Traditional Music Round-up

By Don Meade, Contributor
December / January 2003

A roaring rip tide of traditional music recordings has been flowing out of Ireland and Irish America recently, much of it released by the musicians themselves without recourse to record labels. A listing of the year’s best discs could easily include several dozen equally worthy releases, so limiting this roundup to a mere ten was a reviewer’s nightmare. You won’t go wrong, however, with any of the items in this representative sampling of Irish traditional recordings of note from both sides of the Atlantic.




Chicago accordionist Jimmy Keane is a virtuoso of the “stomach Steinway” with numerous All-Ireland championships to prove it. After two decades with the popular Green Fields of America troupe, Jimmy formed this traditional music power trio, named for a musical County Mayo town, with Windy City fiddler Seán Cleland (formerly of The Drovers) and Dubliner Pat Broaders, a magnificent singer and bouzouki accompanist. The group’s debut disc is especially impressive for its artful arrangements, including lengthy medleys that combine vocal and instrumental elements into what amount to Irish-American pocket operas. (Shanachie)



As I Carelessly Did Stray…

Belfast flute player Harry Bradley burst on the Irish music scene a few years ago with a high-powered style that blends the sound and fury of the northern flute band tradition with the driving dance rhythms and sophisticated ornamentation of old-time players from Counties Leitrim and Sligo. This recording follows up Bradley’s critically acclaimed first outing, Bad Turns and Horse-shoe Bends, with a similar mix of marching tunes, barn dances, slow airs and rollicking reels. One standout track features Harry’s practically percussive tin whistle playing with the sean-nós (old-style) step dancing of Connemara man Seosamh ÓNeachtain. (Claddagh)



First Through the Gate

The 1920s and ’30s are remembered as the “golden age” of Irish traditional music in America largely because of the 78 rpm recordings made in New York City by some incredibly talented County Sligo fiddlers, most notably Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Pady Killoran. Later, New York fiddle legend Andy McGann gave Sligo-style fiddle music a polished elegance that lives on in the playing of All-Ireland fiddle champ and Bronx native Brian Conway. Release by the Smithsonian Institution is a folk music imprimatur throughly justified by Conway’s fabulous technique and sure feel for the Sligo tradition. Named for a line in Yeats’ poem “The Fiddler of Dooney,” Conway’s disc is an instant classic that includes some tasty duets with his mentor McGann. (Smithsonian Folkways)

Through the Round Window<em> by Éamonn Coyne.</em>

Through the Round Window by Éamonn Coyne.


Through the Round Window

Traditional music purists used to heap scorn on the tenor banjo, a rackety noise maker once classed as little better than a bodhrán (Irish frame drum) on a stick. That attitude is long out of date, as any listener to Éamonn Coyne’s sophisticated new release on Nashville’s Compass label can attest. Bluegrass banjo star and Compass co-owner Alison Brown was so impressed by Coyne’s Celtic banjo prowess that she joined him on a track that combines the Dubliner’s four-string plectrum attack with her own Southern-fried five-string licks. Other outstanding collaborations include duets with Dervish fiddler Tom Morrow, Capercaillie flute player Mike McGoldrick and Altan button accordionist Dermot Byrne. (Compass)

Happy to Meet <em>by P.J. Crotty, Carol Cullinan, and James Cullinan.</em>

Happy to Meet by P.J. Crotty, Carol Cullinan, and James Cullinan.


Happy to Meet

“Flutes and fiddles everywhere / If it’s music you want, You should go to Clare.” So sang Christy Moore in his Irish trad-rap classic “Lisdoonvarna” back in the 1980s, and it’s still sage advice. It’s a long way from there to here, of course, but if you can’t make it to Lisdoonvarna, the very best of County Clare music can come to you in the form of this gorgeous recording from flute player P.J. Crotty and fiddler James Cullinan, with piano backing from James’ wife Carol. Crotty was a well-known figure in the London Irish music scene of the 1970s and ’80s. Cullinan is considerably younger, but as these seamless flute-and-fiddle duets prove, traditional music knows no generation gap. (Available at Import Specialists)

The Well Tempered Bow<em> by Liz & Yvonne Kane.</em>

The Well Tempered Bow by Liz & Yvonne Kane.


