By Daniel Neely
From Castlefinn, Co. Donegal (although now living near Dungannon, Co. Tyrone), Bríd Harper is one of the finest fiddlers in traditional music. She has played since she was 9 and is a fiddler of great achievement (in 1988, for example, she won the Senior All Ireland fiddle champion, the Oireachtas na Gaeilge and the Fiddler of Dooney triple crown) and she currently has a new album out – her debut! – called “Bríd Harper.” Harper’s album is attracting some compelling buzz in Ireland and it is extremely easy to see why: it is a fantastic collection of beautiful fiddle playing given tasteful support by a handful of top players in the music.
The album begins auspiciously with “Flower Of Sweet Strabane,” an air that unfolds slowly and deliberately, and sets a serious tone. However, the moment is fleeting as Harper soon changes the tempo and bursts into a pair of fast reels, first “Green Fields Of Glentown” and then “Farewell To Ireland.” Her playing is bold and nuanced, and has incredible lift here. Toward the track’s end, Harper shifts gears again and reprises “Flower” to close. It’s an unexpected and somewhat jarring move, but it works well because it’s an evocative and very well executed idea that reflects a good sense of taste and an imaginative musical mind. It’s a move that sets the album’s positive tone and foreshadows the music to come.
Harper’s ideas and performance are excellent throughout the album. For example, her playing on tracks like “Ciaran’s Reel / Black Pat’s” and “Bo Mhin Na Toitean / Tartan On The Heather / Johnny Boyle’s Jig / The Atlantic Roar” is wonderful. Both are solo fiddle tracks in which she moves seamlessly between dance rhythms with a sense of logic and ease you don’t always hear – it’s just brilliant stuff. Indeed, her tune choices really complement her playing, not only on these two particular tracks, but throughout the album. Much of what she’s recorded here are outstanding, recently composed tunes from folks like Tommy Peoples, Liz Carroll, Jerry Holland, Billy McComiskey, and others, and they add to the album’s greatness.
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There are several notable guests here, including guitarist John Doyle (guitar and mandola), John Joe Kelly (bodhrán), Trevor Hutchinson (bass), Dermot Byrne (accordion) and P.J. McDonald (whistle), all of whom give strong performances. However, one guest who I think recommends herself particularly well is banjoist Brona Graham who appears on two tracks – she’s just brilliant. Her contribution on “Jig For Yvette / Lad O’Beirne’s No.2 / The New Whistle,” where she joins Harper and Seán Óg Graham (guitar) is stunning, and adds an extra dimension to already spirited playing. She also makes a great partner for Harper, McDonald, Byrne and Kelly on “Knotted Chord / The Coast Of Austria / First Century Reel,” which is an exciting track that has a nice band feel in its arrangement.
Overall this is an excellent CD from a sophisticated musician. Harper uses her sense of taste and her guests’ many talents to bring variety here in a way that will reward multiple listens. “Bríd Harper” is an album that will absolutely attract lovers of fiddle music but also anyone who loves good traditional music. I’m delighted to have heard it – highly recommended! For more information or to buy the CD, visit www.bridharper.com.
Mighty Keith O’Neill
Last week, Keith O’Neill, one of New York’s most loved fiddle players, passed away. Keith grew up in a musical family in the Bronx, his brother Frankie and his sister Pauline were his musical partners in those days, and all three were members of Martin Mulvihill’s champion Garrai Eoin II ceili band. He found early success in music: in addition to being an All-Ireland winning musician, Keith was a member of the popular group Four to the Bar in the 1990s and more recently lent his talents to groups like Jameson’s Revenge. Keith was also a master plumber and a gifted craftsman who repaired banjos and in fact built three fiddles. He inspired many of the City’s younger musicians, including Isaac Alderson, who named his reel “Mighty Keith O’Neill” for him. Garrulous and gregarious, Keith was an outstanding player whose presence immediately electrified a session. He will be sorely missed.