Pauline Conneely is an important figure in the Chicago trad scene.
By Daniel Neely
As a banjo player, I am always delighted when a great new banjo album lands, and I feel especially so when the stylistic approach is direct and says something frank about the serious nature of the instrument. It’s something one hears in the playing of John Carty, Angelina Carberry, and Mick Moloney, but it’s also something one happens to hear in the playing of Pauline Conneely. In fact, she’s the reason why I’m so happy this week, as she’s just released her solo debut “All Because” and it’s fabulous.
Although now based in Chicago, Conneely is originally from Bedford, England, born to parents who settled there from Connemara and Longford. To say she came from a musical family puts it lightly as both her parents are musical, as are her siblings, all of whom are accomplished musicians. (They learned from the great Brendan Mulkere.) Her brother Mick plays fiddle and bouzouki and performs with De Danann and David Munnelly, while Kathleen is a whistle player and recorded the brilliant CD “The Coming of Spring,” and Bernadette is a top notch banjo player with a sterling reputation in Ireland. Pauline, in fact, started out as a step dancer (indeed, a Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann tour was what first brought her to America in 1988), but it wasn’t long before one particular banjo player’s music called out to her: “I was 13 when I first heard John Carty play,” she writes in the album’s artist statement. “That was it for me!!”
Indeed it was. Since moving here in 1989, Conneely has been an important figure in the Chicago traditional music scene. In addition to playing with the best out there, she founded the band Chicago Reel (www.chicagoreel.com), and is also an in-demand teacher at festivals throughout the country.
There are many, I’m sure, who would argue this album is long overdue. Now that it’s here, more will know about the lovely flow in Conneely’s playing and the superior drive she has. She makes excellent work of it, too, by pulling a dark, assertive tone from her instrument. She’s joined here by a star-studded assortment of players who compliment her musicianship and who give the album some shade and nuance in terms of arrangement, including Liz Carroll (fiddle), John Blake (guitar & piano), John Carty (fiddle), Maggie Carty (banjo), Bernadette Conneely (banjo), Mick Conneely (bouzouki), Marty Fahy (piano), and Jonathan Whithall (piano).
The music here overall is brilliant and at times sublime. Conneely plays with a great sense of creativity and a subtle touch on tracks like “Paddy Cronin’s / …”, “The Maids Of Mitchelstown / …”, and “Galway Hornpipe / …”, all of which I find lovely. Another standout is “The Hearty Boys Of Ballymote / …” which begins with straight solo playing before Whithall enters with some tasteful piano support. Another favorite is the album’s closer “Scotch Mary / …,” which features a blast of banjo playing from Conneely, her sister Bernadette, and Maggie Carty. The trio’s playing rattles and jangles in a way I find very satisfying, and Blake, on flute, joins them toward track’s end adding a lovely touch. I can think of no better way to end an album of top class banjo music.
The production team, which includes Conneely, Blake and Carty, is incredible and deserves mention. A past member of Téada, Blake is a brilliant musician with a wonderful solo CD to his credit (“The Narrow Edge: Irish Music on the Flute”). Recently, he was also a featured player on “Music From the Lost Continent,” an album that includes Jesse Smith (fiddle), Sean Gavin (flute), and Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh (bodhrán). He has a lot of work out there, though, and it seems everything he is involved with meets the highest artistic and technical standard. The same can be said for Carty. His own solo albums, those he’s made with At The Racket, and the new album he’s made with his daughter Maggie (which I will discuss in the near future) are universally great and point to his excellent technical and artistic instincts. Together, the three bring together a shared vision and have maximized the project’s potential, all to the great benefit of the listener.
“All Because” is truly one of the great Irish banjo records of today. There’s great soul in Conneely’s music – her musicianship and taste are impeccable and this album is a delight to listen to. Fans of Carty, Carberry, and Moloney will want to check this one out, as will those interested in banjo-based bands like WeBanjo3. However, you don’t have to love the banjo to enjoy this album. The high quality of the music throughout makes it an easy listener – absolutely recommended! For more information about Conneely and the album, visit www.paulineconneely.com.