From A Distant Shore:

Irish and Cape Breton traditional music recorded live
at the Cork University Traditional Music Festival

Nimbus NI 1752

A 4-CD set, released by Nimbus Records (; price £19.99

First, a few general comments.  This box is very good value - loadsamusic for the money.  I enjoyed some tracks more than others, but all in all, found it a fascinating collection.  As live recordings go, these vary from moderately good to excellent - the sound isn't always crystal clear, and at times the balance between the instruments is less than ideal - but there's always lots of atmosphere, which more than makes up for any deficiencies.

Now for the details:

Disk One (NI 5320) Fiddle Sticks: Irish Traditional Music from Donegal

(Recorded at the Fiddlesticks Festival, organised by the Traditional Music Society of the University College, Cork, 18-19 January 1991.)   62.5 minutes

Featuring: Ciaran Tourish, Dermot McLaughlin, Séamus Glackin, Kevin Glackin, Tommy Peoples, Séamus Gibson, Proinsias O Maonaigh, Máiraid Ní Mhaonaig, Paula Doohan, Liz Doherty (fiddles) - plus (on tracks 18 & 19) Tom Colin, John Robert, Andrew Deyell, Davy Tulloch, Daniel Lapp (fiddles), Alan Clark (bass) and Dave Jackson (Guitar)

  1. The Boys of Malin, The Gravel Walks - Reels (CT, DMcL)
  2. Stirling Castle, Miss Ramsey - Strathspey and Reel (CT, DMcL, SGl, KG)
  3. Farrell O'Gara, Ciaran O'Reilly - Reels (TP, SGb)
  4. Two Jigs - (TP)
  5. Gusty's Frolics - Jig (CT, DMcL, SGl, KG)
  6. The Glen Road to Carrick - Reel (SGl)
  7. The King of the Pipers , Frainc A'Phoill - Jigs (CT, DMcL, SGl, KG)
  8. The Jug of Punch, John Stewart - Reels (TP)
  9. The Pinch of Snuff, the Wild Irishman - Reels (CT, DMcL, SGl, KG)
  10. The Lord of Mayo - Air (KG)
  11. The Mullingar Races, The Pigeon on the Gate - Reels (PO'M, MNíM, PD, LD)
  12. The Turnpike, The Shetland fiddler, The Boys of Malin - Reels (PD, LD)
  13. Two Mazurkas - (PO'M, MNíM)
  14. The Silver Spire, The Boys of Ballisodare - Reels (TP)
  15. Tripping up the Stairs, The Gravel Walks - Reels (CT, DMcL)
  16. The Wedding Jig - (DMcL)
  17. The Fantastic Reel, McFarley's Reel, Miss Ramsay - Reels (CT, DMcL, TP, SGb, SGl, KG)
  18. The Jig of Slurs, The Irish Washerwoman, The Atholl Highlanders - Jigs (All)
  19. The Wise Maid, Macleod's Reel, The Boys of Malin - Reels (All)
The greatest instrumentalists have a sound that's all their own.  The guitar of Django Reinhardt, or the soprano sax of Sidney Bechet, speak with a voice as recognisable as the menacing rumble of Orson Welles, or the sexy growl of Marlene Dietrich.  But many fine performers of less exalted status also manage to give their music a distinctive texture.  This makes them stand out amongst colleagues who simply play the right notes in the right order, and only get as much tone out of their instruments as the makers put in.  On this disk, it's the fiddle of Tommy Peoples that rises above the throng.  I don't know enough about fiddle technique to explain how he does this, but the effect is unmistakable.  play Sound ClipHis tone, phrasing, attack, and use of decoration elevate the tunes to the level of the concert platform, without ever losing touch with the dance floor.  And he also knows that you don't have to play a tune at a break-neck pace to make it exciting.  (sound clip: The Silver Spire)

Having said that, there are several other performers of real quality here.  Paula Doohan and Liz Doherty play a dazzling set of reels - play Sound Clipthe leader never sacrifices clarity in the cause of speed, while the second fiddle adds some tasty harmonies, and boots up the rhythm at strategic moments.  (sound clip - The Boys of Mallin)   Cover pictureAlthough mazurkas are not usually my cup of tea, I did enjoy the two performed by Proinsias O Maonaigh and Máiráid Ní Mhaonaigh on track 13.  They're played tightly and tidily, with a distinctive flourish that's very appealing.  On track 16 Dermot McLaughlin delivers The Wedding Jig with plenty of feeling, and impressive technique, but he plays just a little too fast, and once or twice the phrasing gets lumpy, and the rhythmic impetus is lost in the rush.

