The coolest thing about working for CeltCast is that you never know where you will end up next! By now I’ve discovered some lovely local festivals that have become regulars on my musical calendar. The latest one on this list is
A really cool, cozy folk festival in Ratingen, Germany. It started out as an idea by 2 members of the folk band
and two youth centers in the city of Ratingen and is heading towards its 14th edition next year.
In 2019 it featured folk bands like
Wait For June and
the pop-folk hurdy gurdy player Patty Gurdy
and, as the headliner, the Irish folk band Drowsy Maggie. Never heard of them? Well, that is about to change. Their performance at Folkerdey was so good I found myself buying their CD the minute the show ended and it did not disappoint! Nú Trad is filled with upbeat Irish folk with a twist. With a lot of twists, actually. Drowsy Maggie added a whole bunch of musical flavors to the songs they recorded. It keeps the album interesting right to the very, very end. But I’ll come to that. First things first. Who are Drowsy Maggie?
Drowsy Maggie Headlining the Folkerdey festival 2019
Drowsy Maggie are a German folk band based around Düsseldorf. The band was formed by accordionist Alex Otto and guitar player Thomas Gurke. Later on drummer Christoph Zimmermann and vocalist/fiddler Sebastian Zimmermann completed the line-up. Their repertoire is filled with classic Irish folk songs, part traditionals and partly works from the likes of
(whom we know from
(a bagpiper/low whistle, composer known -amongst other things- for his work with
the Dougie Maclean band);
the Irish band
(a cool band who mix Irish folk with the energy of gypsy- and Latin American music, think
goes folk) and -wait for it-
Did you just say Metallica? Yes! Coming from a pop/rock background Drowsy Maggie play acoustic Irish folk, but they do give it their own energetic twist, just like some of their influences, making Nú Trad a pleasure to listen to. So let’s dive into their music.
The opening track Broken Pledge starts with the deep sound of the floor tom, some intriguing mystical guitar effects and a staccato fiddle that has
Diex, Nox Et Omnia written all over it. Alex Otto’s Accordion is fast to follow with a lovely catchy accordion melody, that could have easily come from a
Wouter en de Draak
album. To my pleasant surprise the band takes their time with this intro, it’s only after 2 minutes that the beat kicks in and the song turns into a catchy Irish jig with the cheerfulness of a
Everybody who loves Irish folk will be hooked after this song alone, trust me.
With the second song Drowsy Maggie take on a real classic: Christy Moore’s I Wish I Was In England. And again the band convinced me in every way. Sebastian Zimmermann has a warm and really pleasant voice – with some imagination you could call him an Irish version of The Belgian singer-songwriter
– and I can only compliment them on their interpretation of this evergreen. Especially with that French style folk accordion solo thing at the end. Lovely stuff.
These two songs were just a prelude to one of the biggest surprises on Nú Trad and at the same time one of the best and most original songs on this CD. The song is called Superflying Popcorn Drive and the title is just as positively weird as the music itself! Just as
many decades before them, Drowsy Maggie mixes their Irish folk with a jazz flavor! As in the sound of a jazz big band! From the first notes of the bassline, you know you are gonna going to be in for a treat! When the brass section – Avelina Thole on trumpet and Will Wilzek on trombone – step in I am thinking
or – more incoming with the
And it does not stop there, Sebastian throws in a lovely gypsy style fiddle solo while Otto’s accordion is still insisting to take you down to France. After two and a half minutes the band switches tune and the popcorn really starts to fly. That accordion and fiddle combo is sooo freakin’ catchy, by now I’m bouncing and dancing around the room.
But we are not done yet! The musical flavors change one more time as the brass section goes into marching band modus, including the obligatory drumroll on the snare drum, while the accordion is still cheerfully popping musical popcorn all around my headphone. I know it sounds like an impossible mix to put together, but not for Drowsy Maggie. They manage to get all these crazy ideas into one song and somehow make it work. In the end, you still listened to a folk song. An extremely danceable, cheerful and weird one, but folk nonetheless. 10 out of 10 for originality and musical talent!
And there is more to come. Drowsy’s Bar, for instance, starts as a delicate gypsy solo played by the fiddle, but unexpectedly the song picks up speed and goes into a French folk song with Spanish percussion, still with that gypsy feel although that ends abruptly! After one last chord from the accordion, the song continues as an uptempo Celtic folk tune from Brittany. It isn’t long before the flavor of the song changes yet again, into bluegrass this time! Really?! Yep, no problem in the Drowsy Maggie world.
With Tell God and The Devil the band throws another twist at you. This song is best described as uptempo pop-folk, with some gypsy influences, a heavy bluegrass feel, sung by the Belgian singer-songwriter Milow. Just as the Irish band Kila, Drowsy Maggie seems to throw all those different influences in a blender, put the machine on full speed and just flow with it. It shouldn’t work, but out come the most upbeat and danceable pop-folk songs that you ever heard, by no means traditional, but very, VERY cool.
Want me to describe another one of those musical cocktails? Well, it comes right after Drowsy’s Bar and Tell God and The devil. It’s called The Barre and again it features that typical marching band sound I mentioned before. In Germany, you have something called a
a (small) marching band playing really melodic brass evergreens. (In the link you’ll find a video of the muzikkappelle from Ratingen.) Somehow Drowsy Maggie managed to capture that typical German sound into their folk music and make it feel fresh, young and cool. Don’t ask me how but they did it but it works sooooo well! By the way, did I already mention the band is actually playing a bit of Metallica here? No? Well, they do and it actually works!! French accordion meets German brass section on a Celtic folk album playing an adaptation of a metal song. Only in the Drowsy Maggie world can you fit those four together. It gets even better, after the Metallica-goes-folk-brass-section, Drowsy Maggie push up the beat, pull out a wah-wah guitar, throw in a lovely accordion hook and eventually pull out some groovy disco vibes as well. Seriously? This even beats Clannad’s early 60’s acid folk experiments on their debut album and I’m only halfway through this CD!
