, Pay The Reckoning points you towards his natural successor, South Armagh's Josephine Keegan. Hailing from a part of the world not too distant from Reavey's, Keegan's inspiration comes, like Reavey's largely from the nooks and crannies of her home turf as evidenced by tunes such as The Square Of Crossmaglen, Coolderry Bridge, O'Hanlon's Bridge, Glassdrummond and The Road To Rassan. Where the tunes aren't named after places dear to her heart, they recall lived experience in those places in rural South Armagh - hence tune titles such as The Thrush In The Bush, The Thistledown and Footing The Turf.

Hailing from Armagh ourselves, we are thankful that the orchard county is famous throughout Ireland not just for its fine apples, its arch-bishoprics, Phelim Brady, "Tayto Castle" and the sorry spectacle of the Drumcree encampment! Many lauded musicians hail from the county - Sarah and Tommy Makem, the Vallely clan, Lurgan's Barry Kerr, Paul McKernan, Adrian McPartland and Gerry Lavery and some fine musicians who share this recording with Keegan, whose names were unfamiliar to us, but whose talent is evident from the first listen. However Keegan must surely be the honorary president of Armagh musicians.

A benign and a generous president, at that! Not for Keegan the concept of aloofness. She rolls her sleeves up, rosins her bow and mixes it with the best of them (and we suspect, the very worst of them ... but there's no evidence of that on this recording!). Various groups of musicians play on the album and Keegan is to the fore in each - and yet her presence never overshadows her fellow musicians. Far from it. Keegan can never be accused of being a primadonna. Her style is understated (and yet delicately ornamented) and we suspect she may have needed a little cajoling to gear herself up for this mammoth project. But her presence is virtually luminous! The various people who play with her on a regular basis are no doubt aware that they are blessed (forgive the religious terminology) to have shared music with and learned so much from The Keegan.

Over 45 tracks, we are given the opportunity to revel in some 70+ of Keegan's original tunes. Tunes that range from the gleeful march "Bishopswood" through the melancholy strains of "Duiche Mo Chroi" and "Uaigneas". Accomplished on both fiddle and piano, Keegan solos on around half of the tracks. A fair proportion of the others are shared between "The Fiddle Group", "The Mullaghbawn Group" and "The Camloch Group" - with Keegan making a contribution to each. Elsewhere various solo artists and duets give us blinding versions of Keegan's tunes.

There are sets on this album which stood out at first listen, but to draw your attention to this or that track would be iniquitous. Each listen reveals a little more, a tune here and there which captures your mood perfectly and sets the musician's hands twitching, eager to pick up his or her instrument and learn the tune that has just moved them. However - beware - there's almost three hours of music of this double CD, three hours of tunes that every player would like to have in his or her repertoire. If you learn tunes at the slow rate of Pay The Reckoning, then that's a lifetime of education!

Having said that we believe it improper to highlight individual tunes, we can't help but whisper in your ears ... Keegan's "Lament for Michael Delargy" is simply the most moving tune we have heard. No debates, no ifs or buts. By Keegan's account Delargy - a fiddle-maker and a fine musician in his own right - died much too early, with a lot of music still in him and about him. We're sure he would have been proud to have had such a quietly monumental tune written in his honour.

And while we're picking out tunes, just listen to two marches - "Bishopswood" and "Glassdrummond". The former is so mischievous and jolly that it would crack a smile on a statue. The latter, with its quirky staccato bar-endings, goes a step further. Impish? In bucketfuls.

The CD is accompanied by a book of sheet music of all of the tunes on the album, complete with notes, vignettes, essays. No musician worth his or her salt will want to be without this.

So, why waste time? Get in touch with Ceol Camloch at ceolcamloch@hotmail.com and order a copy of the CD and the book. Now!

Pay The Reckoning February 2003

Steve Mulhern & Ian Laws - The Mirthical Reel (Own label, no catalogue number)

Think of the great fiddle/guitar duos who have laid out their wares before us over the years. James Kelly and Zan McLeod, Sean Keane and Paul Brady, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill... Think for a moment of the way in which both instruments complement each other; the brightness and soaring quality of the fiddle, the bassy percussiveness of the guitar.

Well, folks, a new fiddle and guitar duo have brought out a superb album which will set the cognoscenti's mouths a-watering and tongues a-clattering. Both are true stylists. Mulhern on fiddle has a lightness of touch and a feel for both the notes and the space between the notes that calls to mind the lonesome melancholy of the East Clare tradition (thereby belying his Belfast upbringing). Laws has the sensibilities of the jazz player (albeit instinctively within a traditional feel) - substituting chords at will in such a way as to accentuate Mulhern's variations and twists. In addition, he's no slouch on mandolin, banjo and percussion!

The lads may frown at comparisons - so we tender our apologies before making the following statement and assure them that it is a high compliment - but to our ears, Mulhern comes across as a successor to the aforementioned Hayes. Like Hayes, he has an unhurried and keenly intelligent approach. Whereas other musicians seek to impress with their lightning speed, Mulhern impreses with his ability to ornament a tune. Not ostentatiously but subtly, beautifully and perfectly. And like Hayes, he's no one-trick pony. We've sat in with him in an odd session and when the tempo picks up, Mulhern is well able to lead the field. As he demonstrates on this CD in a number of reel sets where the pair step through the gears!

But much of this album, the vast majority of which comprises the lads' original tunes, is contemplative, deeply personal and evocative. Production values are high; Mulhern's fiddle is well to the fore, with Laws' accompaniment just a shade lower in the mix but sufficiently high to capture both the chords and the percussiveness of his richly textured approach.

The title track is well-named. It has all the qualities of a ripple of laughter; spontaneous and unforced it certainly brought a smile to our lips!

Elsewhere the afficionado will cock his or her ears at "Wendy Ann". Laws takes the lead on 5-string banjo and the "ringing" quality of his approach provides an interesting contract when compared with the triplet-rich approach of the tenor players.

Two melancholy slow airs - "Mo Gras Mo Dhia" and "Bheadh Fhios Agat Amhain" - give Mulhern opportunities to give free rein to his expressive technique.

The final track - comprising three original mazurkas, "Along The Quays/Bohar Bhui/Around The Campanile" is a gift to the Irish music community. We've made the point before that mazurkas are a cinderella genre. However the delicate, skewed rhythm is one of the most endearing signatures of the tradition. But whereas there are thousands of reels and jigs in the traditional canon, there are a mere handful of mazurkas. These three tunes are sure to delight the listener and we have little doubt that, slowly but surely, in the way that great tunes do, they'll make their way into the repertoires of those in the know!

And if you're a little nervous about exposing yourself to an album which comprises original material only, then Mulhern and Laws give us a few sets of traditional tunes. "The Golden Castle/Bobby Casey's" is a superbly rendered hornpipe set. "The Broken Pledge/Mother & Child/Toss The Feathers" sees the pair apply themselves to some well-known and much-loved reels.

There are a few true stars in the Irish music tradition. But for every famous name, there are players such as Mulhern and Laws who are brimming with unforced and original talent and who deserve to share the limelight. With sufficient exposure, Mulhern and Laws will attract a buzz. Pay The Reckoning is pleased to endorse this superb album and to make a plea to those involved in the "business". Get your ears around their work, make contact and get their music out before the masses! As for yourselves, waste no time in contacting ianlaws.com@virgin.net and get your hands on a copy of this album while it's still available.

Pay The Reckoning February 2003

Fraser Fifield - Honest Water (Tanar Records TANCD001)

Fifeld, formerly of the much-lauded Wolfstone, Salsa Celtica and Old Blind Dogs has been described by The Inverness Courier as "a one-man Moving Hearts". Pay The Reckoning can think of no more apt description.

A multi-instrumentalist par extraordinaire, with a very diverse musical palette, Fifield has created a lush soundscape, overlaying his Scottish roots with a host of contemporary musical styles and influences. Jazz undertones, elements of other world traditions and sampled sounds are woven in and around his blend of traditional and "non-traditional" instrumentation (e.g. Fifield makes extensive use of saxophones, whose presence alongside pipes and whistles is a genuinely unusual and ear-opening musical innovation). Those who took to the Moving Hearts experiment will find much to delight in Fifield's ambitious project. However for those who like their music "straight, no chaser", Fifield's work will be heavier going.

Fifield is undoubtedly aware that his work will be a tad controversial. But no matter which side of the "purist/experimentalist" fence you find yourself, you'll find it hard to deny the man's immense musical talent. And, we would argue, you'll find it hard to deny his understanding of the Scottish musical tradition. This is the foundation of the album, on top of which the entire edifice stands.

Well worth a listen. You may well find yourself bowled over by music about which it's impossible to be lukewarm!

Find out more at http://go.to/copperplate.

Pay The Reckoning February 2003

The Churn - Big Buttah (Buttah Productions BP101)

Texas trad-rockers, The Churn (named after the potent jig, Hag At The Churn, made popular by The Bothy Band), combine a range of Southern rock styles with Irish, Scottish and American traditional music, in the process giving us one of the more entertaining CDs of the past few years. The nearest reference point is Horslips; the band lack the soaring keyboards of the 'Slips but otherwise they combine similar instrumentation with an ability to use tunes as launching points for musical flights of fancy. Their improvisations may take us on a journey some miles from the tunes on which they are based, but they're never self-indulgent or meandering.

Their ability to take a tune apart and explore nuances via extemporised variations means that although the track listing throws up some familiar names (e.g. Hag At The Churn, Rakish Paddy, The Congress Reel, Say Old Man), you shouldn't expect a standard reading of the tunes. Some will, of course, roll their eyes heavenwards and mutter darkly into their beards at the very suggestion of traditional music given the Southern rock treatment. However, take it from Pay The Reckoning, normally impressed only by a "pure drop" approach, The Churn's take on trad is exhilarating and brimming with charm.

The band's tongue-in-cheek motto is "Giving World Music the beating it deserves!". On the basis of this album, the band don't so much beat trad music as knead it and mould it into new forms. If the notion of such an approach appeals, then get your ears around some mp3s at http://www.the-churn.com or get in touch with the band at 18410 Hazycrest, Spring, TX 77379, USA and order up a copy of Big Buttah!

Pay The Reckoning February 2003

Straight Furrow - Get Your Breath Back; Straight Furrow - Free Time

They say that there are two sides to every story. In the case of Norfolk tradsters, Straight Furrow that's both true and false (by God we're being very riddle-me-ree, aren't we!).

It's true in the sense that each of these CDs shows a different angle. Get Your Breath Back is Straight Furrow in barndance mode, with some fine sets of music for the feet, interspersed with some haunting Carolan tunes. Free Time finds the Furrow lads and lasses in more creative mode - a fair whack of the tunes and songs being original compositions which hold their own against some stirring traditional material.

However the adage is false in that, however you look at it, a big element of both CDs - i.e. the sheer quality of the music - is the same.

Straight Furrow are Brian Eade (guitars, banjolin, vocals), John Leff (recorders, flute, mandolin), Susan Williams (keyboards, guitar, bass) and the Free Time album features a guest appearance by Sally Eade on jaw harp.

Highlights of the Get Your Breath Back CD include a stirring hornpipe set featuring those primal tunes "Harvest Home" and "Boys Of Blue Hill" - where Leff's setting of the latter tune in particular sheds a new light on an old staple. Elsewhere, a polka set ("Spanish Ladies") is guaranteed to get the feet tapping. And, of course, as mentioned above, the collection is graced with the presence of a few O'Carolan tunes. The set "Planxty Irwin/Fanny Power" is beautifully rendered, the achingly sweet cadences of both tunes receiving their due regard.

As far as Free Time is concerned, the listener is recommended to pay close heed to Eade's original tunes. An artist with a very particular voice, his pieces combine soul and grace and stand up well in the company of tunes such as "Si Beag, Si Mor" and an incendiary polka set "Dennis Away!", which hinges on the Furrow's versions of "Dennis Murphy's" and "John Ryan's".

Masterful stuff. Plough away, there!

More info (and the opportunity to buy both CDs) available from http://www.straightfurrow.co.uk

Pay The Reckoning January 2003

Gerry Lavery - A Walk Through O'Hanlon's Country (Own label, no catalogue number)

Lavery, who hails from Richhill in the heart of Ireland's Orchard County - Armagh - has produced one of the most passionate and personal albums of last year. Here we have traditional and original songs, the majority of which are very much tied to Lavery's own locality, delivered in Lavery's unfussy, instinctively apt style and backed by two of the area's premier league musicians - Adrian McParland (harp, guitar, bouzouki, percussion) and Paul McKernan (uilleann pipes, whistles).

As a songwriter, Lavery displays great versatility. Equally at home scribing tender ballads which express his own rootedness in mid-Armagh (The Hill In Tandragee; I Remember Clare Glen) or chronicling the involuntary exile's feelings for home (Patrick's Song; Farewell to Manordougherty) - Lavery also possesses the rare knack of bringing history alive through song. The album's closer - "My Name Is Count O'Hanlon" - in many ways the focal point of the entire project, is Lavery's retelling of the legend of the controversial raparee whose exploits in 17th century mid-Ulster resonate yet in the folk consciousness.

As a performer of traditional songs from the region, and collected from other sources, Lavery has few peers. His vocals are unforced, but nevertheless deeply committed and he possesses the ability to switch between the melancholy and the humorous with ease. In which respect his singing is not unlike that of luminaries of the singers' legion such as Tim Dennehy, Len Graham or Frank Harte, all of whom are blessed with an innate ability to get to the kernel of any song in their repertoire and, without resorting to hand-wringing or histrionics, communicate its emotional core.

On traditional numbers such as "Gosford's Fair Demesne", "When The Roses Bloom Again" and "At The Foot Of Newry Mountains", Lavery gives us sterling performances. Full of honest emotion and avoiding the cheap trick of false sentimentality, they bear the hallmark of the confident singer who knows and respects his audience.

Most of those who "tune into" Pay The Reckoning on a regular basis will be well-aware of the migration of "The Bard of Armagh" and its repatriation in the American folk canon as "The Streets Of Laredo". However we suspect that few will be familiar with the coded reference within the song. Phelim Brady was not who he seemed, at face value, to be! Intrigued? Well ... I'll not spoil the story. You'll have to get hold of Lavery's CD to find out more. And, of course, having given us a little background on "The Bard" and it's transoceanic mutation, Lavery gives us versions of both.

No review of this CD would be complete without mention of a superlative reel set, courtesy of McKernan and McParland. Audaciously - and courageously - McKernan gives us three of the most monumental tunes from the travelling pipers' legacy in one set - "Colonel Frazier/Rakish Paddy/The Bucks of Oranmore". Exciting and incendiary stuff, McKernan's wild piping is driven on by McParland's bouzouki and bodhran backing. Few have the technical ability to render such a set; fewer still would have the stamina and/or nerve to tackle such an ambitious endeavour!

As far as Pay The Reckoning is concerned, Lavery's solo rendition of the comic song "Last Election Day" is a standout track which caught our attention in a stranglehold from which there is little danger of imminent release. Full of inventive rhymes and increasingly vivid imagery, the tale of a miserable voter's misadventures in a 19th century election is one of those gems which surfaces in recordings made by a true collector. Thanks, Gerry for giving us this one - we'll be passing it on, in time-honoured fashion - before too long.

Not available in the shops(!), limited copies of the album are nevertheless available from Gerry himself. Simply e-mail gearaltolabhra@aol.com for details, telling him that Pay The Reckoning sent you. Proceeds from the sale of the CD will go to help two local charities, United Christian Aid and The Chernobyl Children Appeal. Good music in a good cause.

Pay The Reckoning January 2003

25 Years (The Music Of The Hobgoblin Staff 1976-2001) - (Hobgoblin Music - No Catalogue Number)

All folk and traditional musicians hanker after a music shop that sells quality instruments at a reasonable price, where the staff are knowledgeable and enthusiastic and where you get to try out the instruments before you have to part with hard-earned cash (or where you simply get to try out the instruments ... call it guerilla rehearsing!). A shop that acts as a focus for like-minded musicians, where information, advice and encouragement are part of the service.

Like many who'll be reading these pages, we've spent many hours in Hobgoblin, a small chain of stores which fit the above bill to a T. We've salivated over the high-end instruments and performed tragic mental calculations about the state of our bank balance versus our need to have just one more instrument (you know, the one that'll mean we can really play ...!). And we've parted with more money than we care to calculate - all, mind you, to good use!

Hence when we discovered that Hobgoblin had put together a CD, featuring the talents of their staff, culled from various recordings which had been laid down over the 25 years that the Hobgoblin venture has been in existence, we were interested in hearing the results.

This 20-track CD features a host of musicians from across the Hobgoblin "empire". The sheer diversity of music is remarkable; from the melodic rock of Novacain, through the knockabout virtuosity of The Hop, John Howlett's inventive guitar work and Paul Woollard's Indian-influenced multi-layered instrumental. Inevitably, our individual tastes will single out this or the other track for repeated listening. However we will all appreciate the enormous talent and unbridled enthusiasm of the players on each and every track.

Our personal "faves" include the two tracks by Blackthorn (which features Pete and Manny McClelland, founders of Hongoblin). "Dance Of The Honmeybees" - one of Charlie Lennon's compositions - just happens to be one of our all-time favourite hornpipes; Blackthorn's rendition is among the most interesting we've heard and bears useful comparison against Altan's version. (It's particularly interesting to compare the bouzouki parts; Ciaran Curran's style and Pete McClelland's differ greatly - and yet both players are absolutely spot-on. The beauty of this music is the extent to which players can personalise tunes while remaining completely true to the tune itself. We can't explain this phenomenon - but, by Christ, we can experience it!) Their polka set is lively without racing ahead at a demonic pace, the slight off-centredness of the polka form being given its due.

Sarah Mallinson and Debbie Waren contribute two tracks, the first of which in particular - "The Keel Row" - is a heartbreakingly accomplished rendition of the traditional Scottish ballad.

Steve Turner's "Glendy Burke/Swanee River Hornpipe" combines elemental Americana with an arrangement of Swanee River which will delight anyone who appreciates highly ornamented box-playing.

Mark White's "Arrow Of Fortune" is a superbly-crafted contemporary folk song. His use of imagery allows for the economic creation of a rich narrative; the allegory is unambiguous, but subtle. Great stuff. One to learn for that late-night session moment when it's time form something contemplative.

However the album's musical highlight is "Eric's" (Nigel Chippindale, Ralph Jordan and Colin Thompson) version of "The Belfast Hornpipe". Chippindale, who plays concertina on this track, died tragically young in 1986 and it's no exaggeration to say that the English folk world lost a very bright star indeed on his passing. "The Belfast Hornpipe" was a virtual signature tune of an accordionist and all-round rousing musician local to where we grew up, the late William James McAlinden. His approach to this tune transforms it and gives it something of an essentially English character.  However, even po-faced curmudgeons and pedants such as ourselves are completely overwhelmed by the inventiveness, the musicality and the cheeky good humour of this track. We've played this track umpteen times over the past few days and it always sets the toes tapping and the pulse racing. It's almost worth the tenner for this cut alone!

Now ... on reflection, two things other the music strike us as significant about this album. The first is the evident sense of "family" which defines the experience of working for Hobgoblin. In an era where phrases such as "macho management" unfortunately still have some currency, the respect of Hobgoblin's management for its staff is an example for all. Secondly, the standard of musicianship and the rich vein of knowledge of, and feel for, folk and traditional music displayed by Hobgoblin staff make me feel very comfortable about asking for advice and handing over hard-earned cash ...

The sleeve notes on the insert of this CD read "... we hope this CD shows the enthusiasm of all of us at Hobgoblin for the music we love." Well, Pete and Manny and all who sail in the Good Ship Hobgoblin, it does exactly that. And more. It also demonstrates the wealth of talent possessed by the staff at Hobgoblin; talent which, combined with the evident enthusiasm, makes for some extraordinary music.

To get your hands on a copy of this belter of a CD, wander along to your nearest Hobgoblin store (allow several hours for quality browsing ... better still bring a wad and go home with a new acquisition!). Or go to http://www.hobgoblin.co.uk

Tell them Pay The Reckoning sent you.

Pay The Reckoning January 2003

Be Good Tanyas - Blue Horse (Nettwerk 5 037703 024526); Linda Thompson - Fashionably Late (Topic Records TSCD821); Waterson:Carthy - A Dark Light (Topic Records TSCD356)

From time to time we receive the odd complaint that we're a bit blinkered as regards the music which we choose to review in these pages. It's true that we tend to limit our reviews to music from the so-called "Celtic" traditions. However, our listening isn't quite as limited as this reviews section would tend to suggest and so we're taking the opportunity to sing the praises of our three favourite folk albums of 2002 - a little late, but, to paraphrase Linda Thompson, hopefully fashionably so!

The Be Good Tanyas debut actually saw light in 2001, but it wasn't until last year that we first had a chance to listen to it and this album is one of those with which 2002 will always be associated in our minds. The Canadian trio have a unique take on contemporary and traditional folk material; their close harmony and understated musicianship cut straight to the high, lonesome heart of their songs about love, loss, uncertainty and the melancholy core of the human condition. Their delivery may be masterful (if that masculine word is not a contradiction in terms), but fragility and vulnerability lie just beneath the surface of every note and plaintive lyric.

Stand-out tracks include the album's opener "Littlest Birds", the haunting "Rain And Snow" and the album's closer "Light Enough To Travel". Stephen Foster's "Oh Susanna" becomes a gossamer-fine hymn to loneliness, while "The Coo-Coo Bird" is a penitent confession. "The Lakes Of Pontchartrain" - one of the few ballads which has crossed the big pond to find a ready home with Irish singers - is rendered in a setting which those weaned on Paul Brady's classic version will find unfamiliar. But no less powerful. And no less affecting.

If you haven't yet found a space for this impulsive, intelligent and delicate album in your collection, then do so without delay. More information available from http://www.nettwerk.com and http://www.begoodtanyas.com

We head East now, to turn to attention to Waterson:Carthy's latest outing. A Dark Light may well be the finest recording that Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy have provided to date. In fact, it would be hard to see how they could top this!

Waterson's voice - the most instantly recognisable sound in the English folk universe - combines with Martin Carthy's elegant guitar work and lusty vocals and Eliza's superlative fiddle playing and increasingly commanding singing. (Let's not forget Tim Van Eyken, the latest addition to the W:C stable, who contributes on vocals and melodeon.)

Highlights of this set include "Lofty Tall Ship" and "The Devil and The Farmer", both sung by Martin Carthy and the rousing harmonies of all four voices in the carol "Shepherds Arise". However as far as we were concerned, the gem of the album - and possibly the single best song recorded last year by any artist! - is Eliza's rendition of the foc'sle song "Diego's Bold Shore". The sheer beauty of Eliza's voice, combined with one of the most affecting tunes we have come across, give this ode to life on the cold high seas a degree of poignancy which would draw tears from the hardest heart.

However we have absolutely no hesitation in awarding our vote for the best folk album of 2002 (and possibly THE best album of 2002 full stop!) to Linda Thompson for "Fashionably Late".

Thompson's latest album is a synthesis of her long immersion in the world of folk and folk-rock and the late-night boozy, smoky demi-monde of the singer-songwriter. Throughout the album sly references to staples of the folk canon emerge in her songs - this is not plagiarism, nor paraphrasing, nor even tribute but a welling-up in contemporary song of timeless themes and motifs. Evidence that, though the world may change and times move on, the human condition (or aspects of the human condition) remains unchanged. No matter the times in which we find ourselves, we continue to feel loss, bewilderment, sorrow, longing ...

The opening track, "Dear Mary", is a medium tempo waltz whose bright veneer masks a vein of trouble. Remarkable for one of the most virtuoso guitar tracks, courtesy of Richard Thompson, that it's possible to imagine, "Dear Mary" illustrates that although Linda and Richard Thompson may have severed their matrimonial bonds, their musical union - their perfect mutual understanding - remains intact.

However, throughout the album, the other perfect musical partnership which Linda has fostered - with her son, Teddy Thompson - is much in evidence. Nowhere more so than on their cover of Lal Waterson and Ollie Knight's "Evona Darling" where Teddy and Linda trade verses, harmonise and generally provide each other with instinctive musical support.

Thompson draws on the support of the Rusby/McCusker and Carthy dynasties at various points. The former on the First World War ballad "Miss Murray" and the compelling 3/4 country ballad "No Telling" (of which more later) and the latter represented by Martin Carthy on "Paint and Powder Beauty" and Eliza on "Weary Life". This is a remarkable song - a reworking and seamless blending of the staples "Do You Love An Apple?/Still I Love Him" and "It's A Hard Life" into a new, wry, self-deprecating number. The blend of Eliza Carthy's and Linda Thompson's vocals make for a glorious sound. Here's hoping they have further opportunities to work together in future.

Elsewhere Thompson secures the services of such luminaries of the folk/roots/rock scene as John Doyle, Danny Thompson, Geraint Watkins, Van Dyke Parks, Kathryn Tickell, Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg and numerous others whose names will also doubtless be familiar to many. Their gravitas and discernment add poise and conviction to well-constructed and beautifully delivered songs.

However, from the very first listen, the highpoint of the album for us was the song "No Telling". A languid country waltz, the song paints a detailed, absorbing and ruthlessly honest portrait. Giving us a lesson in songwriting, Thompson is economic and cinematic in her use of language; every word, every cut, every dot-dot-dot is loaded with meaning. This song takes its place on the podium alongside the very best compositions of the high priesthood of songwriters - Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, John Prine ... We can think of no higher honour.

Both Waterson:Carthy and Linda Thompson record for Topic Records (http://www.topicrecords.co.uk) - whose catalogue is without doubt the most impressive collection of English folk and traditional music ever assembled. Waste no time in dragging your sorry ass over there and finding out more!

Pay The Reckoning January 2003

Mary Smith - Of Rogues and Lovers (Own Label, No Catalogue Number)

Pay The Reckoning enthused about Smith's two previous offerings, in particular extolling the virtues of her pared-down production. In this, her third recorded outing, Smith opts for a fuller sound with her vocals supplemented by her son, Tom Salcedo on guitar, Stephen Mulholland on mandolin and fiddle, Brendan Monaghan on whistle, bones and shaker and Chris Caldwell on bodhran. (The latter three are all members of the County Antrim-based Killultagh whose recent eponymous CD also received a glowing review in these pages.)

The richer mix and the inclusion of fewer tracks make for a more accessible and digestible album. The title track sets the scene. The Scottish traditional ballad "Glenlogie" is delivered with some aplomb. The non-native faces a dilemma with such songs and Smith's decision to sing "in dialect" is not without an element of risk. However she sees her decision through perfectly.

In fact, one of the most remarkable aspects of Smith's singing is her complete absorption in, and assimilation of Irish and Scottish approaches to songs and ballads. There is no suggestion here of an outsider donning a disguise. Instead Smith is affected by the very same muses which give rise to the vocal styles of native Irish and Scottish singers. (Indeed many native singers will envy her compelling blend of rawness and purity and her ability even in the longest ballads to command the listener's attention until the very last note!)

As well as traditional material, Smith showcases two contemporary ballads (Crazy Kate (The Elf King's Reel) and Swan Song) by Andrew Connell, a Scottish songwriter whose ability to craft timeless pieces is remarkable.

Of the remaining traditional material, several songs merit special mention. The first of these is Smith's rendition of "As I Roved Out", a song immortalised by Christy Moore on Planxty's "Well Below The Valley" album. Smith dusts the song off and, while remaining fairly faithful to Moore's delivery, her particular tones shed new light on this staple of the tradition.

The version of "The Newry Highwayman" is remarkable for Tom Salcedo's South-American influenced guitar accompaniment which fuses perfectly with Smith's vocals and yet adds a layer of vivid and uplifting colour.

Smith's take on "Mattie Groves" is enlivened by Stephen Mulholland's soaring, improvised fiddle.

However, of all the tracks on the album we were most taken by "The Humours Of The King Of Ballyhooley". This was a new song to us (although we're familiar with the air which has been used for - amongst other songs - "Lurgan Town" and "An Deirc"). A tale imbued with rough good humour, whiskey, love and other shenanigans it's a real classic, not least on account of its mischievous litany of words which rhyme with Ballyhooley!

A singer with a superb repertoire and an instinctive feel for delivery. A band of supporting musicians who are technically gifted, with excellent judgement when it comes to arrangement. As the old show standard says, "... who can ask for anything more ...".

Available via http://www.maryfsmith.freeservers.com

Pay The Reckoning January 2003

Tony Sullivan (Sully) - T-Banj Aria (Halshaw Music HM603)

A previous All-Ireland banjo champion, Sully is synonymous with all things banjo-related - recordings, tunebooks and, of course, his own range of superb banjos (some of which get an impressive airing here).

T-Banj Aria is his attempt to explore the possibilities of the banjo as an improvisational instrument and this courageous and compelling album is an eye-opener. Not just for banjoists, but for the lover of traditional and folk music generally.

His roots in playing Irish traditional music are plainly in view throughout. However one of the delights of this album is the subtle interweaving of other influences. American old-time and Eastern European themes recur from time to time, adding colour and emphasis.

Improvisational albums can be difficult. The lack of structure can lead to meandering and, while the sidetracks may lead to somewhere interesting, often they terminate at a cul-de-sac. No so T-Banj Aria. We suspect that Sully had previously sketched out his ideas and had a beginning, a middle and an end in mind. However, the impromptu nature of the recording process left him free to get from A to B. Along the way he gives us great colourful swathes of music and musicality, abandoned and impressionistic, unconstrained yet perfectly constructed on the hoof. Every moment of his long experience brought to bear on an ambitious and thrilling project.

While the banjo is plainly the key "lead" instrument, Sully also plays bouzouki, whistle, mouth organ, bodhran and tambourine, using the additional instruments sparingly and judicially to capture a mood or overlay an impression.

The perfect album to listen to on a long, leisurely and carefree drive down the Irish West Coast or over the Northern English moorlands, a brooding sky in front of you and the clouds just skimming the tops of the peaks to left and right. The splashes of this and that departure will capture your attention, the Saturday night good time sing-song feel of Dublin Night Out, the deft manoeuvres "way up the neck" on Jig O'Djang. Themes recur throughout, patterns which appeal to both Sully and the listener and link the various pieces into a whole.

Let's not forget that the success of this venture is due in no small part to the tight band of players who work alongside Sully. Clare Allen on guitar, Rob Fawcett on bass, Roger Boden and Glenn Wiskill on drums provide a rock-solid base from which Sully sets out on his expeditions.

Available from Halshaw Music http://www.halshawmusic.co.uk

Pay The Reckoning December 2002

John McCusker - Goodnight Ginger (Pure Records PRCD09)

Ace fiddler McCusker weighs in with one of the classiest albums of the year. Over twelve tracks he shows an amazing facility with both traditional and more quirky original and contemporary tunes. A player of great presence, McCusker articulates tunes beautifully and - even in the presence of the awe-inspiring crew who lend support - his gravitas and virtuosity draw the aural spotlight like a magnet.

Those familiar with his recent offerings with The Battlefield Band will spot the odd tune which has graced the Batties' repertoire. However, dusted off and re-presented in a new context, the tunes take on a new life.

McCusker is joined throughout by Ewen Vernal on double bass, James Mackintosh on percussion and Ian Carr on guitar. A host of guest musicians lend their support - Andy Cutting (diatonic accordion), Andy Seward (double bass), Phil Cunningham (accordion), Michael McGoldrick (flute, whistles, pipes and bodhran), Kate Rusby (vocals), Kris Drever (double bass), Iain McDonald (pipes and flute), John Doyle (guitar), Neil Yates (trumpet and flugelhorn), Simon Thoumire (concertina), Ian MacFarlane (fiddle) and Brian Finnegan (whistle).

There is no point in listing two or three tracks for special mention. This CD is consistently as good as it gets. McCusker occupies the same sort of high ground occupied by Eliza Carthy and Nancy Kerr - three highly individualistic but extremely talented fiddlers operating very much within an English tradition of fiddling. McCusker's leanings are more towards the "Celtic" than either Kerr or Carthy, however despite those leanings, there is a sense in which this album could only have come from the particular scene which has developed in (and here's a big generalisation) "the North".

Having said that, we couldn't conclude this review without singling out McCusker and Cunningham's slow air "Oor Pal Davy". Written in honour of the late Davy Steele, this is one of the most poignant and haunting melodies which we've heard in a long time. A fitting tribute to a great musician and - as evidenced by this immensely moving tune - a great friend.

Available from Pure Records at http://www.purerecords.demon.co.uk

John McCusker's website at http://www.johnmccusker.net

Pay The Reckoning December 2002

Paul Moran and Fergal Scahill - A Flying Start (Own Label PMRCD001)

Hooray for small instruments!  Regular readers of Pay The Reckoning will be aware that we champion the cause of the mandolin - an instrument which, though it lends a sweetness and brightness to Irish music, nevertheless is hard to hear above the mighty swathes of sound which issue from the more robust instruments in the sessioneers' armoury.

The same can be said for Paul Moran's instrument of choice, the harmonica.  However, in a studio recording, with the "tin sandwich" given due prominence in the mix, it cuts through like a bell and its possibilities laid out for all to hear.

Irish music has a history of fine harmonica players.  Tommy Basker, Eddie Clarke, Phil, John and Pip Murphy and, latterly, Brendan Power have all made cracking albums.  Now it's time to add to that illustrious roll-call the name of Paul Moran, as adept an exponent of the "French fiddle" as you're likely to encounter.

Not that the harmonica wizardry is the only draw on this album.  Moran also treats us to a few displays of spirited and uplifting lilting.  And Scahill, belying his more tender years, is a confident and intelligent fiddler, guitarist and bodhran player.

While both musicians take the occasional opportunity to "step up to the mike" and show us what they're made of (and they're of the grandest makings!), the true delight of this album lies in the perfect partnership forged between the two.  A partnership based on mutual respect and impeccable - almost telepathic - understanding of each others' approach to the music.

What of the tunes?

Well ... the album isn't called "A Flying Start" for nothing!  The opening set of polkas (The Gullane/The Humours of Lisheen/Tom Mhick's) throbs with insistent melodies and pulses, capturing the imagination at the same as it compels feet to tap and heads to nod.  Elsewhere the wild, abandoned music of Sliabh Luachra gets other airings in a set of slides (The Cuil Aodha Slide/Dan Patsy's Slide/The Toormore Slide) and a classic polka set - previously recorded by Patrick Street as "The Newmarket Polkas"  - John Walsh's/Dan Mac's/Terry Teahan's.

A reel set - The Square at Crossmaglen/Kiss Me Kate/The Leitrim Lilter - gives Fergal an opportunity to treat us to some fiery, yet perfectly rendered, fiddling.

The album is littered throughout with jewels - a lilted Maids of Mount Cisco, an impassioned Dr O'Neill's jig and a set of superb slip jigs Na Ceannabhain Bhana/Hardiman The Fiddler/Moll Roe.

But for our money, two tracks stand out as defining moments.  The first is a set of hornpipes - Chief O'Neill's/The Rights of Man.  A subtle intro on guitar from Scahill creates an expectancy which shines a spotlight on Moran's delightfully-ornamented harmonica.

The second is a hornpipe which leads into two reels - With Her Lovely Golden Hair Flowing Down Her Back/Miss McLeod's/Tear The Calico.  Moran reckons that the first tune in this set is "... one of the most beautiful tunes I have ever heard."  Few will seek to disagree.  A beautiful tune and beautifully played!  The reels which follow are two of the most commonly-played in the tradition. Fair play then to Moran for giving them a new twist and drawing out some previously hidden facets.

A Flying Start is one of those joys of the Irish music scene.  An unostentatious album which nevertheless bursts at the seams with vigour, intelligence, wit and spunk.  Here's hoping the lads have a few more such outings in the wings!

The album is available via Claddagh Records (http://www.claddaghrecords.com) and the lads may be e-mailed at gobmusic@hotmail.com.

Pay The Reckoning December 2002

Maggy Murphy - Linkin' O'er The Lea (Veteran Records VT 134CD); Packie Byrne - Donegal and Back (Veteran Records VT132CD); Roisin White - The First Of My Rambles (Veteran Records VT126CD); John Kennedy - The Girls Along The Road (Veteran Records VT137CD)

The traditional music fan owes an immense debt of gratitude to John Howson, whose Suffolk-based Veteran label has captured and preserved some of the finest traditional songs and music from across the British Isles, sung and played by musicians who don't so much sing or play, but "hand on" the music.

We've already been charmed by another of Veteran's recent releases, Liam Farrell and Joe Whelan's "They Sailed Away From Dublin Bay". Now we turn our attention to the remainder of Veteran's current Irish catalogue which focuses largely on songs from Ulster (with the occasional whistle tune from Packie Byrne and John Kennedy).

There's little to choose between the CDs in terms of their value. Anyone who appreciates the richness and variety of traditional song and music will treasure each of these collections. The honesty and ruggedness, the lack of props or distractions throw the songs into relief. Here are songs which are as ancient as history itself. Others bear the hallmark of more recent composition. But in nearly all cases the singers' repertoires are much older than the singers, their origins obscured by time. Not that the origin, of course, matters much. The "folk process" (about which many scholars and would-be intelligentsia bang on at length) ensures that chaff is scattered to the four winds and only the richest kernels survive down the generations.

Of great interest to the traditional song enthusiast will be the sense of place which is a feature of each of the artists' repertoires. Each CD features a variety of songs or tunes which have a distinctly local setting, or which are localised versions of songs or tunes which have a more universal occurrence. The extent of this rootedness is an indicator of the process whereby the artist has come across the song or tune, an indicator of its authenticity (for want of a better word) and the sense of its function as a living link with the past.

Packie Byrne is perhaps the most well-known of the four artists under discussion. Willingly adopted by the 60s folk revival (and in turn, willingly adopting the revivalists), Byrne displays an equal facility with the melancholy and the comic, shying away from utilising "effects" to increase the impact of either and allowing the songs instead to unfold and create their own atmosphere and effect. No mean whistle-player, the CD features a selection of tunes, many of which are unfamiliar. Yet another compelling reason for purchasing this CD!

Maggy Murphy represents a generation which is perhaps our last link with that quasi-mediaeval world of hiring fairs and press-gangs... Murphy herself was virtually pressed into service as a young woman, fortunately managing to extricate herself before the experience destroyed her. In Linkin' O'er The Lea she gives a glimpse of the wealth of songs she learned over the course of her life. Songs by turn tragic and romantic, bitter regret tempered with high comedy. And all delivered in her quietly powerful voice, her natural accents of speech unaffected by - and preserved in - her singing.

The sleeve notes of John Kennedy's "The Girls Along The Road" depict him as an irrepressible rogue (in the nicest sense of the word!), a description which the recording reinforces. Equally adept at regaling us with songs - many of a distinctly local provenance - and whistle tunes, Kennedy wears his talents lightly. There's no distance between musician and audience, no barriers of pomp or circumstance. We suspect that Kennedy the man and Kennedy the performer are one and the same - a boast that can be made by few musicians outside (and, regrettably, increasingly inside) the tradition. There's much to delight the ear in this CD. However two songs - the title track which opens the album and the CD's closer, an old music-hall song "The Missus, Her Mother, The Bulldog And Me" - come as close as any to defining Kennedy's natural gift for storytelling.

Finally, Roisin White's CD is perhaps the most consciously "collected" of all. An avid gatherer of Ulster songs, White is a gifted singer with the ability to carry and personalise the most complex traditional tunes. She draws on the repertoire of noted singers from across Ulster as well as on songs she has come across herself to present a well-rounded, thoughtful and insightful collection. As far as "field recordings" go, this is about as literal as it's possible to get; on at least one track we detected the twitterings of birds...!

Individually, each of the four CDs discussed above represents a rare opportunity to spend some time with a fine musician and listen to charming tales of romance, to blood-chilling songs of treachery and deceit, to songs of the wars and of the factories and the fields as well as tongue-in-cheek exercises of wit and wisdom.

However, like all of Veteran's output, when listened to as a "body", the CDs shine a flashlight into an important niche and give an insight into the wealth of good music that continues to be made by ordinary folk.

Here's to more to come from Veteran!

Visit http://www.veteran.co.uk for further details.

Pay The Reckoning December 2002

For a detailed perspective on Packie Byrne's CD, please see the following review by Alex Monaghan.

Packie Byrne is an important source of material from the folk traditions of Ulster and beyond. Born in Donegal during the Great War, Packie absorbed more than his fair share of local music before travel broadened his repertoire even further. These recordings were made when Packie was in late middle age, and he still has a remarkably fine singing voice on most of them. He also plays large and small tin whistles extremely well by the standards of thirty or forty years ago. Now in his mid eighties, Packie Byrne is a rare example of a traditional performer who was recorded early enough and well enough for his music to be fully appreciated.

Of the 22 tracks here, 16 were previously released on cassette by Veteran. Three more come from a Topic LP, and three are previously unreleased, making almost 74 minutes in total. The seventeen songs range from mediaeval bawdy ballads to 20th century parlour pieces, all sung unaccompanied in a strong tuneful baritone. There are occasional missing verses, and in these days of video nasties and sophisticated humour the stories may seem tame, but the delivery is spot on. Whether it's a gentle comic ditty, or a dark tale of murder and incest, Packie Byrne does the song proud. My personal favourites are Meet An Irishman which was recently dusted off by Mick Moloney, The Highwayman Outwitted which captures those Ulster qualities of quick wits and understated humour, and the ballad McCaffery which has several layers of meaning set to a classic tune.

The five whistle solos encompass but one tune each. Packie plays in a very simple style, and achieves surprising clarity of tone. Compared with recordings of Sean Potts or Micho Russell from the same period, this is first class whistling. The two airs are particularly expressive, and the three faster tunes are all new to me. As well as the standard Generation model, Packie uses an early low whistle which I assume is an Overton.

All in all, this is an archive recording of great significance. Its publication on CD is very welcome, and I'm sure it will be a valuable resource. As entertainment it has a great deal to offer, and Packie can still teach today's performers a thing or two. Definitely worth a listen.

Alex Monaghan December 2002

Deirdre Collis - Bosca Ceoil (Sound Records SUNCD 46); Carmel Gunning - Around St James' Well (Sound Records SUNCD 44); John Regan - The Slopes of Benbulben (Sound Records SUNCD 43)

Sound Records is a small operation on Grattan Street in Sligo town. They've been producing recordings of local musicians for some years now, including the first Dervish album. These three recent releases may not be easy to find outside Ireland, but they are available online from www.record-room.com or by mail order.

Deirdre Collis is a former All-Ireland champion on several instruments. Here she plays the button box, and rattles through some cracking tunes in the style of Joe Burke or Paddy O'Brien. Deirdre sets a very pleasant pace, and uses a relaxed open technique which shows off the rolls and other ornamentation: no modern staccato here. As well as the expected reels and jigs, she throws in a pair of hornpipes, a waltz, and an air which she attributes to Carolan but which is more familiar to me as the song "Lady Keith's Lament". The opening pair of reels is worth a mention, Glencolumcille and Willie Coleman's, as is the set of unnamed Charlie Lennon jigs and John Bowe's Reel which follows them: I'm sure that's not the usual name for this tune either. Deirdre is accompanied by various pianists, all of them suitably discreet, and the overall sound is rich and mellow.

Rich and mellow is a good description of Carmel Gunning's voice. This is her second CD, and she offers us four songs in the 19th-century ballad style. One at least is traditional, The Banks of the Roses, better known as Johnny Don't You Leave Me. One is recent, the Lament for Laurence McDonagh, a local flute-player. The other two could be any age. All four are powerful and well delivered, and would do credit to more well-known singers. Three more tracks feature the fine piping of Neili Mulligan from Dublin. The other seven tracks are whistle solos, a mixture of traditional tunes and Carmel's own compositions: the compositions are generally better than the playing, which is rather uncontrolled, but she does add some classy touches to a few tunes.

I was enjoying a session with John Regan's son the other week, a young box player with an enviable lightness of touch. You can hear where he gets it from on his father's CD: John Regan is one of the most respected musicians in Dublin's social dancing scene, with great depth of knowledge and experience, and the ability to turn any tune into a toe-tapper. He plays some delightful hornpipes here, including his own title tune. He's also chosen some top-class reels and jigs: Mulhaire's, The Skylark, Lad O'Beirne's Reel, and a pair of lovely swaggering jigs in The Mayo Snaps and Will You Come Home With Me? with sparkling accompaniment from Mary Corcoran on piano. John's steady 120 beats per minute make these tunes ideal for dancing, listening or playing along. I'd recommend this one to any fan of button accordion music.

The recording quality on all three CDs is very high, and the packaging is quite attractive. There's a definite shortage of information about the musicians and tunes, but that's not a problem if you just want to listen to the music.

Alex Monaghan December 2002

Sunhoney - November (Vertical Records VERTCD 005)

Sunhoney was apparently the brainchild of fiddler Aidan O'Rourke. It was a simple enough idea: team up with top Scottish singer Alyth McCormack, collect a back line from the Edinburgh folk fusion scene, write some stuff and start gigging. It worked, and two years later here's the proof on CD.

In a pretty even mix of songs and instrumentals, the fiddle and voice take turns to provide a strong lead. Alyth's ethereal tones are perfect for the gently introspective, slightly surreal lyrics by keyboard technician Fergus MacKenzie and bassman Quee MacArthur. The tunes, all written by Aidan, are similarly light and airy, with occasional flashes of fire. The actual melodies can be a little elusive at times, but this album never strays too far towards the New Age or Easy Listening shelves. It's crisp and clear, with catchy melodies and evocative words. Winter's Breath is a captivating song, and Favourite Place reveals more each time I listen to it.

