The album cover
By Daniel Neely
It was the spring of 2014 and I was on my way over to Mona’s bar for the 10th anniversary celebration of the legendary “Live at Mona’s” album, when I stopped in for some pizza at this place on 14th Street. It was super hip spot, a line out the door kind of place known for its big heavy slices, and as I was munching away, flute player Brian Holleran, also on his way over to Mona’s, walked in. We sat and chatted about music, and at one point Holleran began picking apart his crust to show me these tiny, tiny bubbles inside it. He explained how they revealed a great deal about the dough’s ingredients and the temperature at which the pie was cooked. He wasn’t particularly impressed with the pizza, but concluded that the place’s approach was probably necessary based on how heavy their toppings were. I remember him saying something about making better pizza if he had his own pizza place.
Today, Holleran, who grew up in Jersey City and now lives in Cleveland, is the co-proprietor of Il Rione pizzaria, an establishment that gets absolutely rave reviews for its uncomplicated but finely wrought approach to traditional New York-style pizza. The business is strong and an integral part of its neighborhood and proof positive that Holleran knew what he was talking about and truly could do it better.
And that’s not the only thing. Two weeks ago, Holleran released “The Banks of the Moy,” a solo flute album that is superb by any metric. Joined by Eamon O’Leary (bouzouki/guitar) and Jefferson Hamer (mandolin), who otherwise perform together as the Murphy Beds, it’s an album that speaks volumes about Holleran and his musical journey. Better music you’d have serious trouble finding.
Holleran’s good craic. He’s gregarious with a great unique wit, and although young, he has a deeply grounded experience in Irish music. For example, he was a longtime student of the great east Galway flute player Mike Rafferty, and was not only an important part of the legendary Mona’s session but was a featured player on the 2004 “Live at Mona’s” CD. But he’s played around widely beyond that and is the sort of player musicians go out of their way to have a tune with. He’s also the type of guy who puts high value on the community and camaraderie that come with the music.
This respect is apparent throughout the album. The album’s liner notes, for example, pay tribute to the people who had significant influence on his musical development, including Patrick Ourceau, Willie Kelly, Jack & Father Charlie Coen, Lesl Harker and of course Mike & Terry Rafferty. He seems to have forgotten no one. But where it is most apparent is in his playing. Holleran has a full, silky tone and a masterful sense of phrasing and expression that owes a great deal to his musical mentors, particularly Rafferty. It's the foundation on which an album as enjoyable as this one is built.
From “The Ace & Deuce of Pipering,” the set dance that opens the album, to “Coming Home From the Bog,” the fling that closes it, there’s nothing here that isn’t utterly gorgeous. I particularly enjoy “The Beauty Spot /…” (reels) and “Come in from the Rain” (jig), which are unhurried and really give good insight into how Holleran approaches his music. The slow air from which the album takes its name is also a arresting bit of playing. O’Leary and Hamer’s contributions are dynamic but understated throughout, but I particularly love their contributions on “The Maid at the Well/The Gentleman” (the latter a Holleran composition dedicated to his father) and the set dance “Down the Hill,” which is breathtakingly beautiful. There, O’Leary and Hamer set a perfect tone that enhances Holleran’s playing wonderfully.
“The Banks of the Moy” is quite simply an album of gorgeous traditional Irish music. The playing is stunning, the tunes well chosen, and the overall feeling warm and dark with wonderful lift – you can really hear the thought with which Holleran articulates the tunes he plays. Although I doubt very much it was the intention, but at times the album reminds me of Martin Hayes’s “The Lonesome Touch,” with flute instead of fiddle – there’s a similar sort of appeal. Regardless, Holleran’s great love for the tradition is palpable and makes this album feel like something very special, indeed. If you love traditional music, you’ll absolutely want this one for your collection. “The Banks of the Moy” is currently available to download at brianholleran.bandcamp.com, but Holleran reports (in typical fashion) that physical copies will be available “maybe around Saint Patrick’s Day so everyone can drown the shamrock while listening to it.” And if everyone took Holleran’s advice, the holiday would be better for it!