I'm a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Celtic music and make no bones about it. There aren't many more of me left in the music journalism in the States, unfortunately, but I'll keep carrying the torch high for the music of the Celtic lands: Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Galicia, Québec, Wales, Newfoundland, Cape Breton, PEI, and the Shetland Islands. I know, my list of Celtic lands is a bit longer than most, but I figure since it's mostly an invented concept, why not err on the side of being more inclusive rather than less?
Kris Drever. If Wishes Were Horses.
2016. Reveal Records.
Anyone who reads KITHFOLK or my earlier writings knows I'm a huge fan of Kris Drever. Lead singer for avant-folk UK band LAU, son of Ivan Drever of Wolfstone, and one of the best young Scottish singers and songwriters, Drever can do no wrong in my book. And now he's back with his first solo album, If Wishes Were Horses, in too long. It's beautiful. There's no doubt about that. The first two songs are classic Drever. Richly brogued-out weepin' songs with rich vocals and beautiful accompaniment. But then the album hits the third song, "Capernaum," and you see Drever's vision more clearly. He's almost remixing elements from European and American folk roots. A little bit of ancient Scottish balladry, a touch of Celtic songs named for old places, a bit of jazz manouche chord variations, a bit of Tom Waits splutter-and-stomp in the rhythm. It's a tour-de-force of songcraft that comes off as easy as anything else on this album. Drever's just that good. Pick this album up. You won't regret it!
2016. Compass Records.
I lived in France for a year in my college days, and fell in with a group of French musicians who played Irish music. And I mean, they really obsessed over the music. I knew I was in rare company when I realized they all spoke English with an Irish accent from spending so much time in Ireland learning tunes. So I know firsthand how much the French love the Irish (two Catholic nations who get to hate the British together? C'mon!), and how much French musicians love Irish music. So I was happy to get the new album from French band Doolin', out now on Compass Records. It's produced by John Doyle of Solas and it's a lovely album of songs and tunes with some pretty heavy-hitters as guests: Alison Brown, Jerry Douglas, and Mike McGoldrick. Of special note is guest Mary Shannon (Sharon Shannon's sister and one of my favorite Irish tenor banjo players). The band itself is undoubtedly named for the County Clare town of Doolin, known as one of the key centers of Irish tradition. I've been to Doolin myself and played tunes with some of the great local masters. It was an inspiring thing, to be sure. With a larger view, this album is part of a network of European connections–the liner notes reference French festivals as meeting points–that I think escapes the very insular world of American folk music fans. Our country's at such an insular point in its history that the brilliant music coming out of Europe is going mostly unheard here. More's the pity, and kudos to Compass Records for bringing some of that over to the States with Doolin'.
Nathan Gourley and Joey Abarta with Owen Marshall. Copley Street.
Man, this album of Irish trad is just what the doctor ordered. Two superb instrumentalists, American fiddler Nathan Gourley (who had a great album out last year with fiddler Laura Fedderson), and dapper gentleman and uilleann piper Joey Abarta hold court on their favorite tunes, each of them knowing each other well enough to put listening first and showiness far second. It's an album of lovely taste and refinement, with each player clearly overjoyed to get the chance to settle into deep, deep grooves on some favorite tunes. Joined by guitarist and bouzouki player Owen Marshall of the ace Maine Irish band The Press Gang, Copley Street's a solidly enjoyable album for any lover of Irish trad. Of special note, I greatly enjoyed the liner notes for the album which reference the famed Irish players and dances of Copley Street in Boston that inspired the joining of musicians here. I've long wanted to learn more about the Irish, Scottish, and French-Canadian music scenes of Boston from the 60s and 70s and these three are clearly inspired by the old smokey dancehalls of that city that seem to be mostly gone now. More's the pity, but it's still hard to complain too much when great music like this is being made today.
I've made no bones about how much I love the new trad music coming out of Newfoundland. Steeped in old sea ballads and racing accordions and fiddles, Newfoundland deserves to be the new hotbed of Celtic music internationally. Chief among this crowd is the young accordionist Aaron Collis. He's part of The Dardanelles, who I think are the best new-wave trad band, and has also spent time learning from accordion masters around the province. His recent album with Dardanelles fiddler Emilia Bartellas was a delight of traditional playing, and here his new album as a duo–Rum Ragged–with Newfoundland singer Mark Manning is another lovely surprise. I'll confess to not knowing a lot about Manning, but his vocals here are as soaringly powerful and crystal-clear as I'd come to expect from Newfoundland balladeers like the Dardanelles' Matthew Byrne. Manning hails from the town of Saint Bride's and made his name playing pubs in St. John's and Placentia Bay. There's an element of the pub song to the album, for it's not entirely made up of old ballads. Instead, Manning and Collis have put together a compelling list of traditionals and originals, drawing as much from great Canadian songwriters like David Francey as from old classics like "Barque in the Harbour". It's a successful idea, and the songs mesh easily, drawing out different facets of each other. Rum Ragged is a powerful new duo in the Newfoundland music scene and I'm delighted to say that the clarion-call vocals and harmony that is the mark of Newfoundland trad is in full effect here.