By Daniel Neely
Last week New York lost another of its great old guard musicians, fiddle player Pete Kelly. Kelly, who lived on Long Island, was from Curries, Ballymoe, Co. Galway. He took up the fiddle as a youth, learning from Leo Bierne of Williamstown, and shortly thereafter learned to dance with the Dominic O’Connor Dancing School. Music was an obsession as he grew up and it followed him to England, where he went to school. He arrived in New York from Manchester in 1959 and after a stint in the military, he became a full time musician. A member of the early, pre-Comhaltas Irish Musicians Association, he assembled the first junior céilí band to compete in a United Irish Counties feis in 1965. The band, which came first, beat the senior bands, and led to the foundation of the Pete Kelly School of Music, one of New York’s the earliest Irish music schools, and the Shannonaires, a long lived band with a rotating membership consisting of Kelly’s school’s students. Numerous notables passed through Kelly’s school over the years and the Shannonaires, which recorded an LP, “Let the Children Play,” in 1975, traveled to Ireland annually to compete in Comhaltas competition. More recently, Kelly’s “Pete Kelly Premier Ceili Band” has been a long-popular attraction with dancers. He was inducted in the the Comhaltas’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Hall of Fame in 1993. Our thoughts go out to the entire Kelly family at this time.
In the player this week is Caoimhín Ó Fearghail’s “Uilleann Piping from County Waterford.” It seems that with Ó Fearghail, when it rains with it really pours. In November I wrote about “Flute & Fiddle,” the brilliant album he made with fiddle player Paddy Tutty, and in January I wrote about Skipper’s Alley’s great release “The Oul Fip” on which he also appears. This new album of solo piping, which was released by Dublin’s Na Píobairí Uilleann (pipers.ie), is the fourth volume of their “Ace and Deuce of Piping” series and is an impressive bit of musicking, which makes it a must-have for the pipers out there.
Ó Fearghail is from An Rinn, the Gaeltacht in western County Waterford. He studied the uilleann pipes with David Power, but also plays the tin whistle (he learned from Bobby Gardiner) and the flute & guitar (both of which he worked out on his own). He was a member of the group Caladh Nua, has toured with Noel Hill and Liam O’Connor, he’s has taught at the Willie Clancy and the Catskills, and in 2012 he was the recipient of the TG4 Gradam Ceoil “Young Musician of the Year” award – an impressive resumé indeed.
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Ó Fearghail has a particular interest in the music of Waterford – An Déise – and has used this album to explore that sensibility, focusing on airs and dance music associated with the area. For this reason alone, those from Waterford (and not just pipers) will especially want to take a closer listen to the music on this album.
However, it’s not as if Ó Fearghail hasn’t given the rest of us reason to indulge. The piping here is fluid and rich, and he pulls a silky tone from his instrument. (Not surprising, as he’s playing a Alain Froment set.) Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Ó Fearghail doesn’t push the tempos, which not only doesn’t strain the listener’s enjoyment for sake of flash, but it allows the nuance in his music to breathe. I think this is perhaps best expressed on tracks like “Mary McMahon/…,” “Lá ‘le Pádraig,” and “Johnny Cope,” where he does an excellent job breathing life into the tunes. He also brings a fairly chaste and tasteful sensibility to how he uses his pipes’s regulators. Their relatively sparing placement enhances his lovely playing on tracks like “Miss Brien an Chúilfhionn,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat /…,” and “Buachaillí Bhaile Mhic Anndáin /….” Their use on a tune like “… / Whelan’s Old Sow” is understated, but adds lovely depth.
“Uilleann Piping from County Waterford” is a superb album of uilleann piping and further evidence that Caoimhín Ó Fearghail is a roundly talented musician who seems to have no limit to his ability. As far as contemporary albums go, “UPCW” reminds me more of an album like Joey Abarta’s “Swimming Against the Falls” than it does of, say, Cillian Vallely’s “Raven’s Rock” (who also uses a Froment set, if you’re the sort interested in the whole comparison thing). Ultimately, this album will primarily appeal to lovers of the uilleann pipes, but it should absolutely be on the radar of anyone who listens to traditional music given Ó Fearghail talent and ubiquity. Good stuff, indeed! “Uilleann Piping from County Waterford” can be purchased through Na Píobairí Uilleann’s website (see above) or at caoimhnfearghail.bandcamp.com.