The band is the outgrowth of a mid-1980s tour by the “Legends of Irish Music,” featuring Kevin Burke on fiddle, Jackie Daly on button accordion, and Andy Irvine on bouzouki, mandolin, harmonica, hurdy-gurdy, and vocal, plus guitarist Gerry O’Beirne. Though that title fits Burke, Daly, and Irvine, and the “concept” sold well out on the road, it still smacked of hubris that left a brackish taste in some people’s mouths.
Expectations for the first studio album by Burke, Daly, Irvine, and outstanding Tyrone guitarist Arty McGlynn were sky-high afterward. The back-cover blurb on “Patrick Street,” their debut recording in 1996, did nothing to rein in those expectations, pointing out the impressive band pedigrees of Burke (Bothy Band), Daly (De Dannan), Irvine (Planxty), and McGlynn (Van Morrison’s group). But that tout made their debut recording all the more disappointing. Its performances were often clean to the point of sterility, and lacked inspirational fire.
This frosty inconsistency has dogged the band Patrick Street ever since, with a sound fluctuating between moments of blandness and brilliance. Of their next two studio releases, one track stood out, “Music for a Found Harmonium,” which Burke recorded again with Celtic Fiddle Festival and Sharon Shannon turned into something of a hit on her first solo CD. Not until their fourth recording, 1993’s “All in Good Time,” did Patrick Street produce a studio album that satisfied as a whole, and 1997’s “Made in Cork” was also enjoyable. Their other recordings mainly fall into the faint-praise category of “parts greater than the sum.”
Patrick Street’s first studio recording since “Made in Cork” is the brand-new “Street Life” (Green Linnet GLCD 1222; 800-468-6644 or www.greenlinnet.com), which, true to past pattern, has some marvelous tracks and some muddled ones.
In the praiseworthy category is the medley “The Old Reel/Drowsy Maggie/Kay Girroir,” where the playing is tight without being hermetically so, and is fluidly powered by Burke’s fiddle and Daly’s button accordion, with some piquant touches on harmonica from Irvine.
Another instrumental track brought off with engaging style and resilience is a medley of two slides and two polkas, “Art O’Keefe’s/Forget Your Troubles/Joe Bane’s/Kiskeam.” Daly especially shines here, showing why he’s one of the finest players of Sliabh Luachra music, and he also puts his distinctive stamp on a medley of one jig and three reels, “King of the Pipers/Free and Easy/The House on the Hill/O’Keefe’s.”
Vocally, the best track on the album is not Irish: “Down in Matewan/Lost Indian.” It’s American old-time music with an Irish flavor, beginning with a song written by Irvine about coal mining in West
Virginia and U.S. labor leader Mother Jones (1830-1930) rallying the workers. (Born Mary Harris in Cork, she was called the “Miner’s Angel,” as Irvine points out.) It features some tasty clawhammer banjo playing by Matt McElroy.
This track kicks into high gear when the virtuosic old-time musician Bruce Molsky comes in on fiddle for “Lost Indian,” a traditional tune learned from the playing of Texas fiddler Eck Robertson (1887-1975).
According to legend, a riverboat fiddler heard an Indian let out a mournful wail before he drowned in the flood waters of the Mississippi River, and the fiddler incorporated that wail into his composition. Molsky, clearly aware of the tune’s folkloric origin, adds a moan of his own to his crisp fiddling.
Two Irish traditional songs, “Barna Hill” and “Green Grows the Laurel,” also feature Irvine’s sensitive lead vocal. But why have Ged Foley sing Hugh MacDonald’s “The Diamantina Drover” in an arrangement that harks back directly to the better version on “Pacific,” a 1987 album by the House Band, the late, lamented British group of which Foley was a founding member? Foley, who actually has a solid, expressive voice, is likewise in subpar vocal form on “If We Had Built a Wall,” a song by Offaly musician Dominic Madden that’s rooted in the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
On that song are Cal Scott’s alto horn and cornet, lending a kind of subdued brass band atmosphere that pops up on two other tracks. These horns, however, are not well integrated and serve as a distraction, especially in the otherwise nimbly executed hornpipes, “Down by the Old Fairy Fort/The Whistler and His Dog.”
Seventeen years later, Patrick Street remains an all-star band stubbornly stuck at the “great potential” stage of development, and despite some appealing performances, “Street Life” will not change that perception.
IRVINE’S OTHER BAND
Far more adventurous than Patrick Street is Mozaik, a group comprising Andy Irvine, former Planxty colleague D