Nuala photo

Drawing from two traditions

Nuala Kennedy.

By Daniel Neely

Back in 2012 my wife and I were having a pint at Connolly’s Bar in Kinvara and who walks in but Nuala Kennedy with her now-husband, the brilliant old-time singer A.J. Roach. It was great to see her and what a happy coincidence it was that fortune opened up and delivered a bit of craic to complement the already fairly idyllic pub setting.

Kennedy, who lives in Edinburgh but hails from Dundalk, is a critically acclaimed and award-winning recording artist. She sings, plays flute and whistle, and is a writer of songs and tunes. In addition to her solo work with the Nuala Kennedy Band, she performs in The Alt with John Doyle and Eamon O’Leary and Oirialla with Gerry (fiddle) O’Connor, Breton guitarist Gilles Le Bigot, and accordionist Martin Quinn.

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Her work draws songs and tunes from both the Irish and Scottish traditions and often blends sources and influences with a studied understanding of history and transmission, but she’s always out to find ways to make them sound like today. Her accrued knowledge and insight in the area has contributed to her a renown as a teacher – indeed, she teaches at many of the major festivals and teaching weeks – but her gregarious enthusiasm as both a person and as a performer is what ultimately endears people.

I’m a fan of Kennedy and her music. I wrote glowingly about her last solo effort “Noble Stranger” (because it truly was great) and I’ll do the same about the new one, “Behave the Bravest.” It’s an extremely well done, beautiful bit of work. Each of the album’s ten tracks – which include both instrumental and vocal selections – are nuanced but bold and everyone is strong enough to stand on its own. When taken together, however, they form a cohesive, varied, and satisfying whole.

The musicians on this album are drawn from the two touring versions of the Nuala Kennedy Band, one based in the UK and the other in the U.S. Tracks such as “The Lion's Den / The Burning House” and “His Bonnet So Blue” are delivered by the UK group and they’re wonderful. They feature Shona Mooney on fiddle, Michael Bryan on guitar and percussionist Donald Hay, who play with a unity that gives the arrangements a sense of opulence and depth and yield absorbing tracks that bear repeated listenings.

The U.S. group features on three tracks, “ Lovely Armoy,” ”Mo Bhuachaill Dubh Dhonn / Young Tom Ennis” and “Fair Annie of the Loch Royanne,” but it’s the latter two that simply knock me out. Eamon O’Leary’s string backing is immediately recognizable, as are his harmony vocals which blend perfectly with Kennedy’s, while Johnny Connolly (button accordion) and Mathias Kunzli (percussion) contribute brilliantly to the arrangement with a tasteful and finely wrought sense of understatement. The results are spectacular. (Incidentally folks who haven’t already should check out O’Leary’s work with Kennedy in The Alt [thealtmusic.bandcamp.com] and his kindred work in the Murphy Beds with Jefferson Hamer, it’s brilliant: www.murphybedsmusic.com).

Kennedy puts her superior instrumental skills on display on tracks like “The Broken Lantern” and “Glen Where the Deer Is / The Ivy Leaf / The Dublin Lasses.” Nested in the powerful playing of her UK crew, she again shows her powerful playing and rich tone. These tracks mix up the album’s overall groove nicely and bring lovely variety to the album’s vibe.

“Behave the Bravest” is simply outstanding. Kennedy’s surrounded herself with musicians that understand and share her vision and mirror her rooted, imaginative musical approach. Kennedy’s fans will welcome this one with arms wide open, but it will appeal to anyone who values urbane contemporary music rooted in a historically informed but carefully measured modern aesthetic. Outstanding stuff. Learn more about the album and how to buy it at www.nualakennedy.com.

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