Liz Carroll and guitarist/pianist Jake Charron. PHOTO BY ROBERT HAKALSKI
By Daniel Neely
Last fall, the Burns Library’s Irish Music Archives at Boston College quietly announced that it had completed the digitization of the James W. Smith and Joe Lamont Irish Music Recordings collections. Last week I was informed that a technical issue regarding access had been resolved, meaning these collections are now open and available for research by appointment, which is amazing news. These collections have great historical significance because they contain unpublished, homemade recordings that reveal the nuances of traditional Irish music making in the U.S. during the 1950s and ‘60s. The Smith recordings, largely made in Smith’s home in Allston, Mass., document many of Boston’s legendary musicians (such as Gene Frain, Billy Caples, Joe Derrane, Frank Neylon, Gene Preston, Paddy Cronin, and others), while the Lamont collection largely consists of roughly contemporaneous personal recordings made around New York City (including Andy McGann, Paddy Reynolds, Lad O'Beirne, Paddy Killoran, Peggy Riordan, and many others).
Collections like these are of tremendous importance to the study of Irish music in America. It is hoped that similar collections exist, will emerge, and find their way into any one of the fantastic Irish music archives around the U.S. (If you, or someone you know, are in possession of such a collection, especially an early one, consider acting now; the risk fail of media like acetate discs, magnetic tape, and film get, the more at risk of failure they become due to deterioration.) To learn more about these collections (and to hear samples from Paddy Cronin, Brendan Tonra, Peggy Riordan, Paddy Killoran, and other), visit tinyurl.com/smith-lamont.
Some of the James W. Smith Irish music recordings.
Meanwhile, in the file player this week I have “Half Day Road,” the new album from fiddle player Liz Carroll and guitarist/pianist Jake Charron. Carroll, who is one of the finest fiddle players in the history of traditional Irish music and one of its most prolific composers, needs little introduction. Her many, many accolades include being a 1994 National Heritage Fellow, a 2011 Gradam Ceoil winner, and a 2010 Grammy nominee, but one could go on and on. Jake Charron, on the other hand, is closer to the beginning of his young career, but has experienced auspicious critical attention thus far. He’s a member of the Prince Edward Island-based group the East Pointers, which was named “Ensemble of the Year” at the 2016 Canadian Folk Music Awards. The group also won a Juno Award in 2017 for their “Secret Victory” album and their album “What We Leave Behind” was nominated for the award in 2018. Charron and Carroll have been touring together for a few years now, and “Half Day Road” is a product of that work.
This album is made up of high octane fiddle music. In some ways, it’s a showcase for Carroll’s brilliance as a tunesmith, as she’s responsible for nearly every tune here (the exception being Charron’s “Last of the Leaves”). As a whole, the tunes show great diversity in Carroll’s approach to composition. For example, while “Heath and Bernie’s / Half Day Road / A Tune for Jim DeWan” each has the familiar lilt of the Irish tradition. “As the Crow Flies” has a crooked, old time feel, “Planxty Mary Fahey” and “The Famine” both move with a stately lyricism, and “Jarl Squad,” a tune honoring “those mad Vikings in Lerwick, Shetland” who build boats then burn them, has an evocative and more overtly “Celtic” groove about it.
But the thing that’s most striking about this album is the sheer virtuosity of the musicianship. Carroll plays with rare drive and sensitivity and has a partner in Charron who is well able to match her energy. And there are some ear-popping moments that stand out above and beyond some already very impressive music. I think, for example, of the quick cuts and the freedom she seems to have as she moves up the fingerboard on “The Bird” and the fire she wields in “Save the Ham” as she swoops in and out of the groove. It’s just breathtaking. The arrangements here are well balanced and make each track feel like a journey in itself. “Compliments of Jimmy Keane / fasten Your Seatbelts,” “The Twelve Steps / Trail Magic,” “The Cat / Etain McKinney’s Polka,” and “Heath and Bernie’s / …” are all excellent examples of this.
So there you have it! With the help of a newly and firmly established musician from Canada, one of Irish music’s finest (from Chicago!) has done it again. “Half Day Road” is an excellent album and a great choice for your St. Patrick’s season soundtrack. Give it some of your time, you’ll find yourself dazzled. To learn more, visit www.lizcarroll.com