Jimmy Keane, “Horse” A marvel to take nice and easy

It’s like the sonic equivalent of a Ken Burns film: 192 tracks totaling 12-and-a-half hours that cover 5 decades of work, supplemented by liner notes and photos, and full of wonderful stories that support an overarching, broader narrative.

“Horse” was the nickname of Jimmy Keane, a compelling sean-nos singer from Connemara whose son not only shares his name but also his love of Irish traditional music, though expressed in a different way: Jimmy Keane the younger, London-born but a true citizen of Chicago,  is a phenomenally talented piano accordionist who has been part of some foundational collaborations in the modern Irish music revival, notably Moloney, O’Connell & Keane, The Green Fields of America, Aengus and bohola, as well as with fellow Chicagoan Liz Carroll. 

The “Horse” project started a couple of years ago as the pandemic took hold, when Keane started pulling together the tracks he and Horse had recorded in 1987 for an EP vinyl record – intended as a precursor to a full-length album they never made, owing to Horse’s death three years later – and found several other recordings of his father singing, in English as well as Gaelic. Bit by bit, Keane expanded the scope and scale of his work, adding rare and previously unreleased recordings of himself, solo or with various other musicians; some made in concert or in the studio, others for practice or simply posterity.

Nor did he stop there. For the sleeve notes, Keane included details related to the circumstances of these various recordings –  when-where-what-how – information on the tunes and songs, including sheet music for some, and assembled photos to complement the text. Best of all, he shared personal reminiscences and stories about the music and the people he has met through his many years of playing in pubs and parlors as well as on stage.

So how do you go about absorbing all of this, especially since there’s no real chronological or thematic order to “Horse”? The recommendation that comes to mind is “nice and easy.” Maybe you play the whole thing through a couple of times, and then pick out specific tracks to revisit: Keane and Carroll’s duets at the All-Ireland Fleadh, for instance, or Keane all by himself in different decades. (There are even two separate tracks of Keane playing the same set of jigs at a concert, one as heard from the audience, the other recorded from the stage.) Then select a batch of different tracks. And so on. Or just pick a random place to start and let the music play. You’ll figure it out.

Call it just one person's fancy, but the tracks of Keane, O'Connell & Moloney, and iterations of The Green Fields of America, make for some especially potent listening.  Nearly four decades later, these collaborations sound as fresh and exhilarating as ever (take a listen to track no. 190, a set of reels by Green Fields recorded live), coming as it did after all the excitement and innovation of the 1960s/’70s Irish music revival. Green Fields of America, in particular, took some of the trends and advances that came to the fore in the previous era and put them in a wider context, evoking the Irish immigrant perspective as well, thus establishing a strong link to the US Irish community. The recordings of bohola – with Pat Broaders (bouzouki, vocals) and Sean Cleland (fiddle) – show that spark of creativity continuing into the 1990s: The trio's sets sometimes stretched to upwards of 10 minutes or more, tides rushing in and receding. Then there are his duets with guitarist Dennis Cahill – "Bruach Na Carraige Baine (The Brink of the White Rocks)" in particular – and a whole lot of other pleasure centers are stimulated.   

Reading Keane’s notes is a worthwhile experience in and of itself, with or without the recording on. Recollections of wild nights (often followed by painfully sedate mornings) and long day’s journeys into nights, or vice-versa. Fun backstories, such as where that the inspiration for his jig “April’s Fool” (the tune shows up quite a bit throughout "Horse") was a practical joke by Carroll that would’ve been grounds enough for a special Comhaltas commendation. Most of all, Keane also writes with unabashed affection for people with whom he’s crossed paths, whether frequently or all too rarely: His account of playing with Galway guitarist Mary Conroy, partner and “all around right hand person” to the Clare-born fiddler Brendan Mulkere when he met her, includes some musings about the nature of accompaniment in Irish music as well as praise for Conroy herself. His memories and descriptions of not only Horse but his mother Mary, or "The Kerrywoman" (whose voice is heard in the background of one track), are heartfelt and loving without being maudlin.

There are so many angles to this project. Foremost, perhaps, it illustrates how the passion for traditional music can be passed onto, and transmuted along the way, from parent to child. Jimmy Keane may not have become a sean-nos singer like his father, but there’s no doubt he lives, and loves, the tradition with equal heart, mind, and soul. In fact, scattered as they are among the others, the tracks featuring Horse and his solemn, stark but stirring voice help to remind and orient us: This is that pure drop from which so many streams flow.

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Speaking of Moloney, O’Connell & Keane (sometimes referred to, affectionately and irreverently, as “MOCK”) and The Green Fields of America, during the past year two MOCK albums, “Kilkelly” and “There Were Roses,” and the Green Fields’ “Live in Concert 1988” were remastered and reissued. These are available via Keane’s website, individually or in a bundle of all three, as CD-quality WAV audio files plus high-quality MP3 audio files. 

Sure, those of us of a certain age are wont to overlook, or even relish, the snap-crackle-pop of LPs. But, honestly, it’s no betrayal of ideals or aesthetic values to enjoy these three ’80s classics in a clear, sharply defined digital format. Just makes everything you liked all the more enjoyable.

Order “Horse” and the Moloney, O’Connell & Keane and Green Fields of America albums through jimmykeane.com