January CD Reviews

Kevin Burke, “An Evening with Kevin Burke” • Burke surely needs no introduction, but his introductions might. Fortunately, for those who have never experienced him in a live setting, this album spotlights both his musical and public speaking talents.

Of course, it’s the former that is of most interest, as should be the case, and “An Evening” offers plenty: a dozen tracks of Burke, unaccompanied, recorded at concerts in Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., and Co. Mayo (the latter at Matt Molloy’s Pub, the establishment owned by his former Bothy Band comrade-in-craic). If you ever wondered what these Irish fiddle styles – Sligo, Sliabh Luachra, Clare and so on – are all about, you get an excellent grounding. But more to the point, you get to luxuriate in the unadulterated glory of a master sharing his craft, with every triplet, roll and elegantly bowed phrase in clear, sharp relief.

If you’re tempted to skip through Burke’s stage patter, here’s a word of caution: Don’t. Sure, there are the throwaway lines you’re likely to hear at many a live show (“Nice to see you all, though I can’t actually see you”), but these are vastly outnumbered by the reminiscences and insights Burke offers. There are, for example, what might be called tribute sets to storied fiddlers of past generations: Bobby Casey (“Tuttle’s Reel/The Bunch of Green Rushes/Maids of Mitchelstown”), Lucy Farr (“Lucy’s Fling/S’iomadh Rud A Chunnaic Mi/Some Say the Devil Is Dead”) and Tommy Potts (“Galway Bay/Drunken Sailor”). Burke isn’t name-dropping when he talks about having learned from them; he’s making the point that these are the people who upheld the tradition he, and so many others in recent decades, chose to embrace.

Yet Burke’s musical career is multi-faceted as it is lengthy – remember, this is a guy who first came to the US in the early ’70s to back Arlo Guthrie – and so there’s pleasure in hearing him touch on his past work, such as with Open House (“Glen Cottage Polka” and “The Tolka Polka” by another Bothy Band alumnus, Donal Lunny), or singer/songwriter/composer Cal Scott, from Portland, Ore., where Burke has lived for nearly four decades (Scott’s French-accented “Paris Nights”); he also gives an affectionate, humorous back-story to “Across the Black River,” a jig he penned as a salute to his ancestral Sligo.

It’s moving to hear Burke mention musical friends of his generation who passed away far too soon, like Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and especially Celtic Fiddle Festival co-founder Johnny Cunningham – Scottish-born but a Massachusetts resident during his last years – the latter reference leading into a classic CFF Quebecois medley, “The Dionne Reel/Mouth of the Tobique,” that closes out the album (noting that Celtic Fiddle Festival’s original line-up represented the Irish, Scottish and French traditions, Burke recalls, Cunningham once remarked that the group demonstrated how “three cultures could be destroyed by one common instrument”).

The best performers are those who can enlighten as well as entertain, and Burke clearly accomplishes that, with both his words and music. [kevinburke.com]

Eamon O’Leary, “All Souls”
• Dublin-born guitarist/vocalist O’Leary has a solid presence in the trad world, as one-half of the duo (with Jefferson Hamer) The Murphy Beds, one-third of The Alt, with John Doyle and Nuala Kennedy, and in collaboration with fiddler Martin Hayes, among others. But he’s also led a not-so-secret life as a songwriter: “All Souls” is his second album of original material, coming some five years after “Old Clump.”

O’Leary presents a very laid-back, soft-toned form of Americana, musically and stylistically closer to Appalachian foothills, dusty plains, or sleepy gulf towns than Erin’s green fields and groves. His songs, and his singing, have a contemplative, unhurried quality, with little variance in tempo or pace. Underneath the apparent calm, however, are rich, eloquent, sometimes intriguing lyrics that bespeak literal and metaphysical journeys, desperation, hard-won acquiescence, the sweetness and sorrow of memory, and humor born of resilience.

Over the mountain to the western side
The cemetery and the silvery sky
I left my crutches on the oratory steps for you
My marina blue
(“Marina Blue”)
When first I washed on that northern shore
My muddy shoes on her cabin floor
Her driftwood past, her antique name
I came to know in her timber frame.
(“Our Old Dominion”)

Drunk and disheveled, the morning found me
A blue-eyed bridegroom yet barely a man
Billy said sorrow would never surround me
If we trusted in our youth and the lay of the land.
(“The Painted Road”)

The wading birds they speak of you
In the rice fields and the marshes, too
The highway signs have all turned blue
From Lafayette to Baton Rouge

O’Leary’s small group of accompanists (including Hamer, who plays electric guitar on two tracks) is another virtue of “All Souls,” especially Emily Miller, whose enchanting harmony vocals serve as a kind of distant echo, or a homing beacon, that connects O’Leary’s musings simultaneously to past and present. Bridget Kearney’s bass, Thomas Bryan Eaton’s pedal steel, and Benjamin Lazar Davis’ pump organ add appealingly understated hues, as does Davis’s light touch on drums.

The album’s title, of course, might seem to be a reference to All Souls’ Day – the commemoration of all the faithful departed. If so, O’Leary is perhaps suggesting that souls depart all the time, in ways we might not immediately recognize or comprehend – and while sooner or later they arrive somewhere, the destination may not be as important as the path they took to get there. [eamonoleary.net]

Hannah Read, “Way Out I’ll Wander” • Raised in Edinburgh and on the Hebridean Isle of Eigg, now residing in Brooklyn, Read was part of Boston’s folk/acoustic scene while a student at Berklee College of Music, during which time she helped co-found the Folk Arts Quartet, an early proponent of the “chambergrass” genre; other ventures have included a stint with UK/Scandinavian roots band Fribo and more recently, the wonderful Songs of Separation project with notable English-Scottish female folk singers/musicians like Karine Polwart, Eliza Carthy, and Mary MacMaster (their album was recorded on Eigg). She’s also had some time for herself, having released her first CD in 2012, “Wrapped in Lace,” which reflected her interest in jazz and pop music styles.

Whatever other genres she’s explored, though, Read’s voice on “Way Out I’ll Wander” has the clarity and presentation of someone well versed in traditional/folk music, as demonstrated on what is arguably the album’s highlight, the breathless-with-anticipation “She Took a Gamble,” as well as the Americana-rooted “Campsea Ashe” and the pensive, wintry title track. “Way Out I’ll Wander” is the very essence of a maturing singer-songwriter (all but one of the nine tracks are hers – the exception a setting of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Moorland Bare”). Her songs, candid but neither self-pitying or melodramatic, are a literal and emotional travelogue of sorts from the first decade of young adulthood – and a busy one at that, full of discoveries and questions: the wise, resilient coming-to-terms with a failed relationship (“I’ll Still Sing Your Praises”), set alongside the joyful disbelief that accompanies a new one (“Boots”); the surprising potency of empathy (“Alexander”); and what and where you can call “home” (“Way Out I’ll Wander,” “Campsea Ashe,” “She Took a Gamble”). Read plays fiddle and guitars, with some fine vocal contributions in particular from Sarah Jarosz and Jefferson Hamer (also on guitars), and light keyboards, woodwinds and sax scattered gracefully. [hannahread.com]