Monday, November 20, 2006

Michelle Lally - Could This Be Love?

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2006

Could this be love? On first listen it certainly could. Produced by Frankie Gavin and Eugene Kelly, Michelle Lally’s first album is a work of beauty. It’s a timeless, melodic recording of songs, some very well known that have been recorded before, while others are new. The mood is one of reflection, a quiet happiness and a gentleness that fully complements the personality behind the voice. Michelle is a happy smiling person, relaxed, at ease in any company, and one whose great passion is singing. “I’ve always been singing” she says. “I sang since I was a child. My father had a pub in Ballinasloe and I’d always be up on stage singing. It was called The Dunlo Tavern, and it was the first pub in town to have music, so I’d sing with whoever was on. Even when I was in London I always did a bit of singing. Then I went to New York, I did a bit over there with a girl band, but it wasn’t really my thing. It became very much like a pop thing and I wasn’t really into that.”

Michelle’s musical background is essentially traditional. Her great uncle was P.J. Conlon, one of those early recording heroes of 1920’s America, an accomplished melodeon player. “My grandfather and great grandmother would have been very much into the traditional music” she elaborates, “they played accordion and fiddle.” It was through P.J. Conlon’s music that Michelle first came in contact with Frankie Gavin. “Frankie went to America and found his music. I was sending him some stuff he didn’t have.”

She has always been touched by music. While living in America she would get really homesick and listening to Irish music always comforted her.

After eight years there working in the fashion and make up business, Michelle returned to Ireland in 2002. “I met, by accident, a young English guy called Craig McEvoy and we got talking one night and discovered we had all the same influences. So we ended up doing a duet together and we sang in some of the hotels in Galway and a few bars, like Monroe’s and Tí na nÓg. We had a duet going for about a year and a half and then he had to go back to England.” They had put a demo together prior to that and Frankie Gavin was interested in producing an album for them. When Craig left, Frankie suggested Michelle do an album herself. It was Eugene Kelly who started the process unknowingly when he called to ask Michelle to sing over an arrangement he had put together for ‘Black is the Colour’. “That’s a song that has been done by everyone” says Michelle, “a beautiful song, one of my favourites. So I went in and it was really different. He had put an almost Enya-esque style mood to the song and all he needed was someone to sing it. Layers of instruments and layers of voices, beautiful, on the spot I said beautiful. So we did it and by six o’clock that evening we had the song in our hands. We sat back and listened to it and thought, we could really do something with this and that’s where it built on.”

Michelle sent the recording to Jimmy McCarthy who suggested she sing ‘Ride On’. He felt that the mood of the album was going to be very gentle. While Michelle is a great fan of Jimmy’s writing, ‘Ride On’ wouldn’t have been one she’d have chosen to sing. Jimmy re-wrote some of the words for her. “‘Run your claw along my gut one last time’ was very aggressive for the style of the album we were doing” she explains.” So he changed it and made the words into ‘The silver spur, the stirrup’d foot, where the road does part and wind’. Beautiful. It really worked well, that was the second song.”

Following that, Michelle gathered more beautiful songs, from Irish writers like John Spillane (All the Ways you Wander), and Mick Hanly who penned the opening title track ‘If this be Love’. “It’s an old tune that Clannad have done ‘Coinleach Ghlas and Fhómhair’. He re-wrote the words instead of translating them. It became the title track because I thought it was a great title and it represented everything that was on the album. They are all love songs in their own way. Love for your child as in ‘Wonderchild’. ‘Still by your side’ (another by Jimmy McCarthy) comes from a view of somebody who has passed away. It’s a beautiful spiritual song and it’s somebody singing back to their loved ones, ‘I’m still here, I’m still with you’. The melody is amazing.”

There are four of Jimmy’s songs on the album altogether. ‘There is no Night’ is one he composed a long time ago but had never given to anyone to sing. “It was an honour for me to get it” says Michelle. Nestling between the songs are two beautiful instrumental pieces penned by Frankie Gavin, the slightly oriental sounding ‘Ruby Rose’ and ‘Misha Mo Chroí’. Having adapted Oscar Wilde’s English words, Michelle also recorded Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’. “I just love the melody” she says, “it’s one of those melodies that is quite hypnotic; there’s a lovely flow to it. We thought it fits on the album so we put it at the end to finish off on that kind of spiritual note.”

