I was lucky, very lucky, well maybe it was being able to play the Irish connection, but you see I know both David Munnelly and Mick Conneely and being interested in their music, well I just had make a call and get an advanced copy of their new CD ‘Tis What It Is on the prestigious boutique trad label Cló Iar-Chonnacht.
I caught Mick on his mobile, he was in a hospital basement somewhere in Galway fixing something, probably electrical. “I’ll step out into the light and talk a bit about the album. It’s the best work I’ve ever done.” I asked for a preview copy, but it wasn’t ready, would I like an MP3 via Dropbox? “OK go on spoil me” ... and he did.
If CDs were novels you’d want them to start with a page turner, a killer line from the first word, and the pair oblige here with a deceptively simple High Caul Cap, a tune that crops up all over the English speaking world, you might know it as Donkey Riding or Heighland Laddie. Suffice to say the boys grab it and put Irish manners on it. But it’s a rare enough tune on albums, the only version I can recall is from the Breton band Gwendal back in the 1970s.
I have detected a rawness and freshness in a lot of album releases in 2012. ‘Tis What It Is contains old style music played in the old style, music that is both ageless and very much of now. And so far, half way into the year there’s nothing better than ‘Tis What It Is… for that raw bar approach.
Why does it appeal to me? Well I’ve played in session with fiddlers and box player for years and there’s a certain sound, that only comes across live, and it has been missing from many studio albums for a decade or more. Call it rough cut timber but there’s something in this music that says “we did this live, this is what box and fiddle sound like, when you are next to them, there”, no cleaning up that is obvious or evident, if they recorded it again tomorrow it would be totally different. It has the snapshot quality of cinema verité and it makes the album a keeper, it makes it is what it is, and it is all the better for it.
Dave and Mick are master musicians no doubt about it, they have the credentials: the track record, the bands, albums and collaborations, but here you get more than just great musicianship, you get a dialogue, a conversation happening now, not parroted lines from some slickly rehearsed ensemble, that is the real excitement here. Cleary they have practice long and hard, there are gaps and stops and changes of rhythm, which the boys hit spot on, but you’d be forgiven if you thought they’d just walked into the pub and played straight of the cuff.
Let me put it another way, would you think of attending a session with a set list or a cheat sheet of tunes? No. The fun of the session is the spontaneity, the challenge it throws up at every turn, testing your ability to pick up the mood from the other players around you. Munnelly and Conneely do that to perfection here. And of course they have a few guests, Johnny McDonagh on bodhrán, Ryan Molloy on Piano and Jonas Fromseier on banjo, he plays tri-chorda Greek bouzouki in Arcady and Morga, but here Mick Conneely picks up the zook duties, so you expect and wouldn’t be disappointed with a sound that sometimes gets close to, but never really apes early De Danann. With no guitars present their music is lighter, less bound by a bass line, freer to live on the high notes.
That DeDannan reference is just a dusting of spice on the dinner, the meat of the work is a stunningly fresh and honest take on studio playing. There are albums that become obligatory, legendary performances, benchmarks of taste, the right stuff bottled in less than an hour of music. And this is one of them.
Make space in your CD collection for ‘Tis What Is It is … because it really is it!
Mick Conneely & Dave Munnelly: ‘Tis what It is. Cló Iar-Chonnacht. Launch date 8th July at Miltown Malbay.
Photo Credits: (1)-(3) Mick Conneely & David Munnelly (unknown).