As the cover makes clear Idir Muir Agus Sliabh is a collection of Irish traditional songs – there is a Scottish interloper but we’ll let that pass. Three songs are in English, the rest in Irish and Diane Ní Chanainn has eschewed the Celtic ambient style for something more earthy and real. Reknowned as a Sean-nós singer, she is here supported by a cast of musicians that money alone couldn’t buy. At the core is Manus Lunny, who also produced the album, Liam Bradley and James Blennerhasset. Then we have contributions from Donald Shaw, Neil Martin, Charlie McKerron and pipes, whistles and flute from Martin Crossin and Michael McGoldrick.
There’s everything from a lively drinking song, ‘Nil sé ‘na Lá’ to the lovely romantic ‘An Draighneán Donn’ and the regretful ‘Geaftaí Bhaíle Buí’ but even here the band combine to give what could be a wistful song an unexpected drive. Two of the songs in English are ‘Lough Erne’s Shore’ and ‘The Mountains Of Pomeroy’, both of which I heard for the first time last year. The latter is a variation on the Reynardine story, rather more complex than the common versions and also a marching band tune. The third is the immigrant ‘Broom O’ The Cowdenknowes’ which I’m always happy to listen to.
Idir Muir Agus Sliabh is a splendid, multi-faceted collection of songs which Diane, Manus and the supporting musicians have crafted into an album which is at once traditional and also geared to contemporary tastes. Don’t worry about the language problem; there isn’t one. The meaning and emotion of the words are delivered by the performance and the arrangements are superb, particularly Martin and Michael’s decorations.
Your first thought is “what a lot of fun Eddi and her compatriots had making this album”. The second is “what a remarkable album they made”.
There is a huge range of songs and styles here from the thirties jazz-swing of the opener, ‘I’ll Never Be The Same’, to the autobiographical ‘Midnight In Paris 1979’ and the rather hard-nosed sentimentality of Michael Marra’s ‘Macushla’. It’s a tribute to the assembled musicians – such names as John McCusker, Phil Cunningham, Boo Hewedine and Donald Shaw will give you a clue as to their credentials – that such a collection of songs flows and blends so well. Roy Dodds and Ewen Vernal obviously moonlight in a jazz club somewhere and Alan Kelly’s accordion melds with their drums and bass to evoke metropolitan France or somewhere off-off-Broadway and provide the principal feel of much of the record.
‘Back The Dogs (Dancing Down Rock)’ is a delightfully off-the-wall piece based on stories Eddi’s grandmother told her about life in Tralee. It’s interspersed with recorded snippets of the old lady and is as vivid a depiction of the old days in Ireland as you could wish to hear. Two traditional songs, ‘Buain Ná Rainich’ and ‘In Ma Ain Country’ provide a diversion from the “modern” pieces but the record is probably summed up by a line from the last track, Hewerdine’s ‘It’s Beautiful Night’: ‘A moment out of time’. I love this record.
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The great thing about receiving the latest Transatlantic Sessions CD is that you know all is right with world. In company with twenty-six of the best vocalists/musicians in the field of ‘folk’ music you don’t even need to get the accompanying DVD (although of course you could) to soak up the electric atmosphere of being locked away in an old hunting lodge in the Perthshire Highlands…for emanating within the stone walls comes forth possibly the most joyous sound you are ever likely to hear. The empathy created by everyone being so closely involved in the project must be the dream of any producer and capturing the whole experience is recording, mix and mastering maestro Iain Hutchinson. If I credited everyone it would take until the next session to list them but just to whet your appetite the line-up includes the staggering dobro performances of Jerry Douglas, Aly Bain on fiddle, Donald Shaw (accordion), Danny Thompson (double bass), Eddi Reader, Sarah Jarosz and Alison Krauss vocals. The feeling of bonhomie that is in evidence throughout the whole recording would provide scientists with enough energy to power the Large Hadron Collider and even Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic poem “Annabel Lee” set to an Appalachian sounding minor key melody by Jarosz can do nothing to mute the immeasurably good time everybody had in each others company. On a final note, what a pleasure it is to hear Eric Bibb’s interpretation of “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” as, for me (and I’m sure many others) it brings back many happy memories of Scotland’s JSD Band in full flight and just goes to show you can’t put a good song down!
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You can tell from the photo on the sleeve of “Transatlantic Sessions 4” that this DVD is going to be something special. It depicts Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas broadly grinning at each other as if they were the cats that had got the cream and who could blame them? In the illustrious company of amongst others; Karan Casey, Rosanne Cash, Phil Cunningham, Julie Fowlis, Donal Lunny, Mike McGoldrick, Donald Shaw, Emily Smith and James Taylor it’s enough to make any real ‘folk’ enthusiast salivate at the very thought of what lies in the little black box. As a musician myself, there’s a feeling of jealousy but then again, who wouldn’t want to be part of such an astonishing gathering. To coin the vernacular, “…they must have been freezing their nuts off!” wouldn’t I suspect be too far from the truth but the musicians collective warmth for each other would be enough to power a small sun. Onto the content itself and really it’s a case of where to begin? The title credits encapsulate everything by bringing a sense of wonder with stunning views of chilly rivers and a beautiful Scottish vista all within 28 seconds (and yes, I did set my stop-watch to time it) utilising Douglas trademark dobro, gently brushed snare drum, Uilleann pipes and fiddle. This in itself is enough to draw the listener/viewer in and get your feet tapping with the expectant thought of what is about to emerge phoenix like (this is the 4th series) from this box of treasures. The glue that holds everything together is of course the chemistry between the musicians and the main protagonists in this respect are fiddler Ali Bain and the astonishing accompaniment from Jerry “We are not worthy” Douglas. The camaraderie of everyone involved is a welcoming sight/sound and the collaborative juices flow without any sense of awkwardness just a mutual respect for each other and the obvious delight of working in such exalted company. The songs and tunes are painstakingly crafted and so too are the contributions of all the technical staff. In particular I’d like to point out the professional integrity of all involved (something you don’t see too often in the ‘folk world’) in providing such a banquet of audio and visual delights directed by Mike Alexander and produced by Douglas Eadie. Particular mention in despatches must go to the splendid eye for photography of Mark Littlewood, Derek Ritchie’s lighting and Allan Young’s superb mastery of capturing the sound so well. I’d also like to extend a round of applause to George Brown for making this four-hour extravaganza available via the Whirlie Records catalogue. If you can’t tell from this short review how blown away I am with this double disc DVD then do yourselves a favour, rifle through your bank account (I know how difficult that is in the present climate) and treat yourself to some tangible ‘magic’.
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