Now I could go on like this for the next seven songs but that would spoil it all, so I’ll stop here and let you discover the remainder of this album by yourself.
I can imagine that after reading this review you might think this album sounds like a patchwork blanket, but it doesn’t. The album is surprisingly coherent considering all the different styles and that is because of two very good reasons. The first one is that under all those nice quirky ideas it’s all still upbeat, really danceable Irish folk music. Admittedly, with a big wink towards Brittany, but it always returns to those Irish roots.
The second thing that keeps this whole album together is its fresh, spontaneous sound. All the songs were recorded in two live sessions, one of the 29th and one on the 30th of October. And you can hear that. It is clear that the band prepared themselves well for these two sessions and it’s that freshness, together with the originality and quirkiness of the band that makes Nú Trad such a good album. But don’t take my word on it. Go listen for yourself!! Preferably with a suitable dance partner. Because with half of the album filled with upbeat cheerful reels and jigs this is just as much an album for the balfolk enthusiasts as it is for the fans of fun Irish folk. Now let’s get these guys back to
! Or on the stage of
. They so deserve it!
Editor: Gwendolyn Snowdon
Sleeve art: Andreas Heller
photo credits: Andreas Heller
CeltCast Classic Cara – Yet We Sing (2016)
Cliff de Booy
We didn’t focus that much on pure Irish folk CDs in this review section yet,
Three Strand Braid,
From The East Unto The West and of course
early works are the only ones I can think of. But that is about to change. A while ago I got the request from Ilona to review one of her favourite bands, together with a pile of music to listen to. The band is called
and the music doesn’t get more Irish than this, even though Cara are a German band. Since their origins in 2003 the band produced 7 CDs, toured the better part of Europe, became successful in the USA, even being voted best new artist of 2009 and top group of 2010 with the
Irish Music Association.
They were also nominated for a best record award three times. In 2007 in Germany for the CD In Between Times and in 2010 Long Distance Love was nominated, not only in their homeland Germany but also again with the Irish Music Association based in the USA, so you can safely say that Cara have had a successful career up till now. It was almost Inevitable that they would be the second band featured in the CeltCast Classics series. So let’s introduce Cara a bit more.
It all started in 2003 when Gudrun Walther (vocals, fiddle and accordion, left on picture), Jürgen Treyz (guitar, right on picture), Sandra Steinort (vocals, piano and flute) and Claus Steinort (uilleann pipes and flute) formed Cara. Shortly after Rolf Wagels (bodhrán) joined and in this formation the band recorded the studio albums In Colour (2004) and In Between Times (2007) followed by a live CD and DVD called In Full Swing (2008). From 2007 onwards Cara did several tours throughout America, gaining more and more success. It was in these years that Cara won the two Irish Music Awards. Also at this point Sandra and Claus Steinort couldn’t mix the busy tour live with their other obligations and decided to leave the band.
In the video above you see the original line-up playing Please Be Peter – taken from their second CD In Between Times – live at Bonfeld Folk im Schlosshof 2008.
They were replaced by Jeana Leslie, winner of the BBC radio 2 young folk awards (vocals, piano and flute) and multiple all Ireland uilleann pipes champion Ryan Murphy. You could call it a winning line-up. The result was Long Distance Love that came out in 2010.
In 2013 Jeana Leslie started studying *) and in her place Scottish singer/songwriter Kim Edgar joined the band. In that line-up the band recorder Horizon (2013). In 2014 Ryan Murphy had to leave the band due to his busy schedule **) and he was replaced by German uilleann pipe player Hendrik Morgenbrodt. With this line-up the band recorded the albums Yet we sing (2016) and their latest CD Live (2018). Shortly after that long time member Rolf Wagels left the band and Aimée Farrell Courtney was welcomed in the Cara family.
The debut In colour
With all those line-up changes you would think that the sound of the band changed tremendously over the years, but actually it didn’t. It’s still lovely Irish folk music, featuring female vocals, uilleann pipe, flute and violin. All in a clean, calming and almost fragile way. I didn’t hear any distorted instrument or forced singing note on any of the CDs. From the first notes of the opening track on the debut CD In Colour it is clear that the strongest point in Cara’s music are the stunning vocals. The voices of Gudrun Walter and Sandra Steinort are beautiful, crystal clear and work really well together. (As does the combination of Gudrun together with Kim Edgar on later albums.) The harmonies between the two ladies are beautiful. The clean sound of the guitar, violin and uilleann pipes even enhance those lovely voices. Track one, The King And The Fair Maid, is a cheerful introduction into Cara’s music that made me eager for more. Luckily there is more, a lot more actually. You have Three Ravens for example. A beautiful ballad that is a bit in the tradition of Twa Corbiez. The way it is sung reminds me a lot of Gwendolyn Snowdon on her album Three Strand Braids. Or listen to There Is Light, the last song on In Colour. It starts as a lullaby, so tender and fragile with a lovely piano accompaniment – not to mention the acoustic guitar solo in it – but it ends as a grand acoustic power ballad.
From the CD In Between Times (2007) I could name the uptempo, slightly eerie Poisoned Peas with it’s lovely harmony singing and the fast pace of the guitar and uilleann pipes in it, I could name the strong ballad The House Carpenter or I could mention The Maid Of Whitby a nice upbeat song, with a slight country slide guitar in there and a lovely violin solo. This song makes me think of an acoustic version of
Both CDs are lovely examples of Irish folk. They have an almost 50/50 balance between instrumental – and vocal songs, all well played. Both In colour and In Between Days will not look out of place in any folk collection.
