LiveIreland Dec. 2009
I remember well when I started collecting antique images of Ulysses S. Grant, America’s greatest general. When anyone starts collecting, they are all in a mad rush. For me, it was anything with Grant’s image on it. For others, it is coins, stamps, old samplers, antique maps…whatever. And, for all those collectors, the result is always the same. The madness subsides, and through whatever process one goes through, the taste becomes more specific. Twists, turns and modifications lead the ardent collector to study more specifically, and purchase more carefully. Inevitable, and beneficial.
So it is with music----really, any art form. Having paid my way through college as a studio musician in Chicago while performing in different R&B bands, I thought the be- all and end-alls were Sam and Dave, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and James Brown. And, so they are, even today---in their branch of music. Along the way, through a twisting path, I was introduced to real Irish music. It has stayed with me all these years, and having written about it for well over 20 years while receiving about 500 cd’s a year in the mail for possible review, (they used to be cassettes and before that, records! Actual records!!) the “Grant experience” has been repeated. Hopefully, the mad rush of, “Gee! I LOVE Irish music!!” mellows to a more discerning and knowledgeable set of tastes, with a better ear. And, then, certain artists change everything along the way, starting with an early collaborator and folk hero, Bruce Hirsch, to the great Irish groups we all know. When I came into it, DeDannan, Planxty, the Bothy Band, Christy Moore were all the go. Along the line, groups like Reeltime, Moving Cloud and the David Munnelly Band appear and change everything while confirming everything at the same time. Singers like Laura Smith, Cathie Ryan, Rita Connolly, Eddi Reader, Tim Dennehy, Seamus Heaney, Eilis Kennedy, Sean Tyrrell, Frank Harte and Tommy Fleming light a whole new path of meaning and beauty.
And, somewhere in all this, something else interesting happens. With certain artists, you begin to lose the ability to evaluate, never mind “judge” their music. What they produce is of such uniform brilliance, you have fallen in love, and love is blind. When, in the past, we have said we would listen to Cathie Ryan sing the phone book, we mean it. These artists are the essence of magic. So, when a new cd arrives, you know you are sunk. I have always thought it was nonsense that a writer or critic in any art form should be “objective”, or claim to be. News reporters should be objective. Critics are paid to be subjective. And, in that subjectivity, it is like falling in love with a woman. You lose all your faculties, walk around and stumble into things, hit your head getting into the car, become obsessed with it all. That is how a new album from a ton of Irish artists hits us. Sunk before the first tune. A new group gets a fair and impartial hearing, but not someone like Brock-McGuire, Bohola, Liz Carroll, Kevin Henry and all the other aforementioned.
So, with this rambling in mind, I received the new Mulcahy family album from the best promoter and distributor in the business, Alan O’Leary of Copperplate in London. Michelle Mulcahy, sister Louise and father, Mick have done it again. This time, it is called, Reelin’ in Tradition. Mick holds forth on the accordion, Michelle and Louise on every other instrument in the tradition. Does it do to tell you that Michelle was teaching master classes in the Irish harp at the age of 18? That, at 16, Louise was in the very forefront of uillean pipers? See, for you, after all these years, the hope is that you find a critic or writer in whose taste you trust. Our pal, Jimmy Keane---himself the best piano accordion player in Irish music—always says, “A cd that you love is the cheapest thing you can buy. Think of what it gives you over the years.” As usual, he is right. What I have to add is that a cd that you don’t like and will never play again is a pretty expensive thing. So, you find writers and artists whom you trust. Trust the Mulcahys. Perfection every time, every cut. This all-instrumental treat will be, for sure, at Rampant Lion and Paddy’s on the Square, locally. I can’t put it in words. This all-instrumental album is at the apex of Irish music. I’d love to tell you more, but I can’t. I’m listening to it now. Michelle is on the harp, and I am numb. Wow! Just-----perfect.
Rating: Four Harps
Then, comes Munnelly. The best vocal/instrumental act in the business. The album is Tight Squeeze. David Munnelly on button box (is he the best in the world??---probably---though if I could hear a duo with him and Paul Brock, I could die a happy man), Kieran Munnelly on flute and vocals, Paul Kelly on fiddle and mandolin, Fergal Scahill on guitar, Ryan Molloy on piano and the unexcelled Shauna Mullin on vocals. Mulcahys---meet The Munnelly Band. You both share such excellence and such a total grasp of the tradition, we are left speechless, while tapping our toes and smiling. BTW, this album has the best and funniest cover we have seen in years. Brill. This instrumental music is so perfectly conceived and played, we are left speechless. Since we heard this album and gave it its world premiere on our radio program here in Chicago, we have listened to it about 40 times at last count. Shauna’s alto continues to melt us down every time, while the band offers up a whole new level in the tradition. If you are in Chicago and reading this, you may well have seen the band in concert, as Chicago is about their fav American city. Who sounds like them? As with all the very best, no one sounds like them, though there are a ton of groups ripping them off and trying trying trying to sound like them. They can’t do it. There are lots of good vocal/instrumental groups in the business. But, there is only one Munnelly.
Rating: Four Harps
Christmas approacheth. My top three for your musical stocking stuffers this year are: The Irish and the Jews by Mick Moloney, Tight Squeeze by Munnelly and Reelin’ in Tradition. Obviously, we had other plans for our top three, but there you are.
The best all-time Irish Christmas cd’s?? Bohola’s Bo-Ho-Ho-Hola, A Kiltartan Road Christmas by Kathy Cowan, and the Chieftain’s Bells of Dublin.
We ran out of room. Next month we review a gorgeous and powerful new album just out from the wonderful Kat Eggleston. It is called, Speak and it is sensational.
*Merry Merry and Happy Happy---and join us every Monday night for Ireland Tonight, BOTA, Part 2 from 8-9 Chicago time.