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Irish/Celtic music remains chartless

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

What do the Afro Celt Sound System, Cesaria Evora, John McLaughlin, Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento, and Ravi Shankar have in common?

I couldn’t answer that question either unless I said “world music,” a lazy locution placing different forms of music with sharp distinctions into a one-size-fits-all category of blunted distinctions, or unless I said “Best World Music Album” Grammy nominees, which they all were this last year. (Shankar won.)

Should Celtic really be competing against Cape Verdean, Indian/jazz fusion, Brazilian, and sitar music? Wouldn’t it make far more sense for Celtic to have its own Grammy category and Billboard chart?

The mid-1990s market surge created by “Riverdance” for Celtic music is analogous to the current market surge created by the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack for bluegrass. The latter CD has sold more than 6 million copies in America and prompted Billboard magazine, for which I occasionally write, to launch a “Top Bluegrass Albums” chart, starting with the July 20 issue.

Great for bluegrass, I say. It’s a vital genre of music far too long neglected. But I’m still irked by the mainstream music industry’s missed opportunity with Celtic. A few years ago, amid the public clamor for “Riverdance” fueled by repeated PBS-TV fundraiser showings, Celtic music was riding as high as bluegrass now is, and seemed on the cusp of official, wider recognition by the Grammys and Billboard.

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Native American, salsa, merengue, Tejano, regg’, polka, and bluegrass each has its own Grammy category. Regg’, Latin, and bluegrass each has its own Billboard chart (or charts). Is Celtic any less worthy of this consideration?

Commercial or artistic dilution is not a compelling argument for excluding Celtic — not with 104 other Grammy categories and 38 other Billboard charts already in existence. One more in each wouldn’t hurt, and together they might strengthen sales for, and raise the profile of, Celtic music in an otherwise weak marketplace for music overall.

Passing of a legend

Last Friday morning, Alan Lomax died at age 87 in a nursing home in Sarasota, Fla. He was the embodiment of a rare breed, a collector and field recorder who championed traditional and folk music as if it were as vital as blood, water, and air.

Lomax’s pioneering work covered a wide range of music, Irish and Scottish included, and he shed much-needed early light on the talents of Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Woody Guthrie.

Even “Po’ Lazarus,” the celebrated musical opening of the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” comes courtesy of Alan Lomax. In the summer of 1959, he personally recorded the vocals and hammers heard on that track by “James Carter & the Prisoners,” who were not a music group at all but actual inmates at Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary.

Following his release from the work gang and prison, James Carter could not be located until February of this year. The Alan Lomax Archive, assisted by Chris Geer, an investigative reporter from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, managed to find the septuagenarian, living contentedly in Chicago with his wife of 56 years, and give him the hefty portion of royalties he was due for multi-platinum film soundtrack sales.

When greeted with a check and a plaque confirming he was a recording artist with sales far bigger than Michael Jackson on his last album, Carter quipped, “You tell Michael Jackson that I’ll slow down so he can catch up to me.” Alan Lomax, who scrupulously sent royalty checks to every performer who earned them, no doubt smiled when he learned of Carter’s comment 43 years after recording him.

Rounder Records in Cambridge, Mass., has been systematically reissuing Lomax’s field recordings onto CDs, which should total over 100 by the end.

CD launch party

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings will officially release New York fiddler Brian Conway’s eagerly awaited solo debut, “First Through the Gate,” on Aug. 6, but you can buy it earlier at a CD release party he is hosting at 7:30 tonight, July 24. It will be at Dunne’s Pub, 15 Shapham Pl., White Plains, Westchester County, N.Y., where the fiddler anchors a popular Irish traditional session every Wednesday evening.

Produced by Conway and WNYC-FM engineer Ed Haber, the CD comprises 15 tracks, including three with his mentor and friend, fiddler Andy McGann. It is easily one of the top albums to emerge this year.

For more information about tonight’s CD launch with live music and special guests at Dunne’s Pub, call (914) 684-9366.

Other new, upcoming albums

Besides Brian Conway’s solo CD arriving on Aug. 6, other recordings of merit now or soon available include “The Well-Tempered Bow” by fiddling sisters Liz and Yvonne Kane, “Happy to Meet” by P. J. Crotty, Carol Cullinan, and James Cullinan, “M’ve Donnelly” by a former founding fiddler with Moving Cloud, “Touch Me If You Dare” by Ronan Browne and Peter O’Loughlin, and “Lake Effect” by Liz Carroll.

