Eugene O’Donnell, right, with Mick Moloney.
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
Sad news from the world of Irish traditional music to report on with the passing of legendary fiddle player Eugene O’Donnell. Announced via Facebook by O’Donnell’s longtime musical partner and close friend Mick Moloney, O’Donnell passed away early in the morning, last Friday in Derry City. “He was a great and indeed legendary fiddler who specialized in the passionate performance of the ancient slow airs of Ireland and the majestically beautiful set dances composed by the masters in centuries long gone,” Moloney wrote. “He was a great composer himself and accompanied songs like none of his generation. Above all he was loyal to the very core of his being – the sort of man who would swing for a friend. All who knew him will be heartbroken at his loss.”
O’Donnell was born in Derry. In his youth he became a step dancer of great renown and won several All-Ireland titles. In 1957, he moved to Philadelphia and became a well-known dance teacher (TCRG, ADCRG), training dozens of students through the Philadelphia Céilí Group at the Commodore Barry Club. He was perhaps best known for his fiddle playing. Before coming to the U.S., he played on his own and with céilí bands, an activity he continued with after his arrival, most notably as a member of a Philadelphia-based céilí band that took first place at the New York Feis in 1965.
However, it wasn’t until he met Mick Moloney in 1972 that O’Donnell’s special talent came to a wider audience both in small group settings and as a member of Moloney’s group Green Fields of America. Together, they made some of Irish America’s most enduring and best loved recordings, including “Mick Moloney with Eugene O’Donnell” (1978), “Uncommon Bonds” (1984), and “Three Way Street” (1993). However, it was O’Donnell’s “Slow Airs and Set Dances” (1978, also with Moloney) that best showcased his superior talent. It remains a breathtaking album over 40 years after its initial release.
O’Donnell will be remembered for his standing as a musician and dancer, but also for his unmatched wit and charm – he was considered a true gentleman by all who knew him. His passing is a major loss for the music and for those who loved him.
And yet, in loss we can be reminded of the ways in which the tradition endures, and how it occasionally does so in utterly brilliant fashion. Such is the case with Haley Richardson and Quinn Bachand, who have a new album out, “When the Wind Blows High and Clear.” It is filled with astoundingly good playing and a creative vision that sets it apart.
Readers of this column will know Richardson (www.haleyrichardsonmusic.com) as a once-in-a-generation fiddle player. A multiple All-Ireland champion and the 2018 senior Fiddler of Dooney awardee, she’s performed with Chieftains, Altan, Dervish, Mick Moloney, Pride of New York, Liz Carroll with Cherish the Ladies, John Whelan, Paddy Keenan, The Máirtín de Cógáin Project, and she’s a member of Green Fields of America. She released her acclaimed first solo album “Heart on a String” in 2015 and is currently the lead fiddle for Riverdance in Dublin.
Haley Richardson and Quinn Bachand.
From the west coast of Canada, Bachand (quinnbachand.com) is another young musician with a serious reputation to boast of. Once described as “Canada’s top Celtic guitarist,” he’s an award-winning multi-instrumentalist who has toured with the likes of Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster, and draws stylistic influences from Irish, old-time, folk, and jazz musics. Here, he plays guitar, piano, bass, drums, banjo, mandolin, bouzouki, and sings, and he does not disappoint, proving himself a fabulous partner for Richardson.
Lots of tracks to talk about here. “The Old Favorite” is a lovely selection of jigs on which they’re joined by Lúnasa frontman Kevin Crawford. He adds wonderful melodic depth and fits into the fiddle/mandolin/guitar texture brilliantly. Bachand’s “Tune For Garth Kempster” is a beautiful track given a lush, swinging setting that’s a joy to listen to. The traditional song “Bonnie Miner Lad,” which Bachand delivers, is given a dark, searching tone through a jangly guitar and a large string section. What they’ve done is transform this old song into something entirely fresh, and it’s just great. I love “The Whippet,” a trio of jigs featuring the mandolin and fiddle at first, then adding in the tenor banjo. The third jig, after which the track is named, was composed by Richardson and it’s a cracker. The air “Dark Slender Boy” is one of Richardson’s big features. Strong playing over Bachand’s great backing makes this a standout as well. The other is the song “Dearest Dear,” on which she sings, thus revealing another facet of her talent.
“When the Wind Blows High and Clear” is a stellar album. Built using a tasteful selection of well-loved traditional tunes, a few of more recent composition (by the likes of Tommy Coen, Paddy O’Brien, Tommy Peoples, and Mick McGoldrick), and several by Richardson and by Bachand, it is given life through brilliant playing and smart, tastefully modern arrangements. It will, of course, appeal to traditional music fans but it’s also one that will reach those who don’t yet fully appreciate all that traditional music has to offer. This one’s just great – don’t miss it. “When the Wind Blows High and Clear” is available through Richardson and Bachand’s sites (see above) and via CD Baby.