Champion accordionist James Keane was only 14 years old in 1962 when he co-founded the Castle Ceili Band with his brother Séan and their friend Mick O’Connor. To see pictures of them from back in those days you’d scarcely believe they were allowed out of the house past dark, much less the fervency with which they lived traditional music. But together, they made a near immediate impact on the trad community and attracted the respect of some of the best older players of the day.
“We fully understood what the real McCoy was,” Keane explained. “John Brennan, John Kelly, Joe Ryan, Sonny Brogan, Bill Harte – these were people we knew. Not only did we hold them up as heroes, but we also had the nerve to ask some of them to join our group.”
Over time, Keane would not only count Kelly, Ryan and Brennan as fellow Castle members, but the likes of Michael Tubridy, John Dwyer, Liam Rowsome, and Bridie Lafferty as well. “There were no passengers in that group,” Keane laughed, adding “we were always chasing down the new tunes and shaking the clay off them.” The group’s taste in tune and arrangement was as much a part of their legend as their musicianship: “When we played the ‘Foxhunter’s Reel’ at the Fleadh Cheoil in 1965, we absolutely ripped it and the people went crazy. Because Séan collected it from Patsy Kelly for Breandán Breathnach, we were playing it long before anyone ever heard it outside Cree in County Clare.”
The Castle’s drive and vision for traditional music not only inspired dozens of Keane’s contemporaries, but it continues to influence present-day ceili bands like the Innisfree and Shannon Vale Ceili Bands in Ireland, and the Old Bay and Doon Ceili Bands in the U.S. (to name but a few). But beyond the music, it’s the friendships and the memories that Keane forged in those early days – a special connectedness to music all over Ireland that few have – that is the stuff of legend. It’s this legend that inspired Eamon McGiveney (at Angela Crotty’s suggestion) to invite Keane to speak at the Willie Clancy Week’s 40th Anniversary. Called “Living in the Tradition: people, places and musical memories,” Keane’s talk, which will happen at the Miltown Malbay Community Centre on Thursday, July 12 at 2 p.m., will be one to remember and will most assuredly attract a powerful crowd. In addition to speaking, Keane (who now lives in NYC) will also be there to launch his new solo album, “Heir of the Dog.” Dedicated to east Galway master Jack Coen and featuring Kathleen Boyle (of Cherish the Ladies) on piano, Eamon O’Leary on guitar and bouzouki and Tom English on bodhran, “Heir of the Dog” is a superior recording that explores Keane’s life in the music through his tunes, from those of his early days in the Castle all the way through to those of his more recent work with the group Fingal.
Keane’s playing here is outstanding and he delivers on every track. Fans will notice that while he’s pulled back on the speed in places (a “more of a kitchen-style tempo,” he explained), his characteristic fire can still be heard on reel tracks like the “The Ladies Panta-
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lettes/…” and “Julia Delaney’s/….”
He’s also adjusted his sound, employing his box’s master “three block” voice, which gives him a more “open” tone than on previous recordings.
Keane’s choice of accompanists could not have been better. O’Leary is one of the most tasteful backers in Irish music, and brings a relaxedness to tracks like the “Joys of Summer/…” reels or the “Slieve Russell/…” jigs that balances perfectly with Keane’s drive. Boyle’s buoyant playing keeps Keane on a light but steady course, and blends perfectly with O’Leary when the two are playing together. One of the album’s best examples of this is on “O’Carolan’s Dream,” where the two provide a brilliantly transcendent ambience over which Keane’s playing floats effortlessly.
With informative liner notes guided by the invisible hand of tune guru Don Meade and production by Greg Anderson, “Heir of the Dog” is a welcome return to form and one trad music lovers will want to look out for.