The Sunhoney sound is rich and varied, particularly on the instrumentals. Aidan O'Rourke's version of The Wishing Tree is a satisfyingly meaty slip reel, and The Plague is a cheerful little 7/8 number on a par with the best of Shooglenifty, Coolfin (remember them?) or the Afro-Celts. These are just my favourites: I'm sure you'll have your own. Guitarist Kevin MacKenzie and Donald "Drummy" Hay get a bit carried away at times, but that's perfectly in keeping with the laid-back style and they never detract from the whole.

Sunhoney produce a very polished product without rubbing away the spirit of their music. It's still fresh and fun, rising above commercial formulae. This is a truly impressive CD, one of the best recent attempts to fuse traditional and mainstream musics: you should try it.

Alex Monaghan December 2002

Ronan Browne - The Wynd You Know (Claddagh Records CC64CD)

This is a big old-fashioned piping album, full of big old-fashioned tunes. Guest musicians provide understated accompaniment on four tracks, but the other ten are just Ronan on pipes and flutes. Half of this recording is given over to slow airs, some of the most beautiful and demanding tunes for the pipes. The other half is dance music, well-known and less common tunes, including several unusual versions.

The slow airs alone are worth the price of this CD many times over. The Bright Lady is a mini masterpiece movingly played in the style of Willie Clancy: it was a favourite of Leo Rowsome, and this recording shows why. John Doherty's magical air Paddy's Rambles Through the Park is eerily beautiful on pipes and fiddle, with a ghostly harmonium on the edge of hearing. Ronan's rendition of If I Were a Blackbird is disappointing, but his virtuoso treatment of the song The Green Fields of America is a worthy tribute to Willie Clancy and Seamus Ennis. Finally, The Lament for the Wild Geese is a six-minute demonstration of the expressiveness and versatility of the uilleann pipes. This is Ronan Browne at his best, using chanter and regulators to great effect, not too constrained by tempo or melody, revealing the hidden notes and tones within the tune.

Ronan's playing is not technically perfect. That's not the point. At times he appears to be wringing the tunes from a reluctant instrument, but you would hear equally strained passages in the music of Ennis or Clancy. What this recording lacks in polish is more than balanced by the raw unspoilt sound of a venerable tradition. There is a danger that the mistakes and poor taste of previous generations can be perpetuated by recordings such as this, but I think we have enough technically brilliant pipers and contemporary influences to make this return to older styles a welcome addition rather than a backward step.

Alex Monaghan December 2002

Liz and Yvonne Kane - The Well Tempered Bow (Dawros Music DM001)

Okay, so what don't I like about this album? Well, one or two of the thirteen tracks are a bit scrapey, but I suppose that's not surprising with two fiddles. Also, if I'd been recording a waltz on my debut CD I wouldn't have chosen The Valley of Knockanure: it's not very exciting. But apart from that, as they say in Eddie Rocket's, it's all good. Fifty-two minutes of fine fiddle duets, mostly reels and jigs, with a bit of accompaniment from John Blake on guitar and Jesse Smith on viola: nothing fancy, but definitely a debut CD to be proud of.

The Kane sisters are from Letterfrack in County Galway, and they've been playing with Sharon Shannon for a few years now. Their music is mainly from Galway: seven of the tunes here are called Paddy Fahey's, which is probably a record, and several others were learnt from Paddy or from other great Galway fiddlers. There's also a trio of Liz's compositions, and her pairing of Kye's Reel and The Lenawee Reel is one of the highlights. Out of four hornpipes, three are by Scotsman James Hill who lived on Tyneside and was a prolific composer: The High Level is commonly played in Ireland, but Fly By Night and The Bee's Wing are rarely heard. Much of Liz and Yvonne's repertoire is slightly out of the ordinary, particularly the melodic minor settings which they use to good effect on several tracks.

There are tunes by Paddy O'Brien and Ed Reavy, a gorgeous Swiss air, and a range of Paddy Fahey tunes from the oldest to the newest. The sound is tight, but not so tight that you wouldn't know there were two fiddles. There are harmonies and flourishes, but mostly just good music lovingly played. The whole thing is attractively packaged, and the notes are chatty and informative. I can't tell you whether Liz and Yvonne are well tempered, but I can tell you they're well worth listening to. Find out more yourself at www.thekanesisters.com, or write to them at Dawros Music, Letterfrack.

Alex Monaghan December 2002

Patrick Street - Street Life (Green Linnet GLCD1222)

Four fine musicians, with over a century of collective experience in groups such as Planxty, De Dannan, The House Band and The Bothy Band, should be a recipe for some really exciting music. Unfortunately, it isn't. Not for the first time, Patrick Street have produced an album of dull and depressing material, and I wish I knew why.

Street Life opens with a set of well-worn jigs given a lacklustre treatment. There's no life or imagination in this set, and the tunes aren't even particularly well played: Boys of the Town is pretty shaky, especially on the box. There's a little bit of lift on The Frost is All Over, but not enough. Their rendition of King of the Pipers on the final track makes me want to open Patrick Street up and change their batteries: the only king it reminds me of is the one in Sleeping Beauty, nodding off for a hundred year slumber. Reels are similarly downbeat here: The Old Reel makes no attempt to hide its age, and Drowsy Maggie is usually a wonderfully punchy and vibrant tune but you can almost hear her snoring in this resolutely minor version. The closing trio of reels does finally strike some sparks from the box and fiddle, but it's too little too late for this CD.

As for the songs, you never heard such a miserable bunch. "Let my burial place be Monagea", ends Barna Hill. "Another good union man lies buried", mourns Down in Matewan. The Irish question is summed up as "eight hundred dreadful years" in If We Had Built a Wall, a song which was topical a decade ago. The traditional ballad Green Grows the Laurel closes with the uplifting words "My eyes are like fountains where the waters do flow": I'm tempted to say they don't write them like that any more, but they obviously do because the sentiments of Hugh MacDonald's song The Diamantina Drovere can be paraphrased as "It's been ten long years ... the years have surely gone ... it's been so long ... I won't be back". Cheerful or what?

If by Street Life they mean consumptive down-and-outs, I can see the relevance of this title. Death in Dark Alleys would be a more appropriate one. Sepulchral brass and maudlin vocals from Patrick Street's guests are added like the trimmings at an expensive funeral, and a final bizarre twist is the inclusion of a rather nice tune called Forget Your Troubles - yeah, right. If you're in the mood for this album, you might consider spending the money on a really big bottle of aspirins, or maybe a good old-fashioned razor.

Alex Monaghan December 2002

Skyedance - Live in Spain (Culburnie Records CUL 119D)

We expect energy, virtuosity and innovation from Skyedance, and these are all delivered with interest on their first live recording. Half the fifteen tracks here are basically live versions of material from a trio of previous albums: Way Out to Hope Street and Labyrinth, plus one or two tracks from Alasdair Fraser's Dawn Dance CD which had almost the same line-up. All three were magnificent, so I'll concentrate on the new additions.

Live in Spain brings in eight Spanish musicians from Galicia, Asturias and the Basque region. It opens with a foot-stomping medley of reels adapted from Alasdair Fraser's Dawn Dance and Skyedance albums, piper Eric Rigler duetting brilliantly with Asturian J-M Tejedor on gaita. Galicia is beautifully represented by Mercedes Peon, who sings her own song Marabilla with passion over a roller-coaster arrangement by Fraser and Machlis. Then it's straight into a demonic medley of Dinky Dorian's, two traditional Scottish tunes, and the great Cape Breton reel Molly Rankin by late lamented John Morris.

Eric Rigler's visceral solo A Stoir Mo Chroi on uilleann pipes serves as a counterpoint to excellent stage versions of several Skyedance favourites, including Chris Norman's Stoney Run with the addition of a giant Basque xylophone. The other song comes from Mikel Laboa, who highlights the pain and sadness which are often the price of freedom: the audience is captivated, but the language and the lack of context make this performance rather inaccessible. Not so the last three tracks, a heartfelt lament from Alasdair Fraser followed by two showpiece medleys. The final track is an opportunity for solo breaks from almost everyone, and the recording ends with shouts for more: I assume the encores will be released separately.

Live in Spain has everything you could want from a concert recording: bags of energy, sparkling solos, world-class guests, plenty of new material, and fresh takes on established favourites. With a running time of almost seventy minutes, there's no stinting on quantity either. If this is the sort of music that's available, I'd be quite happy to live in Spain.

Alex Monaghan December 2002

Natalie McMaster - Live (Greentrax CDTRAX238D)

Recently affianced, Canada's Natalie MacMaster isn't short of musical engagements. Here she's recorded two very different ones: a concert hall gig in Ontario, and a square dance in her native Cape Breton. For those of you who don't know Natalie, she's an outstanding young fiddler who can get away with wearing red trousers on stage: she can play and dance at the same time, and she's able to mix old and new genres to enhance both.

Disc 1 of this 2CD masterpiece is a stunning concert set which takes the reels, strathspeys and slow airs of Cape Breton and turns them into modern fiddle showpieces. The Jacobite strathspey Tullochgorum is the centrepiece of a medley which few fiddlers could even attempt, yet Natalie pulls it off with apparent ease: double stopping, dancing bow, ringing strings, the grace of Nathaniel Gow's slow air Coilsfield House at one extreme, and the power of The Dublin Reel at the other. Irish tunes feature on at least three other tracks, played with skill and style, and there are also a couple of mainstream US numbers including Mark O'Connor's demanding Olympic Reel which finishes this disc. I must also mention track 3, Torna A Surriento, a Latin medley which steals the show: eat your heart out, Ivonne Hernandez!

Disc 2 strips the big band down to a trio of fiddle, guitar and piano for the down home dance set. Natalie's feet are also in evidence, tapping out beat and counterbeat. All the Cape Breton classic tunes are here: Jerry's Beaver Hat, The Old King's Strathspey, The Gladstone, and many more. There's also a couple of the big medleys, ten or a dozen reels set end to end. To my mind, playing for dancing is the ultimate test of a fiddler: keeping the tunes going without missing a beat, keeping the tempo steady without losing the lift and swing that the dancers rely on. Natalie strolls through this test as if she's been doing it all her life, which is not surprising: she's been doing it all her life. If you still doubt her ability, listen to the final track which combines three testpieces: The Mouth of the Tobique, The Night We Had the Goats, and The Gravel Walk, awesome stuff.

Whether she's fronting a seven-piece show band or leading an acoustic trio, Natalie MacMaster stamps her authority on the music with a firm bow. Her personality shines through in the numerous whoops and asides, as well as in her imaginative variations on traditional tunes. The intensity and passion in her music is astonishing, yet her fiddling is totally controlled. A hundred minutes of Natalie is just too good an offer to miss.

Alex Monaghan December 2002

Joe Burke (with Charlie Lennon) - The Morning Mist (New Century Music NCMCD100)

What's to say? Joe Burke and Charlie Lennon have put out another CD! It's a cause for celebration. The legendary duo have produced the goods again. But you know they would ...

Among button-box players, Burke occupies a very special niche. He's been around since God knows when and what Burke doesn't know about extracting exquisite, intricate, captivating and soulful music from his instrument isn't worth knowing.

His lifetime of immersion in the art and craft of traditional music has given Burke a unique and inimitable approach to the accordion. Ornamentation that would cause many to despair simply flows from his fingers. His airs would break your heart, whereas his dance tunes seethe with unrestrained joy and great good humour.

To alight on this or that track may seem unnecessary, when Burke and Lennon appear incapable of wasting a note. However the ardent fan of the tradition will listen with amazement to the way in which Burke interweaves The Lament For Aughrim with The Return From Fingal. No less splendid is his rendering of The Green Fields Of Canada, a tune which we've only ever heard sung. And as for dance tunes ... if Burke doesn't get you striking sparks from the floor, then no-one else can or will.

(And special mention for one of the best names for a tune which we've come across in a long time - regular visitors to Pay The Reckoning will be well aware of our penchant for tune names! - Currants For Cakes And Raisins For Everything.)

Enough of the chat! Get yourself over to http://www.joeburkemusic.com and order up a copy.

Pay The Reckoning December 2002

Michael Kerry - The Rocky Road (Own label MPK 2001)

The mandolin is a cinderella instrument. Let's not get drawn into the sterile and futile debate about whether it's a traditional instrument or not - like many of the "four-course" string instruments, banjo, bouzouki, mandolas - the use of the mandolin by musicians to play Irish traditional music is a fact - get used to it! However its small size and consequent small volume means that it can't compete with the mass of much louder instruments commonly heard in sessions and therefore it's not heard quite as often as some would wish.

And so it's a delight to have a rare opportunity to listen to an album of tunes played exquisitely on mandolin by a musician whose taste and sensitivity are second to none.

We recently reviewed an another album, by Dan Beimborn (see Shatter The Calm below), whose approach contrasts with that adopted by Kerry. Whereas Beimborn is a muscular player whose music takes full advantage of ringing chords and a vigorous percussiveness, Kerry leans towards exploring the potential for embellishing and ornamenting tunes. Not so that they are overly ornate, but highly-coloured and textured.

There is much here to capture the imagination. Kerry gives us traditional tunes plus several of his own compositions which are as true to the tradition as the timeless tunes whose provenance is lost in the mists of time (tunes, which - as a friend of ours would doubtless say - have a quare tang of the turf off them!).

Like, say Martin Hayes on the fiddle, Kerry is no speed-junky. Instead he seeks to tease hidden facets from the tunes and while the overall effect is decidedly mellow, there is nevertheless a great deal of fire and grit in his determination to allow the tunes to reveal aspects which a more straight-ahead approach would fail to uncover. The man has a great ear, which suggests possibilities. And great hands, which allow him to give vent to those possibilities.

Several tracks are worthy of particular note. His version of Culhane's Jig/Out On The Ocean (the former also known as Sonny Brogan's Jig and Bill Hart's Favourite) is a revelation. These are two of Pay The Reckoning's favourite jigs and yet it had never occurred to us how perfectly they would partner one another. Kerry's keen sense of potential has suggested a combination which, when laid out before us, seems blindingly obvious ...

Kerry has a great affection for The Sligo Maid and given his ability to conjure imagery and emotion from the tune, it's little wonder!

But the highlight of the album is Kerry's haunting version of the melancholy, aching waltz Inisheer. Composed by Thomas Walsh who was pining after the languid pace of life on the smallest of the Aran Islands, Inisheer spotlights both Kerry's technical ability and his capacity to communicate the emotion at the tune's core. Playing tunes with long notes requires a confidence that few mandolinists possess. Kerry's up to the job and the delicacy of both mandolin and tune blend perfectly to create a rendition of great depth and subtlety.

A word of praise too for Kerry's guitar playing. As well as giving us a version of the set dance, Princess Royale, on solo guitar, Kerry provides guitar accompaniment throughout. His guitar style is thoughtful, fluid, illuminating and unobtrusive.

A welcome addition to the small, but thankfully growing, catalogue of CDs featuring the "Irish mandolin".

Available from http://www.michaelkerry.com

Pay The Reckoning December 2002

Liam Farrell and Joe Whelan - They Sailed Away From Dublin Bay (Irish Music In London) (Veteran VT141CD)

There's no denying that there's a wealth of great Irish music available on CD at the moment. The trad fan might feel him or herself spoilt for choice. Well, Pay The Reckoning recommends that that you do yourselves a mighty favour and invest in Liam Farrell and Joe Whelan's offering.

This is simply one of the most outstanding recordings it has been our pleasure to come across. Outstanding not because it breaks the mould. Nor does it come imbued with flash-bang wizardry. The collection is outstanding precisely because it does neither of these. It's a down to earth, solid set of tunes, played with restraint and taste by Farrell (banjo) and Whelan (accordeon), accompanied by Reg Hall on piano and given a hand on a number of tracks by the sprog of the outfit, James Carty (flute).

Farrell and Whelan are veterans of the Irish music explosion in 1950s London. The post-war rebuilding boom drew Irish people in their thousands into England and soon a tight network of Irish musicians developed. Camden Town and Holloway were among the areas of London where clusters within this network established themselves. However they came together in all quarters of the capital - Willesden, Kilburn, Cricklewood, Highbury and across the water in New Cross, Croydon, Fulham ...

Farrell and Whelan played with the best of them, in various ceili bands such as The Hibernian, The Four Courts and the Dunloe and in formal and informal sessions throughout London. They played alongside such luminaries as Sean Maguire, Roger Sherlock, Bobby Casey, Lucy Farr and Brendan McGlinchey. Visiting musicians such as Joe Burke, Paddy Carty, Paddy Fahy would seek out the crack and - again - Farrell and Whelan would get the word.

Before ever hearing a note, there's a tremendous frisson associated with the possibility of hearing music from players who rubbed shoulders and traded tunes with such legendary names. And then the CD hits the carousel and - from the opening bars of the first jig set (The Blooming Meadows/The Lark In The Morning) - all that experience immediately makes itself manifest. We weren't even thought of when these boys were first making their way in the Irish music world, but by God, listening to them play we can immediately imagine ourselves in that world of dark suits, smoky pubs and jostling dance-halls. A more innocent time perhaps, but a time when the Irish community in London - without any artificial props - created for itself a rich and vital sense of community, much of which centred on the music.

Music whose purpose was not just to please the ear. Dancing was a much more popular phenomenon than currently and most sizeable residential areas within London were host to large dancehalls where the Irish community would congregate at the weekends to fill the floors and trot the night away to the ceili bands. It's difficult at our current remove, where Irish music - even for the Irish community - has become a "niche" pursuit, to imagine the mass enthusiasm of the 50s. However, the eagerness of the Irish community for its native music at the time has probably only been surpassed by the great upsurge of interest in the tradition during the early part of the 20th Century in America.

That Farrell's and Whelan's talent was tempered in the white heat of such glory days is obvious in every phrase they play. They pull off the difficult trick of combining an individual style with an absolute command of rhythm and therefore appeal to the ear, the heart and the feet at the same time. This insistent, but in some cases, almost subliminal pulse runs through all of the sets on the album - on reel sets such as George White's Favourite/The Galway Rambler, Paul Brock's/Mary McNamara's, the superb Travers'/The Chicago Reel, The Maid Of Mount Cisco/The Abbey Reel and the glorious The Holly Bush/The Congress as well as jig sets such as Paddy O'Brien's/The Flying Wheelchair, Kathleen Hehir's/Moyglass Fair and Paddy Fahy's/The Rakes Of Clonmel.

But for our money the stand-out tracks on this album are a hornpipe set and a waltz set. On The Good Natured Man/The Fairy's Hornpipe, Farrell and Whelan demonstrate how the pulse which we mentioned earlier can be maintained even when a tune is highly ornamented. The first of the hornpipes in particular sees Whelan wring streams of crisp and starkly-etched triplets from his accordeon and yet the dynamic of the tune never falters beneath its rich top-dressing of ornamentation.

The other set which merits particular mention comprises the waltz from which the album derives its title combined with that supposedly unlucky tune, The Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow. There are fewer sounds in the world so instantly arresting as an Irish waltz played by gifted and intelligent players. We find that such tunes have a great sadness at their core - not the bitter, hopeless, wretched sadness of the grand airs - but a languid melancholy, a hold-me-tight-and-don't-let-me-go sense of dejection. Music that expresses the pain of saying goodbye - not forever as in the sense of a lament, but as near as damn it. The pain of parting; the pain of heart's desire being just out of reach. This is a set to leave the listeners swallowing hard on their drinks to dislodge the lumps in their throats, while the solemn dancers slowly circle the room ...

A word or two of praise to Reg Hall, whose vamping on the piano adds depth and colour to proceedings and to London-born James Carty whose approach to the music belies his generation. Here's a player who knows where to look for inspiration!

If any of the above seems remotely over the top, then we can only encourage you to listen to the album. You'll find that our fulsome praise is well-deserved and that this CD is a pure treasure!

A doffing of the cap to Veteran before we finish. Veteran are a small independent record label, devoted to capturing the finest in traditional music from across the British Isles. Their carefully selected catalogue features singers and musicians who reflect the vitality and power of traditional music. Veteran eschew the scattergun approach of some labels who record just about anyone in the hope of hitting on a genuine talent. Instead they record only those artists whose music is instinctive, honest and earthy and whose music is crying out to be captured and made available. Nor will you find too many "star names" in their catalogue (although there are a few totemic performers on their books, and more power to Veteran for securing them!) - the label is more concerned with the quality of the goods on offer than on the place of the artist in some artificial pecking order.

You may find it difficult to access Veteran recordings in the shops, so best to visit Veteran direct at http://www.veteran.co.uk or write to them at

Veteran
44 Old Street
Haughley
Stowmarket
Suffolk
IP14 3NX
UK

Pay The Reckoning November 2002

Aidan McMahon and Anthony Quigney with Donncha Moynihan - A Clare Conscience (Traditional Irish Music From County Clare) (QMC Music QMC001 - distributed by Red Hat Music)

One of the (many!) beauties of this soulful, simmering collection of tunes is its absolute rootedness in the timeless traditions of a county where traditional Irish music has, certainly in living memory, been at the heart of the social ebb and flow. Clare has produced players of outstanding quality, with a major impact on shaping the essential form of Irish music. Players such as Paddy Canny, PJ Hayes, Martin Hayes, Mary MacNamara, Peter O'Loughlin, and many others all subscribe to a particular vision, where the internal lilts and sighs of the tune are given precedence, where an unhurried approach yields greater depth and character than the headlong gallop.

McMahon (fiddle) and Quigney (flute) have a similar approach to the master-musicians name-checked above. They coax a sweetness from tunes that players with a less refined ear might well miss. Yet they don't neglect the insistent rhythm which underpins the tune. As much attention is given to the spaces between the notes as to the notes themselves; they create head-room for the tunes which respond by revealing new facets.

Pay The Reckoning has long been of the opinion that the essential "drama" of a tune lies within its melody and that overly fast and slavishly rhythmic playing creates a false drama - which might satisfy in a live setting, but which doesn't always repay close listening in a recorded format. The joy of playing which attends to the internal drama of the tune is that repeated listening yields more and more of the twists and turns, the variations and sometimes unconscious juxtapositions of two or more players, each concerned with exploring the tune and exploiting its emotional impact.

Therefore we're pleased to report that McMahon and Quigney have a musical radar which homes in on the emotional centres of the tunes which they play and - by dint of excellent musicianship and a lifetime of assimilating the intelligent and articulate styles of their native county - they are able to communicate that emotional content direct to the listener.

The listener will find him or herself reaching for the replay button on more than one occasion - be it to delight in the velvety smooth changes in the opening reel set (Callahan's/The Eel In The Sink/Love At The Endings) or to savour the unmistakably heart-felt and warm sentiments of Quigney's waltz "My Fair Tara".

And yet, for all of the beauty and grandeur on display, we found ourselves drawn to three tracks in particular. The first, a hugely evocative version of Scott Skinner's "Hector The hero" features Quigney's mellow and fluid flute-playing on a track which is more often associated with the fiddle.

The second is a set of reels "The Bellharbour/The Torn Jacket/The Ravelled Hank Of Yarn" which is absolutely peerless.

The third is a jig set "Garret Barry's/The Old Favourite". This will ring in your mind's ear for days afterwards. The first jig, of course, will be well-known to many in trad circles - fans and dabblers alike - from Paddy Keenan's electric performance on the Bothy Band's Live At The BBC album. But for all Paddy explored the wildness and power of the tune, his playing didn't show the melancholic facet which Quigney and McMahon explore. And as for "The Old Favourite" - let's just say that with its repeats and hiccups it's become our new favourite. An epic jig, whose pulse borders on the slide rhythm.

A supremely tasteful and sophisticated recording by players of outstanding quality. Special mention to Donncha Moynihan for very canny guitar and bouzouki accompaniment throughout and to Marie Quigney (accordion/piano), Ronan Moloney (bodhran) and Diamuid Moynihan (uilleann pipes) who make elegant guest appearances on various tracks.

More info available from http://www.mcmahon-quigney.com

Available via Red Hat Music at http://www.redhatmusic.com

Pay The Reckoning November 2002

Aoife Clancy - Silvery Moon (Appleseed Recordings APR CD 1065)

There are a raft of Irish musicians (and we know Aoife's Irish-American, but let's not quibble) whose work has its roots in traditional music who've branched out and struck a more contemporary vein - Mary Black, Dolores Keane, Maura O'Connell to name but a few. Add Aoife Clancy to the A-list, folks. For if the latterday musical direction of the chanteuses named above presses your buttons, then Clancy's latest album will have you captivated.

Like another fine singer whose solo star is in the ascendant - Cathy Ryan - Clancy is a former member of that spirited and hugely-talented outfit Cherish The Ladies. And like Ryan, the opportunity to pursue a solo career is less a throwing off of shackles and more a period of experimentation and self-discovery - an exciting time in any artist's career when their musical direction begins to cement.

For a woman with such a fine voice and such a command of various folk and contemporary idioms, many avenues are open. The lushness of this album is simply one string to her bow and we suspect that Clancy is capable of giving us a much rawer sound should she choose.

A slew of varied, carefully-chosen material includes traditional songs such as "Are You Sleepin' Maggie?", the title track and Daithi Sproule's new setting of "The Banks Of Sweet Primroses". More contemporary material includes Ron Kavana's "Reconciliation", Robbie O'Connell's "There Is Hope" and two songs from Clancy's guitarist, Mark Simos - "The Nightbird" and "Giving".

Particularly poignant is Clancy's duet with her father, the late Bobby Clancy, who died shortly after the album was recorded. Together they sing a wistful version of the old standard "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine". It remains to be seen how long it takes Aoife to recover from the loss of her dad and mentor. It's a hard knock and we hope she gets the courage and strength to soldier on and carry on the family tradition.

However as far as we're concerned, the musical high point of the album is the traditional Appalachian ballad "Across The Blue Mountains". Not only is the song an archetypal folk odyssey, the three-part harmony with Julee Glaub and Aoife O'Donovan is sublime. Instinctive, organic, constantly-shifting yet always right on the money, this is a track to send shivers of pleasure coursing up and down the spine of anyone who appreciates unadulterated, artless traditional music!

Available via Appleseed Records at http://www.appleseedrec.com

Pay The Reckoning November 2002

Brendan Begley - It Could Be A Good Night Yet! (Own Label, No Catalogue Number)

A comment in the sleeve notes of this superbly-presented debut solo struck a chord with Pay The Reckoning. Brendan thanks his family ... "the ones who had to put up with me throughout the time I was practising and struggling with the music". It called to mind Seamus Ennis's famous (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) remark about playing traditional music "First you must learn the grip. Then you must learn the talk ..."

Begley's comment seems strangely unnecessary. His music bears none of the hallmarks of practice or struggle. Instead both his box-playing and singing appear unforced and organic; they seem to come as easily to him as laughing or sighing to the rest of we less musical mortals. However the fact is that such facility with music - such fluency and confidence - come via hours of patient, individual hard labour. The virtuoso musician gains his or her virtuosity a fraction at a time. And the struggle isn't simply with the technical "systems" of his or her chosen instruments. The struggle is fought within the musician's heart and soul. We once received a very pertinent piece of advice from a respected musician, the apparent simplicity of which masks its very difficult message. "First you must decide what you want to do!"

Begley has decided what he wants to do. And though he hasn't articulated it, evident throughout this landmark recording is his mission to play and sing honest, unadulterated traditional music in the style of his musical forebears. His passion, his commitment, his unswerving pursuit of the golden fleece of taste and energy - these are traits that he wears on his sleeve for all the world to see.

We used the word "landmark" above. And it's a word that we have no intention of using lightly. The recording is a landmark in that this recording represents the latest offering in an unbroken thread which links the current generation of Sliabh Luachra musicians with the past generations who were, in their own ways, torch-bearers for all that informs the very best in Irish traditional music. Names such as Johnny O'Leary, Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford and, arguably the greatest exponent ever of the Sliabh Luachra style - Padraig O'Keeffe, appear in the sleeve notes not just as canonised, remote legends, but as players whose influence is very much live, tangible. Characters who have as much presence - if not more - than any flesh-and-blood musician in a community where music is at the core of its social and cultural life.

But anyway ... what of the tunes and the songs?

Well, as you'd expect of a musician from his neck of the woods, there's less emphasis on reels than is usually the case on an Irish traditional album. (In fact it's not until track 11 of 13 that we encounter any reels at all. That having been said it's a storming set - "Hunter's Purse/Green Mountain/Man Of The House/Matt Peoples".) Instead there are some saucily ornamented jigs (The Lonesome Jig/The Orphan/Muiris O Dalaigh, The Full-Rigged Ship/Tom Billie's/Ellen Leary's, Port an Bhand/Sean Coughlin's) and the more local variant, driving slides (John Murphy/Maurice Manley's/John Kelly's). The box is an instrument ideally suited to the playing of hornpipes, and so we have a number of these - Her Lovely Hair Was Flowing Down Her Back, which accompanies the air An Charraig Aonair, and Mary Mac's/The Sands/Corney Drew's. As regards the first-mentioned, written by Junior Crehan, Begley notes that Crehan also used the alternative title - which warrants a special place in the smoke-and-mirrors mythology of tune-names - Her Golden Hair Was Black!

All are handsomely played, of course, and with a grace and power which is spectacular. However the crowning glory of the album is the closing set of polkas (Jack Sweeney's/Jack Connell's/John Clifford's). Seldom heard, these are nevertheless grand tunes, played with vigour and a great sense of attack by Begley who throws in generous handfuls of quarter notes at each squeeze of the bellows.

And the songs! Well-chosen to match his deep, rich voice, songs such as Sliabh na mBan and An Buachaillin Ban stir up deep emotions. His rendering of Sigerson Clifford/Tim Dennehy's murder ballad The Tinkerwoman's Daughter is an expert example of how to sustain the listener's interest throughout a long narrative. Finally, his version of a song which his late father used to sing - Three Miles From Abha na Scail - is imbued with a sense of affection that elevates it beyond mere words and music.

An album which raises the spirit and quietly asserts itself as an instant classic.

If you have any difficulty tracking this down in your local trad CD outlet, then why not e-mail Brendan direct - breanndan@eircom.net

Pay The Reckoning November 2002

But don't just take our word for it. Trad music journalist Alex Monaghan has given Breandann's CD a listen and has this to say ...

This is old-style button box and pure traditional song from Kerry's Dingle peninsula. There's plenty of energy, plenty of good music, and plenty of humour too from a time-served musician and showman. Brendan's third solo recording includes five songs, evenly split between English and Gaelic, and eight sets of tunes with the emphasis on Munster forms: there's only the one set of reels to be found here, but plenty of jigs and polkas.

Among many fine tracks, I'd draw your attention to four outstanding ones. First is a song which is well known in Irish as Níl Na Lá, but which Brendan renders mainly in English. There's gentle comedy to the story, which describes a lifestyle of drinking and music-making all too rare nowadays. The English version goes by the name There's the Day, and came to Brendan from his Boys of the Lough colleague Cathal McConnell.

Second is that lone set of reels, into which Brendan puts all the power of his bosca beag. Well-known tunes all, they are seldom played with more bite. Ed Reavy's Hunter's Purse is punched out in double octaves, The Green Mountain is given extra depth by Brendan's left hand, the mighty Fear a'Tigh swaggers out majestically, and Matt Peoples' Reel completes the quartet with some meaty harmonies. You won't find flash modern triplets here: Brendan sticks to good old-fashioned rolls and trills.

My third choice starts with another Boys of the Lough connection. The Shetland jig The Full Rigged Ship was originally intended to convey the rolling motion of a sea-going vessel, but Brendan gives it a more stately interpretation here. It's followed by two jigs learnt from Johnny O'Leary, and played with all the vigour of the Sliabh Luachra tradition. Tom Billy's Jig is known throughout Ireland, and although Ellen Leary's is new to me it stands up well to its heavyweight companions.

You can't judge a Kerry box-player without hearing a set of polkas, and the one which ends this recording is as good as any. The three tunes here all commemorate Munster musicians: Jack Sweeney's, Jack Connell's, and John Clifford's are lovely polkas expertly played by Brendan. The tunes and the dance rhythm both come through loud and clear, with some nice little twists.

Most of this recording is gentle, unassuming music played for the pleasure of playing. This makes the occasional changes of gear all the more striking. There is some accompaniment on most tracks, but you wouldn't notice it if you weren't looking: to me, that's the hallmark of excellent accompaniment. Brendan is already well established as a fine box player in the Munster/Connaught style, and this latest CD maintains that reputation with apparent ease. If you can't find a copy locally, jump up and down in your favourite record shop until they get it - or just email Brendan at breanndan@eircom.net and ask him if he'd be good enough to sell you one.

Alex Monaghan November 2002

Harem Scarem - Let Them Eat Fishcake (Vertical Records VERTCD063)

Let's bid a warm welcome to a lavishly talented five-piece! Debut albums rarely come so well-rounded and consistently polished, particularly when the players have wide-ranging tastes. Harem Scarem have laid out a very varied stall (the words kaleidoscopic and smorgasbordic spring to mind), but - through having forged a strong group identity - the whole shebang hangs together incredibly well.

Ross Martin (guitars), Eilidh Shaw (fiddle, vocals), Sarah McFadyen (fiddle, vocals), Nuala Kennedy (wooden flute, F whistle, vocals) and Inge Thomson (accordion, silver flute, percussion, vocals) are joined on the album by Kris Drever (double bass) and Jonathan Ritch (piano). Together they cook up some incredibly tasty tune sets and deliver a generous handful of contemporary songs.

On some of the songs in particular ("Pray", "Never") they achieve a sublime delicacy which belies the muscularity of their approach to the tune sets. Whereas the album's closer "The Human Metrognome", with its generous splashes of 70s funky guitar, displays an altogether more upbeat side to their songwriting.

And do they ever cast their net wide for tunes! Cape Breton, Asturian, French, Scandinavian tunes sit alongside tunes in more familiar Scottish and Irish idioms. The interplay of instruments, the clever - though subtle - arrangements and the sheer individual virtuosity are remarkable. Here is a band that knows how to play and how to communicate the sheer joy of their playing. (It's very brave for a band to pop their cork a few bars into the first track, but that's Harem Scarem for you! Unless you've listened to the set in question, this comment will mean nothing ... so, go on, LISTEN!)

Two standing-out sets are the infectious "Du's Daein' Dat Aa Wrang" (Hardiman The Fiddler/Jean's & Fred's/Willie Smith's Reel/The Goat Island Ceilidh Band) and "Wrigley Heeed" (Miss Jennifer Wrigley/Andy's Head). The tune in honour of Jennifer Wrigley was written by McFadyen, who once took lessons from Wrigley. No doubt the teacher will be delighted on two accounts. Firstly by how far the student's fiddling has developed and secondly by having such a superb tune (worthy of Scott Skinner) named in her honour.

Harem Scarem are energetic, experimental and idiosyncratic. And yet they have a feel for the tradition that informs even their most contemporary moments. And if we have one criticism to make it's that the band adopts an air of self-deprecation which belies their musical sensitivity, their outrageous virtuosity and the fact that they are serious contenders for a place in the spotlight.

Find out more at http://www.haremscarem.co.uk and http://www.verticalrecords.co.uk

Pay The Reckoning November 2002

James Scott Skinner – The Strathspey King; Original Recordings Of The Great Scottish Fiddle Maestro 1905-1922 (Temple Records COMD2084)

Originally released by Topic in the 1970s, this re-processed collection of early recordings of the legendary Skinner is a real coup for Temple – a label which, it could be argued, is a more appropriate home for such an anthology. Skinner’s legacy is a rich vein which players from the Scottish and Irish traditions alike have mined for years. And there’s no doubt that his influence will continue to make its presence felt as long as there are strings on a fiddle or reeds in a pipe!

Many of Skinner’s tunes are, of course, very well-known having been played by many leading players in the genre. However Skinner’s own playing is less well-known. Now thanks to Temple’s re-issue, we have an opportunity to listen in a relatively distraction-free setting to the man himself rattle out his own, and a great number of traditional tunes.

The verdict? Skinner’s style is a world away from the earthy approach adopted by the current and recent generations of players who give us a more direct rendering of tunes. Skinner’s classical training manifests itself in techniques which are startling to those of us reared on a more minimalist approach. However the listener needs to bear in mind that Skinner was practising his art at a time when the Victorian influence was still current. The Victorian era is, of course, notorious for its sentimentality. As a product of his age, Skinner’s works reflects some of its concerns and motifs. His playing may appear at first listen to be rather more florid and romantic than that of leading exponents of the modern day. However a closer listen reveals a pithiness which has greater appeal.

The sensitive re-processing (using latest Cedar technology) deserves special mention. Too often the removal of superfluous noise from old cylinder and vinyl recordings results in a very flat sound. Thankfully, such cleansing has been approached in a non-mechanical manner and care has been taken to ensure that the music has not suffered as a result of over-zealous whizz-bangery. The sound is far from hi-fi, but it’s free from irritating pops and crackles and it’s warmer and more rich and well-rounded than we might have expected. (The inclusion of an unprocessed version of “The President” alongside the cleaned-up version illustrates perfectly.)

As for the tunes … Well, there’s a power of music on this collection. The Scottish approach to music has always welcomed mixing original tunes with traditional numbers to a greater extent than the Irish tradition where tune-making has always been viewed with a slight suspicion. Skinner’s music was so in tune with the Scottish tradition – and yet so indelibly stamped with his brand – that it’s little surprise that many of the pieces on this album have become standards. Tunes such as “Timour The Tartar”, “The Miller o’ Hirn”, “Cameron Highlanders” and “The Laird o’ Drunmblair” - to name but four tunes played at various points – are heavyweights in the traditional musician’s canon. The listener has an opportunity elsewhere to consider the truth of the claim made by many that “The Bonnie Lass o’ Bon Accord” is his finest tune.

Extensive sleeve-notes and biographies complete a fascinating package.

Our only regret is that the collection doesn’t feature a recording of Skinner playing his celebrated slow air “Hector The Hero”, since Tommy Peoples’ recording of Hector coupled with the aforementioned “Laird o’ Drumblair” on the Bothy Band’s “1975” album is a seminal moment in the kindling of Pay The Reckoning’s love-affair with traditional music!

Available via Temple Records at http://www.templerecords.co.uk

Pay The Reckoning November 2002

Jenny Crook & Henry Sears - Chasing the Dawn (Own Label TARJH 003)

I've been a fan of Jenny Crook's eclectic harp since she was a Young Tradition Award finalist in 1993. Her two albums with Cythara both merit a listen. Henry Sears played with Afterhours, another band worth hearing: his performances here on fiddle and whistle are very impressive. The combination of Jen and Hen is captivating, and deserves to be much better known.

So what do they do? Well it's half traditional and half original, but most of their own material is close to traditional idioms, and most of their traditional material is noticeably jazzed up. Henry's fiddle strikes sparks from Irish reels such as The Dawn and Tripping Down the Stairs, and his slightly breathy Chieftain low whistle weaves that Celtic magic on some lovely slower pieces. Jenny's harp is rock solid as an accompaniment, and angelic on the melody line. Her singing voice is perfectly suited to traditional material: eat your heart out, Bill Jones!

The original material includes the catchy slip-jig Joyride, the intriguingly titled reel Jenny Getting Pickled, and two songs which expand the frontiers of the English ballad. The Footpath to Farleigh is a real tear-jerker, taking the Dark-Eyed Sailor story and adding extra pathos: our hero and heroine have been apart for nine years, he was wounded but struggled back to her, and so forth. Under the Moon is a new twist on several stories: young girl is seduced, but revels in it, throwing her clothing to the four winds, and then she refuses the offer of marriage. Both songs are well written and beautifully performed, but you begin to wonder what Ms Crook gets up to in her spare time.

This is a true duo album, with no guests but lots of multi-tracking. Four hands and two mouths produce a surprisingly full sound, comparable to Anam at their best. The musicianship is exemplary, and almost every track is a winner. The sleeve notes are rather brief, and there's not much more information on the website (http://www.jenandhen.co.uk), but the music speaks for itself. I'm looking forward to seeing the live act.

Alex Monaghan November 2002

Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham - Spring the Whole Summer Long (Whirlie Records WHIRLIE CD8)

Once again, Phil and Aly waltz along the cliff edge of traditional music without falling into the abyss of easy listening. This recording actually has a bit more bite than their last one, with some evidence of a return to their Scottish roots. Don't expect tartan and haggis, though: the Scottish tradition is interpreted very broadly to include the North American diaspora as well as tunes from its Irish and Swedish neighbours, and all are sympathetically processed through Aly's fiddle and Phil's accordion and whistle. There's also some gentle backing on keyboards and strings, but that's barely noticeable most of the time.

If it's great tunes you want, there's no shortage here. Some will be familiar: the slip-jig Give Us a Drink of Water and the reel Far From Home have been recorded many times, and Phil's jig Gingerhog's #2 is almost as well-travelled. Bostonian Jerry Holland's march James Cameron has quickly become a favourite on the Scottish scene, and his revealingly titled Boo Baby's Lullaby is among the most beautiful modern fiddle tunes. Then there's Enviken's Waltz from Sweden, and Phil's slow air Eleanor of Usan, which both come close to Jerry Holland's benchmark. Four faster tracks are fitted in between the slow numbers, rounding off with an inspired set of reels.

No fireworks perhaps, but that's not the point. This is music for listening to, not dancing to, and for listening carefully to at that. It's full of nifty little twists and turns, and enlivened by understated humour (they keep the outrageous stuff for the live act). If you've a musical soul and you're over thirty, you'll appreciate this CD. If you're under thirty, slow down!

Alex Monaghan November 2002

Dermot Hyde & Tom Hake - Pipeline (Endirecto ECD007)

This duo came to my attention when they were the Folkworld editor's choice for 2001. Dermot Hyde is an uilleann piper, whistle-player, and accomplished singer with connections to both Ulster and Scotland, now based in Munich. He joins forces with multi-instrumentalist Tom Hake, a native German. Most of the material here was written by Dermot: three songs and eight tunes. There's also a handful of tunes by Dermot's brother Brendan the Edinburgh flute-player. The rest is traditional or close to it, from Ireland, Scotland and Galicia. It's all good, including the sleevenotes, and the catalogue number presumably means they're licensed to trill.

Dermot Hyde's playing is fluid, fast and full of variations. His compositions draw on the wilder side of Celtic music, and on Balkan and other modal traditions. The overall impression is of a Central European sound, heavy on bagpipes and strings, with swirling melodies and shifting rhythms. Things get a little blurred at times - Jean's Reel loses much of its impact - but mostly the effect is pleasant and exhilarating. Intersperse a few slow airs and some songs, and you have a recipe for fine entertainment. Dermot's own songs are interesting and carefully crafted, with the right mix of depths and shallows.

For variety, there's a fair helping of scat singing (a sort of jazz diddling perfected somewhere between Malin Head and Manhattan) and a couple of show-stealing Galician tracks. The slow air Maria Soliña is a clear highlight with Tom's harp taking the lead, and Spanish superstar Uxia provides the vocals for the big finish, a medley of Galician songs and tunes. There are very few weaknesses in Pipeline, and lots of strengths. You may be able to find this in the shops, but it's definitely worth the trouble of visiting http://www.pipeline-music.de to order a copy.

Alex Monaghan, November 2002

Various Cynical Artists - Bah! Humbug (Greentrax G2CD7007)

I challenge anyone to deny that before the year is out they'll have at least one brief moment when they're thoroughly sick of Christmas. This album is for that moment. For the more Scroogelike among you, this album is for the whole of December. Greentrax have collected a profiteer's dozen of the most jaded Yuletide ditties, from Tom Lehrer's 1954 classic Christmas Carol to Robin Laing's brand new oven-ready recording of The Man That Slits The Turkey's Throats At Christmas, and wrapped them in two tracks of self-indulgent frivolity.

There are belly laughs in Bill Barclay's The Twelve Days Of Christmas and Eric Bogle's Santa Bl**dy Claus, wry smiles in Tom Clelland's The Present and His Worship The Pig's Mary Christmas, and refreshing realism in Enoch Kent's and Loudon Wainwright's takes on the C word. The two helpings of Cyril Tawney contain deathless lines such as "No place for toss-pots at nativities" and "He tried to ram his lantern down his throat", but I'd have preferred a little less Cyril and a little more Loudon: It Isn't Over 'Til It's Over is sadly absent.

Minor grouches aside, this CD will slot very nicely between the cathedral choirs and the top twenty tacky tinsel tunes. It's the perfect accompaniment to those last few dozen slices of Christmas cake, or to reheated turkey curry. With its nice sharp edges, it's also the ultimate stocking-ripper for any nauseatingly jolly relatives. But don't buy your own copy yet: wait for the January sales.

Alex Monaghan November 2002

Ivonne Hernandez - Playing with Fire (Own Label PM10412)

Same old story - young, gifted, and Canadian. Fiddle prodigies seem to be as unremarkable as migrating moose these days. This beastie is a bit different, though. Ivonne Hernandez has more than a touch of Spanish ancestry, as you might have guessed, and there's plenty of Latin fire and dark passion n her music. The combination of Celtic tradition and Hispanic disposition is a powerful one, and may explain why Ivonne is Grand North American fiddle champion at the age of 19.

From Victoria in British Columbia, Ivonne embraces the music of Cape Breton, Quebec, Texas, and of course western Canada. Classics such as Reel Beatrice, Brenda Stubbert's, Andy Renwick's Ferret, Westphalia Waltz, and The Sailor's Wife are interspersed with languid Gord Stobbe compositions and frenzied stateside fiddling. Hernandez' Hispanic heritage comes through on most tracks, in the sensuous way she turns a tune, or in the sizzling arrangement. Her backing band of keyboard, drums, guitar and bass is discreet and versatile: sometimes it's a rock group, sometimes it's a jazz quartet, but mostly it just fits in perfectly with her fiddle. The indispensible Daniel Lappe provides some nice accompanying touches, and his tune Daughter's Waltz is a clear highlight. Jay Ungar's Wizard Walk is another stunner, showing Ivonne's technique and interpretation at their best.

