September CD Reviews

Usher’s Island, “Usher’s Island”
• Sports analogies can be pernicious yet so tantalizing. So when you hear of a band with an “all-star line-up,” it’s tempting sometimes to think of a team loaded with Most Valuable Player candidates, seemingly destined for unparalleled success – only to fall short because of clashing egos and failure to unite skills and talents effectively, thus leading to humiliation and recrimination.

Well, you can forget about that particular analogy as far as this album is concerned.

Usher’s Island is the quintet of Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny, Paddy Glackin, Mike McGoldrick and John Doyle, five of the most accomplished figures in the Irish music revival of the past half-century (give or take), and what they’ve produced actually exceeds expectations. In fact, “Usher’s Island” is much like a series of arboreal growth rings, hinting not only at the quintet’s impact on Irish music but also at their individual progression as musicians – from interpreting the tradition to interpolating elements of it into their own creations.

Most importantly, though, it’s simply a pleasure to hear the power, stateliness, and grace of Glackin’s fiddle and McGoldrick’s flute (as well as his uilleann pipes and whistle), such as on the jig medley – “The Half Century Set” – that opens the album, a set of reels that includes two from the repertoire of esteemed Donegal fiddler Johnny Doherty [see “The Tin Fiddle” review below], and “Sean Keane’s,” a pair of delightful hornpipes. Equally pleasing is the accompaniment, whether chordal, harmonic or contrapuntal, of Messrs. Irvine, Lunny and Doyle. They give plenty of room to the melody instruments and vocals but Irvine’s mandola, Lunny’s bouzouki and Doyle’s guitar are ever-present in all their glory.

And then there are the songs. Irvine and Doyle, respectively, give new life to the traditional classics “Molly Ban” and “Wild Roving” (a quieter, more subdued variant of the old pub favorite), and two obscure, fascinating ballads: “Felix the Soldier,” a New England song from the French and Indian War; and “Cairndaisy,” about an Irish Catholic emigrant fighting for the US in the 1898 Spanish-American War, but realizing that his true sympathies are with his opponents.

Doyle and Irvine, of course, have developed into consummate songwriters, too, and are in top form here. Doyle has shown a penchant for historical writing, and his “Heart in Hand” is an autobiographical, emotionally vivid recounting of the life of Richard Joyce, the 17th-century Galway native who, while enslaved abroad, became a goldsmith and reputedly created the Claddagh ring. Irvine is likewise an impressive historian in his songwriting, but of late also has become more personal, more nostalgic, and quite the wit. In “As Good As It Gets” he revisits his formational 1960s sojourn in The Balkans, a subject he’s covered previously via contemplative pieces like “Autumn Gold,” “Time Will Cure Me” and “B’neas’s Green Glade” – but here it’s with fond affection and memories of romantic assignations (failed and successful), and downright funny wordplay.

And mention must be made of Lunny’s return engagement with “Bean Pháidín,” which he recorded with Planxty on “The Well Below the Valley” – voiced rather more quietly and deliberately this time around.

On their respective websites, Irvine and Vertical Records both refer to this as the “first” Usher’s Island album – one shouldn’t automatically assume that to mean there’ll be a second (a third?), but a little optimism these days is a lovely thing. []

Damien McGeehan, “The Tin Fiddle” • Donegal’s distinctive fiddle tradition goes beyond the music. For generations, fiddlers in that part of Ireland struck their bows on instruments fashioned wholly or partly out of tin that could be made and repaired more quickly than timber ones (although their durability was far shorter, usually 40-50 years). It would seem a rather esoteric concept on which to base a whole album, but McGeehan’s exploration of the tin fiddle is far more than some exercise in obscure folklore.

McGeehan, part of the pioneering Donegal fiddle trio Fidil, uses the tin fiddle to generate a host of multi-tracked sounds – bowing, scraping, strumming, plucking, tapping (on strings and the body) – that cover the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic components of traditional Donegal tunes as well as his own compositions. He stitches and layers these together with results that make for an astonishing variety, from hypnotically spare and delicate to sinuous and powerful.