The tracks featuring massed fiddles are also enjoyable, though perhaps a shade less memorable than the solo and duo offerings.  The set of jigs on track 7 , for example, has a rather muddy sound in the lower register, while some of the high notes are a bit harsh.  And in the reels on track 17, there are awkward passages where somebody's either lost the tune, or attempted an over-ambitious harmony part.  The concluding jigs and reels on tracks 18 and 19 involve everyone who's been on the record so far, plus some extra fiddles, a guitar and string bass.  The excitement of the occasion gets across, even though the sound quality is a bit hairy.  There's plenty of rhythmic drive, but it comes mainly from the fiddlers themselves, as the bass is precise but pedestrian, and the guitar almost inaudible.  However, small problems are only to be expected in a one-off live recording by a large (and probably under-rehearsed) group, and the energy of the playing is more than sufficient to compensate for them.

All in all, a thoroughly worthwhile recording, supported by some erudite notes by Dermot McLaughlin on the Donegal fiddling tradition, and the environment in which it grew up (and still flourishes).  Cork '91 must have been a vintage festival - I only wish the organisers had recorded some of the late night sessions, as well as the formal concerts.

Disk Two (NI5415) Across the Waters: Irish Traditional Music from England

(Recorded at the Across the Waters Festival organised by the Traditional Music Society of University College Cork, 25-26 February 1994.)   71.46 minutes.

Featuring: Niall Keegan, Siobhan O'Donnell, Tom McElvogue, Paul Gallagher, flutes; Brian Rooney, Brendan McGlinchchey, Brendan Mulkere, fiddles; Karen Tweed, piano accordion; Andy Cutting, Luke Daniels, button accordions; Brendan Ring, pipes; John Carty, banjo

  1. Untitled, Untitled, Hand me Down the Tackle - Reels (SiO'D, KT, AC)
  2. Brendan Ring's, Paddy O'Brien's - Reels (BRg, NK)
  3. The Wounded Hussar - slow air; Charlie Lennon's - Reel (LD)
  4. The Reel of Rio, Untitled, Master Crowley's - Reels (BRy)
  5. Tom McElvogue's - jig; New Irish Barndance; Untitled - Reel (NK)
  6. Bunker Hill, The Spike Island Lasses - Reels (BMcG, LD)
  7. Dan Breen's, Miss McLeod's - Reels (BRg)
  8. Untitled, Organdie - (KT, AC)
  9. The Heathery Breeze, Finbar Dwyer's - Reels (JC)
  10. Willie Coleman's, The Connachtman's Rambles - Jigs (AC, LD, NK, TMcE, SiO'D, BMcG, Brg, KT)
  11. The Pigeon on the Gate, Tommy Peoples' Reel - Reels (LD)
  12. John J Kimmel's Favourite - Clog; My Love is in America, The Diamond Ring - Reels (NK)
  13. The Harvest Home - Hornpipe; The Foxhunter's - Reel (BRg)
  14. Colonel Frazer, Madame Bonaparte - Reels (BRG, NK)
  15. The Salamanca Reel, The Crooked Road - Reels (PG, BM, BRy)
  16. St Michael's Mount, Untitled - (AC)
  17. Untitled, The Eavesdropper, Untitled - Jigs (SiO'D, LD, TMcE)
  18. Waking up in Wonderful Wark, Untitled - Jigs (KT, AC)
  19. Untitled - Slow Air (BM)
  20. Lad O'Beirne's, The Silver Spear - Reels (All + Patrick O'Dea)
While the first disk in this quartet is entirely fiddle-driven, the second features virtuoso performances on several instruments.  The standard throughout is so high that it seems unfair to praise individual contributions - the ones discussed are those I found particularly appealing or interesting.  Absence of comment on the others reflects the poverty of the reviewer's imagination, not the quality of the music.  Having said that, the tracks which gave me most pleasure featured the pipes of Brendan Ring, and the button-accordion of Luke Daniels.

