Niamh Ní Charra’s versatility as a musician ensures this album has a lot of variety.
By Daniel Neely
The first thing I noticed about Niamh Ní Charra’s new album is the arm on the cover. No sleeve, no skin, just a straight anatomical drawing of an arm. It’s a fascinating and eye catching presentation and one that immediately drew me in, like any good album cover should.
“Donnelly’s Arm” – for that is the album’s title – recalls the life and peculiar story of Dan Donnelly, a celebrated (and notorious) Dublin boxer. After his passing 200 years ago, his grave was robbed and his corpse stolen. Donnelly’s body was subsequently returned, albeit without its right arm, which was saved for posterity due to its unusual (and perhaps comic) length. Since then, it’s been used for medical study, put on display in pubs, and does the occasional tour. (It’s most recent New York appearances were at the Irish Arts Center in 2006 and South Street Seaport in 2007.)
It’s a fascinating story on its own, but it has a musical tie: Donnelly’s patron was County Kildare-based aristocrat and uilleann piper “Sporting” Captain William Kelly. Traditional musicians may recognize him from the writings of Francis O’Neill, who profiled Kelly in “Minstrels and Musicians” but surely will from “Captain Kelly’s,” the popular session tune that carries his name.
From Kerry, Ní Charra is a fiddler, concertina player and vocalist of great repute. A featured performer in “Riverdance” from 1998-2006, she’s released a pair of fine solo albums, including the critically lauded “From Both Sides” (2007) and “A Tribute To Terry "Cuz" Teahan” (2013), which was fabulous not only in concept & execution, but because of how so thoughtfully researched it was. With “Donnelly’s Arm,” Ní Charra adds another feather to her hat.
The music here is engrossing. The album starts out with a set of jigs, “The Copper Mines of Killarney / Covering Ground / Andy de Jarlis” (the first, a Ní Charra original) that sports a tight arrangement and well-channeled intensity, that I think captures the spirit of the album as a whole. Ní Charra’s fiddle playing is lovely, and it’s only enhanced by the the interplay between Kevin Corbett (guitars) and Dominic Keogh (bodhrán), who tie the track together very neatly.
The same kind of intensity can be found on other tracks, like the slide set “Flush of Success / The Worn Torn Petticoat / Tom Billy's Favourite,” or in the reels “Donnelly’s Arm / Pretty Peggy / Julia Delaney’s,” where she’s joined by Órlaith McAuliffe (flute) and Claire Sherry (banjo) who bring so much to the sound. It’s especially apparent on the clan march “Seanchnoc,” where Corbett’s guitar playing takes a lead-setting tone.
But Ní Charra’s versatility as a musician ensures this album has a lot of variety. There are three songs, “Cad é Sin Don t’É Sin,” “Ceol An Phíobair” (with Mikie Smyth on pipes!) and “Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” each of which is excellent. However, it’s “Gone,” a composition of songwriter Si Kahn's, that is particularly noteworthy in that the arrangement embraces a bluesy vibe in a way that suits Ní Charra’s voice well and because the track finishes with a pair of really lovely Ní Charra compositions, a slip jig and a reel, collectively titled “Ar Scáth a Chéile.” The tunes are great (as is Sherry’s banjo playing, who again guests) and named for an Irish proverb that she says expresses the idea of interdependence.
One of the album’s finest tracks, I think, is the slow air “Eanach Dhúin.” Ní Charra delivers a stirring rendition, with her concertina adding some force to the sound. The whole track is given a light arrangement and has some added studio technique that provides some sonic depth, allowing guest cellist Kate Ellis extra space to express herself.
“Donnelly’s Arm” is great and an album traditional music listeners will want to add to their collection. Ní Charra is a superb, multi-dimensional musician, but she also has the sort of outstanding taste and reach that can really take a recording project and tie it together. The results here are a total knockout! Definitely recommended! For more information, visit www.niamhnicharra.com.