Tony Mac Mahon

Mac Mahon from Clare

Mac Mahon maccd001

It's a bit of an occasion when somebody like Tony Mac Mahon releases a new CD and this one has been worth the wait.  Nobody plays like Tony Mac Mahon.  Cover pictureThis is an eclectic selection of recordings, spanning an amazing thirty odd years from 1967 to 2000, from a box player who has always treated traditional music with tremendous respect.  Mac Mahon was the man who sparked off the debate about Riverdance, Micháel O'Súilleabháin's River of Sound and the whole 'Tradition versus Innovation' controversy which led to the Crossroads Conference (see Crosbhealach an Cheoil edited by Fintal Vallely et al, distributed by Ossian).  As a champion of the tradition he has put his cards on the table with this selection of solos and duets with Seamus Connolly, James Kelly, Barney McKenna, Peader Mercier and Joe Cooley.

His first solo recording was released by Gael Linn back in 1972 and since then he has made two live recordings with Noel Hill which I think most people will be familiar with.  This CD returns to the pattern of his first record.  Don't expect an hour of driving dance tunes, although there are jigs, reels and hornpipes here, there are plenty of slow airs and marches as well, and one set dance.

Tony Mac Mahon was the first player I know of to attempt slow airs on the accordion and there are five examples here.  He was encouraged by Seamus Ennis to play slow airs and makes full use of the box in his execution of them.  Huge chords underpin the air, like a piper's drones and regulators in full flow and he varies the volume to an incredible degree as he interprets different nuances and twists in the tune.  Seamus Ennis used to say that you had to sing the words in your head as you played to get the true feeling of the piece and it certainly seems as if Mac Mahon is following this advice.  Slow airs are not to everybody's taste and I find it difficult to appreciate the Breton tune My Love She Is No More or A Lament for Lost Books after just a couple of listens.

The marches on the other hand have a truth and immediacy that can't be denied.  Played in duet with Barney McKenna, they have a strong martial feel that few other players have given to the tunes.  Hackneyed favourites like The Battle of Aughrim are kick-started by Barney McKenna's strummed banjo and the full force of the box drives the tunes on as the banjo works in more of the melody line.

The Garden of Daisies set dance was recorded on an evening in May this year at what sounds like a well lubricated get together in Dublin and the assembled party show their appreciation of the invention and power of the box player.  The last track, recorded at the same gathering, reprises one of the earlier marches with fiddle, bodhrán and what might be a hurdy-gurdy augmenting the original duo.  It may be a bunch of friends having a laugh, but boy can they play!

The dance tunes are familiar but high class.  Two jigs, recorded in London in 1967, are peppered with slides and bent notes that recall Paddy Canny's fiddle style.  A couple of reels with James Kelly show what might have been had they gone ahead and recorded a full LP in 1985 rather than abandoning the idea after an hour's playing.

There are two selections, jigs and reels, with Clare exile Seamus Connolly on fiddle.  Recorded live in Boston last year, this is music of the highest standard, intimate and close with tremendous soul in the playing.  As with his slow airs, Mac Mahon uses the left hand to lay a chordal pattern under the tunes that emphasises the modal nature of Clare music.

Although this is a collection of recordings made in differing circumstances over a number of years, the production quality is remarkably consistent.  There are no dramatic changes to interfere with the listener's enjoyment.

The sleeve notes set the context of each track.  They are littered with references to one of Tony Mac Mahon's great mentors - Joe Cooley and we are treated to a duet between the two box players.  This was recorded on that same night in Peterswell which featured on the Gael Linn LP released after Cooley's death.  For 90 seconds we get something very special indeed as the two men play The Limerick Lasses.  Buy the CD for this track alone.

Ken Ricketts & Marya Parker - 23.11.00

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