Liag is an album of music from South-West Donegal that has been gestating for about thirty years. It concentrates on the more obscure corners of the repertoire and, indeed, there are only two I’m certain I’ve heard before. Dermot Byrne (button accordion and melodeon) is the Donegal man of the trio; Éamonn Coyne , on banjo and tenor guitar, is from just over the way in Roscommon while John Doyle (guitar, bouzouki, mandola and voice) is originally from Dublin. Both Coyne and Doyle have links with Donegal and the trio met at village festivals in the county.
The opening track, ‘Washerwoman’ is a sparkling set of jigs, the sort that makes you smile, beginning with ‘When Sick Is It Tae You Want?’ – one that I have heard before – and it’s followed by three reels. That’s the fundamentals dealt with. ‘The Shelf’ is another jolly tune decorated with banjo runs and then, unexpectedly, comes one of my all-time favourite traditional songs, ‘St Helena’, superb in both lyrics and melody. Napoleon Bonaparte was always a favourite with the Irish and John sings the song with sympathy but unsentimentally. The other song here is written by John, ‘Duffy’s Cut: Mile 59’. It’s a story of Irish emigration to the New World, always a popular subject, but one lacking a happy ending.
‘Stone Mountain’ is, more or less, the title track being a translation of Slieve Liag, a mountain in Donegal containing Ireland highest sea cliffs. The majority of the sets are up-tempo, the exception being ‘Bríd Óg Ní Mháile’, usually heard as a song but played here as an air. With Liag we have three of Ireland’s finest musicians who understand each other’s music and are performing at their best. It is warmly recommended.
Iain MacFarlane is a former member of Blazin’ Fiddles and he’s recruited a few old friends to play on Gallop To Callop, his debut solo album. There’s Ewen Henderson, formerly of Battlefield Band, former Altan melodeon player Dermot Byrne, Breabach’s Megan Henderson, Ewan Robertson and James Lindsay, pianist/flautist Hamish Napier and Iain MacDonald who has played with just about everybody including Ossian and Wolfstone. This is a band with a real pedigree.
You should have a fair idea of what to expect and you won’t be far wrong. There are quite a lot of original compositions and some drawn from the tradition and the standard piping repertoire. The beauty of MacFarlane’s writing is that you are hard-pressed to tell the new from the old. The up-tempo numbers are played in, dare I say, the old-fashioned style with a piano continuo and if you’ve heard Violet Tulloch you’ll know what that is. Some of the piano is undoubtedly by Napier but some is by Iain’s wife Ingrid Henderson who is perhaps better known as a clarsach player and it is that instrument that leads some of the gentler pieces such as the lovely ‘Isobel’s Tune’.
It’s hard to pick favourites as the album whirls past. ‘Tatties On The Manifold’ with MacDonald’s whistle is a particularly fine bouncy tune and that is followed by the breakneck set of ‘Stoddie’s Reels’ and I can’t resist a tune like ‘The Head, The Heart And The Tail’ which describes the process of whisky distillation.
This is the perfect album from lovers of Scottish traditional music. Iain MacFarlane writes and plays with a love and respect for the tradition and you can’t ask for much more than that.
There’s something reassuring about coming across a lyric or melody that you’re used to hearing even if it’s not in your native tongue. Such is the case with the track “Seolta Geala” and in as much as I’ve come to associate it with the gustily delivered shanty “Rio Grande” I stand to be corrected as I can’t confirm the lyrics having extensively trawled the net. I’ve often said before that even if I can’t understand a word of Gaelic it is how it’s presented that leaves me hot or cold depending on whose interpretation I’m listening to. When it’s in the more than capable hands of Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and fellow band members Ciaran Curran, Ciaran Tourish, Daithi Sproule, Mark Kelly and Dermot Byrne I think you can safely assume everything is right with the world particularly after twenty-five years of the band performing together. Whether it’s the straight forward ‘no frills’ approach they take with their instrumental set-pieces including established favourites “A Fig For A Kiss” or the uncommonly slow arrangement of “The Wheels Of The World” this recording may possibly prove somewhat pedestrian for the general public (and even some ‘folk’ audiences) but personally I’ve come to enjoy the more laid-back approach in the twilight of my years…or is that a case of me being ageist? This recording may not perhaps be a rip-snorting blaze of pyrotechnics but if you’re looking for something deliciously Celtic to sit alongside your Ed Sheeran CD you’ll doubtless enjoy this release.