The songs on ‘If this be Love’ are very different to the material Michelle sings with Frankie Gavin’s band ‘Hibernian Rhapsody’. “They are more traditional” says Michelle. “Lots of Scottish Songs, Dick Gaughan songs, some Kate Rusby songs, so they would be in keeping with the old DeDanann style songs.”

Although Michelle was always aware of DeDanann’s music, it was Maura O’Connell who drew her into listening to the band. “She was the first one I listened to” she says, “and then it was Mary Black, and they were my main influences.” Maura’s first album ‘Just in Time’ was very special, “I’d close the sitting room door and I’d put it on and sing and sing and sing.” says Michelle. “That was the album that turned it around for me - an amazing album.” Michelle is still enthralled by Maura’s singing and enjoys her company whenever they meet now. Like most people, she grew up listening to a wide range of music, U2, Simple Minds and Irish band In Tua Nua were the big sounds she remembers during the 80s. “I’d listen to everything” she says. “The only thing I wouldn’t listen to would be heavy metal.”

On hearing Michelle’s album, you find yourself singing along with the melodies. The gentle tones of the songs remain with you for a long time. She’s been compared with Mary Black and while the comparison is very complementary, she is without doubt a singer with her own style. On this recording it’s one that shows maturity and an interpretative competency. “This particular style would not necessarily be the way I would describe my singing” she says. “It’s a vibe of an album, a mood we went for and we picked songs that were very light in nature that didn’t have any heaviness in them, that didn’t have any political statements. They were all very poetic, very beautiful. There’s almost a spiritual thread going from the very first to the very end without it being religious in any way, just being very positive.”

Guitarist Tim Edey joins forces with Eugene Kelly and Frankie Gavin to provide the rich accompaniment to Michelle’s voice on ‘If this be Love’. She has dedicated this first album to her own wonder child, her six year old son Evan.

She loves performing and while she’s quite busy with Hibernian Rhapsody and their concerts, she’s looking forward to including the songs from ‘If this be Love’ into her live repertoire. “I’m in a great place in my life at the moment” she says. “Thank God I can say that. It’s like the tune ‘Contentment is Wealth’, I feel very content.”

‘If this be Love’ is available on Tara Records TARACD 4019 & visit or by visiting the .tradnet store at Amazon.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Sharon goes LIVE!

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2006

It’s hard to believe that “Live at Dolan’s” is Sharon Shannon’s first DVD production. All those years on the road and all those great albums and collaborations and yet this must be the collaboration to beat them all. Recorded in Dolan’s in Limerick last July before a live audience over two nights, the DVD captures Sharon’s big band in top form. It’s a line up that pretty much represents the current Irish music scene with Declan O’Rourke, Mundy, Roesy, Damien Dempsey, Dessie O’Halloran and Jon Kenny as guests and some newcomers in the Brennan sisters and Jack Maher. The core of her band are her sister Mary Shannon and guitarist Jim Murray supplemented by banjo virtuoso Gerry O’Connor and fiddler Winnie Horan. The big band swell to include Robbie Casserly on drums, Paul Moore on bass, James Delaney on keyboards and Richie Buckley on sax. It’s a stunning show and it all started early last year when Sharon invited Ray D’Arcy of Today Fm to her cottage in Killeeneen in Co. Galway for a live broadcast from the kitchen there. “We did the whole three hour show” says Sharon, “we had such an amazing day we decided we just had to go on the road.” It was a year before that dream was realised and the ‘big’ band got together in a rehearsal studio in Dublin to prepare for 14 sell out dates around the country in April. Each night they played, they just gelled better together. “We didn’t realise how good it was going to get and felt we should have filmed this. Dolan’s was one of best gigs of the tour and we thought that’s the perfect place to do the DVD.” Two dates in July were agreed and the show was recorded before a packed enthusiastic audience. Six cameras captured the action and not one performance was left out of the final DVD so it comes in at a bumper 156 minutes. It’s a very eclectic mix of Sharon’s own popular tunes and songs from each of the guests, some of them their best known work like Mundy’s ‘Mexico’ and ‘July’, Declan O’Rourke’s ‘Galileo’, Roesy’s ‘One of the Same’ and Dessie O'Halloran’s ‘Say you love me’. Gerry O'Connor guesting on banjo gives a stunning performance of his tune ‘Time to Time’ with some dazzling reels added on, and new talent Jack Maher gives an amazing rendition of a blues number ‘Don’t Give up on Me’. The Brennan Sisters, four terrific traditional singers from Maam Valley in Connemara are also showcased with their tight close harmonies and confident delivery on the old Luke Kelly song ‘Hand me down my Bible’. The reggae style rhythm that accompanies the song gives it a lift that could carry it far into the charts. The girls also add great lustre to Dessie O’Halloran’s ‘Come Down from the Mountain Katie Daly.’

