Tommy Peoples

Fiddler's Fancy: Fifty Irish Fiddle Tunes Collected and Performed by the Irish Fiddle Legend

Waltons WM1341   (1986; 55 minutes)

Tommy Peoples turned his back on the record industry shortly after the release of this album fifteen years ago, issued to accompany his companion book of the same name, and recently re-released in CD format.  Cover pictureIt was not this album specifically which broke the back of Tommy's camel, but the accumulative effect of releasing a series of albums from the mid-1970s onwards on a variety of labels and seeing little in the way of financial return for his efforts. 

Like both his 1976 recording for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (An Exciting Session with One of Ireland's Leading Traditional Fiddlers) or the Ovation label's undated Master Irish Fiddle Player, the recording quality of Fiddler's Fancy is abysmal, leading one to suspect that the studio was a converted swimming pool so trebly and echoic is the mix.  And the mix itself?  Well, that's an interesting one.  As the Spartan sleevenotes describe, 'This CD is designed so that by adjusting the left or right speakers on your stereo you may listen to either Tommy Peoples himself or play along with the backing musician.'  In other words, if you know the tunes (or have the book in front of you), you can bow, pluck or blow away to the delights of the then young Manus Lunny's guitar and bouzouki and even wonder sometimes exactly which key he's playing in (as it sometimes does not correlate to Tommy's own) except, of course, that, Tommy being such an exceptional solo fiddler, there's no accompaniment at all on quite a few of the tracks.  When Tommy plays solo he takes over both speaker channels, leaving those who had hoped to hear Manus in the background - perhaps he's making a cup of tea, having a quick swim or desperately trying to retune his instrument - utterly disappointed.

Unfortunately, when he does play, Manus is a complete distraction, so listeners are advised to switch off his channel and go back to mono.  At this point you'll discover that the background echo almost entirely disappears, leaving the possible conclusion that Peoples and Lunny might have actually been recorded at different times and perhaps even that Manus was strumming along with the companion tune book in front of him.

Thus left alone to his devices, Tommy whirls through a startling array of tunes from his extensive repertoire and, unusually, to ears accustomed to the standard session format, all the tunes are played separately (as the tune book format would require).  The upshot of this for any aspiring fiddlers is rather akin to a guitarist trying to learn Jimi Hendrix solos from a book for Tommy, restricted to just a few runs through each tune, packs each with all the fancies of his astounding imagination.  Those extraordinarily crisp triplets are there, of course, most notably on The Bank of Turf which is immediately followed by one of Tommy's tours de force, his incomparably precise, yet ever flowing Lord of Drumblane.  Without the presence of Manus this then becomes a sheer masterclass in traditional fiddling where Tommy draws fully upon all the components of his musical background, his formative years in Donegal (to which he has now returned), his spell in the Dublin melting-pot and, lastly, his many years based in Clare.  For those who associate Tommy with greased lightning there's also an emotive version of Na Connerys offering a notable counterbalance.

Geoff Wallis - 15.7.01

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