Monday, April 20, 2009

Kevin Crawford and Cillian Vallely's Extraordinary Sound - Common Ground

All text (c) Ita Kelly 2009

It is inevitable that when two fine musicians tour and play together, they would happen on a common musical ground that would be worthwhile to commit to tape, or file or whatever it is called these digital days. ‘On Common Ground’ is a new release from the instrumentalists Kevin Crawford and Cillian Vallely both members of the highly successful band Lúnasa. It’s not just a coming together to play tunes they like on pipes, flute and low whistles, a lot of forethought, research and arrangement has gone into producing ‘On Common Ground’. Its unique selling point is the sonic and tonal difference due to the fact that most of the album is recorded using flat pitched pipes and flute tuned to the key of C.
“We both wanted to record in a lower pitch” explains Kevin, “just to give a slightly different flavour and we were very lucky that we both got really good instruments in and around the same time pitched in C.”
Cillian adds, “I was keen to do the album in flat pitch to make it different to everything we had done or anything we had done with the band. Also, there are not too many recordings of flat pitched flute and pipes; it’s not even a combination that’s played a lot anyway.”
Obviously the instrumentation on this album has a big effect on the sound, coupled with sourcing tunes that have a slightly different feel means it doesn’t sound like every other album. As a result it has a sweet mellow sound that suits a less frenetic style of playing. It is relaxed and comfortably natural and the tunes are selected to suit. “There are certain tunes suited to a particular key or pitch, and then when you play in a lower register it opens up this whole other sound, a whole world sonically,” Kevin explains.

As lead instrumentalists with Lúnasa, Kevin and Cillian research tunes for the band but not every tune is suited to the group’s style, instrumentation and arrangement.
“Myself and Kevin would be big into new tunes, looking for tunes, not just tunes people don’t know for the sake of it, different types of tunes,” says Cillian. “We probably wouldn’t be happy churning out an album of the old favourites, not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s good when you are putting an album together to learn new stuff; it pushes you forward a bit”

Kevin could be described as a serial music collector. “I’m very excited when I hear a lovely tune. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, or who it’s played by. I think I must get that and learn it.” From a young age he was armed with a tape recorder and as he says himself “was able to snare bits and pieces here and there”. He still returns to those recordings of sessions in Birmingham and London.
“I didn’t know how valuable they were. I just wanted to capture them so that I could learn the odd little tune. Going back to them now, a lot of the people have passed on since.” His enormous appetite for tunes made him one of the earliest adapters to minidisc and now iPod onto which he tells me he still uploads truckloads of music “a great source of staying real while you are on the road”.
The many facets of music to which the professional musician aspires are really at the core of this album. While both Kevin and Cillian are completely dedicated to Lúnasa and it is the very centre of their lives, they also have a need to explore other musical outlets.
Cillian’s background is firmly in the tradition. He learnt his trade at the knee of his parents Brian and Eithne Vallely, who founded the thriving Pipers Club in Armagh and all the greatness it has spawned in turn. He also learnt classically and played flute and saxophone for a while. The pipes however took over and as an instrument they are a full time job. Growing up, Cillian was exposed to a wide range of music and musical activity. “My mother was always putting little Irish groups together making arrangements. She was always doing things with orchestras and bands and choirs, always trying to find new different things to teach to children.”
Lúnasa tour for at least six or seven months of the year, so while it is a heavy schedule, there is time to pursue other projects.

Cillian has recorded on more than forty albums to date and has toured worldwide with Riverdance, Tim O’Brien and others. In 2002 he recorded a landmark album ‘Callan Bridge’ with his brother Niall named after their home in Armagh. They too have toured together. Other projects included performing with his brothers Niall and Caoimhín, Mícheál O Súilleabháin and a small orchestra, more of which is planned for this year.

Kevin’s name is linked with many great musicians and bands, Moving Cloud, Raise the Rafters, Grianán. His ‘d’ flute album showcased his own personal style at a relatively early stage; ‘In Good Company’ (2001) placed him in combination with an array of musical greats. They were mostly fiddle players interestingly enough and several of these continue to be his sparring partners when not on tour, James Cullinane and Tony Linnane being top of the list at present. “I’m always looking for tunes that might suit different combinations” he explains. “It’s a labour of love.”

