April 1, 2019
BY SEAN SMITH
Tommy Fitzharris and Dónal McCague, “The Bank of Turf” – Fitzharris is an All-Ireland flute (and concertina) champion from Co. Laois; McCague is a fiddler from Co. Monaghan whose credits include appearances on the album “Our Dear Dark Mountain with the Sky Over It,” which features music from the oft-overlooked Sliabh Beagh region. As a complement to this album’s title, taken from a jig of the same name, its cover and inner sleeve photos show the pair on location in a peat bog, even passing a piece of turf between them. And in fact, via the liner notes accompanying the titular track (paired with another jig, “The Moving Bog”), we learn that Fitzharris and McCague spent summers engaged in such work.
That may or may not intended as some allusion to the fertile ground of the Irish music tradition, but in fact there is an earthiness to “Bank of Turf” – a suggestion of digging into the soil and uncovering the richness within. In any case, Fitzharris and McCague have produced a recording of intensity and beauty, abundant with excellent musicianship and taste, and which gives some attention to geographical areas of Ireland that, musically, tend to be overshadowed.
All-instrumental albums may not be everyone’s fancy, but there are such delights here, like appreciating the individual strengths of the two - the tonality and control Fitzharris displays on “The Jolly Tinker” and “The Knocknagree Reel,” for example, or the lift and spark in McCague’s fiddle on a pair of original jigs, “The Tram” and “Iorball Sionnaigh.” And then the alignment of their talents, such as on the set of jigs “Paddy in London/Jackie Small’s/The Reaper,” or a pair of hornpipes, “The Butterslip” – by Fitzharris – and one from Donegal, “Frank Cassidy’s.” Yet another highlight is Brian McGrath’s crisp, canny piano accompaniment throughout.
Continuing with the agrarian metaphor, the album has a roots-and-branches element, too: traditional tunes alongside tradition-inspired compositions by Fitzharris and McCague, as well as other musicians of note like Charlie Lennon and Richie Dwyer. One particularly outstanding example is the track beginning with McCague’s hop jig, “There’s a Man Here on Crutches” (the title refers to a bit of chicanery his father used to obtain parking at GAA matches), then segues into a pair of reels, the first associated with a great Laois fiddler, Tom Ahearn, the second (“The Holly Spoon”) from Sliabh Beagh. Another medley of reels evokes Sliabh Luachra masters Padraig O’Keefe and Denis Murphy, with McCague playing soft chords on the first (“The Flower of the Flock”) before joining Fitzharris on the melody for a setting of “The Mason’s Apron” promulgated by Claire legend Micho Russell.
With “The Bank of Turf,” then, you have two musicians (three, really) firmly, solidly grounded in the tradition, their musical acumen and artistry in full bloom.
[The album is available for download at donalandtommy.bandcamp.com/album/the-bank-of-turf]
Snowflake Trio, “Sun Dogs” – Nuala Kennedy, native to Dundalk and residing in Edinburgh, has made some charming, fascinating, and just-plain-terrific recordings over the past decade or so, demonstrating a exceptional ability on flute and whistle, an endearing singing voice, and an enlivening, creative spirit in adapting traditional tunes and songs as well as putting forth her own. In 2009, she joined up with a pair of Norwegian musicians, hardanger fiddler/violinist Vegar Vårdal and accordionist Frode Haltli, who have a similar penchant for busting perceived boundaries, and at long last, they have put out an album. In this partnership, the Irish and Norwegian music traditions are less an end than a means, a starting point for collaborations that draw as much on original compositions and improvised passages.
With some exceptions, that is: The first track is Kennedy’s honeyed rendition of “What We Will Do,” a nifty intermingling of romance, determination, and fatalism said to originate in the Irish traveler tradition; Haltli’s bassy chording uplifts Kennedy’s singing as well as her duets with Vårdal, which includes an interpolation of a waltz, “Fjellvåk.” The next track is where the trio’s more experimental character first truly asserts itself, on Kennedy’s air “The Green Lady” (inspired by a female ghost said to inhabit a Scottish castle): Kennedy carries the melody along, with Haltli and Vårdal providing a kind of ethereal ambience, until a brief sequence toward the end when Haltli begins a rapid push-and-draw on accordion as Kennedy and Vårdal extemporize.
Another track opens with the familiar E-minor slip jig “The Butterfly,” popularized to a great extent by iconoclastic fiddler Tommy Potts (not to mention The Bothy Band) – except that here it begins with the trio vamping until Kennedy, ever so slowly, begins to piece the melody together, and Vårdal and Haltli fall in behind her as the pace gathers. After they’ve settled into the groove for about a minute or so, the trio heads into “Gudmunddansen,” a hopsar or old-school version of a Norwegian couple-dance polka; Kennedy’s trills alongside Vårdal’s brisk bowing and Haltil’s agile variations are breathtaking.
Three songs are imaginative unions of literary and music traditions: “Ceol Sidhe (Fairy Music),” by Meath soldier-poet Francis Ledwidge, and the melody of a Norwegian emigrant song; 18th-century Louth poet Peadar Ó Dóirnín’s “The Fair Hill of Killin” and the lament “Den bortkomne sauen (The Lost Sheep).” In “Gjendines Bådnlåt (Gjendine’s Lullaby),” Kennedy combines her lyrics, inspired by a poem by Scottish poet Uisdean Laing, with a well-known Norwegian tune that the eminent composer Edvard Grieg collected from a young milk maid. With Vårdal’s hardanger accompaniment underpinning Kennedy’s vocals (in English and Gaelic), the result is stark, bleak, yet beautiful.
But “Sun Dogs” is by no means unrelentingly somber. Kennedy’s “A Face for Scuba” – originally written for her collaboration with Canadian fiddler Oliver Schroer, who sadly died just before their recording was released – is pure whimsy and fun: darts and dives over and around a shifting time signature, now and then veering into a chaos of duff notes and cacophony but somehow returning to the main theme.
The album has a cerebral quality, especially when you read the liner notes (which you should), yet what emerges is the seemingly unlikely but profound connectiveness to be found between these parts of the world, through the experiences of its people: loss, grief, hope, adoration, and a bond with the land around them. It’s a revelation worth experiencing, over and over. [nualakennedy.com]