Comedian Jon Kenny also features on the DVD. He was invited to the original kitchen session for Today FM to sing Damien Dempsey’s verse of ‘Courtin' in the Kitchen’ when Damien was unable to come. He became part of the gang and part of the later tour. His ‘Big Rock candy mountain’ and ‘Donegal Kid’ are outrageously funny, giving another completely different aspect to the production.

All these artists are friends of Sharon’s and each of them compliments her in their own way. “She’s someone who ties together all these young musicians” says Declan O’Rourke, “it’s like a beautiful musical family. They are the cream of Irish music and it’s amazing to be on stage with them.”

“All the musicians are different” says Mundy. “She has a great way of adapting to everyone’s style – she’s the key. She’s so talented, she can play anything.”

Sharon has gotten to know all these people in various settings over the last few years. Roesy and Mundy are both from Birr in Co. Offaly but it was in Dublin at parties that she met them.

She met Declan O’Rourke originally at the recording studio Grouse Lodge when recording ‘Libertango’ and Declan was with Paddy Casey’s band recording his album ‘Living’. It was at a session in Whelan’s in Dublin that Sharon first heard Declan sing his own songs and she was immediately taken with his voice. Now Sharon’s manager is Declan’s manager too, and the weekend I spoke with Sharon Declan has just given her a demo of over twenty new songs, potential material for his next album.

It’s been a busy few years for Sharon who between touring with her own band has also found time to record and tour with Mike McGoldrick, Frankie Gavin and Jim Murray. Earlier this year she toured in Australia with Mike McGoldrick and Dezi Donnelly and they too released an album especially for that tour. This November she’s going back into studio with Mike and Dezi to record another album together in advance of their next foray to Australia in spring 2007.

In January there’s another exciting challenge for Sharon and her band when they perform with Willie Nelson at the Point and in Belfast. Dessie O’Halloran and Damien Dempsey will join the big band for those concerts. It’s a busy but a very enjoyable time in Sharon’s career. There’s a lot happening and with the release of this DVD and CD, Sharon hopes to do a lot more gigs with the big band.

The CD and DVD contain the same music tracks but the DVD has some extra features including an interview with Sharon herself, interviews with the guest artists, with fans and with the audience. The concert finale includes a rousing version of ‘Galway Girl’ sung by Mundy and the well known Johnny Cash song ‘Ring of Fire.’ Dubbed ‘the ultimate session’, Live at Dolan’s is certainly an amazing recording, a magical event pulling together the best of Irish talent incorporating their diverse styles and musical genres and all anchored by traditional artists, Sharon and her band. It’s quite a unique achievement and one only possible because of Sharon’s ability to appreciate and combine with these young talents.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Brock and Scahill and their Humdinger…

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2006

Humdinger! Now there’s an unusual word. A word used to describe something amazing, somebody or something exceptional or outstanding. That’s what we have in the new album from Paul Brock and Enda Scahill. Oh, it’s a humdinger all right. Could it really be the first full album of traditional music on melodeon and banjo? Isn’t it amazing that until now nobody else thought of recording at length this combination of instruments with the short, clipped, jolly sound that together recreate, in this instance anyway, the sound of a golden era some eighty to one hundred years ago? ‘Humdinger’ exudes that early happy go lucky sound of twenties and thirties America when traditional music merged with music hall and Irish emigrants brought a colour to Vaudeville that will never be forgotten. It was the first time Irish traditional music was recorded extensively and Irish musicians became ‘stars’. Little did they know the long lasting effect they would have shaping the sound of traditional music ever since. Musicians tend to return to this era at some stage in their musical careers. There will always be a fascination with this time because it was the time of the earliest recordings and the first benchmark for the hundreds of years that preceded it. It was the first point of preservation, the first snapshot and so has become the reference point for all the music that has come since then. Radio, a new medium to appear at that same time further allowed a communication of this music to a wide audience. Growing up in the fifties, Paul Brock remembers the excitement of new recordings and the weekly traditional music shows on the radio. For Enda Scahill ‘Humdinger’ has been his avenue into the past guided knowledgeably by Paul.

