Just out is “In Two Minds,” a CD collaboration between singing legend Len Graham and young lion Brían Ó hAirt. Graham, the County Antrim-born authority on Ulster’s songs, will need little introduction for most readers. Ó hAirt, on the other hand, is perhaps of less renown on his own, yet over the years he has not only earned the respect of his peers, but that of senior artists like Graham. Both are brilliant singers, and this album not only offers great music but a rare insight into a special musical bond.
Born into a musical family and involved with organizations like the Antrim and Derry Fiddlers’ Association at a young age, Graham’s own singing was eventually (and heavily) influenced by County Antrim singer and fiddler Joe Holmes. Many years his senior, Holmes taught Graham a great deal about the songs and traditions of Ulster (described in “Here I Am Amongst You,” a book Graham published in 2010), and the two ultimately collaborated on a pair of albums before Holmes passed in 1978. Since then, he has founded the group Skylark and tours internationally with his wife Pádraigin Ni Uallacháin (among others).
Ó hAirt is an unusually accomplished singer at this stage in his life – a fluent Irish speaker, he became an All Ireland Champion in Traditional Singing (like Graham) in 2002, and since 2007 has been a member of the acclaimed group Bua. Just as Graham found a mentor in Holmes, Ó hAirt has found one in Graham. The pair have toured together for the last five years, during which time Ó hAirt not only expanded his repertoire under Graham’s tutelage, but honed his already developed sense of style and phrasing. Together, they sing largely in unison, a deceptively challenging approach that Ó hAirt tells me represents an older tradition. “I have to match everything he does to sound good,” Ó hAirt explained.
And sound good, they do. The great mutual sympathy between the two men is apparent throughout this album, especially so on “My Parents Reared Me Tenderly,” which is found both on this CD and on Bua’s “Down the Green Field.” With Bua, Ó hAirt’s voice shimmers on its own, supported easily by the group’s warm, unobtrusive arrangement. In duet with Graham, however, the brilliance lies in what goes on between the two singers. More dramatic than the timbral difference of their voices is how each man’s phrasing responds to the nuances of the other. Although both singers deliver on their own, the energy between Graham and Ó hAirt on this and, really all of the album’s duet tracks (“One Morning in May” and “Adam in Paradise” in particular) reveals the respect and care these two singers have for each other.
In addition to several duet tracks, each singer is also given the spotlight. On the lovely “Molly Bán,” for example, Ó hAirt sings totally unaccompanied and delivers a beautiful performance. Graham’s voice shines on “Paddy’s Return” and “Blow Ye Winds,” but it’s on “The Frost is All Over” (where he is complemented by a few sean nós steps from Ó hAirt) that his singing and lilting is particularly engaging. There are also two purely instrumental tracks – “Galway Bay/Fairy Queen” and “Miss Johnson’s/Man of Aran” – which feature Ó hAirt on tin whistle joined by Graham’s even, unhurried bones playing. These tracks are wonderful, and work well both as part of the album’s arc, and on their own.
“In Two Minds” is a gripping, well-balanced album. A snapshot of the developing musical relationship between a pair of singers of different generations, it also represents the best kind of collaboration in traditional music.