Just where in New York Noel Hill's CD was recorded is the $64 question.
By Daniel Neely
Noel Hill is one of the true modern legends in Irish music. His is an iconic name not only in concertina circles but in traditional music in general and although there’s a lot of Noel Hill out there to hear, one can get a strong sense of what his music is about through the recordings that have defined his reputation. These include the game-changing albums he made with Tony Linnane (1978) and Tony MacMahon (1985), both of which showed a depth of spirit rarely captured on record, as well as his subsequent solo albums, “The Irish Concertina” (1988) and “The Irish Concertina 2” (2005), a pair of classics that featured playing as state-of-the art as you’d find. It’s all breathtaking stuff.
And now he’s out with “The Irish Concertina 3: Live in New York,” a new musical blockbuster. With instrumental music that absolutely bursts from the speakers and envelops listeners in the soul of Ireland, it’s an album that conforms to and perhaps even exceeds the high standard Hill’s past work set. The introductory essay by Tony MacMahon is a gentle reminder of the musical prowess Hill flashes here.
In some ways, Hill’s biography is simple: he was born in Caherea in West Clare to a family in which parents, grandparents and all of the grandparents’ siblings played concertina. But the legend grows from there: not only did he have the benefit of learning from his family in very traditional contexts (some of which are far less common than they were in the past), but also learned in unfettered fashion from musical titans like Willie Clancy, Paddy Canny, Peter O’Loughlin, and others. It’s what gave the natural and largely unmatched sense of the music’s history and nuances, which carried him through the 1970s, ‘80s, and beyond, leading to the albums I mentioned above and to the music we hear here.
From the opening strains of “Farewell To Finbarr,” the album’s first track, the music’s off with a shot, powering along with controlled abandon. Hill brings it down a touch on the jig “Banish Misfortune” and the “Clancy And Ennis Set” reels, before switching gears and setting into an emotive and quite compelling setting the slow air “The Foggy Dew.” These four tracks shift gears and make a fairly comprehensive and cohesive statement.
But this grouping makes sense in the album’s overall context, as the slow airs seem to divide the whole into what seem to be three discrete rhythmic episodes, each of which ends with a reel. We see this with the first few tracks, but after “Foggy Dew,” we have a pair of marches, a slide set, and then another reel. The two marches are exquisite choices – Planxty Davis is especially nice – as are the slides. Then, there’s an incredible take on “The Collier’s Reel” before another slow air, “Ó Rathaille's Grave,” which is a showstopper. This grouping makes sense as a whole and contrasts nicely with the one described above. Finally, we have a movement comprising two sets of jigs a hornpipe, and a reel set to close out the disc. This approach not only works wonderfully by highlighting the variety in Hill’s playing and the music’s rhythmic diversity, but it communicates the feeling that listeners are listening to and are perhaps even a part of a live performance. That the audience cries of “more! more!” after “The Fisherman’s Favorite,” the album’s penultimate track, are answered by a powerful pair of reels on “Up Sligo and Leitrim,” the album’s flashy close, helps bear out this.
The $64 question, though, is where in New York was “Live in New York” recorded? Neither the CD’s packaging nor Hill’s website (www.noelhill.com) reveal the venue’s identity. However after some inquiries, rumor on the Mews has it that the recording took place at New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House. Although the performance appears to have happened separate from Don Meade’s excellent and important “Blarney Star” concert series (blarneystar.com), the recording itself captures the sound and spirit of Ireland House in a way I’ve not heard before. Kudos to the engineer here who found a way to represent Ireland House’s space and its audience with such depth.
Hill is an other-worldly player: the ornamentations and variations he brings to the dance tunes are imaginative and thrilling, his air playing is arresting, and the rhythm and lift in his music in general is as good as there is. “Live in New York” reminds listeners of the power in Hill’s music and puts it into a clean and delightfully listenable package. Lovers of the pure drop will be spellbound by this album, it is definitely one for the collection. “Live in New York” is available through Raelach Records, raelachrecords.com.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music each week in the Irish Echo.