The pair first met and performed together about seven years ago when Enda was invited to join Moving Cloud, who at the time were in the final throes of their existence. Kevin Crawford had moved on to Lúnasa and Enda filled the gap created. Following the demise of Moving Cloud, Paul, with fellow founding member Manus McGuire, formed a new group, The Brock McGuire Band. Enda continued with them and every year they undertake several tours mostly to America.

Paul, an accomplished musician with several All Ireland titles to his credit, recently completed his Masters degree in Music Performance at University of Limerick and as part of that course had to do a field study on a musician. “He rang me up” says Enda, “and asked me would I be interested. It was good for me in the sense that he asked me a lot of questions on style, technique and repertoire. Because I teach banjo myself, I always try to improve the way that I teach. The best way to do that is to learn what you do yourself, try and figure it out. It really helped me to have a right good look and technically assess the way that I play the banjo and put words on that.”

“I picked the banjo and Enda” Paul explains, “because it was an instrument that up to that point didn’t seem to be studied in any great depth. As well as that, I had been working musically with Enda.”

“That took me down the road of having an in-depth look at Enda’s playing and out of that, I started to look at the banjo itself, to put it in some kind of context and see where it came from. Side by side, I was also revisiting as part of the research, the melodeon and in particular the work of John Kimmel who was the very first melodeon player to be recorded.”

Its not surprising then that Kimmel is cited several times throughout the sleeve notes on ‘Humdinger’ along with The Flanagan Brothers, Dan Sullivan’s Shamrock band and many other early recording artists.

Another part of Paul’s course involved recording a number of pieces of music and again he spoke to Enda about that. “It would be an opportunity” says Enda, “to put material together with a view to going on and doing an album.” Paul smiles when I ask him about the music and suggest that on this project at least he is deeply influenced by that early golden era of the last century. “If you ask me how I have that interest” he says, “from the very time I started playing Irish music, when I was growing up in Athlone as a young boy, I was very lucky. A friend of my father’s was a Sligo fiddle and box player and he used to come to our house, a man called Frank Dolphin. He took me under his wing at a very early age and he gave me my early repertoire. He used to bring 78s to our home and we had a wind up gramophone and I still have part of that collection from way back. As the years progressed, you’re constantly looking for inspiration, for repertoire, for players of different styles and so on. Apart from looking at people around you, it is inevitable to look back and I’ve looked back over the years and I continue to look back to what I describe as that golden era in America in the early 1900s, because so many musicians set the standards at the time. They set the bar, so to speak, to this day.”

Enda Scahill in contrast grew up in the 1970s, starting on the tin whistle in school and progressing to the banjo when only eight years old. He studied classical music and attended St. Finian’s College in Mullingar. He accumulated no less than five all-Ireland titles on banjo and released a solo album ‘Pick it up’ in 2000. All his siblings play music and for nineteen years Enda performed with the Galway folk theatre group Siamsa. “When I was growing up, the music I heard was DeDanann, that was my touchstone, never knowing where they were taking their inspiration from. Since I started playing with Paul and doing this recording, it has given me more of an appreciation of where the music comes from.”

Both Paul and Enda recognise the compatibility of their music and their instruments together. “Paul’s style of accordion playing really appealed to me” says Enda, “the rhythm of it and it sits very well with the banjo. He has a bouncy style with kind of sharp rhythmical triplets which really matches what I do on the banjo. It just sits together very well”

“Enda is an extraordinary musician” says Paul, “I’ve seen his interest in the instrument and how he wants to raise the level of appreciation of it. I think he’s doing amazing things on the banjo. I’m very happy with the level of affinity that there is in relation to what we’ve tried to do with this look back at that golden era and not to slavishly imitate, because we’ve tried to do it freshly and a bit differently.”

The tunes on ‘Humdinger’ can only be described as classic – many will be very familiar to the listener, several will bring a smile to your face as a well known melody finds its way between the jigs and reels. There’s lots of energy in the music and a good element of fun thrown in as well. Accompanying the banjo-melodeon duo is the veteran percussionist Tommy Hayes and on piano, Ryan Molloy, a young and gifted musician from Pomeroy in Co. Tyrone. “The way Ryan plays, the piano is very much a third instrument rather than a backing instrument” says Enda. “It’s in the front line of the tunes.”

