Brian Ó hAirt and Len Graham.
By Daniel Neely
Three years ago I wrote glowingly of Len Graham and Brian Ó hAirt’s first CD together, “In Two Minds.” I thought it was a remarkable album that showcased the special musical bond these two great singers have and since then, the duo has toured extensively and honed new material. Now, fans of the singers have reason to rejoice: earlier this year, Graham and Ó hAirt’s released “The Road Taken,” their second album. Named in a sort of response to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” this new release maintains the high artistic standard of its predecessor, however, it benefits from a more careful studio approach that provides a crisper, fuller sound which showcases these two men strikingly well and makes this offering superior album.
From County Antrim, Graham is a singer who needs little introduction. He is an All-Ireland winner in Traditional Singing (1971), a widely respected teacher, a renowned touring artist, a member of the noted group Skylark and a longtime musical comrade of the late singer and fiddler Joe Holmes (see Graham’s book “Here I Am Amongst You” for more on that relationship). He’s a singer’s singer with a beautiful voice and expansive repertory – a true bearer of Antrim’s singing tradition.
Although much younger, Ó hAirt (who is based in Portland, Ore.) is on a similar artistic trajectory. Like Graham, Ó hAirt is an All Ireland Champion in Traditional Singing (2002). He is also a renowned teacher and performer, a fluent Irish speaker, and a noted recording artist, not only with Graham, but also with the great band Bua. His voice is truly lovely, and the time he’s spent together with Graham is evident on this album: his phrasing and overall approach to these songs fit well with Graham.
Much of the album consists of songs performed in an older unison style. Some of the standout tracks include “Do Me Justice,” a song that protests the unfair representation of the Irish in 19th century journalism and “The Load of Kale Plants,” a courtship song Graham collected from Holmes, which he’s turned into a solo feature for himself. This particular track captures the power and force in Graham’s voice well, and ends wonderfully, with a bit of lilting accompanied by Ó hAirt’s footwork, a nod, perhaps, to Pat Roche’s recordings with his Harp and Shamrock Orchestra. It’s very satisfying.
I am also partial to “Don’t Come Again,” a song Graham collected from Eddie Butcher. The two men give it bit of a rollicking pace, but it’s Graham’s northern accent, which Ó hAirt ably echoes, that drives the song and gives it its personality.
The album includes a single track of instrumental music, “The Fair Of Ballydareen / The Doonagore” a set of reels Ó hAirt plays on the whistle. It’s lovely showing: Ó hAirt’s playing style is a ruffled but unhurried, and benefits from a bit of spoons playing toward the end. It’s a track that adds a nice bit of variety to the album.
Overall, this is a great project that singers and lovers of song will savor. There is lovely detail in Graham’s and Ó hAirt’s voices and together they sound wonderful. This strong vocal showing combined with the brilliant and sometimes unusual song selection, make this have a winning album that is sure to turn ears.
To learn more, visit www.storyandsong.com/collaborations.htm.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music in the Irish Echo each week.