Traditional Music /
By Daniel Neely
In my very first column for the Irish Echo, I made allusion to John Whelan’s cameo (alongside Joanie Madden and Anna Colliton) on the TV show “Gossip Girl.” I was impressed, because it’s not often you see good trad music on bubblegum teenage dramas.
But network TV is not such a surprising a place to find Whelan, considering his musical presence has been known in all manner of high profile context over the years. (His music has been used for productions on HBO, the History Channel, NBC, FOX and PBS, in several major motion pictures; he several production credits to his name as well.) His new CD “Passage of Time,” an offering that includes 33 of his own instrumental compositions, collects some of the storied and often groundbreaking music upon which he built his reputation, and gives us an opportunity to reflect on the career of one of the world’s top box players.
The album’s liner notes (deftly written by my predecessor, the pre-eminent Celtic critic Earle Hitchner) are testament to Whelan’s musical renown. It’s not just that Whelan is a man of inarguable trad bonafides (which include, among other things, several All-Ireland titles, entry into Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Hall of Fame and the honor of being named the Echo’s “Traditionalist of the Year” in 2011), it’s that he projects his deep musical heritage into a musical vision that extends far beyond the boundaries of strict traditional music.
From his first album, made in 1974 when he was only 14, to his forward-looking work with Eileen Ivers in the 1980s, Whelan’s output was never less than stellar. In the 1990s, his solo efforts on the Narada label galvanized his role in developing the “Celtic” musical style. These albums captivated world audiences and thrust John into the international spotlight. Whelan’s return to his trad roots came in 2002 with his album “From The Heart.”
Over the years, Whelan developed a reputation as a gifted composer, crafting tunes and recordings that found great appeal not only in session circles, but also in mainstream culture. This album includes many of these tunes, including “Trip to Skye,” which features some lovely playing by Lisa Gutkin; “Desaunay / The Petticoat I Bought in Mullingar,” which for me is a strangely familiar pair of tunes that I must have picked up at sessions (I didn’t know they were John’s) and “January’s Journey,” a track with a hardcore, percussive Celtic feel.
A couple of the loveliest tracks I find are “Song For Hillary” (with Seamus Egan) and “Lost Souls” (which features the Sirius String Quartet). Both project an air of haunting romance, and have a very cinematic feel. The album includes a long list of top guest musicians, including Seamus Egan, Seamus Connolly, Felix & Brendan Dolan, Cillian Vallely, Jerry O’Sullivan and Winifred Horan (to name but a few). It reads like a who’s who of traditional music in America. The only thing this album lacks is a comprehensive booklet telling the story of each of Whelan’s compositions, but this is information that could easily be added to Whelan’s website.
Whelan sets the bar very high with this one. “Passage of Time” is a monument to his talent, hard work and creativity, and reflects the collected vision of one of America’s most accomplished traditional musicians.
“Passage of Time” is available through www.shamrockirishmusic.org. For more information about Whelan and his music, visit johnwhelanmusic.com.