Cara playing Odd Rhythms a song written by Jürgen Treyz, taken from the 2013 album Horizon
Now I didn’t have the pleasure to listen to In Full Swing (2008) or Long distance Love (2010) yet, so I pick up the story with the 2013 album Horizon. For me the odd one out. On this CD Cara chose a more pop orientated production, with a electronic keyboard sound at times and a strong bass guitar. It turns the feel of the music in a mix of folk and soul/jazz, even funk/jazz in some songs. Just listen to Master Of Consequence or Odd Rhythms, both instrumental songs sound like funk legends
gone folk music. It takes a bit of getting use to but it actually works. Good examples are the upbeat jazz/folk instrumental Big Jigs or the pop-like Be Gone. Other highlights on Horizon are the beautifully sung ballad Blood, Ice And Ashes -think
meets Irish folk – and the more country orientated ballad The Bonny Lad. Cara are sooo good with their ballads, it is really one of their strong points.
Yet We Sing, The CeltCast Classic
With the 2016 album Yet We Sing, Cara pick up their old sound again, losing the pop/jazz production of Horizon. Opening A Leaf For A Sail is another one of those beautiful ballads that Cara are so well known for. With a theme and a feel that takes me back to
The North Star Grassman And The Ravens and a feel that reminds me a lot of Gwendolyn Snowdon’s interpretation of that song on Three Strand Braid. The Elfin Knight could also have been on Three Strand Braid. Kim Edgar has the same tone of voice and the same style of singing as Gwendolyn Snowdon. There is yet another similarity between Cara and Gwendolyn Snowdon. Their ability to tell a story. Cara clearly stepped away from the traditional call and response type of folk songs that made up the majority of their first two albums to lean towards modern popsongs, with strong lyrics telling a story, sung solo by either Kim Edgar or Gudrun Walther. Cain’s War for instance is a pure protest song, making a powerful statement against fanatism, religion and weapons, Cara I fully agree! Anchor In The Sky and Yet We Sing are two more beautiful ballads. I keep mentioning those, I realise, but honestly, the vocal quality of Cara make buying all of their CD’s worthwhile.
Up till now didn’t mention the instrumental songs much, although 50% of the albums are filled with them. The instrumental songs on the first two Cds are nice Irish folk tunes, mid tempo Jigs and reels played to perfection in the pure Irish way. Nice duets between Violin, flute or uilleann pipes. They may not have the adventurous arrangements as some of the vocal songs, but therefore are islands of calm between the vocal escapades. I love Songs like Reels For Hecki, the balladesque Buddleja, the gypsy style And Off He Went -all found on In Colour– or the almost Arabian sound of C’mon Tiger – found on In between Days- and fans of traditional folk will find many more instrumental gems on the first two Cara albums. As I mention earlier Cara leave the traditional approach of the instrumentals on the CD Horizon, opting for a more groovy jazz approach.
On Yet We Sing I notice a wee bit of a difference in those instrumentals. Although returning to the traditional style of folk Cara played on the first two albums, on Yet We Sing they start adding little twists and improvisations that make music so interesting for me.
There is Heroes, a nice upbeat collection of jigs and reels, with the third section going into a reggae rhythm (!?), just to spice things up, as the band writes themselves in the CD insert. Now that got my attention! Land Of The Midnight Sun is folk meets chamber music, while The Legend of Lisalway, with a lovely uilleann pipes melody, takes us back to the jazz influences on Horizon for a moment. The Naked Man In The Whirlpool starts as a lovely guitar piece and continues as an instrumental ballad instead of a traditional Irish dance. A Wee Dobro Tune is indeed written as a dobro solo piece, with some additional piano and violin. All in all I love the instrumentals just as much as the vocal pieces on this album, making Yet We Sing a clear CeltCast Classic!
So we come to the traditional conclusion and I can tell you that the more I listened to Cara’s music, the more their music grew on me. If I would compare them with a bottle of wine I would describe their music as a mature, yet supple, easy to drink red wine with a lovely bouquet of exquisite vocal harmonies. The instrumentals give the music a lovely vanilla tone with notes of surprising melted dark chocolate especially on the later CDs. fans of the early Clannad albums – especially Clannad 2 or Shantalla really should give Cara’s music a listen, and Yet We Sing is the perfect CD to start that journey.
– Pictures by
, taken during the Yet We Sing release tour in 2016
PS. I started listening to Cara’s music and writing this introduction in the spring of 2019. Since that time Cara released a new single called Móran Tang. A really touching story that actually says a lot about Cara so I’ll quote Kim Edgar from the Cara site:
“As some of you will already be aware, my dad, Derek Edgar, sadly died of cancer in March 2017. He was an extra-ordinary man: creative, gentle, positive, loving, and determined. He remained just as extra-ordinary in facing cancer of an unknown primary source, for which no successful treatment could be found. In the last week of his life, I wrote him a thank you card, because I wanted him to know how grateful my brother, myself and my mum were to have him in our lives. He challenged me to take the words of that card, and turn them into a happy song – he knew/knows I find writing happy songs difficult! And he has always tried to encourage me to keep developing my skills. And that’s the song, Mòran Taing. The title is in Scots Gaelic, and the chorus means “many thanks, goodbye for now, fare you well for now, many thanks”.
And with this beautiful homage we end this review. Knowing Cara’s musical story still continues.
*) Jeana Leslie is now part of the Scottish folk band
**)Ryan Murphy is now a member of the Scottish folk band
The year is 1973, Woodstock, the festival that gave a voice and its name to a whole generation, is already 4 years gone. Three of its most famous children,
Jim Morrison,Janis Joplin and
already passed away, the darker side of a free lifestyle.
The biggest story in the news is that a peace treaty finally ends the Vietnam war, giving the 60’s peace protesters their big victory. In the wake of the 60’s protests, a local protest against underground atom bomb trails in Amchitka, Alaska is turning into a nature protection group called
In the Middle East the conflict between Egypt, Syria and Israel escalates into the Yom Kippur war. The Egyptian-Syrian coalition is supported by some North African countries, Israel by the West. As a result the main oil-producing countries call out an oil embargo against the US, The Netherlands, Canada, the UK and Japan. Which means oil shortages. In Holland cars are not allowed to drive on Sundays. Can you imagine? 1973, just another year in a crazy world that is changing fast.
