The Macalla Orchestra "The Macalla Suite"
In a departure from the norm here, this is music written by Michael Rooney but not performed by him. The suite was composed as part of the centenary commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin,
an important step along the path to the independent Irish state established in 1922, after a war of independence and a treaty agreed in 1921 between David Lloyd George and Michael Collins amongst others, so the good news is we have a whole rake of centenaries to look forward to in Ireland. The Macalla Suite was recorded at a live performance in Monaghan - a big plus for me of course - with around sixty musicians on stage. There's a full list of performers on the sleeve, the first such list I've seen where fiddles are clearly distinguished from violins, as this work combines folk and classical players. On the traditional side, you'll recognise some names - Clare Quinn, Paddy Callaghan, Aoibheann Queally, Patrick Ballantyne, Brogan and Orlaith McAuliffe - as members of the up and coming cohort of Irish music virtuosos from across Ireland and the UK. This is a young ensemble, with no household names yet, and judging by the cover photo the classical musicians are of a similar age: twenty-somethings mainly, but the best of their generation if this recording is any measure.
The music tells the story of the Rising from its causes to its aftermath in a series of marches, jigs, airs, reels, and more classical pieces. There are four songs, all over a century old, but the bulk of this CD is new instrumental compositions, from the firmly traditional Scoraiocht Jig to the cinematic Execution which recalls dramatic scenes in Les Misérables, Gladiator, and oddly also Pirates of the Caribbean. The opening air An Tirdhreach Loite seems a little too cheerful, but a more serious edge is introduced by The Workhouse, and by the time we reach the midpoint of Confusion there is an ominous mood in the music. An orchestral string section and high brass fits well with percussion and traditional instruments: fiddles, flutes, free reeds, Irish pipes, banjos, and harps. Lots of harps: Michael Rooney knows his instrument well and uses it very effectively here, in stately instrumentals such as The Landlord and behind songs like Tá an Lá Geal ag Teacht. The music for The Battle is stark and sombre, followed by an eerie Lament for the Dead on pipes. Only with The Queen's Speech does the joy return, marking a reconciled Ireland since the 1990s. The final two tracks blend classical, traditional and modern music in a celebration of Irish culture, culminating in a very fine fiddle reel Spleodar with a céilí atmosphere. For the more classically minded, this suite is split into six movements, but however you carve it The Macalla Suite is a banquet of very fine Irish music.
© Alex Monaghan
Arnie Naiman "My Lucky Stars"
Own Label, 2016
High quality banjo music - not a phrase you'll hear often, but in this case it certainly applies. Arnie Naiman plays his own tunes on 5-string banjo, and is supported by a pretty classic old-time line-up: guitar, bass, and two or three fiddles. Some of My Lucky Stars has a quite contemporary feel, but most of it would feel at home on a front porch in Kentucky or West Virginia. Naiman himself is from Ontario, which of course has its own old time tradition as well as many others, and maybe there's a Canadian flavour to his music. It's certainly quite relaxed: Reminiscence recalls the dreamier side of Gerry O'Connor's forays into Americana, and the title track is suitable for star-gazing under those clear Canadian skies. Even Rollicking Edward belies its name, a gentle piece, more of a saunter really.
The pace does pick up in several places. The pagan theme of The Old New Year gets the blood flowing, and South River Dam has a real swagger to it. The opening Catch of the Day is a nice toe-tapping tune, and the medley of Naiman's Slipping and Sliding with the traditional Boatsman is probably the most powerful track here and certainly my favourite. Another one worth noting is Square Peg, a lovely girl by all accounts: this tune was written by Virginian fiddler Jim Childress who plays on a couple of tracks here and has two of his own albums. Arnie's wife Hannah also plays fine fiddle on this recording, as does John Showman, and guitar and bass are expertly wielded by Chris Coole and Max Heineman respectively. Arnie plays a number of different banjos - thankfully only one at a time - in various tunings which are helpfully given in the sleeve notes and seem to be mainly in G, D and A, plus a very peculiar flat key tuning for the final air Jonathan Max. The whole CD is very enjoyable if you're in a mellow frame of mind, and there are some great tunes here for the old time players to learn.
© Alex Monaghan
Ewan MacPherson "Fetch!"
Shoogle Records, 2016
Here is a man who has been in so many bands that you almost expect him to pop up on other people's recordings, and forget what a fine musician he is in his own right. Player of various stringed things, Ewan MacPherson has also written most of the music here, and is joined by pipers, fiddlers, melodeonists and drummers to perform it. The material reflects MacPherson's eclecticism - much of it would fit on CDs by Battlefield, Shooglenifty, Fribo, Salsa Celtica, Burach and other esteemed outfits which Ewan has graced over the years. Saltus, for instance, is straight out of Fribo's Nordic ice, with Hardanger fiddle and troll drums flanking the guitar. Silver Tongues, on the other hand, sounds like a Malinky number - border pipes for a border tune, Pawky Paterson and old-fashioned slip jigs.