Following their launch in Galway’s Róisín Dubh in September, Paul and Enda have some Irish performances lined up and the wheels in motion for some serious touring next year.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Manus McGuire - Fiddlewings

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2006

One of the highlights of this years Fleadh na gCuach in Kinvara was the launch of fiddler Manus McGuire’s second solo album ‘Fiddlewings’. A beautiful play on the notion of musical flight, ‘Fiddlewings’ takes the listener on a journey to the hallowed musical grounds that are dear to Manus McGuire’s’ heart; from Ireland to Shetland to Cape Breton. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon and the Merriman Hotel was thronged by friends and well-wishers for the occasion.

Manus’ associations with the musical town that is Kinvara go back to the early 1980s when the group Buttons and Bows was formed. Jackie Daly was in residence at the time, Garry O’ Briain lived close by and Manus and his brother Séamus spent many’s a long day and night playing music in their company in the various musical haunts of the town. Buttons and Bows were reunited during the recording of ‘Fiddlewings’ last February when Manus came to Kinvara to record the last two album tracks with his brother Séamus and Garry O’ Briain. When Jackie joined them it naturally led to a terrific session at which they decided to do some concerts together again.

It’s been five years since they performed together and their concert later that evening in the sacred candlelit surrounds of St. Colman’s church – a rare occasion, was justly well attended.

Broadcaster and music journalist Ita Kelly, who officially launched ‘Fiddlewings’ spoke of her own personal admiration for Manus’ music having first encountered the fiddler and his music in the late 1970s in University College Galway. There they afforded Manus his first public performance in support to Paul Brady in 1974 – Manus quipped ‘didn’t Paul Brady do well for himself since then!” Manus’ own distinguished career has seen him perform all over the world with Buttons and Bows and later with Moving Cloud. Now he travels with the Brock McGuire band, an ensemble formed with his long time friend Paul Brock.

In the early days it was with his older brother Séamus that Manus first recorded and performed. Growing up in Sligo, most of the family played. Their parents Paddy and Jo were musicians and enthusiasts. ‘The Shelly River Waltz’, the opening track on ‘Fiddlewings’ refers to Sligo and the river that flows through the town. Waltzes always feature strongly in Manus’ music. In fact there was a time when Buttons and Bows were ‘blamed’ for bringing the waltz back into Irish traditional music. In doing so they returned one of the most beautiful musical forms and popular dances to the tradition. The new album opens with a waltz and ends with a waltz while featuring five new compositions from Manus. ‘Bodyke to Baddeck’ makes the link between his home in Co. Clare and Cape Breton where he wrote the tune. ‘Fort Dunree’ is a beautiful air dedicated to his brother Séamus, and ‘Marie Fielding's welcome to Co. Clare’ is dedicated to the eponymous Shetland fiddler who plays with Manus on the track along with her brother Owen on piano.

Piano accompaniment features strongly on this recording and the contributions of Denis Morrison and Denis Carey are exquisite, as is the guitar accompaniment from Garry O’Briain.

While Manus spends his daytimes healing the sick as a medical practitioner, his music provides another kind of healing, healing that nurtures the soul and the spirit, very powerful too in its own way. ‘Fiddlewings’ combines the spirit of the dance with the grace and elegance of airs and waltzes. The mood changes elegantly and seamlessly under Manus command. ‘A masterpiece’ says Séamus Connolly in the liner notes, ‘Listen to the wild beauty in his performance’. Wild and beautiful indeed.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Down From Bell Harbour with Chris Droney

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2006

It’s hard to believe that Chris Droney is 81 years old when you hear the energetic and youthful music on his latest recording ‘Down from Bell Harbour’. You do the sums again just to be sure looking at the sleeve notes where we are told he’s been playing for 73 years and started when he was eight years old. But then Chris is one of those true greats of traditional Irish music and passes it off as if it were nothing. “I suppose it’s the practice or whatever” he says. “It keeps me going anyway.”

Chris’ personality is just like his music- buoyant, jolly, matter of fact. Everything about him is plain as day for all to see, nothing hidden, nothing secret. Whatever Chris has he lets it out for all the world to share. As a result his home has been an open house all his life to visitors of all sorts.

Ciarán MacMathúna recorded in Droney’s Bell Harbour House in the 1950s and returned on several occasions for recordings and to make the television programme ‘My Own Place.” Television crews from Sweden, Germany and Japan have also made programmes in Chris’s home. He and his wife Margaret have entertained groups of visitors from all over the world with a unique modesty and unstinting generously that is at the heart of their very nature.