In the folk world things are also changing. In America the revival of folk music, that started as acoustic protest songs from artists like
Woody Gutrie,Simon and Garfunkel,
Joan Baez and her protégé
is starting to grow into folk rock, with
The Grateful Dead,
and of course
being a few of the great names in that scene.
In England bands like
are doing the same thing and are laying the foundations for what will become the Celtic rock.
is modernising and popularising traditional folk music from Brittany, an influence that can still be felt to this day. (Think of
big 90’s hit La Tribu de dana of the 90’s or more recently the lovely pop folk CD Bretagne by famous French singer
Right amongst all these changes, two things happen that will be significant for the future. One a bit more significant than the other. First of all a little babyboy called Alexander Sealgaire is born May 1973. A small footnote for mankind, a huge step for CeltCast, because he is one of the two founding fathers of this station. Secondly a young Irish band releases their first album, challenging the general opinion that music should be in English, rather than a local language, and that folk music should be traditional. That band of course is
and their music will, in the 80’s, spark a whole new genre, Celtic new age music. A legacy that still lives on to this day.
– One small thing I want to add before I write on. Although Clannad is an Irish band, quite often their names have been translated into English for ease of reading and pronunciation. I considered doing that too. But I decided against it. In the early years Clannad clearly made the choice to sing in Irish, even against the wishes of a record label. That is what set them apart from other bands at the time. So I wanted to honour that spirit. A second reason is that on all the albums I’ve listened to the names of the band members are written in Irish. So again, although I know it’s a bit harder to read, I found I should honour the choices the band made at the time and use the Irish names.- HOW IT ALL BEGAN
So how did it all start? In 1970 three siblings – Máire Ni Bhraonáin, (Moya Brennan – vocals, harp), Ciarán Ó Braonáin (Ciarán Brennan – double bass, guitar, mandolin, piano, bodhrán, glockenspiel, vocals) and Pól Ó Braonáin ( Pol Brennan – Flute, whistle, bongos, guitar vocals) together with their twin uncles Noel Ó Dúgáin (Noel Duggan – guitar, vocals) and Pádraig Ó Dúgáin (Padraig Duggan – mandolin, mandola, guitar, vocals) started playing music together. Music ran through the family, as father Leo Ó Braonáin was a member of the Slieve Foy band, – an Irish show band -, and mother Máire Ni Bhroanáin (born Ni Dúgáin) was a music teacher.
It will come as no surprise that all the kids were brought up with music, encouraged by their parents to play instruments and sing. Máire as well as her younger sister Eithne, better known as
– were both classically trained singers.
In 1968 father Leo bought a local pub in the village of Meenaleck in the county of Donegal in Ireland. As Leo saw, during the tours with the Slieve Foy band, how the dance halls around the country were closing at the time, he decided his tavern should be a podium for bands. A business plan that would never work according to the local businessmen, bankers, solicitors and others who thought they knew better.
wouldn’t last more than 6 months!. Well it still exists and is run by the second generation of Ó Braonáin!
It was in that tavern that the family band came together. As Clann as Dobhair (family from Dore, a name that was shortened to Clannad in 1973.) they played their first gigs, mostly covering songs like those of
Joni Mitchell and
the Beach Boys.
When they entered a local music competition in 1970, the Letterkenny Folk Festival, they played a selection of traditional Gaelic songs, arranged by them for a full band.
They won the contest and got their prize, a record deal with Philips. And so it was that in 1973 the first Clannad album, simply called Clannad was released by Philips Ireland. An LP filled with 8 traditionals re-arranged by the band, 4 covers and Lisa the only song on the album that the band wrote themselves.
Clannad wasn’t an instant success. The label had doubts that a band singing in Irish would sell, so they didn’t renew the contract. Even in Ireland itself there were sceptics who laughed at the idea that a Gaelic speaking band would be succesful. But, as their father/uncle Leo before them, Clannad believed in what they did and stuck to their guns, so the next two albums, Clannad 2 and Dúlamán
were again in Gealic. This time released by the small Irish
Gael linn label. A label connected to the
Gael Linn organisation, non-profit organisation, founded in 1953 to foster the Irish language and promote artistic events.
Intensive touring over Europe in 1976 and later America in 1979 meant that they slowly gained popularity, but it wasn’t until 1982 when they signed with big label RCA and accepted the invitation to write a song for Harry’s Game, a television drama, that they got their big breakthrough, while still making the music they believed in.
THE DEBUT ALBUM: CLANNAD (1973)
Back to 1973 and the debut album Clannad. There is so much to say about this debut. As with most young bands Clannad didn’t have a fully developed sound yet. Instead the album is filled with songs reflecting the influences and ideas, that would melt together into the band’s signature sound on their second album, Clannad 2. The first album is still a collection of styles, Irish folk, pop folk, a touch of medieval music, a sniff of the Beach Boys and even jazz folk! Jazz folk you say? Yep! It’s a new one for me too, but I really love it.
The opening track on Clannad, Níl Sé Ina Lá, is such a jazz folk song, and straight away my absolute favourite. The very first thing you will notice are the vocals. Máire has a warm, crystal clear voice that immediately stands out. You can clearly hear the years of classical training (Máire was destined to be a musical teacher, just as her mom). But she is not the only gifted singer in this band. The whole family is, so after Máire’s first opening lines, the whole band joins in for a short a cappella intro before the percussion picks up the rhythm and we are drawn into a lovely Joan-Baez-meets-Irish-folk-type of mid tempo song. Or so you think. As I’ve written earlier, Clannad does Irish folk their own way. To be honest, Níl Se Ina Lá is not a folk song at all. It’s a jazzy late 60’s pop song with an Irish folk feel to it. First there is the choir in the chorus that reminds me of the Belgian band
the Wallace Collection
and their big hit: Daydream. Then there are the solos, those are also not the typical cheerful folk melody lines running up and down the musical ladder. No, they are laid back, almost improvised jazz solos of flute, guitar and even double bass. The moment the band drops down to only a double bass and percussion is pure jazz. The whole song can be described as, ahm, lets say
(a late 60/early seventies psychedelic jazz rock band.) meets Joan Baez meets the Wallace Collection to do some groovy folk tunes.