Brendan Ring plays with great accuracy (an achievement in itself on such a temperamental instrument), and complete authority.  His chanter produces a variety of tone-colours, from a blackbird-singing-on-a-hawthorn-bough sound reminiscent of the Northumbrian pipes, to a she-wolf-baying-at-the-moon effect that only the uilleann variety can produce.  He deploys the drones and regulators thoughtfully, never blasting away with them just because they're there.  play Sound ClipI particularly liked his set on Track 13, which begins with a rollicking hornpipe and concludes with an all-out assault on a reel.  (sound clip - The Foxhunter's).  Some connoisseurs of piping might prefer a slightly less aggressive approach, but even the most critical must concede that Brendan has talent in abundance.

Another major talent is Luke Daniels, who won the BBC's Young Tradition Award a few years ago.  A slow air is a stern test for any musician - play Sound Clipthe wide open spaces between the notes leave no place to hide deficiencies of technique or lapses of taste.  On The Wounded Hussar, Luke passes the examination with flying colours (sound clip).  His seamless legato playing on faster tunes - whether solo, or supporting other musicians - is equally pleasing.  This fluent style is characteristic of Luke's instrument, which, according to my sources, is a two-row B/C box - a melodeon to English players, but a button accordion among the Irish.  But his switch from The Pigeon on the Gate in G minor(dorian) to Tommy Peoples' Reel in E major is a nifty shift on any box at all.

Andy Cutting has a contrasting but equally valid style, better adapted to the one-row box in D favoured by older Irish musicians, or the two-row D/G preferred by many English players.  The sound texture is thicker, and the rhythm more four-square - driven by those chuffing bass chords people either love or hate (I love 'em!).  For all that, the playing never lacks finesse.  Alone on Track 16, and in company with Karen Tweed on Track 18, Andy shows how delicately this much-maligned instrument can perform.  The piano accordion also has its detractors, but Karen shows how to make it sing sweetly on her own composition, Waking up in Wonderful Wark.

Several able flautists and fiddlers contribute to the disk, and a step dancer (possibly Patrick O'Dea, though the notes aren't specific) makes his percussive point during the concluding communal bash.  All in all, the recording provides a showcase for some awesomely talented players, and its producers deserve credit for capturing the spirit of the occasion so faithfully.  (The sound quality is noticeably better here than on Disk One.) Brendan Mulkere's notes should be useful to researchers into the history of Irish emigrant communities in England, though I was disappointed that he had so little to say about the music itself.

Disk 3 (NI5350) Dear Old Erin's Isle: Irish Traditional Music From America.

(Recorded at the Dear Old Erin's Isle Festival organised by the Traditional Music Society of University College Cork, 21-22 February 1992.)   74.41 minutes

Featuring: Seamus Eagan, flute; Eileen Ivers, Liz Carrol, Kevin Burke, Seamus Connolly, Brendan Mulvihill, fiddles; Tom Doherty, melodeon; Jimmy Keane, piano-accordion; Billy McComiskey, button accordion; John Williams, button accordion & concertina; Joe Shannon, uilleann pipes