This last CD is due Aug. 20 from Green Linnet and will feature the Chicago fiddler with ex-Solas guitarist John Doyle, who produced the album with her. It comes two years after Carroll’s “Lost in the Loop,” a solo recording that finished sixth in the Irish Echo’s top 10 and won the best Celtic/British Isles album award from the Association for Independent Music.

“Lake Effect” features 25 tunes composed by Carroll and such guests as button accordionist M_irtfn + Connor, fiddler Liz Knowles, uilleann piper Kieran O’Hare, and, on the title track, the Turtle Island String Quartet (violinists David Balakrishnan and Evan Price, violist Danny Seidenberg, and cellist Mark Summer).

Another upcoming album worth noting is not Irish traditional. On Aug. 20, Blix Street Records in Gig Harbor, Wash., will release “Imagine” by Eva Cassidy (1963-1996), a singer of Irish-American blood who has reaped a success — gold album in U.S., triple platinum album in U.K. — she never enjoyed when alive.

Eva Cassidy’s music is very popular in Ireland and has had a profound effect on Irish singers like Mary Black, whose album “Speaking With the Angel” included a bonus cut, Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” inspired by Cassidy’s extraordinary live version from 1996.

And then there were 5

The Chieftains marked their 40th anniversary as an Irish traditional band with an addition and a subtraction. Last March, they released “The Wide World Over,” their 39th recording and a 19-track retrospective (with three new cuts) of their work for RCA Victor/BMG since signing with the label in 1986.

What was scantly acknowledged, if at all, at the time was the departure of founding fiddler Martin Fay after the long years of touring. The back-cover photo of “The Wide World Over” shows only Matt Molloy, Se_n Keane, Paddy Moloney, Derek Bell, and Kevin Conneff.

Like Moloney, Fay was a member of Se_n + Riada’s Ceolt=irf Cualann before moving on to the Chieftains. He was on the first Chieftains album in 1963 and the most recent studio recording, “Water From the Well,” in 2000. The band plans to continue as a quintet in the studio and on the road, with various guest artists joining them on occasion.

Another group who’ve undergone a personnel change is Cherish the Ladies. Their lead vocalist, Deirdre Connolly, daughter of well-known piper Mattie Connolly, has left and now been replaced by Heidi Talbot, who comes from County Kildare and has sung at Rory Dolan’s restaurant in Yonkers, N.Y. Not long ago, Talbot released a self-titled solo album on which Joanie Madden, founder and leader of Cherish the Ladies, plays flute and whistles.

Celtic twang

Two acts strongly associated with country, bluegrass, or so-called “progressive acoustic” are singer Kathy Mattea and the trio Nickel Creek, each with an affinity for Celtic music.

Mattea is a Grammy-winning country vocalist who has sung songs by Scots musician Dougie MacLean and covered Tommy Sands’s “There Were Roses” on John Whelan’s “Celtic Crossroads” album in 1997, so the leap into Celtic isn’t large for her. She still retains much of her West Virginia roots on “Roses” (Narada), her new solo album, heavily sprinkled with fiddle and tin whistle. Two of the songs she sings, “That’s All the Lumber You Sent” and “Junkyard,” were co-written by Bob Halligan Jr., leader of Ceili Rain, a band featuring New Jersey’s Buddy Connolly on button accordion.

Nickel Creek is three talented twentysomethings — Chris Thile on mandolin, bouzouki, and guitar, Sara Watkins on fiddle, and her brother Sean on guitar–whose bluegrass-flecked last album in 2000 has now sold more than 600,000 copies. Sara Watkins’ admiration for fiddlers Liz Carroll, Kevin Burke, and Winifred Horan accounts for her fascination with Irish and other Celtic traditional music, and the trio have listened intently to both Solas and Planxty.

No real surprise, then, that Nickel Creek’s new album, “This Side” (Sugar Hill), produced by Alison Krauss and due for release on Aug. 13, features a song composed by Planxty founding member Andy Irvine, “Time Will Cure Me,” and recorded by Planxty on their 1974 album, “The Well Below the Valley.” Nickel Creek calls the track “Sabra Girl,” which is mentioned in Irvine’s song.

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