Playing With Fire is an excellent showcase for a young fiddler with huge potential. It's exciting, innovative at times, and full of good music. Definitely worth a listen for fans of North American fiddle music. Watch out for Ivonne's next recording - I'd say it'll be red hot.

Alex Monaghan November 2002

Barachois - Naturel (House Party Productions HPP5)

With two previous albums under their belt, Barachois have established an energetic, quirky, almost clownish personality. Their combination of fiddles, foot percussion and French Canadian song has taken them round the world and back, and given them a reputation as one of the very best live acts around. From Prince Edward Island, Canada's smallest province, the four members of Barachois all sing, all dance, and all play the fiddle except Chuck Arsenault who only plays guitar, trumpet, tuba, French horn and tin sambo. I'd guess there isn't much distracting nightlife on PEI.

This recording covers all the styles from the extensive Barachois repertoire. There are driving fiddle tunes like the Maritime Reel Set, serious songs like En Haut de Ces Montagnes, a couple of novelty numbers including The Boxer and a Cajun medley, and numerous comic songs. Comedy is a large part of the Barachois offering, some of it visual but most of it aural: sound effects, funny voices, cackling and yodelling. Almost every track has its comic moments, but this aspect of Barachois is most obvious on the four "live" tracks which end the CD. Three of these were recorded in concert, and the audience obviously loved it. The fourth is a 5-minute collage of live recordings, archive tapes, step-dancing and amateur dramatics, both interesting and enjoyable.

Despite the air of good-natured chaos, Naturel is a highly polished production. The high-energy style can be a bit relentless, but if you're in the mood it's perfect. As an appetiser for the live act, it couldn't be better. Naturel is available from http://www.barachois.com if nowhere else. Give it a whirl.

Alex Monaghan November 2002

Altan - The Blue Idol (Virgin CDVE961 and Narada World 11955)

Altan's umpteenth album contains exactly the sort of high quality music we've come to expect from this Donegal supergroup. For those who felt their last recording was a little too mainstream commercial, Blue Idol is more down to earth. For those who liked the Nashville feel of Another Sky, the new CD still leans that way.

The opening two tracks are well-known songs in English, probably with Scots origins. Indeed, of the six songs here only two are in Irish Gaelic: although Mairead has a fine voice in any language, I for one would prefer to hear more Donegal Irish. The two Gaelic songs are clear highlights, great tunes behind powerful vocals with ear-grabbing arrangements. An Cailin Deas Og easily outshines the English translation The Pretty Young Girl which precedes it on this recording, and Cuach mo Lon Dubh Bui is a lively number given a thumping treatment with half a dozen guests.

Guests are something of a mixed blessing on this CD. Only one of the thirteen tracks seems to be free of them, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Paul Brady duets with Mairead on the opener Daily Growing, Liam O'Flynn brings back memories of The Brendan Voyage with his fluid piping on the Tourish/Kelly jig Roaring Water, and Jim Higgins' bodhran is busy throughout the album. Steve Cooney, Donal Lunny, and even Dolly Parton do their bit, along with several others. One particularly nice touch is the flute of young Ulsterman Harry Bradley: it's great to hear a flute again in an Altan line-up. Harry features on the title track, a set of three great jigs, and really comes to the fore on the Mother's Delight set of reels.

Curiously, although they have the lion's share of tracks, Altan's instrumentals don't stand out on this album. There are some great tunes, the ones I've mentioned plus a full-blooded set of Donegal highlands and a great medley to end the CD, but the songs have more impact somehow. The fiery fiddling doesn't come through, and the virtuosity is reined in. I know it's a studio album, but a bit more spontaneity wouldn't hurt. And when oh when will there be a live recording?

All in all, this is a polished professional album from the Altan we know and love. No great surprises, and perhaps their next one will reawaken the raw power of Donegal music. From anyone else this would be a truly great CD, but long-time Altan fans have very high expectations. If you buy Blue Idol, as I think you should, I leave you with this question: whatever happened to Daithi Sproule?

Alex Monaghan November 2002

Lunasa - Lunasa (Compass Records 7 4317 2)

Pay The Reckoning approaches a review of Lunasa's re-released debut with some trepidation. What's to be said that hasn't already been said (by many more authoritative than ourselves) about this startling and ground-breaking album by five of the tradition's most technically-gifted and insightful players? And how do you go about capturing in mere words the energy and drama of Lunasa's playing - musicianship which commands the ear and defies description?

Thankfully Compass Records has had the wisdom to re-issue one of the highlights of the 1990s. Lunasa were one of the very few bands who managed to generate the same sort of excitement which the Bothy Band sparked a whole generation earlier. There have been a few line-up changes since the debut, but that formative partnership of Donogh Hennessy (guitar), Trevor Hutchinson (double bass), Sean Smyth (fiddle, whistle), Mike McGoldrick (flute, low whistle) and John McSherry (uilleann pipes, low whistle) represents one of the most powerful, volcanic ensembles you could wish to assemble!

Occasionally it takes a mere few bars of an album to convince the listener that he or she is in the presence of truly great music. So it is with the opening track - "Lord Mayo/Gavotte/Maid Of Mount Kisco". To open with a stately march requires a degree of nerve and self-confidence that most bands simply don't possess. To say that Lunasa pull the feat off is an understatement - the march creates an exhilarating tension that is almost palpable, paving the way for a momentous resolution by way of the gavotte and reel which follow.

And so the pattern is established which carries throughout the album which combines traditional Irish tunes with the recently-composed and explores tunes from a variety of other folk traditons, including a superb rendition of the klezmer piece Frailock.

Compass's re-issue includes a bonus track, "Jacky Molard's/The Hunter's Purse". However the real pearl in this particular oyster is the replacement of the studio version of "Colonel Frazier" with a live version recorded 1n 1996 at Cork's Lobby Bar. This track is as exciting a piece of music as you can wish to hear. McSherry opens with a solo once-round on pipes before McGoldrick joins him for the first repeat. At this point McSherry closes the drones, lending a degree of brightness to the sound. At the second repeat - when the pair are joined by Smyth - McSherry opens the drones again and from this moment on the power of three crack players armed with one of the most potent tunes in the tradition is unquestionable.

If you haven't got a copy, then no time like the present to get your hands on one of the most incendiary traditional albums of recent years.

Go to http://www.compassrecords.com for further information.

Pay The Reckoning November 2002

Ben Paley & Tab Hunter - Dolor Ipse (Twexlpod Records TWEXCD-003)

Where can you get your hands on a fiddle and guitar album that clocks in at well over an hour with 21 tracks and manages to comprise American Old-Time tunes, Irish reels and jigs, Northumbrian tunes, Swedish tunes, Jewish wedding music, tunes from the Shetlands and the Pyrenees? (Plus a self-composed 10/8 tune - get your head around that one, folks!) And all played with gusto, finesse and breathtaking virtuosity?

Nowhere, you might think. But you'd be wrong. For Ben Paley and Tab Hunter, from England's bohemian South Coast, have pulled off the near-impossible trick off assembling a diverse and eclectic album which manages to remain resolutely "authentic" at the same time as being imbued with a great deal of their individual personalities.

Paley's the fiddler of the pair and a well-read one to boot. Expressive and lyrical, his gracings are a pleasure to the ear. Hunter's the guitarist; a man with a remarkable ability to combine an on-the-money steadiness with expressive, smile-inducing flurries and runs. His playing transcends mere accompaniment; it's a vital component of the pair's overall sound. Whatever he does, however it might, on occasion, confound your expectations, his playing is always "right", always creating exactly the sort of mood that the particular tune requires, or the element of harmony which spotlights a particular phrase.

We at Pay The Reckoning have to confess to a blissful lack of knowledge of some of the traditions which Paley and Hunter explore, particularly the Eastern European and Scandinavian traditions. However the beauty of their approach to making music is that such ignorance doesn't matter. Neither individual is tight-arsed or po-faced. The key questions are ... Did it affect you? Did you tap your foot? Did they raise a smile? Did you hit the repeat button?

The answer in all cases is a resounding yes. We may not know a great deal about polskas or bulgars or horos or brudlats. But we do know fine tunes when we hear them. And we know controlled, yet emotionally-involved, playing when we hear it. And so we warmed immediately to tunes such as "Vallpigan", "Fun der Chupah", "Dickapolskan/Polska efter Pal Karl Persson", "Sormlandsk Brudlat/Kruspolskan" and "Odessa Bulgar/Bessarabye Horo".

We were on terra cognita (sorry about the Latin ... but the album's title has got us to thinking in dead languages!) with the remainder of the album. The Old-Timey tunes such as "Glory In The Meeting House", "Done Gone", "Over The Waterfall", "Johnson Boys", "Grub Spring" and "Little Rabbit", called to mind some of the great moments on albums such as The Watson Family. Candid, vigorous, infectious music, yet underpinned by remarkable virtuosity.

And as for tunes from the British, Irish and Scottish traditions. Well ... they were the litmus test ... and yet again the pair proved their mettle. On reel sets such as "Man Of The House/The Earl's Chair", "The Durham Rangers/The Morpeth Rant" "Ship In The Clouds/Big Scioty" and two of Jackson's reels, their feel for the music is abundantly obvious. And as for the jig set "Old Hag You Have Killed Me!/Fraher's Jig" ... You could easily be mistaken for thinking the lads hail from some place with Bally or Derry or Kil in the name!

This is a generous offering from players for whom passion and integrity are guiding musical principles. Above all else it's a "fun" listen. Neither player is remotely self-conscious. (Mind you with such talent at their disposal, they can both afford to be less uptight than most!) The result is music that seeks to connect, to include rather than to exclude.

Give them a listen. Go to http://www.blazingstrings.com

Pay The Reckoning October 2002

Jimmy Morrison - The Piper's Rest (Own label, distributed by Red Hat Music, no catalogue number)

County Cork-based piper Morrison has put together a highly entertaining and thoughtful collection of tunes for us. He's joined by a very steady crew - Gearoid O Duinnin (guitar, dobro), Christy Leahy (accordion), Dan Herlihy (accordion), Connie Moynihan (fiddle), Daragh O'Reilly (vocals, guitar), Oliver McCarthy (vocals), Keith Ansboro (percussion) and Tommy Martin (low whistle) - whose performances are top-rate. More power to Morrison for giving space on "his" album to O'Reilly and McCarthy who give us solo performances of "The Boys From The County Mayo" and "Lord Randall" respectively. There's many a musician would be too precious about their recordings to be so generous!

The album is a diverse and eclectic collection of tunes - mostly traditional, but a few composed by Morrison himself. The Sliabh Luachra style has been a big influence on Morrison and is represented in two outstanding sets, "John Walshe's Polka/Killoran's Polka/Jimmy Doyle's Polka" and "Dan Herlihy's Slides".

However his musical tastes range widely and there's a storming reel set with a Cork/Kerry influence (Pay The Girl Her Fourpence/Piper's Despair) alongside tunes from Donegal (Dermot Byrne's Jigs; Tommy Peoples' Reel) and the far west (The Trip To Sligo/Na Ceannabhain Bhaine which he teams with a Sliabh Luachra jig, The Cordal).

Three cuts on the album warrant special mention. The first is Morrison's measured and fluent version of James Keane's stately hornpipe, "The Morning Mist". An education for any piper! Morrison makes full use of the instrument's ability to capture nuances and ornaments, in the process giving us as expressive a delivery as it's possible to imagine.

The second track which we felt compelled to highlight is the set of hornpipes "The Tailor's Twist/Byrne's Hornpipe". Never mind the fact that the first tune in particular is one of our all-time faviourites. If we hadn't heard the tune before we'd have been knocked head over heels by Morrison's energetic, yet subtle, delivery.

But the standing-out track is one of Morrison's own compositions, the title tune "The Piper's Rest". A march with a real sense of jauntiness underlying the regularity of its beat, it's little wonder that Morrison's wife chose this as her bridal march.

An album which deserves the attention of all those who hanker after genuine, honest playing by genuine, honest and generous players.

Available via the ever-tasteful Red Hat Music at http://www.redhatmusic.com

Pay The Reckoning October 2002

The Woods Band - Music From The Four Corners Of Hell (Four Corners Of Hell Ltd FCH-0001)

Terry Woods' latest outing brings together the disparate threads of his long and illustrious career (Gay and Terry Woods, Sweeney's Men, The Pogues, The Bucks to name but several of the top-notch outfits whose music he has helped shape) into a thoughtful, muscular and superbly well-crafted set of songs.

Comparisons with Woods' previous outings are inevitable and the inclusion of the song "Love On Tillery", which he co-wrote with Spider Stacey will doubtless cause listeners to focus on the Pogues' connection. However Woods isn't one for looking over his shoulder. It's obvious from the word go that he's drawn on all his experience to establish a very personal musical direction - a highly energised approach, firmly anchored by David "Sparky" Hughes' bass, Steve Browne's percussion and Dave Browne's guitar work. Over the top of this solid foundation, Paul Harrigan lays down some tasty accordion, whistle and pipes and Shane Martin provides powerful, yet natural and unforced, vocals. The icing on the cake is Woods' intricate, imaginative and precise work on mandolin, cittern, bouzouki, 5-string banjo, acoustic guitar and concertina.

The songs are a mixture of trad ballads and more contemporary songs. On the trad side the CD contains the band's versions of "As I Roved Out", "The Spanish Lady", "Finnegan's Wake", "Terence's Farewell", "The Dublin Jack Of All Trades" (with a very welcome and highly efective guest appearance by Ronnie Drew) and "Leave Her Johnny, Leave Her". There's Woods' collaboration with Spider Stacey as mentioned above as well as three well-observed and raw self-compositions, "Kilmainham's Glen", "DeValera's Green Isle" and "The Grosse Isle Lament". The surprise track is a blistering rendition of "Sea Of Heartbreak". Leave any preconceptions behind; this is as powerful a version of the song as Johnny Cash's recentish cover.

The album is conclusive proof of Woods' talents not just as a musician and songwriter, but as a musical director with the ability to assemble a premier league crew of musicians, enthuse them with his vision and ensure that the end result surpasses all expectations.

The only disappointment is that the album doesn't contain a few sets of dance tunes or brooding instrumentals such as his fine Battle Bridge Medley, thereby allowing his talents on a multitude of instruments free rein and giving them a moment or two in the spotlight. Maybe next time, Terry?

Pay The Reckoning October 2002

Eamonn Coyne – Through The Round Window (Compass Records 7 4345 2)

Coyne’s banjo style is a refreshing change in a world where much tenor banjo playing is difficult to distinguish from automatic gunfire!

Coyne’s approach to the banjo is laidback and melodic. Which is not to say that he isn’t supremely able to grasp the opportunity for tasteful embellishment; simply that he doesn’t relegate the tune to a role of being a vehicle for pyrotechnics and rattledom.  And which, similarly, isn't to say that Coyne is incapable of playing at a quare lick; simply that he seems to have a preference for playing at a speed which is both easy on the ear and allows him to truly express something of the soul of the tune.  (A speed - as a friend of ours might well remark - "you could dance to".)

He has assembled a bunch of equally imaginative and sensitive co-conspirators - Alison Brown, Dermot Byrne, Ciaran Curran, Kevin Doherty, Kendrick Freeman, Jimmy Higgins, Russell Hunter, Pat Marsh, Michael McGoldrick, Tom Morrow, Paul O'Driscoll and Sandy Wright.  The range of talent to whom he has access means that Coyne is pepared to step outside the boundaries of traditional Irish music from time to time - therefore we have some very tasty jazz-inflected acompaniment in a set of three barndances which goes under the banner Western Swing and which incorporates Shannon Waves and Memories of Sligo.  And we have a banjo duet with Alison Brown (5-string) where the pair give us a idiosyncratic version of three American old-time favourites - Oh, Susanna/Clinch Mountain Backstep/Bill Cheatham.

Likewise his broad musical vision inspired him to invite singer-songwriter Kevin Doherty to contribute two of his self-penned songs to the album - the plaintive Mary J and the bluesy Long Road.

However it's for trad tunes that Coyne's best known and they form the backbone of the album. From the opening set of jigs, through mazurkas, highlands and reels, Coyne displays a deftness of touch and a great knack for combining tunes to great effect.  Nowhere is this more evident on two highlights of the album, "Sailing Into Walpole's Marsh/Cregg's Pipes" and "The Ash Plant/Kitty Gone A-Milking/The Tap Room".  On the former set he is joined by Michael McGoldrick and Pat Marsh; on the latter by Dermot Byrne and Ciaran Curran.  While both sets benefit from the very different styles of the players, they are both imbued with a real feel for the music and a genuine regard for each others' talents.

As if that isn't treat enough for us, the final track is by far the tastiest morsel.  Coyne thanks his fellow musicians handsomely, but takes a final opportunity to give us a track featuring just himself on banjo and tenor guitar.  This set - The Fairy Jig/The Drink Of Water/An Phis Fliuich - shows Coyne at his most relaxed and every phrase is a compelling testimony to a player who is performing at peak! 

And a word of caution ...  Don't switch off when this supposedly final track appears to have come to an end.  A few seconds' perseverance will yield dividends as Eamonn's granny - Ethna Coyne - picks up the accordion and gives us a charming and guileless performance with Eamonn of a snatch of a polka, before singing a few verses of The Little Beggarman.  Eamonn joins her for a few bars of the tune to round the album off with a moment of intergenerational music-making.

Through The Round Window has already established itself as one of our all-time favourite banjo albums.  Coyne's easy-going style and great sense of musical direction have propelled him into the spotlight and it's likely he'll stay there for some time.

Available courtesy of Compass Records http://www.compassrecords.com, whose catalogue is a mouth-watering delight for the lover of traditional music.

Find out about the man himself at http://www.eamonncoyne.com

Pay The Reckoning October 2002

Niall and Cillian Vallely - Callan Bridge (Compass Records 7 4348 2)

2002 has been a great year for Ireland's Orchard County. Not only did it see the boys in Orange and White win the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Championship, but 2002 saw the release of this superb CD by two members of the famous (and industrious!) Armagh musical dynasty.

To describe this CD as essential is to do it a great disservice. Instead it's a benchmark for tasteful, fluid and highly-spirited playing by two of the premier exponents of their craft. Niall (concertina) and Cillian (pipes, various whistles) have an advantage over many musicians in that traditional music is central to their family's daily life. But sheer exposure alone doesn't account for the level of technical expertise which both men have achieved. Nor does it account for the degree of feeling and drive.

The fact is that both players have a passion for the music that permitted to only very few. That passion gives rise to a respect for the tune and a deep appreciation for its effects on the listener that in turn drives performances which are truly spectacular in their virtuosity.

Highlighting this or that tune or set in so accomplished an album is both difficult and, frankly, unnecessary. However certain moments stood out. Such as the album's opening reel set "The Reel Of Rio/All Round The Room/The Merry Thatcher", which instantly commanded our attention. Cillian's solo version of An Buachaill Caol Dubh comes highly recommended. We're willing to stick our neck out here and put it on record that this is by far the most affecting version of the air which we've heard to date (and we've heard quite a few pipers play the tune, and to great effect to boot!). Not to be outdone, Niall gives us an equally moving solo version of An Buachaillin Ban.

The closing reel set (The Old Bush/The Pretty Girls Of Mayo/The Tinker's Reel/Miss McDonald) gets as close as any on the album to capturing the essence of the brothers' approach as a duo. Their instinctive feel for the direction one or the other will choose to take is much in evidence. Each has the virtuoso's ability to combine complete and utter abandon with perfect control. The result is a blistering, yet thoughtful and fresh, performance.

Special mention is due to the various accompanists, John Doyle (guitar), Paul Meehan (guitar), Caoimhin Vallely (piano) and Donal Clancy (guitar) who do a lot more than simply ground the brothers' music. The accompaniment on this fine collection could, indeed, serve on its own as a comprehensive sourcebook for tasteful, colourful and intelligent backing.

Available courtesy of Compass Records http://www.compassrecords.com

Pay The Reckoning October 2002

John Wynne - With Every Breath (UPROS Music CD 001)

Many of Pay The Reckoning's audience will be familiar with Wynne, who plays flute and whistle with ace ensemble Providence and who has appeared as a guest artist on a number of superb CDs in recent years.

This, his 2000 solo album, will warm the heart of the fan of honest, sincere and fluid musicianship. Wynne's integrity and passion shine through this CD like a beacon.

His choice of material is exemplary. Old standards are set alongside less common tunes with the effect firstly of shedding new light on the well-known and secondly of making the unfamiliar tune appeal instantly to the ear.

Wynne's playing lacks the aggression and force of some of the recent crop of flautists. Relaxed and in control, Wynne instead prefers to allow the tunes to ooze from his flute. His ornamentation is restrained and graceful, avoiding cheap tricks in favour of poise and soulfulness.

The opening track on any CD is key to capturing the listener's attention and Wynne's first set of reels "Garret Barry's/The Eel In The SInk/Tom Sullivan's" is instantly captivating. He follows this set up with three single jigs "Captain White's/Ellis' Jig/This Is My Love, Do You Like Her?". The final tune in this set will be familiar to many as one of the Bothy Band's show-stoppers. However the jigs which precede it are no less interesting and Ellis' Jig in particular has some, ahem, interesting connections given that it is purported to have been written by a hangman by the name of Ellis whose boast was that criminals would dance a jig at the end of his rope. God help the poor buggers, but they could have died to a worse tune!

And so the CD proceeds, one exquisitely assembled and superbly executed (no pun intended) set after another. The combination of the song and hornpipe "George Brabazon/Jim Coleman's" is a thoughtful and affecting marriage which leads us to as fine a set of reels "Darby's Farewell/Fr O Grady's Trip To Bocca/The Lansdowne Lassies" as you're likely to hear.

The three polkas which follow (The Kerry Cow/John Walsh's No 1/Sean Hennigan's) make for a very lively set and prove that it's not only the Kerrymen who have the monopoly on rendering the 2/4 tunes to great effect.

Three oustanding sets deserve special mention. His verson of Martin Wynne's reels Numbers 1, 2 and 3 is an amazing piece of musicianship. His coupling of the classical piece Pachebel's Canon (adapted in a trad style and renamed Pachebel's Frolics by Connemara's Liz and Yvone Kane) with Paddy Fahy's reel is an engaging set. The unfamiliar, but compelling, logic of the first resolves with the first few bars of Fahy's reel.

Finally Wynne's flute trio with sister Liz and fiancee Orla McAtavie (The Coolinerne/The Lisagun/The Dark-Haired Lass) is a master-stroke. The closeness of the three is evident when all three play in unison; where they opt for a more "arranged" approach, their mutual empathy (telepathy?) assures the listener of an aural treat!

As well as McAtavie and Liz Wynne, Wynne is assisted on this CD by a lively and talented bunch of accomplices who comprise Terry Crehan (fiddle), Al Cowan (djembe), Paul Doyle (guitars, bouzoukis, keyboards), Brian McGrath (piano), Tom Morrow (fiddle), Seamus O'Kane (bodhran, bones) and Noel Ryan (guitar). All involved play their hearts out and, while they certainly make their presence felt, they never overshadow the man of the moment! Particular mention is due to Doyle's often "unconventional" techniques, such as his injection of a little slide guitar. Other, less subtle accompanists might have used such approaches to ill effect. However Doyle's work is interesting without ever once jarring, sparing rather than blatant, providing light and shade rather than obscuring Wynne's music.

Find out more at http://www.john-wynne.com.

Available in the UK via Copperplate, whose consistently inspired sense of direction has given rise to one of the most stimulating and essential catalogues of traditional Irish music. See for yourself at http://go.to/copperplate.

Pay The Reckoning October 2002

The McCarthys - The Family Album (Maree Music MMC CD54)

The McCarthy family have, over the course of many years, made a magnificent contribution to Irish traditional music. Jacqueline (concertina), Marion (uilleann pipes and whistle), Bernadette (fiddle and piano) and Tommy Junior (fiddle) are skilled and sensitive musicians. On this outing they are joined by their spouses Tommy Keane (flute and fiddle), Johnny Giles (whistle), Henry Benagh (fiddle) and Louise Costello (button accordion).

The album was conceived as a tribute to the patriarch of the family, the multi-instrumental Tommy Senior, a long-time stalwart of the traditional scene in North London where he befriended a host of the stars of the emigrant musical population, among them Bobby Casey, Danny Meehan, PJ Crotyty, Raymond Roland, Paddy Taylor, Roger Sherlock and Mairtin Byrnes.

It is rare in these days of increasingly, ahem, "sophisticated" recordings of traditional music to be presented with an album of unaccompanied ensemble playing. And for that reason, if for no other, the McCarthy's latest venture will garner a great deal of attention. But it's the quality of the playing that captures the ear and the imagination. All who contribute to this mighty album are masters of their various instruments and - whether playing solo or in ensemble - have an intuitive knack of finding a way of presenting the music that transcends a mere "reading" and instead delights the ear. Not through flashiness or trickery, but through sheer sensitivity and insight.

In various combinations, the musicians give us a selection of tunes which resonate with memories of great players of the recent past. The McCarthy's didn't just learn music - they absorbed it. They don't just play music - they live and breathe it.

The closeness of the familial ties manifests itself in the playing. This is a rich, warm and embracing style of presenting the music, where each individual's contribution is welcomed, valued and respected. Where two or more players inspire each other when they play together and yet where the solo performance - such as Jacqueline's blinding version of "The Ace and Deuce of Piping" - is equally appreciated.

The overall effect of the album is that of being invited into a private session by the cream of the crop. The only elements missing arethe banter and the clink of bottles and glasses (although the former is there in spirit in the playing itself, which is as conversational as you could possibly imagine).

There are some big set-pieces on the album, where all four McCarthys play together - "My Love Is In America/The Milliner's Daughter", "The Tempest/The Steampacket", "Will You come Home With Me?/Garrett Barry's", "The Pinch Of Snuff/Come West Along The Road", "The Rolling Wave/Alexander's March".

And there are sets where even more musicians chip in - "An Buachaill Dreoite/Kitty Got A Clinking Cioming From The Fair", "The Gold Ring", "Last Night's Fun/The Pullet" and the closing track - and a highlight of the album - Charlie Lennon's recent composition Tommy McCarthy's Jig, in honour of Tommy Senior.

Elsewhere various players take turns, solo or in smaller combinations, to give us more personal renderings of tunes. We've already mentioned Jacqueline's superb verson of "The Ace and Deuce". However other equally tasteful offerings include Bernadette's solo version of "Statia Donelly/The Humours of Ennistymon", Tommy Junior and Louise Costello's perfectly-judged duet "Down The Back Lane/Petticoat Loose" and a stunning solo by Marion "Tom Ennis'/Old Tipperary".

A special place is reserved on the album for three archive recordings of Tommy Senior as he plays "The Drunken Landlady" on whistle and "The Shyan Hornpipe" and "The Foxhunter's Reel" on concertina.

It's rare that an album so uncluttered, so faultless, so generous and so quietly powerful makes the light of day.

Available via Maree Music direct http://www.iol.ie/~marmusic. Or distributed in the UK by Copperplate Records http://go.to/copperplate - an outfit which distinguish themselves by having assembled a roster of musicians of the highest quality. Their catalogue is one of the most interesting assembled in the UK. But don't take our word for it ... pay the good people of Copperplate a visit and see for yourself!

Pay The Reckoning October 2002

Dan Beimborn - Shatter The Calm (Crufty Music CRUFTCD001 DB2589)

A monumental debut from San Jose's Beimborn, a compelling musician whose mastery of the mandolin/bouzouki/banjo family of instruments is phenomenal!

Beimborn's playing doesn't just grab the listener's attention, it commandeers it. He makes full use of opportunities to embellish and ornament each tune, not in a tricksy or ostentatious manner, but in a way which colours, shades and personalises the music.

Supported at various points by Paul Kotapish (guitar), Zan McLeod (guitar, octave mandolin and percussion) and Asher Gray (bodhran), the arrangements are powerful and direct.

The album's opener, a set of jigs "Sliabh Russell/Peter Barnes/Indian Summer", give a real flavour of what's to come. Superbly played, energetic, incredibly rhythmic, the set gives way to three reels ("The Eagle's Whistle/Stenson's No 2/The Earl's Chair") in which Beimborn subtly subverts the listener's expectations by taking a few liberties with the first reel before "straightening out".

Having established his credentials, Beimborn switches focus for a moment to his home country, in the process giving us one of the album's outstanding performances - a version of the tunes "Midnight On The Water/Whisky Before Breakfast". Never have we heard such a glorious version of the first tune, an old-timey waltz which has become very popular in Irish trad circles (presumably via Ron Kavana's adaptation?). Beimborn experiments with tuning to take full advantage of possibilities for colouring the tunes with drones and part-chords. The launch from the waltz to the sheer drive of the second tune is explosive!

Via jigs ("The Hearty Boys Of Ballymote/Dan Collin's Father's Jig/Con Cassidy's") through polkas ("The Finnish Polka/O'Keeffee's/Matthew's Polka") we arrive at his solo, restrained reading of Terry Woods' "The Battle March Medley" (which appeared on some versions of The Pogues' album "If I Should Fall From Grace With God"). This is Beimborn at his best, giving us an unaccompanied and passionate version of a tune which has personal associations. He writes in the liner notes that when he first heard the tune he "... felt the hair on the back of (his) neck stand up". The effect of Beimborn's playing is no less dramatic!

A keen ear for balancing sets sees Beimborn couple the beautiful "Stirling Castle" with the buoyant "Shetland Fiddler" and "Jackson's Morning Brush" with "I Buried My Wife And Danced On Top Of Her", a tune which looks set to win the Pay The Reckoning award for most ubiquitous jig of the moment. Beimborn, however, gives the tune renewed interest.

"The Hanged Man's Reel" is a haunting piece which leads us into the adrenaline territory of two slides "Let Down The Blade/Kiely's Slide".

Beimborn turns his hand to three mazurkas which he learned from the playing of John Doherty. Pay The Reckoning has never been behind the door in proclaiming the genius of the Donegal fiddler and we're pleased to see his influence reassert itself in Beimborn's work. Beimborn's sensitivity and tact manifest themselves in this set. Mazurkas, cinderellas of the trad genre, are extremely affecting when played by a musician with real soul and Beimborn is the ideal man for the job at hand!

And then, abruptly changing rhythm, pace and instrumentation, Beimborn whacks out three reels ("The Mason's Apron/Tam Lin/The Banjo Reel") on banjo. The first and second reels in the set need no introduction. Suffice to say that Beimborn's approach is surprisingly - and refreshingly - restrained, particularly on the "Apron", which some musicians use as an excuse to show just how fast they can play! The final reel in the set is of interest as it's one of Beimborn's own compositions. A tune ideally suited to the banjo, it's a very catchy, quirky and yet utterly logical tune and one which will grace many a session as Beimborn's reputation grows.

A Galician tune "Aires de Pontevedra" gives way to Beimborn's finale, a version of Shane MacGowan's waltz "Shanne Bradley". Yet again Beimborn tips his hat to the North London collective, who have often been derided by (some) traditional musicians who have failed to appreciate just how accomplished MacGowan and his motley crew actually were!

The liner notes contain pictures of the instruments which Beimborn used in making the album, along with little snippets of info about each. For the mandolinist/zouk player, this is the equivalent of pornography. We found ourselves peeking furtively at the shot of his Smith 10-string bouzouki and his Sobell 10-string mandola ...

But, the music's the thing and Beimborn's music is the real thing. Real passion, real guts, real commitment. A man with an educated palate and a willingness to take risks. A talent ready to make a terrific impact on the trad scene. Pay The Reckoning wishes the guy well.

Find out more at http://www.celticmusic.com/dan

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Nigel Stonier - Brimstone and Blue (Flying Sparks Records TDBCD063)

A collection of new songs by one of the key members of the Reel And Soul Association whose recent CD on Flying Sparks Records remains one of our albums of the moment!

Stonier possesses a keen eye for detail and an acutely fine-tuned musical radar. The CD is superbly produced, and packed to the gunwales with tasty songs, carefully and powerfully arranged.

The opening track, "Tricks", sets the tone. True love gone cold. A series of wry metaphors which illuminate rather than skirt. The message is clear.

As we all know, the essence of good songwriting - as exemplified by the likes of John Prine, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt - is the ability in few words to condense an entire life's experience so that the listener is able to fill in the gaps and walk for a few moments in the subject's shoes. The songs don't need to explain, to excuse, to rationalise ... as long as they capture some essential truths, then they succeed.

Measured against these criteria, Stonier's songs invariably succeed. From the sheer joy of romantic entanglement in "Love And Love And That Sort Of Thing" ("... the town needs painting and it's waiting for us ...") to the melancholy remembrance of love that's passed in "Blue Shadow", Stonier captures feelings that we've all surely felt at one point or other in our lives.

But for our money two songs on this collection cry out to be listened to time and again. "Me and St. Jude" is an instant classic; melancholy without being self-pitying, clever without being artful. And we couldn't help but crack a smile at Stonier's off-the-cuff allusion to "Hey Jude". "...he'll take a sad song and make it much worse ...".

The album's closer "One For The Ditch" paints an almost Hogarthian picture of life's ne'er-do-wells, hangers-on, willing and unwitting accomplices. A motley crew who we know only too well and with whom we've rubbed shoulders and for whom we have the same sort of affection as Stonier. The album's closing lines will ring in your ears for a long time after the disc has stopped spinning. "A toast to the mess/And a drunkard's God bless/And then thank you/Goodnight"

Stonier is given top-drawer support from Paul Burgess, Thea Gilmore, Rod Clements, Dave Hull-Denholm, Chris Leslie and Robbie McIntosh.

Find out more about the man and his music at http://www.nigel-stonier.com

Pay The Reckoning October 2002

Dawn Kenny - Through The Loop (Run Records RRCDA2)

Occasionally a CD arrives in the post that isn't a trad/folk recording and yet just cries out to be reviewed.

Just such a CD is Dawn Kenny's recent(ish) album on Run Records. Kenny (vocals, piano, keyboards) is a great tunesmith and colleague Michael O'Toole (guitars) supplies the lyrics. Together they conjure up an intense musical experience, with Kenny's powerful, yet understated, vocals to the fore.

A number of musical reference points sprang to mind - The Sundays and Joni Mitchell in particular. The songs are incisive and thoughtful and blend pop sensibility with a balladic approach.

And there are some killers in here. "Out Of Sight" is a classic angsty song which compares well with the single release "Long Way Down".

A pleasant surprise from a fresh talent.

Find out more at http://www.dawnkenny.com

Pay The Reckoning October 2002

Sinead O'Connor - Sean Nos Nua (Hummingbird Records HBCD0030)

The album, says Sinead, that she always wanted to make. Folk and traditional songs that she's had from childhood, or picked up along the way, that she's always wanted to present in her own way.

Some traditionalists will shudder at the very thought and possibly with good reason. Sinead's world-view is a very personal and it doesn't always (or possibly ever!) accord with that which we who sit in smoky back-rooms, or pore through old tunebooks, or sift through esoteric recordings of this or that long-gone singer or musician have in common.

But the traditionalist needn't fear. Sinead treats her material with a degree of reverence and respect. And yet, like all great singers in the hall of fame, she individualises and personalises the songs.

Let's get to the nub. The woman has a great voice. A unique, natural, organic delivery that is as intrinsically interesting as the voice of , say, Frank Harte or Luke Kelly or Margaret Barry or Joe Heaney or Kathy Jordan or Dolores Keane or (insert name here). At times almost brutal in its authority and at others so fragile and delicate as to remind us of her and our vulnerability.

Sinead experiments with rhythms, textures and instrumentation which come from outside the Irish tradition. But it is a tribute to her musical radar and that of her co-producers Donal Lunny, Alan Branch and Adrian Sherwood, that these nuances are understated. The song, and Sinead's interpretation of the song, are the key elements of each track. The arrangements complement, rather than force, the logic throughout.

The material which she covers is drawn from a variety of sources and O'Connor brings out the melancholy at each song's core. Her version of Peggy Gordon exposes the puzzlement and consternation of the spurned lover, the person with nowhere to turn. Lord Franklin has its heart the same predicament - loss and the inability to do anything to remedy the situation.

Sinead's version of The Singing Bird is a revelation to those of us who have the McPeake's gruff (yet powerful and affecting) version as our source of reference.

Likewise her versions of Paddy's Lament, The Moorlough Shore and The Parting Glass take cornerstones of the ballad tradition and present them in a subtly individualistic way.

Many, however, will linger over Sinead's version of My Lagan Love. Of all of the tracks on the album, this is one where technology is brought to the fore and where Sinead gives free rein to her voice. The result is the most exciting reading of this song we've yet encountered.

Sean Nos Nua will cause some controversy in traditional circles. And indeed those outside the trad camp will have mixed views. Our verdict? A beautifully-delivered set of songs, brimming with passion, honesty and fire. Forget labels and leave your disbelief at the door. Listen, marvel, enjoy!

Due for release in the UK on 7th October.

Find out more at http://www.sineadoconnor.com and at http://www.hummingbirdrecords.com.

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Sully (Tony Sullivan) and John Keenan - Dublin Banjos (Halshaw Music, Cassette, HM309)

Published in conjunction with one of Sully's series of banjo tuition books, this is one of the few tuition recordings (Matt Cranitch's "Take A Bow" is one other which springs readily to mind) which is a good listen per se. Both Sully and Johnny Keenan - brother of ex-Bothy Band piper and whistle-player, Paddy Keenan - are legendary banjo players and these naturalistic recordings, which feature a number of solo recordings by both players, as well as tight duets, give a real flavour of the crack both must have in putting the cassette together.

Sadly, Johnny Keenan is no longer with us and though his influence was huge (witness the Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival which look set to become an annual event), this remains the largest published collection of recordings.

Keenan's playing - like that of Sully, in fact - is less dependent on right-hand trickery than a lot of the up-and-coming breed of banjo players. Which is not to say that it lacks ornamentation. However both players are keener than most banjo players in the pantheon to use effects other than rapid triplets (or other -ets) to colour a tune. The music is more accessible as a result.

The choice of tunes is exemplary and the discerning player will doubtless incorporate several of these into his or her repertoire. We were most impressed by Keenan's ... and by Sully's march set .../The Centenary March.

However the key charm of the album is its "low-keyness" - the microphone, it appears, just happens to have been left on while these two consummate traditional musicians were playing. Consequently there is little if any distance between listener and performer - surely the watermark of the best in traditional playing.

Available via Halshaw Music at http://www.halshawmusic.co.uk

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Eilis Kennedy - Time To Sail (Copperplate Records COPPCD005)

A major new talent emerges!

Kennedy's debut is a thoughtful, intelligent and well-balanced collection of songs (and the odd tune), delivered by a singer whose control, phrasing and ability to communicate are a delight and whose backing musicians provide tasteful and sympathetic arrangements which complement her approach perfectly.

Kennedy evidently has an affection for the material which emanated from the folk revival in England in the 60s and 70s, as four of the tracks on offer attest. Her version of Sandy Denny's often-covered "Who Knows Where The Time Goes?" in our opinion manages to surpass the fragile beauty of the original. Her rendition of "Crazy Man Michael", another song which will be forever associated with Denny from her performance on Fairport Convention's "Liege and Lief", is yet another case in point.

However Denny is not the only troubadour of that era to inspire Kennedy. She manages to knock us for six with a poignant reading of the classic "Canadeeio" (which puts the versions by both Nic Jones and Bob Dylan in the shade). And still she finds time to resurrect, dust down and polish to a high lustre "Lord Franklin" - a song which John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee placed their stamp on many years ago.

Elsewhere you'll find yourself tapping your foot along to the sparse (but dramatic!) "Factory Girls" - a nod to the song tradition "across the pond". And you'll be captivated by the Australian song "Andy's Gone".

Her version of "Black Is The Colour" invites comparisons to the recent revival of the song by Cara Dillon. The critics went wild over Dillon's rendition on its release. However they hadn't heard Kennedy at that stage and we respectfully suggest that anyone who rates highly Dillon's reading of the song ought to give Kennedy a listen. Perhaps they'll agree with us that Kennedy's version is a much more characterful rendition.

Three songs in Irish complete the set. "Nead na Lachan" is a jaunty jig which serves as a great introduction to the album. "Amhran na Leabhar" and "Ta Me 'Mo Shui" on the other hand are much more complex and moving numbers which show off Kennedy's voice to great effect.

A mighty album, then! One which will find its way to your CD player time after time and whose nuances and subtleties will become more revealed on each playing.

Available via Copperplate Distribution at http://go.to/copperplate.

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

The Battlefield Band - Time And Tide (Temple Records COMD2090)

The Batties are back!

And with a vengeance ... The new line-up features veterans Alan Reid (vocals/keyboards/accordion) and Mike Katz (highland bagpipes/small pipes/whistle). They are joined by the Battlefield Band's very own prodigal son, Pat Kilbride (vocals/guitar/cittern) and playing as fully-fledged Battlefield Bandsman for the first time, the prodigious Alasdair White (fiddle/whistles/bouzouki).

We all have high expectations of the Battlefield Band. It seems sometimes that they've been around - in one line-up or another - forever and their output has been consistently superb. But those high expectations are no preparation for the quality of their latest offering.

The opening set of tunes (Chuir I Gluin Air a Bhodach/DJ MacLeod's/The Ness Pipers/The Earl Of Space) features all the trademarks of the Battlefield Band's sound. Inventive accompaniment, furious fiddling, feisty piping and - for the first time on record - Mike Katz's nimble stepdancing.

The set also illustrates another trademark of the band, namely the intertwining of newly-composed tunes with traditional ones. This hallmark can be found in a number of other cracking sets (If Cadillac MadeTractors/Happy Birthday Fiona/Macfarlane's Rant; James Cameron/Fosgail an Doras/The Skylark's Ascension; The Malking Nightmare/Drive Home The Mainlanders/The Mill House; Banais Choinnigh/Eileen MacDonald/Welcome The Piper).

White's epic "Time and Tide" after which the album derives its name is a tour de force as is the prolific G.S. MacLennan's "Sunset".

As ever with the band, there's a fairly even ratio of songs to tunes, and they're no less potent a component of the overall mix. Reid's delivery of a little-known variation of the Carlton Weaver/Nancy Whisky song, "Nancy's Whisky" is priceless. As is his rendition of the self-penned "The Bonny Jeannie Deans" and the reworked song "Rothesay Bay". Kilbride gives us a fairly recent song by Karl Mullen, celebrating poteen, "Whiskey From The Field" - interspersed with a tune by Katz ("Volcanic Organic").

However, the highlight of the album - for entirely personal reasons - is Kilbride's "Camden Town". Several years ago Pay The Reckoning had its headquarters in Camden Town and the song brings back memories (and regrets that we didn't make the most of our location at the time!). Cheekily "sampling" some of the structure of "Yarmouth Town's" chorus, the song evokes the musical legacy which the modern Camden Town has inherited from its past generations of Irish musicians.

Time And Tide sees the Battlefield Band set out on yet another musical adventure. No doubt there'll be line-up changes again in the future - that has always been the way of the outfit which has played host to a galaxy of talent since its inception. However after listening to this CD, we're sure you'll agree that it would be no bad thing to hear the current line-up put together another two or three albums of this quality!

Available direct from Temple Records at http://www.templerecords.co.uk

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Oisin MacDiarmada - Ar An bhFidil (Ceol Records CEOCD 002)

Pay The Reckoning was captivated by Teada's recent offering and so we were excited to hear rumours that Oisin MacDiarmada, the band's fiddler, was in the process of putting together a solo recording. Well, folks, the patient wait is at an end and the results of MacDiarmada's time in the studio have surpassed our high expectations.

MacDiarmada proves himself yet again to be one of the most sensitive and soulful fiddlers around. The album's design, simple and straightforward, reflects his own approach to his craft. MacDiarmada isn't a man for pyrotechnics, he doesn't batter a tune into submission and then bends it to his will. His is a more subtle approach; he gives the tune room to develop in a seemingly organic way, so that his ornamentation and embellishments seem natural, unforced.

However, as any musician will tell you, such apparently natural ease with a tune is the product of two elements - natural talent and hard work. MacDiarmada has no end of the former and has no fear of the latter. The result is pure magic!

MacDiarmada's knowledge of, and captivation by, the music of the 20s and the 30s (the "golden age" of Irish music, as some have dubbed the period) is worn proudly on his sleeve as he gives us versions of a number of tunes and sets on the album which were recorded by such legends as Coleman, Morrison, John McKenna, Patsy Tuohey and Paddy Killoran. However, you mustn't get the impression that MacDiarmada's an academic. His interest isn't so much in the history of the tunes as their timelessness and his playing of the tunes represents a reawakeneing rather than a resurrection.

There are moments of savage, soulful (there goes that word again) perfection on this album. His playing of "The White Leaf" - a version of the more widely known "Mason's Apron" - is so elementally powerful a sound as to cause the listener to wonder how one tune can express at the same time such extremes of joy and melancholy.

On the polka set "The Merry Girl/Charlie O'Neill's", MacDiarmda lays claim to Sligo/Leitrim influences. But to our ears, the latter tune in particular sounded as if it was being played by the ghost of the long-dead John Doherty (and we know of no higher compliment), so refined was the blend of dazzling technique and sheer emotion.

