By Sean Smith
Kilfenora Céilí Band, “Both Sides Now” • Talk about longevity: The Kilfenora Céilí Band’s origins date to the dawn of the ceili band era itself, and even before – there are references as far back as 1888 of a fife and drum band in Kilfenora, one that eventually evolved into the ceili band model as we know it in 1909. What’s kept Kilfenora going these 110 years is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances while holding true to the classic ceili band sound, especially in the 1990s when the group moved beyond playing for dances and competitions to concert and TV appearances – and in the process, cultivated a more entertainment-oriented act. Look up a YouTube clip or two of Kilfenora and you’ll see true showmanship, complete with guest singers and top-notch set and step dancers, to go with the trademark high-quality musical ability.
This album, their 10th, reflects the band’s contemporary-minded direction of late, as does its choice of Donal Lunny – he of Planxty and Bothy Band renown – as producer (he also plays guitar on a couple of tracks). Alongside the sets of traditional tunes (“Molly Ban/Donegal Traveller/Maids of Castlebar”; “Banks of Newfoundland/McGuire’s/The Frost Is All Over”) are originals by Kilfenora’s concertina player, Tim Collins, as well as in-the-tradition compositions by Charlie Lennon (“Handsome Young Maidens”) and Maurice Lennon (“Stone of Destiny”). And while the tried-and-true, up-tempo unison ceili band template is plentiful throughout, some arrangements feature harmony or smaller combinations of instruments, which include the requisite fiddles, accordion, flutes, whistles, banjo, and piano, but also cello and double bass to extend the tonal spectrum.
The album’s four songs, all contemporary, range from the very familiar to strikingly uncommon, and are sung by Edel Vaughan, a six-time All-Ireland champion, and Jerry Lynch, brother of Kilfenora’s long-time leader and banjo/mandolin player, John – their father P.J. was at the helm for many years himself. Vaughan’s sean-nos-influenced ornamentation makes for a refreshing cover of the titular Joni Mitchell composition and Sam Starrett’s “John Condon,” a memorial to the youngest Irish soldier, all of 13, killed in World War I. Lynch brings the emotiveness of a John McDermott or Tommy Fleming to Bill Caddick’s “John O’Dreams” and “Crusader,” Mick Hanly’s impressionistic rendering of Robyn Davidson’s epic solo journey across Australia.
Even if you’re not particularly fond of ceili bands, it’s worth listening to Kilfenora, and “Both Sides Now,” to appreciate how this facet of the Irish music tradition has evolved. While its core sound remains intact, the Kilfenora Céilí Band of 2019 is undeniably different than that of 1999, or of 1979, or 1959, or, well, you get the idea – inspired and invigorated by its long legacy, but not bound by it. [kilfenoraceiliband.com]
Dàimh, “The Rough Bounds” • If you haven’t given a listen to this Scottish band yet, you should – and you have about 20 years of catching up to do, as Dàimh (pronounced “dive”) has joined performers like Julie Fowlis, Malinky, Breabach, LAU, and The Treacherous Orchestra among the 21st-century vanguard in Scottish folk music. Dàimh’s distinctiveness stems from its devotion to Highland and Gaelic music, whether interpreting the tradition or integrating it into original or contemporary material: a sound that is blustery, craggy and, above all, riveting.
At the core are co-founders Angus McKenzie (highland and border pipes, whistle), a Cape Breton native whose father came from Scotland’s Western Isles; one-time fisherman Ross Martin (guitar); and fiddler Gabe McVarish, who grew up in California but returned to his ancestral Scotland. The rest of the line-up has gone through changes in recent years, perhaps the most significant being the addition of Gaelic singer Ellen MacDonald, who joined them on their 2015 “The Hebridean Sessions” album (listen to her singing “O Fair A-Nall am Botal” if you want to hear something gorgeous). Former Battlefield Band member Alasdair White, alongside McVarish, gives the band a powerful fiddle duo, while Murdo Cameron – who also came on board for “The Hebridean Sessions” – adds enrichment with accordion as well as mandola.
Where “The Hebridean Sessions” focused squarely on the band’s traditional repertoire, and its predecessor, “Tuneship” (2013), featured original material, “The Rough Bounds” lands somewhere in the middle. There are several band compositions, among them a heady trio of jigs – “Shiny Side” (Cameron), “12th of June” (MacKenzie) and “Francis Street No. 3” (White) – that handily showcases the new pipes/dual fiddles dynamic, and the medley “Happy Fish,” which pairs Martin’s strathspey “Fossilised Fisherman” (starting out as a lovely guitar-accordion duet) with Cameron’s winsome, Balkanesque “Happy Hour,” MacKenzie’s whistle sweetening the melody alongside fiddles and accordion.
Other instrumental sets include the epic strathspey/reels medley referencing McKenzie’s Cape Breton influence via the John Morris Rankin reel “The Black Horse,” and a set of reels that include two, “John Garroway” and “Drumlithie,” composed by venerable piper Donald MacLeod.
MacDonald’s exquisite tone and delivery are in sharp relief on the slower songs – such as Aonghas Moireasdan’s regretful “Òran Bhàgh a’ Chàise” and “A Nìghneag a Ghràidh,” an expression of unrequited love penned by Murdo Morrison – while her performance on pòrt-a-beul – songs mimicking the rhythm and characteristics of dance tunes – on the first and eighth tracks is enthralling: Her voice becomes an instrument in and of itself, doubling the melody alongside fiddle, pipes, whistle and accordion. An additional treat is backing vocalists Kathleen MacInnes, Calum Alex MacMillan, and Ewen Henderson, who appear on “Tha Fadachd orm Fhìn” and “Turas Dhòmhsa Chun na Galldachd.”
Gaelic song can seem overly somber, remote, even forbidding – especially if wrapped in reverb, as has been a staple of some contemporary recordings – but it comes across as lively, varied and accessible through MacDonald, along with Fowlis and Màiri Britton of New England-based Fàrsan [see separate story in this issue], among others. With skill, verve, good judgment and respect, Dàimh has helped affirm the Gaelic tradition as a font of creative possibilities, rather than an antique or curio from the distant past. [daimh.net]
By Sean Smith