The outstanding album also comes with a set of great liner notes.
By Daniel Neely
This week it’s a real pleasure to write about “Boston And Maine, Live From Priest Road,” a new album of traditional music featuring musicians from, well, Boston and Maine! Featuring Helen Kisiel, a Boston-area piano player, and a group of friends who include Kevin McElroy (fiddle & banjo; mcelroyviolins.com), Will Woodson (flute; woodsonfinley.com), Junior Stevens (accordion; juniorstevens.com), Kieran Jordan (sean nós dancing; kieranjordan.com), it’s a fabulous album of tunes played in a relaxed, old-fashioned style that’s eminently listenable and absolutely enjoyable.
Kisiel, who grew up in Boston, has been an important part of Irish music in that area for a long while. She was already a “known commodity” when she appeared on the 1981 album “We’re Irish Still” for Comhaltas as a featured accompanist, and her appearances on several recordings in the Séamus Connolly Collection of Irish Music (connollymusiccollection.bc.edu) speak further of her rare status. Digging deeper, her deep, long standing relationship with the great fiddler Brendan Tonra, with whom she played for decades, is the stuff of legend.
However, these examples really only tell part of the story, because Kisiel’s house (on Priest Road) has long been a touchpoint for traditional music. It’s a home people speak about with great reverence, an idea reinforced in the album’s foreword by Open the Door for Three member Kieran O’Hare (www.openthedoorforthree.com), who writes that it’s “one of the holy places for Irish music in the Boston area [where] musicians have gathered for decades [and] share the vibrant musical and social traditions that travel hand-in-hand with the music.”
It’s significant, then, that much of this recording was made at Kisiel’s house. Because it’s such a beloved and welcoming place (with the echoes of house parties past still reverberating), the friendship, camaraderie, and tradition it’s noted for has given the music a very “homey” dynamic.
Kisiel, McElroy (who I understand provided the motivation behind this album), Woodson, and Stevens have really made some beautiful music here. I listen to a track like “Maids Of Castlebar / Tom Ward's Downfall / Farewell To Old Erin” and can feel the joy in the music. And there’s an incredible sense of tradition on “Willie's Fiddle / Man In The Bog / Tonra’s,” three of Tonra’s own tunes that are delivered in an easy, forthright manner, granting them the great respect they deserve.
Stevens and McElroy sound particularly well on “Hinchey's Delight / When You're Sick It's Tea You Want / Humours Of Ballingary.” The touch in their music here has an ease about it that Kisiel’s piano lifts up beautifully. I find the same dynamic on “Farewell To Whiskey / The Dark Girl Dressed In Blue,” but with Woodson’s voice being particularly strong and blending nicely with the fiddle.
A couple of tracks, “Up Sligo / The Rambling Pitchfork / Irishman's Heart To The Ladies” and “The Wily Bachelor / Tomorrow Morning” feature Jordan’s dancing. Jordan has brilliant rhythm (would one expect less from one of the great US-based dancers?) but the way her feet sound and blend with the music here is very engaging.
If the outstanding music wasn’t enough, the album also comes with a set of great liner notes, “A Golden Age in Boston,” by the historian Michael Quinlin. In it, he provides a thumbnail sketch of traditional music in Boston after the establishment of the region’s first Comhaltas branch, which reads as a loving who’s-who of the scene from the last 50 or so years and helps contextualize this album, the tunes, and the musicians who appear on it.
In the end, “Boston & Maine” is an album of sweet, sweet music. Kisiel’s playing has the loveliest lift to it, and it gives the music a shine that you don’t always hear but want to. In that sense, I hear parallels here with the Boruma Trio, whose music shares a kindred sort of soulfulness. If you’re looking for some new, lovely, thoughtfully done traditional music played with great lift at a pace that lets you savor the details, you need look no further – “Boston & Maine” is it. Throw it in your CD player, sit back and enjoy, it’s easy as! To purchase a copy, visit Kevin McElroy’s website, mcelroyviolins.com.