  1. The Noisy Curlew, Farewell to Erin - Reels (EI, SE)
  2. Miss Drummond of Perth, Moneymusk - Donegal Highlands (TD)
  3. Drying Out, Crush Cars, The Lost Indian - Reels (LC)
  4. Fáinne óir Ort (The Gold Ring) - Jig; Brendan McMahon's - Reel (KB, JW)
  5. Horse Keane's Hornpipe; The Rath Cairn Reel, The Charleston - Reels (JK)
  6. Untitled - jig; The Wee Bag of Spuds - Reel (SE)
  7. The Derry Hornpipe - (JS, JW)
  8. An Buachaillin Ban (The Little Fair-Haired Boy) - Air (SC)
  9. The Three Sisters (Moneymusk, Drowsy Maggie, Untitled) - Reels (TD)
  10. The Kilnamona Barn Dance, Hayes' Jig, Old John Williams - Jigs (JW)
  11. The Tarbolton, Dan Sullivan's, Be Off - Reels (BM)
  12. Séan McGlynn's Jigs - (BMcC)
  13. The Piper's Despair, Julia Delaney's - Reels (EI)
  14. The Humours of Whisky, Take the Bull by the Horns - Jigs (TD)
  15. A Stór mo Chroí (O Love of my Heart) - Air; New Mown Meadow, The Morning Dew - Reels (JW)
  16. That's Right Too, The Leading Role - Reels (LC)
  17. The Nervous Man, The Gosling, Paddy Shannon's - Reels (LC, BMcC)
  18. Untitled, April's Fool, Seamus Cooley's - Jigs (JK)
  19. I Had a Bonnet Trimmed with Blue, Untitled - Polkas (TD)
  20. The Swaggering Jig, London Lasses - Jigs (JS, JW, SC)
Yet another collection of festival highlights, brim-full of brilliant performances.  Amongst all this talent, a few performers shine a little more brightly for me, though other listeners will undoubtedly choose other favourites.

I found Tom Doherty's melodeon playing irresistible.  It never lacks precision, or poise.  play Sound ClipBut it has that stomping, down-home feel shared by many (otherwise very different) kinds of music that come straight from the soil.  Listen to his earth-shaking delivery of Miss Drummond of Perth on Track 2, and try keeping your feet still! (sound clip).  The tune is called a "highland" on the track listings: the notes for Disk One reveal that in Donegal this name was used for Scottish strathspeys, which were often played there for couple dances.  Here, and in his jigs and reels elsewhere on the record, Tom never loses the spirit of the dance.  Despite differences of style and genre, the massive authority of his playing reminds me of Lead Belly (who, though he was more celebrated as a singer and guitarist, often played the melodeon, or 'windjammer', for country dancing down in Louisiana).

Liz Carroll's music also has a hoe-downish swagger that grabbed my attention from her first notes on Track 3.  play Sound ClipShe plays so many open strings (or double-stops) alongside the melody that at first I thought there was an uncredited second fiddler.  But her decorations, though flamboyant, are never exhibitionistic, adding colour to the tune, without overshadowing it.  (sound clip - The Lost Indian).  Her slower reels on Track 16 have just as much drive, but give the melody more space to breathe.  On Track 17 Liz is at full tilt again, tastefully accompanied by Billy McComiskey on button accordion, who throws in some punchy bass chords at strategic points.  This is wonderful, lively stuff - makes me want to get up and dance! Billy's solo set on Track 12 is equally enjoyable.  His two jigs have a lively bounce, with relaxed right hand phrasing supported by well-placed chords in the bass.

Seamus Egan's flute solos on Track 6 are beautifully played, with good tone, clear articulation and sensitive phrasing.  I also liked his duets on Track 1 with Eileen Ivers, whose fiddle boots the tunes along with some well-placed rhythmic ornaments and added harmonies.  Though not as spectacular a performer as Liz Caroll, Eileen has excellent technique and a distinctive sound.  She offers two delightful solo reels on track 13 using slurred notes to produce an appealing vocal effect, and augmenting the melody with piquant touches on the open strings.

Jimmy Keane's piano-accordion playing is another delight.  On Track 5 he gives a lovely lilt to the hornpipe, following it with a reel that's brisk, but sensitively phrased.  His left hand never gets into a rhythmic rut, diversifying the bass line with long-held notes like bagpipe drones, and stabbing chords reminiscent of the uilleann regulators.  play Sound ClipThe jigs on Track 18 have plenty of melodic flourishes, and some tasty bass chords, but Jimmy never smothers the tune with decorations, and always remembers where the beat is.  Great listening music, but you can still dance to it! (sound clip - Untitled)

Other performers also make worthy contributions.  On Track 10, John Williams plays his solo concertina set elegantly, although there's a barely noticeable hiccup in the closing bars of the second jig, and another in the transition to the third.  (Sorry to be picky, but reviewers are expected to spot such things - if they don't someone's likely to complain that they haven't really listened to the record.) However, the duet between John's concertina and Joe Shannon's pipes on Track 7 doesn't quite work for me.  Both play well, but the tones of their instruments don't blend comfortably, and there's some tension between the fluid phrasing of the pipes and the more strongly accented rhythm of the concertina.  Maybe my ears are at fault, but I have similar problems when pipes and concertina are joined - but not quite reconciled - by the fiddle of Seamus Connelly on Track 20.  Nevertheless, they play The Swaggering Jig and London Lasses with infectious zest.  This latter is listed as a jig in the notes, but it sounds exactly like a reel - otherwise, the notes are admirable, though there's more about sociology than music in Mick Moloney's essay.

