Sean Smith's Album Reviews

Bob Bradshaw, “Queen of the West” • With every album he makes, Bradshaw, a Cork-born singer/songwriter who has been living in Boston for some years now, has shown himself willing and very able to take bold steps forward and try out new things.

This time around, Bradshaw locates his gritty but spacious Americana country-rock sound and vivid, incisive writing in a series of interconnected songs rooted in two foundational elements of American mythology: the Old West and the movies. “Queen of the West” is not a classic (if you will) rock opera in the mold of “Tommy” or “Jesus Christ Superstar,” although there are some recurring characters and the framework of a plot – events hinted at or referenced, sometimes well after the fact. Similarly, the narrative voice frequently shifts, sometimes taking on a specific focus or perspective, elsewhere more expositional.

The titular heroine, Ruby Black, has played many characters in her life – as noted in “Role of a Lifetime” (“They say the Queen of the West killed a dozen men/They say she wed a dozen more/They say she led a cavalry charge/In the Spanish-American War”) – but her personal tragedy overshadows anything else in her resumé. Central to the tale is the possibility of redemption for Ruby as well as Tom (her would-be protector and lover, not necessarily in that order), despite the gravitational pull of identity and experience. While there are familiar Bradshaw settings and details in the lyrics (“So I parked my Mustang here in Escondido/a sleepy, dusty, tranquil border town”), this story has a global reach: We also find ourselves in Ireland (“Wearing of the Black”) and eventually, somewhere in “the East” – in many ways the polar opposite of where the story began.

Bradshaw doesn’t push the drama or plot developments any more than he has to, and comes up with some inventive ways to advance the story. In “Ruby Black,” when Ruby goes to church to seek the intercession of saints, their less-than-helpful answer is given via a raffish chorus by Bradshaw and his bandmates (“Ruby, why don’tcha check in with us anytime your calendar allows?”); this leads to a more elaborate, sardonic response in “1-800-SOSAINT” (“Call me Anthony/I work closely with the boss/If you ask nicely/I’ll find the things you lost”). “Child,” which relates to the hole in Ruby’s life, is a lament encased in a gentle, daydreamy soliloquy – the pain of her loss less acute but still present. Bradshaw’s normally gruff voice is at its most tender, with gorgeous harmonies from Kris Delmhorst and Annie Lynch and sweetly plaintive fiddle from Chad Manning.

The purely musical quality of “Queen of the West” is equally as strong as the lyrical. Bradshaw confidently and successfully interpolates different genres throughout, most ingeniously in “Ruby Black,” which is nudged along by Andrew Stern’s edgy, atonal electric guitar riff until the aforementioned choral interlude, punctuated by an elegant duet by Stern with pianist James Rohr that could’ve been mined from 1970s progressive rock. The album’s eponymous track, meanwhile, is marked by exhilarating crescendos of strings, guitars and percussion – a perfect opening credits-type soundtrack. The easy-going blend of honky-tonk and Tex-Mex in “Albuquerque” is followed by the frayed-nerve, acoustic guitar-driven “Every Little Thing,” which has the feel of a stripped-down Tom Petty song.

There’s no glorious, triumphant ride off into the sunset at the end of “Queen of the West,” but Bradshaw suggests that living to fight another day – or at least escaping with as much of your dignity and sanity as you can salvage – may be the best thing to hope for when the house lights come on. []

Mossie Martin, “Humours of Derrynacoosan”
• There’s nothing that says you have to listen to traditional Irish instrumental music with an ear for regional styles. People are perfectly capable of enjoying the music without knowing whether they’re hearing Clare, Sliabh Luachra, Donegal, or Sligo. But a little familiarity with the musical geography helps spark awareness, and appreciation, of the fascinating variations and subsets in the Irish tradition, over time and distance.

Martin, a fiddle and whistle player from Roscommon, shines a spotlight here on North Connaught, which he notes is not “strictly defined on any map” – he identifies it as parts of North Roscommon, south Leitrim and south Sligo – yet boasts a considerable musical heritage, citing illustrious figures such as Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Turlough Carolan, Seamus Tansey, Matt Molloy, Frankie Gavin, John Carty, and Kevin Burke. The names of Coleman and Morrison invariably evoke the venerable Sligo tradition, of course, but Martin invites us to view it and other more localized traditions in a larger context – traditions within a tradition, influencing one another while retaining distinctive characteristics.

OK, enough with the academic discussion: How’s the music on “Humours”? In a word, brilliant – in both form and content. Martin has clearly benefited from growing up in a musical household, and his accompanists on the album include his father, Tom; brother, Brendan; and sister, Áine; also present is John Blake, who provides his customary solid backing. There are plenty of tunes from tradition, and others that are more contemporary compositions, from the likes of Josie McDermott, Charlie Lennon, Josephine Keegan, and Martin himself; not all originate within North Connaught, but many have some kind of connection to the region, as Martin explains in the liner notes.

One of the album’s most appealing aspects is its format, in which Martin plays with varying combinations of instruments – harp, mouth organ, banjo, guitar, piano, and second fiddle (so to speak) – thus making for a very pleasing palette of sounds. It’s delightful to hear Tom Martin’s robust mouth organ alongside his son on a pair of slides (“Cathleen Hehir’s/Going to the Well for Water”) and in collaboration with Áine’s harp and Brendan’s banjo on those hardy perennials “The Teetotaller/St. Anne’s Reel.” Mossie switches to whistle for a powerful duet with Áine on Turlough Carolan’s “Mr. O’Connor,” which seems to get unjustifiably lost amidst “Sheebeg and Sheemore,” “Hewlett,” “Eleanor Plunkett” and others in the Carolan canon; Áine’s influences include Michael Rooney, whose “Planxty MacClancy” is played by the three Martin siblings on the album.

Mossie and Brendan’s muscular fiddling on the opening track (the jigs “Susan Sweeney’s/Humours of Derrynacoosan,” both composed by Mossie) gets an additional adrenal boost from Blake’s subtle but strong guitar-playing. On the next track, Blake switches to piano to provide a stately, formal accompaniment for “Ballroom Favourites,” a selection of barndances taken from a 1930s recording by Roscommon flute player John McKenna. The medley “Return of Spring/Lakes of Sligo/Memories of Ballymote” offers a study in contrast between North Connaught polkas and those of the Sliabh Luachra variety – “Lakes of Sligo,” Mossie notes, was recorded in Boston during the 1950s as a song by Connie Foley, backed by none other than the legendary Joe Derrane and his band. Another highlight is Martin’s arrangement of Donegal fiddler Néillidh Boyle’s well-known “The Moving Cloud,” playing it first as a waltz and then in customary reel time.

“Humours of Derrynacoosan” is not some straightforwardly musicological study of a regional style; in fact, the fiddle-and-flute combination often associated with North Connaught is nowhere to be heard here. The album is more of a personal observation on how one’s understanding of the Irish music tradition can be shaped by a combination of personalities, experiences, influences, and legacies, some close to home (or inside the home), others farther removed. Thanks to Martin, we know that, however imprecise the cartographical dimensions of North Connaught, it’s a lovely place for the tunes. []