CD Reviews for August 2019

Liz Carroll and Jake Charron, “Half Day Road” • Yeah, I thought there’d been something missing these last several years: Last time Liz Carroll released a new album was 2013, back when the Patriots still only had three Super Bowl titles. That’s a pretty long stretch to go without hearing a blast of new music from the Chicago-born, Grammy-nominated, National Heritage Fellowship-winning, All-Universe fiddler, who is justifiably celebrated as a composer of tunes as well a superb interpreter of the Irish tradition.
But “Half Day Road” is not a solo effort. Ontario guitarist/keyboardist Jake Charron – who has earned plaudits, plus awards and award nominations, for his work as part of contemporary Canadian-Celtic trio The East Pointers, and with brilliant Nova Scotian fiddler Troy MacGillivray – deserves the equal billing. The teaming of Carroll and Charron makes for a very North American take on music rooted in the Irish tradition. You can hear this in how Carroll’s fiddling distills the mix of Irish influences (touch of Galway here, perhaps some Sligo there, and on and on), or when her bowing exhibits an unmistakably American style, or when Charron’s piano accompaniment evokes the Canadian Maritimes – especially on “A Tune-Back for Andrea Beaton,” a tip of the hat to one of Cape Breton’s finest fiddlers.
Even the album title is a manifestly North American reference: It’s not only the name of a road in Illinois near Carroll, but also the English translation of a Potawatomi chief’s name.
Of course, you can enjoy “Half Day Road” just for itself, without the context: The titular reel that comes midway in the album’s opening medley, for example, is a perfect showcase of the robust bowing and superb touch and tone that has defined Carroll’s playing; on the one after it, “Tune for Jim DeWan,” she makes ample, glorious use of the fiddle’s G and D strings. “As the Crow Flies” and “Jarl Squad” both have a distinctive, relentless Appalachian/old-timey groove.
Carroll shows her willingness to push beyond the traditional tune structure – and demonstrates her sense of playfulness – on “The Bird,” with an ascension on the B part that is ridiculously wonderful. (Is it just coincidence that the very next track starts with her polka “The Cat”?) The second tune in that medley, “The Greek Petunia,” has Joannie Madden chiming in on whistle – one of three welcome guests on the album, along with bassist Chico Huff and percussionist John Anthony.
“Half Day Road” has its quieter moments, too. Carroll’s “The Famine” is about as gorgeous a lament as it gets (especially with multi-tracked fiddles), and Charron’s composition, “Last of the Leaves,” is spare as it is beautiful. He also demonstrates a well-honed melodic touch on guitar on “Planxty Mary Fahey.”
On the final track’s closing tune, “Trail Magic,” Charron’s guitar pounds out the beat as Carroll churns through the melody, the B part spiraling to a crescendo and back again until, at the fade-out, she plays a variation as a repeating riff – it’s like some magnificent sunset at the end of an immensely satisfying day. []
Hanz Araki, “At Our Next Meeting” • A member of Maine Irish quartet The Press Gang, Araki moved to Portland, Me., from the Pacific Northwest three years ago, bringing not only his prowess on flute and whistle – not to mention the Japanese shakuhachi – but his fine singing voice. Both are on display here, as Araki mixes sets of mainly Irish tunes with songs that come from the Irish/British Isles tradition as well as contemporary writers. His supporting cast includes Donogh Hennessey, who in addition to providing guitar and bouzouki accompaniment served as producer, Trevor Hutchinson (double bass), Laura Kerr (fiddle), Méabh Ní Bheaglaoich (accordion), Niamh Varian-Barry (violin, viola) and his wife and collaborator Colleen Raney, whose harmony vocals are a treat.
Araki’s is a sweet-toned, sensitive yet deceptively powerful voice, which he utilizes judiciously: no over-emoting, no pathos. He lends a worthy swagger to “The Bold Princess Royal,” your classic intrepid sea-battle ballad, and conveys the simple joy of the familiar in “The Road to Drumleman” (co-written by the late Tony Cuffe, a native Scot who settled in Boston). Another highlight is the enigmatic, tragic “Flanders Shore,” one of numerous traditional songs (also known as “Flandyke Shore”) fetched from obscurity by the great Nic Jones – a favored source of Araki – and delivered by Araki with a stately sorrow.