Luckily there are more of these jazz folk songs on this album, cause I really like them. Siúbhán Ní Dhuibhir. is one. A jazzy melody line played by Máire on harp. Again we hear a lovely laid back flute solo, in this case reminding me of
the Moody Blues.
The jazzy harp sound returns on An tOileán Úr. This song really takes me to that late 60’s psychedelic jazz sound, especially with that Wallace Collection type choir running all along the song.
Besides these jazzy psychedelics there are many more surprises on Clannad. There is Brian Boru’s March for instance. Brian Boru was a High King of Ireland, who on the 23th of april 1014 defeated the Viking king Sigtrygg, who ruled over Dublin at the time. Brian won the battle, although he himself got killed. The battle made the Vikings relinquish their claims on Ireland, and had turn their focus more on Scotland and England. Legend has it that this tune was first played as Brian’s men carried his body to its final resting place.
The song starts with some rather dark percussion and double bass sounds. A sound similar to Hinter Der Brombeerhecke from
Even after the intro this dark slightly jazzy traditional keeps showing similarities with Waldkauz. Come to think of it, this song would nowadays surely be called instrumental pagan folk. A tantalising mix between (psychedelic) jazz folk, a waltz, medieval influences and, because of the way the mandolin is played, Greek folk music.
There is one more song on Clannad with this medieval/baroque chamber music feel to it, the instrumental Mrs. McDermott, people who like
music might want to check this song out.
Clannad-the album- is not only filled with late 60’s folk crossover experiments, it also contains some beautiful contemporary ballads, honouring the bands Irish roots, and featuring the beautiful voice of Máire. An Mhaighdean Mhara for example is a lovely ballad sung by Máire, only accompanied by acoustic guitar.
The Pretty Maid is the first English spoken song on Clannad, and is a duet between Máire and one of the lads with some gentle guitars as accompaniment. A lovely song. Actually all the ballads are tastefully done. Máire has, as I said, this beautifully trained, crystal clear voice. She constantly reminds me of the equally brilliant Joan Baez. Fun fact, just as with an old 60’s album I have of Joan Baez, you can hear that the microphones at the time were not capable of handling those powerful high notes that both of them could sing, making them sound even stronger.
My favourite ballad comes at the end of the LP and is called Morning Dew. It’s a lovely pop folk ballad, originally written by
But the Clannad version is equally beautiful. Early Clannad at their best.
Clannad performing An tOileán Úr, at the Embankment Tallaght, Dublin in 1978GENTLE POP FOLK BEAUTY: CLANNAD 2 (1974)
So,the initial idea was to make Clannad -the album- our first CeltCast Classic. But after listening to it a few times I just knew there was way more to come. Don’t get me wrong, Clannad is a charming album with some brilliant moments on it. But it is also clearly the album of a young band. In the end I just had to discover how this went on, so within a week I had bought Clannad 2 and Dúlamán, the third album Clannad brought out, both by Gael Linn records. Conveniently Gael Linn re-released both albums as a double pack CD in 2010 and this is what I chose as our first CeltCast Classic.
Both recordings are must have albums if you like 70’s Irish folk music. Both albums I would describe as pop folk. The songs follow the normal ‘rules’ of pop music arrangements, guitar, bass, drums, vocals (most of the times) and a nice solo at two third of the song. The folk part is in the instruments they play. Bodhrán instead of drums, flute solos instead of electric guitar and double bass instead of electric bass. It’s also in the song choice, many Irish traditionals and of course in the Gaelic language that is used. Clannad 2 has more ballads on it and therefore has a more relaxed, evening feel. Dúlamán is in general a bit more up tempo. But let’s dive into them in more detail, starting with Clannad 2.
The opening song on Clannad 2, An Gabhar Bán is a feet stomping, hand clapping sing-along kind of balfolk favourite that will get you going every time you hear it. Especially Pól Ó Braonián’s flute melodies and solos will put an instant smile on your face. There is nothing like an Irish flute player to make you happy. It will work nowadays just as much as it did back in the day. It is instantly clear that this sound is much closer to traditional folk than the jazz folk that opened the first record. Not that it matters, An Gabhar Bán is just as strong an opener as Níl Se Ina Lá was on the first record! I have to say, Clannad are good at that, picking the right song to start with.
With second and third songs Eleanor Plunkett and Coinleach Ghlas An Fhómhair we get into the ballad part of this CD. Especially Coinleach Ghlass An Fhómhair is a lovely, lovely song. Folk pop at his best. (So good Clannad decided to record it one more time on their breakthrough album Magical Ring) Máire excels in this wonderful love ballad, but I also love the arrangements, the subtle guitars, giving this ballad a singer-songwriter quality. And then there is that wonderful 70’s stereo effect, the guitars come at you from both the left and the right, really drawing you into the song. I just love that old stereo sound, makes me wonder why it nowadays it is done so rarely. Such a shame. But I digress. I was sifting through my favourite songs on this CD and this is clearly one of them.
My next favourite is another ballad called, By Chance It Was. Everything I said about Coinleach Ghlass An Fhómhair is true of this song too. Máire is a pleasure to listen to, the flute solo is lovely and delicate. Fans of
flute player Remy Schreuder, or of
Koen van Egmond or, of course, the vocals of
need to listen to this song, you won’t regret it.
The sixth track, Rince Briotánach starts with a gentle slow guitar riff so I settle in for another lovely ballad. Not so! Just as I concluded for myself that Clannad chose to discard the jazz influences that were so predominant on the first album, the guitar picks up speed fast and the song turns into a cool, full speed, instrumental, jazz folk gavotte. Clannad learned this song from the Breton group
who most likely played it a lot more traditional. But this version is fine by me, I just love this unique jazz folk sound, for me personally the highlight of Clannad 2. Period!
