BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
A New York City-based Irish band called The Yanks might seem a tough sell in the hub of Red Sox Nation, but Bostonians shouldn’t leap to conclusions: As fiddler Dylan Foley explains, he and his mates did not choose the moniker as a tribute to a certain baseball team.
“ ‘Yanks’ are what the Irish call obnoxious Americans, and we are Americans playing Irish music,” says Foley. “And we are obnoxious – sometimes.”
Fortunately, Foley and his fellow Yanks — Dan Gurney (accordion), Isaac Alderson (uilleann pipes, flute) and Sean Earnest (guitar, bouzouki) — have far more of a reputation for sterling musicianship than boorishness. And on June 19, they’ll be showcasing their individual and collective talents as part of The Burren Backroom series at the popular Somerville pub and music mecca. [Boston area native fiddler-vocalist Liz Hanley will open.]
The Burren concert will be notable in a couple of ways. It will mark the recent release of their dynamic 14-track debut CD, and also serve as a homecoming of sorts: Despite their association with New York City, Boston – or more specifically Cambridge’s Club Passim – was the site of the group’s first bona fide gig last year.
In fact, that Passim concert was somewhat of a rare event given how relatively little The Yanks actually appear together on stage because of their various other pursuits. Earnest, for instance, has toured with acts like Teada, The Paul McKenna Band and McPeake, as well as Boston-based singer-songwriter Kyle Carey; Alderson has performed as part of the “Celtic Crossroads” show, and with Runa, Comas and as part of a trio with Keith Murphy and Sam Amidon, among numerous other collaborations. Members also have played together in duo or trio format.
Similarly, the CD represented another convergence at the right time, the quartet doing the recording in three days at the site of the Catskills Irish Arts Week in upstate New York – their arrangements put together, according to Earnest, “minutes before we sat down in front of the microphones.”
So how do they pull this off? It helps, obviously, that all four are accomplished, well-regarded musicians in their own right – with numerous All Ireland titles to their credits – and that they’re all of about the same generation (ranging through the 20s to 30 years old), with kindred, though not necessarily identical, tastes and ideas relating to Irish traditional music. Most of all, each of The Yanks will tell you – literally – they just really, really like playing with one another.
“We’re all on similar pages, in terms of what type of traditional music we like, and how we want to play it,” says Alderson. “I think the process of recording our CD reflects that: With some bands, doing an album might take a long time before everyone is happy with what they’ve done; in our case, it took three days.”
“We all have our individual styles and angles, of course,” says Gurney, who lived in the Boston area for several years. “But because we go back so far, we’re very comfortable with one another – no one of us has to be ‘the leader.’ ”
Gurney and Foley, in fact, first met as school kids: They grew up in roughly the same part of upstate New York, and showed up at many of the same sessions, competitions, festivals and other events – particularly the gatherings organized by legendary Father Charlie Coen. As Foley notes, when he and Gurney came up with the idea of putting a band together, “the first names we came up with were Sean and Isaac.”
“We’d all be playing music anyway,” says Gurney, “so making it official just made a lot of sense.”
Gurney’s comment is a revealing one: Consummate performers they may be, there’s a decided informality to The Yanks’ approach as a band, one that’s a matter of philosophy as much as practicality. It contrasts with the polished, elaborate ensemble style of Irish music that has emerged in the past couple of decades, as exemplified by the likes of, say, Solas or Lunasa – for whom, just to be clear, The Yanks have the utmost respect (Lunasa’s Kevin Crawford is equally laudatory of them; he has been quoted as calling The Yanks “the next Irish American dream team.”).
“Irish music is at its best when it’s more informal,” says Gurney. “We like to have a certain roughness in our sound, that ‘as-it-happens’ vibe.”
“There is, obviously, a difference between music that’s being danced to, and music that’s being listened to,” says Earnest. “We’ve all had experience playing in group settings of some kind or another that involve arrangements. It’s a matter of how you can engage the audience, and have that give-and-take. Playing together the way we do, with some structure but not an abundance of it, feels natural for us.”
Alderson – who at 30 is the oldest Yank (“I’m also the shortest,” he quips) – sees the band’s style, and his own experience with Irish/Celtic music, as reflecting perhaps a general trend toward exploring the tradition in greater depth. “I didn’t come to the music the way the other three did, where they were encouraged at an early age via competitions and sessions and so forth. I was introduced in my teens to groups like Solas and Lunasa, but I became more enthusiastic about the pipes, so I wound up focusing on the tradition through Seamus Ennis and Robbie Hannon.
“I think there was a time when people were looking at what was going to be ‘the new thing’ in Irish music, but it seems like now the movement is to focus on the roots of Irish music, to go to the sources and appreciate the way it used to be played. So in that vein, we bring a mix of spontaneity and pre-planning to our approach.”
