Kevin Crawford, Dylan Foley and Patrick Doocey, “The Drunken Gaugers” • Two-thirds of Lúnasa (Crawford and Doocey) meet one-third of The Yanks (Foley), but of course, there’s more to it than that. All three are supremely accomplished musicians who are active in the New York City area Irish scene, and each one embodies a different dynamic in the Irish-American relationship: an Irish ex-pat (Crawford, on flute and whistle); an American of Irish descent (Foley, fiddle); and someone who’s technically both – Doocey, a Worcester-born guitarist who moved with his Irish-born parents to County Mayo as a boy, and is now living in New York City. So along with its other virtues – of which there are many – this album perhaps also projects as a sampling of early-21st century styles, influences, and experiences from across the Irish-American spectrum, all met in a major hub of Irish-American music.
Obviously, the socio-historical stuff wouldn’t matter very much if the music wasn’t so good, which it most assuredly is. The album contains a mix of traditional tunes with more recent, in-the-tradition compositions by distinguished musicians like Charlie Lennon (“Step It Out Joe”), Randal Bays (“Friday Harbor”), Billy McComiskey (“Ratholdran Castle”), James Kelly (“The Sloping Meadow”), and Crawford himself (“An Giúdach Fánach”). For the most part, the trio plays all of these with little variance in arrangement, but you can certainly hear the gifts they all bring to the music. A perfect illustration of this is the “Drunken Gauger” set: On the set dance that begins the medley, Doocey employs a very spare, mellow backing that allows one to fully appreciate the capabilities of his two colleagues and their instruments, but even with the transition to the jigs “O’Sullivan’s March” and “Humours of Aylehouse,” you’re keyed into the qualities that make Crawford and Foley the top-shelf players they are – phrasing, ornamentation, and more, all in sharp relief (Crawford’s equally prodigious flute playing, meanwhile, can be heard on, among other tracks, “The Flat House” and “Step It Out Joe” sets).
One of the more ear-catching tracks is “An Giúdach Fánach,” which begins with Foley playing the air “Máirtin O’Connor’s,” slowly teasing out the melody, then picking up the tempo slightly to be joined by Doocey and Crawford; Crawford (playing whistle) takes over the lead with the reel “Moving in Decency” (he throws in a few delightful flourishes after Foley comes in) and then it’s full steam into the concluding tune, where Doocey’s chording is particularly outstanding; the set as a whole is just so well put together, and demonstrates the sophistication of hues and shading to be plumbed within the music.
Crawford, Foley and Doocey each get a solo track: Foley on the reels “Raholdran Castle” and “The Abbeyleix Reel,” the latter showing his double-stop prowess; Crawford plays whistle with Doocey on “Adam’s Apple,” a jigs-and-reel combo; and Doocey offers up the tremendously expressive air “An Ciarraíoch Mallaithe (The Cursed Kerryman).” One could get caught up in the question of whether the whole of “The Drunken Gaugers” manages somehow to be even greater than the sum of its parts – which are so great on their own – but, really, it’s best just to stop thinking and listen. [thedrunkengaugers.bandcamp.com]
Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, “Deliverance” • Improved technology and transportation have made formerly remote lands seem less distant, but music has a way of doing that, too – especially, so it would seem, Celtic music. Just as Andy Irvine and Planxty helped bring the Balkans a little closer to western audiences, recent years have seen a broadened awareness of Scandinavia culture, thanks in part to Celtic musicians’ appreciation for performers like Annbjørg Lien and Väsen (it bears mentioning that Greater Boston has had no small part in this trend, what with bands like NØIR and Blue Moose & The Unbuttoned Zippers).
The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc refines the Celtic-Scandinavian connection with a focus on the titular instrument, as represented by its three members: Kevin Henderson (Shetland/Scotland), Olav Luksengärd Mjelva (Norway) and Anders Hall (Sweden), all mainstays in their respective music communities (Henderson, for example, is a member of The Boys of the Lough); the trio supplements its instrumentation with viola, octave fiddle and the Norwegian hardanger fiddle.
To say the sound is glorious is an understatement. With no guitars, bouzoukis, keyboards or other accompanying instruments, Mjelva, Hall and Henderson use their various iterations of the fiddle for everything: melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, and ambient noise. “Deliverance” – their second release – was recorded in a church, which adds a resonance and depth to that already produced by their instruments. Most of the material was composed by Mjelva and Henderson, and aligns very well with the older, more traditional tunes.
You don’t have to be a fiddler, or versed in the Norwegian, Swedish and Shetland traditions and their relationship to one another, to appreciate this music. Some tracks, like “Deliverance” and “Flinken,” conjure up the contemplative, sometimes dark, almost bleak beauty that corresponds to many people’s impressions of the Nordic region. Others are beguiling and festive: “Talons Trip to Thompson Island” – penned by Henderson after his sojourn at the Boston Harbor Scottish Fiddle Camp – “The Hen Hunt” (though it’s intended to memorialize a natural disaster) and the traditional “Djävulspolskan (Devil´s Polska).” And there are pleasures in contrasting the familiar steadfast jig and reel pulses of Shetland/Scotland with the “crooked” rhythms of polskas, hallings, and other staples of Scandinavian music, as Mjelva’s “In the Lounge” demonstrates.
Snow, ice, polar darkness, midnight sun – all part of Nordic life, to be sure. But as “Deliverance” shows, so is music, rich and multifaceted. [thenordicfiddlersbloc.com]
Kyle Alden, “Down in the West Vol. 2” • Californian multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Alden has had quite the wide-ranging musical career, one that covers pop and rock as well as folk, but his Irish cred is not in doubt: He has played with the likes of Tommy Peoples, Paddy Keenan, Liz Carroll, and Athena Tergis and hosted regular sessions in San Francisco and environs. Alden has also explored the Irish-American musical relationship in quite inventive and thoughtful ways, notably his 2011 release “Songs from Yeats’ Bee-Loud Glade,” in which he set 13 W.B. Yeats poems to his distinctively Americana melodies – by conspicuously avoiding attempts at “Irishness,” Alden’s adaptations made the emotional and spiritual qualities of Yeats’ poems seem all the more universal.
“Down in the West Vol. 2” (along with its first volume) has a similar feel – soft mandolin riffs and acoustic guitar strokes under Alden’s laidback, mid-range vocals, with the occasional bass, electric guitar and backing vocals. Most of the songs and tunes are Alden’s (one exception is the W.H. Auden poem “As I Walked Out”) and there’s a bucolic character to them, evoking small-town crossroads, quiet pastures, and lonely prairies: “White-wash boards cupped from the sun/two-by-six walls all out of plumb/sagging rafters and a swayback bench/like a mare left out to pasture” (“Better Than New”); “Faded red striped awning/the old town five-and-dime/flaps feebly in the yawning/relentless winds of time” (“These Days”).
Those excerpts may sound like Cormac McCarthy set to music, but Alden also drops in traditional music references: some overt, like his renditions of “Sail Away Ladies” and the condemned-man confessional “Sam Hall,” and two sets of tunes (most penned by him) that feature Fergus’s lively fiddle; and some more subtle, like the melody on “Fall Day Gone” and the “Buffalo Gals”-like structure of “Child to Me,” or the reflective “George’s Street” (written by his longtime collaborator Vince Keehan), which has echoes of a Sean O’Casey reminiscence, Tergis’s fiddle like some comforting nostalgic embrace.
Whatever the source or the inspiration for his material, Alden conveys the stubborn persistence of place and person amidst inevitable decline, quite like the much-romanticized West itself. [kylealden.com]