Chris was one in a family of five boys and while two of his brothers took their concertinas to America when they emigrated years ago, none of them continued in the same earnest way that Chris did. His father Jim, a fluent Irish speaker, played concertina as did his grandfather Michael too. The instrument passed down through several generations to Chris. “I remember when we were small” he recalls, “this is going back to when there was no electricity, no nothing but an ordinary paraffin oil lamp, my father would sit down here and start playing in the night time. He’d sit playing, there was no TV, no radio, I remember he used to close his eyes and be playing away. When he’d be finished I used to pick it up and try to play, sure I hadn’t a note.”

“You’ll probably laugh at this” he continues, “but when I was seven or eight, we had this wardrobe upstairs and there was a mirror the full height of it and I used to go up and put a chair in front of the mirror and sit down. I’d have the concertina on my knee and I hadn’t a note in my head. I used to sit in front of it dragging it in and out and I used to say to myself ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to play a few tunes?’”

Chris indeed learnt his few tunes, his father would show him a few notes at night when he had finished playing and after that he only intervened to correct him when he would play easier notes than those in the tune. ‘Whatever length it will take you to do it right’ he used to tell him; ‘you’ll have to do it.’

His first public performance came around the age of fourteen. “There was a dancehall in Kinvara, Johnson’s Hall and three or four local lads used to play in it for a half a crown a night. John Linnane was one of these and he said to me, ‘If you ever had nine or ten tunes we’d bring you with us and you’d get a half a crown same as us. I remember I was there every night trying to learn tunes, John had me wound up. As soon as I had the ten or twelve tunes I was off and I never looked back after that.”

Much of Chris’s music career has been with céilí bands although he has won nine solo All Ireland titles. “We started a little band here one time. We called it the Bell Harbour Céilí Band. There were six of us and we went everywhere. We had a minibus bringing us and talk about fun and craic in places. It was great,” he says. That band broke up when some of them emigrated to England and then Chris went to play with the Kilfenora Céilí Band. “I played with the old Aughrim Slopes a few times too” he continues, “and I played with the Ballinakill, Aggie Whyte, Eddie Maloney and all that crowd. And then I was in Dublin a few times and I went with the Kincora Céilí Band. Then the Kilfenora broke up and Kitty Linnane, she was the one that organised the Kilfenora, she started up a group and I was twelve years with her. Tommy Peoples, Paddy Mullins, different players played with us. Then I went with the Four Courts, that started about eighteen years ago.” With The Four Courts, Chris has travelled all over and the morning I spoke with him he had played a marathon three and a half hours with them the night before at a céilí, getting home after three in the morning. It didn’t stop him from rising early to tend to the cows and lambs before sitting down to talk to me for a good hour.

Chris’s music is the music of the dance and he loves to dance himself. On nights that he is playing with the band, he leaves the stage for at least one set and maybe to do a bit of sean nós dancing as well.

Chris has made a number of recordings starting with ‘The Flowing Tide’ recorded in New York in 1962. His last recording ‘The Fertile Rock’ was released in 1995 and now his latest and undoubtedly his finest recording ‘Down from Bell Harbour’. Produced with great care by Nóirín Ní Ghrádaigh, the album exudes a joy and energy that captures the essence of Chris’s music to perfection. Jacinta McEvoy on piano and guitar compliments Chris’s playing with an empathy that belies their short experience playing together. “We had no bother doing it” says Chris. “It was awfully easy play with Jacinta. There’s no doubt about it she’s brilliant and she was the loveliest person to have making that CD because there was no such thing as fuss or going back criticising. I was delighted when the CD was made and I heard it played.” Cló Iar Chonnachta put the project together and took a lot of care in preparation and production.

Many of the tunes on the album hadn’t been recorded before. “Some of the reels might have been recorded” says Chris, “but they were with different selections. The waltz ‘Bell Harbour Hills’ was a tune of Chris’ father Jim’s and Chris had totally forgotten it until one night playing at an eightieth birthday party locally it came back to him. “I’d safely say I hadn’t played it in fifty years” says Chris. “I have played it in several places since and I have asked fifty people or more – nobody ever heard it. Strange thing about it, my father had words to it. When he passed away the words passed away as well.”