As evidenced on their CD, The Yanks do favor straightforward arrangements in which the three melody instruments play in unison; there is little in the way of harmony or counterpoint. During some of the sets, one or two members may take the lead – Gurney plays “The Green Fields of Woodford” with Earnest to introduce a medley of jigs, for example, while Foley and Alderson team up at the start on “The Gooseberry Bush” before Gurney and Earnest join them, and segue into a splendid take on “Nine Pint Coggie.”
Each Yank also gets a “spotlight” set: Foley on the gorgeously rendered air “Séan Ó Duibhir A’ Ghleanna,” followed by a pair of reels, Sean Ryan’s “Trip to Nenagh” and then “Miss Langford’s”; Gurney essays a robust D-modal jig, “Up and Away in the Morning,” that goes into “Charlie Mulvihill’s”; Alderson tackles the venerable “Jenny’s Welcome to Charlie” along with “The Lady on the Island”; and Earnest shows his dexterity in flatpicking a pair of slides on guitar, “An Seanduine Dóite” and “Micho Russell’s.”
In fact, it is Earnest’s accompaniment that gives The Yanks a further distinctiveness. He builds on the standard I-IV-V/minor-VII-VI chord progressions with imaginative but not overly conspicuous voicings, all the while keeping the rhythm intact. He’s also not afraid to go out on a limb occasionally, as he demonstrates on “Jenny’s Welcome,” his bouzouki backing to Alderson’s pipes expertly creating and then dispelling tension.
In doing so, Earnest both blends with and enhances the work of his melody-playing colleagues – all part of striking that elusive balance in making all-instrumental Irish music a pleasurable listening experience.
“There are some accompanists who look to establish a groove within which the melody players play,” says Earnest. “I go about it from another way. I try to come up with chords and sequences that replicate as closely as possible what’s happening melodically. I embellish and complement the melody without getting in the way, and leave Dan, Dylan and Isaac some flexibility.
“On ‘Jenny’s Welcome,’ for instance, I came up with something rhythmically and harmonically that was closest to what the regulators on Isaac’s pipes do. It’s a bit of a high-wire act, sometimes – but that’s part of the enjoyment of playing traditional music.”
“I really like what Sean did,” says Alderson. “The tune can sound pretty bizarre in spots, but I think he really caught the mood and tone just right, and definitely helps to drive it along.”
Most of all, The Yanks more than fulfill the ultimate criteria for a trad Irish band: They play good tunes, and they play them well. Listen to them gallop through “House of Hamill,” a three-part reel by Ed Reavy that seems locked into a relentless melodic sequence for the first two parts, then suddenly, thrillingly, breaks out of it. Or listen to them traverse the majestic, intriguing “Jackie Daly’s Barndance,” and then ease their way without a hitch into the Am/C reel “Return to Camden Town.” And there’s the stately hornpipe set, “The Stack of Barley” merging into “Scott Skinner’s,” which Foley’s fiddle then kick-starts into a reel.
The Yanks exude a certain confidence not only about their musicianship but also about their musical identity. As Earnest puts it, “Our overarching ethos is, we’re Irish musicians but not necessarily Irish. Being centered in New York, we’re a very urban, transatlantic kind of band, and we have all kinds of influences and interests, many of which we share. And the main thing is, we just like playing music with each other.”
For information on June 19 The Yanks-Liz Hanley concert at The Burren, see burren.com.
CD Music Reviews
BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
Pat Broaders, Liz Knowles & Kieran O’Hare, “Open the Door for Three” • Three stalwart, well-respected members of the American Irish music scene join the suddenly abundant roster of hot Irish trios – which includes The Teatotallers (Kevin Crawford, Martin Hayes and John Doyle) and Winifred Horan-Mick McAuley-Colm O Caoimh – and the result is a happy one indeed.
Fiddler Liz Knowles has brought her classical violin background to traditional music territory with aplomb, as a member of Cherish the Ladies, the String Sisters, and the “Riverdance” musical cast, as well as solo and in collaboration with, among others, husband Kieran O’Hare, a masterful player of pipes, whistles, flute who has proven equally adept as an arranger of traditional music. Their melodic might is supported, artfully and gracefully, by Pat Broaders, whose bouzouki accompaniment and singing were a key facet of yet another memorable trio, Chicago-based bohola.
The instrumental sets encompass some venerable session favorites like “Snug in a Blanket” and “Tom Billy’s Jig” (“Everyone knows ‘Tom Billy’s’ jig,” reads the liner note. “Everyone”) and also include several entries from the great five-volume Breandán Breathnach collection of tunes, three of them grouped into the “Grand Gates of Annesbrooke” reel medley (“O’Shaughnessy’s,” which ends the set, is a particularly splendid affair with O’Hare doubling on whistle and pipes). Knowles’ knack for composition is featured with her tenderly delivered air “The Gift of Falling,” and an additional part she supplied to the album’s titular tune, a leisurely-paced major/minor jig collected from Munster in the 19th century.