Or is it ? Dhéanainn Súgradh makes me doubt that statement straight away. I actually can’t decide. Originally Dhéanainn Súgradh was a choral work song from Scotland sung by women when refining coarse cloth. Ironically the lead vocals of Clannads jazz folk version of this traditional are sung by a man! The harp intro is lovely, the chorus a definite earworm, but what makes the song for me is the last part. A sophisticated slightly distorted electric guitar crawls in followed by Pól on flute. Together they go into a cool, jazzy, late 60’s improvised solo, mixing the best of Jethro Tull and the Moody Blues in their own sound. Cool, just cool.
And these highlights just keep coming. If Dhéanainn Súgrad is an instant earworm, then Teidhir Abhaile Riú is even worse, this must have been a crowd favourite during concerts in those days. It makes me wish I could speak Gaelic, so I could truly sing along, not mumble half-heartedly as I do now because I know I will sound silly. Not only that, I would love to really understand the lyrics because it is a song where the parents of a young girl are pleading with her to come home again and marry an eligible piper. Now that is a conversation I’d like to hear.
A last ballad, Chuaigh Mé ‘Na Rosann closes this album in style. As I said, overall Clannad 2 is a relaxed CD full of wonderful ballads, with some nice uptempo moments in between from a band that luckily hadn’t compromised their musical ideas for quick succes. An album that will appeal both to fans of Irish folk and, at times, to those that like melodious pagan folk, played by bands like
THE SIGNATURE SOUND IS FORMING: DÚLAMÁN (1976)
Speaking of pagan folk, the title song of the third Clannad album Dúlamán was of course made famous in the pagan folk scene by
on their Live Religion EP.
Clannad’s version, the first track of their third album, features the band’s strong points right away, the ones I already mentioned several times before: the strong classically trained vocals, the lovely harmonies, the tender guitar chords and the mysterious flute solos. Add that up and you get a really lovely rendition of this classic Gaelic song. The a cappella start is particularly impressive. Where I can normally compliment Máire on her vocals, it’s this time a male voice that shines. All in all a lovely strong traditional start to this third LP.
Where Clannad’s second album is more ballad orientated, on this third album they pick up the pace much more. Sometimes unexpectedly even, with Two Sisters for instance. It’s a song I know well from Emian’s Le Due Sorelle. So when I saw the lyrics I was automatically expecting a ballad, just like Emian did on Khymeia. But no. Clannad wrap this song of greed and jealousy in the most cheerful, upbeat of folk tunes, in the way only the Irish can.
And then there it is! Finally! On track 4 of their 3rd abum, Éirigh Suas a stóirin. What you ask? The famous Clannad choir of course! I was waiting for it. For me as a music enthusiast and reviewer it’s really interesting to hear how a band grows and evolves. How a typical sound is developed by a band and how it fits in with the scene they are in. Well the big feature of Clannad’s big hits, Theme to Harry’s Game and Robin are the layered vocals with the big effects on them. Using the choir as a single instrument. It is so typical of the later Clannad sound that I was hoping to find traces of it in their earlier work. And there it is, in Éirgh Suas, A Stóirin, used as an intro into the song. A small hint of their future sound. My inner geek is satisfied!
Come to think of it, thát is the real power of Clannad’s music. Their ability to take the folk music they grew up with and add new elements to it, be it the psychedelic jazz sound of the 60”s, the harmonies as you hear them here, or the new keyboard and studio technology later on with their brakthrough albums Magical Ring or Legend. In that sense you could call Clannad a progressive folk band.
The song itself is a lovely pop folk ballad. Máires lovely voice, the gentle guitars, that mesmerising Clannad choir starting and ending it, what is there not to love about this song.
As I feel I’m starting to repeat myself, I’ll just pick up a few more highlights. The Galtee Hunt is a nice little balfolk tune featuring Pól Ó Braonáin on flute. He continues with another lovely flute melody in Éirigh Is Cuir Ort Do Chuid Éadaigh. In this song Clannad combine the old and the new. A lovely jazzy double bass solo we’ve come to know now, that famous layered Clannad new age choir that is new to their sound and Máire’s harp hopping cheerfully through it all.
Next up is my favourite Clannad song of all. Siúil A Rúin. A wonderful ballad that brings everything I have come to love about Clannad to the table. Máire’s beautiful voice, the gentle guitar notes of the lads, uptempo bits, the lovely tender breakdown to the chorus. This is pure folk heaven! So beautiful.
And then we get a lovely ‘Castlefest’ folk treat. Mo Mháire. It starts with Ciarán playing a cheerful little riff on his double bass, then Pól joins in with a slightly quirky but oh-so cheerful flute tune that I know so well from SeeD. You just have to smile when you hear it. And the happy jazzy groove just makes it even better. The a capella dTigeas A Damhsa and the cheerful Irish jig Cucanandy/The Jug Of Brown Ale end the original recording of Dúlamán.
On this re-release Gael linn have added a bonus track that comes from a split single the label released in 1975 in conjunction with the 1975 pan Celtic contest in Killarney. The B-side features the song
by the influential Irish folk singer
as an early warning on environmental issues, while the A-side features the winning entry by Clannad, An Bealach Seo ‘Ta Romham. It’s a nice uptempo song with that ever so slight medieval feel due to the mandolin in it. This bonus track not only finishes this lovely CD, it also finishes this introduction.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS BY JOE HENNON
After the release of Dúlamán in 1976 Clannad went on tour over Europe, part of which found their way on the 1979 album In Concert. In 1980 another family member, Eithne Pádraigin Ni Bhraonáin joined Clannad for a brief time, a family member we now know as
who left the band again just before they recorded their break-through album Magical Ring. But that is a story for another time.
Now for those famous last words that conclude any review or introduction. In this case they are not by me, but by a famous guest from the (pagan) folk scene. He is an acoustic guitar player that played with
Omnia and lately SeeD. He is, of course, Joe Hennon. Being Irish himself. I asked Joe if he was willing to write a few words on the influence Clannads early albums had on him and the folkscene in those days. Joe was quite willing to respond:
-‘When I was getting into music in the 1970s I was mostly listening to rock and metal, but then three Irish folk bands appeared which just blew me away and got me into folk music for the rest of my life. They were
The Bothy Band,
and Clannad. I loved the sense of history and heritage in their songs and their music was of a standard that was something completely new.