The reel set "The Flannel Jacket/The Maid That Dare Not Tell" is of interest in that MacDiarmada shows us another aspect of his musical ability as he gives both tunes an airing on the whistle. Accompanied by Tristan Rosenstock on inventive, yet rock-solid bodhran, the "spare" feel of the track conjures up an atmosphere which a more busy production could never capture.

And so, throughout the album, MacDiarmada, along with various musical sparring partners (Seamus Quinn on piano, John Carty on fiddle, Damien Stenson on flute, with guest cameos by fellow Teada members Sean McElwain on bouzouki, John Blake on guitar and Trisan Rosenstock on bodhran), lays out his stall of mighty talent, a great ear for a tune and a great feel for capturing mood.

However, even amid all the excellent music which MacDiarmada provides, his solo version of "The Strayaway Child" stands out as a defining moment of the album. Played to great effect by Kevin Burke in his Bothy Band days, MacDiarmada nevertheless manages to inject the tune with so much of his own feeling that it's difficult to imagine it ever having been played by anyone before and almost impossible to imagine anyone else ever doing the tune justice.

A massive album. Honest, passionate and quietly defiant. You'd do well to visit http://www.ceolrecords.com and get yourself a copy. And while you're at it, grab hold of a copy of Teada's debut!  Also available via Copperplate Distribution at http://go.to/copperplate.

Pay The Reckoning August 2002

The Reel And Soul Association – The Reel And Soul Association (Flying Sparks Records TDBCD065)

Every now and then an album comes along which challenges all your preconceptions. The Reel And Soul Association’s celebratory debut album is one such album! Here’s a collection that will have you hooked from the first bars and – if the Pay The Reckoning experience is anything to go by – will have to be crowbarred from your CD carousel!

A dozen classic soul tracks given a unique treatment by a plethora of luminaries from the current UK trad/folk scene (John Kirkpatrick, Michael McGoldrick, Nigel Stonier, Kellie While, Maartin Allcock, Simon Swarbrick, Paul Burgess, Jonjo Kelly, Robbie McIntosh, Thea Gilmore and Steve Menzies) … Sounds intriguing? Definitely! A bit of a risk? Certainly! Does it work? Absolutely!

Many of you will be familiar with the single, the pipes-heavy “Warm And Tender Love”. And those of you have come across the single will be pleased to know that the rest of the album lives up to the promise of this superb slice of emotion. From the mellow opener, “Are You Sure?” to the infectious energy of “Move On Up”, each track manages to combine the soulfulness of the original with the no less soulful approach of transatlantic traditions.

Along the way we get superb covers of “Inner City Blues”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, Higher Ground”, “Get Ready”, “One Way Street”, “Harvest For The World”, “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” and “Lean On Me”.

The album closes with a cheeky, virtuoso rendition of “Green Onions”, with John Kirkpatrick’s accordion taking the place of Booker T’s swirling Hammond. This is real “cut-loose” territory, and leaves the listener with an ear-to-ear smile.

Such projects are usually a one-off venture. However we suspect that “RASA” haven’t exhausted the potential repertoire yet. At least, we hope they haven’t. The web address given in the album notes doesn’t seem to work. We’ll give it again, just in case the site comes online at some point in the future http://www.flyingsparksrecords.com

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Seamus Ennis - The Best Of Irish Piping (Tara Music TARA CD 1002/9)

Here at Pay The Reckoning, one of our aims is to bring you reviews of new releases from the best traditional and traditionally-influenced acts.

So why, we hear you clamour, are you running a review of this CD, which has been in circulation for years?

Well, from time to time we all need to sit back and take stock of where the music's come from and Ennis' music is one of the bedrocks of the recorded tradition. We owe more than most of us imagine to Ennis, the piper, whistle-player, singer, raconteur and collector. However the debt which we owe often obscures the fact that Ennis was primarily an artist. His diligence in researching and collecting was not some dry, academic endeavour; it enriched his own repertoire and kindled flames within him.

So, Ennis the artist! How good was he? A listen to this double CD reminds us that he was among the best interpreters of Irish traditional music since recordings were first made. His style is idiosyncratic. His sense of mischief and his awareness of possibilities are evident in every tune. Like all talented traditional musicians, he balances expressiveness with control. The true artist instinctively makes the right choices between these contradictory forces.

The tunes are too numerous to list and too uniformly well-expressed to select between this one or that one. Suffice to say that the collection is a joy from start to finish. There are no modern production techniques; no samples, no overdubbing, multitracking; no drums, no athletically strummed guitars. The album is all about one man, an extensive repertoire and a universe of expression in his heart and his fingers.

And we all deserve to treat ourselves to a listen every now and again. Available via Tara Music at http://www.taramusic.com

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Alan Kelly - Mosaic (Tara Music TARA CD 4010)

Pay The Reckoning gave a big thumbs up to the recent offering by Alan and his brother John - the excellent Fourmilehouse.

So we were pleased to be given the opportunity to revisit Alan's solo album from 2000, a collection which continues to cause ripples of excitement when discovered by fans of traditional music.

Not that Mosaic is constrained by any narrow definitions. In fact, its defining characteristic is Alan's willingness to embrace a variety of styles and thereby to present his music in a range of unfamiliar settings. From the intro to the opening, self-penned "Eva's Reel", Kelly demonstrates an ease with styles outside those of native Irish dance music with a pattern that owes more to the continent proper than to its dislocated Western outpost. And then at various points we are treated to touches of samba, salsa and whirling Hammond ... The beauty, of course, being that the great adventure pays off. The arrangements are unusual, but unforced.

Much of the credit for this adventurous direction must go to Arty McGlynn who produced the collection and whose guitar accompaniment, though never dominating the mix, manages as usual to augment the listening experience.

Arty is far from the only member of the trad hall of fame to grace the album. Alan's guest musicians include Nollaig Casey, Sean Smyth and Jesse Smyth on fiddle, Jimmy Higgins on bodhran and the ubiquitous (where classy accompaniment is required) Rod McVey and James Blennerhasset on keyboards and bass respectively. Richie Buckley on saxophone and Daniel Healy and Mike Nolan on trumpet add a touch of the exotic to a very heady brew.

The album showcases a young man who has an extraordinary gift on the piano accordion. His rootedness in the tradition is ever to the fore, but he's not manacled to it. Ambitious, far-sighted and courageous, Kelly's playing is a thrill for the listener and, we suspect, for the man himself.

Visit Alan's website at http://www.blackboxmusic.ie and Tara Music at http://www.taramusic.com.

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Josephine Marsh - Josephine Marsh (Tara Music TARA CD 4008)

Although you may not have heard Marsh's 1996 recording, many will be familiar with her driving accordion on "Bold Doherty", a (if not THE) highlight of Niamh Parsons' recent "in My Prime" album. You'll be delighted, therefore, to find that Marsh includes a version of this tune, along with "Northern Jig" on this superb CD.

This is a confident and feisty collection of tunes, fiercely independent and assured. Marsh has a great way with the notes. Her playing is studded with quirks and conundrums, sly pauses and whispers, none of which seem at all contrived and all of which will knock the ardent traditional fan for six.

Her choice of tunes is flawless. There's a fair smattering of tunes with which many of us are familiar. However she has uncovered some glittering rarities and gives us a few of her own compositions to boot.

A musician who evidently treasures music, but at the same time isn't precious about it. A truly captivating collection of tunes, infused with an indomitable, characterful personality. If you missed out on the album when it was first released, then make amends forthwith! Available from Tara Music at http://www.taramusic.com.

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Beginish - Beginish (Tara Music TARA CD 4009)

Beginish justifies the title supergroup, combining the talents of Brendan Begley (accordion/vocals), Paul McGrattan (flutes), Paul O'Shaughnessy (fiddle) and Noel O'Grady (bouzouki). The wealth of talent on offer in their 1998 debut is further augmented by guest artists Arty McGlynn (guitars), Triona Ni Domhnaill (keyboards/vocals), Maighread Ni Domhnaill (vocals) and Colm Murphy (bodhran).

The result is an extremely tasty album. As you'd expect from the line-up there are nods in the direction of Kerry - O'Keeffe's No 1/O'Keeffe's No 2/Thadelo's (slides); Apples In winter/The Peacock's Feather/Hennigan's (jigs); The Cuas Polkas and A Night At The Fair/Bill The Weaver's/Sios Chun na Tra (jigs) - and to Donegal - The Taylor's Barndance/Ansty's Barndance (albeit named after a West Cork couple) and two reels which follow The Greencastle Hornpipe, Miss Patterson's Slippers. And there are a number of tunes associated with other parts of Ireland, into the bargain.

There are some excellent vocal performances. Begley's stark "Rose of Aranmore" contrasts with the sublime interplay of the Ni Domhnaill sisters on "I Courted A Wee Lass".

This is flowing, unforced music by a bunch of musicians who are second to none. It reeks of good times had by all, each player revelling in the supreme good taste and razor-sharp musical intelligence of a bunch of fellow-travellers.

Available from Tara Music http://www.taramusic.com

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Frankie Gavin - Fierce Traditional (Tara Music TARA CD 4011)

Gavin, the fiddler's fiddler (and blindin' flute-player) takes a step back from the musical direction which the supergroup which he founded many years ago has chosen to pursue. De Danaan are well-known for their experimentation - traditionally-influenced settings of classical pieces and rock songs litter their repertoire and they are renowned for their embrace of improvisation.

However, their "straight" trad sets are no less a component of the band's output. With this album , Gavin attempts to get right back to his roots, in the process providing us with one of the most accomplished, earthy fiddle-driven albums to have emerged from the welter of talent currently plying their trade in the traditional arena.

Featuring fellow De Danaan stalwarts Alec Finn (bouzouki) and Brian McGrath (piano and banjo), Frankie is also joined by his brother Sean - no musical slouch - on accordion.

The album is dominated by reel sets, which Gavin attacks with a glee and a ferocity that is truly startling. From the opening "The Man Of The House/The Providence Reel", through "Maud Millar", "Miss Langford's Reel/The Tailor's Thimble", "Jenny Picking Cockles/Farewell to Connaught" ... the list of tunes on the album will cause a flutter in the breasts of those steeped in the tradition. Two classic jig sets ("The Primrose Vale/The Leitrim Fancy" and "The Night Cap/The Frost Is All Over") showcase Gavin at his jauntiest. And he rattles off flurries of perfectly-executed triplets in his reading of the hornpipes "Byrne's Hornpipe/Mullingar Races".

We were captivated by Gavin's two airs, "Sliabh na mBan" and "She Lived Beside The Anner", where he plays with such grace and restraint and yet with so much passion that a world of melancholy of longing seemed to revolve within and between the notes of each tune.

And yet, all of the above having been said, the musical highlights of the album are two tracks which feature Brian McGrath on banjo. The first, a monumental reel set "The New Road/Fisherman's Lilt/Humours of Westport" sees McGrath provide an undercurrent to the tunes which is truly a new dimension in Irish tenor banjo playing. The ease with which he combines melody playing with intricate - incendiary! - chords, near-chords and counter-melodies is testament to McGrath's pre-eminent position among Irish banjo players (sorry, all you disciples of Barney, O'Connor, Moloney, Scahill, etc. ... McGrath has redefined the limits of the Irish banjo!). On the second, "Free And Easy", McGrath pulls off the same trick. However even more interestingly, he plays Mike Flanagan's (of the legendary American-Irish act of the early 1900s, The Flanagan Brothers) banjo, which was given to Frankie Gavin by the Flanagan family as a keepsake, and to be used in recordings wherever possible. This link with the golden age of American-Irish music lends a great frisson to "Free and Easy", an absolute hair-raising finale.

Gavin doesn't need the approval of Pay The Reckoning, or anyone else for that matter, to be assured of his lofty position in the traditional hall of fame. Nevertheless, it's our pleasure and our privilege to commend this album to you, and to urge you to obtain a copy direct from Tara at http://www.taramusic.com.

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Phil Callery (and The Long Wave Band) - From The Edge Of Memory (Tara Music TARACD 4007)

Callery, a founder member of The Voice Squad, released this album in 1999. It remains a jewel in Tara's crown, a collection of traditional songs from Ireland, Scotland and England and one contemporary number, a spare and affecting version of Sinead O'Connor's "In This Heart".

Callery is blessed with a rich, timbrous voice. It's plain that singing comes as easy to the man as talking to the rest of us. Relaxed, conversational and yet oozing with quiet power, the poise of his delivery ranks him among the great traditional and folk singers of the present era. Frank Harte and Len Graham, from whom Callery has obtained a number of songs on the album, may be among his personal heroes, but they are not in some different league. Graham and Harte are his peers and we're sure that they'd recognise themselves as such.

The album opens with "The Bonny Blue Eyed Lassie", which many Pay The Reckoning regulars will recognise as having been recorded by The Bothy Band as "How Can I Live At The Top Of A Mountain?" and goes on to cover a host of songs which will bring delight to the lover of traditional song. "The Maid With the Bonny Brown Hair", "Annan Waters", "The Green Linnet", "Lovely Willie" are among the well-known songs which get an airing.

Callery's version of "Rounding The Horn", a song which Pay The Reckoning was first captivated by in the Johnstons' version, is a highlight of the album. A less dramatic and more conversational rendition than The Johnstons', it works on the listener in a more subtle way. Singers among us will be clearing our throats in an effort to learn Callery's approach to this song.

However the song which most stood out on first, and subsequent, listenings, is his rendering of "The Trampwoman's Tragedy", an English song with which we were totally unfamiliar - and totally unprepared! At over seven minutes long, it's virtually a folk-opera. On one level, a classic murder ballad, it combines tramp lore with revenge for (supposed) spurned love. In good murder ballad tradition the body-count is high (at least four and possibly five depending on how one interprets the last line about "haunting the Western Moor"). And yet on another level, the song oozes with compassion and insight.

The arrangements on the album are exemplary. Contemporary, and featuring non-traditional instruments, they are nevertheless sympathetic and restrained and add to the overall interest. The album features a host of guest musicians in addition to The Long Wave Band themselves. As you'd expect from a member of The Voice Squad, there's a fair bit of harmony on the album. While Pay The Reckoning is known to have an aversion to harmony (when used to ill-effect, or for the sake of showing off), on this occasion we have nothing but praise for the way in which Callery uses harmony sparingly to colour certain songs.

Well worth checking out, you may obtain a copy from Tara's back catalogue at http://www.taramusic.com.

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Ireland’s Harvest – Joe Derrane, Frankie Gavin & Brian McGrath (Mapleshade Records 09232)

It is no exaggeration to say that Mapleshade’s recording of Derrane, Gavin and McGrath may prove to be the most important album to have emerged in a very long time. Subtitled "A tribute to the golden years of music in Irish America", the album draws heavily on the tunes made famous by the players of the 20s and 30s, players whose names continued to be revered to this day – Coleman, Morrison, Kimmel, Killoran, The Flanagan Brothers, Dan Sullivan and others.

Despite being flanked by two of the tradition’s current greats, there’s little doubt from the word go that the star of the album is Derrane. It’s chastening to be reminded – as producer Paul McDonald recalls in his affectionate, highly personal and moving sleeve notes – that under ten years ago Derrane was in virtual retirement. At that stage he no longer owned a two-row accordion. The trad community has every reason to be thankful that through a campaign of careful cajoling, Derrane was coaxed back into the limelight.

And the fruits of that patient endeavour on behalf of a few committed afficionados are available now on this Mapleshade release.

Derrane’s playing is a revelation to those unfamiliar with his earlier recorded work of the 40s and 50s, as a solo artist, in duet with his mentor Jerry O’Brien and with the Irish All-Stars. Now aged over 70, Derrane is living proof that good wine ages well. His playing is as fiery and passionate as one could hope to hear; as intricate, sprightly and mischievous as that of any fresh-faced wunderkind.

The album abounds with classic tunes. It opens with a medley of marches "The Minstrel Boy/God Save Ireland/The Mountains Of Pomeroy" which instantly captures the attention, before ploughing into tow sets of reels (Andy McGann’s/GeorgeWhite’s Favourite and The Tarbolton/The Longford Collector/The Sailor’s Bonnet) which immediately anchor the album in a time and place which serves as a wellspring of inspiration.

There are too many glorious sets to list in full, such is the wealth of material on the album. However the traditional music fanatic will find immense pleasure in the hornpipe set "The Tailor’s Twist/The Dublin Hornpipe/Thomond Bridge"; the blistering, triplet-sprinkled "Bucks of Oranmore"; the timeless jig set "Off She Goes/Cooley’s Jig".

The album’s closing tracks clinch the entire deal. A stately version of "Amhran na bhFiann" leads into a tumultuous "Peter Feeney’s Dream/The Flower Of The Flock" (the former reel composed by Derrane himself over forty years ago).

And then … the only option is to hit the repeat button! This is an album which you’ll want to sit through again. To become familiar with. To play for friends and – at appropriate moments – to catch their attention and say "Listen to this!". Our guess is that they’ll want to get their hands on a copy for themselves as soon as they’ve been exposed to some of the impulsive, compulsive music played by these three maestri.

We’ve barely mentioned Gavin and McGrath whose brilliant fiddle-work and spot-on, restrained piano are essential components of the rich sound of the album. Such neglect is not intentional … it rather gives some idea of the stature and talent of Derrane.

Mapleshade pride themselves on providing an ideal recording environment and creating a sound which is uniquely warm and natural. On the evidence of this CD they have every right to feel pleased with their approach.

Find out more direct from Mapleshade at http://www.mapleshaderecords.com.

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Martin Nolan – Bright Silver, Dark Wood (Own label MSN CD 002)

Nolan’s name may not ring the sort of bells rung by the likes of Paddy Keenan or Liam Og O’Flynn, but on the evidence of this offering, that is a situation that is likely to change.

Bright Silver, Dark Wood is an enormously affecting CD. Nolan’s playing has an untutored, dangerous quality that delights. The buoyancy of his approach and his treatment of "the dots" and bar-lines as signposts rather than rigid instructions enable him to infuse his playing with his own personality. He doesn’t merely play tunes, he expresses them!

And as well as being a consummate virtuoso, Nolan displays a very keen sense of musical direction. Everything about the CD can be summed up in one phrase, "well-judged". The mix of original compositions and traditional tunes is well-judged. Even within the range of trad tunes on the CD, the ratio of (relative) standards to (relative) rarities is designed to please.

No primadonna, either! Accompanying musicians are given high billing, even to the extent that Nolan allows John Ryan (mandolin and bouzouki) to take the lead on one of Nolan’s most infectious tunes "The Pixie’s Polka". An apparently straightforward tune, the polka’s construction belies the fact that it’s not as easy to pick as Ryan’s fluency on the record would suggest. (And we should know, we tied our fingers in knots for quite some time until we unravelled the tune!)

Elsewhere, a host of guest musicians lend support. We’d particularly like to draw attention to Dierdre Ni Chinneide’s potent singing on "Cillairne" and the graceful harpsichord work by Declan Synnott on "The Humours Of Bandon/Light The Light".

But, pride of place goes, deservedly, to Nolan himself. His playing is a delight. From the opening set of slip jigs (Goodman’s Slip Jig/Open The Door For Three/The Turnpike Way), his mastery of the pipes is a foregone conclusion. Set after set, tune after tune follows to confirm our initial reaction. Along the way he gives us stirring airs, swinging reels and some great jig sets.

To single out any individual tracks is to deny the cohesiveness of the album as a single suite of music. However we would defy anyone not to be moved by the elegant "Swiss Waltz/The Road To McGann’s" or the fierce "Quebec Reel/Colonel Rodney". Nolan’s playing of the latter reel in particular echoes with the ghosts of long-dead generations of wild pipers.

An album which the afficonado of rugged, risky, courageous piping cannot ignore.

Find out more at http://www.martinnolan.com.

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Brian Kelly – Brian Kelly (BK Records BKCD001)

The debut solo recording by North London’s banjo wizard, Brian Kelly – with startlingly inventive accompaniment by Paddy Gallagher on guitar and bouzouki – is a rare example, in these days of studio chicanery and artfulness, of unadorned, unalloyed, pristine musicianship.

Kelly is without doubt one of the most classy tenor banjo players in the Irish traditional pack. His skills honed to perfection in regular sessions in Camden’s Stag’s Head, where he and Gallagher form the core of a very literate and polished crew, his tastefulness and sense of drive are much to the fore on the recording. A master of both left-hand and right-hand, his triples, burls and other embellishments are a joy to the ear. Here’s a young man who has devoted long, patient hours to learning and listening with the result that he’s now completely on top of his instrument and on top of his music.

Kelly takes his time over each tune in each set. There’s no insistence on a formula on "twice round and change". Instead, Kelly simmers each tune – focusing on this or that aspect, giving it time to mature, presenting it a different light each time round until the time feels right to move on.

And such tunes as Kelly has in his repertoire! Reel sets abound, from the rousing opener "Reavy’s/Dowd’s Favorite", through the magnificent "Bunker Hill/Maudabawn Chapel/Salamanca", "Kathleen’s Fiddle/Humours of Westport/Coleman’s Cross" and more besides.

Kelly proves he’s no slouch at other rhythms. The hornpipe set "Cuckoo’s Nest/Japanese Hornpipe" contains, to Pay The Reckoning’s mind, a version of the former tune which ranks alongside the classic versions played Paddy Keenan and by Altan. There’s no better company!

However, if two tracks are worthy of special mention, then we’d like to draw your attention to the jig set "Cuil Aodha/Coleraine/Tom Billy’s" and the reel set "Brian Kelly’s No 1/Jenny’s Wedding/Woman Of The House". We’ve always fancied Coleraine, ever since we first heard it played by De Danaan, many years ago. Kelly not only plays this tune magnificently, but setting it between the two Southern standards creates a jig set which is inspired in its structuring. The reel set is worthy of mention in dispatches, not just on account of its featuring a self-composition, but because of its verve and sense of purpose.

A great showcase for a mighty talent. We’ll hear a lot more from Kelly as the years roll around.

Why don’t you get your ears round his music now, while his star is beginning its ascent? Visit http://www.brian-kelly.com for further details on the man and his music.

Pay The Reckoning September 2002

Mairtin O’Connor – The Road West (MOC003)

It’s an odd thing, to approach an album by one of Ireland’s foremost traditional musicians, and yet to know that that there are no traditional tunes on the album. No reference points, no familiar ports of call.

But with a tunesmith and box-meister of the quality of O’Connor, any slight nervousness is immediately dispelled. This is a superb, heart-warming album, whose tunes, though recently written by Mairtin himself, bear the hallmarks of antiquity. It’s as if he has an innate connection with the essence of the tradition, via which he channels tunes of great beauty, charm and elegance.

The album’s opener, a jig called "The Cuckoo" is a case in point. In his song "Storm Windows", John Prine sings of "… a country band that plays for keeps/they play it so slow …". Mairtin would sympathise with that sentiment as he plays the jig at an easy lope, far-removed from the frenetic, headlong pace which other, less sensitive musicians might deploy. The tune derives a great deal of colour from Ken Edge’s brass arrangement. (Incidentally, the arrangement brought to mind the mournful depth which a brass band lent to Kate Rusby’s "My Young Man".)

O’Connor is never afraid to experiment – a reggae arrangement on "Sunshine and Showers", a full-blooded swing-jazz take on the ebullient hornpipe "Shop Street" – and the experiments never fail.

His musicianship inspires awe. On the effervescent "The Road West" he spends a lot of time in the upper registers of his accordion. Whereas on the lyrical air "The Inagh Valley", he makes full use of the lower notes.

However, of all the sparkling tunes on the album, the one which gave us most pleasure was "The Goat’s Jig". A riotous, tongue-in-cheek jig, it gets a great lift from Seamus O’Dowd’s unrestrained guitar accompaniment and it fairly gallops along.

When you’re in a blue mood, this collection of fine tunes will bring you round to gaiety in short order. And if you’re in grand form already, then it can only serve to elevate you even further.

Available via Tara Records. http://www.taramusic.com

Pay The Reckoning, September 2002

Seoirse O Dochartaigh agus Dulaman - Dulaman a' tSleibhe (Errigal SCD008)

This one took a while to grow.  Somehow we missed the point on first listen.  But subsequent spins shed a whole new light and, to be honest, it's been a frequent visitor to the old CD player ever since.

O Dochartaigh (vocals and guitar) is one half of Dulaman.  His sparring partner is Heather Innes (vocals).  On this album they are joined by too many outstanding musicians to list.  The result is a richly layered recording of traditional songs, given a contemporary, polished presentation.  However the presentation is not just a gloss.  Dulaman a' tSleibhe is a triumph of both content and style!

O Dochartaigh's voice is a sonorous, warm, natural and gentle one.  And in the course of several days' listening, it has become a familiar sound in Pay The Reckoning towers, soothing the savage beast!  Innes' voice is no less interesting, whether lending colour and texture to songs on which O Dochartaigh takes the lead, or on songs on which she is the lead vocalist.

There are a fair number of well-known songs on the album.  The opener "An Faoitin", for example, is one which will be familiar to many.  So too "Casadh an tSugain".  However there are equally a number of songs which will be new to most listeners.  A prime example is the album's second song "Dulaman Na Binne Bui" for which O Dochartaigh composed a new melody.

A particular feature of the album is O Dochartaigh's rekindling of the old tradition of combining storytelling and song.  Thus "A Bean Udai Thall" and "Bean an Fhir Ruaidh" have both story and song elements.

We would recommend three tracks in particular as highlights of the album.

The first is "Criocha 'n Oileain Uir", on which Heather is joined by Imealda Ni Chearbhaill in a unison duet which in its simplicity, directness and sweetness calls to mind the singing of Rita and Sara Keane.

The second is the tastefully arranged version of "Peigin agus Peadar" in which Innes duets again with Ni Cearbhaill and O Dochartaigh duets with Aodh Mac Ruairi.  The interweaving of the jig "The Basket Of Turf" through the track is an arresting and inspired piece of musical direction.

But the track which best highlights the particular qualities of O Dochartaigh's voice is the beautiful "Geaftai Bhaile Bui".  The naturalness of O Dochartaigh's approach to singing and his commitment to telling the story are much in evidence in this intense and moving piece.

Pay The Reckoning would contend that after listening to a CD by a great musician, the listener comes away with a sense of the personality of the artist who has made the music.  In which case we can only assume that O Dochartaigh is an inordinately sensitive, thoughtful, compassionate and courageous individual. Spend some time in his company.  Visit http://www.cluniemusic.com and buy a copy of the CD.

Pay The Reckoning August 2002

Providence - A Fig For A Kiss (Appleseed Recordings APR CD 1060)

Pay The Reckoning has already waxed lyrical over the solo CD "The Nervous Man", by Providence's concertinist and accordionist Micheal O'Raghallaigh. We are no less impressed by this, the second CD by one of Ireland's most exciting traditional groups, which in addition to O'Raghallaigh comprises Clodagh Boylan (fiddle), John Wynne (flute, low whistles), Joan McDermott (vocals) and Paul Doyle (guitar, bouzouki, backing vocals, bodhran).

The instrumentation invites comparisons to Altan, and indeed if Providence have musical peers, then the Donegal-based outfit are a convenient reference point. (Or at least the early incarnation of the band, when Frankie Kennedy was still with us and the band were wedded to exploring the rich musical traditions of North-West Ulster.)

However, although they may be as exciting, as vibrant and as accessible (without ever diluting the music) as the early Altan, Providence plough their own furrow, and a deep and productive furrow at that.

The album's opening is perfectly judged to raise the hairs on the back of the tradophile's neck. The opening reel in the set of three (The Road To Lisdoonvarna/Carty's Reel/The Maid Of Mullaghmore) kicks off with Boylan underpinning O'Raghallaigh's edgy concertina with an eerie, bittersweet drone. The tension between the two instruments builds to a climax at the end of the first go-round and then, as we knew - or hoped - resolves at the repeat as Boylan picks up the melody with O'Raghallaigh. Wynne takes up the rein for the second tune and then all democracy breaks loose as the band give the final reel (long associated with John Doherty) a lash.

The precise yet characterful playing and intelligent, uncluttered arrangements witnessed in this first set set a standard for the album which Providence never after fail to meet. On reel sets such as "The Providence Reel/Roscommon Reel/Fred Finn's", "In Memory of Coleman/Farewell To London/The Sunny Banks" and "Music In The Glen/Sean Sa Cheo", the same spine-tingling mixture of control and abandon is in evidence.

McDermott's voice is a revelation. Clear as a bell, unforced and untainted by any form of "artfulness", she is utterly compelling in her renditions of "Muiris O Coinnleain" and "Se Fath Mo Bhuartha". However her best work is reserved for the English language songs "Smuggling The Tin" and "The Jolly Young Ploughboy". The former is a great comic song from the Second World War when there was a trade in smuggled tin between Northern Ireland and the Free State and concerns the misadventures of a group of hapless reprobates whose efforts at lawlessness come to nothing. The second, originally from England, McDermott picked up from the singing of the saintly Frank Harte and delivers with great commitment. (Incidentally, are we alone in detecting in the song's air the embryo of the tune of that American folk classic "Jesse James"?)

Two tune sets in particular are worthy of special mention. The jig set "The Lurgadaun/Dancing Eyes/Down The Back Lane" is instantly gripping and as fine an example of ensemble musicianship as you're likely to hear. And as for the hornpipe set "The Curlew Hills/Father Dollard's", we're at a loss to describe the inventiveness and sophistication of the band's mastery of the crooked rhythm. The second tune in this set in particular must surely rank as one of the most definitive of Irish hornpipes.

"A Fig For A Kiss" is the sort of CD which, given a wide audience, will establish Providence at the very forefront of the trad mob! So, do your bit for a great band; visit http://www.appleseedrec.com and order a copy for yourself (and your friends - converted and non-believers alike!).

For more information about the band itself, visit http://www.providence-trad.com

Available in the UK via Copperplate Distribution. http://go.to/copperplate

Pay The Reckoning August 2002

Ronan Browne and Peter O'Loughlin - Touch Me If You Dare (Claddagh Records CCF35)

The release of a new recording by Browne and O'Loughlin is not just a welcome addition to the store of recorded Irish traditional music, it's an event.

Browne (uilleann pipes and flute) and O'Loughlin (fiddle and flute) recorded the seminal "South West Wind" a few years back, an album that has long been one of Pay The Reckoning's favourite recordings.  The common thread that ran throughout that particular outing was the sense of pleasure that each musician derived from the other, the sense in which they each had a deep respect for the other's inspired and inspiring musicianship.  It was a relaxed album, from two players who were totally on top of their talent and content to let their particular approach to the tunes unwind as the album progressed.

Musicianship, of course, simply gets better as the years roll on (at least while the players still have the physical dexterity for the tunes and, though he's a fair bit younger than Browne, O'Loughlin has plenty of vigour and nimbleness about him yet!) so it's no surprise that each musician can continue to draw sounds out of their instruments that leave us amazed.  However the sense of pleasure and respect in each other's company has, if anything intensified, to the extent that the album has about it the atmosphere of a mutual tribute.  Not a cloying, false, show-bizzy type of tribute.  But a deep-down recognition that each is a musician on the same wavelength as the other and is at the same peak of ability.  A generation or more might separate the veteran O'Loughlin from the fresh-faced Browne, but that gap can be transcended with the merest flick of the bow and squeeze of the bellows.  When Browne and O'Loughlin play together age and experience are irrelevant.  In the moment of playing they enter a world of their own creation, where all that matters is the stream of music.

Touch Me If You Dare is a big album.  Over seventy minutes long, and featuring 23 tracks.  But time passes quickly in such pleasant company.  Such is the consistency of playing, the lift and lilt of the tunes, the whole album infused with the ache that lies at the heart of even the jauntiest Irish tune, that it barely seems long enough to do more than hint at the great well of music from which both musicians can draw.

Browne and O'Loughlin eschew the trend of netting tunes in international waters.  The music here is all home-grown, associated with great players of the dim past and those of recent times.  The keen listener to Irish music will recognise virtually every tune in the listing.  And will virtually salivate at the prospect of two players of such keen taste applying themselves to such well-known and seasoned tunes. 

To nominate this or that track as outstanding would be a travesty.  There's not so much as a moment on the CD that is less than perfect.  So instead, let's just give you the list of tunes you can hear:

1. The Mountain Lark/The Morning Star (reels)
2. The Blooming Meadows/The Colliers' Jig (jigs)
3. An Buachaill Dreoite (fling/jig)
4. The West Wind/The Flogging Reel (reels)
5. Taim In Arrears/Hardiman The Fiddler (slip jigs)
6. The Curragh Races/The Swallow's Tail (reels)
7. Down The Back Lane/Fraher's Jig (jigs)
8. The Mills Are Grinding/The Knocknagow Reel/The Donagore Reel (reels)
9. Cronin's Hornpipe/The Leitrim Fancy (hornpipes)
10. The Wandering Minstrel/Ard an Bothar/Bimis ag Ol (jigs)
11. The Trip to Athlone/Banish Misfortune (jigs)
12. The Flax In Bloom/The Dairy Maid (reels)
13. The Gold Ring (jig)
14. The Humurs of Castlefinn/Kitty Gone A Milkin' (reels)
15. Touch Me If You Dare/Lord Gordon's Reel/Sword In Hand (reels)
16. Jackson's Morning Brush/The Pipe On The Hob (jigs)
17. Give Us  A Drink Of Water/The Humours of Derrykissane (slip jigs)
18. Sean O Duibhir an Ghleanna (set dance)
19. The Lark In The Morning/When The Cock Crows It Is Day (jigs)
20. Sean Reid's Favourite/The Bank Of Ireland/Miss Thornton's Reel (reels)
21. I Buried My Wife And Danced On Top Of Her/Tiocfaidh Tu Abhaile Liom? (jigs)
22. The Boy In The Gap/Kiss The Maid Behind The Barrel (reels)
23. The Old Bush/Rakish Paddy/My Love Is In America (reels)

Has that set your pulse racing?  Appetite whetted?

Maeve Donnelly and Geraldine Cotter - no mean talents in their own rights - appear on a number of tracks.  Consummate musicians, they instantly assimilate the style and pace of the two lead musicians.

Available from Claddagh Records, www.claddaghrecords.com. You'll want to have this uplifting and spirited collection in your collection at the earliest opportunity!

Pay The Reckoning July 2002 

Friel's Kitchen - A Place Of Clear Water (Jigit Records JICD 1021)

Another German band who sound like they were born and reared in Tulla, Friel's Kitchen have put together a lush brew of traditional Irish tunes, original compositions in Irish folk idioms and contemporary and traditional songs from a variety of - for want of a better phrase - Western European roots.

Lush is a key word.  This is not a spare and austere record whose appeal is limited to devotees.  Its rich, dense, layered approach will appeal to a wide range of tastes.  The CD points to a band with a sophisticated musical pallate, unafraid to combine contemporary arrangements with age-old tunes.  This is not the sort of album which a band can knock out in a day or two.  Many's the long hour that has spent in capturing the music and layering it to form the eventual cornucopic offering.

Each of the musicians is a virtuoso in his or her own right as can be heard when each steps into the limelight on this or that track.  But it's the band's feel for harmony that gives the album a unique selling point.  Much of Irish music has - at least until recently - shied away from harmony in favour of unison, or near unison, ensemble playing.  However Friel's Kitchen exploit the current embracing of harmony to create the layeredness and complexity which defines their sound.

Nowhere is their feel for harmony more evident than on their rendition of "Apprentice Song".  You may recall the Johnstons' version which featured a four-part harmony.  Friel's Kitchen take the song a step further, with a multi-part, extremely disciplined and potent chorus.

There are some cracking tune sets.  The opening set of jigs, "The Chestnut Tree/Dreaming Sea/Between The Strings", sets the tone for the album.  Elsewhere, Regina Elling's set of self-composed tunes, "White Strand/Late Night Jig", resonates with the languid, melancholy atmosphere conjured up by East Clare musicians such as PJ Hayes, Paddy Canny and Martin Hayes.  But for Pay The Reckoning's money, the most daring set on the album is that of three polkas "Tir Tairngiri/Polka Milo/Mer d'Irlande", whose twists and turns, whose flurries of notes and whose impulsive abandon immediately captured our attention.

Friel's Kitchen are living proof that the traditions of Irish and other forms of "celtic" music have worldwide appeal.  Not only to those with a bloodline which goes back to the celtic fringes of Europe, but to all who can sense the beauty that lies at the heart of the rhythms, melodies and structures of the music.

Available via the band's website http://www.frielskitchen.de

Pay The Reckoning August 2002

Sean Smyth - The Blue Fiddle (Mulligan Records LUNCD 060)

Pay The Reckoning makes no apologies for running a review of a CD which has been on release since 1993.  The Blue Fiddle is one of those albums which hasn't received anything like the attention it deserves.  If this album isn't in your collection, then we respectfully suggest that you get your arse in gear, pronto, and get your hands on a copy.

Smyth comes from a family of musical heavyweights.  Sisters Breda (whose recent release Basil and Thyme is reviewed below) and Cora join Sean to make up a family fiddle trio on the set Paddy's Trip To Scotland/Tommy People's Reel which is one of the highlights of the album.

Mind you, the album is of such consistently high quality that every track is a highlight. Take, for example, the opening set of polkas "Jamaica Jam/Tripping To The Well/Art O'Keeffe's".  Jazzy, funky, impeccable guitar and bass from Steve Cooney provides the perfect base for Sean to give us a colourful, individualistic take on the polka rhythm.

Contrast this with the jig set "Doherty's Fancy/Paddy O'Snap's", where he shows that he's as proficient on whistle as on fiddle.  This is a much more "straight" take on the music, but one which is full of vim and joie de vivre.

Smyth's constant search for new ways of presenting his music lies at the heart of the album.  Often attempts to marry Irish music with other forms fail to light the blue touch-paper.  But Smyth has pulled off the trick.  (And credit where it's due to producer Vinnie Kilduff, a key co-conspirator in Smyth's scheme.)

There are moments of sheer magic. Sean's version of three unnamed slides (which we've heard Seamus Begley and Steve Cooney play to great effect) is a toe-twitcher, while his playing of two hornpipes (Thomond Bridge/Arthur's Seat), accompanied by Charlie Lennon on piano is a more reflective, though no less powerful, piece of musicianship.

Little wonder that Sean has gone on to great things with Lunasa.  However we can't help but feel that this album, which gave him the opportunity to set out his personal vision, may represent his most compelling and heart-felt work to date.

Still available direct from Mulligan Records - http://indigo.ie/~mulligan/index.html.

Pay The Reckoning August 2002

Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley - Skyran (Geosound GSCD01)

Twin sisters Jennifer and Hazel have been recording and performing together for more than a decade. At the ripe old age of twenty-six, they've released their fifth album on their own label after two on Attic Records and two on Greentrax. Skyran presents nearly fifty minutes of music from their native Orkney on fiddle, guitar and piano.

The Orkney style combines classic Scots fiddle music with Scandinavian influences and a dash of traditional jazz. Some of the tunes here are from the very heart of the Orcadian tradition: the opening strathspey is a classic, and the Utiseta medley is a wonderful snapshot of Orkney Islands fiddle music. The majority of the music here is actually composed by fiddler Jennifer Wrigley, who is a mistress of several styles: long hard years in Edinburgh sessions with some very dubious characters have taught her the eclectic, swingy style of tunes such as Miss Eilidh Shaw and Thoumire's Trendy Treads, but she can still write straight Scottish jigs and reels like Newark Bay and The Spinnan Cat.

One of the things about those long Orkney nights is that there's plenty of time for slower tunes. There are several great examples on this CD: the graceful Sleepy Laddie, Stronsay Waltz with its old-time charm, and Jennifer's own eerie Orca which closes the CD, are particularly noteworthy. Of all the fine tracks on Skyran, my favourite is the one with the strongest Scandinavian influence: The Dingeshowe Dancers is as irresistible as it is unpronounceable, and is worth the price of the CD on its own.

The Wrigleys' third album was something special, their fourth was even better, and Skyran is better again. There's no finer example of Orkney music. It's available from www.wrigleysisters.com and contains a multimedia file as well as the music tracks. Definitely one of the highlights of the year.

Alex Monaghan August 2002

Aly Bain and Ale Moller - Fully Rigged (Whirlie Records WHIRLIE CD7; 48 minutes, 14 tracks)

Aly Bain is well known to fans of fiddle music. Here he plays tunes from his native Shetland, with a handful of Swedish melodies thrown in. World famous in Sweden, the name of multi-instrumentalist Ale Möller may ring a bell for those who remember Filarfolket: on this recording he accompanies Aly on mandola and various wind instruments, and contributes two fine compositions.

Aly's fiddling is fabulous, with lightning fingers and an amazingly rich tone. Apart from that, there isn't a lot to say. The tunes are top quality, beautifully combined: ancient and powerful Shetland reels alternate with those slightly ethereal slow airs born in Nordic isolation to create a larger-than-life, almost mythic sound. Da Foula Reel is a good example, with its simple rhythm and repetitive melody inducing a light trance, accentuated by the mediaeval continuo from Ale on reed pipes.

For those familiar with Aly Bain's repertoire, there are reprises of some old favourites here: the great Shetland yule air Da Day Dawn, a new version of the sword dance from Papa Stour, and the honorary Shetland showpieces Reel du Pendu and Bonaparte's Retreat amongst others. For the rest of you, these are all treats in store. There are also plenty of less familiar gems: a mill tune from Jos, some heartbreaking Swedish waltzes, and some less well known Shetland tunes such as Da Dykes o' Voe and Maggie o' Ham.

Polished and professional from start to finish, with great sleeve notes, this is a very fine CD indeed. If I have a criticism, it's that things are played a little too safe at times: not quite enough bite in the reels, too regular a rhythm in some of the slower tunes. There's also a slightly tinny edge to the mandola on some tracks. To be fair, in an album by almost anyone else I probably wouldn't even mention such trifles. They're like tiny white clouds which briefly obscure the sun on an otherwise perfect summer's day: you notice them vaguely if at all, and they certainly wouldn't force you inside when everything else is so pleasant. Just enjoy the sunshine.

Alex Monaghan August 2002

Alasdair Fraser & Paul Machlis - Legacy of the Scottish Fiddle Volume 1 (Culburnie CUL118D)

I don't see how you can go wrong with this CD. Here you have one of the world's best fiddlers, with his favourite accompanist, picking the very best tunes from over three hundred years of Scottish music. In just under an hour they play tunes by Neil and Nathaniel Gow, William Marshall, James Hill, James Scott Skinner, Tom Anderson and several other great names from the past. Some of these will be familiar, such as Gow's Fairy Dance and Skinner's Iron Man. Others, such as William Marshall's tunes for Major and Mrs Stewart of Java, or the strathspey and reel by Bill Hardie, are not so well known.

Most of the material here was written between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the grand era of reels and strathspeys in Scotland. There are also many exquisite slow airs, plus the Skinner hornpipe Madame Neruda and Marshall's very fine jig Miss Hannah of Elgin. Many of these tunes are challenging even for a fiddler of Alasdair Fraser's calibre. The compilation of such a volume of superlative music, and the recording of what will doubtless become definitive versions, is a magnificent accomplishment. The most exciting thing about this recording, though, is that it titles itself "volume 1": roll on volumes two to twenty!

Alasdair Fraser and Paul Machlis set the Scottish music world alight with their album Skyedance in 1986. Their combination of old tunes with new and thoughtful arrangements was an instant success. Since then, they have made several recordings in a similar vein, and their band Skyedance is one of the driving forces in new Scottish music. Although there is little of that innovation and experimentation here, they do depart from the classic sound of Scottish fiddle music on a couple of tracks. Their rendition of Willie's Auld Trews would not have been out of place on any of the Skyedance recordings, and the set of Tom Anderson reels captures the spirit and energy of Shetland music.

As a reference work, this recording is extremely valuable. As entertainment, it's exemplary. Reels and strathspeys, both slow and fast, alternate with the beautiful slow airs at which Scottish music is unsurpassed. Alasdair Fraser's version of Mrs Jamieson's Favourite cannot be improved upon, and the famous Neil Gow lament which ends the album is a classic among classics. No collection of traditional music is complete without Legacy of the Scottish Fiddle, and I suspect the same will be true of volume two.

Alex Monaghan August 2002

Micheal Darby O Fatharta - Bosca Bídeach (Own Label, distributed by Clo Iar-Chonnachta)

Before this release, Micheal Darby O Flatharta was pretty much unknown outside the west of Ireland. He comes from the same Connemara melodeon tradition that spawned Johnny Connolly, P.J. Hernon and even Mairtin O'Connor. The Bosca Bideach or wee box of the title is the one-row melodeon in D, out of which comes an astonishing range of tunes and tones. Micheal Darby can be contacted at Aille, Inverin, County Galway, Ireland. His email address is micdarby@gofree.indigo.ie

The dance music of Connemara is cheerful, bouncy, and full of rhythm. While the style is perhaps less wild than Clare or Donegal music, it's also more approachable for dancers and listeners alike. The fourteen tracks here are all fine examples. Most of them are played at a speed for dancing, and the lack of fast and furious fingering gives an impression of relaxed simplicity. Behind this casual, laid-back sound is an unerring rhythm and a technical mastery of the button box which is rarely heard. Micheal Darby's music makes you think that he could keep playing like this all night, and he probably could: Connemara dancers can be very demanding!

In amongst the reels and jigs, Micheal Darby slips in a couple of sets of hornpipes and a tasty pair of barndances. The hornpipe Johnny Cope is the closest thing to a showpiece on this CD: here as elsewhere, he uses two treble voices an octave apart to give a very distinctive sound. Other tracks have different combinations of reeds, but this is the most typical. The sweetness of the high octave against the rumble of the lower notes gives such a full sound, I thought at first that these tracks must be overdubbed.