He also does a thoroughly tender take on one of Paul Simon’s gentlest creations, “Song for the Asking” – sounding not unlike Rhymin’ Simon himself – with Varian-Barry’s lovely strings behind him. But the song that may really lodge in your mind, and ear, is Scot-Canadian David Francey’s “Saints and Sinners,” a meditation on seeking middle ground between religion and secularism, with a beaut of a chorus: “Way off in the distance, there rang a bell/and it rang for the saints and the sinners as well.”
None of which, however, should overshadow the instrumental tracks, like the reel medley “Famous Ballymote/Ivy Leaf/Jack Rowe,” with some delectable backing from Hennessey, or a set of jigs (“Whistler at the Wake/Humours of Kilclougher/The Old Flail”) for which he uses a B-flat flute – the lower key and moderate pace bringing out a singular richness in the tunes. A set of polkas (“The Gullane/The Harvest Fair/Miss Mulvihill’s”) celebrates the album’s birthplace in the West Kerry town of Dingle, and features a delightful duet between Araki and Ní Bheaglaoich.
“At Our Next Meeting” is Araki’s first release since moving to the East Coast, so it’s not a stretch at all to discern some contemplation on his part about this new chapter in his life, and the people, places and events that have led up to it. “Ask me and I will play/All the love that I hold inside,” he sings on “Song for the Asking” – sounds like a guy who’s got plenty of good music ahead of him. []
Arise & Go, “Meeting Place” • From the verdant vistas of Ithaca, NY, comes this trio, which connects the Irish and Scottish instrumental traditions with those of Atlantic/French Canada. This is the sort of musical enterprise that can misfire, where the pieces just don’t fit together well or the attempt to mix traditions inevitably waters down their salient characteristics. Fortunately, that’s not the case here, and it’s all to the credit of these three musicians – Ellie Goud, Michael Roddy, and Tim Ball – for their ability to emphasize the essentials of the different styles within a unifying band sound.
Roddy is in many ways the linchpin for Arise & Go, playing as he does three different sets of pipes (he must need an annex to store all his reeds): border pipes, with a similar timbre as the Great Highland pipes; the mellow, sweet-toned small pipes; and, more or less in the middle, the uilleann pipes. But Goud’s versatility on fiddle -– and her rapport with Roddy – is not to be overlooked, nor are Ball’s contributions on guitar, bouzouki, and Quebecois foot percussion.
Arise & Go is at its best, and most ambitious, in integrating traditions within a set, such as when Goud, with Ball’s infectious podorythmie, roars through the jubilant French-Canadian reel “La Grondeuse,” and Roddy’s border pipes usher in “Mutt’s Favorite,” one of Cape Breton fiddler Jerry Holland’s all-time greats; the set closes with compositions by modern-day Scottish pipers – Gordon Duncan’s “Break Yer Bass Drone” and Ross Ainslie’s Galicianesque “Dirty Bee.” Another medley begins with “Major George Harrison, DSO,” one of those noble, mesmerizing Scottish marches, led by Roddy’s small pipes, until a rhythmic fiddle-foot combo ushers in “The Acadian Reel”; Goud (with Ball’s feet still tapping) shifts into “Le Voyage” before rounding into “Jack Daniels,” Goud switching to border pipes.
But the sets that stay within one tradition are equally pleasing: A set of venerable Irish session jigs, “Bill Harte’s” and “The Black Rogue,” sandwiched around Kevin Burke’s “The Eavesdropper” are a fine introduction to Roddy’s uilleann piping. “Slides & Polkas” starts with “Cuz Teehan’s #1 and #2” (Goud plays the latter an octave lower, in Sliabh Luachra fashion), and the three go a few measures into “Mairtin O’Connor’s” before transforming it into a polka, after which they blow through “The Ballydesmond” and “Jessica’s.”
While the album title might certainly refer to Arise & Go’s collective musical influences, “Meeting Place” also aptly describes the trio’s facility for combining precision with passion. []