There's quite a strong Balkan feel to much of Fetch - or at least a Shooglenifty take on Balkan music. Brutus the Husky, Red Cyril and Caravan Up North all have those near-eastern modalitoes and rhythms. The Scandinavian muse is strongly represented too, in Cedar Dust and Ranarim's Welcome to Scotland. A bit of oldtime, a bit of English, and a rare moment of calm on Only the Burn is Not Silent: but Fetch still has room for plenty of Scottish influences, from the sort of strathspey Dead End Glen to the storming final reel The Torrents. Although it's over an hour long, this album always seems to go by in a rush and every time something new emerges which makes me want to listen through again, so you may find Ewan MacPherson stays on your playlist for a long time.
© Alex Monaghan
Brendan Hendry & Jonny Toman "Living Roots"
Own Label, 2016
This fine South Derry fiddler has teamed up with multi-instrumentalist Toman from Lurgan in County Armagh who just happens to come from an oldtime musical family. The combination of Irish fiddle and Appalachian banjo is an interesting one, and it took me a while to settle into this music but once I'd listened to Living Roots a few times I began to appreciate the intricacies of these arrangements and the complementary styles of Brendan and Jonny. I remember hearing a collaborative concert in the '70s between Boys of the Lough and the Red Clay Ramblers, and being surprised and delighted at how well they combined Irish, Appalachian and Shetland music. This duo follow the same path, but with a more modern approach. There's a considerable amount of post-production magic to add a sepulchral tone to Brendan's fiddle or take the high harmonics out of Jonny's mandolin, as well as layering guitars, dobro, bouzouki, percussion and keyboards from Mr Toman in addition to his banjo and mando leads.
The majority of the tunes here are either from the Irish tradition or newly composed by Hendry and Toman in a loosely Irish style. Jigs, reels, hornpipes and airs such as The Mist in the Meadow, The Crosses of Annagh, The Boyne Hunt and From Rocktown to Boylan's Shore are wrapped in a sympathetic modern country arrangement, often slowed from their usual tempo to give this music a more relaxed and flowing feel. Cousin Sally Brown and Heartland's are more oldtime, as is Toman's reel The Fall which I think is about autumn rather than the casting of Adam and Eve out of Eden - but you never know with American connections these days. Living Roots even has its own Shetland ingredient, Willie Hunter's slow air Love of the Isles, and so the circle is unbroken, back to those early cross-overs between Aly Bain and Bill Hicks, Cathal McConnell and Tommy Thompson. Hendry and Toman have added a few of their own compositions to the transatlantic melting pot, and this CD makes an enjoyable addition to what is still quite a small number of recordings combining Irish and oldtime music.
© Alex Monaghan
Eddie & Luc "Tirade"
Own Label, 2016
Eddie (Seaman) and Luc (McNally) play and sing a variety of music from Scotland, Ireland and England. Eddie is one of two fine pipers in the Glasgow group Barluath, and also plays whistles and bouzouki. Luc sings the four songs here, and provides guitar accompaniment. Together they produce a full rounded sound, aided by guests on drums and bass, and a wee fiddle cameo on the final track from Madeleine Stewart. The opening Angry Piper's Tirade, a thumping 11/8 monster by Hazen Metro, sets the bar high: but Seaman and McNally rise to the challenge with several more catchy tunes and a couple of fine songs. Luc tears into his own jig On a Boat, an impressive guitar solo. Eddie does jigs in style too, the classic pipe tunes Jimmy McGregor and John MacDonald's Exercise. Seaman is more of a piper than a whistler, and it should be noted that his pipes produce the most convincing impression of a dying cow that I have ever heard: he must be every Pipe Major's nightmare. Once the beast is up and blawing, though, there's no stopping him: The Ness Pipers, Elsie Marley, and his own James Bruce of Wick are all neatly played. Luc delivers a powerful version of the socialist anti-war song Harry Brewer and three songs from his native Northumbrian tradition: my favourite is Byker Hill, sung straight and gentler than many interpretations, with more of that delicate guitar picking. As a first full-length album, Tirade is certainly something for this young duo to be proud of.
