For years, Kathleen Conneely’s friends asked her the same question over and over: “So when are you going to make an album?”
Conneely has finally satisfied them, although the result may only create demand for a sequel.
A widely acclaimed tin whistle player with strong ties to Boston’s Irish music community, Conneely released “The Coming of Spring” this past fall, marking the occasion with a concert last month at The Burren in Somerville – one of her many familiar local haunts. She’ll be returning to town on February 12 along with accordionist Dan Gurney and guitarist Eamon O’Leary for a concert at Boston College as part of the Gaelic Roots series [bc.edu/gaelicroots].
Recorded in Galway, the 14-track CD is a showcase for Conneely’s lyrical, flowing style of playing in what her long-time friend and fellow musician Seamus Connolly praises as “an unhurried fashion.” The selections represent an anthology of Conneely’s musical life, mainly encompassing tunes she heard growing up in a family of musicians – although Conneely herself is a native of Bedford, England, and her parents were from Galway and Longford. Those family connections are further expressed in the presence of her brother Mick’s bouzouki accompaniments, and a duet with her father, Mick Sr., on a jig medley; also joining her on the album are pianist Brian McGrath and legendary bodhran player Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, who along with McGrath and Mick Conneely are members of the non-Frankie Gavin version of De Dannan.
As she prepared for the recording, Conneely found herself thinking about, and trying to reconstruct, various tunes from her past, but not always when she had a whistle close to hand. Fortunately, technology provided a solution.
“I would sing the tunes into my answering machine,” she says. “Then, I’d go back and listen, and document them, start organizing them into sets, decide on the various keys, and so on. All in all, it was a good education: Although the recording went fine, I think if I were to do it again, I would be more prepared.”
A definite highlight of the recording for Conneely was bringing her father into the studio, where they recorded the medley “The Primrose Vale/Lark in the Morning #1” – although there was a little subterfuge involved.
“I didn’t tell Dad where we were going,” she laughs. “But once we got in there, everything went fine. He had great rhythm, and it was loads of fun doing these jigs, both of which he played regularly when I was growing up.”
Sister and brother Conneely blend very well, too, such as on a trio of jigs that begins with “Joe Derrane’s” – associated with the celebrated Boston accordionist – and a set of reels, “The Old Torn Petticoat/Thady Casey’s Fancy/The Ballina Lasses.” Mick’s bouzouki style is built more around arpeggios and harmonies rather than straightforward chord runs, and thus enhances the melody; it also sits comfortably alongside McGrath’s piano, which is spare yet supportive. And Ringo McDonagh fans of yore will be delighted to hear that he’s lost none of his deft touch – his pairings with Conneely on some of the tunes, such as “The Gneevgullia Reel” and “Hardiman the Fiddler,” are a treat.
“Piano, bouzouki and bodhran are as good as it gets, especially when you have those guys playing them,” says Conneely of her accompanists. “I couldn’t ask for a better supporting cast.”
Two other tracks stand out as highlights: A medley that leads with a reel partly composed by the estimable Doolin whistle player Micho Russell, and which Conneely dedicates to her late husband Michael Shorrock, who had a special fondness for Russell’s part of the world; and the concluding jig medley (“Rosemary Lane/My Brother Tom/Hinchy’s Delight/Lark in the Morning #2”) that also contains a Doolin association.
“That last tune came from a recording called ‘Fisher Street,’ which is the main street in Doolin, by the MacMahon brothers John and Seamus, along with Dermot Lenihan and Noreen O’Donoghue,” says Conneely. “It’s always been a favorite recording of mine, and I like their version of ‘Lark in the Morning,’ which they refer to as ‘Willie Clancy’s version’ – it’s so beautiful I had to play it four times through, and I knew it was the perfect way to end the album.”
For Conneely, the experience of recording “The Coming of Spring” was a satisfying one, and not only from a sheer musical standpoint. Reacquainting herself with parts of her repertoire, she says, provided an opportunity to reflect on her education and development as a musician, which included the five years she lived in Boston, where she was a regular at the Brendan Behan, O’Leary’s, Kitty O’Shea’s, and other sessions, and at the Boston College Gaelic Roots festival.
“This was a way for me to simply put my particular stamp on the music I’ve loved since childhood,” explains Conneely, who now lives in Rhode Island. “There aren’t that many recordings of solo whistles, although people like Mary Bergin and Joanie Madden have done some superb CDs, of course. In fact, growing up I was less influenced by whistle players and more by fiddle and accordion – Seamus Connolly, Paddy O’Brien, Kathleen Collins, Marty Byrnes, Liz Carroll and Andy McGann were among the musicians I listened to a lot.
“So, I thought I could just offer a sense of what my involvement with the instrument and the tradition has been.”