By Daniel Neely
Dublin seems to have a particularly vibrant traditional scene at the moment. Its institutions are in excellent hands, with fiddle player Liam O’Connor the director at the Irish Traditional Music Archive and Gay McKeon & Emmett Gill the CEO & archivist at Na Píobairí Uilleann. The session scene seems to be bustling at places like the Cobblestone, the Pipers Corner, and elsewhere. And, there’s a very, very interesting constellation of folks keeping the singing tradition alive, led by bands like Lankum, Ye Vagabonds, Lisa O’Neill, and Landless. All this, in addition to the various & sundry spots in Temple Bar, makes Dublin a very cool spot!
Standing stalwart in the fray is the band Skipper’s Alley. The members are all part the city’s character and life, and together they have released a pair of albums that reflect well the scene in which they play. Their eponymous solo debut, produced by Lúnasa’s Trevor Hutchinson, was a taut, well executed effort released in 2014 to some acclaim (unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of them at the time, but the Irish Times gave it four stars). Their new album “The Oul Fip” builds on their first album’s success and it does it very, very well. Released in digital form in November, the launch of the album’s physical manifestation will take place on Feb. 21 at Dublin’s Sugar Club and I expect it to make a splash.
The group’s current lineup is a venerable bunch, including Ultan O’Brien (fiddle), John Francis Flynn (vocals, flute, tin whistle, guitar), Fionnán Mac Gabhann (uilleann pipes, tin whistle), Patrick “Paahto” Cummins (banjo, tin whistle, vocals), and Caoimhín Ó Fearghail (flute, whistle, backing vocals). (I should note that the group’s lineup has condensed since their previous album, with two leaving and one slot changing hands.)
The “Oul Fip” is a mixture of instrumental and vocal music and what they’ve done to find the right balance makes for a fabulous effort. For example, “Ryan’s Rant,” is a fascinating exploration of an old reel. The instrumentation there is solely flute and whistle-driven and what starts out as a lively, quite driving flute solo becomes a lively, quite driving flute duet that accelerates in intensity when a whistle enters. At this point, the track really boils away like a pot of water, things bubbling up and over, and reaches a climax with the repetition of a “cranky” harmony in the last go-round. It makes for a bracing, ear grabbing touch.
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“Nellie, Your Favour I’m Afraid I Will Not Gain” is a tune the band took from an Angelina Carberry recording. The track opener is, in fact, the previous track, Mac Gabhann’s excellent solo take on “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” which flows neatly into “Nellie.” Cummins’s banjo is the transitional element, playing the tune over the drones of O’Brien’s fiddle’s and Mac Gabhann’s pipe’s drones. With each pass, the arrangement expands slightly, with additional instruments coming in until the tune changes, the banjo drops out, and Flynn (on flute) takes over the lead brilliantly. Later, Cummins returns with a rhythmic ostinato that the rest of the group falls in over. Its effect is hypnotic and makes for a great track. Creative arrangement is also the order of the day once again on “Tralee Gaol,” a Sliabh Luachra polka the group has put a dashing slant on. Again, what starts out with quietly intensity builds as Cummins’s banjo backing (yes, backing) pushes the band to greater heights and an intense finish.
What I find even more interesting about the album, though, are the songs. “The Farmer’s Curst Wife,” the opening track released last fall as the album’s single, should be familiar to fans of traditional music. In it, Flynn carries the tune well over a sparse arrangement that leans heavily on fiddle, banjo, and whistling. His voice is in fine fettle on “Madam I’m a Darling” and on “Walking in the Dew” it is evocative and delivered with great sensitivity. But the track of his I find myself most drawn to is “The Meet Was at Maitiú’s.” Learned from a recording of the great Jimmy Crowley & Stoker’s Lodge, Flynn’s voice and the band’s straightforward treatment gives the song stunning depth.
Cummins takes the balance of the vocal duties and shines on “Why Couldn’t She Drink Her Tea?” Taken from an old recording made in NYC by John Griffin “The 5th Avenue Busman,” Cummins sings, adding some of Griffin’s phrasing idiosyncrasies to his own. Combined with the full-throated band arrangement, it makes for a sharp track with a cool, old-style feel.
Skipper’s Alley’s “The Oul Fip” is an entirely charming album from a young cohort of engaging musicians who have a clear vision for the direction of their sound. There’s almost a throwback quality here, as if the music could have been made today or, say, in the 1970s. This smart, rough-edged band with the charm of hip, young Dublin makes compelling music and I recommend checking ‘em out – you won’t be disappointed. To learn more, visit www.skippersalley.ie.