Broaders, meanwhile, gives himself a pretty high degree of difficulty with two of the album’s four songs. For “Beeswing” – easily one of Richard Thompson’s most deeply-felt, lump-in-the-throat creations, about that love affair you knew couldn’t work but were compelled to see through nonetheless – Broaders generally lets the lyrics do the work, instead of seeking to emulate the emotional texture of Thompson’s vocals, and with a recurring sympathetic riff from Knowles, he pulls it off just fine. By contrast, “Miles Weatherhill” is a 19th-century broadside ballad from Yorkshire brought to life in the late 1970s by legendary singer-guitarist Nic Jones, a made-for-tabloid true story of thwarted love and unspeakable revenge; Broaders and crew superbly evoke, but do not overplay, the undercurrent of passion and dread throughout the verses.
The two other songs are tried-and-true traditional, “High Germany” – given urgency by Knowles’ use of a setesdalsfele, a 10-string instrument that is a hybrid of a violin and Scandinavian fiddle – and “The Well Below the Valley,” which if anything has a darker character than “Miles Weatherhill,” featuring a relentless multi-tracked bouzouki rhythm and Knowles’ appropriately ominous bowing.
“Open the Door for Three” is a most welcome entrance.
Niamh Ní Charra, “Cuz: A Tribute to Terry ‘Cuz’ Teahan”• Tricky things, tribute albums. It’s perfectly fine to record a bunch of material associated with the band/musician/composer in question, down tools, and call it a day. But can you convey something of the subject’s personality, the qualities that distinguished him/her/them, not only as a musician but also as a living, breathing person – especially if the subject may not have the historical footprint and cachet of, say, a Turlough O’Carolan or Michael Coleman?
Niamh Ní Charra, an award-winning fiddle, concertina player, and singer from Killarney, has done precisely that in this 13-track homage to Kerry native and longtime Chicago resident “Cuz” Teahan – concertina and accordion player, composer, mentor and role model for many, including Ní Charra, who as a young girl met him in person only once (for all of 10 minutes) but has carried him in her heart and memory ever since. One of her most prized possessions is a cassette tape Teahan – who died in 1989 – made for her after their encounter, an hour of tunes from the Sliabh Luachra tradition (many of which taught to him by Padraig O’Keeffe, another tribute-worthy figure) or his own hand, a few song excerpts, and all manner of information, insight and advice.
That tape serves not only as a thematic but occasionally a literal point of reference throughout “Cuz,” as Ní Charra includes excerpts of his playing and singing (some of the latter decidedly PG-13) from the recording amidst the tracks, which include estimable contributors like Liz Carroll, Seamus Begley, Jimmy Keane, Donogh Hennessy, and Mick Moloney. As befitting a tribute from one Kerry musician to another, there are plenty of polkas and slides, including marvelous Teahan originals like “Dave Kennedy’s Gift,” “Mary Shea’s Promise to Her Dog” and “Mickey Chewing Bubblegum,” Ní Charra’s indispensible liner notes offering context and explanation for the titles as well as the tunes themselves.
Yes, “Cuz” is a studio recording, with polished, professional performances and arrangements, but this is no clinically academic exercise in traditional music preservation; it’s a lovingly rendered portrait of a man and his legacy, right down to the embroidery (another of Teahan’s talents) that forms part of the cover design. The closing medley of slides brings forth the spirit of fun, and even irreverence, that’s supposed to animate this music, with Begley’s robust singing of “The Hair Fell Off My Coconut.” Cuz would be proud.
(Ní Charra, incidentally, is donating the cassette Teahan made for her to The Irish Traditional Music Archive, at itma.ie.)
Revels’ summer fundraiser hails all things Irish
Building on the enthusiasm generated from last December’s sold-out Irish-themed “Christmas Revels,” Revels’ annual summer fundraiser will continue the party on Saturday, June 15, at 8 p.m., with “Midsummer Night Revels: A Summer Solstice Soiree.” The Ireland-flavored celebration will take place at the Holy Trinity Armenian Church, 145 Brattle Street in Cambridge. The evening will be hosted by Revels’ Artistic Director Paddy Swanson and Music Director George Emien.
Entertainment will feature: Lindsay and Brian O’Donovan (host of WGBH-FM’s popular “Celtic Sojourn” and a former Revels board member); step dancers Harper Mills and “Lord of the Dance” cast member Kevin McCormack from the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance; Cieran Nagle, founding member of the Three Irish Tenors, with his wife, dynamic violinist and fiddler Tara Novak; guitarist Owen Morrison, who coincidentally is married to Revels Founder John Langstaff’s grandniece, Meredith Langstaff; and more. In addition to a Silent Auction, a festive Dessert Buffet and a Cash Bar, guests will enjoy poetry by W. B. Yeats, an original Irish Blessing, and a mini-version of the Strawboy Mummers Play, which has its origins in County Fermanagh.
Tickets to the event are $35. Benefactor Tickets, priced at $100 per person, also include a 6 p.m. pre-soiree’ reception showcasing hearty hors d’oeuvres and fine wines. (The location for the Benefactor’s Reception will be provided following purchase of tickets.) For information and tickets, call 617-972-8300 ext. 29 or visit www.revels.org.
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