an article I wrote about Irish music for Salon in 1997
An article I wrote for Salon about Irish music back in 1997
reels and jigs
GREEN LINNET RECORDS GETS YOUR IRISH UP
BY KEVIN VANCE | One source of traditional Irish music that stands out from the rest is the Connecticut-based Green Linnet Records, started by Americans who fell in love with the jigs and the reels on visits to the Emerald Island. Green Linnet celebrated its 20th Anniversary last year with the release of some of their favorites, and the two-disc collection brings together some the best-known names in the folk music of Ireland, Scotland and other parts of the Celtic diaspora. Robbie O’Connell, a nephew of the Clancy Brothers, joins Mick Moloney and American fiddle player Liz Carroll on a song by Irish songwriter Tommy Sands called “There Were Roses,” possibly the best modern ballad about the troubles in the Northern Ireland. Patrick Street, a “supergroup” of veterans from bands such as the Boys of the Lough and the Bothy Band, do a piece called “Music for a Found Harmonium,” which sounds like a traditional Irish dance tune, but was actually penned by a member of the avant-garde group The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Scotland is represented by such bands as The Tannahill Weavers (complete with bagpipes) and Silly Wizard, featuring the chilling vocals of Andy M. Stewart, the mad accordion work of Phil Cunningham and the fiddle mastery of his brother Johnny. There’s even Englishwoman June Tabor, who does a version of Scots-born, Australian-based Eric Bogle’s classic antiwar anthem “No Man’s Land.”
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“The First 10 Years” and “The Best of Altan”
Possibly the best interpreters of traditional Irish music in the last decade is the Dublin group Altan. On the recently released “Best of” compilation, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (pronounced “Marie-d Nee Weenie”) plays a flawless fiddle and sings like an angel, while her husband, the late Frankie Kennedy, plays a flute that sends you to your feet. Ciarán Curran plays the bouzouki, a greek instrument comparable to a large mandolin, which has become a staple in Irish music in recent years.
Mhaonaigh and the band sing the children’s song, “Dulaman,” and the love story, “Donal Agus Morag,” in Irish Gaelic. The language is still sung in Donegal and elsewhere in the north where a lot of Altan’s music comes from. Their readings of traditional reels like “Tommy Peoples” or their own compositions like “The Red Crow” would send anyone to the dance floor, or at least encourage some serious toe-tapping. Although Frankie Kennedy died of cancer in 1994, Altan still tours, records and goes on strong, like he wished them to do.
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“Martin Hayes” and “Under the Moon”
Bruce Cockburn once wrote a line about a fellow “walking with his head full of Irish fiddle tunes,” implying a sort of raucous insanity. Not so with the virtuosity of Irish-born, Seattle resident Martin Hayes. On both of his two excellent albums currently available, he plays the jig or a reel or any other style of folk dance music with the same kindness and gentility usually reserved for a concert violinist playing Vivaldi. He is usually accompanied by a guitar and not much else, and the result is a special intimacy that delights the heart.
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“Out the Gap”
Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, who drew the famous “Welcome to Heaven, Here’s Your Harp; Welcome To Hell, Here’s Your Accordion” cartoon, might still enjoy the music of Sharon Shannon. Her album, “Out The Gap,” is pure fun. All the pieces are instrumentals in the traditional style, the squeeze-box work joined by a competent group of musicians who add a reggae rhythm. The mix works well, evoking visions of leprechauns with dreadlocks dancing. And the titles of the pieces — “Bungee Jumpers,” “Björn Again Polka,” “Reel Beatrice” — are as clever as the arrangements.
SALON | Oct. 3, 1997
Kevin Vance produces “A Patchwork Quilt” on San Francisco public radio station KALW.