A final comment.  All the musicians on this record share one major virtue.  They respect the integrity of the tune, rather than just using it as an opportunity to show how fast, or how intricately, they can play.  A traditional melody is like a small child - it should be cherished, but not smothered.

Disk Four (NI 5383) Traditional Music from Cape Breton Island

(Recorded at the Cape Breton Island Festival organised by the Traditional Music Society of University College Cork, 19-20 February 1993.)   79.19 minutes

Featuring: John Morris Rankin, Howie MacDonald, Jerry Holland, Brenda Stubbert, Natalie MacMaster, Carl McKenzie, Buddy MacMaster, Dave MacIsaac, Dougie MacDonald fiddles Paul MacNeil, Jamie MacInnis, pipes

  1. Pretty Marion, Dusky Meadow - Strathspeys; Creignish Hills, Tom Rae, Dinkie Dorrian's, Sleepy Maggie - Reels (JMR, HMcD)
  2. Miss Crawford - Marching Air; John Pellerine's Strathspey; David White's Reel, CBC's Glen and Carl, Just Cruising, Iggie and Squiggie Reel - Reels (JH)
  3. Miss Ann MacNamara - Strathspey; Picnic, Brenda Stubbert's, Wishaken Drive, Dinkie Dorrian's - Reels (BS)
  4. Dan R's Favourite, Portland Fancy, Cronin's Favourite, The Trip to the Doryman - Jigs (HMcD)
  5. O teannaibh dluth is togaibh fonn - Gaelic song air; Donald Cameron's Powder Horn - Jig; Norman's, Joey Beaton's, William McPherson's - Reels (PMcN)
  6. The Bonnie Lass of Headlake - Marching Air; Sir Archibald Dunbar, Angus Allan and Dan J's - Strathspeys; Homeward Bound, Lively Steps, Jackie Coleman's - Reels (NMcM)
  7. Marble Hill - March; Brendan Mulvihill - Strathspey; John Morris Rankin's, Kathleen VIII, Donna Warner's Scissors, Molly's Graduation - Reels (DMcD)
  8. Tea Gardens, Mrs McGhee, Fraser's Jig, The Old Dutch Churn - Jigs (All)
  9. Master Francis Sitwell - March; H Mackworth, The Cock of the North, Miss Christie Nicholson - Strathspeys; Casaloma Castle, Mrs Forbes Leith, Memories of R Beaton - Reels (CMcK)
  10. Irish Lasses, St Patrick's, Jerry's Beaver Hat, The Chorus Jig - Jigs (NMcM)
  11. Glengarry's Dirk, Rothiemurchus Rant - Strathspeys; The Braes of Auchertyre, The Braes of Glencoe, The Bonnie Lass of Fisherrow, The Bird's Nest, Caber Feidh - Reels (BMcM, CMcK, DMcI)
  12. John McColl's Farewell to the Scottish Horse - March; Miss Scott, Culder's Rant, Glenlyons, Largo Law - Reels (PMcN, JMcI)
  13. Lime Hill, Calum Breauch, King George IV - Strathspeys; Jack Daniel's Reel, Little Donald in the Pigpen - Reels (JMR)
  14. O'er the Moor Among the Heather - Air; The Laddie with the Plaiddie, Miss Gordon's Athole Brose - Strathspeys; Lady Muir MacKenzie, The Lasses of Stewarton - Reels (BMcM)
  15. The Duke of Fife's Welcome to Deeside - March; Miss Ann MacNamara, Dusky Meadow - Strathspeys; Sandy Cameron, St Kilda's Wedding Reel, The Trip to Windsor - Reels (All)

