A look at recently-released music of Irish and Irish-American interest.
For the Holidays…
The Blair Band • Christmas with the Celts
This Christmas, Ric Blair and his merry band of Celtic musicians released a studio album to accompany a DVD of their very popular Public Television special, Christmas with the Celts. Filmed in Nashville in front of an eager sold out audience, the television special is a wonderful ode to Irish & Scottish music with the added spice of holiday celebration. The DVD shows the excitement of the players and their wonderful lineup of guest performers including the Nashville Irish Step Dancers, famed piper Ivan Goff and the Children’s Celtic Choir.
The studio record is a mixture of familiar Christmas tunes and lesser-known Celtic gems, some originating as far back as the 12th century. These ancient treasures fit seamlessly into the holiday theme of the album. Many of the favorites from the DVD are heard on the album and played to perfection by “The Celts”: Ric Blair, Jeff Durham, Kim Barnes, Patrick Darcy and Skip Cleavinger. The uilleann pipes, mastered by Darcy, are given their fair due throughout the record, while Durham’s percussion varies from the traditional to a new electronic loop beats. While classics like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Silent Night” sound as if they were written to be interpreted with these Irish accents, some Christmas favorites take on totally new identities at the hands of the Blair Band. “Little Drummer Boy” is reimagined with electronically looped percussion while Blair’s freeing vocals on “O Come Emmanuel” give refreshingly different sounds for around the tree this year.
An Irish Christmas: A Musical Solstice Celebration
Another live Christmas celebration was held last December in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. The third annual Irish Christmas celebration “Live from the Arts Centre” was recorded and released as an album this year, with none other than the legendary Mick Moloney at the helm. The concert featured Riverdance fiddler Athena Tergis, button accordionist Billy McCormiskey, pianist Brendan Dolan and New York’s own Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra as well as many other virtuosos in the trad field.
As Moloney’s introduction to the album suggests, the tone of the collection is a tad more somber than we typically associate with the holidays. A stress on the winter solstice as a time of reflection guides the album. Moloney writes, “There’s something magical about the dark days of winter in Northern Europe, when the earth goes into a deep transformative, regenerative hibernation with only the magical evergreens defying the forces of nature. The midwinter solstice has always been culturally a time for reflection on the big issues we all live with, particularly themes of life, death and renewal.”
While the album is certainly reflective, it maintains a holiday cheer that is wonderfully mixed with that unmistakable smile of a seisuin with friends. “Christmas in the Trenches” is hauntingly beautiful, sung by Liz Hanley who also graces many tracks on violin. Then there is the Celtic holiday favorite “The Holly and the Ivy” to set off the record with an exciting and playful tone. An Irish Christmas balances just enough of the darker tones of winter with the warmth of the holiday season.
John Doyle • Shadow & Light
Released earlier this fall, Celtic guitar virtuoso John Doyle’s Shadow and Light is a triumphant return to studio work for Doyle. It’s been six years since Doyle’s first solo release Wayward Son. His collaborations with fiddler Liz Carroll have long maintained Doyle’s reputation in the Irish music world and now, Shadow and Light will serve as a second badge for Doyle to wear as a more than capable composer and soloist.
Doyle’s tenor is both rich and homely. In the track “Little Sparrow” which is backed by simple guitar, the vocals wiggle between the fun-driven live performance quality that is so beloved in the trad genre and a refined quality, a new hint of confidence. For those entranced by Doyle’s skill as a finger-style acoustic guitarist, “Tribute to Donal Ward” will be a favorite. Doyle’s ability to take tunes the mind would assign to a fiddle and recreate them not only as guitar pieces but as rhythmic masterpieces will without a doubt make his name an immortal one on the Celtic stage.
Lisa Hannigan • Passenger
Since her early days accompanying Damien Rice, Lisa Hannigan has enchanted audiences with her effervescent vocals. Now into her sophomore solo project, Hannigan’s Passenger is a further exploration of much of the songwriting techniques she tested in her first album. While stylistically Hannigan maintains the identity of a quirky female singer-songwriter, there is a maturity in Passengers that shows promise for even more of what the Dublin singer has to offer.
The tracks “What I’ll Do” and “O Sleep” are the largest testaments to Hannigan’s experimental side. Driven by drummer Tom Osander’s background in jazz, the tempos of these songs are unconventional. While the jazz drumming is certain to pique a listener’s interest, in most of the songs it is the lyrics and vocals that will keep them intrigued. Clearly out to carve her own identity into the music world, Hannigan’s writing style tends to shy away from anything resembling her days with Rice. Hannigan’s vocals are most effective in the more tragic “Save Travels (Don’t Die)” which is the most similar to those early days of folk soul in her career (and the addition of Ray LaMontagne on vocals certainly doesn’t hurt). Most fans would welcome her back to the genre but in the meantime, Miss Hannigan seems to be working her way through the alternative pop world just fine.