Windswept west evoked at IAC

Norah Rendell’s “Spinning Yarns” is comprised of Irish, Scottish and English songs collected decades ago in Canada.

By Daniel Neely

New York City’s Irish Arts Center is known for staging the best and finest in Irish music and I’m happy to report their most recent production exceeded expectation. On Saturday, May 2, IAC hosted Ghost Trio (, an Irish music powerhouse that features Iarla Ó Lionáird (vocals and harmonium), Ivan Goff (uilleann pipes, flute and whistles) and Cleek Schrey (the hardanger-inspired 5+5 fiddle) and they were absolutely brilliant. I thoroughly enjoyed this band and its live show and I urge you to see them if you ever have the chance.

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The groundwork for this group was first laid in 2011 at the Irish Arts Center when Ó Lionáird (a member of the critically acclaimed group the Gloaming) and Goff (who tours widely with several top groups) were paired as part its Masters in Collaboration series. It was an outstanding pairing that in turn attracted Schrey, a musician with a kindred sense for the group’s direction, and whose instrument, which has drone strings and sounds wonderfully with the pipes and echoes the depth of the sean nós style, added an important dimension to the group’s overall sound. Since they formed, they’ve performed around the U.S. and Europe, including a shows at Princeton University and the prestigious Masters of Tradition festival at Bantry House in County Cork.

On May 2, Ghost Trio hypnotized with a lush and engrossing mix of instrumental tracks and evocative songs in both the English and Irish languages. Through the rich overlap of acoustic timbres, textures and sounds, the group managed to evoke the solitude of Ireland’s windswept west as well as the sanguine comfort of good friends and heady conversation, and pushed at the traditional boundaries of Irish music. I truly look forward to hearing what this exciting group will do next – we shall see what the future holds.

In my media player this week is Norah Rendell’s newest album, “Spinning Yarns.” Rendell is an award-winning singer, flute player and whistle player from Canada who now lives in Minnesota. In addition to being the executive director of the Center for Irish Music in St. Paul (, she has worked with groups including the Two Tap Trio and the Máirtín de Cógáin Project, she’s been a featured soloist at the Celtic Connections festival in Cape Breton, and was a longtime member of the group The Outside Track. This, her first truly solo album, is an enchanting project filled with carefully curated and sensitively delivered songs that music lovers will doubtless want to check out.

“Spinning Yarns” is dedicated to Rendell’s passion for the song tradition of Canada. Inspired by her husband Brian Miller’s research into northwoods song (, Rendell conducted her own intensive research and uncovered a number of pieces – 12 of which she presents here – that were collected decades ago from singers of Irish, Scottish and English heritage living in the great country to our north.

And in impressive body of songs it is. The albums starts with “Letty Lee,” a breezy love song that revels in the pursuit of a woman who, after enduring a barrage of platitudes, finally relents. Rendell sings beautifully here and sets a great tone for what’s to come.

“Lost Jimmy Whalen” is one of the album’s standouts. The interplay between the harp (Ailie Robertson), mandola (Randy Gosa), and bouzouki (Brian Miller) creates a texture that is almost like that of a music box come to life. The introduction of the harmonium adds an additional layer of interest which creates a nuanced and harmonically satisfying whole. Over this, of course, is Rendell who sings with great sensitivity

“Forty Fisherman,” collected in Newfoundland in 1951, is another standout. A tragic tale about the loss of life in the course of maritime duty, Rendell does a truly admirable job not only with her voice but on flute. Joining her here is Dáithí Sproule, who adds lively fingerstyle guitar playing that projects a sense of poignancy that goes so nicely with Rendell’s voice.

The standout track for me is “Sir Neil and Glengyle.” This song about Scottish knights and ladies collected in Nova Scotia in 1909 puts Rendell in spectacular light. The arrangement, driven by percussive harmonics on the guitar and a seething harmonium, articulate well with the way Rendell has chosen to phrase the lyrics. As the song become more involved, the harmonium introduces a bit of dissonance that destabilizes the harmony but brings a special sort of intensity that matches well with what Rendell sings. Lovely stuff, indeed.

“Spinning Yarns” is a thoughtful, intimate exploration of Canada’s song tradition. The songs she’s uncovered are unusual and thoroughly enjoyable, and the arrangements smartly conceived and well executed. There’s a warbling pastorality in Rendell’s voice that enriches the whole and helps make this a splendid homage to the song tradition of Canada. Highly recommended! To learn more about Rendell, this album and her work in general, visit

Daniel Neely is the Irish Echo’s traditional music correspondent.