The tunes ‘On Common Ground’ come from many sources, some well known some not quite so. Some have a very personal connection like the melancholy set dedicated to the memory of PJ Crotty, with whom Kevin became firm friends in the years preceding his untimely death in 2005. PJ represented what traditional music is all about and Kevin captures this essence well in the slow reels ‘Days around Lahinch & The Man from Moyasta’. “I always had this real fondness for his music, and for PJ himself, he was so funny, such great company. He believed in the nights of music, it was about fun and stories and the whole thing - you got the full package with PJ.”
Cillian returns to his own roots with one of the first slow airs he learnt ‘Úirchill an Chreagáin’, air to Art Mac Cumaigh’s poem and popular amongst singers but not so much with instrumentalists. The ‘Hidden Fermanagh’ collection features amongst the musical sources alongside references to music and musicians from Sligo, Galway, Roscommon and Clare.

As always it’s hard to detail all the tunes on this album and that’s why the excellent sleeve notes do such a good job. Photography on the album by Con Kelleher features shots taken under the natural red blush of Glasgow’s fruit market in the bitter cold during the Celtic Connections festival this year. They belie the warm glow of this fine musical treasury.

Accompaniment on guitar alternates between the capable hands of Paul Meehan and Donal Clancy, both of whom have accompanied Kevin and Cillian in live concerts. Paul is also a member of Lúnasa and managed to achieve a completely different sound in his backing of the duo’s playing. “Paul is musical enough to be able to take each tune as it comes and give it the treatment it requires” says Kevin. “He is so creative in what he does.”
They have already performed a number of small venues in the States, mostly folk club or house concerts where the performance is acoustic. “It’s a lovely scene" says Kevin “I love then because you get to play acoustically to just forty fifty or sixty people perhaps in someone’s living room. Cillian has all the contacts and set up a number of these dates for us.” They have also performed in Ireland and have a series of nationwide launch dates for ‘On Common Ground’ set for June.

Neither Cillian nor Kevin look too far into the future. This project is a chance to explore new territory, enjoy a different facet to their musical abilities and bring something new to audiences. Their motivation is a constant proactive search for innovation and freshness in their music and with their instruments, and ‘On Common Ground’ achieves that in spades. “It’s never a chore, I never tire of it” says Kevin summing up their enthusiasm.

Check out more music from Kevin Crawford and Cillian Vallely at the .tradnet music store on Amazon.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Crossroads – Máirtín O’Connor, Cathal Hayden and Seamie O’Dowd

All text (c) Ita Kelly 2009

Although they have been performing together since 2001, Máirtín O’Connor, Cathal Hayden and Seamie O’Dowd are coming together at a CROSSROADS to release their first recording. Individually, they are recognised masters and virtuoso performers, as a trio they make powerful music together. Their new album ‘Crossroads’ is a fine showcase of their various tastes and styles which go from the pure traditional to jazz, and on to swing, rock and blues. It’s all executed with a touch of class and a healthy measure of enjoyment.

The trio’s musical relationship started with Máirtín’s recording ‘The Road West’ and continued through his album ‘Rain of Light’. They played together in various ensembles including the Máirtín O’Connor Band and now tour as a trio extensively.

At the end of last year they toured Europe with fellow traditional masters, Lúnasa, Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill and Iarla Ó Lionáird. Concerts in London and at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections in January were followed by a trip to Australia where they performed in the Sydney Opera House. Surprisingly it was Máirtín’s first time there. “I was supposed to go there in the 80s and I never had the desire since, but having been there, I found it completely charming as a country. Sydney is a bit like New York on valium. I got this sense that I was in New York but it was so laid back, it was amazing.”

To the fore on ‘Crossroads’ are Máirtín’s compositions. Six of them dominate the track list and one in particular is very special for him. “It’s a waltz called ‘The Road Together’ for my parents-in- law” he tells me. “They live in Friesland in the north of Holland and they have been together seventy years. The kids play on that track as well so it’s a nice dedication.” Máirtín has four children and three of them Tom, Sinéad and Ciara feature on the track playing guitar, fiddle and cello.
There’s a list of nine friends of the trio mentioned to whom the album is dedicated, amongst them Seamie’s Dad Joe O’Dowd, Máirtín’s Uncle Pat O’Connor who played harmonica and the incomparable Ronnie Drew. Máirtín also composed a tune ‘Flowers in the Wind’ for two special musical friends, Mícheál O Domhnaill and Jimmy Faulkner, who have sadly passed on recently.
“When you work musically with someone” he says “there is a great bond. They were both big losses and at such a young age.” Máirtín first played with Jimmy Faulkner in the 1990s and in more recent years with Mícheál.
Fin Corrigan who was soundman for the band Dervish, is also remembered. It was at a gig organised in his memory in Sligo that the trio first performed live together.