No stranger to composition, ‘Peaceful Corcomroe’ is a slow air Chris composed himself just a few years ago. He has played it many times particularly in churches at funeral masses since then. The ruin of Corcomroe Abbey is only a short mile and a half from Chris’s house and was the inspiration for the title. Chris played at Corcomroe for the Easter Dawn masses for ten years when they were held there and his last album took its title from the abbey. “Where Corcomroe Abbey is built is called the Valley of the Fertile Rock” says Chris, “and the reason its called that is that the abbey was built in 1197 and the stones that built the abbey were all collected locally. They made fields where they collected the stones and so it’s called the valley of the fertile rock.”

Chris’s life has been one of hard work. “I used to be out threshing corn from eight o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock at night. I often came back at nine o’clock, cleaned myself up, shaved and headed off to play music for a couple of hours” he says. “I never drank, I smoked in the early stages but I quit them too. I keep myself. If you’re healthy, you don’t mind.

Chris has seven children and both Ann and Francis are All Ireland concertina champions too. In turn, Chris’s grandchildren are continuing the tradition playing traditional music as well with some of them diversifying from the concertina to other instruments. Pride of place in Chris’s home is the display case housing his All Ireland medals and next to them the silver spoon bearing the palace emblem, a chrysanthemum sent by the Emperor of Japan following his visit to Ireland as Crown Prince in the 1980s when Chris performed for him. “The Japanese people, when they come here, no way will they touch the spoon because the palace emblem is sacred in Japan” says Chris.

We finish talking with many invitations to visit anytime I’m passing. You could talk forever with Chris Droney and you could listen to his music just as long. We have a lot to learn from musicians like Chris, humility, modesty, the accuracy of his interpretation and his unparalleled dedication to the dance music of Ireland. “I could listen to it forever if I was never playing” he says summing up his love for the music and summing up the joy it creates in his own life as well as for those of us lucky enough to hear him play.

Click here to buy Chris Droney's album 'Down From Bell Harbour' from the .tradnet store on Amazon.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Seán Keane - Gold

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2006

‘And I got some gold inside me too’ sings Seán Keane truthfully and appropriately on the single and title track of his new album. It’s a line from ‘You Got Gold’, a song penned by John Prine, a regular visitor and part time inhabitant of Co. Galway and one of those great artists we have the privilege of being exposed to in a relaxed way here in the west of Ireland. Another is the fine producer and musician Jim Rooney whose status no more than John’s is incomparable. Both men are good friends of Seán Keane's and have significant input on his new album ‘You Got Gold’. John Prine has two compositions on the album and Jim Rooney co produced and plays some guitar on it. As a result the album has a lovely gentle country swing and as you peruse the album notes you see several other American writers’ names too.

Dubbed ‘the voice of Ireland’ some years ago, Seán Keane’s reputation has continued to grow and his voice manages to tame difficult and sometimes unwieldy songs to which he brings his own style and sensitivity. He has never imitated and he has never copied, he does it his own way and that is perhaps the secret of his success. His liking for songs and music from all kinds of sources often means it is hard for him to select the right material for an album. He often finds himself faced with a dilemma between something old and traditional or a new contemporary and sometimes country style song – because he performs both with equal ease and finesse. With his seventh solo album about to be released, Seán is already thinking about the next one and his thoughts are on all the Irish and traditional material he couldn’t include on this one. This title ‘You Got Gold’ is also apt because every one of the eleven songs here are like nuggets and many of these songs come from the American goldmines of song. Some would say that the country feel of this album is Seán’s true calling in terms of material, but he also touches gospel, blues and bluegrass, strong story songs and emotional ballads. “They’re a bunch of songs I’ve been collecting since the last album (Valley of the Heart)” says Seán. “It’s a more contemporary, more country album, there’s not a lot of Irish stuff on it. When this album was coming together there were a few Irish songs I had wanted to record, to get them down; but they just didn’t fit, it’s a different album. So that’s my next project now, to do some traditional and Irish stuff as well, because I have a bunch of material now that I want to do.”

The album cover features a portrait painted by the artist Vincent Crotty who originally comes from Kanturk in Co. Cork and who now lives in Boston. During a run of Christmas shows Seán did in Boston last year, Vincent approached him and asked him to sit for a portrait, which he did – and this is the result. It’s not the first time Seán has been painted but it’s the first to make an album cover.