One of the most notable Donegal fiddlers, John Doherty, came from a family renowned for making and playing tin fiddles, and McGeehan pays him tribute with a sequence of three tunes from the Doherty repertoire: “The Four Posts of the Bed” – which features the motif of a tapping bow, on each corner of the fiddle, to represent the four titular posts – the haunting “Paddy’s Rambles Through the Park” and a waltz that sounds like it originated many, many miles east of Donegal.
McGeehan’s strengths as an arranger are evident throughout “The Tin Fiddle,” but particularly so on “Hettie McKenzie”: It starts with an accented percussive beat and some bluesy picked notes before laying out into a stirring 2/4 march with a mesmerizing drone underneath, and then breaks off into a warp-drive reel with multiple leads.

In some cases, McGeehan patiently develops a motif or theme in one track that blends into – or dramatically changes on – the subsequent track. “O’Rourke’s Highland” (a McGeehan original) builds off a plucked four-note pattern into the melody, gradually segues into a richly textured improvisational passage, then heads back the way it came, until suddenly McGeehan bursts into the well-known traditional reel “Gravel Walks to Grannie,” mimicking via overdubs the octave duet style of fiddling common to Donegal (and Kerry).

“The Anvil” is a collection of percussive rhythms on the fiddle body that serves as a prelude to “The Tinsmith,” with a jagged-edged bow-chopping undercurrent on which McGeehan unfurls a series of semi-distorted jazzy runs inspired by Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and Stephane Grappelli’s “Minor Swing.”

The outlier is “Peadar O’Haione’s,” a jig much favored by McGeehan’s great grandfather, a fiddler himself. McGeehan plays it straight, with no overdubs or special effects, and thus gives us a sense of what it must’ve been like to listen to a Donegal tin fiddle back in his ancestor’s day: somewhat muted but resonant in its own way, and thoroughly captivating. []

Cantrip, “The Crossing” • Cantrip emerged from the lively Edinburgh session scene two decades ago as a quartet, but over time has now become a transatlantic trio: Scots native Jon Bews (fiddle, vocals), a former member of Malinky; Dan Houghton (bagpipes, flute, whistle, guitar, bouzouki, vocals), Ghanaian-born but reared in Scotland, and now based in New England; and Boston-area native Eric McDonald (guitar, mandolin, vocals), who has an extensive list of bands and collaborations to his credit.

Cantrip’s changes involve more than numbers and personalities. Their sound is leaner, the energy more focused and a little more disciplined. Houghton’s pipes and Bew’s fiddle make for a powerful combination on the instrumental sets, like “Rector at the Feis,” “The Musical Beast” and “Ian Green of Greenstax”; in addition to playing excellent rhythm guitar, McDonald takes up the melody in the opening jig (his own composition) on “The Crossing” and provides a dexterous mandolin solo during the “Ian Green” medley. They also venture beyond Scottish tradition into other domains, like that Irish session chestnut “The Musical Priest” and a couple of Swedish tunes, expertly rendered by Bews, at the end of the “Hot and Cold” set.

The album’s four songs represent an even wider diversity, in both form and content. The Scottish Gaelic lament “A’ Mhic Iain ’ic Sheumais (Oh Son of John)” is given appropriately solemn treatment by Houghton’s low-toned, pensive voice, while McDonald imbues “Sae Will We Yet” with the warmth an 18th-century song of fellowship (and drink) deserves. Bews does a quite riveting take on Northern English singer-songwriter Jez Lowe’s “Tom Tom” – a paean to ancient arts in the age of all-pervasive technology – and a restrained yet cheeky one on the hilarious “Old Waily, Windy Knight” (by eminent folk parodists The Kipper Family), which could be described as a night-visiting song as choreographed by Benny Hill.
Cantrip did a brief New England tour back in the summer, and “The Crossing” provides ample reason to look forward to a return visit, hopefully in the not-too-distant future. []