Beoga, one of the best traditional bands in Ireland, is also its hippest. Even though Four Men and a Dog actually recorded with the Band, perhaps the greatest rock-and-roots group in American history, it is Beoga who may be Ireland’s closest answer to the Band in combined virtuosity, risk-taking, and omnivorous musical palate. Beoga’s variety is invariably impeccable, and their fourth recording, “How to Tune a Fish,” is one of the most exciting and adventurous releases I’ve heard so far in 2011.
The band’s name means “lively” in Irish, and that is a vast understatement. Beoga’s impish, fun-loving humor is all over their new CD, from the puns of the album’s title (inspired by the old saw “You can tune a piano but you can’t a tune a fish”) and liner notes (the opening medley is described as “two eels and a polka, just for the halibut”) to the album’s last two medleys where the band stretches instrumentally as never before.
Was “How to Tune a Fish” inspired by the Marx Brothers’ famous scene involving the password “swordfish” in their classic 1932 film “Horse Feathers”? Maybe Antrim’s Damian McKee, Sean Og Graham, and Eamon Murray, Derry’s Liam Bradley, and Limerick’s Niamh Dunne watched the DVD on salmon chanted evening. These piscine puns of Beoga obviously can be infectious and even give you a haddock, but why carp?
The originality (14 of the 15 tunes were composed by band members), arrangements, playing, and singing are no jokes. “How to Tune a Fish” represents invention of the highest order, often paradoxically delivering wild abandon with utter control.
As they did on their prior two albums, where they covered Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” Beoga delivers unique renditions of American songs that preserve the integrity of each. The new album’s two best songs serve as prime examples: “Home Cookin'” and “Come In Out of the Rain.”
The first was composed, sung, and recorded by the Band’s Rick Danko in 1976 but wasn’t finally released until 2005 on the Band’s box set “A Musical History.” On Beoga’s CD, guests Richard Nelson on dobro and Jonny Toman on five-string banjo strengthen the rusticity of the quintet’s flavorful interpretation, led by Dunne’s spot-on singing.
Also covered appealingly this year by New York City’s Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra on “Since Maggie Dooley Learned the Hooley Hooley,” their debut album, “Come In Out of the Rain” is a song from early 20th-century America that Beoga invests with period grace and contemporary elan. A tuba (possibly simulated on Bradley’s synthesizer), the button accordions of McKee and Graham, the percussion of Murray, and the clarinet and whistle of guests Rachel Toman and Brian Finnegan, respectively, convey the lighthearted spirit of the song, which at one point imitates an old carbon or spring microphone sound for Dunne’s lead vocal. How can you not smile in appreciation of this fresh take on vintage Irish Americana?
Dunne also sings the traditional “Our Captain Calls All Hands” with a bespoke tenderness, supported by guest Alana Henderson on cello, and admirably gets inside the skin of “Woman of No Place.” The latter song is Barry Kerr’s homage to Margaret Barry (1917-1989), a Cork-born traveler, singer, and banjoist who, often in tandem with Sligo fiddler Michael Gorman, made a lasting impact in Ireland and England. The song ends with a snippet of Barry’s conversation taped by famed U.S. folklorist Alan Lomax.
Instrumentally, “How to Tune a Fish” offers more riches than I could possibly recount faithfully here. It features changes in tempo, texture, tone, and attack, deft use of counterpoint, piquant accents, gentle nuances, nimble fills and insertions, boundless energy, contemplative evocations of mood, “found sounds” carefully picked and placed, a slow, near-vocalese tuck into the otherwise hard-driving reels of “Dolan’s 6 A.M. / The Green Chairs,” and some funk-laced cheekiness coursing through “Back in the Lab / Red Silk Pyjamas / I Married a Chinese Woman,” which includes an abrupt tail-off to stop like a turntable suddenly losing power, and “Minute 5,” in which the low rumble of a crowd and later the low-register harmony singing of the band are heard.
All are skillfully stirred into a heady musical stew of an album sounding anything but fishy.
The other medleys of “The Chewing Gum Boys / How to Tune a Fish / Horsey Leg,” “Brad’s Early Night / The Humours of Taupo,” and “It’s Gonna Tip! / Why You No Like-a My Sticky Buns, Ah?” as well as the single tunes of “Ballymaccaldrick” and “Hay Days” multiply the pleasures of the CD.
Can you tune a fish? No, unless you’re Beoga. This new recording from the endlessly imaginative Irish quintet is a sureshot to crack the top five in my list of the best albums of 2011.
“How to Tune a Fish” (cat. no. 745612) is available
from Nashville’s Compass Records at 615-320-7672 or www.compassrecords.com.
Keenan joins Dillon benefit concert
“An Evening of Irish Piping,” a benefit concert for Belfast uilleann piper Eamon Dillon, will also feature former Bothy Band stalwart Paddy Keenan. He’ll join fellow uilleann pipers Cillian Vallely, Jerry O’Sullivan, and Ivan Goff, plus fiddler Tony DeMarco and guitarist Eamon O’Leary, at 8 p.m. on Wed., Dec. 1, at the Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St., New York, NY 10019. Call 866-811-4111 or visit https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe/9406015 for tickets. For those who wish to make a donation only, you can do so by mailing a check, payable to Eamon Dillon, to Peter Maguire, 5A Emerald Court, Stoneham, MA 02180.
Hot young trad quartet on Dec. 2
The formidable foursome of fiddler Dylan Foley, All-Ireland senior champion pipes, flute, and whistle player Isaac Alderson, guitar and bouzouki player Sean Ernest, and button accordionist Dan Gurney, whose solo album debut should be out in early January, will be in concert at 9 p.m. on Fri., Dec. 2, at Glucksman Ireland House, 1 Washington Mews, New York, NY 10003. Call 212-998-3950 or visit www.nyu.edu/pages/irelandhouse for further information.