NATALIE MACMASTER – Sketches (Linus)

SketchesNatalie MacMaster’s Sketches bows new life into the great fiddle tradition. And please, forget for a moment that she’s immensely popular (with a Christmas album to boot!), and enjoy an album of Cape Breton music that bleeds with beauty.

‘Three Reels’ flints up the kindling. The first part, ‘Father John Angus Rankin’, simply dances. There’s nothing fancy here, just pulsing Celtic music that’s a conflagration of Natalie’s fiddle, Tim Edey’s rhythmic somewhat jazzy acoustic guitar, and Frank Evans’ banjo. The other two reels, ‘The Golden Keyboard’ and (the Natalie original) ‘Mary Shannon’s Reel’, manage to fulfill both Scotland’s Proclaimers and (the great) George Jones’s urge to “Burn Your Playhouse Down”.

Ditto for the three part ‘The Golden Eagle’, which begins with a hornpipe and then stumbles into a Celtic free-for-all called ‘Never Was Piping So Gay’, until the tune resolves into another original, ‘History With Hannah’.

By the way, some guy in a Limerick pub once told me that The Bible got it wrong because, as he said, “God created the hornpipe just after he did all that let there be light stuff”.

That said, then there are beautiful tunes that flow on the passionate air. ‘Morning Galliano’ waltzes with the addition of Tim Edey’s accordion. Perhaps, it conjures the carefree dance steps just before any war. And ‘Professor Blackie’ sings with the pathos that, quite frankly, can make a teardrop weep. This is time standing still stuff. It’s the innocence of youth glancing into the weathered face of age with an equal sense of melodic tenacity. Oh my! Then the six-part ‘Killiecrankie’ wanders into the quiet of the human heart.

Now, it’s just an idea, but a long time ago at the Lisdoonvarna Festival in Ireland, a fellow camper had buried a Guinness keg with a spout that popped from the ground. I thought it was water, which was, trust me, a rarity during that weekend. I asked the guy for a drink, but my hearing was dulled because the next-door camper van had blasted The Talking Head’s first Psycho Killer album all night long with speakers amped to Spinal Tap’s eleven. So, when I asked for a drink, the guy either said to my muffed ears, “That’s a good Guinness” or “There’s a God within us”. To this very day, I’m really not sure what the guy said. Perhaps, they are one in the same. But that’s beauty of this record: It’s a good slowly drawn pub pint, and yet it sings to the spirit of the soul—Celtic or otherwise!

That also said, the latter part of the album continues the template. ‘Fill ‘Er Up For A Set’ pairs two jigs. Then ‘Judy’s Dance’ begins with the Baroque vibe of ‘Miss Grace’ that morphs into a ‘Aoife’s Reel,’ which then gives way to yet another NM original, ‘Judy’s Dance’, that adds a bluegrass brush and a wonderful jazzy guitar/bass ending. Yeah, this music is all over the place. Of course, that’s part of its universal appeal.

Then tradition reigns supreme. ‘West Bay Road’ slows the pace. The first part, ‘Planxty Hewlett’, is slow and lovely, while the ending (another original) ‘Lauchie MacDougall’ is Celtic to its core. Oh my! (again!) The epic ‘Tribute To John Allan’ sways with intense passion through its seven parts. The violin simply sings sweet history, and then it sings even more sweet history. I am reminded the Thomas Hardy’s novel, Under The Greenwood Tree, which documents the sad transition from the Mellstock church fiddle ensemble to the much preferred organ playing by Miss Fancy Day! And that brought to mind an Eighteenth-Century violin I saw in a Cheltenham museum. You know, that Mellstock church fiddle ensemble and that antiquated museum violin haunt this tune.

The final song, ‘Can’t Make You Love Me’, is a slow adieu with a sad melody and an equally sad memory. This one shrugs with melancholy grace.

So, yes, once again, Natalie MacMaster’s roots are showing. But they are old roots that have never really lost their autumnal color. They sing with the bounty of a good Guinness and a good God within us all. And that’s the beauty of this music: It’s old stuff that walks through fallen leaves, but it never forgets the vibrance of its springtime and very youthful fiddle memory.

