BostonIrish Album Reviews November 2023

The Kane Sisters, “In Memory of Paddy Fahey” • Perhaps writers should be subject to some kind of formal reprimand for using the phrase “words fail me” – if they do, then why are we here anyway? – but it’s awfully tempting to do so regarding the newest album from the Kane Sisters of Connemara, Yvonne and Liz, renowned for their uncanny, high-level unison fiddle playing. 

Of course, there are plenty of words to describe why the Kanes, and “In Memory of Paddy Fahey,” are so compelling, but to some extent it depends how granular you want to get in terms of, for instance, instrument technique or characteristics of geographical music traditions. The Kanes are hailed as exemplars of the music associated with Sligo and East Galway, and it’s the latter which is relevant here. The album invokes the sisters’ friendship with the late Paddy Fahey of East Galway, known not only for his playing but his compositions, many of which have become staples in the traditional Irish scene. Musicians and scholars point to Fahey’s use of arpeggios, long phrases and minor keys, among other features that dovetailed with the “lonely” East Galway fiddle sound. Fifteen Fahey tunes are on this album.

It bears mentioning that the album also includes compositions by Brendan Mulhaire, Sean Ryan, Paddy Kelly, Eddie Kelly and Joe Liddy, as well as by the sisters themselves, and contains tunes from the Irish tradition. So rather than a straightforward tribute per se, “In Memory of Paddy Fahey” can also be seen as setting Fahey’s body of work in the context of other composers and the tradition itself. 

Part of the Fahey mystique included his penchant for assigning his tunes numbers instead of names. Invariably, however, such specifications don’t appear to have become widely imbedded in the collective memory of the Irish music community: “It’s a Paddy Fahey tune” or simply “Paddy Fahey’s” often tends to be the response to “What’s that one called?” Which may explain why all the Fahey tunes are identified on the album as “Paddy Fahey’s.” That said, there’s a discussion about the album on, at, including information and links – notably research by former University of Limerick scholar Maria Holohan – which can be helpful in identifying Fahey tunes. 

But you don’t have to be particularly attuned to, or interested in, fiddle techniques and styles or deconstructing tunes to appreciate “In Memory of Paddy Fahey.” Just listen to the Kanes on, for example, the trio of Fahey reels that opens the album, or the medley of Fahey jigs on track three (especially the middle one, with the syncopation in the B part): It’s one thing for two people to play duet fiddle, quite another for them to do so with such attention to, and command of, phrasing, bowing, fingering, tempo and rhythm – yet also each maintain their individual, distinct presence. You never lose sight of the fact that there are two fiddles here. Long-time Kanes collaborator and album co-producer John Blake provides his habitually superior accompaniment on guitar, piano and bouzouki throughout.

The sisters add some depth and texture to the album with their own “Falling Snow,” a darkly beautiful slow piece that includes a soulful cello accompaniment by Neil Martin, who also appears on the affecting traditional air “Eochaill” and on a pair of traditional waltzes, “The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door” (later a well-known song of the same name) and “Grandad’s” which segue into a jaunty hornpipe, “John J. Kimmel.”

The final track brings all the strands together, flanking a G-major Fahey jig characterized by a see-sawing first bar (number 8 in your program, per Holohan) with the traditional jig “Rosemary Lane” and Liz Kane’s heady “Bernie from Brittas.” 

In a 2020 interview, a year after Fahey died at 102, Liz and Yvonne talked about their association with him, and their respect for his playing and especially his tunes: “They’re just unique,” summed up Liz. “They fit nice on the fiddle.” Words certainly don’t fail her.  []


Erin Ruth, “Erin Ruth” • A Tucson native who became interested in Celtic music after moving to San Francisco 11 years ago, Ruth has a powerful voice full of joie de vivre, with no affect or self-consciousness; her singing feels honest and true, and would surely be a pleasure to hear in some intimate coffeehouse or listening room. It’s not always easy to capture that quality in a recording, but her self-titled debut album does so just fine.

“Erin Ruth” contains enduring selections from the Irish rebel song canon (“The Foggy Dew,” “Bold Fenian Men,” “Boolavogue”) and the folk/ballad tradition (“Rocks of Bawn,” “She Moved Through the Fair,” “A Lady in Her Father’s Garden,” “Her Mantle So Green,” “Lakes of Pontchartrain”), while the more contemporary material includes Luke Kelly’s tender setting of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “Raglan Road” and, for contrast, “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” from the exuberantly iconoclastic  pen of Shane MacGowan.

Wisely, Ruth keeps the arrangements bare-bones simple, with an a cappella rendition of “Rocks of Bawn” and some excellent acoustic guitar on six tracks from Richard Mandel, whose backing ranges from syncopated folk-rock (“Foggy Dew”) to a mellow, melodic fingerstyle (“Raglan Road”). David Chadwick takes a similarly laidback approach to his guitar accompaniment on “A Lady in Her Father’s Garden,” while Kris Yenney’s cello playing on “Boolavogue” focuses more on drones, long notes and simple harmonies (at times it sounds like a portative organ). These put Ruth front and center while presenting a fresh alternative to the more typical instrumentation and production approaches used down through the years.

Less successful are two Americana/gospel-style songs, “Hallelujah” (by Karisha Longaker and Sarah Nutting) and “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” that despite the perfectly pleasant close-harmony singing, seem to have wandered in from another album.

Arguably the piece de resistance is a song less known than most of the others on the album: “Working the Streets,” a first-person testimony of a young Irish girl swept up into a life of prostitution, written by Galway’s Vince Keehan, a member of the San Francisco music community. Ruth – with Mandel at peak performance – lends an appropriate urgency to the lyrics and the song’s overall feel without over-dramatizing. 

It makes one wish for Ruth to continue looking beyond the old familiars, however well-presented they may be – “Raglan Road,” “Foggy Dew,” “Lakes of Pontchartrain” and so on – and bring her talents to bear on other lesser-known material. There are plenty of good songs lurking in the tradition, and elsewhere, that could use a mighty voice to carry them forth. []