Tradition from the Center and the Edges: Five Great Irish Music Recordings

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Music that goes deep into Irish tradition, and music that seeks out the edges while holding respect for the center: here is a taste of five recordings for you to enjoy.


Live at 10: The Tenth Anniversary Concert

Beoga means lively in Irish Gaelic, and it is the name chosen by a group of gifted musicians when they decided to join up as a band some ten years ago. Live at 10: The Tenth Anniversary Concert offers an audio CD and a DVD. On the DVD as well as the anniversary concert, there’s onstage footage from ten years back along with tour diaries from more recent events.

Beoga has a bit of an unusual combination of instruments: two accordion players (Damien McKee and Sean Og Graham), a bodhran and percussion man (Eamon Murray), a piano and keyboard specialist (Liam Bradley), and a fiddle player who doubles as lead vocalist (Niamh Dunne). They make this work in bright and, yes, lively fashion through a generous twenty sets, balancing the traditional with music composed by band members and the occasional cover. Listen out especially for the Dolans 6am set of tunes by Dunne, Murray’s Bodhran Solo track, and the Cu Chullain’s Despair set, composed by McKee. Several guest musicians join the festivities as well, among them Niall Vallely on concertina, Martin O’Neill on percussion, and Trevor Hutchinson on bass.

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World Begun

Hannah Sanders and Liz Simmons offer a fine mix of tradition with contemporary and original, too. In the space of five songs on their World Begun, which is their debut recording as a duo, they offer intriguing harmonies, graceful lead singing, and instrumental work worth listening to as well. Both women have family ties to Ireland; Simmons is from New England and Sanders hail from old England.

Though this is their debut recording together, each has deep background in traditional music, and is involved in a number of different musical projects. They’ve found they love singing together, though, and have opened for a range of Celtic artists. They are touring as a duo in both the US and the UK as schedules permit. On World Begun you’ll hear a fine cover of Steve Ashley’s Fire and Wine, a creative take on Bird in the Bush from the traditional song repertoire, and original songs, one from each woman. They’re all keepers, and it will be interesting to watch how they proceed with this paring.

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The Irish Piano

The piano does appear in Irish music — as witness Beoga, above — but it’s rarely the first instrument one thinks of when considering the music of Ireland. All the more reason to take a listen to what Michael McHale has done with it on his debut solo album called The Irish Piano. Renown as a leading classical musician, his career has seen him play with major orchestras in Ireland and abroad in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Gershwin to Rachmaninov. To open The Irish Piano, though, he has chosen to offer his own arrangement of one of the earliest notated Irish melodies, Cailin o Cois tSuire Me (I am a girl from the banks of the Suir), It is a well done and graceful nod to the length of Irish tradition which leads into works from Irish composers and composers with Irish connections including John Field, Percy Grainger, Bill Whelan, and Donnacha Dennehy. Some of these pieces are works in which composers drew on Irish tradition for inspiration, whilst others look to classical forms, and several, such as The Currach from Bill Whelan, represent the first time a piece has been recorded. In the midst of all these, too, there are McHale’s own arrangements of two tunes from the tradition, She Moved Through the Fair and The Coulin. McHale’s sure touch and understanding of the music carries through the program.

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The Hills of Erin

Karen Ashbrook’s main instrument is the hammered dulcimer, an instrument she first became involved with when she built one as a project while in high school, and which she has played with Ceoltoiri and other groups. The dulcimer lead on most tracks (Ashbrook also plays whistles and flute) shows another perspective on tunes from the tradition as well as several recently composed pieces she offers on her album The Hills of Erin.

It’s a graceful, thoughtful, and interesting program of thirteen sets, which in addition to jigs, reels, and hornpipes from Irish tradition includes a prelude from Johann Sebastian Bach and a piece composed by Scotsman Dougie MacLean, as well as one Ashbrook wrote herself as her son was competing in a chess tournament. It is best to allow the tracks to unfold as they’re sequenced, but especially listen out for the Bank of Red Roses set (it includes that song from the chess tournament day), the Over the Moor to Maggie set, and that Prelude from Bach.

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In Spite of the Storm

Over the last dozen or so years, the men of Teada have become well known for their high spirited yet thoughtful approach to Irish tradition, and their gifts for integrating newer works with the tradition as well. On the recording Ainneoin na stoirme/InSspite of the Storm, renown traditional singer and accordion player Seamus Begley joins the line up of Paul Finn on button accordion and concertina, Oisin MacDiarmada on fiddle and keyboards, Damien Stenson on flute, Sean McElwain on guitar and bouzouki, and Tristan Rosenstock on bodhran.

The men make their way through jigs and reels, songs and slides, sourced from Dingle to Tipperary to Clare to Belfast to Boston to — Marty Robbins? Indeed, Begley makes the cowboy song Saddle Tramp seem a natural fit between sets of jigs and slip jigs and and a barndance and a slow reel. Listen out, too, for the closing track, a set of reels comprising James Murray’s, Porthole of the Kelp, The Watchmaker, and the Spinning Wheel.

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Take a listen to these and see what you like — and stay tuned here at Irish Fireside as I’ll be sharing with you more adventures in the music of Ireland.

Kerry Dexter’s work about Ireland, Scotland, music, history, and the arts appears in Journey to Scotland, National Geographic Traveler, Ireland and the Americas, Perceptive Travel, and other places online and in print, as well as at her site Music Road.

Author: Kerry

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