While Planxty and The Bothy Band mostly played songs in English as well as powerful instrumental sets, Clannad were different. Hearing songs in Irish (Gaelic) sung by native speakers was a revelation and so was their music. Clannad incorporated elements of jazz and progressive rock into traditional songs and their first two albums – I would say especially Clannad 2 which is regarded as their classic- made a huge impact on me and the folk scene in general. Their use of harp, flute, bass and harmony singing set them on the path to fame and inspired a whole new generation of Irish musicians, me included.
And Clannad’s legacy lives on. Joe Hennon took the inspiration he found in Clannad’s music with him into the music of Omnia, a band that in its turn inspired a new generation of pagan folk bands like Waldkauz, SeeD and Emian. And so the early music of that young Irish band, going against the stream, still rings on in the music we all love so much, making Clannad 2 and Dúlamán just as relevant now as they were when they were first released 45 years ago.
Editor: Diane Deroubaix
Shantalla – From The East Unto The West (2019) review
Cliff de Booy
This winter my girlfriend knitted me a new sweater. Beforehand I feared it would be itchy and scratchy, but no, the minute I put it on it just felt comfy and warm, nothing pulled or tugged, it was as if I’d had this sweater for years and years. It just felt snug and safe. It instantly became my favourite comfy sweater.
Well that’s exactly how the new
album made me feel. Within the first 3 songs the music felt like that new sweater that Anna gave me. Nice, comfy and warm. And around The Cameronian Set, track 8 on the album, I wrote another small line in my notebook: ‘this music feels like coming home’.
It really does. It is this happy feeling that always goes with Irish folk, the variety of song choice, the quality of the music, the lovely ironic humour in the liner notes, everything fits on this album. So much so that after two listens I already wanted to start writing this introduction. So here it is.
Shantalla’s ‘From The East Unto The West’. But first, let’s do a proper introduction of the band.
Do I really need to introduce Shantalla? Ever since their first gig in 1997 and the release of their debut album Shantalla, way back in 1998, the Irishmen Kieran Fahy (fiddle, viola), Joe Hennon (guitar, vocals), Michael Horgan (uilleann pipes, flute, whistles) and Gerry Murray (accordion, whistles, bouzouki, piano) and Scottish Helen Flaherty (vocals, bodhrán, shakers) steadily made a name for themselves, growing out to be a force to be reckoned with, not only in the Irish folk scene, but also in the balfolk and the fantasy festival world. Their second album Seven Evenings, Seven Mornings followed in 2001, and again got a good reception in the folk world.
In 2005, the band took a temporary break, focussing on other projects. Among them
The Helen Flaherty Band,
In 2009 the band reformed, adding bouzouki and guitar player Simon Donnelly -yes also Irish- to the line-up. In this formation work began on their 3rd album Turas, which was released in 2011. Again the reactions were really positive.
After a period of touring it became somewhat quiet around Shantalla, until the good news came out earlier this year that the band was back in the studio. The fruits of their labour, the 4th CD From the East Unto The West is going to be released in the coming weeks. The presale is running as I write these words. From The East Unto The west is recorded by
over at Folk Studios and
at Elle Studios.
-Comment from Shantalla: “Now that you mentioned Pascale, she has been our live sound engineer for over 21 years, it would be nice to thank her for that!-
To finish of the credits, From The East Unto The West was mixed by Philip Masure and the artwork was done by
Now the big question is: “Was From The East Unto The West worth the wait?” The answer: a resounding “yes!”
THE ALBUM: FROM THE EAST UNTO THE WEST
The first song, Captain Ward, sets the mood. Within seconds you know what to expect from this album. Good quality, Irish folk, traditional, but with a Shantalla twist, and cheerful, oh-so-cheerful. It’s the accordion flute and rhythm guitar that get the folk party going.
After this typical folk intro Captain Ward eases into a mid-tempo ballad from the 17th century about a pirate captain capturing a ship sent by the king of England to catch him. Of course Captain Ward has to brag about it and he wrote a letter to the king of England stating that His Majesty might be the king on land, but he, Captain Ward, is the king at sea.
This traditional ballad flows easily into the second part of the song called Paddy Goes East written by Gerry Murray. And yes the sound of the lead melody, together with the slightly different rhythm, does make the second part of Captain Ward sound as if good old Paddy had taken his accordion and fiddle on a wee tour of Eastern Europe.
The mood then switches for the first time, in the intro of the second song. An accordion solo reminding me a bit of
Wouter en de Draak
and their more French approach to folk music. The tone even gets a bit dark, when the rhythm guitar and violin creep in, made even stronger by the sound of crows in the background. The stage is set for a dark slow song, so it should not have surprised me that Helen Flaherty starts to sing Twa Corbies, but I really didn’t recognise it from the intro.
The track notes accompanying this song are also really cool:
-“The Twa Corbies is a cynical Scottish parody of a 17th century English song
The Three Ravens.
In this dark version, the corbies (crows) say that the dead knight’s hawk and hound have forsaken him and are off chasing game, while his lover has already moved on to another knight. Since no-one knows or cares where his body lies, the corbies talk in detail about the meal they will make of him, plucking out his eyes and using his hair for their nest. That’s recycling folks!” What was that about the Scots being cynical!?
The third album track, Ynis Avalach will take some doing from the balfolk dancers, I’m sure of it! It starts with a tricot, named as such in Brittany because it knits an andro and a hanterdro together. Then the music turns into a slip jig called Dever The Dancer, before it ends in two classic reels called Toss The Feathers #1 and Toss The Feathers # 2. Good luck dancing to that guys!