© Alex Monaghan
Floating Sofa Quartet "The Moon We Watch is the Same"
GO Danish Folk, 2016
This album is the first one to go on the shortlist for my 2017 Top Ten. A debut recording from a young Nordic instrumental quartet, it combines the best of new and traditional music, technical brilliance and emotional understanding. The opening Midsommerschottish by Danish fiddler Clara Tesch is simply stunning, a delightful melody and an inspired arrangement on flute, melodeon and string bass. The following Queen Tower by Finnish box-player Leija Lautamaja and Sjålaschottish by bassist Malte Zeberg from Sweden are increasingly dark and foreboding, heralding the traditional Danish song of evil stepmother magic The Maiden in Wolf Skin which includes a century-old recording from Jutland. Lösningen, another Zeberg composition, lightens the mood with a gentle jig rhythm before two stately Fane polskas featuring fluter Mads Kjøller-Henningsen on Danish bagpipes. Leija's cheerful Another Day Without Rain celebrates the dry climate of England - not quite sure where she was living, but it obviously wasn't anywhere near me!
A little bit of mandolin and harmonium adds variety to this CD, but most of the enjoyment comes from the energy and passion in the playing of these four young maestros. Their composing skills also help: none of the new music here is shallow or shabby, and the occasional traditional piece fits in perfectly. Drunken Devil is the only totally trad track, three rousing dance tunes from the band's three home countries. Two Tesch compositions bring a more classical feel, but the Scandinavian fiddle tradition still shines through. Lautamaja's Vill Du Flyga? builds slowly to a full sound, the extra half row on her melodeon making all the difference, and her dramatic "disco-folk" reel Hunting winds down gently before Mads' final Kikkebjerget pays tribute to one of the high points of the Danish island of Fane. The fun isn't over yet: judging by The Moon We Watch is the Same, I expect the Floating Sofa Quartet to surprise and delight us for many years to come.
© Alex Monaghan
Trias "Efter Horisonten"
GO Danish Folk, 2016
A second album
from these Danish fiddlers,
now a quartet with two fiddles, double bass and keyboards/guitar, sees them add a couple of songs to their instrumental offering. Pleasant as these are, with guest singer Camilla Skjaerbaek's strong yet gentle voice, two tales of wandering young women don't really define this recording, especially as the vocals first appear on track seven. Before then we are treated to waltzes, polkas, jigs, reels, a spooky slow march, in fact the whole range of Danish dance music. The standard of musicianship from Trias is extremely high, and the compositions by all four band members are a great addition to the Danish repertoire.
Efter Horisonten - Beyond the Horizon - is full of fine music, fiddle-led with occasional mandolin and guitar melodies too. I particularly liked the traditional Firtur med Sving and Christoffer Thorhauge Dam's Offshore Reel. The harmonium seems very popular in Danish music just now, providing drone accompaniment to the lovely air K.E.R.F before Camilla's second song. Evindelighedens Polska, a powerful piece of new Scandinavian music from the other fiddler here, Jonas Kongsted, has no accompaniment except what can be achieved on twin fiddles. After the contemplative Filosoffen, Trias end with another driving pair of reels, one by each of the band's fiddlers, while Søren Østergaard Pedersen and Rasmus Nielsen pound away on bass and keyboards. Efter Horisonten is certainly worth a listen.
© Alex Monaghan
Johnny Óg Connolly "Siar"
Own Label, 2016
From Connemara, following in his father's footsteps, this button box-player breaks the mould in many ways. Siar is his second solo CD, and like his first it's packed with his own compositions. This time, all the tunes are Johnny's, from the opening fling Sean Gannon's to the closing waltz An tOilean Aerach. Reels and jigs are few and far between here, at least in the usual sense: there are hop-jigs, hornpipes, strathspeys, airs, waltzes, marches, laments, flings and planxties, and even a classical gigue, but barely a handful of the commoner Irish dance forms. Not that Johnny Óg can't write jigs and reels: his Homage to Rooney is a fine example of the former, and Ríl Sheosaimh recalls the superb compositions of Finbarr Dwyer. The fling Colm's Happy Days could certainly be speeded up a notch for session playing, but beyond that you're looking at a different strain of Irish music from the fast and furious fare of fleadhanna and festival stages. The Connemara Wedding Waltz displays that mixture of simplicity and virtuosity which characterises the playing of Johnny Connolly senior, and indeed unites the west coast of Ireland with the isles and peninsulas of Scottish Gaeldom: great melodies, graceful rhythms, good dance music. It's no great surprise to hear a bit of a Scots snap in the following pair of hornpipe and strathspey, both with strong Ulster associations. Planxty Dordán acknowledges the Irish baroque fusion of that fine all-female ensemble, and indeed Johnny Óg goes further with his own arrangement of a baroque gigue by Arcangelo Corelli, a composer from the Bologna area. Although Corelli definitely visited Naples, history does not tell us whether he purchased a mandolin: Garry O'Briann, on the other hand, has certainly owned such an instrument, although here he sticks to guitar and the larger mandocello. John Blake also strums along, and switches to flute for the reel Blakes of Mayo written in his family's honour. These two guests provide accompaniment on every track except for two laments, and the Corelli piece where Johnny coaxes a baroque-style bass line from the limited left hand possibilities of his B/C box. The final number is a live recording from a tribute concert for melodeon maestro Johnny Connolly senior, and contains the title tune Siar go hInis Bearachain, translating roughly as Coming Home to Inis Bearachain. It's paired with the charming An tOilean Aerach, a fitting note to end on: Johnny Óg's music is indeed a joyful sound, and firmly rooted in his home place.