Bosca Bideach is a real solo recording, with Micheal Darby to the fore on every track. Mostly he's accompanied by the deft fingers of other Connemara musicians on piano, bouzouki and guitar, but there are a couple of box-only tracks and two guest appearances on flute and fiddle. There's no mistaking the star of the show, though. In the hands of this young man, the wee box is clearly the equal of its larger cousins.

Micheal Darby's own waltz An August Wedding is the only slow tune in 52 minutes. Coming just before the end, this attractive composition is like the last waltz at a ceili. It's even followed by a final set of up-tempo come-all-ye reels for those dancers who still won't go home. I think if I was dancing to this music, I wouldn't want to go home either.

Alex Monaghan August 2002

Conor McCarthy & Alph Duggan - Selection Box (Twin Records Ireland TRICD002)

Conor McCarthy is a button accordeonist in the new generation Kilfenora Ceili Band, and recorded a duo album recently with his fiddler wife called Ace & Deuce - I'm not sure which was which, but his new CD suggests that he would be a candidate for the ace. Alph Duggan first came to my attention accompanying Tommy Peoples: on this recording he plays guitar and sings the only song.

Conor's style is not quite what you'd expect, either from his duo CD or from his association with the Kilfenora band. He embellishes the tunes with all sorts of rhythmic and melodic effects, producing an unexpected note here and adding a flourish there. Some of this ornamentation and variation is what traditional musicians have been doing for a long time: Conor just takes it a bit further. At other times, though, he's in uncharted waters for the button box: he does many of the things which the late Sean O Riada railed against, playing notes which aren't in the scale and changing the rhythm of a dance tune, but Conor McCarthy does them so well that it almost always enhances the music.

There are a few relatively straight traditional tracks here - the hornpipes and airs particularly - but the majority are given the virtuosic treatment which we've come to expect from younger Irish musicians. It's not that nothing's sacred, more that Conor and his contemporaries are defining the new liturgy. The playing is a box-player's dream throughout, plenty of flash fingering and new takes on old tunes (which only occasionally get lost in the rush). Even when Conor overstretches himself, as in the pair of breakneck strathspeys, the attempt is laudable.

The title of this recording is well deserved. Conor takes us through most of the common forms of Irish music plus an unusual rhythm or two, and covers a wide range of material from the very well known to his own jaunty jig The First Trout. There's also a beautiful track from Conor's father Johnny McCarthy, a most unusual medley from an older incarnation of the tradition, and a similar ageless feel to Alph Duggan's rendition of Slieve Gullion Braes over Conor's expressive accompaniment. You hardly notice the guitar accompaniment elsewhere, which is meant as a compliment!

So, Selection Box is a very interesting and entertaining album which I recommend to all box-players and lovers of Irish accordeon music. You won't hear another one quite like this. Only 42 minutes, I'm afraid, but there's more notes per minute than usual, and you can't have everything.

Alex Monaghan August 2002

Eoin O Riabhaigh - Tiomnacht / Handed On (Gael-Linn CEFCD 181)

This CD was an unexpected pleasure, a mature and accomplished solo album from an uilleann piper whom I'd hardly heard before. Eoin O Riabhaigh is the son of renowned Cork piper and teacher Micheal, and has worked as a backing musician with several big names in traditional music but never really struck out on his own until now.

In almost an hour of consistently excellent piping, Eoin covers most of the forms of Irish traditional music and also throws in a couple of bluegrass numbers. His sound reminds me of Martin Nolan's album, a fluid open style with plenty of raw energy and imaginative acoustic arrangements. The first five tracks come from the heart of the Irish tradition, and Eoin acknowledges the influences of Patsy Tuohy, Liam Og O'Flynn and Paddy Keenan amongst others. He makes a fine job of big tunes such as The Lark on the Strand, King of the Pipers and Colonel Fraser, and his treatment of the air Dark Woman of the Glen is evocative without departing too much from the tune. The truly innovative arrangement of two Irish marches for seven pipers and two drummers works particularly well, whether or not it was meant to be taken seriously.

A brace of bluegrass tracks provide further variety, as well as demonstrating Eoin's total mastery of a notoriously difficult instrument. Fitting the Kenny Baker showpiece Bluegrass in the Backwoods onto the pipe chanter is no mean feat, but O Riabhaigh pulls it off with panache. The pair of old-time waltzes is a similar success story, the pipes duetting with down-home fiddles and flitting between keys like an experienced longshoreman. The string band accompaniment gives the impression of a well-oiled bluegrass outfit backing a guest piper, much in the style of Gerry O'Sullivan's recordings.

Eoin O Riabhaigh's flirtations with foreign music don't prevent him from getting the best out of his own tradition. There are tracks in the second half of this CD which do full justice to some of the classic Irish reels, jigs and polkas, and would make any piper proud. The fourteen tracks on Tiomnacht give a very clear picture of O Riabhaigh's repertoire: what you see is the combination of quality and depth, and a skill which has been kept in the background for too long. I hope this is just the beginning of Eoin's solo career!

You'll have gathered that there are one or two other musicians on this album - a baker's dozen, to be precise, including most of De Danann and some other familiar names. Even in such illustrious company, the piping consistently comes out on top. There are a couple of unsatisfying patches - a little raggedness about some of the reels - but this is generally an excellent recording which is worth listening to over and over again.

Alex Monaghan August 2002

Leo McCann - If Anyone Can! (CANNDHU 001)

Leo McCann is an Irishman who plays button box and whistles with Edinburgh band Corner House, amongst other things. This is his first solo album, and he's joined here by other young stars Aaron Jones, Kris Drever, Malcolm Stitt and Sarah McFadyen.

If Anyone Can! squeezes 11 tracks into 47 minutes. Of the 28 tunes, eight are McCann's own compositions and the rest are broadly traditional. There's an emphasis on Scottish tunes (including an MSR set), and the jigs and reels are interrupted by two or three slower tracks. Nine tracks feature Leo on button box, and two showcase his skills on the low whistle.

The title is rather misleading: Leo McCann is not one of the world's top button box players. However, he can certainly hold his own amongst the likes of Martin O'Donohue or Anam's Treasa Harkin. Leo's playing is legato but a bit jerky, and occasionally gives the impression that the tune is getting away from him. He has a rather unornamented style for an Irish box-player, and doesn't always put as many notes into a tune as he might.

Several well-known people have hailed this CD as one of the best albums of the year: I don't agree, and here's why. Let's take track 1 as a typical example, a set of three reels. Leo omits the first triplet in the opening tune, and from the end of the first phrase he seems to be fighting the tune rather than playing it. Near the end of the first tune, the guitar comes in more than fractionally early (or maybe that's jazz). At the first change, Leo's tempo increases significantly with three minutes to go, which comes as a bit of a surprise to the guitarist, and the tempo is a bit erratic from then on. I don't want to be picky, but this is not world-class stuff. There are plenty of good bits, though, and no shortage of great tunes.

It's a shame the whistle only features on two tracks, because for my money this is Leo's better instrument. The technique is spot on, he has plenty of time to embellish the melodies, and he plays with a flair which is not evident on the other tracks. He does full justice to some tricky tunes, producing two of the best tracks on this CD.

So is this one of the best traditional albums of the year, or is it merely a promising debut from a young musician who is definitely worth hearing? You'll just have to buy it and judge for yourselves.

Alex Monaghan August 2002

Flook - Rubai (Flatfish Records 004CD 14 tracks, 44 minutes)

This is Flook's third album, their second with the present line-up of Brian Finnegan and Sarah Allen on flutes, Ed Boyd on guitars, and John Joe Kelly on bodhrán. The virtuosity of Finnegan takes some beating: not many fluters could take on Gordon Duncan's Pressed for Time and win, but this Ulsterman can. He also writes a mean tune: he plays seven of his own on Rubai, every one a cracker.

Sarah Allen's firm tone and imaginative harmonies make the two-flute sound work brilliantly, and she switches to accordeon now and then for a bit of variety. She also brings the alto flute into play, a fabulous deep, throaty instrument that cuts right through to the hindbrain. Sarah takes the credit for five original compositions, including the opener "Baldy Hollow" (a bouncy slide named for Brian) and the intriguingly titled pairing of "Granny in the Attic" and "Blue Ball".

Ed Boyd must now be one of the best sidemen in the business. He's been with Flook since the beginning, and with Mike McGoldrick and many others since. His sensitive guitar and bouzouki can turn Flook into a Latin fiesta band on "Kalamantinos", a cool jazz ensemble on Brian's luxuriant air "Rosbeg", or even a seventies rock group on "The Empty Pod". Add the prodigious talent of goat-batterer and sometime mandolinist John Joe Kelly, and you have almost unlimited musical potential.

Rubai certainly realises that potential. From start to finish, it's a riot of sounds and rhythms. The whole thing is nothing but highlights, but if you want me to name names, try the exquisite Asturian jig "Santalla d'Ozcos", or the no-holds-barred final set of another Gordon Duncan tune and a couple of equally high-octane reels. I won't even mention the amazing artwork or the cunning title. The music alone is more than enough to justify putting this CD at the top of the "Wanted" list. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it. Mind you, if it's sleeve notes you're wanting then you'll have to visit www.flook.co.uk for them. Rubai is like a musical workout, uplifting and draining both at once. It's addictive, and almost too good to bear. Just when you're beginning to think Flook don't know when to stop, they do precisely that and you have to listen all over again.

Alex Monaghan

Magic Car - Yellow Main Sequence (Tiny Dog Records TDR003)

We don't often host reviews of alt-country/americana recordings in Pay The Reckoning. However, after receiving a copy of this superb collection, we couldn't resist drawing it to the attention of our readers.

Magic Car are Hazel Atkinson (vocals, mandolin), Phil Smeeton (vocals, guitar), John Thompson (bass and responsible for the production of the album) and Dave Langdon (pedal steel). Together they have put together a delicate, insightful, oblique, wry album, rich in detail and atmosphere.

Atmosphere! In the way that the best albums of artists such as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and others cohere to create a lasting mood, so Magic Car's impressionistic and tangential songs conjure up a sense of restless melancholy and compassionate empathy with misfits and malcontents, free spirits and the lovelorn. They understand the concept of "high lonesome" in the same instinctive way that an Appalachian singer or an East Clare fiddler does. The instinct may express itself in a different form, but the ear attuned to the keen sense of "the blues" which informs much of the musical outpourings of such highly personal traditions will recognise kindred spirits.

Both the musicianship and the production on the album are of the highest order. "Sparing" is a key motif. Atkinson's understated mandolin and Langdon's pedal steel appear where necessary. Other outfits might have been tempted to splash the instruments all over the musical canvas. But Magic Car are too tasteful for such excesses. Instead they are integral and vital elements of Magic Car's overall soundscape, which is completed by Smeeton's uncomplicated guitar work and Thompson's fluid and sympathetic bass playing.

The spare and quietly powerful arrangements of the four key players are supplemented here and there by huge swells of brass which, in the case of Downtown - with its lyrical echoes of Leonard Cohen's early work - convert a restrained and contemplative number into a jubilant, joyous celebration.

Elsewhere, "Too Lonesome Cowboy", "4 In The Morning", "Bob Mitchum" and "Night So Blue" stand out as songs which typify Magic Car's intelligent, incisive and darkly humorous approach. The closing instrumental "Yellow Main Sequence" - evocative and layered - distils the essence of the band's musical vision.

We believe this album will appeal not just to those already converted to the alt-country/americana axis, but to anyone who appreciates thoughtful and imaginative songs which shed a little light on the human condition.

Find out more at Tiny Dog Records http://www.tinydog.co.uk.

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Pierre Schryer, Dermot Byrne and Friends (Claddagh Records CCF34CD)

It was Steve Cooney's idea to introduce Ontario fiddler Schryer and Altan's box-meister Byrne. Cooney's unerring radar pinpointed a combination of talents that resulted in an explosive and highly entertaining album.

The opening track - John Kimmel's Favourite - sets the tone for the album. A rich composition with a foot in traditional "european" and "american" style camps (as witnessed by the echoes of snatches of "Swanee River" towards the end of the piece), the approach of both players is sparky and mischievous. There's nothing po-faced or haughty about either musician. Each is a player of great warmth and wit.

Traditional Irish and Scottish tunes reside happily alongside traditional and newly-composed tunes in the French-Canadian Ontario style and Schryer and Byrne adjust their styles to accommodate the different nuances of phrasing and punctuation encountered in the music of their "non-native" idioms.

Even among such stirring, impeccable music, several tune sets stand out.

Byrne's version of two jigs from John Doherty's repertoire, The Silver Slipper/The Lancers Jig, is a truly inspirational rendering of a classic Donegal set.

Schryer and his band (Nathan Curry, Brian Pickell and Julie Schryer) give us a beautiful reading of two Pickell tunes, "Sourgrass and Granite/Pierre's Right Arm". The muscular joie de vivre of the latter tune comes a pleasant contrast after the plaintive and sensual "Sourgrass and Granite", whose melody conjures up visions of a wild, though hospitable, landscape.

The reel set - The Road To The Glen/Pigeon On The Gate/Martin Rocheford's - is a jewel of a recording. Byrne's ornamentation of the tunes adds colour and interest, but never detracts from the flow and the pulse of three great reels. Schryer's fiddling - through remaining stylistically true to his native roots - weaves in and around Byrne's accordion and gives the set a great sense of lift.

But for sheer nerve and elan, look no further than the pairing of the strathspey "John Stephen Of Chance Inn" with the polka "Farewell To Whiskey". The prospect of pairing the syncopated 4/4 rhythm of an ornate strathspey with a 2/4 polka would cause most musicians to quail. However Schryer and Byrne make the transition seem natural and effortless. Cooney plays guitar and high strung guitar on this set and, particularly in the polka, his solidness and attack add to the overall dynamic of the tune and call to mind his exuberant accompaniment of Seamus Begley.

Available from Claddagh Records (www.claddaghrecords.com).

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

The Floating Bow - John Doherty (Claddagh Records CCF31CD)

Irish music has its fair share of players of genius. However, the word genius is too small, and too laden with associations of mere greatness, to describe John Doherty. Doherty's music was highly personal; his command of a seemingly infinite variety of styles was so complete that, while he was playing them, he owned the tunes.

Doherty was one of the last links with the generations of Irish musicians who didn't have recourse to TV or fast cars or other communication technologies which presented a wide range of styles and forms to the player learning his or her art. Being from a travelling family, Doherty was exposed to wider range of music than most. However it was all in the Donegal tradition, with its borrowings from the Scottish repertoire much in evidence.

And therefore there's a purity and a resonance in these recordings of Doherty's music that is rarely (and increasingly rarely) encountered in modern-day playing. His music has a patina of antiquity that is real; it's not a veneer; it's not a sound that has been "worked at". Doherty was simply playing music in the only way he could play it, a style forged through long years listening to and then playing back the tunes he encountered on his rambles in the world.

The repertoire confirms the rootedness in the local tradition of north-west Ulster. In addition to jigs and reels, there are marches, highlands and strathspeys, forms of music uncommon elsewhere in Ireland, but forming an important part of Donegal's musical landscape.

But Doherty's approach to the repertoire is the remarkable element in the proceedings. The consummate solo fiddler, he was quite able to combine savage and abandoned bowing with an altogether more restrained, controlled, delicate approach, often within the same tune. This type of expressiveness is not possible where the fiddler is accompanied (at least not without a great deal of rehearsal) - the need for musicians to respond to each other places a constraint on the soloist. However, on his own, Doherty was free to take tunes off in any direction he wished, without any sense of having to signal his intentions to any other party.

Over 25 tracks, we are given a glimpse of the power and complexity of Doherty's playing. From the opening reels (The Spirits of Wine/Madame Bonaparte), through the variety of reels which follow (The Flogging Reel, Miss Paterson's Slipper, Scots Mary, The Sligo Maid's Lament/Hand Me Down The Tackle, The Cameronian, Within A Mile Of Dublin, The Mint In The Corn, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Sean sa Cheo, The Mountain Road, Miss McLeod), skewed hornpipes (Old Simon's Hornpipe, The Glenconwell Hornpipe), a double jig (The Lancers Jig), marches (The Further In The Deeper, An Chuilfhionn, Willie McLennan's, The Highlanders), aching airs (The Day I Listed, Maidin Fhomhair), bouncing slip-jigs (Drops Of Brandy, Gusty's Frolicks, The Silver Slipper), highlands (Tom Tailor's, Dulaman na Binne Bui, The Braes of Maas) and the King George IV Strathspey.

If we were to nominate just two tracks for special mention they would have to be Doherty's rendering of Bonnie Kate and the march/jig/reel set "The Enniskillen Dragoons/Nora Crionna/Piobaire an Cheideadh". The intricate fingering and surging runs in Bonnie Kate typify his willingness to give life to the tune. His ability to mimic the sound of the bagpipes on the latter set is at once an amazing display of bravura and wit and an example of his perfect control of fiddle and bow.

The affectionate and engaging essay by Alun Evans which comprises the largest part of the sleeve notes (there are also "technical" notes on Doherty's playing by the album's producer, Dermot McLaughlin) makes it clear that Doherty's was a hard life. Sure, his travelling lifestyle had some advantages, but the reader is left with an impression of a man whose station and status were gradually eroded by the inevitable onrush of time.

But with the release of these marvellous recordings, Doherty is rehabilitated. For those of us who have a gra for honest, earthy, expressive, poignant and jubilant Irish music, Doherty's status is secure. The prince among traditional fiddlers has been reunited with his crown!

Available from Claddagh Records (www.claddaghrecords.com).

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Nickel Creek (Sugar Hill Records SUGCD 3909)

We don't see a lot of CDs from Sugar Hill in these pages, but this one is worth making an exception for. Firstly, it's likely to be the first of many from this trio of talented youngsters. Secondly, it's a bit of a departure from Sugar Hill's usual all-American fare: there are three tracks from the old country, and a generally cosmopolitan feel to many of the others. Thirdly, it's terrific.

Nickel Creek combines mandolin prodigy Chris Thile (who has three solo albums) with fellow fledglings Sean and Sara Watkins on guitar and fiddle. All three sing lead and harmony vocals, and proud father Scott Thile plays bass on most tracks. There's an impressive absence of guests and gimicks: what you see is what you get, and the live act is every bit as polished as this fine recording.

This isn't a teen band, but with an average age of just 21 Nickel Creek has already celebrated its tenth anniversary. That explains the tight professional sound, the large repertoire of original material, and the degree of sophistication in the arrangements. You won't hear many better debut recordings.

The twelve tracks here are just slightly weighted towards songs, with two traditional numbers and five modern compositions. Chris' powerful lighthouse ballad is a definite highlight, and Sean contributes a couple of more contemplative lyrics. Irish blood surfaces in songs by Sinead Lohan and Tim O'Brien. It's the instrumentals that really grab the attention, though: from the oldtimey opener Ode to a Butterfly until the last notes of Sean's poignant Pastures New, I was hooked. The flawless mandolin and banjo, the firm but gentle guitar, and the sweet-toned fiddle wove and blended beautifully to create an astonishingly full sound. One of Nickel Creek's strengths is their ability to switch styles: the traditional Irish sound of the Cuckoo's Nest reel, the crazy Eastern rhythms of Tom Bombadil, and the rustic jig Robin and Marian are all performed with flair and feeling.

Weighing in at just under fifty minutes, this album is a heavyweight in every respect. If you want solid playing and singing with a mix of new and old material, an energetic acoustic sound, and more talent than a crowded Dublin pub, then Nickel Creek is hard to beat.

Alex Monaghan July 2002

Mary Jane Lamond - Gaelic Songs of Cape Breton (Turtlemusik 02-50889)

Listening to her previous recordings, you get the impression that Mary jane Lamond can sing anything: rock, pop, trad, folk, whatever. On this recording, she limits herself to pretty much traditional songs with pretty much traditional arrangements. Solo or accompanied, strong and earthy or soft and sweet, her versatile voice covers the whole gamut of Gaelic song. There are no real highlights, because it's all of such a high standard technically and artistically. If Gaelic singing were an olympic sport, there would be a gold medal for this recording.

With a dozen tracks squeezed into 45 minutes, most of the songs here are quite short. The range of styles and expression really is striking. Whether it's an unaccompanied lament, a love song with piano and fiddle accompaniment, a mouth music duet with the pipes, or a women's work song with backing vocals, Mary Jane finds the right blend of power, emotion and sweetness: and that's only the first four tracks. Her vocal versatility is second to none, and she has a wonderful ability to bring out the spirit of a song.

Every track here is a winner, but it's worth making special mention of just two. Track 3, a mouth music jig, has been slowed down for maximum poignancy. Paul MacNeil's eerie accompaniment turns into a bagpipe break in reel time, and then turns smoothly back into a reprise of the slow jig, making the most of what is a very short song. Track 6, A Fhleasgaich Uasail, is set to a beautiful air which I hadn't heard before, and the words of this lament are powerful and moving.

Rather unexpectedly, Gaelic Songs has an instrumental track in the middle. Fiddler Joe Peter MacLean plays a typical Cape Breton medley of strathspeys and reels with some interesting old settings. Even more interesting, his fiddle is tuned AEAE. This is a tuning which I always associated with Shetland music, but apparently it was not unknown in Gaelic communities: there's even a Gaelic phrase for it, "an gleus ard".

Part of the explanation for Joe Peter MacLean's track is that Gaelic Songs of Cape Breton is a project as well as an album. It was recorded in a performing arts centre with local musicians, there were associated live performances, and there is a definite intention to preserve and present important traditional material. Some of this background is shown in the additional multimedia files on the CD. The bottom line is that this isn't just a great recording: it's a great recording of great material from a great singer who honours her debt to the Cape Breton tradition. Good for her.

Alex Monaghan July 2002

Stacey Lynn Read - Playing with a Full Deck (Own label SLR3)

Miss Read is from New Brunswick in the Canadian Maritime provinces, up there with Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, PEI and others. These exotic places all seem to have rich fiddle traditions, and on her third album Stacey Lynn has put together a wide-ranging selection. The word "eclectic" isn't really adequate for this recording: to put it bluntly, she has picked and chosen from all over the Celtic fiddle repertoire and beyond. It's as if someone had been compiling a book of North American fiddle showpieces, and Stacey Lynn just went and recorded them all! There's swing, ragtime, oldtime, Irish, Scottish, Quebecois, Cape Breton, and more, with Stacey bowing and scraping her way through all these styles like a native.

One interesting oddity is that there are none of Stacey's own compositions here. Nearly all the tunes here have stood the test of time, and you'll recognise many of them. Several big names are represented - Jerry Holland, Graham Townsend, Lee Cremo and others - but there's only half a tune credited to Stacey. It's a nice little tune though, glorying in the title Naked Dog, and after all she's only fourteen so maybe her composing talents have yet to flower.

Didn't I say? This masterly fiddler whose third album I'm enjoying is barely out of pigtails. Actually, these days she may well still wear pigtails, but the music and the cover photo suggest that she's much too clever for that. Nevertheless, at a sickeningly early age Stacey Lynn has wrapped her fingers firmly round half a dozen fiddle traditions. Admittedly she started early, but after only eleven years her mastery of the fiddle is beyond what most musicians achieve in a lifetime. If you're looking for flash fiddling, great tunes, and traditional arrangements, this is your kind of album. It's my kind, too.

Fiddling like this doesn't just stem from long hours of practice, although I'm sure she's done plenty of that. Stacey has a flair which comes across instantly. This could be a young Aly Bain playing, or a maidenly Mark O'Connor. Stacey Lynn Read (a name you should try to remember for the future) brings these tunes to life, whether it's the deceptively simple Fisher's Hornpipe and Maple Sugar, or more challenging pieces like Sleepy Maggie, Cotton Patch Rag and the ultimate showpiece of Orange Blossom Special which ends this CD. More than that, Stacey has her own style: it's slightly laid-back, bouncy, with a lightness of touch and a distinctive use of downward glissando.

So there you go. Nigh on an hour of music from an emerging prodigy, with some fine accompaniment in the best Canadian style, nicely recorded and produced. Outside Canada, the easiest way to get a copy is probably on the internet: browse http://AtlanticMusician.com/StaceyLynnRead/ or email StaceyLynnRead@AtlanticMusician.com for more information.

Alex Monaghan July 2002

Slide - The Flying Pig (Own Label)

Slide is a group of young musicians, with veteran Mick Broderick on bouzouki, based in Dublin but with roots all over the Republic. Concertina wizard Aogan Lynch and flute supremo Eamonn de Barra are recent winners of the national Young Traditional Musician competition, and the band won Irish Music Magazine's "Best Traditional Newcomers" award for 2001.

Their debut CD is named after a tune which is named after the statue of a flying pig in the trendy Temple Bar area of Dublin. I kid you not. Presumably, when the plan was first hatched to convert one of Dublin's most run-down areas into an up-market theatre district with yuppie bars and giant sculptures (instead of the original plan to demolish the place and use it as a bus depot), some well-spoken local politician retorted "Yeah, right, and let's have some flying pigs while we're at it!"

Although basically traditional, Slide's repertoire is wide-ranging and varied. The front line of concertina, flute, and fiddler Daire Bracken is among the best you'll hear playing Irish music: comparisons with Niall Vallely, Mike McGoldrick and Paul O'Shaughnessy would not be out of place. This trio sails effortlessly through charming and challenging pieces alike, with Mick's steady hand in the background. The lads have chosen some cracking tunes, and written some themselves, and the basic formula is exciting melody lines with a sparse but tight backing. Between the jigs and reels, polkas and hornpipes, there are also two songs written by Mick and Daire in a slightly modern idiom.

It's easy to overlook the role of the bouzouki in Slide's music, so skillfully does it fill the gaps without intruding on the tune, but Mick Broderick is a consumate master of his instrument and an essential part of Slide's irrepressible sound. Just listen to the sure touch on his own captivating air North Sea Crossing, or the steam-train pulse he puts into the faster tunes.

If it's lively and spirited Irish music you're wanting, look no further. Forty-eight minutes of powerful acoustic music from four magnificent musicians: pigs might fly? Believe me, they do. I'd say we'll be hearing a lot more from Slide, collectively and individually.

For more information, visit Slide's website at www.slide.ie, where you can find lots of interesting things including a photo of the flying pig.

Alex Monaghan July 2002

Chris Newman & Maire Ni Chathasaigh - Dialogues: Agallaímh (Old Bridge Music OBMCD14)

Chris and Máire are well known as a duo and as individuals. On this recording they're joined by Máire's equally famous sister Nollaig Casey on fiddle and vocals, as well as a few other friends on various tracks. The addition of the fiddle gives Dialogues more strength and depth, and the combination of these sisters' voices is an instant success.

All the characteristics of Máire and Chris' previous recordings are in evidence here: the virtuoso guitar and sparkling neo-Irish harp, the well-chosen traditional tunes and well-crafted original compositions, and the trademark track or two of funky swing. This CD adds a couple of extra special features, though: a lovely pair of Scottish pipe tunes featuring the fiddle of Ian MacFarlane, and the opening suite of three tunes from Máire. The modern classic Donald MacLean's Farewell to Oban is one of my favourite tunes and gets a splendid treatment here, the percussiveness of Máire's harp contrasting with Ian's fluid fiddling. The two reels which end track 1 are both outstanding compositions, and deserve to pass into the traditional repertoire.

There's plenty of variety in Dialogues, music old and new from four or five traditions. There's also a more solid and powerful feel than on Chris and Máire's previous albums, which adds interest. It would have been nice to hear a little more of Nollaig's voice, and perhaps some more of Ian MacFarlane and Simon Mayor. On the other hand, there's already more than fifty minutes of music here so we can't complain of short measure. I like Dialogues, and I think you will too.

Alex Monaghan July 2002

Various Artists - Evolving Tradition 3 Mrs Casey Records (MCRCD 1002)

If the previous two albums in the series are anything to go by, this should be a pretty good predictor of the future stars of traditional music. Names such as Kate Rusby, Luke Daniels, Eliza Carthy, Simon Thoumire, Catriona MacDonald and Michael McGoldrick were featured on Evolving Tradition CDs 1 and 2, not to mention the Wrigleys, the Hendersons, Tabache, and Cordelia's Dad.

Many of the artists on Evolving Tradition 3 have already made quite a name for themselves - the likes of Cara Dillon, Chris Armstrong and Malinky are well known in certain corners of the folk music world. There are several names here that were relatively new to me, though: Kieron Mearns, Ola, Philippe Barnes, Talei Edwards and Emma Reid among them. The styles range from purist to pop, from bluegrass to barndance, with well over an hour of music and song. I'll tell you what my favourites were: not the big names, in many cases, perhaps because I'd heard them before. Roughly two thirds of the eighteen tracks here have been previously released, and the rest will probably make it onto another album pretty soon.

Harpist Phamie Gow's was the first track that leapt out at me. Her lovely lively jiggy composition Heelstergowdie is a wee gem expertly played, and was enough to persuade me to buy her solo CD. The set of reels from NeffBros could be straight from a Dublin session, and a good one at that: the fiddle and pipes combination is full of raw energy, and there's bags of rhythm and musicality too. The fjord-style fiddling of Edwards and Reid is a different beast altogether, dark and earthy but with a power that affects those little hairs on the back of your neck. Ola is a trio of young musicians who play music for fun. They're technically brilliant, imaginative and well rehearsed, but the fun comes across loud and clear. I'd go quite a long way to hear more of them. I probably won't need to go so far to see Acaysha, an established young string band playing mountain music and its variants: very listenable. In a similar vein, the supercharged acoustic swing provided by The Black Cat Theory takes some beating.

Depending on your musical tastes, you may prefer the tracks by Broderick, Clive Carroll, Brolum, Bedlam, Dr Faustus, or the trio of MacDiarmada, Fitzgerald and Rooney whose fine debut CD I reviewed a while back. Whatever your likes and dislikes, you should give Evolving Tradition 3 a whirl.

Alex Monaghan July 2002

Hammy Hamilton - The Moneymusk (Ossian Publications OSSCD 120)

Belfast-born fluter Colin "Hammy" Hamilton is better known as a composer and flute-maker than as a performer. This CD, and his recent Ossian recording with Seamus Creagh and Con O Drisceoil, should certainly change that. In actual fact, twelve of the eighteen tracks on The Moneymusk were released on cassette in 1990 but disappeared into obscurity except among the cognoscenti. This CD is doubly welcome because it adds six new recordings to these older tracks.

Hammy Hamilton moved down to West Cork in the '70s to set up his flute workshop, and he's joined here by several local musicians. Most noteworthy perhaps is the concertina of Peadar O Riada, which features on two or three of the older tracks. There are also a couple of flute duets with Paul McGrattan, and some flute'n'fiddle tracks with Connie Connell, as well as several flute solos.

Hammy plays flutes in D and Eb, presumably his own products, and an Indian bansuri in low Bb. He gets a lovely tone out of all of them, and his playing is technically very good. The Ulster style comes through strongly, plenty of tonguing and an emphasis on rhythmic effects. The tunes are all little gems, many of them chosen to highlight the possibilities of the wooden flute: nothing too fancy, and plenty of variety. The highlight of this recording has to be Hammy's two famous jigs, The Woodcock and The Kerfunten which have become session standards, but there's plenty more memorable music here: the title track which combines a traditional strathspey with an old Irish hornpipe, Sarah's Reel which Hammy wrote for his daughter, a pair of fine old jigs from the rich repertoire of James Morrison, John Egan's great polka, a smashing reel identified as The House on the Hill which I hadn't had a name for before, and two truly wonderful slow airs on flute and bansuri.

You'll have gathered that I liked this album. The old and the new fit together seamlessly to make 43 minutes of very fine flute-playing, the notes are full and interesting, and the tunes are among the best in the tradition. What more could you ask for?

Alex Monaghan July 2002

Duncan Chisholm - The Door of Saints Copperfish Records (CPFCD002; 43 minutes, 9 tracks)

Relax. Close your eyes. Let the music wash over you. Feel your spirit lift as Duncan's fiddle carries you along. You rise and fall with the melody, with the slow and graceful bowing of the strings. Wolfstone's fiddler weaves the potent music of the Gael into a hammock, a cocoon, a dream that's more real than reality. In this dream, music is magic, the magic of creation. Reach out and touch the sea, the soil, the stars.

The sounds of tramping feet, and a ragged army pours into the glen. Are they off to fight, or are they fleeing an unseen enemy? Men, women, children stream past, their faces hidden. These are your people: should you join them? They pass the river bend, and are gone as quickly as they came.

Look around this strangely familiar landscape. There is beauty, there is savagery. Lush green moss and barren rock, wind and sun, virgin meadow and patches of cultivation. A cluster of buildings nestles out of the wind, half hidden by an outcrop of rock. The same barren rock, roofed with the same moss, makes cosy dwellings.

In the long low houses, people are dancing. The wild strains of the fiddle pierce the gloaming, the thump of feet on floor, a whirling frenzy. Faster and faster beats the music, until the fiddler stops. The dancers sink down, and a different music is carried on the wind, a music that maps the sorrow of those who are lost, and those who remain. The fiddle sings of far-off places, of lands closer to the sun than this one, but home is here. The fierce pride of these people in their land, in their music, in their tongue, is written on the night air.

The music changes again. A heart-rending waltz, a stately strathspey, jigs and fiery reels, and people are dancing with the flames. You yearn for more, but the dream must end. Reluctantly, you leave the firelight. An aching lament accompanies you as the wind tears the landscape, shredding the magic. The fiddle fades, the last notes die away, the dream is gone.

Okay, you can open your eyes now.

There's a whole world in Duncan Chisholm's music, and it's truly magical. All you have to do is open The Door of Saints. What are you waiting for? Copperfish Records can be contacted at Kirkhill, Inverness IV5 7NZ, Scotland.

Alex Monaghan July 2002

Mary Jane Lamond - Làn Dùil (Universal 26884-20042)

This is at least Mary Jane's fourth album, establishing her as Canada's most prolific and successful Gaelic singer. She has a wonderful voice, able to soar above the prevalent backing of guitar, drums and bass. Of the eleven songs on this 43-minute recording, all but one are traditional and most came to Canada from Scotland in the nineteenth century. The single new composition, Crodh air a'Bhruaich, has words by young Cape Breton poet Jeff MacDonald set to music by Mary Jane.

The thought of Gaelic songs over guitars, drums and bass may fill you with horror or with excitement. Either way, you're probably in for a pleasant surprise with Làn Dùil. Mary Jane is well aware that the strength of her material lies in the tunes and the words, and these are never swamped by the arrangement: on the other hand, she knows how to weave the powerful dance music of Cape Breton into the songs to create counterpoint and break up the verses. Indeed, the word "powerful" is a very apt description of the songs and music here.

"Varied" would be another good description, with tracks ranging from a capella worksongs via toe-tapping mouth music to Celtic pop. As well as the soft rock arrangements, there are world-class fiddles and pipes dovetailed into the singing. There's also quite a bit of tasteful experimentation with archive recordings and techno programming: nothing too shocking, but some very imaginative effects. Mary Jane is justly credited with dragging Cape Breton singing into the technological era, and although this recording is pretty restrained by her standards it's still strikingly upbeat and innovative. Làn Dùil gives a very good idea of Mary Jane Lamond as a singer and arranger of Gaelic songs, and very good it is altogether.

Alex Monaghan July 2002

Tim Edey - Daybreak (Gnat Bite Records (No number))

Tim Edey has certainly been around, despite his tender years. He's toured with Sharon Shannon, Flook, Mike McGoldrick, Anam, Capercaillie and others, but he's always been in the background. Daybreak brings him to the fore with a vengeance. You won't often hear a tastier touch on the button box, and certainly not from someone who also plays guitar, banjo, piano, bass and whistle.

As well as being a one-man ceilidh band, Tim is a prolific composer of fine tunes. There are over a dozen Edey compositions here, and some of them are outstanding: Baltic Arrival, New Jig, and the Reculver Polcas to name but a few.

Born in Kent to Irish parents, Tim is something of a showman. The opening hornpipe is flash and fancy, with swing guitar and finger-bending melodeon. He plays the box in a powerful punchy style, akin to the Begleys or the older Galway musicians. Track 2 rattles through some great tunes in the West of Ireland style, and Edey manages to make McGoldrick look dull! Tim can also turn his hand to the slower forms: his tunes for Emma and son Nathan are masterpieces lovingly played.

He can also coax a few surprises out of the traditional repertoire. Track 8 includes a smashing meaty version of Congress Reel in the lower octave which could make strong men weep, and he does ample justice to great tunes such as George White's Favourite and The Gold Ring.

Sure, there are a few imperfections. The timing slips a little on a couple of tracks, and some of the endings are a bit weak. On the other hand, there's over an hour of music here with Tim frequently triple-tracking or more, plus he's written half of it himself, and he's only 22! All in all, Daybreak is a stunning triumph of skill and musicality, and should take Tim Edey from obscurity to stardom. This has to be one of the best traditional albums of 2001, and one of the biggest surprises too.

For the record, this isn't Tim's debut solo CD but the previous two are not readily available. Daybreak is being distributed by Gael-Linn in Ireland (http://www.gaellinn.com), and can be obtained from Gnat Bite in the UK on 07971415053.

Alex Monaghan July 2002

April Verch - Verchuosity (Rounder 7019; 52 minutes, 16 tracks)

Never heard of her, right? Well you have now. Ottawan fiddler April Verch was born with two great gifts: a musical ability that allows her to mix and match fiddle styles from all over Canada, and a surname tailor-made for puns. At 22, April has four albums under her belt but this is the first one to be widely available outside Canada.

April's style makes its mark from the very first notes of Reel William Gagnol, a Quebec version of an old Irish tune given plenty of swing and lift. This is fiddling with flair, one eye on the tune and the other on the audience. The showmanship continues in the New England standard Ross Reel Number 4, which includes a Brazilian percussion solo: not quite as impressive as her inspiration Alasdair Fraser, but loads of fun.

The waltz Britany is the first of six Verch compositions, written in American Old Time style with similarities to Ashokan Farewell and Tennessee Waltz, a lovely tune. Then things get more contemporary again with the jazzy Fire When Ready, reminiscent of April's teachers Matt Glaser and Darol Anger. A very American touch is the pan-Canadian medley which starts with archive footage of an adolescent April on local radio, then slips deliberately into a more mature version of the same medley. This is one of only four medleys on Verchuosity: the other twelve tracks are all single showpiece tunes.

Before her 52 minutes are up, April covers classics from Cape Breton, Quebec, Appalachia, Brazilian jazz, and a set of tunes by the late great Graham and Eleanor Townsend. Mixed in with these are April's own tunes, some straight traditional, some anything but, plus one by husband Marc Bru which balances April's waltz Marry Me: some men just need a little hint.Thomas Reel, written for sister Tawnya (sic), is worth the price of a CD by itself, and the Hot Club number Sneaky would more than justify the postage and packing.

The sleeve notes would have you believe that April is the finest fiddler since Johnny beat the Devil. I wouldn't agree with that, or with the endorsement from T.S. Eliot, but she's certainly up there with the best musicians of her generation. Thanks to Rounder, you can now form your own opinion. Verchual April is available on the web at http://www.aprilverch.com and you can email admin@aprilverch.com for more information. As April says, enjoy!

Alex Monaghan July 2002

Grainne Hambly - Between the Showers (Shamrock Records 1050-2)

Gráinne Hambly is a young harpist from County Mayo with a long apprenticeship in traditional music and a couple of music degrees under her belt. She has been a member of the Belfast Harp Orchestra for a surprisingly long time, recording with them and with other groups, but Between the Showers is her solo debut. This is a true solo album, featuring nothing but the neo-Irish harp without even any double-tracking, and it contains over an hour of exquisite music. There are just two duet tracks, one with harpist sister Róisin and the other with guitarist Peter Ratzenbeck who composed the title track.

If I were a young harpist, I'd be delighted with this recording. The fingering is deft and lively, the tunes are varied and well chosen, and the sound quality is excellent. The harp is not the easiest of instruments to record, and this album captures both the bell-like purity and the deep resonances of this ancient instrument. Full marks to the engineers at Green Dolphin studios in Belfast.

As you'd expect, there's a high proportion of slow tunes here. About half the 19 tracks start slow, but some of them finish fast. Gráinne's playing is at its best on some of these airs: her interpretation of Inis Oirr is out of this world, and the slow version of Brendan McGlinchey's Splendid Isolation is equally angelic. A couple of lesser-known Carolan compositions are given fine treatments, and the two modern waltzes are welcome additions to the harp repertoire. But Gráinne doesn't shy away from the quicker forms of Irish music. The opening track is a spirited frolic through a pair of fine traditional reels, and there are plenty more reels and jigs before the finish, as well as the odd hornpipe, set dance, or fling. The album ends as it began, with a pair of heavyweight traditional reels that present no problems to Gráinne's nimble fingers.

This is an exceptionally good album. I know I've said that about a lot of CDs recently, but it's true: musicians are getting better and better! If you have any interest in Irish harp music, this is a recording you should have and Gráinne Hambly is a name you should look out for. Shamrock Records is a relatively obscure Austrian label which doesn't seem to have a website, but fortunately Gráinne does: http://grainne.harp.net is her site, and grainne@harp.net is her email address. Drop her a line to say how much you enjoyed her CD: I did.

Alex Monaghan July 2002

Mary MacNamara - The Blackberry Blossom (Claddagh Records CCF32CD)

A concertina virtuoso, MacNamara's music epitomises the East Clare approach.  Discursive, empathetic, "centred".  MacNamara has no time for bluff or bluster, for artifice or contrivance.  Her music comes naturally and directly, pristine and precise.

But don't be fooled into thinking that such straightforward, unalloyed music lacks power.  This is momentous stuff, all the more potent because it lacks the props and buttresses of the big production efforts.  Pared-down and uncluttered, nothing stands between the listener and the music.

Each track on the album is a flawless gem. The flow and ebb, the natural lilts and rhythms, are graceful and seemingly organic.  However, matchless as each track is, one or two are worthy of special mention.

Mary's rendering of the elegant hornpipe, The Golden Eagle is, like the bird itself, a thing of majestic beauty.  Its triumphant swells contrast with the melancholy cadences of the slow jig ,"An Paistin Fionn" which appears earlier in the album.

Mary is joined by brother Andrew on piano accordion for a set of reels "Woman of the House/The Green Groves of Erin" and, as is often the case when members of a family play music together, the degree of intimate acquaintance between the two players is communicated through the virtually telepathic duet.

Mary's sense of fun is evident in her working of the songs "An Spailpin Fanach/The Little Beggarman" as lively and intricate barndances.  (A form which she favours as can be seen from her inclusion of Pearl O'Shaughnessy's Barndance elsewhere on the album.)  A more spry set of tunes it's difficult to imagine.

Mary is assisted throughout the album by Geraldine Cotter, who has virtually cornered the market in providing restrained and colourful piano accompaniment to the brightest stars in Irish traditional music.

A thoughtful, articulate and passionate album.  Available direct from www.claddaghrecords.com.

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Bakerswell (Claddagh Records CCF20CD)

Although it's been available in other formats for some time, Bakerswell - the only recording of a short-lived project which formed out of a fund-raising venture for Na Piobairi Uilleann - has recently been released on CD.  The members of the project were Sean Potts (whistle), Sean Og Potts (uilleann pipes), Kevin Glackin (fiddle), John Kelly Junior (fiddle), John McEvoy (fiddle), Mick Hand (flute), Noirin O Donoghue (harp) and the ubiquitous Steve Cooney (guitar and keyboard).

Given the similarities in their respective set-ups, it's perhaps not surprising that at various points the listener might be forgiven for thinking that they're listening to the Chieftains.  Indeed, Bakerswell share more than just a superficial resemblance to Moloney's trad orchestra.  The two outfits have a similiar tendency to seek out the melodic nub of a tune and present it minus blood and thunder.  And so, if you like your music full of ill-judged back-slapping and raucousness, Bakerswell is best avoided. If, on the other hand, you hanker after a delicacy of touch, a concern for melody and a sense of deep and abiding affection for the tunes, you could do no better than to acquire this album.

Bravely, the album opens with an air (Cailini an Fhactory), with O'Donoghue taking the lead.  This is a statement of intent - a bucking of trends.  By rights the album should have opened with a brash set of reels ...  But this is Bakerswell.  Seasoned musicians.  Who know what they know by dint of having walked the walk and who have no need to prove anything to anybody.  You'll get your reels and your jigs in good time ...

And so we do ... reels played with vim and with assuredness - Paddy's Trip to Scotland/The Wild Irishman; Sarah Hobb's/Farewell to Eireann; East Clare/The Pullet/The Union Reel; Molly Ban/Quinn's - and with the variety of instrumentation that is possible within a large ensemble.

The single Carolan piece on the album - Madam Maxwell - plays to the strengths of the highly experienced and controlled players within Bakerswell.

The band are majestic in their playing of two sets of tunes from Kerry - a set of slides and a set of polkas.  They hold nothing in reserve, all hands get tore in to making cracking music.

This ability to handle the delicate, filigreed baroque of Carolan pieces and the wild, surging dance music with equal facility is a trademark of the Bakerswell project, and a stamp of quality to which many traditional outfits aspire - few with the success that Bakerswell meet.

Available from Claddagh Records, www.claddaghrecords.com.

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Leo Rickard - Pure Piping (Claddagh Records CCF33CD)

Although the title intimates that this is a record of solo piping, i.e. pure piping, an alternative reading of the title, i.e. pure piping would be equally valid.  Rickard has inherited a tradition whose roots are deep in the Irish psyche.  He's in the inner circle of the quasi-mystical brotherhood of pipers, men who make stirring, passionate music from that complex arrangement of reeds, chanter, regulators and bellows whose sound is the quintessence of Irish music.

