Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
I want to start off this week by recognizing New York-based concertina player Mattie Talty, who passed away on St. Patrick’s Day at 96 years of age. Born in Kilnamona, Co. Clare, Mattie was always full of music, generosity, and good cheer, and he was one of the scene’s great characters. A friend to all musicians, he will be dearly missed.
In other news: in conjunction with the brilliant fiddler Liam O’Connor (liamoconnor.ie), the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin (itma.ie) has recently added “Old Irish Folk Music and Songs,” P.W. Joyce’s “magnum opus” to its online collections. It includes the 371 tunes Joyce collected 1827-1909 and makes Joyce’s work accessible in a way previously unimagined.
What sets this apart is its utterly remarkable presentation. When a user navigates to the page and selects one of the collection’s tunes, they’re taken to a page that includes notation and a video of O’Connor playing the tune. Clicking the “play” icon at the bottom of the page starts the video and the animated notation simultaneously, which enables anyone to easily follow and internalize the tune. A sophisticated control panel allows the user to change the perspective of the video of O’Connor playing the tune, to control the speed of playback, to transpose the tune, to select a keyboard visualization, and much more. It’s an absolutely incredible resource, both from a musical and technical point of view. To check it out, visit tinyurl.com/PWJoyce. Very highly recommended for musicians!
Finally: the legendary Kilfenora Céilí Band is at it again with “Both Sides Now,” the 10th studio album in their illustrious 110-year history. With this this one, though, they’ve done something a bit different: “[This album’s] an exciting moment for us,” the liner notes state, “in that we merge selections from both our traditional and contemporary repertoire for the first time.” This, they say, creates “a space where past and future harmoniously coexist.” And indeed it does. It’s an intriguing approach, because the Kilfenora’s historic approach to céilí band music is definitely worth the price of admission alone, but the balance of the traditional and contemporary brings something far different to the table.
It’s fair to say that band has been trending in this direction for some time now – one need look no further than their 2016 performance of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” on “The Late Late Show” – but here the band extends their approach further into the world of traditional céilí band music. Harmonies in a set of dance tunes? Sure, why not? They’re right there in “Molly Bán / The Donegal Traveler / The Maids Of Castlebar,” the set of reels that opens the album. (By way of contrast, the Shannon Vale Céilí Band recorded Molly Bán on their “Shannon’s Lovely Vale” and give the tune a much more straightforward treatment, highlighting the difference in the Kilfenora’s approach.) You hear harmonies again during the hornpipe set in “The Swan,” and later on during the reel “McFadden’s Handsome Daughter,” and while it’s not the stuff that might be favored in fleadh competition (not yet, anyway), it works wonderfully.
Other modern-sounding touches range from little things, like the shift from a major key to minor “Lillie’s in the Field,” to the more substantial, like the overall approach to arranging on some tracks. Take the waltz/jig medley “The Jewels Of The Band’s / Tá An Coilleach Ag Fogairt An Lae.” What’s quite interesting there is how the Kilfenora’s substantial tonal resources and imagination are brought to bear on tunes that could be (and often are) played without much nuance. This is not your grandfather’s Kilfenora band, for sure.
Special mention should be made of concertina player Tim Collins, who contributes several compositions here. “Carron” has a languid, lyrical feel to it, while “Cathy’s Waltzes” is a lovely pair of dance tunes with contrasting sensibilities. However, my favorite are the polkas “Dinky Doofer / Coolaholliga,” which have a fresh and distinctive sound and add to the album’s modern sensibility.
There are also several songs here, including “Crusader” and “John O’Dreams,” featuring Jerry Lynch, and “John Condon” by Edel Vaughn. Perhaps the album’s most compelling vocal track is “Both Sides Now,” which features Vaughn. She’s done a lovely job with it, and the choice is quite fitting for the disc in terms of subject matter. It brings to mind the Johnstons, who recorded the song in 1968 to international acclaim. Interestingly, their version came out shortly before the group released simultaneously two albums “The Barley Corn” and “Give a Damn,” the former expressing a more traditional sensibility and the latter taking a more contemporary direction, something that mirrors what the Kilfenora has done here.
Incidentally, the Kilfenora includes John Lynch (banjo, mandolin), Fintan McMahon (piano), Anne Rynne & AnneMarie McCormack (fiddle), Sinéad Heagney & Eimear Howley (fiddle & viola), Anthony Quigney (flute, whistle & piano), Garry Shannon (flute & whistle), Claire Griffin (accordion), Tim Collins (concertina), Brian O’Grady (double bass), Sharon Howley (cello), and Sean Griffin (drums). The album’s guests include Dónal Lunny (guitar, producer), Edel Vaughn (vocals), Jerry Lynch (vocals), and Danny Byrt (percussion). It’s a robust group of musicians.
“Both Sides Now” is a remarkable album that will energize Kilfenora fans and attract new ears to the possibilities of céilí band music. The band’s sound is extremely tight, but it’s how well the production has captured the energy of their live sound that allows their expansive vision to come alive. The modern elements are integrated seamlessly, and while hardcore céilí music fans will find them conspicuous, they’re not objectionable and really represent a welcome expansion of the form because despite the modern touches, the band’s original spirit shines through. Great stuff, highly recommended! For more information, visit www.kilfenoraceiliband.com