The good news is that Ynis Avalach is a really nice medley of songs. The first part Ynis Avalach, is a song Shantalla know from
You can see them perform it on
together with Fiona in the video below.
the album version again has that slight French Wouter en de Draak feel to it before the flute adds a lovely Irish flavour. That French feel is mostly there because of Joe Hennon’s subtle guitar work. I’ve been a fan of the way he plays for years. Actually from the moment I heard the live version of the Sidhenearlahi Set on Omnia’s Pagan Folk album. Yes he is mostly a rhythm guitarist, but he puts all kinds of nice twists and turns in his playing. Squeezing in all kinds of variations on the theme he plays and I just love that.
But he’s not the only one shining in this song, so do all the instrumentalists. In the
Shantalla uploaded on their website to introduce From the East Unto The West, Joe mentions it himself, that thát is one of the strengths of the band, the many lead instruments they can use. And he has a point. let’s take this song for instance. So in keeping with folk tradition it starts with a nice guitar rhythm and then the violin slides in. I just love how Kieran Fahy constantly does that. So subtle. But anyway, with the flute joining in, you think that this is it. A flute/violin duet. But no. It’s flute with another flute doing the second ‘voice’ while the violin keeps sliding in and out for added flavour. Michael’s uilleann pipes follow in the flow with Simon’s guitar now picking up the melody as well, then the accordion joins in, making the sound even fuller and richer.
In the second part Dever The Dancer, the violin takes centre stage, joined by the flute for a lovely cheerful slip jig, but again a low whistle, guitar and accordion step in and create a strong rich sound. The uilleann pipes lead us into the last part of Ynis Avalach, followed by some lovely bodhrán /guitar rhythms, before the whole band joins in to finish it all. I love instrumental folk if it is done like this. Such a rich and strong sound, so much variety. This just has to put a smile on everyone’s face.
here is Shantalla performing Ynis Avalanch together with Fiona at Castlefest 2014
On to the next song! Lead vocalist Helen Flaherty’s voice fits perfectly in Shantalla’s sound. She has a warm, strong voice full with emotion that she uses to her full advantage in the first ballad of the album, A Band Of Gold. A lovey story about a romance that was not to be….
I have to say, Helen shines on this. She is such a beautiful singer. Powerful, in full control of her voice, she sings this ballad with so much emotion, you can feel every ounce of despair, regret and loneliness in it. Pure beauty.
Shantalla are masters in contrast. After the intense loneliness of A Band Of Gold they could not have produced a greater contrast than by putting Magic Happens after it. The tin whistle intro cuts right through the intensity left by A Band Of Gold. Lovely, just lovely. The first part is a jig, again written by Gerry Murray. This jig is in the good old folk tradition, using just guitar and tin whistle, (ok, doubled tin whistle to make the sound richer.) The fiddle and accordion then take over and play us a composition of
The Three Wishes. As the set finishes with
Charlie Lennon’sMorning Sunday, with the uilleann pipes and accordion taking the lead, my notebook says; ‘an upbeat version of
. And I’m almost surprised the band kept the instrumentation so ‘simple’, but that is one of the strengths of this band, knowing what to add or not add, and when to do that.
ADDING ANOTHER MUSICAL STYLE
From this instrumental balfolk song we move on to The War Of The Crofters and a totally different musical genre. This song is originally written by the Scottish singer-songwriter
It is because of that diversity in not only songs, but also genres that I really enjoy From The East Unto The West. The album combines old traditionals, instrumental balfolk tunes and some singer-songwriter pieces. All three types of songs have their own style and feel. And it is the combination of those styles, tied together by Shantalla’s craftmanship that make From The East Unto The West such a joy to listen to.
I also have to mention Helen again. On this song you clearly hear her Scottish tongue. Now if a Scottish person talks, I always feel they are already singing. It is in the way they pronounce the words. There is just so much melody in the Scottish accent. To hear that melody back while singing, it is just a joy for the ears.
next up is Farewell To Charlemagne, the second song that has you stop in your tracks. It is a touching low whistle solo composed and played by Michael Horgan.. A touching, personal song about…. no, I shall not tell thee, in this case you have to look yourself into the track notes so the band themselves can tell you what it is about.
Track eight, The Cameronian Highlander is a well-known barn dance as specified in the track notes and it is indeed a mid-tempo dance tune played on accordion and flute. With a wee bit of imagination you can hear the clogs stamp on the wooden barn floor. But then the tempo speeds up considerably and the barn dance whirls into three reels, The Killavil Reel, The Bag of Spuds and The Carracastle Lass. All lovely uptempo folk tunes to cheer your heart and lift your feet. Irish folk music isn’t the most complicated style in the world, but played by gifted musicians, the instruments themselves start dancing, as if the notes themselves swirled around each other in variation after variation. Luckily Shantalla has such gifted musicians. So The Cameronian Highlander, again, is a joy to listen too.
THANK HEAVENS THEY INVENTED THE REPEAT BUTTONJamie Raeburn then shows the other side of folk music. Quite often they tell touching stories full of longing for a love once lost, grieving about a home now lost or telling about the hardship of life. Jamie Raeburn and the next song, Midlothian Mining Song, are no exception. And, as I already said Helen has the perfect voice to tell you those stories. You feel them when she sings. The delicate touch of Simon’s guitar compliments her voice perfectly. Just listen to this beautiful combination in Jamie Raeburn. The icing on the cake then comes from the touches of fiddle and viola and the subtle low whistle solo in Jamie Raeburn, or the lovely accordion, viola and flute melodies on Midlothian Mining Song.
Talking about lovely rhythm guitar, the first part of the last song on this album, Breaking Wind, has plenty of those. But it’s the touches of fiddle that make this song into something truly stunning. Almost classical in style, the fiddle sound gently slides into the music. It’s our last goosebump moment before Shantalla goes full out in this balfolk grand finale. A worthy end to this must have album, that finishes way too fast. Thank heavens they invented the repeat button. You’ll need it, you’ll need it a lot!
Editor: The ever so lovely Diane Deroubaix
Sleeve design: Robin Dekker
Studio Pictures: Shantalla
Live pictures: Kees Stravers