Spread the Music!
By Ian Warpole, Contributor
April / May 2009
Ian Worpole casts his eye over the latest CD offerings in the world of trad/folk music.
Lots of great CDs this month, and by way of a preamble, I’ve been thinking lately about how the great fiddlers, accordion players and, well, all those instrumentalists who make up the sound that we know and love are often great teachers as well. This phenomenon, I believe, has become an integral part of the dissemination of traditional Irish music.
From music workshops such as the famous East Durham Arts Week, where I got my start playing the tunes on my newly open-tuned guitar at a Ged Foley workshop while my fiddling pals were soaking up Kevin Burke’s wisdom next door, to private lessons and sessions led by one of these players, it’s a fantastic way to spread the musical word, interact with fans and help the bank balance a little. With that in mind, first up today is a new release from Brian Conway, the Bronx-born, Sligo-styled fiddler who was named Irish Echo’s trad artist of the year 2008.
Conway’s latest CD, Consider the Source, is a continuance of his virtuoso, note-perfect playing of traditional tunes that we first heard on First
Through the Gate (2002) and A Tribute to Andy McGann (2007). Brian grew up in a household that entertained fiddle legends such as McGann, Martin Wynne and Joe Burke, and it obviously rubbed off.
Along with the likes of Joanie Madden (one of many guests on the new CD) and John Whelan, I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest at Conway’s weekly Wednesday session at Dunne’s in White Plains, New York (okay, so I was the accompanist for accordion player Dan Gurney, the real guest star, but it counts!), so I’ve been witness not only to his musical qualities but also to his teaching skills.
Part of Conway’s musical career is devoted to discovering and nurturing talented students to the highest level. His sister Rose Flanagan is also widely recognized as a teacher of high degree. She takes a group of students to Ireland each summer to attend Scoil Eigse, a week of master classes, and also to compete in the All-Ireland championships where many of her young fiddle players have gone on to win. Her daughter Maeve has taken first place in the under-12s and placed in the seniors.
Dylan Foley, whom I wrote about in a recent Irish America issue, is one of Brian and Rose’s most celebrated students. Dylan continues to storm the fiddling world with a first in this year’s under-18 competition, and a group of Rose’s alumni have formed a band, Girsa, and are releasing their first CD: www.girsamusic.com.
Rose herself is working on her first CD — I’ll keep you posted!
The new Tony McManus CD landed on my desk just in time for this issue, and it is a guitar masterpiece. I’ve been playing it non-stop, even as I write. The Maker’s Mark, subtitled The Dream Guitar Sessions, on Compass records, is a collection of 15 sets of mostly traditional tunes played on 15 different acoustic guitars, all being supreme examples of the luthiers’ art of hand-crafted instruments. Just one case in point is a set of Eastern European tunes played on a sitar-guitar made by Linda Manzer, a luthier who has been making guitars for Pat Metheny for over 25 years. Dubbed “The Delhicaster” by Tony, this extraordinary instrument is just one of a mind-boggling array of guitars used to perform elegiac masterpieces by the greatest Celtic guitarist of our age (John Renbourn said so, and having seen Tony perform a few times, I agree, with the possible exception of Martin Simpson). Guitarists will weep; all will listen in awe; everyone wants Tony to play on their CD when he’s not busy touring the world. Oh, and a beautiful booklet is included showing each of the instruments and providing notes about their makers, a wonderful nod to these craftsmen and women.
Another master guitarist always in demand, John Doyle joins up with Mick Moloney to play on and produce the latest of Mick’s long-running showcase series, Green Fields of America, this release being titled just that. On the Compass label, Mick and John are joined this time around by Robbie O’Connell, Billy McComiskey (whose recent CD Outside the Box is essential listening) and Athena Tergis on fiddle for trademark rousing sets of tunes and songs. (I’m assuming you all know that the alumni of Green Fields of America are a who’s who of Irish music.) Doyle’s percussive guitar drives the sound along and anchors the flightier banjo and accordion, with Tergis’s fiddle taking some formidable and lyrical solos. O’Connell, as always, sings and writes beautifully of love, loss and longing, and most of the others take a singing turn, all to great effect. This is a grand album from virtuoso players, musicologists and teachers all, with extensive notes on the material that ranges from Percy Granger to Stephen Foster. I love these booklets tucked in the sleeve! (I must think about writing a column devoted to the pros and cons of iTunes — instant gratification versus no booklets!)
Beoga, a 5-piece Irish band based in County Antrim, just released its third album, The Incident, a rollicking mix of tunes and songs. High energy is an understatement, with two driven accordion players, percussion, strings and any number of guest musicians creating a heady mix of traditional tunes, gospel, folk, cafe jazz (I love the guest clarinet!) and multi-layered vocals recalling by turns the likes of Jamiroquai, Abigail Washburn and Sandy Denny — quite a feat from lead vocalist Niamh Dunne, and great, great fun. Beoga has performed across Europe and at the prestigious “Last Night of the Proms” with the BBC Orchestra, and is a tour de force to be reckoned with.
One of my favorite Scottish bands, Malinki, have a new CD, Flower & Iron on Mad River Records. Fiercely acoustic and traditionally grounded, Malinki weave a powerful spell of dark, lyrical contemporary and traditional song and complex sets of tunes. The wonderfully haunting vocals of Fiona Hunter backed by multi-stringed bouzoukis, guitars, whistles and cellos creates a bombast-free, Boys-of-the-Lough-style sound. My favorite track, “When Margaret Was Eleven,” is sung by Steve Byrne; in fact the whole band are mighty fine singers.
Emma Kate Tobia is a classically trained soprano, and her CD Aisling na nGael (An Irish Dream) is a haunting fusion of sean-nós singing and choral and orchestral backing that includes the Cork Male Voice Choir and Chorus of Opera Cork. Aisling means Dream Visions, and these songs are translations of 18th-century Irish verse from sources such as Cas Ambrán and the Veritas Hymnal, and including the powerful “Glory O to the Bold Fenian Men.” Somewhat in the vein of the Celtic Women in music sound, but with less reverb, this is a beautiful album perfect for the quieter side of St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
And finally, a salute to James Byrne who passed at the age of 62 this past November. Widely considered one of the greatest Donegal fiddlers of all time, the reclusive James rarely left his native Glencolmcillie for America, but is credited with reviving the style of the region and hugely influencing the playing of the band Altan and many others; a true teacher!