Music to Fall For

Kevin Burke and Cal Scott

By Ian Worpole, Contributor
August / September 2007

A few months ago I wrote a column for Irish America called “Songbirds,” a review of my favorite female singers of the Celtic idiom.

There were many to include, so many that my editor described it as a bit breathless, but even so, I received a letter from a reader pointing out a serious omission, Áine Minogue, a spellbinding Irish harper/singer now settled in New England. It made me realize the incredible wealth of music on offer, and this month’s article is a continuance of that same spirit, although this time around the lads have quite a say as well. (By the way, the e-mail from the reader – I deleted it by mistake. If he is reading this, my thanks, and apologies for not replying!)

Finally, Dolores O’Riordan has come forth with her first, and long awaited, solo album since taking a break from The Cranberries, called Are you Listening? Since she was the principal writer and singer for The Cranberries, one would expect her solo work to pretty much be an extension of the band, and indeed it pretty much is. (Well, not so fast – out of curiosity, after downloading the album from itunes I checked out the 80-plus customer reviews at the itunes site. It’s a revealing experience, and demonstrates vividly how subjective we are in our tastes, apart from  me of course. Comments ranged from what I just said, to a fair number that found it either much better, much worse or nothing like The Cranberries). O’Riordan has long been one of the Angry Brigade, and her lyrics have always reflected the new punk idiom of modern-day Ireland, from the Troubles to the horrors of heroin; not easy-listening stuff and mighty powerful with that voice, the sudden octave leap, the quavering falsetto. Dolores has indeed mellowed a bit, in fact the anger seems to have become mere petulance in many cases, although I do find the album a bit problematic. Many songs are positively beautiful, “Angel Fire” and “Willow Pattern” to name a couple, but  three or four are overwrought, with strident, meaningless guitar work and  overly heavy production.

An angry and fiery Irish singer with a killer vocal range, hmmm, isn’t there another one of those? Indeed, our Sinead O’Connor has just released a new double CD, Theology, which follows by only a couple of years her brilliant reggae (yes, reggae) album Throw Down Your Arms. The first CD of Theology consists mostly of simple acoustic versions of a new set of her own songs, the second CD the same songs recorded with back-up, some of it quite heavy; no one can carry off bombastic the way she can, and they make the acoustic set sound somewhat dull, but it’s quite a revelation seeing how they develop from one to the other. Mostly about her religious world, using texts from Psalms, Job and the darker scriptures, these really are quite wonderful, anthemic works. I recently caught her in a rare gig at Joe’s Pub in New York and the mix of angst, love and humor carries through to her onstage persona to produce a spellbinding effect. One song not her own on Theology is a re-working of Rice/Lloyd Webber’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” due for release as a single. Never high on my list of great songs, Sinead has wrought wonders with a breathless ode to adoration, with a bit of lust thrown in. This genius and tormented woman continues to annoy, thrill and ultimately deliver genuinely moving work. Her lyric on “Dark I Am And Yet Lovely” speaks volumes — “Don’t hate me because the sun is dark in me, all my mother’s sons were so angry with me.” I must admit I’ll always think of her as an angry child, but now 40 with four children and any number of contradictions, O’Connor continues to astound and grow.

Now, I don’t mean to take the term “angry” lightly, it’s an emotion that, in fair measure, produces great music. Dublin native Damien Dempsey’s new album To Hell Or Barbados is, like all his work, a rich mix of humor, love, history and yes, a fierce commentary on the human condition. The title itself is taken from a book of the same name by Sean O’Callaghan and is about Cromwell’s sending of 50,000 Irish men and women as slaves to Barbados, alongside the fact that Cromwell believed Irish Catholics would go straight to hell when they died anyway. Dempsey’s voice is a powerhouse mix of anger and subtlety which he moderates accordingly for the subject matter of each song, sometimes adopting an American-Indian chanting style that borders on rap and other times delivering a heartfelt love song. I caught Damo on a brief swing through New York a few months ago, and he was just brilliant. He heads this way again this fall, so if you can, catch him at all costs. Hugely popular in his native Ireland, he may have a harder time here penetrating the rather more nostalgic mind-set, at least outside of the steaming bars of New York City, where the crowd sang along with every note.

Time for some rather more traditional fare, and first up is the stunning debut album Black Water from Orkney-born Kris Drever. On the Compass records label and featuring stalwarts Kate Rusby, John McCusker and Eddi Reader, Drever has a rich, powerful voice and virtuoso guitar style, moving effortlessly from traditional folk song to sets of lightning-fast reels, with jazz and country licks thrown in for good measure. In great demand as a session player for the likes of Cathy Ryan, this lad has a certain career in the John Doyle mode, but with a style all his own. My favorite track is an astonishing re-working of The Pogues’ Phil Chevron’s “Navigator.” I’m so used to hearing Shane MacGowan belting this one out that it took a few seconds to recognize Drever’s version, and he elevates it even higher in the pantheon of great Irish-American immigrant songs. I look forward to his upcoming release of a band effort, Lau, later this summer.

A new CD from old friend Kevin Burke next, a collaboration with Oregon guitarist, composer and producer Cal Scott. Called, coincidentally enough alongside the Drever release, Across the Black Water, a Burke composition named for a river in County Sligo, and the first release on new label Loftus Music, this is a great collection of fiddle tunes old and new from a master fiddler. Kevin Burke, from his days with the Bothy band to a House Concert in my very own abode a couple of years ago, has set the standard for fluid, lyrical playing, with breathtaking key changes and variety of material. This CD in particular ranges the globe with Irish and Scottish reels and airs, a French-musette waltz, some bluegrass, jazz and a particularly lovely air by Phil Cunningham in memory of brother Johnny. Kevin and Cal Scott first met working on a documentary about The Troubles, Cal as composer of the score engaging Kevin as a consultant. The two have been playing together on and off ever since, and Scott brings some fresh new styles of accompaniment and arrangement with his guitar, mandolin and bouzouki playing. Still maintaining a hectic touring schedule with Patrick Street, Celtic Fiddle Festival and many more, may the hugely-loved Kevin play on forever!

Since moving back to New York City a few months ago and hitting the session scene, I’ve come across an amazing wealth of new, young and exciting talent that guarantees a great future for traditional and contemporary music. Boston native now relocated to the Big Apple, Allison Barber has a fine debut CD called Traveling Home. A collection of original and traditional material, Barber has surrounded herself with some of the best young players in the city, with Alan Murray on guitar, Darren Maloney on banjo (his own CD Who? is a virtuoso performance in itself), Dan Lowery on flute and Isaac Alderson on uilleann pipes. The great fiddler Tony DeMarco appears on several tracks, and with many other guest musicians, this is a rich and heartfelt debut album. Barber has a sean nós style beyond her years, and her own material blends well with the likes of “Galway Shawl.” For live performances she has recruited Bronx brothers the McCarthys. Now that’s a whole other story – Kevin, Dennis and Brian, NYC’s finest, and All-Ireland champions over and over, although, as Dennis told me, a lot of good that’ll do you at 3 a.m. in the diner. Much more about them in my next column – you’re gonna love it.
Boy, the words fly by, and so many more CD’s. Look out for great new stuff from Téada, Gráda, Beoga, The Tannahill Weavers, Nuala Kennedy and Sheila McGuire. And my own personal hero, who I wish was Irish so I could devote whole columns to him, Richard Thompson, with Sweet Warrior. Something for everyone, no? Well, OK: Dreams – The Ultimate Corrs Collection, 20 of their hits and a bonus track. What more could you possibly want? ♦

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