What is attractive in concept can often collapse in execution, and it’s easy for the parts to overwhelm the whole, especially if a recording lacks sufficient thought and rehearsal.
None of that applies to “Crossroads,” the outstanding debut album by the trio of Galway button accordionist Mairtin O’Connor, Tyrone fiddler and banjoist Cathal Hayden, and Sligo guitarist Seamie O’Dowd. This recording is a shoo-in for next week’s list of the top ten Irish traditional recordings of 2008.
For much of this new century these three well-established, exceptionally gifted musicians have performed off and on, getting their spark from a tribute concert in Sligo for Dervish’s late sound engineer Finn Corrigan (1963-2002). Hayden and O’Dowd have also guested on O’Connor’s solo albums “The Road West” in 2001 and “Rain of Light” in 2003, and each brings a strong musical pedigree to the trio.
Mairtin O’Connor was a member of De Dannan, Skylark, Reel Union, and, in his early 20s, the folk-rock band Midnight Well, and he was the original accordionist in “Riverdance.” His solo debut in 1979, “The Connachtman’s Rambles” (reissued on CD in 2008 by Compass), is a landmark B/C and D/D# box release. His subsequent solo albums, including “Perpetual Motion” in 1990 and “Chatterbox” in 1993, displayed not only his accordion dexterity but also his compositional skill.
The 1985 All-Ireland senior fiddle champion (sandwiched between two New York winners, Eileen Ivers in 1984 and Brian Conway in 1986), Cathal Hayden also earned All-Ireland honors on tenor banjo. He was a member of Arcady and is still a leading force in the band he founded in 1990-91, Four Men and a Dog. Hayden has issued such solo albums as “Handed Down” in 1982, “Cathal Hayden” in 1999, and “Live in Belfast” in 2006.
Son of famed Sligo fiddler Joe O’Dowd (1914-87), Seamie O’Dowd spent several years as a member of Dervish, with whom he played guitar, fiddle, and harmonica as well as sang on occasion. Equally comfortable playing trad, rock, and blues, he has a recent solo album of his own, “Headful of Echoes.”
Plenty of sizzle suffuses the opening medley of four traditional tunes collectively called “Crossroads.” It comprises “The Boys of Coonagore/Tongs by the Fire/The Hunter’s House/The Rose in the Garden” and offers some intricate, intense interplay among box, fiddle, and guitar, with guest Jimmy Higgins on bodhran.
Hard-charging Irish traditional dance tunes include “Farrell O’Gara/The Galway Rambler/Tim Dillon’s/Come West Along the Road/The Glass of Beer” reels and, packing a lot of deft flourishes, “The Humours of Tulla/Last Night’s Fun/Cooley’s Reel/The Wise Maid.” Those last four tunes are often linked to Galway button accordionist Joe Cooley (1924-73), and the box-fiddle tandem of O’Connor and Hayden on “Cooley’s Reel/The Wise Maid” reminds me of the brilliance of Frankie Gavin and Paul Brock’s rendition that opened their monumental 1986 album, “A Tribute to Joe Cooley.”
Hayden sparkles on four-string banjo during the trad medley of “The Liverpool Hornpipe/John Mosai McGinley’s/Esther’s Reel,” where O’Dowd’s guitar backing and O’Connor’s box accompaniment give subtle support. The juicy shift into that concluding reel can only be described as “banjoy,” abetted by Higgins’s bodhran.
Mairtin O’Connor’s compositions make up all or part of six tracks. His pairing of “Pat’s Polka” with “Begley’s Frolicks” befits in rhythm the overall title he gave the track, “Dance of Life,” and the lovely waltz he wrote for his in-laws, “The Road Together,” also showcases the playing of his children Tom on guitar and daughters Sinead and Ciara on fiddle and cello.
“Flowers in the Wind” is O’Connor’s tender compositional tribute to the late Micheal O Domhnaill and Jimmy Faulkner, and it segues virtually without pause into the lively “Geantrai Set,” again featuring his own tunes.
O’Connor’s “Catwalk” brims with swing. Hayden plays fiddle with some Stephane Grappelli-like embellishments, while O’Connor plays the box with the musette invention of Guy Viseur. This is a cat-and-mouse track recalling the brio and fun of O’Connor’s “Cat Chase Mouse” tune recorded on his album “Chatterbox.”
O’Dowd is a longtime admirer of Ballyshannon-born blues guitarist and singer Rory Gallagher (1949-95), who was once in an Irish power trio of his own, Taste. With a voice steeped in grit conviction, O’Dowd covers Gallagher’s “Barley and Grape Rag,” a my-baby’s-done-me-wrong song in which grape-and-grain oblivion is sought to escape misery. This is a straight, no chaser, tumbler of hard-swinging blues rag on fiddle, box, and guitar. If Gallagher were alive, he’d beam, as I did.
I have only very slight reservations about two tracks on this recording. Why include a new version of Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba,” taken from his 1749 oratorio “Solomon”? De Dannan, with O’Connor on accordion, recorded it as “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (in Galway)” on their 1988 album, “Song for Ireland,” and it resurfaced on the band’s 1999 two-disk compilation, “How the West Was Won.” O’Connor, Hayden, and O’Dowd perform it with verve and nimbleness here, but has this Handel melody really “turned into one of the great classical standards of traditional music,” as the track note stipulates?
My other reservation is the performance of the Irish traditional song “As I Roved Out.” At 9 minutes and 20 seconds, it is nearly twice as long as the album’s next longest track and divides roughly between O’Dowd’s earnest, somewhat strained singing and O’Connor’s extended, atmospheric, almost trance-like instrumental outro featuring mainly box and fiddle. More is not necessarily more here.
As he did with “Barley and Grape Rag,” O’Dowd delivers a moving vocal interpretation of “Cedars of Lebanon,” a song written by Thom Moore when he was a member of the band Pumpkinhead. Moore’s former Pumpkinhead bandmate, Rick Epping, joins O’Dowd’s former Dervish bandmate, Cathy Jordan, on vocal harmony, adding texture and depth. But make no mistake: this song is carried securely by O’Dowd, who also contributes his own “Doohoma Slip Jig” to another track that includes the traditional “My Mind Will Never Be Easy” and O’Connor’s “Fast Boat to Kowloon.”
In concept and execution, “Crossroads” is a tantalizing and altogether terrific album from Irish traditional music’s own “power trio” of Mairtin O’Connor, Cathal Hayden, and Seamie O’Dowd. These three mean business and achieve art. Bravo.
The CD is available from Ossian USA, 118 Beck Rd., Loudon, NH 03307-1119, 603-783-4383, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.ossianusa.com.