Mac donnchadha album cover rsz

Mac Donnchadha finally front, center

"An absolute must-have for anyone who loves traditional Irish music."

Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely

It’s been a banner year for the banjo, with new releases from brilliant players like Theresa O’Grady, Shane Mulchrone, Stevie Dunne, and others. However, when all’s said and done, the crowning jewel of them all will undoubtedly be “Not Before Time…” from Galway’s Páraic Mac Donnchadha. Mac Donnchadha is a player with deep musicality and excellent taste and his “Not Before Time…” is an excellent album that does more than just deliver – it is an absolute must-have for anyone who loves traditional Irish music.

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An album “39 years in the making” (as this one is, stated on the CD’s cover), has every reason to be this good, but it’s a shame it took this long. Mac Donnchadha’s prior album appearances are limited to guest spots on Tomás & Seosamh Ó Ceannabháin’s 1990 album “Ó Aird go hAird,” and on “Maiden Voyage,” the ground-breaking session album made at Pepper’s in 1991, where he made a particularly strong impression alongside musicians including Kevin Crawford (flute), Siobhan Peoples (fiddle), Andrew McNamara (button accordion), P.J. King (button accordion), and Pat Marsh (bouzouki).

He’s front and center here, however, joined by another stellar cast of supporting musicians, including Claire Egan (fiddle/viola), Graham Guerin (accordion), Cormac Begley (concertinas), Macdara Ó Faoláin (bouzouki), Terence O’Reilly (guitar), Libby McCrohan (bouzouki), Colm Murphy (bodhrán), Mac Dara Mac Donncha (uilleann pipes), Sinéad Mac Donncha (keyboards), and Noel O’Grady (Bouzouki). This is an excellent collection of very fine musicians, all of whom enhance the album’s quality.

What makes this album different – and perhaps even important – are two things. The first is the lift heard on each track. Mac Donnchadha has a superior melodic sense and he expresses it in tempos that are just lively enough to allow him to explore each tune’s nuances. Nothing’s too fast, but everything breathes in a way that is brilliant to listen to. The second thing is the album’s throwback feel. Mac Donnchadha’s stylistic approach is is rooted in that of East Galway and Clare and reflects the long tradition of those areas. I hear obvious parallels in his banjo playing to folks like John Carty, Mick O’Connor and Charlie Piggott, as well as echoes of lesser-known but equally compelling players like Liam Farrell and Sean Casey.

However, Mac Donnchadha’s influences go far beyond banjo players. The musicians who inspired the album in the first place include musicians he knew or played with, including Willie Clancy, Máirtín Byrnes, Paddy Carty, Conor Tully, Paddy Kelly, Paddy Fahey, John Kelly (Sr & Jr), Kevin Burke, Paddy Canny, and Martin Rochford, to name a few. (There are many, many more named in the liner notes of the CD’s exceptionally nice packaging.) All of this as a whole yields a banjo album that is refreshingly different and entirely well done.

Many tracks stand out to me. “Mick O’Connor’s / George White’s” sails along with lovely grace, aided by Ó Faoláin and Sinéad Mac Donncha. Begley is his partner on “The Galtee / The Meadow / Johnny McIljohn’s.” There, Begley’s playing a low tuned concertina on the track and Mac Donnchadha’s tuned his banjo down quite low to match. The result is quite an unusual but entirely inviting mellow timbre that enhances the already lovely playing. I also enjoy listening to Ó Faoláin and O’Reilly as Mac Donnchadha’s co-conspirators on “The Wild Swans at Coole / Paddy Fahey’s #1.” It’s a pair of tunes that sound fantastic here.

Egan, joins Ó Faoláin, and O’Reilly on “Girl That Broke My Heart / Touch Me If You Dare” and “Pigeon on the Gate / The First Day of Spring.” Both of these tracks are absolutely stunning, full of sweet touches and are played at perfect tempos. Egan is, of course, a brilliant musician on her own (some readers may remember my coverage here of her superb album “Turning Tides” in 2015) but her understanding of and musicality in articulating with Mac Donnchadha’s banjo playing is completely ear catching and one of the the album’s special features.

There is a single song on the album, “Carraig Na Siúire,” which features Mac Donnchadha’s father Séan and is included in tribute to him. The track begins with the titular song as it appeared on the “Maiden Voyage” album. A drone off Mac Dara Mac Donncha’s pipes are laid underneath Séan’s voice to strong effect, and the track concludes with a set of three tunes “Tatter Jack Walsh / Frieze Britches / Bean Páidin,” played on banjo and pipes. It’s a lovely, relaxed track that communicates the album’s “tribute” sensibility wonderfully.

“Not Before Time…” is something of a rare bird because aren’t many banjo albums of this caliber and particular flavor. Listeners looking for gentle, steady music from an experienced player who puts musicality before all else will absolutely love it. It’s also an essential album for every banjo player. I’m very happy to have this CD in hand as it not only seem to really capture the great life in Mac Donnchadha music, it says something significant and positive about banjo music in general. Very highly recommend. “Not Before Time…” is available online through Custy’s Music