by Devon Leger
Living up here in rainy Seattle, Washington in the Pacific Northwest, you might think that we're pretty far from the green shores of Ireland, but actually we've always been right at home in the world of Irish and Celtic trad. We have some of the best Celtic artists living right here: Irish fiddle legend Kevin Burke in Portland, Irish fiddler Randal Bays in Seattle (Martin Hayes used to live here too), French-Canadian fiddle master Lisa Ornstein in Portland, and Irish accordionist Johnny B. Connolly in Portland. We've got a particular flavor to our Irish and Celtic trad as well that's happy to incorporate influences from outside, like old-time stringband tunes or covers of more modern songwriters. Kevin Burke's Open House first set the standard for the Pacific Northwest school of Celtic trad, but there's a new crop of artists bringing us forward today. Here are three great albums that came out in the Pacific Northwest in 2014.
Hanz Araki - Foreign Shore
Bless you Hanz Araki. Bless you for reminding me that great trad music can be pure and elegant without needing to “break the mold.” On his new album, Foreign Shore, Hanz makes a case for the beauty of the old melodies and old songs in a way only he can. Of Irish and Japanese descent, Hanz is the perfect embodiment of West Coast Irish trad in the US. He’s as easily informed by his Japanese heritage (he’s a sixth generation shakuhachi master from a rich lineage) as he is by Irish punk kings The Pogues, Tom Waits, or the Northwest old-time scene. Living in Portland, Oregon, he’s exposed to more great, diverse roots music than most of us can imagine and he’s basically always been at the forefront of Irish trad in the Northwest. As long as I’ve known him, I’ve looked up to his playing on the Irish flute and his singing as an Irish vocalist. Both of these talents of his are meticulous, refined, created in the best taste. Like a fine chef, Hanz works with simple ingredients and transforms them into something beautiful and unexpected. On Foreign Shore, he focuses on some of his favorite tunes drawn from late night sessions with great Northwestern players or his friends in the larger international world of Irish trad like Kevin Crawford, or old touchstone recordings. His description of a trio of “chestnut” tunes (The Chicago/The Maids of Mt Cisco/The Virginia) is endearing: “Three old session-warhorses that I felt deserved another lap.” The songs are drawn mostly from the tradition and Hanz has a special love for songs of the sailers on the sea or highway rogues (heck, who can blame him!). Previous albums from Hanz have featured songs taken from interesting sources (I think Tom Waits was a key to one of his earlier songs), but here he seems content to delve back into his large store of traditional songs. Throughout, everything about this album is tasteful and heartfelt. It’s a real ode to music that Hanz has loved for a very very long time. It’s so nice to have artists like Hanz Araki who love to live in the tradition and perform in celebration of those who’ve come before.
The members of Ná Rósaí are all young Irish trad players in Portland, Oregon, a city known for its trad scene, but on their debut album they show a maturity far beyond their years. I'd expect a band made up of young bucks to be hot players, and this is certainly the case with Ná Rósaí, but I didn't expect them to be so creative with the music and their arrangements. This band knows when to hold back and really draw out a melody, relishing the beauty of these traditional tunes, and when to let the shackles off and just go for broke. It took me many years to even come close to learning this lesson, so hat's off to them! Individually, each player in Ná Rósaí is highly talented and it's hard to pick out the highlights among them. Fiddler Erik Killops is one of my new favorite fiddlers with this album, able to bounce between an old-time fiddle tune ("Farewell Trion") and an Irish reel ("The Graf Spee") with the kind of ease that makes me quite jealous. Fluter Conor O'Bryan and piper/whistler Preston Howard are both stellar and have a very lovely chemistry on one of my favorite tracks from the album, "I Wish I Never Saw You", which rebuilds a popular reel into a slowed-down showcase of the interplay between the two instruments. Bouzouki/guitarist Richi Rosencrans holds down the band with his accompaniment and finds time for some nice flatpicking as well, plus he brings some great vocals to the band, especially on thesong "Three Fishers".
On their self-titled debut, Ná Rósaí have done a very Portland thing: included some great covers of old-time Appalachian stringband tunes. Portland's known even more for the old-time music community, who throw a rager of a party every year in the Portland Old-Time Gathering, and Ná Rósaí fiddler Erik Killops' dad, Scott, is a well known fixture on the scene. Though Irish musicians are often fans of old-time music, and some bring it into their music very prominently (see Mary Custy and Sharon Shannon), it's still not that common to hear these tunes mixing into the Irish tradition. Portland's the perfect place for this to happen, and other artists like Kevin Burke and Johnny B. Connolly have been doing this a lot. Great to hear it done so well here, as Ná Rósaí bring up "Farewell Trion" and "Whiteface". Overall, this is a killer debut from a young band on the scene with a lot of new ideas and talent to spare. Be sure to catch this one!
Dale Russ - Soul Food
Seattle fiddler Dale Russ has always been one of my most favorite Irish fiddlers, even if he doesn't get nearly the credit for his playing that he deserves. He's a remarkably deft and inventive fiddler who operates out of the deepest corners of the tradition but always manages to find new ways to present beautiful tunes. The albums he did a while back with Todd Denman are classics in my house as is his work with the great group Setanta (Pacific Northwest Irish band featuring Hanz Araki and Finn MacGinty). I've copied many of Dale's tunes from his playing and found so much in his playing that has inspired me as a fiddler.
His new album is a very stripped-back affair–primarily just him on fiddle, accompanying himself for a few tracks only on guitar–and it serves to shine a bright spotlight on his masterful playing. He rips through old classics like "Galway Bay", "The Morning Dew", or "Paddy Ryan's Dream" with a kind of creative abandon that bursts forth in unexpected and fascinating ways. He's got a lot tunes as well that I hadn't heard before, like the nimble jig "Truthful John", or "The Shepherd's Daughter", or my favorite track on the album, the easeful slow tune "Margaret Malone". That tune in fact, and Dale's playing on it, makes me for the first time in a long time that I'm back in Ireland. Encoded in the rasp of Dale's bow on the strings is a kind of foggy sadness that I've only ever felt over there. It's true that an album that's mostly all solo fiddle can take a bit more listening energy than a much-arranged fiddle album with a bunch of accompanists, but it's worth taking the time to really delve into the art of Irish fiddle with Dale Russ.