Seán started his solo career in 1994 – a short eleven years ago, and in that time he has produced seven solo albums and a ‘best of’ collection, ‘Portrait’. His album before last, ‘Seánsongs’, was a double album which served his two main spheres of musical interest – one CD featured traditional songs and tunes (a real treat since we hadn’t any recorded tunes from Seán since his Shaskeen days), and the other was of the more contemporary and experimental Seán-style songs. “I packed in a lot into that album” Seán comments. Talking to him now at the turn of the New Year, you get the feeling that every album should be a Seánsongs and I ask him does he have loads of material? “Oh God no!” he says, “It is constantly a problem.” Like most singers, Seán receives tapes from writers who hope he will cover their songs. “It doesn’t come that easy” he says. “You have material so that’s great, but you still have to go back searching. Sometimes there can be a bit of a stand off between myself and the song. an ‘Am I going to go to you or are you going to come to me?’ type of thing. You might have to drop a song for a while, and the next time you start to sing it, you think ‘Why didn’t I do it before now?’ It goes into the melting pot in the head and then it comes out later. I often start to think of songs and music when I’m doing something else.”

One of the most powerful songs on the album came back to Seán when the controversy arose recently about the Rosport Five – the men from the small village in the north west corner of Mayo who went to jail because of their objection to a high pressure gas pipeline being put through their land. ‘The Winning Side’ is a Robbie O’Connell song written about a completely different incident but very appropriate to this situation. The chorus goes

‘Ah! but justice is a fickle thing,

One law for the common man another for the king….

…it’s all justified when you’re on the winning side’

“I have that song for about eight years” says Seán. “One of the reasons I recorded it was the Mayo lads who went to jail. It reminded me of the song again. It’s that kind of song about struggle, so I thought it would be one to do. It’s very relevant in regards to those lads.

Like many artists, Seán feels the emotion of a song and it’s very important that it be just right in every way. “I’d drop a song for one word” he says, “or an ugly line, unless I could change it. I find it hard to explain, but when you get the words of a song written down, it has a different perspective entirely.” Is interpreting a song a craft in itself? “It is” he agrees, “but if the song is saying the way you feel or you’re thinking then it’s not so difficult. Then you have the melody and everything else to contend with after that.”

Of the songs, Mary Greene’s ‘Even Heaven has to Cry’ stands out on the album. It is a powerfully slow and emotional song, beautifully balanced. “Mary and Noel (Shine) sent me a cassette full of songs” says Seán, “and they’re all great songs, they are both writing really well”

‘My Darling Home Town’ is another John Prine song co-written with Roger Cook. A dreamier song than the title track, you find yourself swaying and singing along to it. ‘The sweeter the Kiss’ is a lively lilting Roger Cook-Pat McLaughlin song. Blues singer Eric Bibb’s composition ‘Shingle by Shingle’ is an interesting choice for Seán, the song has a bluesy bluegrass-y feel to it. “I came across Eric in Australia” says Seán. “I played with him during the Blue Mountains Festival on the East Coast and then I went to see him in Perth and he was just excellent, stunning. I picked up his CDs and heard this song.”

Of the song ‘Troublesome Waters’ Seán says, “It’s a kind of gospel song, it’s written in that kind of vein, but I’ve just given it my own treatment as opposed to going head to head on gospel with it.”

Several friends join in the music and accompaniment on ‘You Got Gold’ and some of these are people who join the band during Seán’s tours depending on the needs of the venue or the particular performance. Drummer Liam Bradley and bass player Damien Evans are regular guests; Rod McVey has added keyboards and Paul Moore, bass. Guitarist Arty McGlynn, another regular is also here. Arty produced Seán's early albums and has played on all of them. Rick Epping’s harmonica beautifully colours several of the tracks and Máirtín O'Connor's accordion flitters and arpeggios through another few. Taking centre stage on ‘You Got Gold’ and adding glorious gentle harmonies are Seán’s regular band John McLoughlin who plays guitar and Seán Regan who plays fiddle and mandola. “They have been with me for over two years now” says Seán, “we have a nice sound going together.”

From a performance point of view, Seán has focussed on Europe in the last few years and he intends making bigger inroads in America this coming year. He had a lovely sojourn in Austria before Christmas and is looking forward to performing at the North American Folk Alliance in Texas in February. March and April are set up with some 23 or so dates in Ireland (details available on his website mentioned below).

“I love going to Austria” says Seán when I ask him about favourite places to play. “That is apart from the home gigs. I still enjoy going around Ireland. It’s a bit of craic when you go up on stage, especially after a tour in Europe where you’re having one type of craic and then you come home and it’s lovely.”

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