It's a pity that some of the hardest-working musicians on this disk are not given proper credit in the notes.  Every track - apart from two sets on the bagpipes - features a performance by one or more fiddlers with piano accompaniment.  The fiddlers are clearly identified on the main track listings, but the pianists are not.  Several pages later - in microscopic print - alongside the credits for sound engineers and composers of tunes, you may discover that John Morris Rankin plays piano on track 4, Howie MacDonald on 10 and 13, Tracy Dares on 1, 6 and 7, and Hilda Chiasson on 2, 3,8,9,11,14 and 15.  But although the pianists are sidelined in the notes, the piano is sometimes (on track 13, for example) a little too prominent in the mix, given that it's providing an accompaniment, not a second solo voice.  I presume it's the engineers, rather than the musicians, who are responsible.  On the other hand, David MacIsaac's guitar accompaniment is almost inaudible.  After discovering (in the same maze of ultra-small print) that he featured on tracks 2,3,6,9 and 10, I returned to the disk, and found that a handful of his notes were just about detectable.  But heck, it's a live recording - we should give thanks for what we've got, not complain about what's missing.

Loud or soft, the piano seems to impose a distinctly military rhythm on several of the tracks here.  However, it may be that this percussive approach is inherent in the music itself, accompanied or not.  After all, the bass drum of the marching band is there in the regular stomp of the fiddler's foot, as well as in the pianist's left hand chords.  And you can hear the roll of the snare drum behind the staccato ornaments that Scots-style fiddlers are so fond of.  But whatever its source, this relentless marching beat underlines (and for me, undermines) the playing of John Morris Rankin, Howie MacDonald and Buddy MacMaster.  They all generate plenty of excitement, and display lots of technical virtuosity, but the insistent rhythm eventually becomes wearying to the ears.  For example, Howie MacDonald renders Dan R's Favourite at a clip that feels way too heavy for ceilidh dancing, though it might be fine for a regimental gallop with the Household Cavalry.

Few instruments have stronger military associations than the highland bagpipes.  Nevertheless, they can be played with great sensitivity, as Paul MacNeil shows on O teannaibh dluth is togaibh fonn, a Gaelic song air which sounds remarkably like Barbara Allen.  He also performs some brisk reels with considerable finesse.  When Paul duets with Jamie MacInnes on track 12, the two sets of pipes blend smoothly on a fine selection of tunes.  The march rhythm remains inescapable, but in this context it seems far more appropriate.

Several fiddlers on this disk do give their tunes a more relaxed pulse.  (Interestingly, when they loosen up, so does the piano - or perhaps some pianists are more encouraging than others?), Dougie MacDonald and Carl MacKenzie show a good deal of rhythmic freedom, and Jerry Holland even more, but I felt it most strongly in Brenda Stubbert's playing.  Brenda gives all the tunes in her set an amazing buoyancy, while Hilda Chiasson supports her imaginatively at the keyboard.  play Sound ClipThis isn't exactly jazz, but it certainly does swing.  The audience loved it - hear them whooping as the reels build to a climax, and keep your feet still if you can! (sound clip - Dinkie Dorrian's).

However, the most rhythmically subtle musician here is undoubtedly Natalie MacMaster.  At first hearing it was her tone that attracted my attention - it was almost as if her fiddle played in Technicolor, while all the rest were making do with black and white.  But closer listening reveals that her phrasing is equally remarkable - every note in the right place, and with just the right emphasis.  While some of the other fiddlers have a little difficulty with the gear-shift from strathspey to reel, play Sound ClipNatalie's changes of pace are absolutely effortless.  Listen to her glide from the air into to the strathspey on Track 6.  (sound clip).  Her use of decoration is brilliant, but never flashy - every flourish is there to make a musical point, not just to show off her skill.  Furthermore, her playing has an irrepressible sense of fun, which coexists happily with the control and discipline of a well-schooled musician.  Truly, a fiddler for all sessions.

Serious students of the Cape Breton tradition, or of fiddle technique in general, will find plenty of material to interest them on this disk.  (They should also benefit from Liz Doherty's clear and informative notes)   For non-specialist listeners, there are several tracks capable of raising the spirits whenever one begins to feel that life is getting stale, flat and unprofitable.  Who could ask for anything more?

Mike Sutton - 10.7.99

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