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April 2013 LI

If you are reading this column, you probably know who Lunasa is. Iconic in the tradition. One of the most popular groups of all time in trad, and rightly so. They are out with a new album—joined by The RTE Orchestra! Altan did an album like this last year. This one is better. Great to hear the symphonic treatment of some of the band’s favorite tunes, playing right along with the lads. Part of doing this is easy. Just get some charts done of old favs of the group, and plug in a terrific symphony thing. Voila! Bound to be great. Right? Maybe not. The trick is  that the band itself approaches their old tunes with a freshness matching the orchestra, and so it is here. Up tempo and airs, all together. Lunasa still kickin’ it after all these years. This is a great piece of business. Altogether.

One of the great fiddle players in the history of the tradition, Manus McGuire, told me years ago that he felt no one could play airs and waltzes better than the Scots. He may be right. With that in mind, we were thrilled to get a new CD from the iconic Scotch label, Greentrax. It is entitled Celtic Airs and Reflective melodies. It is a compendium album of 18 cuts from various Greentrax artists over the years. It is magic. There is a full range of different instruments, and blessedly, Greentrax avoided the temptation to include slow songs. No, this is the real deal. Airs. As we have gotten older, we have firmly come to believe that in order to gauge a musician’s real ability you must hear him or her play an air. There is nowhere to hide. It is the melody and the musician’s ability. Add the mysterious mojo of “soul” and you can have magic or a mess. All 18 of the cuts on this cd are magic. Manus McGuire is right, and you will be, too, if you get your hands on this one. This is not Phil Coulter muzak. This is music. Wonderful music.

We love Stevie Dunn’s new CD. He is a great banjo player who grew up in Louth and is now living in Belfast. Lately, there has been a rash of new banjo players on the scene, as well as lots of emerging, terrific button box and accordion players. We don’t’ know why. Something to do with cycles, we suppose. It is very, very hard for these new artists to get noticed, but Stevie Dunn will surely get his fair share with this album. There are 13 cuts covering a wide range of tunes, tempos, and ambience. This lad can play. Very creative. Not quite as creative, however, is his title for the album, Banjo. I mean, it’s descriptive alright, but any album with the a ton of wonderful guest musicians on it that Stevie has here deserves more. Arty McGlynn, David Munnelly, and Sean Og Graham are only three, but you get the idea. Great stuff, altogether. And it is great to hear these musicians blend so wonderfully. Stevie, work on the next title! In the meantime, keep playing that banjo!!

The Clare-based trio, Socks in the Frying Pan, has a brand new album on offer and it is a lovely thing, altogether. The name of the album, of course, is Socks in the Frying Pan. What else could it be? Fiachra Hayes is on fiddle, and his brother Shane does terrific work on the button box. Aodan Coyne plays guitar. This is all very traditional and very, very good. There are a lot of vocals and they are first cabin. It is lovely to hear a new group out that does such terrific work on harmonies. A lot of Irish groups over the years have downplayed the importance and beautiful sound of harmonies, but not Socks. We think that the group might benefit from the addition of a keyboardist, or some sort of instrumentation which might provide a bit more bass. That is especially important for festival audiences, as well as the American performances. But, don’t be mislead. This is a great album by three extremely talented young artists. It has been awhile since we have enjoyed a new group as much as this.

Iarla O’Lionaird has just released his latest, Foxlight. We could write for days about this sean nos singer. Well, he’s not sean nos.B But, he’s not modern. He inhabits his own universe in which he lives creatively among a lot of strains of Irish music. Working against him, in terms of a big, broad, mass appeal, is the fact that almost all of what he sings is in Gaelic. We did not care for his early work, when others were climbing on his bandwagon. It was random, disjointed, and tried too hard to be different. Now, he seems to have really found his footing over the last couple years. What has has carried him through everything is the fact that he has a terrific voice and a highly creative sensitivity. This is an artist at work, and an important one. We saw him recently at the Masters of Tradition show at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Oddly, that show consolidated the conflicts within his music. His voice was terrific throughout the night and he has real depth. Soul. So, why did he choose to open the entire performance with an 8-9 minute solo, extremely quiet vocal in Gaelic? See what we mean? Here’s the answer. What we have here is a really good singer who has a true grasp of the idiom. But to expand the scope and bring his music to a wider audience, he is going to need to use that wonderful voice and flex his artistic muscle in some new and more accessible areas.

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Tags: Foxlight, Iarla O’Lionaird, Lunasa

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