No mere technician, like his friend Paddy Keenan, Rickard is a true artist, whose piping speaks volumes.  Whether he's belting out a fine set of reels or teasing out an achingly slow air, Rickard's gift of music goes way beyond the notes and he communicates direct to the heart and the soul.

As well as having a few tunes in common, Keenan and Rickard share an ability to take instinctive, highly colourful risks with their piping - wild flurries and runs which captivate the listener.  Only truly inspired pipers can sense the opportunities which certain tunes afford to make such intensely personal statements, and only the truly courageous and confident can seize the opportunities once they have sensed them.

Rickard takes the unusual step (for a piper) of playing two Carolan pieces (Carolan's Concerto and Morgan Magan) as well as an almost-Carolan piece (Planxty Davis).  Rarely are such tunes heard on the pipes. And yet, as Rickard demonstrates, they do not sound out of place in the least.

But, unusual and exquisitely well-played as these pieces are, it is of course to the dance music which the lover of piping will be drawn.  And their listening will be well-rewarded.  Of the three jig sets on the album, Garrett Barry's/The Lark In The Morning, is the outstanding gem.  Rarely have we heard the first jig get a more characterful rendering or the second a more spirited outing.

The album contains only one reel set - The Flax In Bloom/Pinch Of Snuff/Corney Is Coming - but that one set conjures up much excitement and intensity.

The Wexford Hornpipe/The High Level Hornpipe is a massive job of piping.  The second hornpipe in particular, associated with the Northumbrian piper James Hills, provides a test of character and stamina which Rickard passes with flying colours.

But the CD's highlight, and indeed a highlight of piping generally, is Rickard's version of the set dances, The Ace and Deuce of Piping/The Job of Journeywork.  On both tunes he displays a sense of timing and control, as well as sheer dexterity, which elevates his performance above mere playing; rather he redefines the tunes.  The notes are what the tradition has bequeathed; Rickard's assured yet delicate touch gives the tunes new shape and substance.

Available from www.claddaghrecords.com and well worth the investment!

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Bevel Jenny - Above The Clouds ... (Bevel Jenny Records BJRCD001)

There have been any number of attempts to fuse traditional music with various forms of jazz.  It's a delicate balancing act. A shallow analysis might lead you to believe that the free-form nature of jazz would be likely to contrast with the inherent sense of structure of traditional Irish music. But think again.  The best players, the most intuitive, inspirational players see the structure of traditional tunes not as a constraint, but as a starting point - a tapestry to which they add their own threads.

By fusing jazz and trad in the way that they do; with neither musical form dominating the other, Bevel Jenny create a rich and stimulating sound, where virtuosity and space to improvise is the order of the day, but self-absorption and self-indulgence are barred from the premises.  This is intelligent - but not intellectual - music. Its target is the feet and the heart ...

At the time of recording, Bevel Jenny comprised Mark Sisk (guitars), Aisling Ni Farachtain (vocals, bodhran, keyboards), Jim Magill (drums, percussion), Padraic O Farachtain (keyboards), Mairead O'Donnell (vocals, fiddle), Brian O hUiginn (uilleann pipes, whistle), Simon McVeigh (bass, double bass), Eamonn de Barra (flute) and Michelle O'Brien (fiddle).  Their discipline and ensemble skills ensure that though the sound is a big as the band, it's a disciplined and bounded sound, which is never allowed to sprawl.  Nor is there any sense of competitiveness.  Each musician is allowed an opportunity to express themselves in ways which elevate each of the songs and tune sets.

"She Never Stopped Talking" epitomises the band's approach to songs; Mairead's reserved vocals float high over a backing which ebbs and flows as naturally as the tide, which eddies and swirls, teases and explores.

Of the tune sets, Andy McGann's Reel/An Seachtar Sugach and The Groves/The Drunken Landlady are remarkable.  The highly individualistic approach to the tunes never once denies their rightful place at the centre of a deep, historic tradition.  And yet the arrangement says boldly that these tunes are not fossils, but living and breathing "here and now" creations, capable of holding their own with musicians whose ears have been opened to rhythmic and structural possibilities unknown to the tunes' originators.

But as far as we're concerned, Bevel Jenny's version of the brooding, troublesome Castlekelly is the musical high point of the album, the point at which the two driving forces within Bevel Jenny converge in an exciting, suspenseful and sheer bloody tuneful union.

Hats off to the boys and girls of Bevel Jenny!  Pay them a visit at www.beveljenny.com.

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Harry Bradley - As I Carelessly Did Stray (Faetain SPINCD1005)

Still in his twenties, Bradley grew up in Belfast family where there was, by his own admission, no history of music. How things have changed ... the house that plays host to Bradley must fair burst with the stuff!

Bradley's approach to making music belies his age. His music is seasoned. It bears the patina of age and agelessness. There is nothing cavalier or frivolous about Bradley's workings of tunes. Instead the listener gets a sense of deep and abiding respect for the nuances of the tradition, to which he adds a dash of his own spirit but takes away none of the essential soul and keenness of the tunes themselves.

A well-read musician, Bradley's scope isn't confined to any particular regional tradition. Instead he presents us with tunes from all over Ireland. The common denominator throughout is his commitment to communicating to the listener his deep affection for the old tunes and the abandon he feels in exploring them.

He plays a rake of flutes and whistles on the album - D Flute, Eb Flute, C Flute, marching band flute and Clarke's C whistle. However the varied use to which he puts the instruments never once smacks of gimmickry. Instead the sounds of each of the instruments is used with care to create a rich musical experience.

So what of the tunes? Those with any exposure to the tradition will find old favourites in abundance scattered liberally throughout the 15 tracks on the CD. There are, as you would expect, lively jig sets (The Walls of Liscarrol/The Castlebar Races; The Kinnegad Slashers/An Port Ard) and majestic reel sets (which include The Tinker's Stick/Within A Mile Of Dublin; Colonel Roger's Favourite/Johnny Henry's (which Seaosamh O'Neachtain livens up with some tasty hard shoe stepping); The Lilies In The Field/The Gatehouse Maid; The Old Maids Of Galway/My Maryanne; The Shaskeen/Bonnie Kate; The Lady Of The House/The Tailor's Thimble (with Paul O'Shaughnessy)).

However we were particularly struck by a number of tracks.

Towards the end of the CD Bradley gives us a highland and a reel (Captain Kelly's). The highland he learned from Hammy Hamilton and he mentions it has been dubbed "Where Would The World Be Without Women?".

A set of barndances (The Ballroom Favourite No 2/The Belle Of The Ball) - on which he is joined by Jesse Smith on fiddle - calls to mind the great flute and fiddle pairing of Paul McGrattan and Paul O'Shaughnessy, whose barndances were - like Bradley's and Smith's, exuberant, infectious and mesmerising tunes.

Bradley gives the marching flute an airing on the polka and march set, "My Love Is But A Lassie/Bonaparte Crossing The Rhine". Its more brittle, bright sound cuts like a scalpel right to the core of both tunes.

But for sheer audacious virtuosity, Bradley's version of "The Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow" deserves three minutes of every trad fans' time. Here he displays consummate musicianship - kicking the tune off at a snail's pace and then giving it just a little bit of juice. A breathy, decorated tune which will replay itself in your memory for a long time after the disc has quit spinning!

Credit is due to other supporting musicians who haven't yet had a mention. John Blake on guitar and piano; Seamus O'Kane on bodhran; Anthony McGrath on bouzouki. All three provide an unfaltering base, allowing Bradley scope to give his tunes lift and colour.

To find out more about this fine musician and his latest CD, visit www.strayceol.com or www.claddaghrecords.com.

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Brian Rooney - Leitrim To London (Faetain SPINCD1004)

Fiddler and accordionist, Rooney, has - in his own quiet, understated way - made the perfect recording.

In case you didn't quite get what we just said, we'll repeat ourselves.  The perfect recording.

Rooney isn't the world's most pyrotechnically-minded musician.  He doesn't take liberties with the tunes, playing with his listeners' expectations.  He doesn't artificially enhance the drama of the tunes through cheap barnstorming and chicanery.

In fact there's a sense in which Rooney doesn't perform in the conventional sense at all.  Instead, he engages the audience in a conversation.  In which, over the course of forty minutes or so, we get to know a lot about the man.  And he's a deep one, is Rooney.  A considerer.  Open, but not rash.  He's nobody's fool, the same boy!

The first element of Rooney's playing which struck us was its speed.  Too often nowadays, traditional musicians play at a furious lick.  In the process they miss a lot of the point of the music.  Not so Rooney.  He plays at a respectful, respectable speed.  At the sort of speed which enables the listener to reflect on the air of melancholy which clings to even the supposedly most jaunty of tunes.

And such tunes!  

The track listing contains so many names that are familiar.  It kicks off with a superb version of two favourites - The Boyne Hunt/The Silver Spear.  And instantly the tone of the outing is set.  Rooney's rock-solid fiddle, played at a nice steady pace with perfectly-judged ornamentation.  Not overly embellished; but here and there a flourish or roll to colour the tune and lift it.

Rooney doesn't go around the world in eighty days to bring us music from all quarters of the globe (as is the modern way, don't you know!).  All the music Rooney needs to play for us can be found in Ireland.  Thus we have such pleasing sets as Shandon Bells/Jackson's and The Templehouse Reel/The Dairymaid.  These are classic tunes and played in a classic, unhurried thoughtful style.

Rooney and flute player Gregory Daly give us a number of duets and their comfort in each other's company serves to enhance the conversational tone of the recording.  The Maid of Mount Cisco/The Mountain Top and Lord Gordon's emphasise just how well flute and fiddle complement each other in traditional Irish music.  And how similarly do Rooney and Daly feel the tunes!

But of all of the great tune sets on this album, one of the most compelling is Rooney's rendering of those two classic hornpipes, The Plains of Boyle/Cronin's Hornpipe.   His articulation, his ornamentation, his control - all to the fore.  But as well as the techncal aspects of his playing, what strikes the listener above all else is his soulfulness.  Underlying the fine playing is a fine sensibility, an acute musical intelligence.  This is what captivates the listener.  Rooney has the ability, more than most players, to convert a tune into a compelling story.

The album benefits from the sympathetic, unobtrusive and utterly dependable accompaniment of John Blake on guitar and Brian McGrath on piano.

We don't need to wait for history to record its verdict.  This album will be a classic.  It is a classic.  A 24-carat genuine article.  The pure drop.

Get a copy direct from www.claddaghrecords.com.

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Beolach - Beolach (Beolach Music BM001)

Fasten Your Safety Belt.

Beolach should have superimposed the above safety warning over the picture of a smashed cake of fiddle rosin which adorns the cover of their debut album.  For when the assorted boys and girls start shiftin' air with their feet, fingers, elbows and whatever other body parts are brought into play, then it's a hair-raising ride.

But though it's exhilarating, we're in no danger.  Beolach know what they're doing.

Steeped in the Cape Breton tradition, Beolach play in the muscular, tough, joyous style which earlier generations brought with them across the sea from Scotland.  But athletic and powerful though the sound is, Beolach are at the same time precise and subtle.  Not an easy trick to pull off!

Individually, each member of Beolach is an outstanding musician and at various points each is given opportunities to step into the limelight and show us what they're capable of.  Therefore we have Ryan MacNeil weave demented tunes on the border pipes and whistles.  Mairi Rankin and Wendy MacIsaac give us soaraway fiddle solos and perfect unison duets.  Mac Morin provides a solid anchor on piano, here and there switching from accompaniment to melody - in the process causing us to wonder how one person can cover so much distance on the keyboard and summon up such rapid and intricate ornamentation into the bargain.  Patrick Gillis, likewise, shifts with ease between roles as accompanist and lead musician.  And - last but by no means least - Mattie Foulds on drums and percussion supplies the insistent, high energy rhythm which underpins so much of Beolach's style.

However the band's love of playing as an ensemble comes through constantly in the intricate, wily arrangements.  Here and there the band hint at influences.  We're sure we detected a whiff of Horslips about the opening bars of the final track, Freddy's Set (Lothian Lasses/Freddy's Reel/Reel For Spanky/Mutt's Favorite) - which features some raw, breathy whistle courtesy of Ryan MacNeil.

Singling out individual sets on an album of such consistently high quality serves little purpose.  If you truly want to get the most out of Bolach's debut, then play it the whole way through at full blast.  We can guarantee you'll want to repeat the experience ... and soon!

Visit the band at www.beolach.com.

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Maeve Donnelly - Maeve Donnelly (Own Label MDCD 001)

From the opening bars of this tasteful, elegant recording, we're left in no doubt as to the sheer brilliance of Donnelly's playing. Mind you, from a contributor to the seminal "Sailing Into Walpole's Marsh" album and a founder member of Moving Cloud, we'd expect nothing less than excellence.

But Donnelly goes a lot further. She gives us not just excellence, but passion and abandon. This is wild music which speaks to the wildness in all of us. It's life-affirming music, full of unfettered joy and exuberance on the one hand and reeking of deep, unspoken (unspeakable!) sadness on the other.

And it's timeless music as well. The only hint that it's been recorded in the early part of this twenty-first century is the flawless sound quality (courtesy of Steve Cooney, Laoise Kelly and Billy Robinson at the controls). Otherwise, the music can't be carbon-dated. It is, was and ever shall be perfect in itself.

The opening set of reels (The Flax In Bloom/The Beauty Spot/Counting The Coppers) sets a standard for the remainder of the album. Donnelly has a lovely touch. An intricate left hand and her natural, easy mastery of a vast repertoire of bowing styles, gives her music great colour and lift. The "dots" are a mere starting point for a fiddler such as Donnelly, mere pointers to the real tunes which she conjures out of string and bow and captures for us in fleeting form, before recasting the tune again in another variation.

All in all, the album boasts 15 glorious tracks. And all are outstanding performances.

However one or two of the pieces merit special mention.

Donnelly's version of "NóraCríona" demonstrates a phrasing so delicate and a sense of control so refined as to draw gasps of delight from the hardest-hearted.

Her decision to take on Shrip's Clog and The Virtuoso Hornpipe points to a confidence in her ability (or a sense of foolhardy courage) which is inspiring. (The first track was learned from Canadian fiddler, Tommy Doucet's recording "I Used To Play Some Pretty Tough Tunes".) Both tracks may demand a degree of virtuosity to play, but by Christ they're easy enough on the ear!

The closing set of reels (Mullingar League/Ryan's Rant/Lavern's Favourite) is the epitome of vigour and a tonic for the weary soul.

Maeve is joined by brothers Mal (accordeon), Declan (fiddle) and Aidan (banjo) - as well as by the estimable Geraldine Cotter (piano) - for the "down-home" jig set "Fr. Quinn's/The Nightingale/The Piper's Chair". And a grand job they make of it. The depth of mutual respect comes through with every note. The sense of timelessness which we discussed above is never more evident than in this set. Here is music played the way it has been for years, the way it will be for years to come. Naturally. As part of the fabric of everyday family life, where playing music and enjoying music is as much part of the daily routine as eating and sleeping.

But, if pressed, Pay The Reckoning would have to confess to returning time and again to Maeve's duet with flautist Peadar O'Loughlin on the jig set "Anthony Frawley's/I Love You Not And I Care Not". O'Loughlin has long been a standard-bearer of the Clare tradition and his unhurried, melodic approach is as much in evidence in this set as in any of his other work. Donnelly clearly relishes playing with him and the listener derives the benefit as the pair knock sparks off each other.

Fair play to you, Maeve! We hope this CD shifts in lorryloads. It's an education and an inspiration.

Find out more at www.maevedonnelly.com.

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Rig The Jig - Stormy Brew (CMR Records CMCD1088)

An infectious, accessible, superbly presented collection of tunes and songs by a fine bunch of musicians with an easy-going way about them and the ability to deliver both highly expressive traditional tune sets and simply, but perfectly!, arranged songs.

Rig the Jig are Michael Banahan (vocals, backing vocals, guitar, bodhrán), Noel Carbery (uilleann pipes, whistles, bodhrán, backing vocals), Brendan Doyle (button accordion), Johnnie Duffy (vocals, backing vocals, guitar, tenor guitar, banjo, mandolin) and Jimmy Flanagan (vocals, backing vocals, banjo, acoustic guitar). With guest musicians Eddie Lee on upright bass and Paul Gurney on keyboards. And they make a great racket altogether!

The album opens with the melancholy, gently humorous, compassionate "Take Her In Your Arms" by the prolific Andy M. Stewart which, as the song comes to an end, they convert into a vibrant, reel. They switch rhythm for the next, exhilarating set, "The Connaught Combination" (Pull The Knife And Stick It/Queen of Mayo/The Tar Road To Sligo).

The lads then shift down a gear for the beautiful (and beautifully delivered) "Hard Times". So many outstanding versions of this song have been recorded. Pay The Reckoning thought we'd heard the definitive version on Bob Dylan's "Good As I Been To You" album. But we're not so sure now ... Rig The Jig's understated but emotive treatment is extremely well-judged.

And then ... one of the most intense musical experiences you're ever likely to encounter! The lads give the two slides in the "Southern Surprise" set (Padraig O'Keeffe's Slide/Siney Crotty's Slide/Cregg's Pipes) a lively and gleeful work out, before the reel - one of the all-time greats in the tradition - gets an airing. What follows is a lesson in ensemble trad musicianship - Doyle kicks off with a highly ornamented solo on the button accordion. His playing is as communicative, as daring and as literate as you could wish to hear and - literally - left us holding our breath. This rapture was further compounded as first Carbery and then the rest of the band slip in behind him and take the reel to a triumphant conclusion. I wouldn't mind betting that Carbery has a very high regard for the pipering of Paddy Keenan. Which is not to say that he copies Keenan's version of this exuberant tune. It's more the case that Carbery shares Keenan's readiness to take huge risks with the tune, exploring its limits with wild flourishes of ornamentation.

Thankfully, we're allowed to settle down for a moment as the boys change the pace again - giving us a very down-to-earth version of the Carter Family's "Storms On The Ocean". If there was ever any doubt about the close blood-ties between the Appalachian and (for want of a better word) "celtic" traditions, then a listen to this track would soon have them dispelled forever!

Carbery then gives us a compelling, controlled version of "Sean O'Duibhir a' Gleanna", an air which seems to encapsulate all of the anguish and lonesomeness from which so much of the Irish tradition derives.

But this slow vein can't be allowed to continue and soon the oul' engine's revving again and off we go with the wind in our hair for an ecstatic blast of reels "McComiskey's Set" (McComiskey's Reel/The Priomrose Lass/Drag Her Round The Road".

Fans of comic songs - not throwaway songs, but the great comic pieces such as "Patrick Was A Gentleman", "The Rollickin' Boys Around Tanderagee", "The Humours Of Whiskey", "Darby O'Leary", "The Bradys", "Coleraine Regatta", etc. - will near pass out with delight at the clever (and we mean CLEVER!) wordsmithery of "The Errant Apprentice". Learn this one by heart, find a quiet moment in a session and give it a lash ... we guarantee you won't have to put your hand in your pocket for a fortnight!

Next up is another accomplished set of reels "Steady Does It" (Brosnan's/The Old Road To Garry/The Kinvara Polka) which leads us into the exile song "The Groves of Kilteevan". As we've come to expect by now, the execution is flawless; the delivery of tunes and songs never fails to hit the target - feet or heart - for which it aims.

A reel/jig set follows (Morning Dew/Apples In Winter), whose devil-may-care buoyancy contrasts with Rig The Jig's next offering, Duffy's self-penned "Goin' The Wrong Direction" - a tenderly-observed meditation on the sweet sorrow of (temporarily) parting.

The heads are up again for the last set of tunes, "The Christmas Eve Set" (Christmas Eve/Lucy Campbell/The Reel Of Rio). Three well-known reels, handled with great aplomb.

And then - as all good things must - the album comes to an end, with the affectionate and (we use the word yet again with no apology) compassionate "McKeown and I" by Mickey and Cormac MacConnell. A fitting end to a great hour of listening pleasure.

Charlie McGettigan - Stormy Brew's producer - makes mention several times in the sleeve notes of Rig The Jig's naivety. Even though he uses the word as a compliment, we think he's being a little unfair. People who make music as powerful, as controlled, as expressive and as soulful as Stormy Brew couldn't possibly be naïve. Optimistic, certainly! Possessed of lorryloads of humour, most definitely. But naïve? We don't think so!

Find out more about the band on www.rigthejig.com and say hello from Pay The Reckoning while you're there!

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Gerry O'Beirne - Half Moon Bay (Own Label)

Half Moon Bay's been around since 1999. To Pay The Reckoning's shame, we acquired a copy only recently.  Unknown to us, our lives have been sadly improverished for our not owning earlier this collection by the singer, songwriter and virtuoso guitarist.

O'Beirne's works have been recorded by many - Maura O'Connell's version of "Shades Of Gloria" and Patrick Street's version of "The Holy Ground" spring instantly to mind.  However the man himself puts over his songs and tunes with such conviction that other people's renditions seem to lack the spark of intimate acquaintance, of having wrung these songs out of his own experience, that gives O'Beirne's performances such compelling immediacy.

O'Beirne's influences are wide-ranging.  There's a lot of desert heat on the album, the occasional nod in the direction of sharp-tongued, keen-eyed troubadours such as John Prine and an ear for arrangements which calls to the mind the precision of Simon and Garfunkel.

However, there's a deep appreciation of the tradition as well, as evidenced by his soulful guitar solo "Off The Rocks At Clashane", whose moodfulness captures the drama of the ever-changing Western sky.  Not an attempt to recreate a traditional sound; rather a contemporary piece which cannot escape the influences of an ancient music from which it has evolved.  And, of course, his piece de resistance - the majestic "Shades Of Gloria" - is a tribute to Micho Russell and that West Clare train of emotion which can make musicians and poets out of all of us!

Elsewhere, the album boasts O'Beirne's assured touch on the traditional Mexican waltz, "Caperucita", as well as two other fine self-penned tunes "The Glass Boat" and "When You're Gone I Say Your Name". And as well as the songs mentioned above there are some truly superb numbers which spotlight O'Beirne's mastery of mood and delivery - "Long Beating Wing", "Darkness Now", "Western Highway", "Angel Angel", "Silver Line Sarah" and "Half Moon Bay".

Intelligent, articulate, insightful musicianship from a real craftsman.  Not a wasted word nor an untrue note.

Visit Gerry at www.gerryobeirne.com.

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Paidrigin Ni Uallachain - An Dealg Oir (Gael Linn CEFCD 183)

This dazzling recording has emerged from an intense period of activity by Ni Uallachain, during which she delved deep into the tradition of South East Ulster, in the process uncovering a wealth of material which hasn't previously been laid before a wide audience.  A more "academic" presentation of the results of her collecting spree can be found in the book "Songs Of A Hidden Ulster", published by Four Courts Press Dublin (2002) and accompanied by two CDs of all 54 songs recorded in sean-nos style.

However it's hard to imagine anything less academic, more vital than Ni Uallachain's recording for Gael Linn.   On a carefully-chosen selection of the best songs from the above, Ni Uallachain and a premier league crew of musicians (Steve Cooney, Liam O'Flynn, Helen Davies, Laoise Kelly, Odhran O Casaide, Ronan O Snodaigh, Maire Breathnach, Pat Crowley and Liam O Maonlai) present the old numbers with the degree of polish and sparkle you'd expect.

Although the album is built around a theme of locality, the songs themselves are a rich variety.  There are plaintive love songs, "Is Fada An La", "Eirigh Suas, A Stoirin", "Aili Gheal Chiuin", "Uilleagan Dubh O" and "Maire Bhan".  There is the bawdy "An Seanduine Doite".  There are laments and tributes, "Marbhna Airt Oig Ui Neill" and "Seamus Mac Murfaidh".  Local festive songs such as "Amhran Na Craoibhe".  The tracks which gave us most pleasure are the opening, macaronic love song "Ealaigh Liom" and the May song "Thugamar Fein An Samhradh Linn".

Rarely does an album emerge which combines such scholarship, passion, talent and ability to communicate.

Find out more at www.irishsong.com and www.gaellinn.com.

Pay The Reckoning July 2002

Killultagh - Killultagh (Killultagh Music KMCD02)

Formed out of a session in Clenaghan's bar in Aghalee, on Antrim's Lough Neagh coastline, Killultagh are purveyors of a characteristically rhythmic and driving approach to traditional music.  Comprising Brendan Monaghan (uilleann pipes, whistle, bodhran, bones, vocals), Stephen Mulholland (fiddle, guitar, vocals), Jimmy McKee (guitar, vocals), Chris Caldwell (bodhran, vocals) and John Neil (guitar, dulcimer, vocals), the band are equally at home cranking out high-energy reel sets or taking a more restrained approach when presenting the album's more contemplative contemporary material.

Right from the word go, Killultagh prove their mettle with a feisty, articulate rendering of the timeless jigs Eddie Kelly's/The Eavesdropper.

Unusually for traditional Irish albums (but perhaps not surprisingly given the outfit's number of vocalists) songs prevail over tune sets.  There are some touching contemporary numbers courtesy of Jimmy McKee (The Lost Child and The Homeless Pianoman) and fine arrangements of the poignant ballads "The Water Is Wide" and "Farewell To Whisky".  "The Wild Rover" is rendered in a setting which is far removed from the rowdy pub-favourite version.

However the pick of the songs on the album is the unaccompanied "In Praise Of John Magee", a piece of black humour which leads into an old standard (played superbly well), the hornpipe "The Cuckoo's Nest".

The tune sets are played with great skill and subtlety, but with guts and gusto as well! The reel set "Lad O'Beirne's/The Old Bush" showcases two spry tunes.  The jig set, "The Humours of Ballyloughlin/Banish Misfortune/I Buried My Wife And Danced On Top Of Her" demonstrates the band's ability to get under the tunes and give us something more than the sum total of the notes, whereas the closing set of hornpipes and reels (The Fisherman's Lilt/Cronin's/The Boyne Hunt/The Crooked Road) is a belter of the highest order, opening with Monaghan's accurate, confident, highly ornamented solo pipering, before the band kick in to join him on Cronin's.  Mulholland takes the lead on The Boyne Hunt, with Monaghan sending out a drone under the tune before the guitars kick in on the second round.  And then a rousing finale, all guns blazing on the final reel.

A magnificent outing and one which deserves to be picked up and championed by the trad community. E-mail the band for further details killultagh@yahoo.co.uk.

Pay The Reckoning June 2002

Mary Smith - Mary And The Soldier & Two Strings On Every Bow (Own Label)

Two albums and 28 traditional ballads from the Irish, Scottish and Appalachian traditions (plus one recent composition - The Raven by Andrew Connell), delivered sensitively and with great applomb by Virginia's Smith.

Something of a scholar of the ballad tradition, Smith has nevertheless chosen to present two collections of ballads which are reasonably well-known.  All the better for the new listener to acquaint themselves with Smith's very direct approach.  There's no studio wizardry on hand; just Smith's clear-as-a-bell voice, her rock solid guitar accompaniment and a clatter of great songs.  Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  The listener either gets it, or doesn't.

Being as parochial as anyone else in this world, we were delighted to see two songs from County Armagh make an appearance in "Two Strings ...", the melancholy "Boys Of Mullaghbawn" and the rousing "Master McGrath".

We were also delighted to find Mary had chosen to record a rake of songs which are old favourites of Pay The Reckoning.  "The House Carpenter", "Sweet Carnlough Bay", "P Stands For Paddy", "Mick Maguire", "The Bold Grenadier", "The Lark In The Morning", "The Bonny Boy", "The Little Beggarman", "Whiskey, You're The Devil", "The Maid Of Culmore", "Bold McShane" and "Johnny Cope" all feature in her collections and are rendered every bit as well as the classic versions with which we're familiar.

But, of course, the other beauty of recordings such as these is the opportunity to become acquainted with material which is new to the listener.  And so Pay The Reckoning is grateful to Smith for making us aware of the great Appalachian ballad "Come All You Fair And Tender Maidens" and a number of traditional Scottish ballads - "Andrew Lammie", "The Battle o' Harlaw" and "Jock o' Hazeldean" among them.

Both collections come highly recommended.  Unadorned, straightforward renditions of plaintive songs of lost love and exile as well as rousing versions of oul' "come-all-ye"s.  Smith says "I've sometimes been urged to do more "contemporary material" that "people can relate to", but I've never taken that advice.  I have to sing from the heart, and I feel like the traditional songs have drawn me to them, and not the other way round."  Well, fair play to you, Mary!  Keep at it.  We look forward to the third collection.  (Do you do requests?)

Find out more and buy the albums for yourselves at www.maryfsmith.freeservers.com.

Pay The Reckoning June 2002

Liz Doherty - Quare Imagination ( Busy Lizzy Records BLR001)

Quare imagination plus quare talent equals quare good music!

Remember how you felt when you first heard Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh draw her bow across the strings? That sense of a talent that was practically ... explosive?

Well, prepare to feel that way again. From the opening bars of the first tune on this superbly-presented CD (produced by banjo-meister Gerry O'Connor), it's obvious that we're in the hands of a major-league fiddler. Not just a technician (although Doherty has more technique than you could imagine - whether your imagination's quare or nnot!), but a unique interpreter and communicator.

And though Doherty is steeped in the musical traditions of the north-west corner of Ireland, her vision extends beyond Ireland and beyond the tradition. Rarely do albums in the trad genre come packed with so much original material and sourced from such a wide area.

The album's opener (Johnny Sunshine/The Blue Lamp) is a set of reels written by Nancy Kerr and James Fagan and Gavin Marwick and Johnny Hardie. From the word go, Doherty's bow-work captures the ear. She articulates each tune in such a way as to overlay the tune's inherent rhythms with other subtexts which she's discovered. On the second tune, Daniel Lapp joins in on trumpet. The unusual combination gives the track a surprising lift.

From then on we're on the helter skelter, right enough! Tune upon tune bursts forth from Doherty's fiddle.

Whilst there isn't a wasted second on the album, there are moments which we can only describe as truly inspiring.

The set of hornpipes "Drive The Golden Spike/Lenny Chiasson's" gives Doherty an opportunity to demonstrate her affinity with this particular rhythm. In the wrong hands hornpipes can sound stilted. In Doherty's hands, both tunes flow like silk, even in passages where the triplets are densely packed.

The jig set "The Gally Canter/The Irish Washerwoman/Annie's Carafe" shows how a much-maligned and practically sidelined tune such as The Washerwoman can be rehabilitated by sympathetic positioning in a set and by superb playing.

But as far as Pay The Reckoning is concerned, the jewel in the crown is the reel set "Dougie MacDonald's/The Flood On The Road To Glenties/The Spirits Of Wine". Gerry O'Connor's banjo ripples and flurries alongside Doherty's fiddle, but just a shade lower in the mix. The star producer takes great pains not to upstage Doherty. The opening Cape Breton reel has become a favourite amongst Irish musicians and it's always a great listen. The Flood On The Road To Glenties was new to Pay The Reckoning and a great credit to the tune's author, Glasgow's late Jimmy McHugh. However the last tune is one which we're only familiar with via the playing of John Doherty. Liz's playing brought the great man so much to mind that as the track ended we were at the same time brimming over with contentment at having heard such a fine tune played so magnificently and overcome with the sense of keen loss and lonesomeness which lies at the core of the tradition. We guarantee that one listen to this superb set and the trad fan will need no further convincing about Doherty's artistry!

Find out more for yourself at www.lizdoherty.ie ! We're off for another listen ...

Pay The Reckoning June 2002

Alan & John Kelly - Fourmilehouse (Black Box Music BBM2003)

Home ground!

If we say that the brothers Kelly have put out an album which resonates with the textures and themes of familiar territory, then we're paying the two lads the highest possible compliment. In the Irish musical tradition familiarity doesn't breed contempt; it breeds contentment.  And no-one could have been any more content than ourselves after listening to a dozen exquisitely assembled and cannily played sets of searing, soaring music.

The very name of the album hints at this theme of rootedness, Fourmilehouse in County Roscommon having been the birthplace of the brothers' dad, Frank Kelly, a piano accordionist of some note.  Alan has inherited the father's ability to conjure up heart-stopping music from the big box; brother John plays the flute and whistles.  The supporting cast are no mean musicians either!  Arty McGlynn is masterful as ever on the guitar.  Having developed a highly personal (often-imitated) style, he manages at the same time to lift a tune and ground it. Rod McVey assists on hammond organ and piano; Jim Higgins is rock-steady on bodhran and percussion; Cyril O'Donohue provides splashes of gymnastic bouzouki; Brian McGrath gives us the benefit of his piano playing and his gutsy banjo work and John Maloney is the second bodhran player to make an appearance.

But despite the quality of the guest list, the album belongs to the brothers Kelly.  From the opening track (Mrs Crehan's/Quinn's/The Boys of Portaferry), where Alan and John play so tightly in unison that you'd be forgiven for thinking only one instrument was carrying the melody, to the tour de force reel set which closes the album (Sonny Brogan's/Easter Sunday/The Glentaun), the listener is treated to artistry of the highest order.  The brothers summon up such energy, and play with such passion and belief, that we were completely transfixed and transported.  It's rare that we've found ourselves so carried away by the power, imagination and communicative ability of compelling players!

Although their duet playing is the raison d'etre of the album, and the most arresting moments come when Alan and John spark off each other, there are nevertheless a few moments where one or other of the brothers strikes out on his own.  Such moments give the listener a glimpse of their individual personalities.  Alan gives us a stirring rendition of the slow air "The Parting Glass" from which, with amazingly precise and muscular accompaniment by Brian McGrath on piano, he launches into the monumental slow reel "The Duke Of Leinster".  John on the other hand weaves an elemental set on the whistle, opening with the hornpipe "The Pleasures of Hope" before changing the rhythm and giving us two reels (The Palm Tree and Ah Surely).

Elsewhere the CD is remarkable for the number of tunes composed by Paddy O'Brien, of whose misty, patinaed tunes the Kelly boys are great advocates.  But O'Brien aside, the lads have a great ear for tunes.  The CD features many melodies which are session favourites.  But it features a great many more which aren't so near the top of the pile, and which deserve more frequent airing.  The jig sets certainly got our feet tapping (and had us hunting through our tune books for "the dots" to a few tunes!) - "The One That Was Lost/The Hag's Purse/The Black Rogue", "The Sporting Pitchfork/The Diplodocus/Charlie Mulvihill's" and "Castletown Connor's/Old John's Jig/The Green Fields of Woodford".  The album is blessed with a rake of excellent reel sets - "Caucus Reel/Lady On The Island/McGettrick's", "Jer Quigley's/The Bunch Of Green Rushes", "The Bush In Bloom/The Old Road To Garry/Captain Kelly's", "The Four Leafed Shamrock/Concert Reel/Larkin's Beehives".

However, Pay The Reckoning always has a soft spot for hornpipes, and so we found ourselves giving pride of place to the beautiful (and beautifully-played) "The Mountain Ranger/The Harp And Shamrock", the latter tune an original composition by Pat Crowley, but destined to become as much a part of the tradition as the tune which precedes it.

Albums which combine such artistry with such soul, such virtuosity with such intelligence and such skill with such warmth come along only rarely.  Invariably these are the recordings which sustain us, to which we return time and again for a fix of the real thing!  Don't deprive yourself of this outstanding music!

Find out more from the horse's mouth.  Visit www.blackboxmusic.ie.

Pay The Reckoning June 2002

Paul McGrattan and Paul O'Shaughnessy - Within A Mile Of Dublin (Faetain Spin CD 1000)

Another classic re-release on CD.  And it's great news for trad fans everywhere that 1995's Within A Mile Of Dublin has been given a new lease of life.

McGrattan's a master of the flute; O'Shaughnessy a master of the fiddle.  Together they make music to warm the heart and set the feet tapping.

The pair are greatly at ease with each other.  Although both are originally from Dublin, they have assimilated the very direct, potent style of Donegal.  Tumes from the northernmost county feature prominently - barndances, highlands and Donegal versions of jigs and reels.  However the story doesn't begin and end in Donegal; tunes from all over Ireland make an appearance (and there's even an odd nod in the direction of Scotland).

The fluency and command of McGrattan's playing is exemplified by his masterful playing on the set of hornpipes "The Golden Eagle/Miss Galvin's" and the slow air "Lament for Glencoe".  Elsewhere O'Shaughnessy delivers a fine solo version of "My Love Is In America/Paddy Ryan's Dream/Mother's Delight".

However in the duets both players feed from each other to produce some of the finest, most empathetic music to have been recorded in recent years. The slip jig set "O'Farrell's Welcome To Limerick/Hardiman The Fiddler/Doodely Doodely Dank" is a particularly well-crafted set; the monumental opening tune laying the ground for its successors.

Set after set captures the imagination - "The Tuseday Barndance/Mick Carr's/Dermot McLaughlin's", "Jim McBride's/The Pipe On The Hob/The Lilliburlero Jig", "The Bell Harbour Reel/The Wild Irishman/The Pretty Girls Of Mayo".

However the key moment of the album - despite the absence of McGrattan - is the set of highlands "Green Grow The Rushes/Casey's Pig/John Doherty's".  Highlands are confined, more or less, to Donegal, and there's a sense in which they define the music of the wild north-west.  O'Shaughnessy kicks off with a highly ornamented, swinging version of the first tune, accompanied by Seanie McPhail on guitar, and he maintains the same gentle, swinging approach throughout.  A more beautifully played piece of music you're unlikely to hear!

Hats off once again to Faetain for a superb and timely re-release.

Available from Claddagh Records www.claddaghrecords.com.

Pay The Reckoning June 2002

Seamus Kennedy - Gets On Everybody's Nerves (Gransha Records SK0009)

You said it, Seamus!

Maryland's (via Belfast) answer to Woody's "Songs To Grow On ..." is NOT recommended listening to those of you whose residences don't echo to the patter of tiny feet.

However those blessed (cursed?) with the fickle, perpetually snot-ridden ball of energy that is a pre-school kid will instantly recognise the value of this collection of daft kid's songs.

Pay The Reckoning's own mini-reprobate's musical tastes used to begin and end with "In The Highways, In The Hedges" from the "O Brother" soundtrack (as well as PtR junior's own monotone rendition of the Thomas The Tank Engine theme). But ever since listening to Kennedy's CD, he has broadened his horizons.  No longer does he plead "Girls, daddy!".  (He's not a budding Father Jack ... it's just that the aforementioned "In The Highways ..." is sung by a group of little girls.) Instead he tugs at PtR's trouser leg and implores "Fly, daddy!". Which is his shorthand for Kennedy's breathless version of "I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly".

Oh ... and then it's "Marley, please" ... shorthand for Kennedy's rendition of that oul' Belfast street rhyme "Wee Willie's Lost His Marley".

And then we have to skip to "I Am The Music Man" and "When You Come To The End Of A Lollipop".  And then "There's A Hole In The Bucket".

The finale - "I Know A Song That Gets On Everybody's Nerves" - arrives.

Thank God we think!  No harm to you, Seamus but it's time to stick on something a wee bit more adult.  Let's see ... a bit of the Bothy Band, maybe?  A few bits and pieces from The Boys Of The Lough?  What about that new album by Micheal O'Raghallaigh?

No chance!

"Dad?  Fly please, daddy.  Daddy. Fly, please!"

Don't take our word for it. Take the word of Pay The Reckoning Og ... ten out of ten and play it again!

Find out more at www.seamus-kennedy.com.

Pay The Reckoning June 2002

Nancy Kerr and James Fagan - Between The Dark And The Light (Fellside Recordings FECD167)

Kerr and Fagan's new recording showcases just how far the English folk and traditional scene has advanced.

We use the term English without apology. Fagan is, of course, Australian and many of the songs on the album are from Australia's folk tradition. However the album revolves around Kerr's fiddle.  In particular it focuses on her fiddling of tunes from the Northumbrian legacy and her own tunes which are suffused with a peculiarly English sensibility.  (And it's remarkable just how different the English approach to country dance music is from that of its "celtic" neighbours!)

Kerr is a blinding fiddler.  She is blessed with an athletic, percussive style, shown to great effect on the opening track "Dance To Your Daddy".  Comparisons are bound to be made to the current wunderkind of the English fiddle, Eliza Carthy (with whom Kerr has worked extensively in the recent past).  Kerr is well able to hold her own in such a comparison.  Her style is so well-developed and so unique that questions about relative superiority are meaningless.  Instead we should be thankful that both musicians have chosen to devote their time and energy to bringing their talents to such advanced states of fruition!

This is an album where every track is worthy of praise.  Kerr's singing of "The False Young Man" and Fagan's rendering of "The Drover's Boy" struck Pay The Reckoning as highlights of the album's songs.

As far as the tunes are concerned, each track is a masterpiece.  Whether self-composed (as in the case of Fagan's "The Wire Bender" or "Something For Liam/Ten Million Gems" or Kerr's "Ping" or "Cave Of Many Colours") or traditional (Meggy's Foot, Strawberry Town", "Cuckold Come Out The Amry"), the telepathic and sympathetic interplay of Kerr and Fagan never fails to amaze.

Intelligent, beautifully presented music.  Completely within the tradition and yet uncompromisingly up to date!

Buy it direct from Fellside at www.fellside.com.

Pay The Reckoning June 2002  

Breda Smyth - Basil and Thyme (Jighig Records JHRCD001)

Smyth's a whistle player and fiddler whose feistiness and passion is sure to leave all lovers of Irish music (and related traditional forms) grinning from ear to ear.

We approached this album cautiously - Pay The Reckoning are known to favour "the pure drop" - the purer, the better! - and so we were wary of credits such as "programming by ...". We needn't have feared.  The arrangements on the album are, indeed, contemporary; the mood in many instances is a million miles from the rugged solo playing of the oul' masters or the strict time of the ceili band.  However neither does the album succumb to the dreaded "celtic hush"!

What we have here is that rarest of finds, the traditional musician who is able to encompass the best of modern approaches to making music and marry that with the timelessness of the jigs and reels and polkas that inform the sensibility of those whose pulse beats in time to those ancient rhythms.

A gifted tunesmith on her account as well as an interpreter of traditional tunes, Smyth injects a degree of liveliness, fun and danger into every set.

We turned time and again to the self-composed "Bachelor's Walk" - an example to each and every one of us of how to combine an almost trip-hop ambience with some of the most dazzling whistle playing we've ever heard.  (Mary Bergin - you've got real competition!)  And elsewhere we were stunned by the bare-bones slant of "O'Mahoney's/The Swallow's Tail" and by the technical wizardry of "Kava Kava" (Paddy Fahey's Reel/The Dunmore Lassies). However this is an album which doesn't repay dipping into and out of.  It's an album to immerse yourself in.  An album suited to long distance journeys.

Get acquainted with it soon ...  It could well set a new blueprint in the presentation of traditional music!

Find out more for yourself at www.bredasmyth.com.

Pay The Reckoning June 2002

Denis McArdle - Untold (Songway SGW001)

McArdle's is a rare talent.  He fits into no mould but his own - classically trained , yet completely at home within the tradition and able to find a centre for himself within songs as diverse as Massive Attack's "Protection" and "Ta Me 'Mo Shui".

A great deal of time and care has gone into crafting a mesmeric debut album.  McArdle casts his net wide - contemporary songs rub shoulders with traditional numbers.  Such juxtapositions should, in theory, cause the listener to raise an eyebrow or two.  However, McArdle approaches all songs on the album with the same degree of respect, regardless of their source, and this degree of consideredness ensures that all the tracks are easy bedfellows.

Much though we were moved by his treatment of contemporary material - exemplified by "Protection" and Scott Walker's "The Old Man's Back Again" - and by his own songs  - "Coffee and Cinnamon", the lush baroque of "The Shadow Song" and the minimalist "Orion" - we were most taken with his traditional material.  (We'll include Ralph McTell's "The Girl From The Hiring Fair" in this category.  Although written recently, it bears the patina of years!)

"May Morning Dew" is an understated masterpiece, easily comparable to the classic rendition by Dolores and Sean Keane!  "The Road to Clady" is driven along by Robin Hurt's guitar and mandolin backing.  And the album's finale - the beautiful "Hush, Hush, Time To Be Sleeping" - is a fitting end to a fine album.  Noel Hill's haunting concertina lends the track an air of heartbreak which the human voice - even one as finely honed as Denis' - is unable to convey.

A superb debut album by an exciting new voice whose ability to deliver a variety of styles is sure to see him achieve great things!

Find out more at www.denismcardle.com.

Pay The Reckoning June 2002

Legacy - The Factory Girl EP (Own Label)

Legacy are Mal Simms (bodhran, vocals), Clare Sanders (flute, whistle, vocals), Paul Burgess (guitar, bass, mandolin, percussion) and Tim Cotterell (fiddle).  They've put together an accomplished 5-track EP which is sure to command the attention of a good number of PtR's regular visitors.

However - be warned!  Some of you will not like this EP!  You'll be saddened and infuriated in equal measure.  The fact is that although Legacy can play traditional Irish and Scottish music so that you can damn near smell the turf and the heather, they can also branch off in other directions and play - just as confidently and just as audaciously well - the dreaded jazz!

The band deliver a fairly "straight" version of the reels "Rob Roy/The Cup Of Tea", Sanders' flute taking a solo flight of fancy before Burgess nestles solidly behind her.  Sanders' straying away from the dots gives us an indication of the sort of aerobatics to come.  Cotterell adds a little colour to the first tune; however this is but a warm-up for his feisty work on the second reel.

"Stretched" features a languid guitar and bass intro courtesy of Burgess - more Acapulco than Altan!  The ttitle song is delivered in a similar laid-back groove.  A far cry from Margaret Barry's version ...