The Well Tempered Bow

Fiddling sisters Liz and Yvonne Kane grew up on the Dawros peninsula, a wild, rocky district near Letterfrack in the Connemara gaeltacht (Irish-speaking district). Liz came to prominence first, winning the All-Ireland championship and the prestigious “Fiddler of Dooney” and “Fiddler of Oriel” titles to boot. Yvonne, five years younger, quickly caught up, however, and in these duet tracks matches her older sibling’s every bow stroke and ornamental flourish. Much of the repertoire on the disc comes from the other side of the county, including seven tunes by east Galway fiddler Paddy Fahey, a reclusive legend who leaves his many compositions nameless. Londoner John Blake adds superb guitar and piano backing. (Available at Import Specialists)

Heart's Desire<em> by Niamh Parsons.</em>

Heart’s Desire by Niamh Parsons.


Heart’s Desire

Dubliner Niamh (pronounced “Neeve”) Parsons is Ireland’s reigning queen of traditional song. She has a warm, well-broken-in voice that caresses slow ballads like no one else in Irish music today. In addition to singing traditional classics such as “A Kiss in the Morning Early” and the Napoleonic love song “Broken Hearted I’ll Wander,” Parsons ventures into modern territory with songs composed by Andy Irvine, Mark Knopfler and noted Armagh songsmith Seán Mone. Guitarist Graham Dunne renders appropriately low-key backing and contributes two impressive flat-picked instrumentals. (Green Linnet)



Slán le Loch Eirne (Stories to Tell)

A fiddling Catholic priest from County Fermanagh and a flute-playing Church of Ireland minister from Belfast — can this be a musical match made in heaven? Even if not divinely inspired, this collaboration by Fr. Quinn and the Rev. Hastings certainly demonstrates that there is no sectarian divide in Irish traditional music. Before discovering their clerical callings, both men were a bit wild in their younger days. If their lifestyles have since calmed down, their music certainly has not. This is high-powered and fast-moving dance music, as well as a few choice slow airs, with backing from Altan bouzouki ace Ciarán Curran and Father Quinn’s own estimable piano playing. (Cló Iar-Chonnachta)




This is a stunning instrumental solo debut from a veteran of the popular all-female Irish-American band Cherish the Ladies. Mary’s talent on the button accordion, flute and tin whistle was nurtured by her father Mike, a much-respected east Galway flute player and uillean piper who has been a stalwart of the New Jersey traditional music scene for half a century. The accordion is a dangerous tool in the wrong hands, but Mary makes her button box sing in a gently lyrical style that will impress even hardened accordion-phobes. Dónal Clancy (son of famed Clancy Brother Liam) adds subtly sophisticated guitar and bouzouki playing that sets a new standard for Irish music accompaniment. (Available at Import Specialists)

Callan Bridge <em>by Niall & Cillian Vallely.</em>

Callan Bridge by Niall & Cillian Vallely.


Callan Bridge

It’s been a good year for Armagh, with the men of Ulster’s smallest county taking their first-ever All-Ireland football crown. The release of this duet album from Armagh brothers Cillian and Niall Vallely (pronounced Killian and Nile VAL-luh-lee) is one more good reason for celebration in the Orchard County. Cillian is a member of trad super-group Lúnasa and one of Ireland’s very best uilleann pipers. Older brother Niall, who founded the group Nomos and now tours with singer Karan Casey, is one of the most original and virtuosic concertina players in the history of Irish music. Their collection of solos and duets features many rare musical gems, including some of Niall’s many original compositions and interesting older tunes culled from the pages of 19th-century manuscript collections. (Compass)

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