Top 10 Traditional Albums of 2003
Recordings from a pair of Dublin-born musicians, an Aran Islands singer, and a Cavan lilter lead the pack
By Earle Hitchner
[Published on January 21, 2004, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper in New York City. Copyright © Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]
Retail revenues sagged and digital delivery surged in the music industry last year. Overall CD sales were down about 2 percent, which is not as bad as the 10 percent slide in 2002, but there was also a dramatic increase in on-line music stores and fee- or subscription-based downloading.
Apple iTunes, for example, sold over 30 million songs at 99 cents each in 2003. Even Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, which issued Brian Conway's "First Through the Gate" (Irish Echo's No. 1 traditional album for 2002), has digitized its music library and, starting in April, will make its collection of 33,000 American folk and work songs available to consumers at 99 cents per download.
Clearly, this is a transitional, head-spinning period in the music business. The owner of an independent record label with an admired catalog of Irish and other Celtic music told me bluntly: "If people are not going to buy what we sell, we are going to sell what people buy." He mentioned his label would produce music with equal enthusiasm but more selectivity in 2004, and move more aggressively into DVDs, which have exploded in popularity and represent a rare growth market.
Executives at other indie labels with solid Irish/Celtic music catalogs told me that full-time touring bands will still be signed but that soloists, duos, and trios--especially if they can't or won't tour a lot--will generally find it harder to latch on to established imprints. Distribution remains the main reason why many artists still approach these labels, but as one exec cautioned, "Even we can't guarantee placement in Borders any more."
Against that backdrop of industry churn and change, the number of self-issued CDs grew enormously in 2003, and with the increase in quantity came an increase in quality. For anecdotal evidence, look at the top 10 list here. Six of the CDs were self-issued, including those in the first three spots.
A yearful earful, all 10 of these recordings are keepers and reflect one salient fact: the playing and singing of Irish traditional music in 2003 were as vital and virtuosic as ever.
(1) "KITTY LIE OVER," by Mick O'Brien and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (self-issued; ACM 102)
The uilleann piping of Dublin's Mick O'Brien first earned international recognition through his teenage performances on two late-'70s recordings, "The Piper's Rock" and "The Flags of Dublin." In 1996, he issued a superb solo debut, "May Morning Dew," that finished in the Irish Echo's list of top 10 albums. Now comes "Kitty Lie Over," a duet album with fellow Dublin-born musician Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh that surpasses O'Brien's earlier achievements.
In Ó Raghallaigh, O'Brien has found a fiddler whose style is an ideal match to his tonally rich, expressive chanter, regulator, and drone work. This is much more than two talented instrumentalists getting together in the studio for some tunes. They've carefully worked out the repertoire (much of it drawn from Sliabh Luachra), arrangements, pitch (B or B-flat), and harmonies that allow them to truly marry their instruments, one complementing and extending and bolstering the other.
Ó Raghallaigh is himself an accomplished uilleann piper and pipemaker (apprenticed to Geoff Wooff in Miltown Malbay, Clare), so his pipes-like style and reflexes on fiddle add immeasurably to his duets with O'Brien. The 11 pipes-and-fiddle tracks are wondrous, with "Woman of the House/Rolling in the Ryegrass" a shining example of this interplay, and there are also some tantalizing whistle and fiddle-and-whistle duets.
Hands down (or should I say up?), this is the most impressive Irish traditional instrumental CD of 2003 and one of the best in many years.
(2) "AN RAICÍN ÁLAINN," by Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola (self-issued; LNC 001)
I was chided by several musicians in Ireland for omitting this extraordinary album from my top 10 list for 2002. (In defense, I didn't receive the CD in time.) So here I make amends.
Born in Galway City but raised in Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands, Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola has a voice so honest, soulful, and intimate that it transforms everything she sings. Her interpretive instincts are impeccable, slipping inside a song rather than emoting on top of it, and her phrasing in Irish has a rapturous Munster twist.
All those qualities combine in her singing of "Inisheer on Inisheer," a stunningly beautiful song in which she adapts a poem by Ethna Carberry (1866-1911) to a melody by Thomas Walsh.
Even when Ní Chonaola lilts, as she does so inventively on "Coincidence," the listener is left with the unmistakable impression of a wordless story well told. "There's always a soundtrack going on in my head," she confided to me in an interview last April.
Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola's grounding is in the sean-nós tradition, but her attitude and approach also reveal a fresh, contemporary perspective applied with a light, not lite, touch. This is one of the most captivating and fascinating CDs of Irish singing in recent memory.
(3) "CAVAN'S LILTER," by Séamus Fay (self-issued; Cavan Music 0070a)
Septuagenarian Séamus Fay can put to shame Irish traditional musicians half his age by dint of his inexhaustible energy, enthusiasm, and mastery of the ancient musical art known as lilting (wordless, rhythmic vocalization). Over the decades there have been scores of fine lilters in Ireland, including Westmeath's Pat Kilduff, one of Fay's idols, and Galway's Paddy Rafferty, brother of Mike Rafferty.
With this album, Drumconnick, Cavan's Séamus Fay strengthens his place in the upper echelon of lilting during any era in Ireland. Winner of four All-Ireland championships (1959-1961, 1969), Fay has very few peers in the skill and poise he brings to "diddling" a tune.
The 33 tracks on this CD also indicate how vast a repertoire he has. They include three exquisite lilting duets by Séamus and his late mother, Kathleen, recorded at home in the early 1970s, and a riveting solo by Séamus on "The Broken Pledge/The Maids of Michelstown." There he displays a fiddler-like affinity for sly embellishments, and the change Fay executes between those two reels is, literally, breathtaking.
In a liner note for "Cavan's Lilter," fiddler Antóin Mac Gabhann calls Séamus Fay "a continuation of the old breed." That he is, but he also imaginatively repositions lilting as a creative musical force and outlet, the equivalent of fiddle, flute, pipes, and accordion played at their best.
With this ennobling, endearing album, Séamus Fay proves he has earned the moniker his admirers have given him: "king of the lilters."
4) "AT IT AGAIN," by John Carty (Shanachie 78054)
This is the third solo CD issued by Shanachie since 1996 of London-born John Carty, a triple threat on banjo (1982 All-Ireland senior champion), fiddle, and flute. All the Shanachie albums emphasize his fiddling, while a 1993 CD he made, "The Cat That Ate the Candle," showcases his four-string banjo playing.
Carty draws heavily on the ever-fertile musical traditions of Sligo and Roscommon, the home county of his father, John P., and the moment-to-moment inventiveness and exceptional detail of his bowing coax out music of rare passion and precision. Even such session warhorses as "The Silver Spear" and "Copperplate" give off the scent of newness through Carty's highly skilled playing.
His brother James on flute, Alec Finn on bouzouki, Arty McGlynn on guitar, and Brian McGrath on keyboards are some of the guests lending their own considerable talent to John's on fiddle.
On the strength of this latest solo CD, John Carty will make a splendid addition to Patrick Street, whom he's expected to join by summer. It will also be a good historic fit: his father and Patrick Street fiddler Kevin Burke both played in London's Glenside Céilí Band, winner of the All-Ireland senior title in 1966.
(5) "THE TAP ROOM TRIO," by Harry Bradley, Jesse Smith, and John Blake (Phaeton/Claddagh Spin 1007)
All three of these musicians have appeared on Irish Echo top 10 lists in the past. U.S.-born fiddler Jesse Smith's self-titled solo debut in 2002 finished No. 8, Belfast native flute and piccolo player Harry Bradley's solo album, "Bad Turns and Horse-Shoe Bends," was the No. 1 recording of 2000, and London-born guitar, piano, and flute player John Blake surfaced on CDs by Smith, the Kane sisters (No. 2), and P.J. Crotty, Carol Cullinan, and James Cullinan (No. 3) in 2002.
The sum matches the parts here. Their playing is deft and often driving, with ample room for ornamental flourishes that never get florid. Bradley and Smith each take a soaring solo on some reels, and there's a tangy flute duet by Bradley and Blake on a pair of schottisches. Many of the tunes were plucked from the 78-rpm era of P.J. Conlon, James Morrison, Michael Coleman, John McKenna, and the Flanagan Brothers, and the respect for these forebears runs deep in Bradley, Smith, and Blake's own spirited musicmaking.