"Bonnie Ship/Launching" features Simms' vocals on a rousing set which combines a Scottish "song of the sea" with a great tune.  The band have great crack with this set, taking liberties at will with both tempo and rhythm.

However the keystone of the collection is "The Mountain Road". We kick off with a straightforward rendition of the classic reel (a great favourite, according to the sleeve notes of "Doublin'", in the Keenan household), the first few times round played as a duet between Cotterell and special guest John Roberts ("Johnny Spoons") on, you guessed it, spoons.  After three or four times round, we think we're on terra firma ... and then gradually the variations take on a distinctly transatlantic hue. Before long the band are playing a tune which has all the hallmarks of West Coast 60s jazz.  Like it or loathe it, the band's ability to slip gradually from one tradition into another and then, suddenly and deftly, to flip back is masterful.

Legacy, a band whose roots are in the tradition, but whose broader musical vision means that they escape the strait-jacket and go where their imagination takes them.  Pleasant journeys!

Check them out at www.legacyband.co.uk.

Pay The Reckoning May 2002

Kate Purcell - Shadows of You (Dream Records DR CD 005)

A superb guest list on a solo artist's album indicates one of two things.  Either the artist in question knows where the bodies are buried or they are a musician of such talent that stars are falling over themselves to contribute.   In Kate Purcell's case, thankfully, the latter is true.

What a guest list!  Ted Ponsonby on guitars; Danny Byrt, percussion; Noel Barrett, bass; Padraic O'Broin, guitars; Tommy Keane, uilleann pipes/whistle; Martin Hayes, fiddle; Tola Custy, fiddle and Eddie Lynch, keyboards.

This is a polished set by a very polished performer.  She lays out her stall in a well-chosen collection of traditional and contemporary songs.  Amongst the latter are a number of songs that Kate has composed alongside her songwriting companion, Mary Fitzgerald - the yearning "Play On", the love-song "Hand On My Heart" and the song of loss "Shadows Of You".

Purcell occupies the same sort of high ground which Mary Black, Dolores Keane and Maura O'Connell gained.  Her passion for excellence is obvious in the way she approaches a song such as "Ar Eireann Ni Neosfainn Ce Hi".  She wears her deep respect for the tradition on her sleeve.  And yet she makes the song her own for that moment when she sings it!

And it's this way of gently claiming a song that is at the heart of her sucess as a singer.  Two songs stand out as examples of her command of the song.  The first is Don Stiffle's emigration song "Grosse Isle" (which reminds Pay The Reckoning a little of that classic heart-breaker "Teddy O'Neill").  We'd not heard the song before, but after hearing Purcell quietly paint the tragic picture, we wondered if anyone else could do the song justice!

As far as Pay The Reckoning is concerned the high-point of the album is Purcell's duet with Martin Hayes on "Goodbye Johnny Dear".  Hayes' fiddle is played with the delicacy of touch, the precision and the soul that is his trademark.  Purcell dares to deliver the song at a slow pace which would daunt most singers - a mark of her confidence and competence.  The song is one which many might believe to be hackneyed.  However we can recall this sung as a parlour piece when we were growing up and a well of happy and sad memories flooded up thanks to Purcell's voice and Hayes' lonesome fiddle.

This collection is nothing short of sublime.  We look forward to the moment it springboards Purcell into the popular consciousness!

Find out more at www.claretohere.com/katepurcell.

Or purchase via Copperplate at http://go.to/copperplate

Pay The Reckoning May 2002

Johnny And The Poorboys - Debut EP (Nashville Hipshake Records Inc.)

THIS IS CELTIC ROCK'N'ROLL.

So goes Johnny and the Poorboys' simple, but honest, strapline.  What you see is what you get.  This IS Celtic rock'n'roll!

Based in West Yorkshire and stalwarts of the festival and club gig circuit, The Reverend Johnny Friendly (vocals, guitars, songwriting) and his mean-eyed co-conspirators (Wayne Marshall, guitars; Tom Madden, drums; Aidan Williams, accordion; Phil Wilson, fiddle, mandolin; Lee Crabtree, bass, backing vocals; Ken Gilroy, piano) make a sound which brings to mind the early Pogues jamming with Steve Earle and The Dukes in Keith Richards' kitchen.

Their debut 4-track EP opens with "The Girl In The Cowboy Hat", a slice of classic barroom melodrama, whose funky(!) guitar intro leads us into a shit-kickin' 4 minutes of Americana (via Connemara).  "Take your eyes off that girl, the one in the cowboy hat/She's so pretty I declare, never seen a girl like that/Watch her dance, watch her go, watch her look so fine/Well take your eyes off that girl, for boy she's mine".

The Ballad Of The Last Troubadours is a more laid-back tribute to the musicians from Ireland who emigrated to America in the bad ol' days.  Accordion and fiddle-driven, it sets us up  nicely for the best track in the set, the superb "When Will She Break My Heart".  Here's a track that shows Friendly has a great pop sensibility as well as a fondness for the music of the oul' sod.  The clean-picking guitar intro sounds as if it's come direct from Soweto - and then, when we least expect it - the band launch into a spirited version of "The Rakes Of Mallow".

And finally, a tongue in cheek "goldered" reading of "The Star Of The County Down" - which incorporates two superb jigs (Madden and Wilson's fiddle and drums duet is a revelation), the culmination of the EP being a rocket-fuelled rendition of "The Kesh".

Catch the lads if you're out and about on the festival trail this summer.  They're appearing at Trowbridge, Bradford, Halifax's Spudstock, Hebden Bridge and Bingley.

Soundbites, pictures, info, the works at www.johnnyandthepoorboys.co.uk.  Tell them you're friends of Pay The Reckoning!

Pay The Reckoning May 2002

Seamus Quinn and Gary Hastings - Slan le Loch Eirne (Stories To Tell) (Clo Iar-Chonnachta CICD 152)

The old ones would have you believe that every man of the cloth felt it was his sworn duty to mosey down by the crossroads with his walking stick or mitre or whatever and knock seven bells out of the hapless dancers and musicianers.  (Which often left Pay The Reckoning wondering how come so many great tunes were named after priests; Father Dollard's Favourite, An t-Athair Jack Walsh, The Musical Priest, etc.!)

This isn't a digression ... both Quinn and Hastings are clergymen "in real life". Quinn, originally of Derrygonnelly in Fermanagh, is a Catholic priest in Monaghan. Hastings is currently the Church of Ireland rector in Westport, County Mayo.  And instead of striding purposefully down to the crossroads to scatter and smite and drive all before them, it's easy to imagine Quinn and Hastings setting out with fiddle or melodeon (Quinn) and flute (Hastings) to give the dancers a lift and the other musicianers a hand to think with some crafty tunes.

We've established that the reelin' revs are - like the vast majority of people who make traditional Irish music - amateurs.  Amateurs in both senses of the word.  Non-professionals, clearly.  But lovers.  Lovers of the intricate, elegant, cheeky, yearning, heart-rending tunes of old.  The sleeve notes tell their story; how they came to the music; how it came to them.

Quinn explains how he grew up listening to the old American 78s of Irish music (as collected to inspiring effect in Farewell To Ireland, reviewed below here). And the music of those giants of Irish music - Coleman, Morrison and Killoran - whose shadows still loom large over Irish music almost a century after their heyday - has obviously left a deep impression in his unhurried, aching style.

For Hastings, on the other hand, "Traditional music isn't about music at all, it's about people ... To really get a hoult on this music, you need to be close enough to smell the musicians, to be part of the web of experience and contact and toing and froing.  This kind of stuff doesn't stick too well to shiny CDs and plastic tapes.  People are people.  Recordings are only recordings."

It may only be a recording, but this is a great collection of tunes, played with great affection for the music and great feeling for the listener by the pair.  Ciaran Curran, bouzouki player par excellence with Altan, produces.  Unlike some big-star producers, his presence doesn't dominate the album.  He contributes to the odd set - in sparkling form as always - but generally he's content to let Quiinn and Hastings take centre-stage. The only other guest on the album is Charlie Lennon with whom Quinn plays a deft, highly-ornamented duet "The Maids Of Castlebar/The Morning Star".

The album opens with two barndances and a polka (The Kiss Behind The Door/Bonnie Annie/The Granny In The Woods).  The choice of the delightful, but relatively rare, barndance rhythm is a statement.  Quinn and Hastings are well-read musicians; their tastes are dictated by their own experience, their own ears, their own fingers.  They know what they like and they're prepared to share their music with us.  And we'll be entertained and educated in equal measure.

And so we are. There are classic tunes in abundance, as well as the less well-known regional tunes.  In the latter category is the jig "Maho Snaps" - a Fermanagh tune - which they combine with the session favourite "The Boys Of the Town".  Again in the latter category is the highland set "Paddy Killoran's Highland/Hannah Mhici Mhicheail's" - the second tune an original composition of Hastings'.

And the classic tunes, played in a classic understated style are sprinkled throughout the album.  Reel sets such as "The Humours of Ballyconnell/Swinging On The Gate", "The New Copperplate/Patsy Hanley's", "The Shaskeen", "Last Night's Fun/The Sligo Maid" and jig sets such as "Na Ceannabhain Bana/Dever The Dancer".

But there are three moments on the album which sent Pay The Reckoning into a state of fevered excitement.  Two are slow airs - a genre which doesn't always make our pulse race.  But we'd defy any lover of traditional music not to become excited by Quinn's lost and lonesome "Farewell Dear Erne, I Now Must Leave You" and Hastings' breathy/breathless "The Banks Of The Clyde".  The stripped-down production highlights the beauty of each tune and the communicativeness of both players.  Here's where the amateur virtuoso has the edge over the professional virtuoso!  We believe the amateur believes passionately what he or she is trying to communicate; where the professional musician is concerned we may just retain a smidgeon of doubt. After all, it's their job to have us believe that they feel with the same intensity as the committed amateur.

The revelation of the album is Hastings' rendition of two fifing tunes from County Antrim, "The Bugle Hornpipe/Number Five".  Mistakenly we sometimes label tunes from the "other tradition" as being all blood and thunder, noise with no real substance.  Hastings makes us think again.  Both are striking tunes, with the same insistence as the sprightliest of polkas.

This unassuming album deserves a special place in any trad fan's collection.  A reminder of the sheer wealth of music that can be had from two highly literate musicians.

Get it from http://go.to/copperplate.  Tell them you came via Pay The Reckoning.

Pay The Reckoning May 2002

Deaf Shepherd - Even In The Rain (Own Label, Deaf Shepherd 1)

It's barely conceivable that this outfit are not signed to a major label!  "Even In The Rain" is quite simply one of the most exciting albums which has emerged from Scotland (or anywhere for that matter!) in the past few years.

Deaf Shepherd are Clare McLaughlin (fiddle), John Morran (vocals, guitars, bass pedals), Mark Maguire (bodhran, snare drums, percussion), Rory Campbell (highland bagpipes, whistles, vocals), Marianne Campbell (fiddle, vocals, piano) and Malcolm Stitt (bouzouki, vocals, bass pedals).  Individually each is a searingly brilliant musician.  Collectively, they marshal their talents to generate music of such intensity and power that it threatens to blow the listener away. Not metaphorically - but literally!

The album's opener "Milennium Village" (Islay's Charms/Farewell to Milennium Village/Pierre's Right Arm/Alex C MacGregor) delivers us slap-bang into the middle of their high-octane shenanigans.  Rory Campbell's pipes are well to the fore and the other musicians weave and dodge around him, giving us tantalising glimpses of the musical pyrotechnics to come.

The tender song "Bonny Lass of Wellwid Ha'" leads us into the next tune set "Mince" (The World's End/There's Time To Wait/Mince In A Basket).  The contrast with the opening set could not be more marked.  Rory Campbell gives us the first two tunes on a very languid whistle, before taking a back-seat on the third, where McLaughlin and Marianne Campbell slide into overdrive and carry the set to its conclusion.

On the next set "The Alborada Rant/Chessmen" - Rory Campbell adopts a restrained approach to pipering, with much of his work in the second tune consisting of drones and brief flurries of notes - allowing his fellow musicians to create a shimmering web of sound whose vaguely eastern themes and structures suggest the traditional music of Northern Spain as much as of their native Scotland.

Morran gives us a plaintive version of Burns' melancholic "Yestreen I Had A Pint Of Wine", before the band prove that he's in the premier league of trad composers (if you'll forgive the paradox) as they give us (with great gusto) his sublime waltz "Poilin Ni Lionsaigh".

The by-now familiar pipering of Rory Campbell introduces the next set "The Braemar Gathering/Morag MacNeil/ Tangusdale/Colin Clark Caruthers/New Hands/Donella Beaton".  The sheer brilliance of all the players shines through on each and every tune in this complex set.

Another of Burns' compositions follows "I Coft A Stane Of Haslock Woo", with Morran and Marianne Campbell duetting to great effect before stepping back from the spotlight to allow Rory Campbell to give us a version of "Ben Wyviss".

Another incendiary set - "Jimmy Lothian's" (Uist Dance/Lady Madelina Sinclair/Grant's Reel/Dunse Dings A/Haggs Castle) - follows, fiddles to the fore.

The achingly lonesome "Mermaid's Song" leads us into the album's final tune set "Even In The Rain/The Quebec Breakdown/Unknown/Gregor Lowrey's".  If we thought we'd heard tight and intense musicianship before, then this set gives us grounds to reconsider!  Fiddles open proceedings; before long Rory Campbell glides in alongside them and his highly articulate playing dominates the second tune.  He steps to one side for the third tune and then re-enters the fray with a vengeance as the band give us a show of strength on the closing tune.

The album's closing song - "Lost For Words At Sea" - which features guest vocalist Sam Brown - represents a shift in direction.  Its sheer ethereal ambience should ensure that this song achieves maximum exposure.  Here is a number whose appeal will extend far beyond the followers of traditional music and will strike a chord with many whose tastes are more mainstream.

If you're PC-enabled (and if you're not, then how come you're reading this!?), then the CD also contains a fascinating mini-documentary whose soundtrack features the band cranking out "Gie's A Drink Of Water/John MacDonald's Exercise/ The Deaf Shepherd/The Smith Of Raasay/The Aberarder Rant".  Watch out for Maguire's first-class bodhran and snare-drum interventions!

Musicianship of this calibre is a rarity.  Our advice is to get your ears around it at the first opportunity!

Visit www.deafshepherd.com for online sales and more information about this red-hot outfit.

Pay The Reckoning May 2002

James Kelly & ZanMcLeod - The Ring Sessions (Faetain Spin CD 999)

Yet another timely re-release by Faetain (they really are out to kill us with kindness!), 1995's "The Ring Sessions" is a superb album.  There are a number of appearances by guest musicians (Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh on bodhran, bones and triangle; Donnchadha Gough on bodhran and Jimmy O'Brien Moran on pipes), but Kelly (fiddle) and McLeod (guitars and bouzouki) carry by far the largest part of this album as a duo.

The album is - therefore - an uncluttered and direct affair.  The music responds well to Kelly's deft, intricate fiddling and to McLeod's highly individual and colourful guitar and bouzouki work.

The album's opener, a set of jigs - "The Luck Peny/Old Man Dillon/The Knights of St Patrick" - sets the scene for what is to come.  McLeod establishes a rock-solid rhythm over which Kelly plays an exceptionally fluid melody. The duo then switch continent, giving us a playful, laid-back version of Dougie MacDonald's strathspey "Molly's Grauation"; a seamless gear change introduces his reel "Dougie MacDonald's", before the set closes with a fierce version of the session standard "The Congress".

McLeod's lazy, late-night intro creates the perfect opening for Kelly to give us two unhurried, loping hornpipes, "Tomgraney Castle/Gan Ainm", the latter gleaned from the inspirational "The Northern Fiddler", where the hornpipe is transcribed from the playing of Tyrone's Peter Turbit.

Two reels - "Julia Delaney/Christmas Eve" - follow.  There's no debating the beauty of "Julia Delaney".  However, if you haven't heard Kelly and McLeod's version, then you haven't heard the tune given a treatment which elevates the tune beyond the merely beautiful and into the realm of the Holy Grail of the tradition.  A ghostly intro gives no hint of the bouzouki wizardry which is to follow .  McLeod's right hand provides such ornamenation as you couldn't predict.  A definitive rendering of a sessioneer's standard!

After McLeod gives us a subtle version of O'Carolan's "Planxty Fanny Power", he kicks off the next set of reels (The Wise Maid/Ciaran's/Touching Cloth/Sitting On The Throne) before Kelly pulls out all the stops and gives us a blistering reading of the remaining three tunes, the first of which was composed by Dougie MacDonald and Jerry Holland.  The final two reels are Kelly's own compositions and the last tune in particular with its witty themes gives Kelly the chance to combine a hitherto unexercised muscularity with his characteristic glittering left-hand work.

Kelly takes a back seat for the next set.  McLeod gives us three reels on guitar - "Sailing Into Walpole's Marsh/The Game Of Love/The Teetotaller" - where he takes advantage of the guitaar's natural sustain to combine ringing notes with the sort of lightning-fast triplets favoured by banjo players and mandolinists.  On the final reel in particular his spectacular right-hand technique is exploited to the full to generate an effervescence which only the most accomplished of musicians could hope to match.

Kelly gives a solo version of The Ballydesmond Polka before McLeod and Gough join him in a very "bare" reading of The Knocknaboul Polka.  After giving us two such standards of the Sliabh Luachra tradition, Kelly then pulls four self-composed tunes out of his hat (The Dublin Strathspey/Eve's Jig/Lady From Oceanside/The Christchurch) and - without hardly a pause for breath - then gives us two self-composed jigs (Gaffney's Favourite Son/The Humours of Rahey) which reek of turf-smoke, heather and crystal-clear poitin.

Kelly's poignant rendering of O'Carolan's "Lament for Terence MacDonough" is followed by the album's closer, "Cranking Out/The Silver Spear".  The first tune is one of Jerry Holland's numerous self-composed reels.  Kelly adds a third minor part to the reel, thus allowing him to shift more comfortably into one of the most genre-defining tunes in the Irish tradition.

And so ends a set which is one of the most accomplished and most self-assured to have emerged in recent years.  Perfect late-night listening, there are neverthless moments when the urge to launch yourself on to the floor and dance like a dervish might prove irresistible!  If you're listening in company, it's probably best to issue a warning beforehand...

Get the inside track - and an opportunity to buy this fine body of music - at www.claddaghrecords.com.

Pay The Reckoning May 2002

Gerry Harrington, Eoghan O'Sullivan and Paul de Grae - The Smoky Chimney (Faetain Spin CD 1001)

Recently re-released on CD by Faetain, 1996's album by fiddler Harrington, box-player O'Sullivan and guitarist de Grae is one of those which became an instant classic when it was first given light of day.

The three have a definite Sliabh Luachra leaning.  However their vision is not confined to the wild South West and we get their version of tunes from all over. For example one of the highlights of the album is a matchless version of the Donegal set "Pearl O'Shaughnessy's Barndances".

This is just one of the sets on the album which demonstrates the amazing well of talent from which this trio draw.

The opening set of slides (I'd Rather Be Married Than Left/Gleanntan Frolics/Nora Chrionna) is exemplary.  The tunes are played as slides - not as fast jigs. The distinction is subtle - but critical!  The sheer liveliness of Harrington's fiddle and O'Sullivan's accordion is enough to send Pay The Reckoning into rapture.

The reel set which follows (Rolling In The Barrel/The Torn Jacket/The Flowers of Limerick) derives as much of its essence from its incredible beauty as from its insistent rhythm.

A reel set which never fails to inspire is "Paddy Taylor's/The Donaghmore/Denis Murphy's".  The first tune has become a true standard of the tradition.  Needless to say it gets the red carpet treatment in these deft hands.

Elsewhere there are sets on this album which stand out as exemplars of good music played well.  For example, the reels "The Cap And Bell/Michael Relihan's/Gorman's" and the polka set "O'Sulivan's/Callaghan's".  There are number of self-compositions.  O'Sullivan gives us the reel set "Seachain na Neantoga! (Mind The Nettles!)/Paisti Sceichin a'Rince (Children Of The Little Dancing Bush)/The Aloe Vera Reel" and Harrington provides a jig set whose names are more restrained "Out Of The Mist/The Furze In Bloom/The Bells Of Lismore".

And then there are sets which are simply incredible!  The jig set "The Yellow Wattle/Swallows In Flight/Micho Russell's" is a case in point.  Here is the sort of music with which they will welcome us into heaven. Intricate, sensibly-paced, played with real feeling for both the tune and the listener.

The album's pinnacle is the hornpipe set "The Smoky Chimney/The Rose Of Drishane", both tunes derived fom the playing of Padraig O'Keeffe.  The first tune - a four-part piece - incorporates the single jig "Kitty O'Shea's Champion Jig", otherwise known as "Kitty O'Neill's".  The set as a whole represents a tour de force for the trio, allowing each of the players to dazzle the listener.

A welcome re-release from Faetain.  Let's hope this is part of a long-term campaign to bring once again to the fore some of the best traditional music of the recent past!

If you'd like to find out more - and put your hand in your pocket - then no better place to do it than at www.claddaghrecords.com!

Pay The Reckoning May 2002

Micheal O Raghallaigh - The Nervous Man (MOR CD01 )

Don't let that MOR tag on the CD serial number fool you!  The MOR refers simply to O Raghallaigh's initials.  Middle of the road this album certainly is not.

If 2002 sees the release of a more honest, pure, soulful, down-to-earth virtuoso album, then we at Pay The Reckoning shall consume our headgear!

O Raghallaigh (pronounced - as the man himself "wryly" puts it - O'Reilly, O'Riley or even O'Wryly) is a musician's musician.  The inherent technical idisoyncracies of the concertina (and the instrument is technically very indiosyncratic!) are blithely ignored as he treats the listener to some mesmeric feats. His ability to launch a few compelling chords, as well as to echo the melody line on each side of the instrument, is spellbinding.

But not only has the man got technique in creel-loads, he has an ear for a tune and the ability to combine them into some of the most exquisite sets to which we have been treated.

The album's opener (Quilty Shore/Grogan's/Kitty's Rambles) is a convincer.  O Raghallaigh kicks off with a tastefully ornamented solo piece before Eoghan O'Brien (of Deanta) joins him with a restrained, but nevertheless spot-on guitar accompaniment.  Then into a set of reels (Stoney Steps/The Hunt In The Bog/The Merry Days Of Easter), where he is joined by Michael Rooney on harp.

The first of the album's two airs is "Lone Shanakyle" - a song which has recently been aired by Dervish on their album "At The End Of The Day".  The tune is an odd one - Dervish's Cathy Jordan exploited its ability to surprise to great effect.  O Raghallaigh's version on concertina is less baroque than Jordan's.  He delivers this haunting tune impeccably - in the process illustrating the fact that while his playing has the ability to singe, he can also operate at a lower temperature, warming us rather than firing us!

Rooney sits in with O Raghallaigh for the next set of jigs (Sport/The Hawthorn Hedge) which are delivered at his characteristic laidback pace.  The languid approach allows O Raghallaigh to ornament the tunes with intricate trills and grace notes where the break-neck brigade would be lucky to get most of the "dots" in!

Two sets of reels follow, both of which could stand as blueprints for the construction (not to mention execution) of sets.  In the first (Geoghagan's/McDonagh's/The College Groves) Rooney provides a needle-sharp accompaniment, allowing O Raghallaigh to take all three tunes off into realms of pure artistry.  On the second set (Dogs Among The Bushes/The Barrowburn Reel/Wynne's No 3/Sonny's Return), O'Brien provides a solid guitar backing, once again permitting the maestro to concentrate on articulating a depth of feeling and sureness of touch that leaves the listener gasping at his remarkable ability.

Three hornpipes follow (The Blackbird/The Flowers of Edinburgh/Mrs Galvin's).  O Raghallaigh deliberately avoids rushing headlong towards the end and therefore allows himself to explore each tune, giving us a glimpse of a twist here, a peek at a new avenue there!

The slow air "An Buachaill Caol Dubh" follows before O Raghallaigh launches into two reel sets whose power and poetry impress equally.  "George White's Favourite/The Copperplate/The Beara Reel" and the epic five-reel set "Maghera Mountain/Brian Quinn's/Tommy Coen's/My MaryAnne/The Nervous Man" are not only beautifully assembled and beautifully played, but they represent a "peg in the ground" as far as traditional Irish music is concerned.  This is as good as it gets!

A set of jigs (John Mahony's/Willie Coleman's/Tonra's) changes the rhythm for a moment and gives O Raghallaigh an opportunity to introduce the delicate bodhran of Frank McGann who joins O Brien in the rhythm section for this set.

The finale (The Duke of Leinster/The Old Bush/The Spike Island Lasses) is a set of much-loved and often-played reels. A muffled "Now!" launches a set where all of O Raghallaigh's guests contribute to a celebratory end to a genuine classic.  If Irish music had a hall of fame (now there's a concept that doesn't bear thinking about!), then O Raghallaigh would have assured himself a place on the basis of this album alone.

If you're only going to buy one trad album this year, then choose this one!

And if you are going to buy it, then there's no better men for selling it than the good people at Copperplate, http://go.to/copperplate.

Pay The Reckoning May 2002

Mirella Murray and Tola Custy - Three Sunsets (Own Label MMTC 001)

Fair play to Murray and Custy for sticking their neck out and releasing one of the most invigorating albums we've heard in a long while!

To succeed music needs to have any number of things going for it.  But the two essential ingredients are direction and execution.  Murray and Custy's music abounds in each.  Here are well-listened musicians, whose tastes are eclectic - yet always very tasteful; who are comfortable in a variety of idioms and yet whose roots in playing the pure drop are always clearly visible.  And as for execution ... well!  Let's say that you'll be amazed at the artistry, precision, accuracy, risk-taking of Murray on accordion and Custy on the fiddle.

Not to mention the incandescent talent they've managed to assemble around them.  Ed Boyd and Donogh Hennessy on guitars; John Joe Kelly and John Moloney on bodhrans; Pat Marsh on bouzouki; Laoise Kelly on harp and Pauline Scanlon on vocals.  If some of the above, like Mirella and Tola, are not yet household names then rest assured it'll only be a matter of time until you're singing their praises.

Let's turn to Scanlon's singing first. She gives us two songs.  First up is Willie Nelson's "Valentine". Her crystal-clear, incredibly gracious voice soars above an impeccable guitar backing courtesy of Donogh Hennessy, while Murray and Custy show that they're no slouches in colouring a song by adding some gut-wrenching shades of melancholy between verses.  A few tracks later, Scanlon sings "The False Knight On The Road" and thus proves that she possesses one of the most arresting and original trad voices to come out of Ireland for some time.

But what of the tunes?  The opening set of reels, "Comronalty/Ashe Road/Terry Crehan's", is a real attention-grabber.  The first reel in the set, in particular, is a beautiful - if idiosyncratic - tune and well spotted by the pair!  Next up is a slow reel and a very "continental" waltz "Three Sunsets/Archie The Flying Beast".  The first tune took us back to a lazy summer evening out Connemara way; the second transported us immediately to Brittany!

This ability to change idioms at will, without any sense either of showing-off or of pretension is one of the pair's most appealing characteristics.  Elsewhere, for example, they treat us to a French Canadian tune, a Dans An Dro and a Custy-composed reel (Vicki's World) combined in a very coherent set.   French tunes?  You got 'em (Aube Mauve; Boules le Guirlandes - the first featuring Laoise Kelly's harp to lively effect).  Swedish tunes? No problem! (Salbohedsvalsen)  However - given our predilections - it's the reels and jigs that gave us the biggest goose-pimples.  "Reel Le Blanc/Fiddle Fever/The Harris Dance Tune" is an insistent set, where both Custy's and Murray's playing is peerless.  "Gambit's Reel/Witty Dreamer" is likewise a classic set.  However as far as we're concerned the album's key moment comes in the final set "The Torn Jacket/Bela Fleck's".  The unison playing is so tight that you couldn't get a rizla between them and the notes spew out from the fiddle and box like flurries of sparks from a smith's hammer!

There's no doubt in Pay The Reckoning's mind that "Three Sunsets" will be snapped up by one or other of the big trad distributors and that consequently it will become one of the classic fiddle/accordion sets of all time.

Get your copy while it's still independently distributed.  Contact Mirella and Tola at threesunsets@hotmail.com for details of how to get your hands on this superb CD.

Pay The Reckoning May 2002

Frank Harte - Daybreak and a Candle-End (Faetain, SPIN CD 995)

Available via Claddagh Records (www.claddaghrecords.com), the recently re-released 1987 outing from Frank Harte (and long-term sidekick, Donal Lunny) is - as you'd expect - a gem from start to finish.

Harte is a great collector of songs and on this album he airs a rake of come-all-ye's, love-songs and songs of exile.  There's devil a bit of the snob about Harte.  Sure, he unearths some rare, almost forgotten gems.  But he's not above giving us a rendition of "Cockles and Mussels". (And a great hand he makes of it.  Delivered with some gusto in his rich Dublin accent, the song loses its hackneyed patina and comes across a fresh, timeless yarn.  The hallmark of a great singer!)

To pick out one or another song for particular praise seems impertinent, given Harte and Lunny's pedigree, their concern for musicianship and their very well-informed taste.  However there are a number of tracks on the album which pushed Pay The Reckoning's buttons and which we've been raving about for days!

"The Maid Of Cabra West" is a comic Dublin song, whose humorous plot is coloured along the way with highlights of detail which help ground it ("It's all for the love of a fair young maid that in Cabra West did reside/Myself I lived up in Donnybrook, it's a one and a fi'penny ride").

"Sarah Jane" is an Ulster song of unrequited love. Again, it's a song which is high on colourful detail and florid language.  And there's a naivete and a directness at its core which Harte detects.  Many's a lesser talent would find it difficult to deliver such a song with the requisite degree of sensitivity.  But Harte's the man for the job!

The classic - and, nowadays, often-sung - "By The Hush, Me Boys" is a great vehicle for Harte's voice, as he captures all the disappointment of the new immigrant to America caught up in the Civil War.

A very different song from "The Charladies' Ball", a Dublin "music hall" song, which made the transition from the stage and into the tradition.  The lyrics are funny, very clever and the tune's a blinder.  Lunny is on particularly fine form as he and Harte canter through a spectacular set-piece.

The last song on the album is an unaccompanied version of "Here I Am From Donegal". Pay The Reckoning is familiar with Len Graham's version of this protest song.  However Harte reads it subtly differently, though no less effectively.

Elsewhere on "Daybreak", Harte gives us "The Jolly Young Ploughboy", "Roger The Miller", "In London So Fair", "The Holland Handkerchief", "Willie Taylor", "I Wonder What Is Keeping My True Love" (covered recently to great effect by Kate Rusby) and "In North America".

This is Harte and Lunny simply doing what they do.  No fuss, no fanfare.  Just great songs, perfectly delivered and sensitively - sparsely - accompanied.

Pay The Reckoning May 2002

 

Tim Dennehy - The Blue Green Door (Sceilig Records SRCD003)

As soon as Dennehy hits the first few notes of the first track on this album, his own song "The Parted Years" (dedicated to his mother, Nora Kelly), it's easy to see why there are those who believe he's among Ireland's best living singers.  Dennehy's voice is a compelling force - rich, full of experience, informed by tradition and defining it for future traditions.

Roughly half the songs are unaccompanied and on the other half Dennehy is given superb support by, in various combinations, Aine Derrane (backing vocals), Garry O'Briain (guitar, keyboards, mandocello,harmonica), Jesse Smith (viola and fiddle), Liz Johnston (cello) and Tommy Keane (whistle).

Few songwriters and interpreters of traditional songs display the warmth and generosity of spirit of Dennehy.  On "The Parted Years", mentioned above, he dwells on the tiny details of the time he and his mother spent together before she died and in this detail, paints a picture of a pair devoted to each other.  Elsewhere he has penned the cri de coeur, "Cry Of The Mountain" as a wake-up call to those who see no harm in "developing" the unspoilt, wild grandeur of the Burren.

Not that Dennehy is always serious!  His version of "Wrestling With Rats" shows that he has a great ability to put a comic song across.  In fact this song in particular proves his stature as a singer and it's no exagggeration to say that Dennehy is in the same league as legends such as Paddy Tunney, Frank Harte or Len Graham.

The keynote of the album - however - is a deadly serious song.  "Memorial" was written by Dennehy as a tribute to his brother, Pat, who died aged 17 in 1968.  There are no histrionics.  Dennehy gives us an insight into how close he and his brother were to each other.  How much their mutual friendship meant, how much pleasure they derived from sharing each other's company.  And then the tragic illness and Pat succumbed.  And yet ... "I hear again your footfall on the pathway of each day/May our thoughts be never severed, may we journey on forever/May the waters of the Fertha take you gently to the sea/And sometimes when the darkness creeps and shawls each fragrant flower/I reach for you across the stars; we're young again and free/May we hold hands across the stars for all eternity."

However singling out this or that track does the album no justice.  Dennehy gives us unaccompanied versions of "Carden's Wild Domain" and the rebel song "Johnny Golden".  He sets James Fenton's poem "I Know What I'm Missing" to music and surely the author must be grinning from ear to ear at the result. He gives us songs as Gaeilge - the cheeky "Is Buachaillin Mise", "Captin O Maille" and Tomas Rua O Suilleabhain's "A Ri An Domhnaigh".  He has unearthed the lament "Boating On Lough Ree"  and Patrick MacGill's "No More" and turns his attention to the haunting "Sean O Duibhir A Ghleanna".

An accomplished, sincere, emotionally charged set from a singer of great charm, integrity and talent.

Find out more at www.sceilig.com.

Or get the album from Copperplate http://go.to/copperplate

Pay The Reckoning April 2002

Calico - Songdogs (Lochshore Records CDLDL 1306)

Like the work of Colum McCann, after one of whose better-known works Calico have named their most recent release (2000 ... but still making waves!), Calico's music is complex and deeply layered.

Like policemen, traditional musicians seem to be getting younger as each year progresses! However Calico's youth is far from callow.  This is an outfit who know what they're doing; who have assimilated such a deep sense of the tradition that they can afford to move outside its confines and yet remain resolutely true to its spirit.

The five-piece are Tola Custy on fiddle, Deirdre Moynihan on fiddle and vocals, Diarmaid Moynihan on uilleann pipes and whistles, Donncha Moynihan on guitars and Pat Marsh on bouzoukis and mandolin.  Together they make a sound which is perhaps not as immediate as that of other groups who choose to play within narrower boundaries.  Ultimately the band's willingness to take risks repays the listener's willingness to give them airtime; Songdogs is a very rewarding listen!

Diarmaid Moynihan is a busy composer.  He has written the vast majority of the tunes on the album and the opening set "The Red And The Gold/Songdogs/The Paperbird" is a great example of his style.  The tunes have a great flow and if they're not quite "standard", then they subvert our expectations in a very subtle way.  Other great sets include his "Santa Maria/The Black Wind/Men Of Destiny" - three tunes whose themes repeat and echo hauntingly and insistently from one tune to the other - and "The Happy Aunt/Hang On/The Snow Leopard/Hooversville" - where Donncha Moynihan treats us to a particularly "latin" accompaniment before the band give us a "straight" rendition of three tunes which we'll soon see cropping up in other musicians' sets.

Other members of the band are no slouches when it comes to creating tunes.  Donncha Moynihan's beautiful guitar piece "The Duchess", which closes the album, is a composition to be rightly proud of.  And his playing has all the deftness of touch and sheer imagination that marks the playing of Jansch and Renbourn.

Pay The Reckoning's favourite set of tunes on the album is the set by (jointly and severally!) Tola Custy and Deirdre Moynihan "Midnight At The Mausoleum/Up Downey/Across The Rooftops".

The album features three songs.  Deirdre Moynihan takes the vocals on each. "Metal Drums" is a harrowing tale of corporate greed.  "Susanna Martin" is a very direct and gutsy account of the infamous Salem Witch Trials.  However the gem of the bunch is "Small Sacrifice", Deirdre Moynihan's cryptic, claustrophobic slice of emotion.

So, is this the future of Irish music? Well, it's probably a future.  A small sideways step from the mainstream which at once sheds a bright light on the limitations of traditional music as well as its great strengths.

Find out more at www.blackhatmusic.com.

Pay The Reckoning April 2002

Sliabh Notes - Along Blackwater’s Banks (Ossian OSS CD 130)

You don’t actually have to play this CD to tell that it’s going to be a superb collection of tunes; the cover drops some pretty big hints!

Sliabh Notes are fiddle virtuoso Matt Cranitch, ace box-player Dónal Murphy and cracking guitarist and vocalist Tommy O’Sullivan. An ensemble who can play up a storm on their own. However they’ve also managed to recruit a few big-hitters to sit in with them on a few of the tracks - Kevin Burke, Steve Cooney, Matt Molloy, Brian McGrath, Colm Murphy and Liam O’Maonlai! Appetite whetted, or what!?

The lads are called Sliabh Notes for good reason. They have a gra for the music of the Sliabh Luachra area - where slides and polkas predominate the musical topography. Therefore it’s no surprise to find that the CD opens with a rousing set of polkas (Paddy Scanlon’s/Mrs Mulvihill’s/The Kinnaird), where the musicians’ ease with each other is apparent. A great curtain-opener!

And then to a set of slides (Art O’Keeffe’s Slide/The Star Above The Garter/Taidhgín an Asail’s Jig) - as compelling and playful as you could possibly wish. Kevin Burke adds his distinctive fiddle to the mix and Steve Cooney’s guitar sits easily alongside Tommy’s high-strung instrument.

Next up is a set of reels (The Providence/The Man Of The House/Speed The Plough). All are pretty much standards, but with Matt Molloy’s flute, Brian McGrath’s piano and Colm Murphy’s bodhrán swelling the sound, the players find patterns and twists that shed new light on these often-played tunes.

The first song on the album is a very effective “The Star of Logy Bay”, originally from Newfoundland. A beautiful song, and beautifully delivered by Tommy whose light touch is, as ever, remarkable.

A set of jigs (Dónal de Barra’s/Frank McCollum’s/The Christening) - the final jig composed by Dónaal himself - leads into a beautiful set of hornpipes (The Sports At Listowel/The Man From Gleanntán). The latter tune is a composition of the late Terry “Cuz” Teahan.

Matt delivers a tour de force performance of the slow, reflective “Amhrán Na Leabhar”, with Steve Cooney providing accompaniment. But the melancholy atmosphere is not allowed to linger as the band launch into a swinging set of reels (McDonagh’s/Peg McGrath’s/Martin Mulvihill’s).

The exile song “Sweet Kingwilliamstown” finds Tommy in great voice, Dónal, Matt, Steve Cooney and Liam O’Maonlai assisting with the greatest sensitivity.

Yet again the air of melancholy is quickly dispelled as Dónal and Matt launch themselves with great gusto into a set of slides (Paddy Cronin’s/Sergeant Cahill’s Favourite/The Game Cock). The band follow this up with three reels (Smash The Windows/The Winding Hills Of Sligo/Bonnie Ann) before Tommy gives us his last song “The Grey Funnel Line”, composed by Cyril Tawney and one of the highlights of June Tabor and Maddy Prior’s “Silly Sisters” incarnation.

The album closes with a set of three intricate, dazzling polkas (The Blackwater/Kathleen’s/Micheál’s), all composed by Matt Cranitch. The special guests stand to one side for the finale, allowing the core members of the group to do their stuff.

The quality of the playing is peerless; the choice of tunes and songs inspired. The homage to Sliabh Luachra lends the set a welcome overtone of rootedness. Here are musicians that don’t follow prevailing fads in music. They know what pushes their musical buttons and they follow their instincts. And the result is one of the must-have albums, not just of 2002, but of all time.

Find out more about Sliabh Notes (and buy the CD) at www.ossian.ie.

Alternatively - if you're UK-based you might prefer to pop over to those arbiters of taste, Copperplate, and get your hands on a copy!

Pay The Reckoning April 2002

Seán Keane - Seánsongs (Circín Rua Teo CR001 CD)

Seánsongs ... Seán's Songs ... Chansons ... Old songs ... The allusions in the title are many. And they hint at the fact that this double album by one of the most distinctive performers in Ireland has a number of facets.

There are contemporary songs, many with a country flavour. There are traditional Irish songs. There are "parlour songs". There are American folk songs. There are tunes on the whistle, flute and pipes.

Keane's vision is more all-encompassing than most of ours. He describes himself as a singer of good songs. Modesty might prevent him from telling the full story, so let's tell it for him. Keane is a good singer of good songs.

The first of the two CDs concentrates largely on contemporary material. (Apart from the traditional American ballad, Aura Lee.) The range of styles is broad - from Johnny Clegg's "The Crossing" thhrough Richard Thompson's "Withered and Died", covered recently by Kate Rusby. A number of Mick Hanly compositions are included ("Burnt Out Star", Heard It Before, Joe", "Landslide") all of which are superbly delivered by Keane.

Pay The Reckoning was pleased to see Ron Kavana's "Reconciliation" make an appearance.  We've long been advocates of Kavana's work and it's gratifying when a musician of exquisite taste such as Keane vindicates our fervour!

However two tracks on CD One stopped Pay The Reckoning dead in our tracks. The first, Peter O'Hanlon's "Trick Of Time" is so well-written (and so well-arranged and so well-sung) that we had to check that it hadn't, in fact, been written by John Prine. Only he, in our experience, had the talent to produce lines such as "A train of thought pulling out of the station/Can you hear the whistle blow?". But we were wrong!

And Keane's treatment of the melancholy, utterly compassionate "Barroom Girls" (by Gillian Welsh and David Rawlings) is one of the most beautiful pieces of music it has been our pleasure to wrap our ears around. In John Prine's song, Storm Windows, he sings of "A country band that plays for keeps/They play it so slow". Keane and his assembled cast of luminaries know exactly what he means - that languor is often the key to a really successful country sound.

Let's turn our atention to CD two. This focuses largely on traditional tunes and songs, for which Keane, along with sister Dolores, is best known.  This effectively represents Keane's "lost album" - Elemental - which was quietly mooted some years back but never saw the light of day.  Until now!

The CD opens with Keane giving us one of our favourite jigs, Charlie Hunter's, on the flute.  A remarkably fluid piece of playing which he combines with Peggy's Leg.

An unaccompanied version of the melodramatic but effective "Skibbereen", in which Keane exploits to maximum advantage the rich resonance of his voice, leads us into a surprisingly affecting "Beautiful Dreamer". We raised a quizzical eyebrow when we noted this song's inclusion. But one listen and our fears were allayed.  Beautiful by name and beautiful by nature!

On the hornpipes "Cooley's/The Groves" and the reel sets "Rita Keane's Fancy/The Shaskeen" and "The Convenience/Knock At The Door/The Hop Down", Keane shows us that he knows his way round the tin whistle and the pipes as well as round the flute.

JH Hayes' "Satisfied Mind" sits happily alongside traditional songs "The Dear Little Isle", The Banks Of The Lee" and "The Close Of An Irish Day".  Ever the adept musician, Keane confidently walks the fine line between melancholy and sentimentality.  A trick that few could pull off with such aplomb!

It's often boasted that Keane possesses the finest singing voice in Ireland (usually by those who would also claim that sister Dolores is his main rival for a claim on the crown).  This album goes a long way towards proving that claim.  Not only has he a great voice, but he has great taste and sensitivity; a deep, unerring musical intelligence.  (And he can turn out a fine set of tunes on a rake of instruments into the bargain!).

Find out more about Keane from the horse's mouth at www.seankeane.com.

Pay The Reckoning April 2002

Pat Kilbride - Nightingale Lane (Temple Records COMD2089)

Pat Kilbride's fourth solo album finds him in top form, whether playing guitar, cittern or regaling us with songs.

There are few guitarists in the Scottish or Irish tradition who are in the same league as Kilbride. A few names spring to mind - Steve Cooney, Arty McGlynn, Daithi Sproule, Micheal O'Domhnaill, Paul Brady, Dick Gaughan, Sarah McQuaid - but the instrument has never really achieved its true potential as a means of delivering the music. Kilbride proves as well as anyone just how useful an instrument the six-string guitar is.

This is demonstrated most clearly in the set "The March Of The Kings Of Laois/Michigan Impossible/Tune For Patsy", where Kilbride takes the lead on the first tune (which many will remember as the melody which Horslips adopted/adapted for "More Than You Can Chew") and then switches to accompaniment at the first change. His "rhythm" and "lead" work (to borrow some rock speak) are equally compelling, the former allowing Mike Katz  (whistle) and Alisdair White (fiddle, composer of the final two tunes) to give a high level of commitment and energy to both tunes.

And it is impossible to overstate the degree of artistry evident when Kilbride delivers O'Carolan's "Morgan Magan" as a guitar solo. Accurate, restrained, subtle - all adjectives which spring instantly to mind.

And all adjectives which could be applied to his rendering of O'Carolan's "Henry McDermott Roe" and "Lord Inchiquin" - two other O'Carolan pieces on the album. On both tunes Kilbride chooses the cittern as his key instrument. The ring of the double strings lends both tunes a great atmosphere.

Elsewhere Kilbride has just cause to be proud of his own compositions.  The opening set of delicately phrased reels - "Popeye's/Ben The Budgie/The Dog In The Tank" - is a gripper.  Kilbride does things with both left and right hand that are spot on!  On "The Lough Beg Waltz" his fingerpicking is a joy.  And "The Woodlawn Suite" which comprises two tunes - an air, "Las Ramblas", and a jig "95 North", where he is given able assistance by Alasdair White, Mike Katz (on fiddle and whistle as before) and Robin Morton (bodhran) ,is a credit to him.