Bill Golembeski

Artist’s website:

The material from Sketches is still under wraps and I decided against posting the Tim Horton’s commercial (one for our Canadian friends, there) so here’s Natalie live at Celtic Connections with Mac Morin:

PAULINE SCANLON – Gossamer (own label)

GossamerIt doesn’t happen so much in England but there were singers, such as Gordon Hall, who considered that the only criterion for singing a song was “is it a good song?”.  The Irish seem to have stuck by that tenet which goes some way to explaining Pauline Scanlon’s album, Gossamer. Pauline has been featured vocalist with Sharon Shannon’s band as well as a soloist but this album seems to be the apotheosis of the blend of old and new.

The set opens with ‘The Poorest Company’ by John McCusker, Roddy Woomble and Kris Drever and epitomises the album’s approach. If you didn’t know better you might place it any time in the last couple of centuries although the setting is modern as are all the arrangements here. Next is the Scottish traditional ‘False False’ and ‘The Old Churchyard’, a hymn that may, in this version at least, originate in Arkansas. The title of the album begins to make sense now: the false love and the departed spirits are both intangibles.

Pauline now switches back to contemporary writers. L J Hill’s ‘Pretty Bird Tree’ is new to me but Leonard Cohen’s ‘Joan Of Arc’ – a superb version – is very familiar. There are songs from Lucy Kaplansky and James Keelaghan before Pauline returns to the tradition. I found ‘I Wonder What’s Keeping My Love This Night?’ a bit overdone but the story of Waterloo has a suitably military texture. That said, I would have been happier if ‘The Lover’s Ghost’ had been throttled back a bit.

Pauline has a fine band including producer John Reynolds, Donal O’Connor and Tim Edey. The powerful voice of Damien Dempsey duets on ‘Pretty Bird Tree’, making this one of the record’s strongest tracks. I have a couple of reservations as you can tell but this is an album that delivers a lot of pleasure.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘False False’:

DAMIEN DEMPSEY – No Force On Earth (Clear Records CLEARCD01)

no force on earthTo mark the centenary of the 1916 uprising Damien Dempsey has recorded a short album of songs from and about the period. It’s probably just as well that No Force On Earth is only eight tracks because I can guarantee that you’ll be wrung out by the end. The power of these performances is palpable. I don’t believe that the English can fully understand the strength of feeling that surrounds the uprising but listen to this album and you might get a clue.

The first song, ‘Aunt Jenny’, is written by Damien and harks back three generations but to listen to it you’d think she was sitting with him, nodding in approval. Jinny Shanahan’s story is an incredible one but I suspect it isn’t so uncommon. She ran the women’s section of the Irish Citizen’s Army and fought in both the uprising and the War Of Independence.

Damien isn’t slavish about sources of these songs so ‘The King’s Shilling’ is Scottish but Damien uses it the remind us that eighty thousand Irish volunteers fought for the British in the Great War and were betrayed as the next song, ‘Paddy Ward’ explains. Ward was an Irish traveller who fought for the King and was murdered by an English landowner for poaching rabbits after the war was over. I can’t help thinking of ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ when I listen to it.

‘Banna Strand’ and ‘James Connolly’ are both famous songs about the period and ‘The Death Of Cuchulain’ is the poem by William Butler Yeats set to music by Dempsey but then he casts his gaze further afield. ‘Wave Hill Walk Off’ celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Aboriginal land rights movement, something that we’re only just beginning to learn about in the UK and the parallels with the Irish situation are obvious. Finally, Damien returns to Ireland with Ewan MacColl’s ‘The Island’.

The songs are deliberately “rough-hewn” as Damien describes them. He’s accompanied by Tim Edey and Eamonn de Barra with Clare Kenny and producer John Reynolds adding bass and drums to Damien’s voice, guitar and keyboards. Rough-hewn they might be and some listeners might find Damien’s approach strident but the force of history behind these songs can’t be denied.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘James Connolly’ – live (different version):

Padraig Lalor: new album, Light Up

Padraig Lalor

With Light Up, Padraig Lalor has achieved a new level in his exploration of the modern Irish song. Based on his experiences and reflections of growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, the album is a positive affirmation of the power of peace over prejudice.