Handel’s joyful ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ is a tune resurrected from Máirtín’s past and his days with DeDanann. “There are a lot of those archival programmes on the television at the moment,” he says. “They’re fantastic until you see yourself and then you realise the passage of time.”
“On one of those programmes it showed DeDanann playing ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’. It must have been 1986 or 87 or even before that and it just re-whetted my enthusiasm for playing it.”
“It’s a very uplifting tune and that’s what I remember from playing it in the old days. It’s like a good tonic. Hopefully it will lift people’s spirits.”
The music on ‘Crossroads’ is certainly uplifting with great verve and swing. There are plenty of tunes, slip jigs, polkas, reels and ‘The Cooley Set’ a great favourite of the trio’s.

Cathal, whose solo recordings and work with Four Men and a Dog place him in the highest echelons of Irish music plays mostly fiddle on this recording but also gives one delightful set of tunes on the banjo including the great ‘Liverpool Hornpipe’.

Seamie O’Dowd played with the group Dervish for years before embarking on a solo career as a musician, producer and arranger. His interest in the music of Rory Gallagher comes through in ‘The Barley and Grape Rag’ and his traditional roots in the closing track ‘As I Roved Out’. ‘The Cedars of Lebanon’ is a Thom Moore song written while part of the Sligo based band Pumpkinhead. Rick Epping who was also a member of Pumpkinhead and Cathy Jordan from Dervish join Seamie for this rendition of the song. Other guests on the album include Jimmy Higgins on percussion, Brian McGrath on piano and Cathal Sinnott on keyboards.

Energy, enthusiasm and downright good fun are at the heart of this masterful trio’s music. Watch out for the official launch of ‘Crossroads’ in May and their series of concerts around Ireland.

Check out more Mairtin O'Connor, Cathal Hayden and Shamie O'Dowd music at the .tradnet music store on Amazon.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Shaskeen – Walking Up Town

All text (c) Ita Kelly 2009

It’s not easy to sum up the thirty nine years of music making and entertainment that Shaskeen have been at the forefront of Irish Traditional Music. Listening to their new CD ‘Walking Up Town’ it is clear they are going to be leading the way for quite a while yet.
Having been caught up like many musical groups in the whirlwind of the set-dancing era, Shaskeen’s last four albums were of music for the sets. Now they are making a change to concert style performances.
Album number fifteen got its first showcase at the launch in Ennis on January 17th and it marks a return to their original musical formula. It’s an album ‘for listening to’ and features a generous collection of jigs, reels, waltzes, polkas, barndances, and songs. The title tune ‘Walking up Town’ is an American ‘breakdown’, a fun rag-style tune. It’s probably the best summing up the band could ask for.

It is hard to beat well-seasoned musicians and the members of Shaskeen are as experienced as they are skilful. Another winning thing about Shaskeen is that they have maintained the same ethos over the many years and the many variations in line-up. Although quick to tell you how much work everyone else does in the band, the continuity may be because of founding member Tom Cussen who has steered the course of the band and managed its affairs.

There is a great honesty to Shaskeen, in every way, their music, the way they perform and in the way they get along together. The current line-up boasts eight musicians, all well known in their own right, and on ‘Walking Up Town’ they also have a number of invited guests.

Formed in London in 1970, at a time when Irish Traditional Music was at its peak, Tom Cussen responded to a request from the owner of the Oxford Tavern (now changed) in Kentish Town to put a band together to play on Friday nights. Tom had been in London since late ‘67 having moved there from Galway and was playing in sessions in some of the music pubs. The first line up included husband and wife team, Johnny and Maureen Minogue (on accordion and fiddle), Sean McDonagh on flute and Benny O’Connor on drums. Tom and Benny had met through the Fleadh Ceoil Competition in London and a ceili band they competed with called The Old House Ceili Band.
“I think the name came about” remembers Tom, “because I was probably after learning The Shaskeen reel, and I said we’ll call it The Shaskeen Band and it stuck. We played every Friday night for 12 months in the Oxford Tavern, and we had no singer at the time. We sat up there belting out jigs, reels, a few hornpipes and waltzes, and the place used to be heaving.”

Tom returned to Galway in 1971 when he was offered a job there and became immersed in the music scene, playing in pubs and attending the Comhaltas sessions which were held in O’Reilly’s in Forster Street. As it happened, Benny had also returned to Galway and they met one day in Eyre Square. Tom had also met up with P.J. Hernon in O’ Reilly’s and said to him he was thinking of re-starting the band. P.J. was interested and so they started with P.J. on accordion, Benny on drums, Johnny Dooley on guitar and vocals and Tom on banjo. They rehearsed and found they played together well, and began playing in O’Reilly’s on Wednesday nights. Brian Mooney, another legendary character in Galway musical history joined the band when Johnny was unavailable. “It went from zero to log jammed as well” recalls Tom about that early success in O’ Reilly’s. They began playing in other venues around the county and one notable residency they had was in The Shamrock Bar in Tuam where they played every Monday night for two years. “People went out that time four or five nights a week” says Tom, “There was a huge amount of live music.”
P.J. stayed with the band for two years. Connie Murphy joined after that for about six months to be followed by Johnny Walsh from Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo who stayed with the band for some seven or eight years.
They recorded their first album in 1974 with Release Cabaret, and quickly followed it with albums in 1975, 1976 and 1978. The years from the mid-70s to the mid-80s were the band’s busiest time. “We were really up there with the best of them” says Tom. And they were, their records were in every household in the country. Certainly in Co. Galway, Shaskeen were top of the hill, synonymous with dancing and fun. They could be heard on Radio Éireann every week; their records were played regularly, increasing their popularity and fame.
They continued to record, issuing singles, EPs and four more albums during the 1980s. The band line up changed from time to time, with Sean Conway, Mike Fahy and Sean Keane coming in as singers. Charlie Harris was with the band for some 14 years on accordion. Kevin Rohan stepped in and out as he was available and featured on several recordings.
They didn’t confine themselves to Ireland but spread the good music to England going there up to three times a year. “In latter years we’ve travelled to Spain and Germany and Norway to festivals. One memorable trip was when we played in Moscow in 1990.” says Tom. “We did America a good few times but getting into America is hard work – it’s difficult to cover and you need a lot of people doing the groundwork. Now we’d like to go back and do some of the festivals and hopefully with this line up we’ll get invitations to do so.”

The set dancing era descended on Ireland in the early 1990s and dances and the cabaret pub music scene changed utterly. Shaskeen adapted and took to the longer more arduous gigs that set dancing demanded with the same vigour they approached the cabaret and dance performances.
“Dances at the time would be ceili and old time and there would be sets as well.” says Tom. “But there was a great mixture; you’d be doing a quickstep in the middle of it as well. When the set dancing came in, at the beginning you had ceili and set dancing, then the set dancing took over and the waltzes disappeared almost out of it, but they’re beginning to come back again a bit now because people want a bit of enjoyment.”

“Walking Up Town” represents a return to that former style where interaction with the audience and variety in the performance is to the fore. It is augmented by some modern influences introduced by the new members in the band. Tom explains Shaskeen’s early musical formula,
“We were doing the cabaret thing, the folk thing, the jigs and reels, and I think the combination that we had at the time was relatively new, in the sense that we had box, banjo, drums and guitar. There was a right ould kick out of it, even if I say so myself. I think people enjoyed that aspect of it. Maybe it was a bit raw but it was good and lively and the whole emphasis really was on entertainment and talking to people. The idea of talking to people and having the craic and just bouncing off people and they off you, and that’s still happening today and that’s why we want to go back.”

In the current line-up on ‘Walking Up Town’, Tom Cussen is the only one of the founding members still there but Benny O Connor who retired from the group five years ago joins the band for a number of tracks. Eamon Cotter is the next longest serving member with some twenty years in its ranks. Seán Conway who soldiered with the band for many years also makes a welcome return with the great sing along ‘All for me Grog’. P.J. Curtis who produced the album got the gentlemen in the band to provide backing vocals, perhaps the first time we have heard their dulcet tones on a CD. Sean Tyrell who once toured with Shaskeen also guests with the beautiful ‘Angel’s Whisper’, a poem that he recently set to music.
At the core of the band are Tom Cussen on banjo, Eamon Cotter on flute, Patsy McDonagh on accordion, Johnny Donnellan on bodhrán, Pat Costello on banjo, mandolin and guitar, Pat Broderick on pipes and whistle, Tony Howley on flute and saxophone and Geraldine Cotter on piano. Geraldine accompanied Shaskeen on all their recordings for the sets and is now a regular in the band. Pat Costello has a long involvement with Shaskeen having produced many of their recordings before becoming a regular band member.

For their launch in Ennis on Jan 17th last, Shaskeen had the full ensemble present with guests and the additional musicians who appeared on the album – Alan Wallace on guitar and Maeve Boyd on fiddle. It was a joyous occasion and the music was out of this world. The banter from the stage was humorous and entertaining and there was never a dull moment.
A unique spirit in traditional Irish music, Shaskeen has something special. They have an ease and a comfort with each other, a one-ness with the music and a love for the craic and especially for their audiences.

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