My first exposure to the singing of Derry-born Daithi Sproule was “Skara Brae,” a classic 1971 album featuring him with three O Domhnaill siblings, Micheal, Triona, and Maighread. The blend of their four voices on songs in Irish was spellbinding. On that same recording, I also became aware of Sproule’s compositional skill in “Angela,” a tune he wrote with Micheal O Domhnaill.
My next brush with Sproule’s music-writing expertise was “The Death of Queen Jane,” a song of haunting power sung impeccably by Micheal O Domhnaill on the Bothy Band’s “Afterhours” album in 1979. In a book Sproule discovered the words to this ballad about one of King Henry VIII’s wives and applied his original melody to it.
Ever since, I have admired Sproule’s accomplishments as a vocalist and influential guitarist (especially his DADGAD tuning) in such trios as Bowhand (with Dublin-born fiddler James Kelly and Offaly-born button accordionist Paddy O’Brien), Trian (with Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll and Brooklyn-born button accordionist Billy McComiskey), and Fingal (with Dublin-born button accordionist James Keane and U.S. fiddler Randal Bays).
After guesting on “Harvest Storm,” Altan’s 1992 album, Sproule officially became a member of the band. But because Altan already sported one of Ireland’s most adept vocalists, founding member Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Sproule’s opportunities to sing lead on band recordings seemed few and far between.
Part of the remedy was his long overdue solo debut in 1995, “A Heart Made of Glass,” stocked with songs in Irish and English. That same year on “Trian II,” Sproule finally covered the epic song he enriched with his own melody many years earlier, “The Death of Queen Jane.” It is a beautiful rendition.
But if I had to recommend one song above all others sung by Sproule, it would be “Captain Thompson” from “Trian” in 1992. His expressive vocal is inextricably bound to the lyrics and melody in a faultless arrangement lasting 8 minutes and 11 seconds. Sproule’s performance of that song is, in a word, exquisite.
In 2007, he issued his second solo CD, “The Crow in the Sun,” comprising 13 artfully played instrumental tracks. A number of those original tunes appeared previously on other albums, such as “Tune for Mairead and Anna Ni Mhaonaigh” on “Liz Carroll with Daithi Sproule” in 1988, “The Crow in the Sun” on Liz Carroll’s “Lost in the Loop” in 2000, and “The Roseville” on Altan’s “Local Ground” in 2005.
His new, third solo recording, “Lost River: Vol. 1,” comprises a dozen songs and constitutes his best solo outing to date. Sproule’s uncanny ability to spin out appealing melodies surfaces on two songs, “Lynchehaun” and “The Unquiet Grave.” The first is performed with Altan and taken from a concert by the band in England. The second features the accompaniment of the American Midwest’s finest mandolinist, Peter Ostroushko, and may put listeners in mind of a different version of the same song sung by Karan Casey on Solas’ “Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers” in 1997. Sproule shines in these two songs.
Every song on the album features Sproule’s excellent singing and acoustic guitar playing with one or more guest instrumentalists. Fiddler Seamus McGuire supports two superb songs in Irish, “Is Fada Liom Uaim I” and “An Mhaighdean Mhara.” Fingal colleague Randal Bays contributes fiddle to “Eirigh Suas, A Stoirin” and guitar to “Casadh An tSugain,” the latter of which Sproule helped to re-popularize 40 years ago with Skara Brae. Two more Midwesterners, guitarist Dean Magraw and whistle player Laura MacKenzie, lend their respective talents to “The Colleen Roo” and “Bold Doherty.” And John Wright, the album’s co-producer, plays bass guitar on “The Dreary Parting,” a song learned by Sproule from Caherlistrane sisters Sarah and Rita Keane that was also recorded as “Fond Affection” by the Carter Family in 1931.
The three remaining songs on the CD represent welcome reunions: “On the Banks of a River” and “The Maid of Ballydoo” with Trian colleagues Liz Carroll and Billy McComiskey, and “Andrew Barton” with Bowhand colleagues James Kelly and Paddy O’Brien. Those tracks are stellar.
“I hope you will love these songs as I do, drawn from the deep river of traditional song,” Sproule states on the back sleeve of his CD insert. Falling in love with these 12 songs for the first or fiftieth time is easy, for everything here exudes taste, touch, and alternating toughness and tenderness. Sproule’s estimable singing and guitar playing of a diverse, delightful repertoire, enhanced by a raft of top-notch guests, confirm that he has not only located but also adroitly navigated this so-called “lost river” of song. Bring on volume two.
Slated for official release on September 13, Daithi Sproule’s “Lost River: Vol. 1” (NFR-CICD 187) can be ordered from www.newfolkrecords.com or www.allegro-music.com in the U.S. and from www.cic.ie in Ireland.
Fifth annual Banjo Burke festival
During the extended Columbus Day weekend of Oct. 7-10, the fifth annual Banjo Burke Festival will take place in East Durham, N.Y. This yearly event is a live music and dance tribute to Joe “Banjo” Burke, a beloved New York performer who was originally from Johnstown, Kilkenny, and died from Parkinson’s disease at age 57 on Dec. 18, 2003.
Among the musicians and dancers scheduled to perform and/or teach at the festival are button accordionists John Whelan and John Nolan, fiddlers Brian Conway, Rose Conway Flanagan, and John Reynolds, flutists Margie Mulvihill and Linda Hickman, pianist Felix Dolan, drummer Jimmy Kelly, tenor banjoists Pauline Conneely and John Walsh, bodhran player Brendan Fahey, harper Ellen Tepper, sean-nos singer Aine Meenaghan, guitarist Iris Nevins, and set dancers Ron Bruschi and Marie Newman.
There will be concerts, ceilidhs, workshops, and sessions, collectively intended to raise funds in support of scientific research for curing Parkinson’s disease and to encourage Irish traditional culture.
For more information, contact Bridget Burke, widow of Joe “Banjo” Burke, at 607-225-9928 or P.O. Box 937, Greenwood, NY 14839. Also, be sure to visit http:// joebanjoburke.org for festival updates and complete program.