(6) "REDWOOD," by Lúnasa (Green Linnet 1224)
Which version do you have? That was almost an inside joke during the very serious tumult surrounding this CD. Lúnasa's contentious contractual relationship with Green Linnet Records spilled over into a public forum when a Japanese release (claimed by Green Linnet to be a bootleg) jousted with Green Linnet's initial release (claimed by the band to be flawed), then Green Linnet's "second" release (band-approved CD in same jewel-box package not approved by band), and then Lúnasa's own fully sanctioned release. Got all that?
Perhaps lost in the shuffle was a true appreciation of the band's musical performance on their fourth album. It is another gem, full of interlocking rhythms from Donogh Hennessy on guitar and Trevor Hutchinson on bass behind glistening, well-jelled melody playing from Kevin Crawford on flute and whistles, Seán Smyth on fiddle and whistles, and Cillian Vallely on uilleann pipes and whistles.
(7) "ANGELINA CARBERRY & MARTIN QUINN" (self-issued; ReelTrad 001)
There's nothing bashful about a banjo and a button accordion, and in the wrong hands these instruments, separately or together, can blare. Fortunately, they're in the right hands here, as they were when Manchester-born banjoist Angelina Carberry played beside her Longford-born button accordionist father, Peter, and accompanist John Blake on "Memories From the Holla" in 2001.
Backed by guitarist-pianist John Blake and guitarist Alan McCartney, Angelina Carberry joins a button accordionist with Armagh roots, Martin Quinn, on tunes performed at a blissfully unfrenetic pace with an enviable ripeness and discipline throughout. This is sweet-spot, session-seasoned playing from two superb young instrumentalists.
(8) "MUSIC AT THE HOUSE," by Brendan Bulger, Marty Fahey, and Kathleen Gavin (self-issued; MATH 001)
If you read my glowing review of this album in the Nov. 26 "Ceol" column, you know what a singular achievement it is. The playing of Boston-born fiddler Brendan Bulger, Chicago button accordionist and pianist Marty Fahey, and Mayo-born pianist Kathleen Gavin has a naturalness and fluidity capturing the best elements of past masters--especially fiddler Johnny McGreevy (1919-1990) and pianist Eleanor Kane Neary (1915-1993)--without trying to imitate them. Recorded in the Chicago home of Fahey with "no headphones, sound booths, or control rooms," as he points out in a liner note, this CD is a towering testament to Irish traditional music played expressly for joy and camaraderie--and out of an abiding deference for what has gone before. What a treat from the Windy City.
(9) "BEYOND THE MEARING WALL," by Maigh Seola (self-issued; Seo 01)
Flash and fire are not the staples of Maigh Seola, a sextet who take a delicate, utterly enchanting approach to several songs collected by London-born, Tuam-resident Eibhlín Bean Mhic Choisdealbha between 1908 and 1913 in East Galway and Mayo. Those songs were published in a 1923 book, "Amhráin Mhuighe Seóla," and the group Maigh Seola makes those pages sing.
North Galway's Bríd Dooley handles most of the vocals on the CD, and nowhere is her voice more warmly appealing than in "Suantraí" and "An Raicín Álainn" (compare her rendition to Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola's). The other gifted members of Maigh Seola are Áine Sheridan on harp and vocals, Patricia Kelly on violin and viola, Liz Barry on cello, Jacqueline McCarthy on concertina, and Caoimhín Ó Sé on flute, whistle, and vocals.
(10) "THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED," by Danú (Shanachie 78057)
Maturity need not come at the expense of youthful exuberance. On this, their fourth album, the Waterford-based septet Danú reaches a level of performance where individual strengths are in full service to the ensemble sound. The band's high energy remains infectious, frequently spearheaded by Benny McCarthy on button accordion and Oisin McAuley on fiddle, but it doesn't overwhelm the layers of subtlety beneath. Those lamenting the departure of singer Ciarán Ó Gealbháin, take heart. West Kerry's Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh is an excellent replacement, as her duskily engaging vocal on five songs shows, whether in Irish or English. If this CD is meant to pursue a "road less traveled," then Danú has chosen its musical path wisely.
Two sources helping me to obtain some of these CDs are Ossian USA, 118 Beck Rd., Loudon, NH 03307, (phone) 603-783-4383, info @ ossianusa dot com, www.ossianusa.com, and Custy's Traditional Music Shop, Francis St., Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland, (phone) 011-353-65-68-21727, custys.ennis @ eircom dot net, www.custysmusic.com.
Author: Earle Hitchner