On a richly layered collaboration with Tim Edey, Fyfe Dangerfield and the pure new voice of Sarah Passmore, Lalor has crafted a work of exceptionally high quality. Carrying an affirmative message for the generation who have grown up with the peace process. With the magical hand of Greig Stewart (Guillemots) on its production it rivals anything from the Celtic Gospel of Van Morrison.

‘Light Up Your Hearts’ is a heart warming first single from album. The single was made available for download on April 22nd and the album will be distributed on the UK’s Proper Label on June 23rd. The single has been co-written and sung by Padraig and Fyfe Dangerfield (Brit Award nominee and founder of Guillemots). It is an inspiring duet with rising talent, singer Sarah Passmore. It is truly a charming & uplifting song with a strong theme of reconciliation and positivity. The song is essentially about Ireland being led into the light of peace after centuries of turmoil.

This is brave song writing, never rhetorical, never hectoring, never polemic, yet always persuasive: at its heart is a universal set of truths about our condition. Lalor has a voice that demands to be heard. This is his best, most complete and uncompromising album to date.

‘Light Up Your Hearts’ – official video:

SEAMUS BEGLEY – The Bold Kerryman (IRL IRL093)

SEAMUS BEGLEY The Bold KerrymanI frequently have to remind myself that there is more music out there than any of us can ever listen to – which is my excuse for not having come across Seamus Begley before.

Seamus is well known as half of the Irish/Australian duo Ceolas and for his ongoing partnership with Jim Murray as singer and accordion player. I’ve tracked down about six albums of his work but he probably recorded many others over his forty year career. He’s also worked with Tim Edey who is his principal instrumental supporter on this set of mostly traditional material. The album opens with ‘Táimse Im Chodladh’ and ‘The Lough Tae Boat Song’, both unfamiliar to me. They are followed by a stately version of ‘The Banks Of The Sweet Primroses’ featuring a shared vocal by Damien Dempsey as the material becomes more familiar.

Seamus has a warm voice that brings an intimacy to his performances and the album is so very restful. Like many Irish singers, he seems to consider that a song worth singing should be sung no matter its source. So we have an old Fenian song ‘Wrap The Green Flag Around Me Boys’ followed by ‘Portland Town’ (nothing to do with Derroll Adams) and Annie Laurie. The album closes with John Denver’s ‘Today’ and Paul Metzer’s greatest hit ‘Farewell To The Gold’. In his hands ‘Today’ sounds like a traditional love song.

The Bold Kerryman is a sweet, gentle album which might have benefited from an instrumental interlude to give it a change of pace. It is, nevertheless, a splendid set of songs in both Irish and English that might just lull you into untroubled dreams.

Dai Jeffries

An air and a song performed live by Seamus Begley and Tim Edey:

MARK NEVIN – Beautiful Guitars (Raresongs Recordings MARKNCD004)

Beautiful GuitarsWe’ve all done it, or know someone who has: gazed longingly in the window or gone inside for a closer look; maybe even asked to try a Strat or a Firebird (insert guitar of choice). That’s the premise of the title track of this album in which the writer portrays himself as a man with family responsibilities that keep him from the road and now teaches his son. But still he haunts Denmark Street looking wistfully in shop windows. How can you not love Mark E Nevin after a song like this?

‘Beautiful Guitars’ is not so much a song as a series of observations linked by a chorus and it’s this quirky way of writing that makes Mark so fascinating. Take ‘The Old Wound’ for example: all the way through it sounds as though he’s writing about a physical wound and he doesn’t deviate from that line. But you’re left with the feeling that this is really a psychological wound that “will never heal”. ‘Dangerous’ is a bit of soul-baring that comes out of a dream – real or imagined, who knows?

There is everything here from the fragile acoustic guitar of ‘Kiteflyer’s Hill’ to the glorious celebration of ‘Let’s Make Hay’ with The Kick Horns in full cry. It’s one of the album’s top tracks and is set against ‘Just In Time (To Be Too Late)’ which is Mark’s ‘Positively Fourth Street’ – soulful and vicious. Others in the supporting cast include fellow ex-Fairground Attraction Simon Edwards on bass, drummer Martyn Barker, pedal steel maestro B J Cole and Folk Award winner, Tim Edey.

Beautiful Guitars is fabulous album, full of original ideas and equally original execution. What more do you want?

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: