An album released in 2020 that got missed amidst all of the live streaming.
By Daniel Neely
The last year has been a weird time for newly released albums. Things had been moving along all well and good for quite a while and then Covid hit, with things changing for everyone. One of the notable effects (and I write only of music, now) was last spring’s stagnancy. As artists looked for new ways to cope, it was a moment that didn’t yield a lot of “product.” With a complex, uncertain future on the horizon, it seemed many were reluctant to release new albums, with live streaming becoming the opportune alternative. This was an important (if perfectible) way to stay connected to be sure, but the massive volume of online messaging it created led to a low-fi situation wherein there was so much going that getting new material noticed became harder than usual.
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It was in this moment that “PJ Hernon and Sons” was released. A family affair organized around iconic, based-in-Sligo-but-originally-
PJ Hernon is a name known well to traditional music fans. He’s got a couple of solo albums of renown to his name (“P.J. Hernon” and “First House in Connaught”), he was a member of the bands Shaskeen and Swallow’s Tail, and he recorded “Béal a’ Mhurlaigh” and “The Grouse in the Heather” with his brother Marcus (another name that will be familiar to many). Add to this things like his work with the Coleman Heritage Center in Gurteen, and it’s quite a rounded life in music.
This is the family’s second album together, a follow up to “The Hernons, a musical journey from Connemara to Sligo” (2015). Hernon’s sons Domhnaill (fiddle), Séamus (flute), and Eóin (banjo) – born in that order – are perhaps lesser known than their father, but each is a very fine musician who clearly benefitted from the environment in which they were raised. Of the brothers, Séamus is the only one who has embraced music as a profession (he’s a member of the group Catmelodeon, has played on the same listing as Shane McGowan, Frankie Gavin, John Carty, Leonard Barry, and many others, and is a respected teacher), but all three appear to be of a professional standard.
Joining the Hernons here are a rake of musicians who provide excellent backing support, including Rodney Lancashire (bouzouki), Kevin Breheny (piano), John Dwyer (piano), Junior Davey (bodhrán), Brian McDonagh (mandola).
The music on “PJ Hernon and Sons” is of a uniformly high level and it’s a pleasure to listen to. The tunes shine right from “Lady Anne Montgomery / The Cup Of Tea,” the album’s opener, which features PJ and Domhnaill (a superb fiddle player who is an aerodynamic engineer by trade and currently the head of Experiments in Arts and Technology at Nokia Bell Labs). Indeed, most of the album’s tracks feature PJ and Domhnaill, with his playing on the opener, “Fahy’s / …,” and “The House in the Glen / …” being noteworthy. But it’s his playing on “Callaghan’s / …,” and the air “Johnnie Seoige,” where he can be really heard on his own and it’s great stuff. Both of these are exceptional tracks.
Séamus is a very, very skillful player as well. He has lovely tone and phrasing, and features on “Paddy Cronin’s / …,” “The Wonder / …,” and “The Farewell / ….” Each track has something to recommend it, but I found myself going back to “The Wonder / …,” with the playing there being particularly attractive. However, “The Farewell / …,” which opens with a tune by Séan McCusker and finishes with “Conor’s Trip to Sligo” and Hitchin’ to Michigan,” a pair of very nice tunes Séamus composed, is an excellent showcase of his acumen as a composer.
Eóin’s banjo playing is featured on a single track, “McHugh’s / The Green Fields Of Woodford / Whistling Banshee.” His approach here puts the melody at the center, with little additional adornment. The combination of box and banjo is lovely as always and makes for quite an enjoyable track
Finally, PJ is given a solo melodeon feature (accompanied by the bones) with “Swinging On The Gate / John Brosnan’s.” The playing here is gorgeous, as one might expect from a player of his status. He has a wonderful approach to the tunes and they’re played with beautiful rhythm.
I’m glad I caught “PJ Hernon and Sons,” it’s a terrific album. It’s so nice to hear new recordings from PJ (especially since the liner notes reveal the cageyness PJ brought to his role in the project!), but its also great to see how near to the tree his apples fell in terms of musicality. There’s a spirit in this music that reminds me of an album like John and James Carty’s “The Wavy Bow,” in that there’s a great tune selection, great variety, and it’s captured in a manner that confers the spirit of live performance. Lovers of traditional music will dig this one, especially those who appreciate what one might call a “pure drop” approach to the music. Great stuff! To purchase, contact Séamus Hernon at [email protected].