© Alex Monaghan
Louise Bichan "Out of my Own Light"
Own Label, 2016
Orkney composer, photographer and fiddler Louise Bichan (sounds a bit like chicken) has put together a fascinating musical and visual account of the intriguing story of her grandmother Margaret Tait who travelled half way across the world and back again to unravel what today might be called a love triangle. Cursed with two eligible suitors at home, she sailed for Canada in 1950 and spent time "out of her own light" to decide between the men who loved her. Along the way she met cousins and made new friends, and even appeared as a singer on CBC radio. Fortunately for us, she did return and married Louise's grandfather, passing her spirit of adventure and her musical talents down to her granddaughter. In a series of evocative compositions based on her own voyage to retrace her grandmother's steps, and a booklet of photographs which answers some wuestions about Margaret Tait's remarkable journey but leaves others open, Louise creates a compelling narrative and a highly entertaining album.
The starting place is Quoyburray, a dramatic and lively piece with hints of pipe music behind the delicate fiddle melody. The untimely death of Margaret's mother, another great singer, is marked by the beautiful track For Myrtle which mixes psalmic vocals with ambient sounds, fiddle and piano. Margaret's suitors Sydney and Ian each get a track, one calm, the other urgent, before a long hypnotic piece which could represent Margaret's inner turmoil. The Ascania is a similarly cinematic composition, commemorating the Cunard liner which took Margaret from Liverpool to Quebec. CBC Winnipeg marks the broadcast of a number of Scottish songs sung by Ms Tait while on her Canadian travels: an archive recording of this broadcast forms an appendix or bonus track at the end of the CD. The return journey features the triumphant march Melville, the romantic Margaret's Walk to the Pier, the graceful and charming Flying Farmer waltz, and the climactic Swanbister named after the Bichan family home. As well as these fine tunes and some excellent playing by Louise and friends, Out of my Own Light really does tell a story in music and images: this is a very absorbing and satisfying album, beautifully crafted, a complex and unusual creation.
© Alex Monaghan
Guadi Galego "O Mundo Está Parado"
Fol Música/Boa, 2016
During the 1990s folk music revival in Galicia, the band Berrogüetto flourished as one of the most avant-garde ensembles in Spain’s northwest green corner. Guadi Galego was Berrogüetto’s lead singer but she was also very talented when playing the two most traditional Galician instruments: gaita (the local bagpipes species) and pandeireta (Galician tambourine). In 2008, Guadi decided to leave the band and to focus in her career as a solo singer, being then replaced by another powerful Galician traditional artist, Xabier Díaz (singer, dancer, gaiteiro,…). In 2014, Guadi released her first Compact Disk, ‘Luas de Outubro e Agosto’ (Moons of October and August), where we could enjoy the sweetness and the simplicity of her warm voice. And now in 2016, she comes back again, not with a CD, but with a Long Play. Remember? LPs: Those black & shinny vinyl disks that for many modern artists are becoming a sort of retro-cult way to become visible in new (or old) record shops, which keep their business sometimes in neo-hipster neighborhoods. Guadi’s second record is named ‘O Mundo Está Parado’ (The World is Stopped), and yes, it is published as an LP, with a double cover (30x30cm) designed by Carlos Abal (with many pictures showing landscapes and city corners),… and with a CD inside which contains the exact same songs as the vinyl . There will be just 1000 copies of this album published, although of course ‘O Mundo Está Parado’ will be also available in the usual digital platforms. Six of the songs are composed by Guadi Galego, three are written by the before mentioned Carlos Abal, and one belongs to the record producer, Pachi de Garcia, who becomes once again the magician for the sound and the mixing of the different tracks. There is nothing specifically traditional, folk or ethnic in this collection of ten beautiful songs. This is simply a stunning set of deeply sweet and melancholic pop-rock tunes. You can think about them as goldfishes slowly swimming in pond, or like red leafs calmly falling in a steady winter afternoon. Enchanting melodies and poems where Guadi’s voice is harmonically blended with her piano, acoustic & electric guitars (Guillerme Fernández), drum set (Isaac Palacín), bass guitar (Paco Charlín),… Some of the most charming tunes are: “O Privilexio de Soñar” (The Privilege of Dreaming), “Mente en Branco” (Blank Mind), “El Entorno” (The Environment), “Vida” (Life),… This seducing kaleidoscope of acoustic portraits is clearly a new success in Guadi’s post-folk music career.
© Pío Fernández