Van Morrison, “Keep Me Singing” • It’s the 36th studio album for the one-time window cleaner from Ulster – now into his eighth decade – and the first one in four years containing new material. Eleven of the songs on “Keep Me Singing” are Morrison’s compositions – the exception is Alfred Bagg and Don Robey’s “Share Your Love with Me” – and he also penned the concluding instrumental track, “Caledonia Swing.” And yep, he’s still got it: The voice sounds deeper, more full-bodied, but he can still bring that growl, that passion, and he can still croon.
Much of the album has a deliciously relaxed feel to it – low tide after a sublime beach day, or closing time at an intimate little nightclub tucked away in the heart of town. Morrison is as soulful as ever on “Every Time I See a River,” “Out in the Cold Again,” “Memory Lane” and “Holy Guardian Angel,” with gentle but unobtrusive orchestral strings underneath.
Yet there’s also plenty of that characteristic fire and grit from Morrison, such as on the bluesy “Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword” and “Going Down to Bangor,” and the jazz-inflected “Look Beyond the Hill,” which features outstanding duets with vocalists Dana Masters and Ange Grant. And lest we forget, Van the Man has always been as accomplished a musician as a singer, which he demonstrates with various turns on acoustic and electric guitars, piano, harmonica, and sax.
It’s also worth noting that in the interim since his last album, he has become Sir Van the Man, having been knighted last year for musical achievements and services to tourism and charitable causes in Northern Ireland. Given how many awards and tributes he’s received by now, perhaps the highest, most appropriate honor would be for us to keep listening while he keeps singing. [vanmorrison.com]
Alison Perkins and Nicolas Brown, “All Covered with Moss” • When it comes to Irish music in the Midwest, Chicago and Milwaukee tend to get most of the attention, with Minneapolis a little off to the side. Now comes this Detroit-based duo of spouses to serve notice that the Motor City deserves to be in the conversation. Perkins, who has played in her family’s band Finvarra’s Wren and toured with singer Sean Keane, is a Clare-style fiddler with six Fleadh Cheoil gold medals to her credit; Brown, nourished early on by Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy recordings, is not only a talented uilleann piper and flutist but a connoisseur of Irish music history.
All well and good to have two musicians of such caliber play together, but Perkins and Brown also embody that whole greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts thing: There is, plain and simple, a real heft to their sound. It has to do with the way Perkins employs double stops, for example, or how Perkins uses the regulators on his pipes (which are in the mellow key of B) – the melody line remains dominant, of course, but there are robust harmonies and subtle contrasts to relish.
Another key to this album is Perkins’s and Brown’s choice of source material, which in addition to the venerable collection by Capt. Francis O’Neill also includes rare recordings of pipes-fiddle duo James Early and John McFadden – members of the same police force as O’Neill – as well as other lesser-known publications. This scholarship has yielded gems like the jig set “Sergt. Early/Galway Tom”; the trio of reels “Boys of Galway/Curragh Races/The Daisy Field”; a very different version of “Banish Misfortune”; and the striking five-part slip jig “The Kitten.” (Michael Gavin contributes a fine bouzouki backing on three of the tracks.)
The chemistry between Perkins and Brown is at its peak on two tracks in particular, the air “O’Connell’s Lamentation” and a march and hornpipe medley, “Byrns March/Johnny Cope.” Both are lengthy in duration, but the cumulative effect of their performance – sometimes playing in strict duet, sometimes individually exploring variations – is by turns mesmerizing and exhilarating. Perkins also demonstrates her singing talent with an a cappella rendition of “The Gypsies,” a Northern Irish variant of “Gypsy Davy/Black Jack Davy” (as well as Leo Maguire’s “Whistling Gypsy”) that has quite a different tone to it than the jaunty versions with which we’re most familiar.
In the CD’s liner notes, Rhode Island-based uilleann piper Patrick Hutchinson describes the interactions between Perkins and Brown as “auditory high fives”; you’ll want to offer them real ones after listening to this album. [pipesandfiddle.com]
André Brunet, “La Grosse Maison Rouge” • Brunet has been one of the more high-profile Quebecois-style fiddlers in the past couple of decades, as a member of big-band La Bottine Souriante and Celtic Fiddle Festival (along with Kevin Burke, among others), and nowadays as part of the trio De Temps Antan (who were in town last fall) – oh yeah, and he performed at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
“La Grosse Maison Rouge” is everything you would want from a debut – and long awaited – solo album, from the familiar to the exotic and experimental, and with a strong supporting cast. There are, of course, plenty of Quebecois tunes, both traditional and composed by Brunet: Tracks like “A Plein Souffle” and “Léo Cyr au Lacolle Inn” – with first-class accompaniment, respectively, by guitarist Colin Savoie-Levac and pianist Réjean Brunet – are showcases of precision and an infectiousness born of the tradition’s distinctive rhythm and podorhythmie (foot percussion). Elsewhere, Brunet recruits vocalist and harmonica player Evelyne Gélinas for the ballad “La Fille Morte” and plays his own guitar and piano backing on another set of tunes, “Remue-Ménage.”
And then there are the outliers, like the jazzy “Passez Au Salon,” which includes Maurice Lennon’s “Tribute to Larry Reynolds,” in memory of one of Boston’s most beloved Irish music figures; a duet with Scottish harpist Ailie Robertson (of the wonderful band The Outside Track); a trio of Irish tunes with Gelinas on flute and Brunet’s former Celtic Fiddle Festival colleague Nicolas Quemener on guitar; and the climactic “Promenade A Monaco,” an elegant, classical-like piece by Brunet featuring multi-tracked fiddles, superb accompaniment by Boston cellist Natalie Haas and even a swelling choir – it’s sure to be in fiddle camp repertoires everywhere, which is as appropriate and heartfelt a compliment there is for a fiddler of Brunet’s ability. [andrebrunet.com]