John Carty and Michael McGoldrick, “At Our Leisure” • Leisure, indeed. It took the better part of eight years for these esteemed gentlemen to put on record a collaboration that started with their appearance in a special ensemble at a 2014 Royal Albert Hall performance for Irish President Michael D. Higgins. But the delay is understandable and forgivable, given all the other things they’ve been doing with their time, such as innumerable, wide-ranging projects and partnerships, among them At the Racket, Patrick Street, Flook, Lúnasa, Capercaillie, and Usher’s Island.
Since between them Carty and McGoldrick can play about a dozen instruments, one of the notable aspects of “At Our Leisure” is their decision to center it largely around uilleann pipes (McGoldrick) and tenor banjo (Carty) – both prominent in the Loud and Proud category of Irish music, as they describe in the liner notes: the “cut” from the banjo against the “ancient reed sound” that evokes earlier pairings like Willie Clancy and Jimmy Ward or Ted and Nora Furey. While the pipes-banjo combo has quite the raucous quality to it, McGoldrick and Carty also draw out subtleties and modifications that make for an overall textured listening experience.
So, there are some splendid renditions of session favorites, like "Chief O'Neil's," "Plains of Boyle," "Wind That Shakes the Barley," "Gold Ring" and "Star of Munster," along with other, perhaps less widely known tunes – including an outstanding set of two McGoldrick reels, "Kelly's Grove/Lilt of the Landscape," and a rousing jig medley, "Stepping Stones/McShane's Rambles." And then there are a few unexpected – and quieter – delights: the slow air "Ned of the Hill" and an O'Carolan waltz, "Lord Galway's Lamentation," on both of which Carty shows a lighter, gentler touch on the banjo, while McGoldrick teases out the pipes' more plaintive aspect; another waltz, "Mist Covered Mountains of Home" (not to be confused with the jig "Mist Covered Mountain") with Carty integrating rhythm into his playing of the melody; and, of all things, an old-timey tune, "Gypsy Princess," featuring some intervals and riffs you might not often hear on tenor banjo, Irish flute, or pipes but accomplished here very well indeed.
When Carty and McGoldrick go to their “other” instruments, notably fiddle and flute, respectively, it’s like an album within an album (or like the sword fight in “The Princess Bride” when both combatants reveal they’ve actually been using their “weak” hand). One reel set begins with a cracking fiddle-pipes combo for "Lucy Campbell's," and then McGoldrick tacks on flute and shuts off the pipe drones for the Dorian-mode "Jolly Tinker," creating a stark contrast but losing nothing in energy or intensity. There’s also a lovely flute duet (which gradually expands to include banjo and pipes) on Carty’s moderate-speed reel, “Meadbh’s Journey.”
Providing excellent accompaniment throughout the album is a rotation of guitarist Matt Griffin with Mike McCague and Jonas Fromseier on bouzouki and guitar. Griffin offers up an enchanting intro to the slow reel, “Peggy’s Wedding,” and he and McCague are a solid backing for, among others, the “Chief O’Neil’s/Plains of Boyle/Humours of Westport” set. McCague is likewise spot-on for “Stepping Stones/McShane’s Rambles” as is Fromseier for “Gold Ring/Star of Munster.”
The word “leisure” can sometimes imply idleness, but that’s certainly not the case here. What you have are two outstanding musicians who, thankfully, were able to carve out the time and headspace to fulfill the promise of that landmark event from years back and create an outstanding album.
Owen Marshall, “Throughline” • If you’ve spent any time out and about the Greater Boston Irish/Celtic domain, you almost certainly have seen Owen Marshall. He’s hard to miss – but not just because he’s one big, and affable, fella. Over the past decade-plus, Marshall has become among the foremost go-to fretted-string Celtic/traditional musicians around New England, a superb guitar, bouzouki, and tenor banjo player (harmonium, too, more recently) who was part of the fondly remembered Press Gang, and is now a member of Portland-based contra dance band Pine Tree Flyers as well as the Seamus Egan Project; he’s also been with Copley Street (the duo of Joey Abarta and Nathan Gourley) and in assorted collaborations – Jenna Moynihan, Lissa Schneckenburger, plus a trio with Joe K. Walsh and Brittany Haas. Locally, you might’ve seen Marshall in the house band for “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” on stage at The Burren Backroom or Club Passim, or in sessions at the Brendan Behan Pub or The Druid (he appears on the “Live at the Druid” CD).
So, there are quite a lot of people happy now that Marshall has released his first solo recording, the title of which is defined as “a common or consistent element or theme shared by items in a series or by parts of a whole.” The 10 tracks, all instrumentals, represent an impressive array of the music Marshall has encountered as a New England native and resident: Irish, Appalachian, old-time, bluegrass, Quebecois, Canadian maritime, and the numerous intersections between them that are often explored nowadays. Marshall displays his prowess as both a melody and rhythm player, aided by a small ensemble of friends (including Moynihan, who also produced the album) joining him in various combinations.
The technical excellence speaks for itself, but the big appeal of “Throughline” is how easily, pleasantly, and joyfully the different strands come together. The opening track, for instance, begins with Marshall flat-picking an old-timey tune, “Old Aunt Jenny with Her Nightcap On,” to the accompaniment of Allison DeGroot’s five-string banjo while Moynihan and accordionist Emily Troll gradually filter in; then Marshall and Moynihan seamlessly shift into an Irish reel, “The Green Gowned Lass” (Marshall credits Martin Hayes and the late Dennis Cahill’s “Live in Seattle” album as the source). It’s simply a shrewd pairing of tunes from different traditions but which complement one another very well.
Marshall’s flat-picked guitar alongside DeGroot’s banjo is spotlighted to a fuller extent in a pair of Irish reels, “Dogs Among the Bushes/Gathering Sheep”; on the latter, DeGroot takes up the melody while Marshall alternates between dueting with her and switching to rhythm, making for some very pleasing ebbs and flows as the set progresses. On “Boatman,” meanwhile, it’s all banjo, all the time, Marshall playing the tenor (with a plectrum, as is the style), DeGroot frailing the five-string; the contrast is striking and energetic.
Marshall’s bouzouki teams with Baron Collins-Hill’s tenor guitar on a track that pairs “Multnomah March” – by accordionist/pianist Bob McQuillen, a giant in the New England contra dance community – with “Lucy Farr’s,” an Irish barn dance named for the famed East Galway-born fiddler. Although their instruments have very similar tonal qualities, there is just enough variance between the two so as to create a cross-hatching of melody, rhythm and harmony. (They do so again on Selma Kaplan’s “April Waltz.”)
Isa Burke’s jangly electric guitar tete-a-tete with Marshall makes for a very different sort of grain on the A-minorish moderate-speed Kentucky reel “Flannery’s Dream,” segueing into the Irish reel “New Mown Meadow” on the strength of DeGroot’s banjo. Marshall fingerpicks the axe himself with reverb a-plenty over a harmonium drone on the meditative, somber first run through “Old Man Gone” (by West Coast fiddler Greg Canote), and then Moynihan and DeGroot, along with Marshall’s acoustic guitar backing, nudge the tempo a little – but not excessively so.
The assembled multitude lets fly at the very end with a vigorous romp through “Speed the Plow,” a reel that crops up (at least by name) in several different music traditions. The infectious energy evident here evokes a late night gathering in a warm, friendly place – like, say, the Maine Fiddle Camp, which Marshall cites as a key source of inspiration and encouragement. If Marshall has been the beneficiary of a supportive music community – and his sleeve notes make it evident that he has – he has more than returned the favor.