Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
With Stevie Dunne’s newest, “Live at the Crosskeys Inn,” in the player this week, it’s the “glory-beaming banjo” (as Mark Twain once said) back in the spotlight. Originally from Clogherhead in Co. Louth but a longtime Belfast resident, Dunne is one of today’s top banjo players and “Crosskeys” is a Herculean effort of banjo playing excellence. Recorded live at the scenic Crosskeys Inn in Toomebridge, Co. Antrim (crosskeys-inn.com), Dunne has given Irish music fans (and banjo lovers in particular) a collection of tunes that will be talked about for some time to come.
Readers will note that I’ve given attention to an unusually large number of banjo albums over the past year or so, but the consistent quality and stylistic diversity they represent really is remarkable and demands the attention. Even a cursory listen of these albums show that someone like Shane Mulchrone’s approach to the music is different from that of Theresa O’Grady, that Pauline Conneely’s is different from that of Páraic MacDonnchadha, and so forth. And while Dunne’s technical prowess is akin, say, to that of someone like Cathal Hayden, he has his own vision for how the banjo should sound, and he really lets it show on this new offering.
“Crosskeys” is Dunne’s third album, after “Banjo” (2012) and “About Time” (2010), and he has a stellar supporting cast joining him, including Brian McGrath (keyboards), Cyril O’Donoghue (bouzouki), Gerdy Thompson (guitar), and John Joe Kelly (bodhrán). Together, this crew (although not all at the same time) dances lightly through 13 tracks of hard-hitting banjo music.
The album opens with “Jim Donoghues / Humours of Lissadell / Tom McElvogue’s No. 3,” a set of reels that establishes not only the album’s overall tone but also Dunne’s musical bona fides. It’s fleet, lissome music that is quite attractive to listen to.
That opening track is followed by a fabulous set of jigs, “The Yellow Wattle / The Maids at the Spinning Wheel / The Meelick Team,” and that by a full track list of great sets. “The Red Haired Lad / The Lighthouse / The Lifeboat Crew” is a particular stand out for me, not only because it’s a great selection of tunes (including two of Dunne’s originals) which Dunne plays to perfection, but because McGrath’s piano backing is intense, especially toward track’s end.
Readers should note that this album runs through many moods (as every album, but especially a banjo album should), with one of the more interesting being Dunne’s take on “Sally Gardens,” which he delivers in a guitar duet with Thompson. The hornpipe set “O’Flaherty’s / Off to California” offers another bit of contrast, with Dunne giving the two tunes a jaunty and uplifting feel that any dancer would welcome.
Finally: one of the lovely things about this album is the tone Dunne pulls from his instrument. Most of this comes out of Dunne’s right hand, of course, but his banjo, made by UK-based Jim Patton (www.jpbanjos.co.uk), is worth mentioning because they’re brilliant sounding (and very fairly priced) instruments used by many of today’s top players.
As Twain might have said, “Live at the Crosskeys Inn” is “genuine music” that “will come right home to you like a bad quarter.” The fact that the album was recorded live helps this, as it conveys a lively sense of presence which says something about the instrument’s contemporary style. The interesting balance here is in Dunne phrasing: he’s got a keen sense of what the old music should sound like, but he’s added to it the full spectrum of modern touches, ornaments, and melodic gestures that many of today’s players make efforts to explore. Dunne just happens to do these things particularly well. All things considered, this is a virtuosic and eminently musical collection that every banjoist should consider a must-have – one to check out, indeed! To purchase “Live at the Crosskeys Inn,” visit steviedunne.bandcamp.com.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music each week in the Irish Echo.