However by far the most technically accomplished guitar piece on the album is his scintillating "Nightingale Lane" - a tune whose atmosphere and whose effortlessly precise, yet convention-defying, playing recalls the ensemble playing of Jansch and Renbourn when they were, for a long time, the leading lights in Guitar Town.

We nearly forgot to mention that Kilbride can sing!  And how!  The album features two contemporary songs - Nanci Griffiths' "Hard Life" and Gerry Rafferty's "Rick Rack".  On the former he is joined by Miriam Kavanagh (fiddle), Brian Kelly (banjo) and Kane O'Rourke (whistle).  The four used to play together as Big Nite Out and they make a great noise altogether!  On "Rick Rack" Alan Reid (keyboards) and Alison Kinnaird (cello) join the aforementioned Katz and White.

But - as far as Pay The Reckoning is concerned - the album's high spots are the  traditional songs "The Herring of Kinsale" and the elemental ballad "Henry, My Son".  The first of these is an oul' nonsense song - but one whose inventiveness and playfulness is uplifting.  Banjo-maestro Tommy McManamon (amongst other things, a member of the infamous Popes) gives his instrument a lash on this one and Gino Lupari shakes a very effective egg.  The Big Nite Out join Kilbride for "Henry, My Son".  As Kilbride points out this is a "big ballad" which has many versions in many cultures.  (And, out of interest, is the inspiration/germ of Dylan's "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall".)  Pay The Reckoning was unfamiliar with this version in which the source of Henry's downfall is poisoned eels rather than the more usual poisoned beads.  And being from Lough Neagh stock, with eel fishing in our blood, our ears naturally pricked up.

So, a spectacularly accomplished album. And yet one which doesn't trumpet itself.  A set of tunes and songs which works its quiet magic on the listener, becoming indispensable almost by osmosis.

STOP PRESS: At the time of writing it has just been announced that Kilbride plans to rejoin The Battlefield Band (after he struck out on his own some 23 years ago!), replacing Karine Polwart who is pursuing her interests in Malinky and MacAlias.  Good luck to both Pat and Karine on their new, old ventures.

To buy the album online visit Temple Records. Tell the good people there that Pay The Reckoning recommended you!

Pay The Reckoning April 2002

Tony Reidy - The Coldest Day In Winter (TRCD01)

Pay The Reckoning first became aware of Tony Reidy via Ceide whose first album, Like A Wild Thing, derived its name from their version of Reidy's starkly beautiful song.  We raved about it then (see here) and therefore when we learned that Reidy had brought out an album, we wasted no time in getting our hands on a copy.

This is not an easy album!  It's a bloody good album, by a songwriter on top of his craft.  A unique vision, a unique voice.  But the album is no breezy listen.  No middle-of-the-road.  It's challenging.  Moody.  Brooding.  Not all the time.  But an air of melancholy informs the album's key moments.

And before friends of Pay The Reckoning start making assumptions that "The Coldest Day In Winter" is a traditional album, then we have to warn you.  Irish it most certainly is!  Traditional it most certainly isn't.  Musically there are a lot of reference points on the album - trad is one of them, of course.  But there are echoes of Nick Drake, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, John Martyn, John Prine, Guy Clark.  There are ghostly echoes of other songwriters who are able to capture, with a few words and a decent tune, some of the essence of their, our, someone's or everyone's life experience.  These are Reidy's peers.  He can write songs with the best of them!

The fact is that Reidy has such a way with words that we wondered how he could craft tunes to do them justice.  Before we had a chance to play the CD, Pay The Reckoning sat down, read the lyric sheet and revelled in Reidy's attention to detail.  We pondered how he reveals the whole picture through focusing on the fine images that the unobservant might miss.  For example, a verse from the album's opener, "The Country Man". "The country man is happy/With the dew on the top of his boots/And the stems of last year's thistles/Crunching beneath his steps/The country man is happy/He can jump over the gate/He can kneel down and smell primroses/He is not minding his clothes"

"The Country Man" leads into the exquisite "Like A Wild Thing". In a great album, this song nevertheless shines like a beacon.  The lyrics are quite different from those on Ceide's album, the imagery even more intense, with even more of the high lonesome quality which stirs Pay The Reckoning's soul.  For example "Farewell to sheep's wool on barbed wire fences/To the blackthorn, the whitethorn, the frogs in the ditches/Farewell to my jumper that has the blue stain/I now wear a suit, I sit at a chair".  Reidy's delivery is easy, conversational, though there's little doubt that he feels intensely the pain of separation that he describes.  The listener can only agree that this suburbanisation, this divorce between people and the land, between people and their islands and their inland fishing areas, is one of the tragedies of the Irish experience.  A tragedy which wasn't confined to the post-Independence years when the Blaskets and the Mayo Islands and other west coast islands were cleared, but which is a process which continues in the present.

Draiodoir Dubh, Reidy's hymn to a wide-eyed, credulous childhood, is followed by Kitonga - a song to a young Kenyan lad whose photo adorns Reidy's wall.  It exposes the gulf between a rose-tinted image of wild Africa and the harsh reality.  Reidy asks naive questions on all our behalfs.  Kitonga answers - matter of factly - "I can't hear birds when my stomach's empty/I can't see beauty when the crops are ruined/I can only hear my brother crying/I see my family search for food".

"Sometimes" - a piano-driven vignette which features restrained clarinet courtesy of Kevin Walsh- contains the superb image "Sometimes the world spins at the right speed/And I'm at the same speed too".

Which leads us to the title track.  A Cohenesque ballad whose bedrock of straightforward acoustic guitar is enlivened by Reidy's mandolin playing and accordion wizardry courtesy of either David Munnelly or Tom Doherty.  The song opens at Old Joe's funeral where two lovers meet.  Drinks are taken, "Our shopping bags fell drunk on the floor" and an old spark is rekindled.

Black Pudding Music is a wry tale of a musician whose dream is to play swing or bossanova, who "... prefers Andy to Hank".  (NB Pay The Reckoning prefer Hank to Andy ... but we sympathise with the lad's plight!)  Instead he wastes his life playing "black pudding music". But when the night's over he "... has a few beers and he hums his way back into his dreams."

The revelation of the album is "The Mountainy Man".  This is a song whose insights are on a par with those of "Like A Wild Thing".  Here, Reidy demonstrates his deep affection for, and understanding of, the wild characters who (thank Christ!) still abound in the bleak and hilly hinterlands.  "He had his own outlook on life/It wasn't always right/Sean nos mixed with alcohol/Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits".  And then later "Sometimes he was beautiful/In the bogs on heathery days".  And the song's clincher (and a distillation of Reidy's sensibilities) "Sometimes love comes down the hill/When he allows it in/And he prays to God or something/And the mountains are at peace".

Woman Sitting In A Dark Cafe - a song inspired, it would appear, by a painting or photograph which Reidy glimpsed in a visit to Amsterdam is followed by the plaintive Cul An Ti.

The album closes with the gentle, elegant "Aphrodite", whose last verse is a fitting farewell from the man himself "Soon we'll fly away/From this burning sun o'er the waves/On Mweelrea hills/The clouds will fill with grey".

Reidy has assembled an exceptional cast of fellow-musicians to help him out with "The Coldest Day In Winter".  As well as those mentioned above are Brian Lennon (low whistle/vocals), Kevin Doherty (double bass), Pat Gaughan (percussion) and the Pat Early Quartet (strings).  Expect to see some of these songs make their way into the repertoires of big-name artists in the near future.

You may contact Tony Reidy at treidy@eircom.net.

The Coldest Day In Winter is available via the ever tasteful, Copperplate.

Pay The Reckoning April 2002

The Battlefield Band - Happy Daze (Temple Records COMD2085)

Released towards the end of last year, the umpteenth album from one of the mainstays of the tradition in Scotland is, as you'd expect, a delight from start to finish. The line-up current at the time the album was made - Alan Reid (keyboards/vocals), John Mc Cusker (fiddle/cittern/whistles), Karine Polwart (vocals/guitar) and Mike Katz (small pipes/highland bagpipes/whistles) - is a heaven-sent mix.

Few acts command as much respect as The Battlefield Band and this outing confirms that their reputation for good, honest musicianship remains intact. Whether they approach songs or tunes, self-penned or traditional, the delivery is always crisp and tight. And yet they maintain at all times an ability to surprise, to amuse and to give food for thought.

The opening track - The Devil's Courtship/AnDro - is an infectious opener. The song's traditional lyrics are set to a Breton style melody composed by Reid, while the An Dro is a traditional piece. The Devil's Courtship is a cautionary tale in which the lure of gold is the downfall of a young girl who is whisked off by the devil.

The set which follows (Medium Man/Floating Candles/Nighean Cailleach Nan Cearc (The Hen Wife's Daughter)) sees the band in full melodic flow. The first two tunes are by Katz and McCusker respectively; the concluding tune is traditional.

The haunting "Banks Of Red Roses" follows. Unlike the version with which Pay The Reckoning is most familiar - a version which concludes with Johnny's blustering about letting no man stand in the way of his true love - this Scottish version ends with Johnny stabbing a penknife through his girlfriend's heart. The brutally matter-of-fact manner in which the lyrics describe the murder is in stark contrast with Polwart's delicate, yet assured, delivery.

Two tunes by McCusker follow (Tiny Wee Vin/The Road To The Aisle), both dedicated to members of his family, before Alan gives us a sonorous rendition of his majestic song "The Riccarton Tollman's Daughter". We were surprised that this was an original composition - the lyrics and tune have all the hallmarks of a great "trad arr.". What a talent - to create a new song which comes complete with its own patina!

"The Shepherd Lad" - traditional lyrics sung by Polwart to a tune written by McCusker - is a wry tale of nudity and prudity(!) and leads us into a barnstorming set of tunes (The Merry Macs/Dr Iain MacAonghais/Fonn Air Cailleach An t-Siosalaich (Miss Chisholm's Delight)).

McCusker's slow air "Happy Days" which inspires the album's title is a beautifully-crafted and beautifully-delivered slow air which demonstrates (as the sleeve notes themselves say) "... that not all slow tunes are sad."

And thence into the song/tune set "Whaur Will We Gang?/March Of The Ceili Man", the song written and sung by Reid and Polwart and the tune written by Katz. "Whaur Will We Gang" is a rarity, the funny song which bears repeated listening! Reid and Polwart work superbly against each other on this number. It's obvious that all concerned had great crack making this track. One of the verses goes "Let's go tae some Polynesian island/Where it's never freezin'/Lovers wed there every season/By the coral sea/But I'm a peely-wally white/And my bikin's getting' tight/And you are no' a pretty sight/In trunks a size too wee".

A final tune set showcases three of McCusker's compositions (A Mile Down The Road/Johnny's Jig/Boys Of The Puddle) before the band embarks on a final song - Start It All Over Again, lyrics courtesy of Polwart, tune via McCusker - which is Polwart's tribute to mums evverywhere, especially her own!

(And then ... four bonus tracks from previous Battlefield Band albums. "Wee Michael's March/Oot B'est Da Vong" from "Rain, Hail or Shine"; "Love No More" from "The Sunlit Eye"; Blue Bonnets Over The Border/Khazi" from "Yella Hoose" and "The 24th Guards Bridage at Anzio/The Melbourne Sleeper/MacRae's of Linnie" from "Leaving Friday Harbor". Don't say you don't get your money's worth!)

The album is dedicated to the memory of former member and stalwart of the Scottish traditional/folk scene, Davy Steele, who passed away recently. Many outfits would have found it damn near impossible to have recovered from a loss of such a magnitude. However The Battlefield Band - like all great institutions - takes change and tragedy in its stride - emerging with its dignity intact and stronger than before.

Here's a health to you! Looking forward to album number umpteen plus one!

Find out more about The Battlefield Band at www.battlefieldband.co.uk. For Temple records, please contact www.templerecords.co.uk.

At the time of writing (April 2002) the band are on an extensive tour of the United States.  Details available from www.battlefieldband.co.uk/tourdates.html.  The band will be appearing in:

KAMUELA HI
HONOLULU HI
LIHUE HI
Mt. VERNON WA
FRIDAY HARBOR WA
KIRKLAND WA
PORTLAND OR
EUGENE OR
SANTA BARBARA CA
SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO CA
SANTA MONICA CA
SANTA CRUZ CA
DAVIS CA
SPARKS NV
BERKELEY CA
HEALDSBURG CA

Pay The Reckoning April 2002

Téada - Téada (Ceol Productions CEOCD 001)

Pay The Reckoning know what we like (and we like what we know, but that's a different story). And we LIKE this album.

Are you fed up with ham-fisted, hob-nailed approaches to Irish traditional music? Do you hanker after playing with depth, soul, meaning? Music where the wild, "high lonesome" sound is at the heart of its being?

Then look no further than Téada, the young 4-piece who have redefined the word sensitive and elevated understatement to an art-form.

The musicianship on this collection is impeccable. John Blake (flute/guitar/piano/whistle), Seán McElwain (bouzouki/banjo/backing vocals) and Tristan Rosenstock (bodhrán/backing vocals) display a talent which can only be described as virtuoso. However I'm sure that they will forgive our waxing lyrical for a few moments over Oisín MacDiarmada's utterly mesmerising way with the fiddle.

Here is a young lad whose voice and style are unique. While aspects of his playing call to mind, variously, the approach of the Sligo maestri Coleman and Morrison (MacDiarmada's a Sligo man himself!), the fluid style of Kevin Burke, the keen intelligence of Martin Hayes and the heart-stopping subtlety of Paddy Canny, there's little doubt that MacDiarmada walks alongside the greats; not in their footsteps!

The opening track on the album (Tom Connor's Hornpipe/The Joy Of My Life/Handy With The Stick) showcases MacDiarmada's playing to great effect. His solo work on the hornpipe is delicate, yet assured. Smooth, elegant, stately. Unhurried (as opposed to slow). And then the band join him on the jigs. Not with the wham-bam with which other outfits might choose to treat us, but rather with an ensemble approach whose atmosphere of mutual respect mirrors the respect for the music which MacDiarmada demonstrated in his opening solo.

And from then on in, it's one treat after another. On the reel set which follows (Teresa Halpin's/Rathlin Island/Michael Hynes'), Blake's flute is much more to the fore alongside McElwain's intricate banjo picking. The touch of piano towards the end of the set lends it an air of nostalgia as its position in the mix calls to mind those now-ancient American recordings of the 20s and 30s.

The slip jig set (The Surround/Up In The Garret/Port Na Deoraí) is a stunner. The first tune is a little-heard and idiosyncratic number and the follow-ons are so well-constructed to serve as archetypes for the 9/8 form.

MacDiarmada, McElwain and Rosenstock are in fine voice on the first song on the album "Peigín's Peadar", before they deliver a beltin' set of reels (Micho Russell's/Bill Harte's/The Green Gates).

The next set (The Chaffpool Post/The Mayday Hornpipe) epitomises Téada's approach to musical direction. The first tune, a barndance, was selected from a set of barndances recorded by Michael Coleman in 1927 - and not played much since. Nevertheless the musicians have spotted its great potential and, set alongside the hornpipe which got an outing on the legendary "Dog Big, Dog Little" album, it sparkles.

On the next reel set (The Liffey Banks/Pat Molloy's) the piano is to the fore again, this time creating a mental link with the dancing masters and mistresses of the recent past (i.e. before Riverdance and the conversion of as graceful and restrained form of self-expression into something which approaches the Folies Bergeres in hob-nailed boots).

On the song "A Bhean A Tí", MacDiarmada treats us to another of his talents when, as well taking the lead vocals, he plays whistle.

The jig set "Tom Roddy's/The Old Firm Jig/The Maid At the Well" kicks off with a MacDiarmada-composed tune which sits very happily alongside the two traditonal tunes.

MacDiarmada gives us a great version of Charlie Lennon's hornpipe "Rossinver Braes". The emotional depth of his playing comes as no surprise, given what we've already heard.  What perhaps does surprise is the degree of restraint which he shows.

And then - too soon! - the finale. A flawlessly executed set of reels, "The Crock Of Gold/Johnny's Gone To France/The Tailor's Thimble".  Having paid homage to Coleman on their version of The Chaffpool Post, the lads bend the knee to his fellow Sligo-man Morrison who recorded the two closing reels with John McKenna in the late '20s.

Young, ferociously talented, sensitive, intelligent.  Pay The Reckoning cannot overstate just how accomplished this album is.  The band have dug deep and constructed tune sets which are truly their own and yet which hold together so well that the listener could easily be fooled into thinking that time itself had brought the tunes together in a happy coincidence.  The lads play like they've each been at the music for longer than their collective years.  Let's hope they stick around for another two or three albums at least!

Finally ... a request.  Next time around, any chance of nodding in The Professor's direction once again and giving us a Téada version of "The Tailor's Twist/The Flowers Of Spring"?  There's a prospect that would have Pay The Reckoning towers buzzing for months!

For more details go to www.ceolproductions.com.

If you're based in the UK, you might wish to visit Copperplate, who - with their finger on the pulse as ever - feature Téada in their carefully-selected catalogue.

Pay The Reckoning April 2002

Shantalla - Seven Evenings, Seven Mornings (Wild Boar Music, WBM 21030)

St Patrick's Day 2002 found Pay The Reckoning in subdued mood.  A bout of flu had afflicted Pay The Reckoning Towers and there wasn't much chance of us gettin' out and about for a bit of crack.  Thank God we had the recently acquired album from Shantalla to keep us in good spirits!

Shantalla are five traditional musicians - East Kilbride's Helen Flaherty (vocals and bodhran), Dublin's Joe Hennon (guitar), Tuam's Kieran Fahy (fiddle, viola, backing vocals), Newcastle, Co. Down's Michael Horgan (pipes, flute, whistles) and Scotstown, Co. Monaghan's Gerry Murray (accordion, bouzouki, mandolin, whistles, percussion, backing vocals) - who, having found themselves living in Belgium, gravitated towards each other to form one of the fesitiest trad outfits on the current scene.

Seven Evenings, Seven Mornings is a spectacular outing for a band whose tastes range wide and whose abilities know no bounds. They draw on a deep well of energy; "muscular" is a word which springs to mind when listening to many of the tracks. And yet the band are capable of switching tack, as, for example, on "O'Carolan's Dream" - one of the blind harper's compositions which is rarely played - where the arrangement is delicately subtle, centred on Fahy's individual playing which is poised and self-assured.

Apart from the album's opener, "John Riley" - a recent composition by Tim O'Brien and Guy Clark from Tim's emigration album "The Crossing" - the songs are all from Scotland. "The Fisherman's Wife", "Glenogie", "John Anderson" and (surprisingly!) "Erin Go Bragh" are all songs from the Scottish tradition, whilst "The Dreadful End of Marianna for Sorcery" is a contemporary song by Karine Polwart from Malinky. This last-mentioned is a dark tale of lust, misplaced loyalty, jealousy, wickedness, betrayal and death - all the ingredients of a classic folk-song! Of the other songs, "Erin Go Bragh" is one which Pay The Reckoning returned to again and again - the witty tale of a Highlander who attracts the attention of the Edinburgh police and who, by dint of muscle and good luck, makes a clean break just as a sticky end looms. "And a lump of blackthorn that I held in my fist/Around his big body I made it to twist/And the blood from his napper I quickly did draw/And paid him stock-and-interest for Erin go Bragh".

No matter what the song, Helen's lead vocals are a pleasure, highlighted in a number of instances by some judicious harmonising (and occasional double-tracking).

So what of the tunes? Well, there's more than enough rousing musicianship on this album to delight the ear and the feet. The band move up a gear at the end of "John Riley" to give us a glimpse of what they're capable of as they move seamlessly from O'Brien and Clark's song to the lively "Dowd's Reel".

And then on to the first reel set, featuring three classics - "Paddy Ryan's Dream/Paddy Taylor's/Tommy Peoples'". A cracking set.  From the moment we hear Murray give the accordion free rein, we know we're on solid ground. Horgan's pipes take the lead in the second reel which we've often heard Paddy Keenan play to great effect.

Next up is a great set of jigs "The Road to Wezembeek (by Joe Hennon)/The Policeman's Holiday/Mc Hugh's/Shanro Lodge (by Gerry Murray)/The Mooncoin Jig". The second tune is one associated with John Doherty and transcribed by the authors of one of Pay The Reckoning's favourite books "The Northern Fiddler". The closing jig is a much played three-part tune, which never sounded more compelling than when played by this outfit.

The old Scottish song "Glenogie" is followed by Horgan's self-composition, the superb "Chiara's Reel".

The band take a slight side-step on the next tune set, where they combine a traditional Breton hymn "Spered Holvedel" with two of Gerry Murray's self-composed reels "The Dodgy Knee/Walking On A Tightrope". The first tune in the set was brought to the attention of the non-Breton world by harper Alan Stivell. Murray's reels, like that of Horgan, look set to make their way into the tradition in no time!

Next up is a set of jigs "The Little Fair Canavans/The Brown Bull Of Kilnamona/Parsnip's Present". The former, with its origins in Connemara, is most often heard as the Gaelic song "Na Ceannabhain Bana", but here it's piped in fine style by Horgan. The latter two jigs are by Graham Dunne.

The final reel set - "The Journey By Train/Richard Dwyer's/The Ivy Leaf/Vincent Blin's No 1" - is a blinder! Nothing which has gone before can truly prepare the listener for the fierceness of this finale. Yes, we've been treated to fine musicianship - musicianship of the highest order! But this "Journey By Train" is courtesy of a railroad crew who have thrown off all the brakes. Joe Liddy's reel, which opens the set, is played at a relatively slow pace to begin with, then it's played at full-tilt. In that split second, when the decision is made to up the tempo, something wondrous and liberating happens, the results of which energise the remainder of the set, which incorporates "the best tune in the Irish tradition" (The Ivy Leaf) and a version of "Vincent Blin's" whose fluidity and relentless logic amazed Pay The Reckoning.

All in all, a killer album by a virtuoso group, playing at the height of their musical powers! We can barely wait for the next release. Visit Shantalla at www.shantalla.com. Tell them you're on a mission from Pay The Reckoning!

Pay The Reckoning March 2002

Richard Gilpin - Beautiful Mistake (Tree Records GIL4)

There are a few albums which, on first listening, have caused the hairs on the back of Pay The Reckoning's neck to stand on end. The Bothy Band's "1975"; Ron Kavana's "1798-1998"; Steve Earle's "Train A-Comin'"; Doc Watson's "Then And Now"; Gram Parsons' solo debut; Guy Clark's"Old No. 1"; The Pogues' debut, to name just some.

And now there's Richard Gilpin's debut to add to the list.

Produced by the ubiquitous Steve Cooney (how does he do it?), Beautiful Mistake is a lovingly crafted collection of (mostly) Gilpin's own material which showcases his superb songwriting ability, his languid - laconic, at times melancholic - vocals and his superb guitar work. He's assembled a premier league collection of musical accomplices to work with him over the course of the album. The combined efforts of all concerned have led to one of the most confident, polished, downright "must-have" debuts to have come out of Ireland in many years.

Given the quality of his collaborators, it feels inappropriate to single out this or that one for special praise, but Pay The Reckoning could not help but be struck by the way in which Gilpin and backing vocalist Portaferry's Rosemary Woods worked together. The perfectly complementary vocals have all the qualities of a latter-day Leonard Cohen/Jennifer Warnes collaboration or the ecstatic vocal communion of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

The opening track, Tears In The End, is a smoky waltz, delivered with real aplomb! Gilpin positions the feel of the song just right - there's a real flavour of the music of his adopted Donegal and at the same time the song wouldn't be out of place in the repertoire of any top-notch Austin, Texas outfit.

Then Richard and his compadres launch into the ebullient "Sleeping In The Car", the tight, muscular, overdriven raunch of which would not have been out of place on Steve Earle's "Guitar Town" album. Except, of course, that only someone with Gilpin's wry take on life could have penned the verse "Well the policeman comes to wake me up/At some ungodly hour/He said what you doin' here son?/I said I'm just sleeping in my car/Well why don't you just move along/Ain't you got a home/I said Yes, I got a woman there/With a heart of stone".

Pay The Reckoning would defy anyone with a gra for good, honest musicianship after sitting through these first two songs to tear themselves away from the album! And what's to come does not disappoint - for example the tender "Stronger"; "You Coaxed A Devil Out Of Me", a song whose confessional tone and rootedness in a while-ago Belfast recalls some of Van Morrison's reminiscence songs; "Be My Prison", which contains the phrase after which the album is named and the pure, raw grieving after loss which is the sublime "Still No News".

However the clincher as far as Pay The Reckoning is concerned is Gilpin's treatment of the 1798 song "General Munro". The understated vocals spotlight the song's poignancy and the pipering of Brian O'Huiggin is used to great avail to further enhance the mood.

Beautiful, right enough! But the only mistake would have been not to record in the first place!

For more information go to www.richardgilpin.com.

Pay The Reckoning March 2002

Danu - All Things Considered

Danu - seven young and exceptionally talented men - have put together their second album for Shanachie which shows yet again their mastery of the music which has been handed down by preceding generations.

Let's not kid ourselves that trad is the egalitarian society which we occasionally fantasise. Musical talent is not ladled out with any sense of portion control.  So when seven talents of the magnitude of those of the Danu lads coincide, the result is a Premier League outfit; a group which operates at the same level as the giants of ensemble musicianship - the Bothy Band, Altan, Dervish ...

Of course it isn't just the excellence of the individual musicianship which defines Danu's appeal.  The range of instrumentation gives them an ability to flavour tunes and songs in a multitude of ways.  This or that instrument comes up in the mix, the other players switching from taking the lead to providing a solid accompaniment at will.

"All Things Considered" marks the departure of Jesse Smith as the band's fiddler and his replacement by the ferocious Oisin MacAuley.  Not one to hide his light under a bushel, Oisin wears his Donegal roots on his sleeve on the set "Rince Garbhchriche Ri Seoirse IV/The Road To Cashel/ Cafferkey's Shine".

The tune sets on the album are not only superbly played, but assembled with a degree of care and taste that will bring whoops of delight!  Just try to keep your feet from tapping to the opening reel set "The Garsun Who Beat His Father/Sean McGuire's/Jimmy Kelly's" or the superb jig sets "The Kinnegad Slashers/Young Tom Ennis/The Battering Ram" and "Sliabh Russell/An Buachaill Dreoite/The Humours of Rahey".  (Or indeed to any of the remaining four tune sets!)

Well-crafted and superbly-played as the tune sets are, the songs on the album are no less a revelation.  Ciaran O Gealbhain is a stupendous singer, his voice rich and knowing beyond his years.  When the music's as good as on this album it's close to impossible to nominate this or that song as a highlight. However, for different reasons, two songs immediately gripped Pay The Reckoning's attention.

The first is "An Deirc".  We know the air as the one used for the tongue-in-cheek "Lurgan Town".  O Gealbhain's voice is at its most fluid on this track.  He toys with the tune, exploring different nuances in successive verses.  A delight!

But "Easy And Free" - on which the lads are joined by the venerable Liam Clancy - is the album's show-stopper.  O Gealbhain's and Clancy's voice work perfectly against each other. There's a great sense on listening to this song of a torch being handed on, of mutual respect between two generations of folk musicians for each other's different but equally prodigious talents.

In short, this is a stupendous album. And - as time passes - there's every chance it will become seen as a classic in recordings of Irish music.

The album may be purchased from Copperplate Mail Order at 68 Belleville Road, London, SW11 6PP, telephone 0207 585 0357.  Copperplate's website is http://go.to/copperplate and you can e-mail them at copperplate2000@yahoo.com.  If you drop by, mention our name!

Pay The Reckoning February 2002

Sheevon - Slainte! (Errigal Records MGCD 678)

The jury's returned its verdict on the "Can white men sing the blues?" question.  Guilty, as proven your honour.  Now we turn our attention to the equally vexing question ... "Can a bunch of hibernophile Germans play Irish music?".

Before the foreman of the jury delivers the considered judgement, let us declare an interest here.  1974?  1975?  A wet and windswept campsite in Achill Island.  A VW dormobile pulls on to the site.  Out jump a couple of hairy lads and proceed to wrestle in a force 9 westerly with tents and groundsheets ... making very little headway.  The equally hairy patriarch of the Pay The Reckoning family looks on from his caravan with concern (and a little amusement) ... or amusement (and a little concern) ... at the scene, before rousing himself and lending a helping hand.  Whether his intervention assisted greatly or not, there's little doubt from the expressions on the hirsute faces of those he's assisted that they were very grateful for his efforts.  They were even more grateful when, a few minutes later, they were being offered warm mugs of tea.  And then a shot or two of even more warming Bush.

One of those hairy lads - Harald Juengst - became a firm friend of the Pay The Reckoning household. We witnessed his first, tentative approach to playing Irish music as he strummed and sang "Spancil Hill" in the Slievemore Hotel.  And were surprised  (and, naturally, delighted) when, a few years later, he announced that he'd helped found the band "Sheevon" back in Germany.  He sent us a copy of the first album, Erin Go Bra ... an accomplished debut.

That was twenty years ago!  A scary thought.  Twenty years ago and already the fir agus mna of Sheevon have 8 albums under their belt.

So what of the ninth?  Naming an album "Slainte!" implies that it's a celebratory outing for the band.  And this mood of celebration is evident from the first cut - "Donal's Trip To Dunlewy", which sees the band interweave one of Donal Lunny's original compositions "April The 3rd" with the traditional slip jig which virtually defines the genre, "The Kid On The Mountain".  A great fist they make of it. The track bears all of the hallmarks of the Sheevon sound ... Eva Krause's and Conny Leson's peaty flute and fiddle, Bernd Herrmann's fluid bass runs and Claus de Crau's muscular guitar.  Harald Juengst switches seamlessly between the high-tech keyboard sounds and his subtle batterin' on the bodhran.  (The only one of Sheevon's talents not evident on the first track is that of lead vocalist Eva Fechner - but she comes into her own on other ttracks!)

Slainte sees Sheevon approach a wide variety of tune sets and songs, traditional, contemporary and original.  The album features a delicate, airy version of Robert Burns' beautiful "Green Grow The Rushes-O" and that old favourite from Triona Ni Domhnaill's repertoire "Do You Love An Apple?", delivered in rousing style by De Crau.  Contemporary songs by Chris Jones (Whatever Goes Around Comes Around) and Jimmy McCarthy (the perennial "Ride On") are given a sensitive treatment.  And the inclusion of two songs by Juengst and De Crau ("Bird Of Paradise" and "The Crolly Stone") is testament to the extent to which Sheevon live and breathe a distinctly Irish approach to making music.

But as far as Pay The Reckoning is concerned, the two reel sets on the album truly show the band at their fiery best.  On "The Wild Irishman/The Mushroom Treatment/Gan Ainm", Sheevon pull out all the stops, creating an infectious sound which appeals to the feet as much as to the ear.  And on "Lad O'Beirne's/Dowd's Favourite/The Mouth Of The Tobique", they pull off the same (difficult) trick for a second time.

So, let's return to the question ... "Can Germans play Irish music?"  Well this bunch certainly can.  And not only can they play Irish music well, they play with a sensitivity, a passion and a sense of abandon that many's the native player would hanker after.

Here's to another 20 years of Sheevon!

You can find out more about the band at www.sheevon.com. Tell them Pay The Reckoning sent you!

Pay The Reckoning February 2002 

Firebrand - Lost Lady Found (Kites Nest Records CDF 095)

We're sure that our regular readers will agree that there's no greater pleasure in life than stumbling across a band that you've never heard of before and being completely captivated.

Well, folks, Pay The Reckoning had such an epiphany a few days ago when the sublime "Lost Lady Found" winged its way to Pay The Reckoning Towers.

Firebrand are Miranda Sykes (vocals, double bass), Imogen O'Rourke (flute), Peter Miln (fiddle, vocals), Daniel James (cittern, vocals) and John Harris (electric and acoustic celtic harps, vocals). From the opening seconds of the first Asturian Set (two unnamed Asturian tunes and a Galician "gan ainm") we were mesmerised. Comparing one band with another is divisive, and Pay The Reckoning attempts not to make such comparisons on a regular basis, but we were very struck by the similarity in the overall sound and feel of Firebrand's approach with that of Sligo's (and arguably Ireland's) finest, Dervish.

That the two bands occupy similar musical territory is brought home by the next track "Moll Malone". The instant Miranda began to sing we were delighted to recognise something of that wild, untutored and yet perfectly "in control" quality which Cathy Jordan possesses. Pay The Reckoning is not familiar with this song, which Firebrand learned from Alan Burke, but we'll be adding it to our repertoire. Not that we'll be able to deliver it with anything like the aplomb with which Firebrand tackle it! The arrangement is remarkable - the band have achieved that holy grail of "tight but loose" which obsesses most musical ensembles and which is showcased very effectively in this track.

The term "celtic music" is often derided by those of us who have an interest in the traditional musics of Western Europe (and therefore we tie ourselves up in knots, manufacturing phrases such as the one we've just formulated!). However no-one could quibble with Firebrand describing themselves as celtic musicians. Over the course of 12 tracks they give us traditional tunes from Asturia, Galicia, Ireland, France and Scotland and original tunes by band members which have been influenced by various traditional forms - including O'Rourke's "Mad Mothers" which has a very distinct Breton flavour.

They also give us songs from Ireland, Scotland and England.

There is so much on this album that deserves singling out for special praise; the vocal harmonies on "The Parson And The Sucking Pig" for example; Miranda's father's beautiful paean to his home county, "Lincolnshire Song", and the excellent musicianship in "The Gold Ring Set" which raises the first, eponymous tune to new heights! (The Chieftains' over-elaborate arrangement of this tune has, for many years, turned Pay The Reckoning against The Gold Ring. Many thanks to Firebrand for their direct - though delicate - rendition of the tune which has rehabilitated it for us!)

However we will reserve our "man of the match" award for "Flanders" - the band's arrangement of the Scottish song "Will Ye Go To Flanders?". Somehow this song passed us by on first listening. Subsequently it made a bigger impression. The instrumental arrangement is surgically intelligent and the vocals convey the bitter irony and dread tragedy at the song's heart. Thank God for the repeat button! We've had second helpings of this track a few times now and it never ceases to please!

Anyway enough! We're off now to give the CD another listen!

Visit Firebrand at http://www.firebrand.org.uk. Tell them Pay The Reckoning sent you.

Pay The Reckoning January 2002

Kevin McGrath (and friends) - Marmite And Other Stuff

This CD is not generally available, and Pay The Reckoning are aware that we run the risk of being considered elitist by reviewing stuff that isn't on the market.  But what the hell ... this man deserves a bloody big round of applause and Pay The Reckoning wants to be the overenthusiastic bugger who stands up on his seat, sticks his fingers in his mouth and emits an ecstatic shriek of appreciation.

The album is a selection of tracks written mostly by Kevin McGrath ... known to frequenters of The Mudcat Cafe as McGrath of Harlow, one of the "statesmen" of what can be a bit of a last chance saloon.  Two tracks are sung by Aine Cooke - also well known to frequenters of The Mudcat - her version of Kevin's "White Snow" (where she's joined by Layne Cooke) and her own composition, "The Spring I Was Six".  Kevin includes a version of both songs performed by himself.  It's interesting to compare the two approaches.  Although a fair few miles seperate Harlow and Aine's Texan home, they share a similar spirit when it comes to making music.

The sparse, minimalist arrangements - just McGrath and a guitar - make for a very direct and intimate listening experience. McGrath's voice is characterful; he's a man who has developed a distinctive sound over the years and is obviously very comfortable delivering his material.  His guitar style is understated - Pay The Reckoning heard echoes of Maybelle Carter, Woody Guthrie and Paul Simon in his picking.

The songs, however, are the stars of the album. McGrath is an insightful writer.  He's not afraid to tackle big social issues - A Dreadful Disaster and Towers of Heaven tackle illegal human trafficking of immigrants to Europe and homelessness/social exclusion respectively.  He also confronts niche social issues.  His "A Licence To Sing" attacks the cack-handed, offensive stupidity of the UK's licensing laws which effectively make it illegal for two or three folkies to have a sing-song in a pub.

His light-hearted songs sit easily alongside these weightier numbers.  Perhaps because, as Kevin himself puts it, even his lighter numbers are imbued with a strain of melancholy.  His "Kippers By Post" is a great yarn, with a twist in the tail.

As far as Pay The Reckoning is concerned - and we're very conscious that this is only our opinion! - there are three stand-out tracks on the album.  The first to get special mention is Kevin's version of Larry Otway's "Engine 33", a tribute to the brave firefighters based a few yards from Larry's New York home who lost their lives in the aftermath of the September 11th incident.  It's a very straightforward song - reminiscent in tone of Christy Moore's "Viva La Quinta Brigada" in the way it personalises a tragedy whose scale is overwhelming and therefore potentially "anonymous" as far as we observers at a distance are concerned.  Maybe someday Larry - a fine uilleann pipe player with New York band Sorcha Dorcha as well as a talented singer-songwriter - will add a pipe track to Kevin's guitar and vocals ...

"Stand Up At Last" is the 21st century's "Parting Glass" - a gentle reminder that when it's time to go, it's time to go.  We'll be learning this one, Kevin!

But the standing out track on the album, and one of the funniest to have been written by someone other than John Prine, is "Marmite".  This is a superbly well-crafted song, with a hook-line any songwriter would give his or her temporal lobe to have written.  Various members of the Pay The Reckoning stable have been known to write songs from time to time. And we're all jealous!!  (Madame Pay The Reckoning says yes!  You've got it, Kevin!  Sod Douglas Adams and his 42 - the Bovril/Marmite system is the answer to life, the universe and everything.)

So, thanks for taking the time to send us the CD Kevin!

Slan go foill ... see you at the Mudcat soon!  And who knows, we might even share a beer and a song in the flesh and blood world at some stage ...

Pay The Reckoning January 2002

Brian O'Connor - Come West Along The Road

O'Connor's album for German label Magnetic Music is an exhilarating jaunt.  The flute maestro is joined by guitarist Christy Jones and a cast of several to provide the listener with a high-octane mix of traditional music with a wild, curled lip, rock'n'roll attitude.

Both elements of the flautist's style are showcased here - often within the same set.  So, for example, O'Connor will play The Iron Man very reverently before shifting style for the second tune in the set a 100 mph, low-slung version of The Derry Hornpipe. And yet he doesn't sacrifice the tune for speed - the notes aren't glossed over - you get the full whack in half the time (he just squeezes in more repeats than most!).

There are a few outstanding sets on the album.  The mazurka set "Sonny Brogan's/Doherty's" is a stunning showcase for O'Connor's talents.  The hornpipe set "The Golden Eagle/City of Savannah" will inevitably invite comparison with Matt Molloy (the latter tune featured on Molloy's "Stony Steps" album).  O'Connor's music stands up well to such criticism.  His style is much more muscular and aggressive than that of Molloy and adds a unique flavour to the tunes.

Two other sets are worthy of special mention in dispatches.  "Cornphiopa Corafinne/The Blackbird" is a joy from the first note to the last (particularly since the second tune is one of Pay The Reckoning's favourites).  And pride of place on the album must go the polka set "Leather Away The Wattle-O/The Spent Money".  The first tune is an immediate smile-jerker, a tune known to Pay The Reckoning from the fine mandolin playing of American Kenny Hall and as the tune to that rowdy "rebel" song "The Grand Old Dame Brittania".  Halfway through the second tune, the assembled masses begin to chant along with O'Connor's playing.  Their cheeky rendition is very effective and by the time the track was finished, Pay The Reckoning's fingers were hovering over the repeat button!

The only frustration we experienced was the lack of background information available concerning the flute virtuoso and his accomplices.  The fluent German speaker will find more information at http://www.magnetic-music.com.  As for the rest of us ... well!  Let's let the music do the talking!

Pay The Reckoning January 2002

Neck - Necked (A Few Odds From The Oul' Sods)

This retrospective collection of Neck's recording career to date took Pay The Reckoning back a few years!

It was nineteen ninety-something; we were awash with porter and crashed into Auntie Annie's in Kentish Town one miserable Friday night.  And there, on stage, were a bundle of angry, lairy lachakoes from the County Hell, fiddlin', pickin', whistlin' and strummin' fit to bate the band.  Ladies and gennelmen ... I give you  North London's finest ... Neck!

They've been through a few line-up changes since then. However the core of the band - the string-driven singer/songwriter (did someone mention a second generation Luke Kelly?), Leeson O'Keeffe and the very talented (did someone mention Mary Bergin?) whistle player, Marie McCormack - remain intact and as committed as ever to their particular brand of feisty punk-folk which they have christened "psycho-ceilidh".

And what does Neck's psycho-ceilidh sound like?  It's raw and "unprettified".  Neck have no time for shoe-gazing or for swirly whirly synthesiser backing; they do what they do with their chests bared and their chins out. And, as a result, the buzz is instantaneous.  The band recall the wild energy of the Pogues when they made their dramatic entrance on to the world stage back in the 1980s.  O'Keeffe's banjo and McCormack's whistle dominate the instrumentals. The band's flagship tune "Shite 'n' Onions" (which has inspired the formation of an eponymous Boston-based web-zine) is an epitome of "psycho-ceilidh", while the set of reels "The Maid Behind The Bar/The Sally Gardens" shows just how the Neck crew can add something of an original twist to two tunes which are among the most commonly-played in the tradition.

As for the ballads - well, Leeson's your man.  As well as distinctive renditions of well-known songs ("I'm A Man You Don't Meet Every Day", "The Fields of Athenry", "Back Home In Derry"), Leeson gives us a clatter of his own songs.  They stand up well in such company.  They include the raucous "Hello Jakey!"; the beery optimism of "Loud 'n' Proud 'n' Bold" and - as far as Pay The Reckoning is concerrned - one of the best songs yet to capture the "2nd Generation Experience", the exquisite "Here's Mud In Yer Eye".  

A great introduction to a band who Pay The Reckoning hopes will stay the course for a few years yet.

Visit http://www.neck-neck.freeserve.co.uk to keep up to date with their live dates and to hear samples from the album.

And beware!  Neck are working on a new album ... watch this space!!

Pay The Reckoning January 2002

The Alias Acoustic Band - 1798-1998 Irish Songs, Tunes, Poetry and Speech of Rebellion, Resistance and Reconciliation (Alias Ron Kavana)

Now, I'm sorry to say this, Ron. But when you go to the grave, people will look back over your work and dissect it. "Think Like A Hero"? "Great album. Loved it." "Coming Days". "Superb. That opening track!" "Those box-sets he compiled for Proper and Retro." "Farewell to Ireland"? "That's one of them. And the double-CD selection "The Irish Music Anthology". The one with the fish on the front." "A great job of work and a great gift to the trad community."

"But what's his best bit of work?" "No contest. 1798-1998!"

The two CDs - 37 tracks in all - have not left Pay The Reckoning's CD player since we obtained them a few days ago. Ron is accompanied, as ever, by a stellar crew (including many of the musicians who appeared alongside he and Terry Woods on The Bucks' "Dancin' To The Ceilidh Band" and featuring the outstanding bodhraní, Gino Lupari).

However, since he's used the rare nom-de-plume, the Alias Acoustic Band, it's as if Ron is deliberately covering his tracks.

With little reason. The band don't go for the blood-curdling, straight-time approach adopted by "rebel bands". Instead the majority of tracks find the lads and lasses in contemplative form, dwelling on the poetry, beauty and tragedy of many of Ireland's rebel songs. There are few tub-thumpers here. The selections comprise songs which, on the whole, illustrate something of the troubled history of Ireland ... rather than those which exist merely to re-fuel the fires of bitterness in those whose flames are already well-stoked.

A look at the track listing indicates the sweep of Kavana's unerring musical radar - well-known songs such as "Boolavogue" and "Roddy McCorley" sit alongside lesser-known songs such as "Erin's Lovely Lee" and self-penned originals such as "Reconciliation" and "Cry, Cry, Cry". Pay The Reckoning was amazed at Kavana's voice on this album. On "Erin's Lovely Lee" his voice echoes that of Willie Clancy who cut a definitive version of this song way back in the mists of time. On other songs, his voice takes on a quality that reminded Pay The Reckoning of one of our favourite singers, the highly estimable Gabriel McArdle of Co Fermanagh.

There are those who will shake their heads at some of the arrangements. Ron has altered some of the melodies, though not so that they are "melodically changed beyond recognition" as Claddagh records have claimed - rather uncharitably. The arrangements have rather accentuated the pathos of those songs where he has intervened in this way.

A follow-up is surely in the pipeline?  Please!? If so can Pay The Reckoning make a few requests.  How about "The Croppy Boy", "God Save Ireland", "Henry Joy", "The Dying Soldier" and maybe one or two more ambiguous cuts, for example "Lurgan Town" and "The Oul' Orange Flute".

And while you're at it Ron, there's a good few albums' worth of songs based on other themes which yourself and the Alias Acoustic Band could profitably explore.  How about an album of exile songs ("The Wild Colonial Boy", "Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore", "Galway Bay", etc.), an album of songs about drink (I know the Dubliners kinda bate you to it, but it's a good few years since their glory days and time songs such as "Nancy Whisky", "Drink It Up Men, It's Long After Ten", "The Juice Of The Barley", "The Jug Of Punch", etc. got another airing) and an album of songs about lost or unrequited love ("Old Maid In A Garret", "I Never Will Marry", "The Bantry Girls' Lament", etc.)?

Detailed info on the album is available here http://cdnow.com/switch/from=sr-1496967/target=buyweb_purchase/ddcn=MSI-M113308. However the album may be purchased more cheaply here. http://www.edirectory.co.uk/rootsmusic/pages/moreinfo.asp?RecordID=80

Pay The Reckoning January 2002